death

Death by Detention by Ali Sparkes

death by detentionThe other week in my school library, I was assigned a year 6 pupil for a day whom I never normally see. He’s not that into books or reading and shies away from the library space unless his friends are hanging there on hot days when it’s the coolest room in the school. So when he was assigned to me, there was a fair amount of reluctance. And yet, by the end of the day, there was a glint of enthusiasm there, a realisation that books aren’t bad. He read to younger students, held a book treasure hunt, and even agreed he’d come back (and not just for the chocolates!) It’s all about changing someone’s mindset.

Prolific children’s author Ali Sparkes is attempting to do the same thing with her latest novel, Death by Detention. It’s aimed at slightly older children than her usual books, aimed at the young teen reluctant readers, and although I don’t quite fit that mould, I’m captivated by a great story well told, and this fits that bill too.

The protagonists aren’t bookish or scholarly; they aren’t misunderstood geniuses but regular, can’t be arsed, worldly teens. Their attention spans are fairly narrow and they’re just the type of troubled teens who sit in detention planning their next game of Fortnite rather than concentrating on the homework in front of them, and they definitely don’t read books.

This book begins with these two teens, Elliot and Shania, in detention. And the book doesn’t hesitate – before the end of the first chapter, Elliot and Shania witness their head teacher shot from an unknown marksman outside the window, and then watch in horror as a laser beam seeks out further targets. They have to use their wits to make their way out of their deserted school before the gunman or men, realise they are there. What’s more, their head teacher looks as if he might be coming back…as a zombie.

For this generation of teens, there will be inevitable comparisons with Alex Rider type novels, but Elliot and Shania have to rely on their quick-wittedness and resourcefulness rather than some James Bond type gadgets in order to survive. And this is where Sparkes (and the reader) have a lot of fun with the novel. By using the precise orientation of the school as the setting for the entire novel, Sparkes is able to explore all the fun hidden spaces within its site – stationery cupboards of course, but also the high windows of a school gym, the maintenance crawl space above the toilet ceilings, the tannoy from the head teacher’s office, reception, and of course the gym cupboard. And as everyone who has read a high school drama knows – there’s plenty of scope to be had in the school theatre space. This meshes nicely with computer games – each action sequence is in a different setting.

Sparkes also captures the extreme physicality of the teens’ situation – they are not just running away or confronting the gunmen, but they feel their cramped limbs from hiding, they vomit in fear and relief, their hearts palpitate and they go into cold shock.

What’s more, as the reader roots for them to succeed, Sparkes alternates between the two protagonists’ point of view – their headspace – seeing not only what’s in front of them, but also thoughts about who they are, how they came to be in this situation, and the resilience and skills they might draw upon to see them through. It’s the clever writer’s way of drip feeding information about the main characters and Sparkes works her magic here, as well as proving her knack of showing character through action – there is no lengthy exposition.

The beauty of the book is that it reads like a computer game – it’s fast, pacey, gripping, and yet in prosaic format – Sparkes has time to give us apt similes – “Normally she attracted cops like a dropped Cornetto attracts ants.” The chapters are super short, ending in gritty cliff-hangers, much like levels in computer games. Her descriptions don’t interfere with the action, but merely enhance it – there is a multitude of sensations giving the text a visceral feel. The reader sees what’s dark and light, where the shadows creep, the sounds of silence and of approach and of violence.

And this perhaps is where readers or gatekeepers may feel a jolt. Sparkes reportedly failed to attract a mainstream publisher for the title – there are so many fears about showing a gunman in schools in a novel for children after the number of real school shootings in the States.

But I would argue that if publishers shy away from novels that may offend, then much of publishing would fall away, and be worse for it. In the same way that computer games don’t shy away from it, in the same way that dystopian novels portray children battling to death, or incidents of terrorism, then this shouldn’t be out of bounds here – particularly when in actuality this story is positioned very far away from what we think of as ‘school shooting’ or ‘act of terrorism’.

In fact, there’s much humour. There are numerous wry asides – the headteacher is positively brilliant at releasing humour into scary situations and is as sharp as a pencil, and the teens fare well in this regard too.

This is a fabulous entry or re-entry into books for reluctant readers. Short, sharp, witty and great fun, the reader will understand that it’s not great to judge someone by the stereotype attributed to them, in the same way that they’ll understand that facing a gunman with a resistance band and a cricket ball from the gym cupboard probably isn’t the best solution.

This up-to-the-minute pacey novel is a match for the screen any day. I’ll take detention – if they’ll let me read stories like this during it. Suitable for 11+ years. You can buy yours here.

Joy by Corrinne Averiss, illustrated by Isabelle Follath

joy
What makes us happy? Is it our genetic makeup, our life circumstances, our achievements? We constantly strive to be happy, but happiness can really only be a fleeting sensation, for without experiencing some low points in between, we wouldn’t know what happiness is.

The little girl called Fern in the picture book Joy also strives to find what happiness is, and to catch it. She is a lively active girl, with a hearteningly good relationship with her grandmother, who bakes butterfly cakes, and smiles. But one day, her grandmother – Nanna – seems down. The colour has ebbed from her page, her paintings hang skewwhiff, there are cobwebs on the mantelpiece, and a wheelchair where once there were cakes.

Fern asks her mother, who tells her that the joy has gone out of Nanna’s life, and so Fern endeavours to capture some to take to her. This brings on a beautiful few pages that try to capture where Fern finds joy – getting the giggles, or dancing with her father. In the end, the feeling is summed up with a ‘whooosh’.

Unfortunately, Fern can’t package this whooosh of joy for her Nanna – it won’t fit in her cardboard box, or stay in her butterfly net. And yet, when she goes to Nanna and spends time telling her about her joyful exploits, the joy comes back into the room in a phantasmagoria of colours. And once more there are butterfly cakes.

The illustrations are both fresh and traditional. Nanna is pictured as a stereotypical older woman – white hair in a bun, glasses on a string, and in an old-fashioned armchair. And yet the butterflies rise from a cake in a stunningly fresh kaleidoscope cascade. Fern plays with old-fashioned toys, and yet the people in the park are a diverse mix – some seem from today, others even from Edwardian times. Perhaps because ultimate happiness doesn’t change over time.

In fact there are numerous devices here to bring happiness to the reader. The contentment on Fern’s face, the use of the word ‘whooosh!’ to express how Fern feels about happiness or joy, the beautiful colour wheels used to express the bounce of a puppy, the chuckle of a baby, and the repetition of the happy words.

Follath’s exploration of colour, using mainly ink, pencils and watercolour is exceptionally stunning here, quite literally bringing joy to the reader. The careful delineation of the park and all its various elements, the exquisite ability to capture innocent expression in Fern’s face as she gathers her catching materials, and of course the abstract spreading of colourful ‘joy’ throughout.

Some negative comments on the book have pointed to how easily it offers a way out of Nanna’s depression, and doesn’t give the illness the gravitas it deserves. I’d disagree. Moments of sadness don’t always equate to depression. In fact Nanna is shown with all the colour seeped from her world, but so is Fern too at one point – when she finds she can’t capture joy in a bag. She isn’t suffering from depression – it’s a momentary sadness, just as happiness and joy can be momentary too. Nanna’s does seem prolonged, and some readers have suggested, more serious – but there’s little harm in showing young readers that there are good days to be found even with periods of persistent sadness.

There is no reason given for Nanna’s sadness, although I speculate it’s more about ageing than it is about depression, but the essence of the book is not to explore this. It’s to explore happiness – and that it’s not equated with ‘taking’ behaviour, in terms of what we have or possess. Joy isn’t in our possessions in the same way that it isn’t something that can be physically possessed. Instead, happiness is about ‘giving’ behaviour – about giving of ourselves to others, and by that making them and us feel good. Fern’s time with Nanna gives the greatest joy to them both.

And within the book it’s this inter-generational behaviour that stands out for me. The book shows what joy it can be for different generations to connect and develop an ongoing interdependent relationship. And how emotion is transient. You can buy it here.

if all the world wereAnother book that deserves a mention and seeks to explore this relationship is If All the World Were by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys. This picturebook is about exploring the death of a grandparent, but deals with it sensitively. What it does have in common with Joy is to explore the quality of the time that the grandfather and his granddaughter spend together -through the different seasons and engaged in different activities. And they have created a vast bank of memories for the girl to hold onto.

Coelho is a poet and it shows in the lyrical text, which is both touching and filled with analogies and metaphor. There are also hints of cultural inheritance, as the grandfather imparts his own childhood stories to his granddaughter. Of course the book is laden with loss, but the intimacy and warmth of the colourful illustrations lessen the load, and what remains is the inherent tenderness of this intergenerational relationship. You can buy it here.

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

ghost boys‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ is a question most children’s authors face at some point in their career, or on every school visit. I’ve noticed that some of the best stories spring from tiny news items hidden away on the side columns – little quirks of human misadventure. But sometimes a book springs from a really big news item. Ghost Boys is a story that is meant to bring to mind the shooting of Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy shot by a police officer in Ohio in 2014.

It’s a powerful story upon which to set a children’s book, but seeing as it involved a child itself, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be the subject of a book for this age range, especially when the author deals with the subject so sensitively, making it accessible without hiding or covering up.

Parker Rhodes has moved her story to Chicago, where twelve year old Jerome walks to school, does his homework, looks after his little sister, and tries to keep his head down. But when new boy Carlos moves to the school from San Antonio, he shows Jerome that having a toy gun can keep away the bullies. And the police officer mistakes it for a real gun, and shoots Jerome dead.

Half the story is told after the event, as Jerome’s ghost looks at what is happening after his death, and half is the recap of what happened up until Jerome was shot. It’s a compelling way to tell the story and lets Parker Rhodes introduce her ‘ghost boys’, all the other boys who have died as a result of prejudice, including the famous Emmett Till.

The case of Emmett Till is well-known in America for being a huge influence on the civil rights movement, and what happened to him is explained thoroughly within this book, and although graphic, is dealt with sensitively and honestly, bringing history to life by letting Till tell his own story to Jerome’s ghost.

But it is the one living human in Jerome’s story who can see his ghost that brings the story up-to-date and literally breathes life into it. Sarah, the daughter of the police officer who shot Jerome, is able to see Jerome’s ghost, and through their dialogue, they come to understand the impact of the incident on both families. It is through this interaction that the reader is able to explore racism and prejudice, and come away with the author’s plea that the readers learn from history.

Written in short, sharp, fairly graphic chapters, this is an engaging, fast-paced book, which is also wise and authoritative. Jerome’s death is explored within a context of racism, but also within the context of his own life – exploring his relationship with his sister and grandmother, his hopes and dreams, encounters with the bullies at school, and the significance of his place in society, his upbringing, his schooling. All are factors that make up the boy, and Parker Rhodes skillfully interweaves all the elements that divide Jerome and Sarah, as well as the basic human traits that unite them.

In the end, a young reader will come away with a greater understanding of the consequences of ingrained prejudice, the divisions in society that need to be healed, and the importance of life itself. You can buy it here.

Lucky Break: Rob Stevens Soars High

lucky breakI picked up Lucky Break by Rob Stevens whilst attending an event with Andersen Press, and my little testers loved it so much they said I must feature it. 

Leon is grieving for his twin brother, who died in a car accident. Since that fateful day, his mother has been ridiculously over-protective of him, and his family seem to have somewhat fragmented. When a new boy, Arnold, pitches up at school, Leon and he strike up a friendship.

But Arnold isn’t like anyone Leon’s met before. He’s honest, takes everything completely literally, and yet manages to get to the heart of everything and everyone. Over the course of one weekend, Arnold and Leon get into madcap capers and scrapes, playing sports and taking part in adventures that his mother would shudder at: busting the configuration of the slot machines and running away with their winnings, breaking windows, mistakenly robbing a bank, and yet they come out trumps in the end – Arnold helping Leon and his family to come to terms with their grief, and Leon helping Arnold finally make a friend. It’s a bittersweet comedy, written with pathos and insight, and in a smooth, easily readable style.

But after reading, I made a discovery. Rob Stevens, like so many children’s authors, doesn’t write full time. In fact, he’s a pilot, and one of my not-so-little testers dreams of aeroplanes, has aeroplane posters on the wall, and goes plane spotting. Perhaps he’s waved at Rob in the sky. So, with the assistance of Andersen Press, and to please my not-so-little tester, I asked Rob to provide me with his five best things about being a pilot:

My new novel, Lucky Break, published this month but writing isn’t my full-time job. I am a British Airways Captain, flying the A380 all over the world. Here are the five best things about being a pilot.

  • The A380 is a double-decker superjumbo – the largest passenger plane in the world. Being at the controls of an aircraft like that is simply a boyhood dream come true!
  • After a long flight I usually get about 48 hours off to relax and unwind before flying home. This is the perfect opportunity for me to forget about the rules and regulations of flying a passenger jet and let my imagination go free. Most of my books are written in hotel rooms and cafes around the world and I find writing the perfect counterbalance to life in the cockpit.
  • No two days at work are ever the same for me. Whether I’m avoiding thunderstorms over the equator or coping with heavy snow in Washington, I never quite know what the day ahead has in store.
  • I meet all sorts of interesting people in my job – passengers and crew. I get a lot of ideas for characters in my books from the people I meet at work. Often a single expression or a turn of phrase can be the catalyst for a whole new book.
  • I love all sorts of active sports and my job allows me to pursue them in some of the most exotic locations. Just this year I have been skiing in California, kitesurfing in Indonesia and walking the Dragon’s Back in Hong Kong. No wonder my sons say I don’t go to work, I go on holiday!

Thanks to Rob Stevens. I highly recommend his book, for ages 9+ years, which published on 3rd May and is available to buy here

What Lexie Did by Emma Shevah

what lexie didEmma Shevah’s previous novels, Dara Palmer’s Major Drama and Dream On, Amber have been hugely popular in the library, so it was no surprise to hear that my first tester readers of Shevah’s newest book, What Lexie Did, had been queuing to read it after me. Answering my question, what did you like about it, they were thrilled to tell me: “there are absolutely no boring bits at all”. High praise indeed from Year Six pupils.

Lexie is part of a large Greek-Cypriot family living in London. She has a very close relationship with her first cousin, Eleni, until a new friend arrives, Anastasia, and simmering jealousy rises to the surface at a family picnic. Lexie’s subsequent brush with telling the truth and being labelled a snitch makes her re-evaluate her loyalties, and also when to tell the truth and when not, so the next time an opportunity arrives to lie, she knows just what to do…

Shevah’s prose is immensely easy to read. What Lexie Did is written in first person from Lexie’s point of view, and accompanied by extensive doodles framing the text on every page, as if it were a pre-teen diary. (Ilustrations by Helen Crawford-White). This establishes an intimacy with the reader, so that although the reader sees the narrative unfold from Lexie’s point of view, they can understand where she’s going wrong, and see further than Lexie herself.

It’s a clever strategy, and neatly evokes a strong camaraderie between the reader and the protagonist, helped hugely by the fact that Lexie’s narrative is bouncy and vivacious, just like the character herself. She is quirky, interesting, and completely honest with the reader, and so the reader feels immediately immersed within the story.

Although ostensibly a story about a loss in the family and a subsequent argument, the plot unfolds to address two very current issues – the fracturing of society through loss of a sense of community and family, and our ability to know when to tell the truth and when to lie, and how we know what is fake and what is real.

Lexie is part of a large Greek-Cypriot community that spreads beyond her immediate family to encompass cousins and grandparents, but also friends and neighbours. When her grandmother dies, it affects more than just her immediate family. Shevah portrays the positive aspects of the feelings of belonging the community promotes. There’s food of course – delicious descriptions of the sensuous nature of food and the memories and emotions it arouses. There’s also a vast support network, shared passions and behaviours, and the strong moral ground the community gives. The argument fractures this community temporarily, and through its absence Shevah explores the power it had when it was in place.

The portrayal of a Greek-Cypriot community also affords Shevah the space to explore the special memories of childhood that it is giving Lexie – the days out, family gatherings, routines, Sunday school, and intimacy and love. Shevah isn’t Greek-Cypriot herself, but this doesn’t matter. Her extensive research gives form and passion to the community she describes.

The other aspect – the truth telling – is integral to the plot. Lexie’s lie leads to a heap of trouble for herself and her family, but also provides her with the opportunity to grow as a person. Shevah explores how a warm and loving childhood provides us with the space to make mistakes and learn from them. And it is more than just one large lie. Lexie looks at the confusing nuances of truth-telling – when it is right to lie and when not, when secrets are justified and when not. And funnily enough, her grandfather’s resolution creates confusion of its own, satisfying the issue the family has, but masking the original version.

Lexie also learns the value of friendship and loyalty, in a novel that reaches for honesty, identity and integrity. Shevah has succeeded in all three – this is a warm and accessible novel, and leaves the reader desperate to make their own cinnamon cake and galaktoboureka (recipes at the back), to experience a smidgen of the life Lexie leads. You can buy it here.

Charlie and Me by Mark Lowery

charlie and meAt first glance a simple tale of brothers who take a train journey back to the destination they holidayed at the year before, this wonderfully nuanced novel turns into something much more profound and moving.

Thirteen-year-old Martin, and his younger brother Charlie, are travelling 421 miles from Preston to the tip of Cornwall to recapture the wonder and delight they experienced when they watched a dolphin the previous summer.

But travelling unaccompanied has its hazards and pitfalls, and Martin almost stumbles just purchasing the ticket. And Charlie is not a normal child; he was born too early and needs extra care and attention.

There is so much to like about this novel. The detailed compartmentalised journey – each section of the novel separated into the segments of the journey, be they train times or just sitting on a bench on a platform waiting, work brilliantly, because they pace the novel, and set the tone. Each minute is accounted for: visiting the toilets on the platform, taking a train in the wrong direction, and by doing this Lowery captures a child’s anticipation and excitement of a journey, as well as the small details children notice, such as the other people, the atmosphere, the passing landscapes.

Martin takes his notebook along, and encouraged by a teacher at school, he jots down poems as a way to remember what he’s doing, and express his emotions. The physical book reproduces Martin’s poems on lined paper, in between the journey narrative, which is a nice production touch. But the poems also indicate to the reader the journey of Martin’s mind, as his thoughts become more intense and his emotions confused.

There are occasional flashbacks too, to the summer before, when Martin and Charlie first observed the dolphin from the Cornish harbour, and these capture the wonder of nature, the excitement of the dolphin’s leap from the water, and also the local community who track the dolphin’s whereabouts.

Through the present tense journey, and the flashbacks, Lowery cleverly delineates the sibling relationship, expressing Martin’s pride in his responsibility, yet also impatience and frustration, particularly with Charlie, who is unique and vulnerable. There is also plenty of humour wrapped up in the shades of their relationship; the authenticity of sibling kindnesses and annoyance shines through.

This is particularly apparent in the dialogue between the brothers, and in Martin’s thought-process as he spells out his worries and his protective nature. But mainly, the book feels chatty and warm – these characters make you want to journey with them.

Lowery drops clues throughout the story that this journey isn’t all it seems. Four hundred and twenty one miles is a long way to go to revisit a dolphin, and astute readers will work out that something else is awry too. The final denouement is quite devastating, and will be upsetting for many, because in the end this is not a tale of adventure but a story that deals with mental health and loss.

Despite this shattering turn at the end, the story does feel uplifting – exemplified by the care and support around Martin, and kindness of strangers throughout the book. And what’s more the clues and strands tie together neatly at the end, and will provoke thought and discussion.

The style is easy to read, the plot paced beautifully, and yet the book is also emotionally sophisticated. In turns, light and deep, this is an inspiring read. You can buy it here.

Children’s Mental Health Week

Children’s Mental Health week in the UK runs from February 5th to the 11th. One publisher has sent me a story specifically for this week, and there’s a gathering number of voices who are publishing books that speak to children’s mental health issues.

But reading any good narrative enables the reader to step into someone else’s shoes, to experience their story, and hence gain some empathy on another’s state of mind. But as well as that, some books relate more directly to the reader’s own experience – if the characters are going through a situation that they too are experiencing, the reader can see how the characters react. How do they deal with the darker side of life, how do they overcome their obstacles? In turn, the reader may review their own situation. The book may not offer a solution, but it can show readers another way of thinking about things, perhaps a different way through their dark time.

Someone asked me recently what comes first – if readers learn resilience through books, or if they come to certain darker books with resilience, enabling them to read the books without fear. It’s a tricky one. Some resilience is innate – there are children who accept scary books quite readily, others who approach them with horror, but some resilience is garnered through the reading of difficult situations and issues.

Most of all, books offer a safe space in which to experience the darkness of life, and also show how others perceive a similar darkness. Reading, funnily enough, can be less isolating.


Michael Rosen’s Sad Book
, illustrated by Quentin Blake
is a great example. Rosen wrote the book as a reaction to the death of his son – which is stated within the first few pages. But he also talks about a general sadness that can come over any of us at any time.

The book also explores ways in which Rosen tries to overcome some of the sadness, by thinking about good things he has done that make him proud, or remembering that other people are sad sometimes too. It’s good not to be alone. Talking through the sadness helps him as well.

This is a deservedly award-winning book, which prompts all kinds of emotions, both through the simplicity of the book, but also through Quentin Blake’s astonishingly emotive illustrations.

The book takes the reader through the different layers and types of sadness, from that which settles like a weight, to the sadness at the edges of the happiest things. Emotions are not isolated – they come in a tangled heap, sad with angry, sad with frustration, and sad with happy.

But most of all, this is not a book to which a child needs to bring their resilience. They will find it in the pages within. You can buy it here.


One newer book on the scene is Night Shift by Debi Gliori. This small formatted picture book is targeted at a teenage audience. Even its size and beautiful production (fabric cover) give away this book’s topic – depression can make you feel small, and anything that relieves it can be beautiful.

Gliori draws on her own experience of depression to illustrate this book, showing the illness in the form of a dragon in her charcoal-like illustrations. At first the dragon’s steam is a fog rolling in at night, but soon it pervades the day. Gliori highlights the physical effect of this mental illness in all its debilitating forms, but all beautifully drawn onto the normal day of a teen girl.


Gliori then goes on to highlight different ways in which the girl tries to rid herself of the feeling, from talking about it, drawing it, living with it. One of the most startling pages is the one in which she addresses the platitudes that are given to her: “chin up”.

There is a resolution at the end – her own way of finding a small beauty that helps the fog to lift, the dragon to fly away. As in Rosen’s book, it’s the skill of the simplicity of the language to convey the feeling, and the essence of sharing and hopefulness despite the darkness. You can buy one here.


Another starkly compelling and moving picture book is Small Things by Mel Tregonning, completed posthumously by Shaun Tan. The title is ironic of course – what the protagonist deals with here is not small at all. This wordless black and white graphic novel deals with one small boy’s misery at school – excluded from sports and friendships. His schoolwork is suffering too, and slowly the reader starts to see strange shapes and shadows that invade and penetrate the boy’s world. These take over, keeping the boy up at night, eating away at who he is.

The illustrations are painful to take in sometimes – the small boy’s sadness manifested in his large head and eyes, the anxiety and angst all too clear, the shapes and his disintegration fairly horrific. But when he shares his feelings with his sister and then confides in his parents, things start to change. Finally, he sees that he is not alone in the strange creatures – gradually, the boy sees that others have the shapes to deal with too, and so feel as he does and a bond is formed. It’s not a complete resolution, but a path forward.

The book comes from a place of pain, but the idea is that it provides solace to those who otherwise may not have reached out. Wordless, it screams louder than most. It’s available here.

The last book is the one sent to me by a publisher for this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week. It’s a book that aims to explore and teach mindfulness. Mind Hug: The First Story by Emily Arber and Vanessa Lovegrove shows a boy upset by the influx of noise inside his head, the buzziness of everyday life, but also the thoughts that can erupt from nowhere. Then his father shows him how to breathe and to dismiss the overcrowding. It doesn’t work at first go, but the boy tries again. In the end he shares it with a friend, who shares it again.

The idea, like mindfulness, is relatively simple, and the premise good. Unfortunately the text is a little all over the place, with some rhyming, some not, and a rhythm that comes and goes. You can buy it here.

But it’s not just picture books that bring awareness of mental health, and I’ve highlighted a couple of others here.

Like so many other ‘issues’, sometimes the best books are those that nudge a child towards the issue rather than focus the entire book on it. Flour Babies by Anne Fine is an excellent example – when the children in school have to look after their own ‘flour sacks’ as babies, and learn many things in the process. Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare talks about the difficult subject of parental depression all wrapped within a beautiful nature adventure story, Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho Yen and A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill also deal with depressive parents, but again, next to well-told stories. The protagonist in The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson has OCD, but the book reads as a mystery.

By opening up a book with a fictional cast of characters but with very real problems, it’s hoped that children can find a way through, discover a path they may not have thought of, see a light in the dark. Have a look at The Empathy Lab here, for more ideas.

 

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.