diversity

Full STEAM Ahead

Stem is a big deal in our house. And now steam too. Science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. So we like to cheer on positive endeavours that promote the extended teaching and learning of creative thinking mixed with science and technology.

Two ingenious books out this autumn have encouraged a host of little ones I know to engage in the topics.

izzy gizmo and the invention conventionFirstly, Izzy Gizmo and the Invention Convention by Pip Jones and Sara Ogilvie, a picture book championing a diverse protagonist, science and creativity, with lively illustrations and a compelling story. Actually the second book about Izzy Gizmo, the first of which championed friendship and was shortlisted for the Sainsbury’s Book Prize 2017, this new book continues the adventures of the determined, exuberant female lead in a rhyming triumph that promotes an environmental theme, showing the power of solar and wind energy, as well as recycling.

At the Invention Convention, Izzy, persuaded into going by her supportive and enthusiastic grandpa (who recognises that failures can lead to success), is beaten to the store of supplies by a fellow competitor. Despairing of not being able to assemble her invention without equipment, she soon realises that broken discarded tools from the aforementioned fellow competitor might be the very thing she needs. There are still more obstacles and the prospect of failure, as well as learning to trust her friend, but eventually Izzy wins the day with her tool-fix-recycle-o-matic.

Ogilvie harnesses the same inventiveness and imagination as the protagonist with her lively illustrations, which are full of zest and energy – bright colours, clever use of everyday props, and of course her effortless expressive characters on their narrative journey. Young children will recognise the emotions Izzy goes through – frustration, expectation, hope, grumpiness, impatience and more, but will delight in the triumphant ending.

Witty rhyming, fittingly innovative illustrations – Izzy Gizmo is always a winner! You can buy a copy here.

essential guide to steamSecondly, nonfiction title, The Essential Guide to Steam by Eryl Nash et al, illustrated by Vicky Barker, aims to denounce the myth that students and children need to choose between science and arts, but instead can not only embrace the two, but see how they might work in harmony. In fact, a recent conversation with a student choosing her A-levels involved this very dilemma. Can you study biology and chemistry with art?

Scientists and artists are not dissimilar, and share many skillsets, incorporating technical attributes and creativity into their work. A scientist may use illustrations to show their findings. An artist needs to use maths to achieve a creative vision.

The authors of this book show this in a multitude of ways, each page vividly and boldly illustrated in the complete rainbow of colours. There are mind maps to explore creative thinking, shapes spotted in everyday life, and a real understanding of how creative visions lead to scientific experiments, which in turn lead to real life inventions and practicalities.

Scientific topics covered include energy, sound, light, magnets, gravity, forces, measurements and more, all intertwined with practical applications, as well as diagrams, cartoon strips, facts, annotated illustrations and thought bubbles. There’s even a very helpful section on household engineering! This is a phenomenal science book for ages 7+, explaining each concept clearly and concisely, whilst using art and everyday examples to show how creativity has played its part. You can buy a copy here.

With thanks to Simon and Schuster and b small publishing for the review copies.

Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

sofia valdezI have a soft spot for the Questioneers, the series of picture books that includes Rosie Revere, Iggy Peck and Ada Twist. They started a STEM revolution all of their own, and their now distinctive look, complete with graph paper background, is a constant presence in any good library or children’s bookcase.

With the latest in the series though, Beaty has captured the zeitgeist, deviating slightly from science and focussing on politics. Here, she points to the hope that children can provide, especially in the face of poor management and inept leadership by adults. With a nod to inclusivity and equal rights by both author and illustrator, Sofia Valdez’s first policies focus on the environment, namely waste management and green spaces.

Sofia is quite rightly disturbed by the landfill site in her neighbourhood, especially when she sees its dangers. She decides it’s time to replace it with a park for her community, but finds that facing city hall is harder than she thought. It takes determination and the support of her neighbours to see it through.

Of course there are repeating themes here from the former picture books on Rosie Revere and crew, including determination and putting in the hours, but there are new themes springing up all the time. Sofia walks to school with her Abuelo, and this cross-generational relationship is of the utmost importance. Moreover, bureaucracy reigns large at City Hall, and author Beaty and illustrator Roberts have both had great fun exploring the humour and ridiculousness of sprawling officialdom and red tape. Of course, the book rhymes, as per the rest of the series, and Beaty plays on the idea of having different departments in different rooms, with silly names and fun numbers.

The most galling aspect for Sofia is the clerk’s quick dismissal of her as ‘only a kid’. In our current times of Greta Thunberg, this is clearly highly ironic. Sofia doesn’t turn away from this, and in an insightful way asks the clerk what she would do if she were in Sofia’s shoes.

After a daunting presentation, a plethora of ideas, a march and a petition, surveys and budgets and more, Sofia’s dreams become a reality. Her diverse community receives a much-wanted green space.

This is a feel-good picture book. It demonstrates the power of the individual to make a difference, but also the power and meaning of a community. And it pulls together the strands of science and creativity – change is brought about only after an individual has a vision.

Beaty impressively keeps the tight rhythm and rhyme that gave her such success with her other picture books, and Roberts’ expressive illustrations add humour and bite to each scene. As well as the blatant message, and the plot-driven text, it’s worth a longer linger over the illustrations. Sofia’s bedroom betrays her character, the mountain of trash is telling in itself, but most of all the community is portrayed in all its glorious differences and similarities. Children will love spotting Rosie, Iggy and Ada. Definitely one to add to your collection. Who knows, books such as these may inspire a better calibre of leader in the future.

With thanks to Abrams books for the review copy.

Vote Sofia Valdez, Future Prez here.

Friendship Picture Books

How has the first half term of school been? Has your child made lots of new friends? It’s a perpetual anxiety for a parent – whether their child has made friends at school, and the tricky dynamics of friendship continue long into adulthood. From sharing toys in reception, to peer pressure in the teen years, to sociability as adults, our ability to befriend others can be an ongoing worry:
“Why haven’t they texted me back?”

A plethora of recent picture books show us some of the pitfalls of making friends, some of the benefits of friendship, and the fun to be had in another’s company.

misadventures of frederickThe Misadventures of Frederick by Ben Manley and Emma Chichester Clark
There is so much to love about this book. Emma Chichester Clark has long been a favourite illustrator of mine, ever since Blue Kangaroo got lost on the bus, and this new book shows off Clark’s wonderful depth of expression in her characters, her warming and familiar use of colour, and the positivity that flows through scenes of childhood joy. Add to this a wonderful yet somewhat subversive story about a quirky boy called Frederick who lies in a mansion but is very bored. Emily invites him (in a series of letters) to play outside with her, but he is reticent – what if he gets hurt? Emily’s perseverance pays off, and before long the thrills of nature have made themselves abundantly apparent.

There’s a skill in a good picture book, and this one excels in every way. The growing sense of adventure and wonder of nature creeps slowly into the mansion, poking Frederick with tendrils that seek to disturb and tempt him. Emily lives the idyll of childhood – leaping freely into water (shown mid-air), riding a bike, climbing a tree.

Frederick lives surrounded by stuff, yet in much more muted colours, and all the time his wallpaper, his TV shows, his toys, remind him of what might lie outdoors. The possible bond between the children is the stream of letters (shown in text and illustration) that flow between the two like a rushing stream. There’s even a funny ending. You can buy it here.

the pirate tree
The Pirate Tree by Brigita Orel and Jennie Poh
This slightly more lyrical text reminded me of On Sudden Hill with its imaginative children who turn a simple tree into a pirate ship. At first rejected because he is new to the area, Agu is quickly permitted onto the boat when Sam realises that Agu has useful knowledge, borne from his experience of leaving Nigeria. By the end, the girl and boy have sailed the seas, discovered a deserted island, reefed the mainsail, sparred with rival pirates, and made friends.

A large amount of white space on each page allows the reader to absorb the poetical prose and textured neat illustrations, as well as fill the gaps with their own musings and imagination. Beautiful, with a stunning vocabulary. You can buy it here.

my friends

My Friends by Max Low
With a title as blatant as that, it’s clear what this book is about, but it mainly appealed to me because the illustrations reminded me of Heathcliff and Henry’s Cat (1980’s cartoons). Each page introduces a new character and their characteristics or hobbies, all with a massive dollop of humour. Pepper cooks yummy food, Olga listens to music. The trick is that on each page, the first person narrator describes how he gets involved with this new friend through this shared hobby. There’s even an imaginary friend, and also the virtues of having some time to oneself. Simple, bright and illuminating the benefit of having lots of friends who like different things. You can buy it here.

golden acorn
The Golden Acorn by Katy Hudson
A more pointed message in this longer animal story about teamwork; the book sits firmly in the ‘autumn’ canon of children’s books. The third in the series about Squirrel, Rabbit, Beaver and Tortoise, following Too Many Carrots and A Loud Winter’s Nap, this book highlights Squirrel’s desire to win The Golden Nut Hunt for the ninth time. But this year, the tournament has been turned into a team event, and so she reluctantly drags in her friends – they just don’t have the skillset to win. Of course, in the end she puts her friends before trophies. Great illustrative vignettes showing the myriad of different obstacles in the race make this a winning title – the characters’ expressions match the energy of the race.

flock
Flock by Gemma Koomen
Another celebration of nature in this whimsical picture book from a new author. Sylvia is a Tree Keeper, one of a tiny community of little people who live in trees (their heads are the size of hazelnuts). They ‘nurture and mend, gather and tend.’ Sylvia is a loner, but a chance encounter with a baby bird encourages her to rejoin her flock and find comfort in friendship. The book celebrates community spirit, and will be loved by youngsters who like their picture books full of tiny people from old-fashioned magical lands – the Tree Keepers are pictured playing musical instruments, dancing around the maypole, and celebrating with wholesome homemade food. The main illustrative treat comes not from the Tree Keepers though, but from the flock of birds, the ‘thousands of wings beating as one’. A good guide to nature as well as to neighbourliness. You can buy it here.

humperdink
Humperdink Our Elephant Friend by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Clare Alexander
The illustrations in this young picture book are less intricate, slightly vaguer and more haphazard, which lends well to the playgroup setting. With black outlines and careful choice of colour, the playgroup feels authentic and familiar – a yellow rug on the floor, coloured building blocks, and much role play; the children hail from a variety of different backgrounds. Weirdly enough, the new kid isn’t a kid at all, but an elephant. And he fits in as well as a bull in a china shop, despite the children’s best efforts. In the end of course, they discover how he can contribute to the group.

Like some of the other picture books here, the book has a gentle nod towards the benefits of nature – the children venturing into the jungle with the elephant and finding a plethora of fun activities there. It’s a magical title, adding huge excitement to normal tales of playgroup friendship, and of course giving the message that inclusivity is key. There’s a wonderful exuberance to the illustrations here – children love slides! You can buy it here.

we are together

We Are Together by Britta Teckentrup
Teckentrup has a distinctive style all of her own, and it is easy to spot her books in the library. Inside, the books all sing with a similar rhythm, a lovely rhyming poetry. And many tend to have cutouts within, giving an extra physical dimension to the book. We Are Together has all of these, and here they work particularly well. The message is unity and teamwork – the power of a group, particularly a diverse group who are supportive of each other. With references to needing support in unhappy or difficult times, with an understanding that we are small in comparison to the big world, and an absolute appreciation of nature all the way through, this is a neatly told message. The cutouts provide endless amusement and bring a smile – each page reveals the group to be larger and larger – lots of small people eventually making a circle. It reminded me of the Coca Cola advert of old, teaching the world to sing. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Two Hoots, Lantana Press, Otter-Barry Books, Curious Fox, Frances Lincoln, Words&Pictures and Little Tiger Press for the review copies.

The Tzar’s Curious Runaways by Robin Scott-Elliot

tzars curious runawaysEarly on in this historical novel, author Scott-Elliot introduces a footnote to a particular scene that simply says, ‘This really happened at the court of Peter the Great’. This tempting piece of information follows the reader throughout this startling novel – did that really happen, could that really have happened, stimulating both interest in the story, but also great intrigue in the historical setting. The reader is bursting to know more.

Good historical fiction not only holds a mirror up to our own times, pointing to similarities, and lessons learned or unlearned, but it also encourages the reader to think more about that period of history and entice them to discover more about it. Scott-Elliot does both these in his first novel for children, The Tzar’s Curious Runaways.

Katinka is a ballerina with a hunchback, part of a collection of people in Peter the Great’s Circus of Curiosities, his Kunstkamera. (The Tzar was particularly interested in deformities, collecting specimens and people (such as dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks and more) as a way to dispel myths that ‘monsters’ and monstrous formations came from the devil. He frequently put them on display and used them as tools for humiliation and cruelty.) On his death, Katinka and the other ‘curiosities’ are to be killed on the orders of the even nastier Tzarina. Together with her friends Alexei the Giant and Nikolai the dwarf, Katinka escapes the palace in St Petersburg and sets off across the snowy Russian steppe to find her parents, from whom she believes she was snatched by the Tzar’s henchmen.

This is, of course, an adventure story as journey, and therefore one of a tide of children’s novels that fits this description. What sets The Tzar’s Curious Runaways apart is not only the historical and geographical setting of 1725 Russia, but most particularly the intense suspense and danger conjured by a plot unfolding in an immensely cruel, violent and unforgiving society.

This Russia is a place of fear: The court around the Tzar, all in fear of being humiliated or worse, being killed; the peasants in surrounding areas fearful of any change or anything different; humans in general scared of wolves and bears and the darker side of nature. And in every facet of this society, Scott-Elliot describes those in power or holding authority as being corrupt, greedy or just cruel, from the adults in the village to the monks in an onion-turreted church, who of course, should provide the moral code. This is a poverty-stricken and cruel society – scenes include prisoners in chains being made to work on The Grand Canal, fearful adults throwing rocks at mere children.

Beauty, in this book, lies both in the endless snowy steppe and the mountains that take the form of animals, but also in children – their innocence, their bravery, their self-belief, and their hope.

Although the book is hugely scenic, with its dense forests, ornate palaces and snowy landscapes, and the plot reliant upon a magical map, this is a story about personalities overriding visuals, about not being judged for one’s physical imperfections, but rather using them to advantage, or overcoming their adversity.

In this way, the book shines a light on our current times – about the possibilities offered in a diverse society and about how people shouldn’t discriminate based on looks or beliefs. Of course our current society isn’t utopia, and has a long way to go for acceptance and tolerance to reign, particularly with regards to minorities, those with disabilities, and even women. But, if anything, Scott-Elliot shows us how far we’ve come.

Despite its use of historical research, this is still a novel, and Scott-Elliot cleverly draws attention to our understanding of history and the past by muddling Katinka’s memories of home. She is a protagonist seeking to belong, seeking a home, and yet her memories of the past are hazy – she isn’t sure whether they’re derived from her actual childhood surroundings, or from story books. And so the novel asks the question: what memories and histories of the past can be trusted? How much are we fabricating and filling in the gaps in our historical knowledge?

Into this mix, Scott-Elliot throws a wise librarian named Johann Daniel, who imparts a great deal of survival knowledge to the children and also gifts them a magical map to guide them on their journey. This light relief from the cruelty and harshness around them gives the children and the reader hope. It is with magic and story that a happy ending can be reached, despite the tribulations on the way.

For those who enjoy historical novels, this is something a little different, a curiosity in the children’s literature canon. You’d be wise not to run away from it.

With thanks to Everything With Words for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here. Suggested for ages 8+.

Shooting the Messenger

Kenen Malik wrote an interesting article this weekend about politics. And how inherent truths are lost if we pay more attention to the messenger than the message (with regards to the hospital incident with Boris Johnson last week, and the fact that the message of under-resourced hospitals was lost in the face of BJ’s ridiculousness and the political activist label attributed to the father).

And then I turned the pages to read the book reviews in various newspapers, and became rather incensed that reviewers too were more engaged with the messenger of the book than the message. One review of the Zadie Smith collection of short stories admired the contents and her intelligence, but another felt disappointed in it, having higher expectations of Smith. Is it right to view a book through the prism of the identity of the author rather than the new text that has been written? In the book review section for children (and I am thankful there were children’s books reviews), the reviewer also focussed on the authors. One of whom had written her last book for the target readership more than fifteen years ago. Is this relevant? Certainly not for the children, who weren’t even alive at that point.

And it is this obsession with identity with which I struggle. The argument comes into play again with cultural appropriation. How dare a person without a certain background write about it, is often the exclamation. And yet, if there is inherent truth in the message delivered, does it matter who wrote it? We don’t level the accusation at historical novelists – we accept the inherent truth in the landscape they have created if it feels authentic – if they have the facts and details honed.

In the same way that the Reflecting Realities report last week (a survey that looks at the representation of ethnic minorities in children’s literature) mentioned that what’s important is what is portrayed within the text. It looked at the content of what children read rather than the identity of the messenger. In fact, it cleverly pinpointed where the content feels less than truthful – the report spelling out key traits that were an indication of failure, an ‘erasure’ of the minority as the report called it. For example, the lack of specificity in a foreign country thus implying it could be anywhere, the short termism of the ethnic character (meaning they disappear from the text), a disproportionate use of the name Jasmine as the only cue to denote an ‘ethnicity’.

It is probably easier to write a ‘true’ picture of something if it resonates with one’s background. There is a reason they say ‘write what you know’. So maybe there is an argument for saying that those from BAME backgrounds are more able to write those characters. In fact, in some recent books about Jewish refugees from Europe in World War II, I have been quietly disappointed in the lack of depth to their cultural difference – it is mentioned that the character is Jewish, but beyond that there seems little recognition of their deeply held culture – which remains even if the character isn’t practising to any great religious extent. A person of Jewish descent, no matter how secular or assimilated, probably still has remembrance of customs, and smells and language and all sorts of things that I didn’t see portrayed. Perhaps from an author with a Jewish background, the nuance and layering may just have pulsed through. But a thorough author of any cultural or religious background could have written it with integrity if they had finely tuned research, or maybe a consultant on board.

So again, I come back to the fact that most writers can write of ‘another’. Writers don’t all have to write autobiographical fiction. Wally Lamb nailed the experiences and emotions of a young girl in She’s Come Undone, yet he isn’t a girl. Hilary Mantel has honed her portrayal of Tudor England, yet she very much lives and breathes now.

For the average reader, the identity, sexual orientation, gender, race of the author isn’t crucial. (Access to publishing for different minority groups is a whole different matter). What is crucial is what lies in the text. Does it read authentically, does it contain a deeper truth?

Of course, for some, it is precisely the author who holds the key to the book purchase. Who hasn’t, in the past few months, pre-ordered Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments before the reviews, and before the Booker longlisting, simply because of her name? Which adult purchases the latest David Walliams for their child on the book blurb alone? Of course not. We all have favourite authors, and strive to read their books – but should we read them in light of who the person is, in light of our expectations of that author? Are authors expected to have an upward career trajectory – each book better than the last? Or can they just be different? And should they even be compared? Should each text be a standalone affair?

But as a reviewer, there’s a fine balance between getting excited for an established author’s latest book, (because there is a memory that this is an author one has read before and liked and so the style might be similar), and seeing a debut as someone who could be the next big thing, a new discovery. Think how much more excitement and intrigue and surprise there would be if all review books were sent out without authors’ names attached – just a text, on its own, to be judged free from preconceptions. What treasures reviewers might unfurl!

Fly Me to the Moon

July 20th 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Along with a myriad of events to celebrate, including an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, podcasts and programmes, children’s publishers have gone to town (or rather the moon and back) with a plethora of books.

field trip to the moon

Field Trip to the Moon by John Hare and Jeanne Willis manages to achieve a little of everything in one small picture book, tackling gender discrimination, aligning creativity and science, showing exploration and integration, all using wit as the primary force.

On a class trip to the moon, one student is inadvertently separated from the rest of her group, but she doesn’t panic, she takes out her crayons and draws.

However, this rhyming tale isn’t narrated by her, but by the unseen aliens watching this party of space-suited school children. And it is the alien narrators who are shocked, and then delighted when she spies them and shares her crayons.

The wit is everywhere, in text and pictures, skillfully done as the reader doesn’t see any human facial expressions until the end (being underneath the space helmet) – the illustrations bear out mood and feelings in body language alone. The text is playful and clever, the aliens learning about this visiting species through observation, and the landscape is spectacularly evoked in cinematic style, the crayons and space bus providing the colour against the grey moon. Interestingly published in the States as a wordless picture book, here Jeanne Willis’s text gives more colour and texture to the book.

A lesson in grit and resilience, in learning new skills, and in not desecrating a special place.

astro girl

More girls on the moon in Astro Girl by Ken Wilson-Max, which tells the story of Astrid, a girl who wishes to be an astronaut, and has a passion for stars and space. This lovely early-years picture book explores Astrid’s passion within a domestic sphere as she explores the every day with her father, thinking about how what they are doing relates to outer space – eating meals, discussing gravity, science experiments and more. There’s a neat twist at the end – the mum comes home from her job as an astronaut. Black-outlined colourful illustrations set this book firmly within preschool territory, with a lovely timeline of women in space at the back.

the darkest dark

The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion, illustrated by the Fan Brothers shows a young boy playing at being an astronaut, complete with cardboard box and companion dog. The illustrations are reminiscent of Whatever Next by Jill Murphy, but this boy’s adventures stop when it gets dark and he’s scared, so wants his parents. The illustrations gradually make the reader realise that this book delves into history – the small boy lives in the 1960’s and he goes next door to watch the moon landings on television. He discovers that the dark is powerful and magical and transformative, and when he grows up, his dreams of being a spaceman come true. This longer picture book exquisitely juxtaposes the highly detailed landscape of Chris’s childhood years in the domestic sphere, before opening out into a faintly glowing lunar landscape of his adulthood. Accessible and aspirational.

counting on katherine

For more about people on the moon, an excellent child’s title is Counting on Katherine by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk, exploring how Katherine Johnson (profiled in the film Hidden Figures) put astronauts on the moon with her phenomenal maths skills. Another inspirational title, this is about working hard, nurturing passion and believing in yourself. Telling Katherine’s life story, the book highlights the racial prejudice she suffered, and also gender discrimination, yet explores how she battled both, putting the mathematics ahead of all else. The book also explains some of the maths Katherine used, and why it was so important in relation to the moon landings. An important and attractive STEM title.

trailblazers neil armstrong

A longer read, Stripes Publishers new Trailblazers series aims to make biographies accessible and engaging for younger readers, and succeeds. Trailblazers: Neil Armstrong by Alex Woolf, illustrated by Luisa Uribe, George Ermos and Nina Jones starts with a wide-ranging introduction to explain the build-up to the moonlandings and the space race, and then goes back to Armstrong’s childhood, highlighting his love for reading and then his part in the Korean War, before turning to his training with NASA. Although the text is slightly plodding, and it brushes over the prejudice experienced by those such as Katherine Johnson, for avid fans this will be a fascinating extension of their knowledge of Armstrong. Black and white illustrations throughout.

what is the moon

For extremely young readers, What is the Moon? Usborne Lift-the-flap Very First Questions and Answers by Katie Daynes, illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens should tick the boxes. Creative, informative and unbearably addictive, this hardy book addresses some quite tricky concepts in an intriguing way. The changing shapes of the moon, (and why it seems to change shape), how it moves and what makes it shine are all worthy questions and answered neatly and deftly. A considerable diverse cast makes this a stand out book for quick facts and fun reading.

how to be an astronaut

If you still really want to be an astronaut at eight years old though, How to Be An Astronaut and other space jobs by Dr Sheila Kanani and Sol Linero is phenomenally informative, colourful and child-friendly. I have a penchant for books that ask ‘why’, as well as what and how, and this book aims to gently explore why we want to research outer space and even visit it. Illustrating the history of space exploration with a timeline, showing the ISS with captions, and exploring not only astronaut training, but what it feels like to go into space. Paragraphs are spaced out among full page illustrations, the topics of ‘mission control’ and ‘space scientists’ are given detailed explanations, which verges into beginners’ physics, and yet the information is simply elucidated. A key space title. The paperback version includes a press-out-and-make rocket, stickers and fold-out space scenes.

balloon to the moon

Balloon to the Moon by G Arbuthnott and C Nielsen takes a different tack, tracking the era of space exploration back to ancient dreams of flight through the invention of kites in China and the hot air balloon in France. Before long, the book hits its stride with rockets, and plunges into supersonics, animals in space through to astronauts and the lunar landings, and continues beyond with the future of space exploration. With a mix of timelines, narrative, deconstructed rocket illustrations and even comics, this retro-feeling title, with its screen print illustration certainly answers the whys as well as the hows. The vintage feel with chapter heads as retro-style posters makes this an immersive as well as authoritative read.

usborne book of the moon

The Usborne Book of the Moon by Laura Cowan, illustrated by Diana Toledano shows how many different ways there are to present moon information to children. This title presents common questions – Is the moon made of cheese, does a man live on the moon – and gives answers, based first on what ancient peoples believed and the importance of the moon to different cultures, before documenting the thoughts of historical figures, such as Plutarch and Harriot, and the photographs of Daguerre, until finally landing on the space race and flights to the moon. Colourful and well-presented.

moonstruck

If you’re feeling largely inspired, then Moonstruck! Poems About Our Moon, edited by Roger Stevens, illustrated by Ed Boxall may help to fuel those dreams. From classic to contemporary, the poems address the disinterest of a young child forced to watch the moon landings to Rachel Rooney’s use of the different types of moon – Harvest, Snow, Milk – to Yeats’ exploration of the relationship between night-time cat and moon. Illustrations throughout add shape to the texture of the poems; playing with shape and light to mirror the effects of the moon.

Fiction Books with Birds

Ever since the dove made an appearance in the Bible as a symbol of peace, and ravens whispered news into the god Odin’s ears in Norse mythology, or since Ancient Greece where the goddess Athena had an owl as a symbol of wisdom, or in Ancient India where a peacock represented Mother Earth, birds have been used in religion, mythology and literature symbolically, as messengers or perhaps signs of hope, and particularly freedom. In some of my favourite novels, birds have been used in symbolic ways: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle…. Here are three children’s novels that synchronise with this theme.

larkLark by Anthony McGowan
McGowan returns for a final time to his beloved working class characters, Nicky and Kenny, in this novella for Barrington Stoke. Although the last of a quartet, Lark can be read as a standalone, a self-contained adventure. The teenage boys are escaping their everyday reality, in this case, a visit from their estranged mother, by taking a walk on the Yorkshire moors with their dog. With understated empathy, McGowan describes Kenny (who has cognitive disability), as needing to let out his pent-up energy – ‘he’d punch the cushions on the settee or shout out random stuff in the street’ – and so the brothers seek nature as a release – the perennial theme of this book quartet.

Narrated by Nicky in an authentic teen voice, which is both accessible and yet intensely profound in its own way, the prose starts in the middle of the action, backtracking a little but then ploughing on – not unlike the boys, who are suddenly caught in the middle of a blizzard on the moors.

Danger becomes all too apparent – the problems of home (hunger, cold, poverty) are magnified in the natural expanse of the moors, and yet also reduced to this particular day and this particular time. The boys get into deep trouble, pushing them to the brink of existence.

Nicky’s trademark humour never lets up, lending even more pathos to the situation in its own darkly rich way, and by the end a fair number of readers will be sniffing back the tears. What lingers is the bond between the boys, the exploration of teen masculinity – full of bravado and yet vulnerability – and yet also the ultimate draw of never-ending hope.

Suspenseful, written with immaculate style, and ultimately heart-warming, this is another triumph from McGowan. You can read the review of Rook, the third in the series here, when it looked likely to end as a trilogy. To buy Lark, click here

asha and the spirit birdAsha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
Another book reaching for the symbol of a bird as hope, and with a treacherous journey, is this spellbinding lush book from newcomer Jasbinder Bilan.

Asha lives with her mother in the foothills of the Himalayas, living a rural life and working on the farm, spending leisure time in the mango tree with her friend Jeevan. Her father works away in the city. But when he stops sending money and moneylenders come to collect her mother’s debt, Asha decides to find her way to the city herself and see what’s happened to her father.

As vibrant with the sights and sounds and colours of the landscape on the inside as the cover is bright on the outside, this is a stunning evocation of a completely different way of life, with a filmic quality to the descriptions of flowers and wildlife, food and landscape. The journey is treacherous, the children not only at risk of death from hunger and tiredness, but also in the face of wild animals. Here too, though, nature is a saving grace in the form of a magical spirit bird that guides Asha, giving hope and reassurance throughout.

The book takes an even darker turn with its exploration of poverty and exploitation in the city, but Asha never loses self-belief, and the book drives forward with an unrelenting optimism and moments of kindness, exploring too the role of faith and ancestry, ritual and tradition, in shaping personality and way of life.

But more than this, it’s an immersive experience in a different culture. A glossary gives Hindi and Punjabi words, but Bilan seamlessly blends them into her prose, so that with context it is easy to understand what they mean. The Indian way of life is portrayed with enthusiasm, empathy and energy, and the threads of friendship sew the plot neatly together. You can buy it here

call me alastairCall Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo
Something vastly different in this quirky novel told from three completely distinct points of view, the first of which is Alistair, an African grey parrot. Trapped in an American pet shop, Alistair dreams of freedom and blue skies, but unfortunately for him has two broken wings and a habit of plucking his own feathers out of anxiety. When he discovers eating paper, and delights in the taste of the different types of literature – poetry being his favourite – he soon starts to compose verse himself.

With this sense of the world giving him an extra taste for freedom, he is adopted by lonely widow, Albertina Plopky (Bertie), whom the reader meets through letters to her deceased husband. Add to this eclectic mix, the meticulous record-keeping of pet-shop helper 12-year-old Fritz, (musing also on the recent separation of his parents and the death of a grandparent) and suddenly the reader grasps how the three points of view and stories meet.

The book is about perspective and freedom, but also speaks to the idea of loneliness. We stifle our own freedom if we build cages around ourselves. Unique and idiosyncratic, this is not for everyone, but with a mix of poetry and prose, different narrative voices, and a quest for courage, this is a very unusual middle grade book. You can buy it here. 

 

 

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

ghostThe other day, I was having a conversation with a mixed cohort at our library lunch club. We were discussing sports books, you’ll know the type – those formulaic novels or reading scheme books about a team who overcome an obstacle to triumph by winning the cup or moving up a league. Whether they focus on a less talented player come good, or a star player overcoming his loss of confidence, or an injury-stricken player making it in the end, they do tend to be of a type. There’s a comfort in that – repetition and formulas are a comforting part of re-reading and fixing narrative arcs in the mind, as well as reinforcing good messages about teamwork and attitude.

But it is hugely refreshing when a book that’s ostensibly about ‘sport’ actually stands out from the crowd. On TV, Friday Night Lights did this spectacularly well. Compulsive, gripping and hugely sympatico. Now, Ghost does this for children in book format.

Ghost was published in the US in 2016 to huge acclaim, spending more than 21 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and finally makes its debut appearance here thanks to new publishers on the block, Knights Of.

Running is what Castle (Ghost) is good at. But he isn’t part of a squad or team; he doesn’t see it as a sport. The first time he had to run, it was away from his gun-wielding father. When he inadvertently ends up at an athletics team training session and beats the fastest kid there by running against him on the outside of the track, the coach sees his potential.

But Ghost’s raw energy needs to be harnessed and disciplined in order for him to succeed at life, let alone as part of a running team. And that’s not all that easy.

There are lots of themes running through this book that elevate it to much more than a sports novel. And most encouragingly, it doesn’t follow the formula in plot detail either. There is no grand competition at which Ghost must triumph, no injury to overcome. The focus is very much on Ghost himself, of committing to the training, of learning to get along with the rest of the team (they’re still a way off complete bonding). This is about personal development and circumstances, but all written in such a way that it will appeal to reluctant readers as well as proficient book-devourers.

The main strand here is the father/son dynamic and relationship that springs up between Ghost and Coach, as well as the parallel of Ghost’s troubled and complicated relationship with his absent father. There’s also the class divide Ghost sees around him – where people live, how they dress and the privileges afforded to them; his own single mother working hard, a school system struggling to work with all its pupils.

But perhaps the most endearing quality in this book is the fully rounded, witty, flawed, tempestuous and yet kind protagonist. Written in first person, and immediately identifiable, Ghost first introduces himself to the reader by explaining about his fascination with record-breaking facts, including the man who blows up balloons with his nose. Ghost is believable and fun, with unique traits – spitting sunflower seeds, watching from the bus stop as people bob up and down on the treadmills inside the gym opposite. He notices stuff, he has a great sense of himself, and a great sense of humour.

Of course Reynolds tracks Ghost’s development over the novel, using the model of race training and a no-nonsense coach to turn our hero into a somewhat hero (in the reader’s eyes maybe), delineating his flaws and exploring how the adults around him help him to overcome the obstacles he meets along the way. So there’s that trope of coach as mentor to troubled kid, but by using first person from Ghost’s point of view, Reynolds goes deep inside Ghost’s head – the vehement wish to own proper running shoes and where that takes him, the anger that bubbles inside, his outlet in running, and his need to be guided.

All narrated with easy prose, at times in Ghost’s youthful, naïve and vulnerable outlook, at others with a childlike profundity that bursts through from nowhere, but always spilling over with energy and zest.

Surrounded by a fully-realised team of secondary characters, both in his team track-mates, but also in the local shopkeeper and his long-suffering mother, this is an outstanding story about self-belief and hope. First in a series, you can buy it here.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

on the come upIt’s hard producing a second piece of art when the first one has been so universally successful. People often talk of second book or second album pain. And after The Hate U Give, it’s no surprise that there was hype around Thomas’s second novel.

I try very hard to ignore hype – if possible I’d read every book without seeing the author’s name first, so that each one comes afresh rather than through Twitter or a publicist, but I live in the real world so obviously that’s not possible. Instead, I quite often try to see patterns in what I’m reading – how books sit together, how trends bear out, how what was written a few years ago and published today reflects on our society.

When I read On the Come Up, I was also reading The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (a book for adults), and I was pleasantly cheered to find parallels in the reading. Winton’s book is about a boy coming-of-age in the Australian outback, running away, and written in first person slang dialect. Thomas’s book is a coming-of-age by an up-and-coming rap artist set in the same fictional Garden Heights neighbourhood as Thomas’s first novel, The Hate U Give. The two books, Winton’s and Thomas’, are distinctively different and physically half a world away from each other, but both tell the story of invisible disadvantaged young people clamouring to be heard.

Bri lives with her mother, Jay, a recovering drug addict, and her older brother, and dreams of being a famous rapper like her father, long since shot dead in gang violence. Once again, Thomas revisits the injustices of growing up African American in the States, but the tone here pushes further than THUG, both in Bri’s first person voice and in plot. There’s much here to admire in Thomas’s characters and themes, but it’s the message behind the story that reaches furthest.

The book is firmly rooted in its background and neighbourhood – Bri and her family have to visit a food bank at Christmas after her mother is laid off (a result of riots in the neighbourhood causing lack of funds at her workplace), Bri attends a school where she’s frisked on the way in, her mother’s first thought on hearing a school emergency is that it’s a shooting, and Bri takes to colouring in her sneakers so that it’s not apparent that they aren’t the real deal. These are themes of poverty, violence and peer pressure that are universal in appeal – they apply equally to inner-city London kids as they do to black Americans, but there’s a sharp undercurrent of exploration of race that is most interesting to read and absorb.

One of the key strands is how Bri is seen by the world as opposed to who she is. An age-old trope in literature of appearance and reality, which becomes sharpened in Thomas’s insightful writing. Bri is labelled very much as the angry black woman (cf the Serena Williams trope) – when she pushes back against injustice she becomes labelled as aggressive, hoodlum, ghetto. Bri has the choice to own that label and act up to it – forging her career as a rapper by climbing into the label and delivering lyrics about guns, drugs and violence, playing to it and being the scary edgy black artist whose songs are downloaded for that reason, or whether she disowns the label and makes it by being who she really is inside, a more nuanced person than a mere label or type.

And by concentrating on Bri’s lyrics as a way for her to define herself, Thomas highlights the power of words. I’ve long argued that lyrics are yet another form of poetry – awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan may have been controversial, but shows I’m not alone in this thought – and Thomas goes the full way in equating the two – “Since hip-hop is poetry, your grades should never drop again.” Bri’s teacher lays on her.

Whether you go with this or not, it’s the power of language and words that sings through the page. From the slang Thomas uses (which again reminded me of Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut with its own very different but Australian words), to the cultural references, this is a book firmly rooted in its background that shows how powerful words can be – and how they can be twisted. Bri’s lyrics are listened to, used, and manipulated in ways she couldn’t have dreamed of when she composed them, but then she’s shown how words can be used for good too. This is about young people speaking out, about using their voices as a force for good, about unconventional poetry and the wonders it can work for freedom of the soul. It’s about labels and when we attribute them and how to lose them.

And above all, this is another reading eye-opener from Angie Thomas. There’s a touchingly instrumental sibling relationship, an interrogation of friendship and loyalty, and what lustful feelings can do to friendships and the bond of family.

This is an edgier read than THUG, it takes a harder line, and maybe for that reason it’s harder to fall in love with than THUG. But On the Come Up pulsates with passionate social commentary and poetry, and maybe Thomas feels that if the message isn’t totally getting through the first time, you have to shout a little louder the second. In a week in which children around the world are using their voices to push across a message, (YouthStrikeforClimate), this seems like apt reading material for them. Age 13+. You can buy it here.

Sam Wu: A Conversation

Sam WuSometimes the best ideas come from collaboration. The junior fiction Sam Wu series is a lively and fun introduction to chapter book fiction for newly emergent readers. Featuring a truly funny main character in Sam Wu, with a loveable and realistic family including younger, and more confident, little sister Lucy, and wise grandma NaNa, this depiction of a Chinese family is refreshing and comes from author experience. Katie and Kevin Tsang have developed their winning main character and his group of friends in three books now, as Sam and companions lurch from adventure to adventure.  In Sam Wu is Not Afraid of the Dark by Katie and Kevin Tsang, illustrated by Nathan Reed, Sam and his friends take a camping trip away from Lucy and NaNa, but the book roots itself firmly within Sam’s tight friendship group. The Tsang author team showcase the magnificence of children’s imaginations, as more often than not Sam and his friends make their own adventures by imagining the scarier elements of life, all the time remaining within the safe sphere of their childhoods. With dynamic type and graphics, illustrations on almost every page, and lots of jokes, this is a great little series to enthuse young readers for chapter books.

A camping trip is a marvellous way to explore the bridge between childhood security and their growing independence, and as with Pamela Butchart’s There’s a Werewolf in my Tent, Sam and his friends imagine all the horrors that might come up to their tent in the dark. They also take a brave trip to a cave, and attempt to stay awake all night around the campfire in order to see off any nasty creatures or aliens that might share the woods with them. In the end, of course, all creepy noises are easily explained, and Sam Wu lives to breathe another day. Here, Katie and Kevin interview each other to explore the enjoyable elements of Sam Wu, their enthusiastic banter indicative of the fun, energy-filled dialogue within the book:

Photographer: Chris Close

KATIE AND KEVIN INTERVIEW 

Katie: I’m excited to interview each other!

Kevin: Me too!

Katie: I’ll go first. What are you most afraid of?’

Kevin: Sharks!! Researching for SAM WU IS NOT AFRAID OF SHARKS was very scary. But I also think sharks are awesome!

Katie: You really are very afraid of sharks.

Kevin: Okay, my turn. In SAM WU IS NOT AFRAID OF GHOSTS, Sam serves his friends Chinese food. What Chinese dish would you serve your friends?

Katie: I wish I was better at cooking Chinese food! I would probably take them to a Chinese restaurant. We’d either go out for dim sum (one of my favourites!) or to Sichuan (super spicy!) or for Peking duck. Like Sam, I love roast duck!

Katie: I’m stealing your excellent question that you asked me about what Chinese food I’d serve my friends. What would you serve?

Kevin: I’d take them for Peking Duck, like Sam! And I’d also make them try turnip cake.

Katie: I don’t believe that you’d make them try turnip cake

Kevin: That is just because you don’t like it.

Katie: Sometimes I do! It just isn’t my favourite.

Kevin: Speaking of favourites, who is your favourite character in Sam Wu?

Katie: Lucy is my secret favourite. I love how brave and bold she is. It was important that we portrayed positive sibling relationships. I also love NaNa.

Kevin: I have to admit, my favourite character is SAM.

Katie: Well, what is your favourite part about writing Sam Wu?

Kevin: Working with you!

Katie: Other than that, because that is obvious.

Kevin: I love seeing Nathan’s illustrations! He’s SO good. And the design team at Egmont is amazing too.

To buy a copy of Sam Wu is Not Afraid of the Dark, click here.