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Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.

 

Enduring Friendships in Story: a guestpost by Melissa Savage

The publishers describe Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage in three words as ‘bittersweet’, ‘quirky’, and ‘adventure’. I wholeheartedly agree, and would add that this is a beautifully written tale, in which the voice of the protagonist, Lemonade, comes across strongly and perfectly – with just enough bite to ensure that her sweet winning personality has a lemony tang to it. It’s a tale set in California during the time of the Vietnam War, and describes how Lemonade fits into her new surroundings and makes new friends after she moves to live with her grandfather. With emotionally astute adults, a sensitivity to loss, and themes of identity and belonging, this is a fantastically enjoyable book, and I am delighted to host author Melissa Savage on the blog. 

I have had the great fortune of meeting many children as I have shared my new debut middle grade novel, Bigfoot, Tobin & Me (Lemons in the United States) and I’m often asked which part of the book I enjoyed writing most. My answer is always the same. Writing scenes between Lemonade and Tobin. I love their unconventional friendship. They are so different in so many ways and they must argue their points until they can come to some type of agreement on how to come to some sort of agreement. Although they are very different, there is so much about them that is also the same. And they soon learn they need one another. They may not know it at the start of the story, but they soon learn that their friendship will be one of endurance because of who they are, what they’ve been through together and what they now share. Doesn’t everyone want that very special friendship that endures regardless of our differences, foul moods and bad choices, and even change?

I remember while growing up, I loved to read about friendships that endure. Some of the most impactful stories that spoke deeply to me included Katherine Paterson’s Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia, Bette Greene’s Beth Lambert and Phillip Hall from Phillip Halls Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, and Judy Blume’s Sheila Tubman and Mouse Ellis from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. What these three duos have in common is their contrasting personalities and how these opposite traits are just the thing that binds them.

Jess and Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia are an unlikely pair and become friends after Leslie moves to town. Jess is a sad and lonely boy while Leslie is outgoing and imaginative. The two are soon inseparable and together form a secret kingdom, which Leslie names Terabithia. One of the lovely aspects to this friendship is that it sustains even in death, as Leslie is tragically killed in a drowning accident and Jess finds a way to accept the reality of her loss and honor her memory.

Beth and Phillip from Phillip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, have what one could describe as a boisterous relationship at times. Beth has a crush on Phillip and the two are in constant competition with one another for being the best in the class. Beth wonders if she is letting Phillip be number one because she thinks he is the cutest boy in school. However, at the end of the story when Beth finally does win a 4-H competition over Phillip, she realizes that even if she is number one occasionally, their friendship will sustain.

Sheila and Mouse from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great is a story I have read countless times growing up. Sheila meets Mouse when Sheila’s family spends the entire summer in upstate New York’s Tarrytown. Sheila is a fearful child, riddled with anxieties, however overcompensates for her fears with boastful inaccuracies to hide her self-perceived weaknesses from others. As she and Mouse become friends, Mouse begins to see through Sheila’s façade and finally lovingly confronts her about her falsehoods. And it is through this honest interaction that Sheila begins to shed her mask and learn to take chances she hadn’t done before, even if she’s scared.

What qualities do these friendships share? Honesty, sensitivity, empathy, and fun.

There are many themes present in Bigfoot, Tobin & Me, but enduring friendship is one very important one. The friendship between Lemonade and Tobin is one that is honest and loyal, and it soon becomes unconditional no matter how many times they disagree on Twinkies, steer, or where to keep the message pad, because of all that they have endured. Enduring friendship continues to be a desired theme in story in childhood and beyond. It is my hope that Lemonade and Tobin’s enduring friendship is one that speaks to kids around the world as the many enduring friendships in my most favorite books growing up have spoken to me.

With thanks to Melissa Savage. Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). It is filled with clever character descriptions, including wise Mrs Dickerson and her “bright pink lipstick that looks like it’s slipping off”, and expert perceptions of child preoccupations such as: “I surf wind waves with my hand out of the window and try to ignore him” on a car journey. The writing is immersive and a pleasure to read, and the tale, although far-fetched, draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. One of the best books for this age group that you’ll read this summer. You can buy it here and I heartily recommend that you do. Ages 8+ years. 

 

Growing teens’ romances

It’s slightly stretching my usual coverage of children’s books for primary school children, but somebody with teenage children told me that it was really hard to differentiate between age appropriateness in books once their children got to the point of browsing the ‘YA’ shelf. I agreed. It’s so hard to know which books are aimed at the lower teen market, and which for the young adult. Also, as with all these things at all ages, each child is different. One shy hesitant prudish 16 year old may want to read very different things to an outgoing knowing tween.

Interestingly, the younger age is more often defined as ‘teen’ (gentler content), the older books more as ‘YA’, (may include swearing, frank descriptions of sex, more challenging issues).

Three gorgeous romances came through the letterbox this year – all for different ages. Here are my thoughts.

My first teen, tween romance is One Silver Summer by Rachel Hickman. Suggested for 11+ years, this is a gentle story about a burgeoning friendship between a boy and a girl, and the feelings they start to have for each other.

Fifteen year old Sass, grieving for her mother after her sudden death, has moved from America to live with her uncle in Cornwall. She falls for an old grey horse that she stumbles upon in a meadow, and before long also falls for its owner – a young boy bunking from his privileged boarding school after hearing of his parents’ divorce.

Both children are hiding secrets, and both seek consolation in the feeling they get from riding horses against the backdrop of a windswept Cornwall beach and the vast sky over the sea.

Before long it becomes apparent that the boy, Alex, is heir to the throne, and there follows a tumult of trouble that threatens to wrench Alex and Sass apart – from the jealousy of one of Alex’s school friends, to the media attention that follows Alex’s school absence and his parents’ divorce.

The writing is ever evocative of the ranging Cornwall scenery – the coastline, the gossamer-white seeds of a dandelion, the mist off the sea, and even at times falls into poetry as Sass struggles to articulate what Alex means to her.

Hickman navigates the different voices of the characters by dipping in and out of a full cast, but the narrative is weighted so heavily onto Sass and Alex, that it might have been better and more effective to have stuck to a two person point-of-view. However, the whole piece comes across as sweet and endearing, despite the trauma that Sass has suffered, and the high beauty of the landscape eclipses any faults in characterisation. This is a horsey, dreamy, feel-good summery read – great for a first romance.

Please note I read a very early proof copy. Win your own proof copy and chocolate by finding me on twitter. Or pre-order your own copy here.

And Then We Ran by Katy Cannon. Suggested for 12+ years by the publisher.

Despite being about two 17-year-olds, the plot spinning on an elopement, and mentioning losing virginity in the first sentence, this is overall a tame teen contemporary read, which is why it sits comfortably in my 13+ age range.

This gorgeous, lovable narrative tells the story of Megan and Elliot, and takes the format of alternate first person point of view chapters, which works well – Cannon capturing the different voices with distinction, so that the reader can tell who is narrating even without the labels at the beginning of each chapter.

What’s also well-conceived is the entire plot. Elliot wants to study archaeology at University in London, but funding is an issue, especially since his father is serving time for fraud. Megan’s parents, reeling from the recent death of Megan’s older sister, are pushing for her to go to university, but Megan is set on doing a photography course.

When Megan discovers that she will inherit a London flat upon turning 21 or getting married, she hits upon the latter as a way to serve a purpose for both herself and Elliot (even though they’re not even dating!).

The book veers off into a road trip to Gretna Green, with much self-discovery along the way.

The characterisation in the book is what makes it. The reader gets a real feel for the anxieties of these two teens, both on the cusp of adulthood. Their heightened emotions (both of them impacted by the recent traumatic changes in their lives), feel authentic and honest. It’s studded throughout with great humour as well, and the secondary characters – Elliot’s brother, and Megan’s best friend, are both rounded and convincing characters.

Cannon also deals with a theme not much touched upon in YA that I’ve read, of the idea of university and which path to take into adulthood.

But themes and genres aside, this was just a compelling, well-written, and touching story, with fantastic characters and a genuine warmth to the story. Highly recommend. Run away with your copy here.

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

A confession – I veered away from this book to start with, believing it was pitched at just too high an age group for my blog, but then a very highly-thought of children’s books expert told me to read it, and I devoured it in one sitting. Suggested also for the 12+ age group according to the publisher, this book does contain many more references to sex, and the issues are altogether darker.

Petula blames herself for her young sister’s death, and because her anxiety is out of control, she attends an art therapy group with a mishmash of other teenagers who are also experiencing issues with family, sexuality, addictive substances etc. It is here that she meets Jacob, an amputee, who likes to tell stories to cover the real reason for his injury. When the truth comes out about what really happened, Petula is already too far into her relationship with Jacob, and the truth threatens to destroy them.

Nielsen’s deft writing skill is apparent in abundance here. Not only is it a gripping read, but the characters, no matter how minor their part, come across as authentic teens, with agonies and anxieties, which Nielsen portrays with sympathy and sensitivity as well as a clear sense of humour (teen cynicism and sarcasm). She zips around the themes with ease, especially Petula’s anxieties about everything around her, and manages to incorporate a sense of the consequences of the tragedy on Petula’s parents too. Despite the tough subject matter, there is no overdramatisation here – it’s a carefully sewn tapestry of teen angst.

But what the book does that’s really sparkling for a teen audience, is give the reader the courage to face down adversity – showing that other people’s problems may not be apparent but may be larger than one’s own, and that each person can find courage somewhere to overcome obstacles – especially if they speak up and speak out. It’s about trust, and friendship and guilt and grief. I’m optimistic you’ll buy your own copy here.

 

 

 

From Ant to Eagle by Alex Lyttle

Warning, this review contains spoilers.

They say write what you know. Canadian paediatric oncologist Alex Lyttle has certainly done that, but this novel is about much more than childhood cancer. It’s a tale of sibling love, and the healing power of friendship.

Eleven-year-old Calvin Sinclair is bored. It’s the summer before sixth grade, and his parents have moved from big city to a small town, leaving him with no local friends, and only his six-year-old brother Sammy to play with. To alleviate his boredom, and to express his sibling dominance, Cal comes up with a series of tests for his brother to pass in order to move up the various levels of a made-up chart – battling from lowly Ant through to the awesome Eagle Level, where Cal sits. The chart is meaningless, of course, and Cal hasn’t done anything to deserve Eagle Level, it’s just a simple display of power. The tests include everything from shooting hoops to disturbing a wasp nest.

Then Cal meets Aleta, a girl of his own age who is also new to the area, and the two of them go off on day long adventures, leaving Sammy at home. Cal gives Sammy a series of tasks to complete in his absence. As the summer progresses, so does Cal’s friendship with Aleta, but also Sammy’s number of sick days. From being unable to keep up with Cal and Aleta on a bike ride, suddenly Sammy is too ill to stray far from the house. When a collapse at school leads to a serious diagnosis, Cal has to re-evaluate whether he himself passes the test of decent big brother; does he himself even deserve the status of Eagle Level, or were the challenges he set Sammy essentially mean-spirited? For now, with a series of real tests in the hospital, Sammy has to show true bravery.

The text is beautifully readable, and the setting highly visual – from the countryside Cal and Aleta explore, to the contrasting confines of the hospital. But the main focus of the book is the sibling relationship – Cal’s feelings of annoyance at his little brother quickly turn into guilt when Sammy gets sick, but also love and protection…something that’s actually been there all along. As well as this, the reader sees how much Sammy looks up to Cal too – something that Cal comes to recognise through gradual self-awareness.

Cal’s voice is honest and direct, which at times of course, is brutal in its direct confrontation of a fatal illness, but also incredibly moving. And through this honesty, the book is admirably empathetic of all characters – doctor, parents, patients and siblings. There are some lovely touches – a fascination with the Goosebumps series of books, as well as the emotional understanding displayed by Cal in gaining the trust and friendship of new girl Aleta.

This book isn’t for everyone – with intensely adult themes, including the death of a six year old, this will be a hard book for some to swallow – yet it’s so honestly written, so tender, that for those willing to confront life’s darker side, it deserves a wide audience. For 11+ years. Please note that this book was initially published by Central Avenue Publishing in North America, and may not be as widely distributed (yet) in the UK. It is, of course, available on Amazon.

The Absent Parents: A Guest Post by Christopher Edge

There’s something to be said for writing any book – it’s not an easy task – takes time, effort, perseverance and grit, as well as, more obviously, great imagination and observation. Edge not only writes great fiction for kids, but in his latest two novels, has managed to incorporate topical science in a subtle and interesting way. No mean feat. Last year I reviewed The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, which combined quantum physics with a heartrending story. This year’s offering, The Jamie Drake Equation, also separates our protagonist from his parent, but for a very different reason. Combining space and family dynamics – this is one special book. Christopher Edge explains below about writing ‘the absent parent’ in children’s fiction.

The first rule of children’s fiction is often to get rid of the parents. From orphans such as the unfortunate Baudelaire children who lose their folks in a house fire to the eponymous James of Giant Peach fame whose mother and father are run over by a runaway rhinocerous, sometimes it seems that the beginning of every children’s book is just focused on clearing the stage so the child protagonist has free rein.

I must admit I’ve been guilty of this myself in my time, choosing to make Penelope Tredwell, the heroine of my Victorian-set Twelve Minutes to Midnight series, an orphan heiress, and more recently, in The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, telling the story of a young boy’s quest to use quantum physics to reunite himself with his dead mother.

As in The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, sometimes the absence of a parent or parents in a children’s novel can create the central mystery to be solved, such as Darkus Cuttle’s search for his scientist father in M.G. Leonard’s glorious Beetle Boy. However in other books, parental absence can simply colour the intricate web of relationships that the central character spins around them, with the emotions depicted ranging from anger and loss, to an uneasy fear that an absent parent will never return.

In children’s fiction, the reasons for a parent’s absence can be as numerous as in real life, from soldiers at war (Stay Where You Are and Then Leave by John Boyne), imprisonment (The Railway Children by E. Nesbit) or just a job that takes a parent away from the family home (Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce and The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange). In these stories, the protagonist’s desire to see their parent again is often the emotional thrust that fuels the narrative.

In The Jamie Drake Equation, the absent parent can’t be found anywhere on Earth, but is instead floating on the International Space Station in lower-Earth orbit, spinning round the world at 27,000 kilometres per hour. Jamie Drake’s dad is astronaut Commander Dan Drake who’s headed into space on humanity’s first mission to launch interstellar probes for the stars. Ten-year-old Jamie ought to think it’s really cool to have a dad who’s an astronaut, but really he just misses him and can’t wait for him to come home.

Our relationships with our parents or guardians are ones that can go on to define us in later life, and often a key staging post in childhood is the recognition of a parent’s flaws. Jamie’s dad might be able to fly like Superman on board the International Space Station, but back on Earth it takes an alien to help Jamie realise what it means to be human, and how the moments we have with the ones that we love can be the most precious in the universe.

With huge thanks to Christopher for his insightful guest post. To buy a copy of The Jamie Drake Equation, click here

 

The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

secret-of-nightingale-wood

A short story published in 1892 called The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman has long held a grip on my consciousness. It describes the treatment of a woman who is accused of suffering from ‘hysterical tendency’.

Lucy Strange, in her children’s book debut, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, has drawn together some huge issues and themes, including the treatment of ‘hysteria’ in women, the after-effects of the First World War (the book is set in 1919), the loss of sons, and the emotional desperation to hold onto a baby, as well as the equating of women and children as inferior and invisible beings compared with men.

Strange tells the story of the protagonist’s mother, who is undergoing treatment for her near ‘hysterical grief’ and mental disturbance following the death of her son, incorporating an over-zealous doctor who is intent on moving the mother into an asylum and experimenting on her mind with electric shock treatment.

All this may seem far too adult and overreaching for a children’s book, but actually the themes sit well against a magical realism backdrop of a mysterious wood, ghostly apparitions, an empty attic room, a hidden staircase, and a child intent on overhearing the adult conversations around her, using her bravery to steer through the madness of the adult world, and pull her family back from the brink.

Henry (short for Henrietta, but tellingly using a boy’s name), moves to Hope House in the countryside, with her baby sister Piglet, and her parents and nanny. But soon after their arrival, the father leaves for abroad, and other sinister adults interfere more and more with her family set up. Henry escapes into the woods, where she finds Moth, a witch-like woman, who through her wisdom and own experience, guides Henry and helps her to claim back her family from those with sinister intentions.

This book is, at times, as frightening as it might seem, with such intense themes as the loss of a child and the ensuing grief, and a mother blind to the other children in her lives, but it is overwhelmingly the powerlessness that Henry feels that really shakes up the reader. When other adults usurp parental roles, and yet a child knows that these new adults don’t have the children’s best interests at heart, the world can seem a very dark place.

But Henry’s bravery and passion stride a hopeful path throughout the text. In fact, despite all this, Lucy Strange has told a simple children’s historical novel, with all the major tropes one might expect. A sick parent, and one absent, leaving Henry time and space to roam free, eavesdropping on adult conversations she doesn’t understand, discovering a hidden staircase leading to an abandoned attic, a madwoman in the woods, and stimulating enough gumption to seek out her own happy ending.

The writing is lyrical, and yet incredibly light, so that the reader storms a path through the tangled woods and never trips. There’s a limping man who scuttles like a spider, a dark forest like a thundercloud fallen from the sky. The scenes are tangible and vivid. You can feel the wind, smell the food, and hear the voices. It’s a triumph of a book, partly with a classical feel, and partly with an entirely modern perspective on an era in which the female gender was held to be inferior.

Above all it’s about bravery, and finding the courage to change your own life for the better. The plot is pacey, breath-taking at times, and despite harrowing moments – I cried buckets – it’s eminently uplifting. There are lots of references to other classic children’s books, and even if the reader doesn’t pick up on them all, it lends the book the feeling of belonging in a children’s canon – a long succession of sparky, intelligent child protagonists who can change the world for the better. There’s a good reason it was a Waterstone’s Book of the Month. One of a few titles I was recommended by a child, rather than a publisher! Don’t miss out, buy one here.

Murder in Midwinter by Fleur Hitchcock

murder-in-midwinter

An out-and-out thriller for children, with incredible pace and a chilly wintry feel, and twists and turns that don’t let up until the end.

Maya is travelling home on the bus in Oxford Street, taking photos of the shop fronts and Christmas lights for her sister, when she sees an altercation between two people, one of whom is holding a gun. When the flash goes off on her mobile, she realises that she’s taken a picture of the scene, and that the two people have seen her do it. When a dead body is found, things turn profoundly ominous and scary.

For her own protection, Maya is moved to the remote Welsh countryside to stay with her aunt and her cousin, neither of whom she’s particularly bonded with in the past. But the people in the photograph are set on finding her. And it’s only a matter of time.

There’s no let-up, no distraction in this snowy drama, from the ongoing rollercoaster of hide and seek that ensues, which makes this a page-turning murder mystery. However, the strongest element is the voice of Maya, an ordinary girl out shopping and looking forward to Christmas festivities, school dances, sisterly chats, who is thrust into a world of police protection, high-end robbery and murder.

Hitchcock throws in small touches that make Maya’s situation feel authentic – from her aunt misremembering that her niece is a vegetarian (over and over), and her and her grandfather’s obsession with fixing machines, to the niggling irritation of the lack of phone connection and wifi in remote countryside, to Maya’s re-arranging of her new bedroom in order to feel safer.

Maya’s first person narrative suits the story well, and her appealing personality not only wins over her belligerent cousin Ollie, but it also seduces the reader.

This ‘real voice’ though plays out against a thriller that is at times highly unrealistic – dead bodies, kidnappings, undercover policemen, shooting at children, the typical absenteeism of parents at various points when one imagines it’s the last thing they would do, and leaving so much of the plot to the children. However, this focus on the children reminded me of the many adventures that The Famous Five managed without adults, or the crimes solved by the gang in Scooby Doo, and it makes the text fun, thrilling and rather magical.

What also makes the book rather magical is the snowy landscape, beautifully imagined on the book’s cover. This is a great thriller for the age group – perfectly poised with clear narrative and thrills and twists – a brilliant read for winter nights under the covers. For age 9+ years, you can buy it here.

There May Be a Castle by Piers Torday

there-may-be-a-castle

Piers Torday shot into the limelight, deservedly so, for his first novel, The Last Wild, which started a trilogy that followed a young boy called Kester in his quest to save the last surviving animals on earth. It was an astounding book (and trilogy); Kester is in my top ten all-time children’s book characters.

There May be a Castle also follows the quest of a young boy, but it is a completely different journey from that of Kester’s.

Mouse, a fairly small eleven year old, is travelling with his mother and two sisters to his grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve. But the snow is falling fast, and visibility is bad, and the car goes off the road and crashes.

When Mouse wakes up he’s in a strange world, with a talking horse who resembles his toy, and an accompanying sheep named Bar. He knows that he has to find his way to the castle, if there is a castle, but he’s not sure why, or what will happen if he finds it.

Torday’s book is a paean to our amazing mind and to ceaseless imagination. Although on the surface this is a simple adventure story, appealing to children with its array of colourful and fantastical characters, from duelling knights out of Mouse’s computer games, to a somewhat sarcastic talking horse, a typically irritating singing minstrel and a brilliantly drawn size-changing dinosaur (reminiscent of Toy Story’s life-imbued toys), there are strong underlying themes, and an emotional poignancy and tension that’s more than gripping.

Even before the crash, Mouse’s character is all about his mind. He’s a thinker, a worrier even. His size may be small, but his imagination is huge – Torday plays up this juxtaposition on purpose – Mouse’s imagination is bigger than he is – Mouse is much more than his physical body. Moreover, Torday is saying that our minds are more powerful than we realise.

Mouse’s stamina – he is on a quest to seek help really – is propelled by the power of his imagination. He harnesses strength by projecting his real journey onto an imaginative quest. This is mirrored by his older sister, Violet. In the middle of Mouse’s imaginative landscape, the reader is drawn back to Violet – in intervening chapters – as she describes waking and seeing her mother and sister in the car, and using her physical prowess to detach herself from the seatbelt to attempt to keep her family physically safe (using the car heater, food, warm clothes). However, she too, uses imaginative play as power – she pretends to be a fierce historical lady pirate – a hero she has learnt about in school – and this make-believe gives her fortitude.

From the beginning of the book, Torday drops clues as to what’s going to happen – the snow carpets the land, “just another block of white in a land of white”, so that once the car crashes, the reader knows that the rescue teams won’t find the car easily. It is up to the two children, Violet and Mouse, to get help. This frightening scenario (all too real in today’s automobile society) is brave territory for a children’s writer. It will resonate with those readers who are drilled into road-crossing, seatbelt-wearing safety, and is truly a tale for our time.

But Torday makes it contemporary in other ways too – Mouse complains that his grandparents don’t have Sky or broadband. He and his siblings are transfixed by the ‘glowing screen’. At one point it almost seems as if authorial intrusion is making a point about modern technology:

“A spellbinding black mirror that floated in your hands and which, with one swipe, revealed to you the whole world. Pictures from underneath the ocean, videos of the planets from outer space. Every film ever made, every song ever recorded, every game ever designed, every book ever written. He could almost see Mr Stanmore’s point. Who needed to make anything up, when it was all here in your hands, just waiting for you?”

The children are part of a generation who navigate the world with technology. Mouse and Violet refer to TV, the ipad, Instagram, the sat nav, apps, both for their entertainment and their way of life, but it is no surprise that Torday’s message is that for all of modern technology’s strengths, this story is about the power of nature – the snow that overturns the car – the power of the basic human elements of survival – seeking warmth, shelter, and food. These basics trump the technology that fails Mouse and Violet in the end – the Ipad smashes, the mobile phone has no signal, the car heater only lasts a short while.

This book hits on many levels. It speaks to children in that it is a simple adventure story and it speaks to children, who like Mouse, don’t enjoy reading. Mouse prefers animation – the swipe of an Ipad to the stasis of a book, but then his daydreaming (his creative inner voice) takes over, and it is more real than any app. It’s the land a reader goes to in their head.

But even more striking is that for much of the book our protagonist doesn’t seem to be in control, despite the adventures coming out of his imagination, formed from experiences in his game-playing world. Which makes the reader question whether our imaginations are controllable. To what extent do we control our own dreams, our own subconscious?

This is daring territory for a children’s book. What’s more daring is its ending (which I won’t spoil) and its meditation on life and death. What is left behind when a person dies, where does the imagination go then?

Children will appreciate the good writing here, the quest within the narrative, and the white-knuckle tension of surviving a car crash and being rescued. But as with all good books there is much more to explore, there is much more to think about – because imagination will take you everywhere.

“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” GK Chesterton

You can buy a copy of the book here. For age 10+ years.

 

Please note this review was written after reading a proof copy of There May be a Castle and quotes may not be wholly reflective of the finished book.

An Interview with Mike Revell for YAShot

stormwalkeruntitled

I discovered Mike Revell’s first book, Stonebird, when Quercus publishers sent it to me in addition to a prize I won. I was captivated from the first page – you can read the review here. Earlier this summer, Mike’s second book, Stormwalker was published. Stormwalker is the ultimate mash-up book for the age group – combining a contemporary story about Owen, a young boy both struggling to cope after the death of his mother and struggling to help his father, a writer, rediscover the joy of writing. This is meshed with an apocalyptic story set in a futuristic parallel universe in which a raging storm called the Darkness threatens to obliterate everything. The startling thing is that Owen is operating as a dual character featuring in both – with two different identities, one in each world, the latter world being the story his father is writing.

Stormwalker is a fantastic read – paced beautifully, with incredible tension and yet a thread of fun simmering throughout. Like all the best apocalyptic movies – it has a running sense of impending doom that is lightened by an everyday boy’s approach to the danger. In fact Owen (Jack) is desperate to return to real life for a football game! Friendships are explored, and there is a fast and zippy dialogue…Mike knows exactly how to get into the head of an eleven year old boy. But he agreed to re-find his adult to answer some questions for me in association with YAShot.

When did you start writing – and what was your journey to publication?

I started writing when I was about 16, but I could never finish what I started because other ideas kept popping up. Ever since reading the third Harry Potter book a few years earlier, I knew that writing stories was something I had to do, so I kept at it, and eventually managed to finish a book. I sent it off to every agent I could think of, and it was rejected by all of them. I was expecting to get rejected, and every letter made me more determined to succeed, so I wrote another book and sent that out too. The first agent on my list both times was Gemma Cooper at The Bent Agency, and by some touch of magic she decided to sign me based on that second book. She remembered me from the first submission (note to aspiring authors: rejections aren’t all bad news!) and I think she quite liked that I had come up with two very different books. We sent this second book out, but it was rejected by every publisher. Somewhere along the way, I must have improved, though, because the third book I wrote was Stonebird, and that got picked up very quickly when we submitted it.

What inspires you to write?

The memory of what I was like as a kid. I was a very reluctant reader until I found Harry Potter as an 11 year old, and I have friends who never found their book and never started reading. I know what it’s like to hate reading, and what it’s like to love it, and that transformation is what drives every story I write: I hope to be able to give that feeling to other readers.

Do you use a local library for research/writing?

Yes indeed! Local libraries are always a starting point for me when I’m researching a book. The peace and quiet and rows of books provide a perfect oasis where whole worlds are waiting to be discovered. Sometimes I browse without any direction, just ambling along to see what I find, and this can often lead to some great nuggets I wouldn’t have come across otherwise. When doing the actual writing, I tend to stick to my writing room (in a cupboard under the stairs – ha!) or sometimes a cafe to change it up a little bit.

Both your books feature sad family events – one in which the grandma is suffering from dementia and a child’s mother is failing to cope, and another in which the boy’s mother has died. Do you think it’s important in literature to portray children going through difficult times?

That’s a good question. I don’t think it’s imperative to portray children going through difficult times in that sense. Of course, every story will have some innate difficulty, because a story without conflict isn’t really a story at all. But books have a special kind of magic in that they allow you to talk about things and think about things that are otherwise quite difficult subject matters to discuss – like dementia. I didn’t write about dementia expressly because it’s important to portray it in literature; it was just a personal story that I had to tell. But if I can help children dealing with difficult times through my writing, then that’s something very special and unique to the magic of stories.

Both of your children’s books so far weave real life with the fantastical (magical realism). Do you prefer books that have a balance of the two? In Stormwalker, there is a particular duality – one person with two different lives. Do you think people are like that in reality – the person we are, and then the person other people see?

When I write, I think back to what I was like as a kid, because I figure that if I can write a story that the me-who-hated-books would like, then hopefully I’m doing okay. And back then, unless there was something fantastical about it, I wasn’t interested in the slightest. I think everything I write will always have some form of magic in it, however small. But it’s great fun playing around with that fantastical element, and balancing it with reality. I think both Stonebird and Stormwalker have been experimentations with that balancing act. And totally – especially in today’s social media world, there’s always going to be a bit of a duality reality!

You’re something of an expert on American football. Would you consider writing a series of fiction titles based on the sport?

Ooh, I do LOVE American football. It would be great to weave it into a story somehow, especially as the kids in schools over here always seem very interested in it, but I haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet.

Which children’s book would you most like to have written? 

As for the children’s books I would most like to have written, I’ll have to say The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, and of course Harry Potter.

You say you write for your 11 year old self. Despite being a reluctant reader as a child, was there any particular book or magazine that hooked you into reading?

The earliest story I remember enjoying was The Hobbit, which my teacher read to me in Year Five. Incidentally, she was the same teacher who used the magic marble egg that I pilfered for Stonebird. But at this point, reading still felt too much like work to me. I enjoyed having stories read to me, but I never wanted to read myself. Harry Potter opened that door, then afterwards I was able to find other books, books like Skellig, which really helped to develop that fledgling love of reading. There’s something so purely beautiful about that book, it’s hard not to enjoy reading it.

YA SHOT BANNER SIDE

With thanks to Mike for answering all my questions without hesitation. You can purchase Stonebird here and Stormwalker here

No Angry Birds Here

It’s walk to school week this week. I’m one of those smug people who walk to school every day, but although the walk is the same, what we see and hear changes from day to day, season to season. There’s traffic of course, but a field to stroll across too, and that’s where we see wildlife. We skip over the slugs, avoid squashing the snails, dart away from dogs, and flap at flies. But we see some beautiful birds, so here are five fiction books – one for each school day this week – about birds!

dave pigeon

Monday: Dave Pigeon by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Not unlike The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp, Haddow has written a riotously funny book from the point of view of a pigeon – in fact the strapline betrays the fact that the book is almost a manual for pigeons – ‘How to Deal with Bad Cats and Keep (most of) Your Feathers.’ Dempsey’s hilarious pigeon on the front, wrapped in bandages, declares in a speech bubble that this is the best book you’ll ever read. It is certainly one of the funniest.

Pigeons Dave and Skipper are friends. But their common enemy is Mean Cat, and through the book they relay (in narrative and conversational speech bubbles) their attempt to defeat the cat and oust it from its comfortable home with Human Lady – taking the cat’s place, especially because the Human Lady has the nice biscuits with jam in the middle. The text reads in part through speech bubbles, but even when there is traditional narrative, it’s interspersed by the two pigeons bantering as they attempt to tell the story.

Their plans to outwit Mean Cat grow more and more absurd, but are always extremely funny. The pigeon’s point of view and language is exceptionally rendered with silly humour and observation:

“I lay back on the lawn. The grass dazzled greener, the sky shone bluer and the washing line looked lineier. Life was cat-free and felt birdrilliant!”

With a surprising ending, and equally comical illustrations from Dempsey, this is a title for younger readers to grab and adore. Look in particular for the full page illustrations in which the pigeons wait for rain. For ages 6+. Fly to your copy here.

tufty

Tuesday: Tufty by Michael Foreman
A gentle picture book about losing one’s family but finding a mate in Michael Foreman’s new book. As with many of his illustrations, they feel traditional – rendered first as sketches and then painted.

Tufty is placed firmly in London – he’s a duck that lives in the middle of the lake near the royal palace – in a nice touch the human royalty are drawn as being rather birdlike, and are addressed by the Mother Duck as ‘The Royal Duck and Duckess.’ But the story isn’t really about royalty – it tells the tale of Tufty flying south for winter, but losing his family in the process.

Perhaps an environmental comment lies within, as Tufty flies beautifully over Hyde Park – the Albert Memorial depicted lovingly from a bird’s eye view, but then the small duck gets lost among the cranes and towering buildings of London. The orange cranes and glass buildings are distinctive by their lack of distinction from each other.

Tufty is rescued by a homeless man, and then eventually finds his own duck mate back near the palace. The scenes of nature feel homely and gentle, with a wash of colours across the sky that reflect in the lake. All in all, an uplifting story – young readers will like the homeless man’s hollow in the tree, and the tenderness of finding a home, wherever it may be. Take one home with you here.

swan boy

Wednesday: Swan Boy by Nikki Sheehan

Swans and metamorphosis have long gone together – from narrative roots in Leda and the Swan to Russian folk stories such as The White Duck, and the Grimm’s Six Swans, as well as the ballet Swan Lake, and the contemporary film Black Swan.

Nikki Sheehan infuses her latest book with magic realism. She tells of a boy grieving for his father and suffering the agonies of starting a new school, and yet weaves in subtle fantasy and magic by gradually layering swan attributes and feathers on his body at the same time as an inspirational teacher at school persuades him to dance in her production of Swan Lake.

The story works because the contemporary London setting, the character of Johnny and his mother and brother, as well as his peers around him, feel so real that long before the swan metamorphosis becomes an issue, the reader is sucked into the story. The writing is so solid and the characters so rounded that its even believable that bully Liam and his cronies, and Johnny become fully immersed in a Matthew Bourne type production of a ballet to be performed in front of the school.

If anything, Sheehan could have pushed the ‘darkness’ of Johnny’s discovery of feathers on his body a little further – but the novel wins hands down in its portrayal of his character – his rising to the responsibility of caring for his little brother Mojo (who himself is fully realised with his penchant for drawing and his own reaction to his father’s death), and also in Johnny’s realisation that friendship takes work and sacrifice. The slight shift to Liam’s point of view didn’t garner my sympathy, but the story as a whole was compelling and page-turning.

This is a good poignant study of the effects of bereavement on a family (for this audience) and a solid plot that moves quickly and effortlessly. Thoroughly enjoyable. For 10+ years. Buy a copy here.

seagull and cat

Thursday: The Story of the Seagull and the Cat who taught her to Fly by Luis Sepulveda, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura

Books in translation can be hard to get into – the rhythms and what’s suitable for children can vary country to country – but this quirky story of a seagull (and mainly a cat) is worth persevering with. A gull, stricken in an environmental oil spill, gives birth to an egg, and leaves a dying wish that the cat, Zorba (who is the last animal she sees) nurture her baby and teach it to fly.

As with all good literature, it’s the characters that forge through and make the book. And this cat, together with his gang, is no exception. Completely anthropomorphised, he shoulders the responsibility with pride and a little anxiety, using his friends the Colonel, the Secretario and Einstein – the last of which rapidly searches for answers to everything in an encyclopedia. The cats themselves are fairly eccentric, and owned by even more eccentric humans, and the book is flooded with humour because of this.

The second part is most endearing as the gull hatches and the impetus is on the cats to teach it to fly – they try to study da Vinci’s flying machine for clues. It’s for a mature reader – one who can handle the vocabulary, but underneath that is a beautiful tale of friendship, perseverance and identity, as well as age-old themes of life and death.

Kitamura’s illustrations bring the story to life, adding humour, expression and unique characteristics to each personality – and should be savoured. A classic from Chile. For age 8+ years. Buy it here.

dawn chorus

Friday: The Dawn Chorus by Suzanne Barton

From the complex to the unassuming – this picture book is beautiful by way of its simplicity. Peep hears a beautiful song upon waking and wishes to know what it is. On discovering it’s the Dawn Chorus, he is invited to join in if he can audition. Unfortunately for him, he’s just not an early bird kind of a bird, and fails to turn up on time, then fails to stay awake during the audition the following morning.

Of course it’s not his fault, it turns out he’s a nightingale – and dawn is the wrong time of day for him to sing.

Suzanne Barton has managed to express the beauty of bird song through her renderings of colour in this picture book – from the leaves on the front cover to the luscious harmony of reds, oranges and yellows of the gathered birds of the dawn chorus. Each bird is drawn to be plump with patterned wings and tails – almost collage-like in their depiction. It gives them a cuteness, and yet doesn’t completely sentimentalise them.

Young children will delight in the hanging musical notes in the air, the bird conductor with baton in hand, and the delightfully tender ending. It’s uplifting, a lovely introduction to birds and nocturnal animals, and about persevering for what you want and who you are. Take home your own dawn chorus here.