diversity

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.

Armistice Day

On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. We know the historical facts about the First World War and we understand the remembrance at Armistice Day, but 100 years on, how do we not only keep the memory of it alive, but also make it relevant for today’s children. Two very different stories bring the topic to fresh generations by using issues that are forefront in the minds now, to illuminate how those same issues were a part of society then. It’s often said we’re living in a time of identity politics, and these two books both highlight individual identity within the context of the First World War.

white featherWhite Feather by Catherine and David MacPhail
This powerful tale is about how we remember somebody after they have died. The war is over, and everyone is celebrating, except Tony who is still mourning his brother Charlie who never returned from no man’s land. What’s more, Tony is given a white feather during the Armistice, a sign that his brother is remembered as a coward – executed for running away from Frontline service. Tony doesn’t believe that his brother was a coward, and sets out to find the truth, so that he can remember his brother – and that his brother can be correctly identified as a brave soldier.

Just as now, with first-hand recollection gone, the truth about the First World War may seem more misty, more distant. It’s important that we understand the facts of what happened, but also that we see through poetry or novels the individual’s experience, so that we can better empathise with the realities of that time. White Feather is about the search for truth – told as half a mystery and half a ghost story in a quest to uncover what really happened on the Front Line. With sympathetic characters, this novella provides a great talking point for how we understand the horrors of the time, as well as the importance of an individual’s identity, even after death. You can buy it here.

 

respect walter tullRespect: The Walter Tull Story by Michaela Morgan, with illustrations by Karen Donnelly
Another short novel, this time based on the true story of a First World War hero, pulls in today’s children for two reasons – firstly it’s again about identity – Walter Tull was a black man and suffered from prejudice because of this, and secondly because it ties football to the First World War, pulling in a raft of children who may be reluctant readers. In fact, even though this was first published in 2005, there is still a dearth of books for primary schools with strong black role models, and this fits the bill nicely.

Although Morgan has fictionalised Tull’s story, she has used a mixture of illustrations and photographs to highlight events, with a map too, so that a reader can see the primary sources behind the story. Tull was the first ever black professional footballer, and also the first black officer in the British Army, and his story is fascinating; one of great courage and resilience. You can buy it here.

You may also want to read about Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer here. All books published by Barrington Stoke, specialist publishers for reluctant and dyslexic readers.

Adventurers

race to the frozen northRace to the Frozen North by Catherine Johnson

Subtitled ‘The Matthew Henson story’, Catherine Johnson has fictionalised the life of ordinary man, yet heroic explorer and adventurer Matthew Henson and created an intriguing, highly readable, gripping novella of the incredible story of how illiterate eleven-year-old Matthew Henson became the first man to reach the North Pole.

Actually there continues to be contention over who really reached the North Pole first, with it often cited that either Dr Frederick Cook or US explorer Robert Peary reached it in the years 1908 and 1909 respectively. Matthew Henson was in Robert Peary’s expedition, and according to Johnson’s story, made it there first. But his name and achievement were suppressed for many years because of the colour of his skin. He was a black man, and people were disinclined to believe that Peary had put his trust in a black man – both at the time and for many years later.

The story reads almost as a rags to riches fairy tale, in that Henson was beaten by his stepmother and ran away aged 11 with nothing to his name. A kindly restaurant owner took him on, then a sea captain who saw potential in him, and taught him to read and write, and thanks to Henson’s extraordinary motivation, his adventures to different lands, and above all his willingness to learn and understand other people, he transformed himself into a daring and intrepid explorer.

Johnson’s story is gripping for both being based on truth, but also for its telling, which has clever pacing to illustrate the passage of time, and simple, yet extraordinary prose (her descriptions of the polar landscape and its dangerous crevices are awesome). It also teaches compassion and respect – Henson’s treatment of others on his travels, especially indigenous people, (his willingness to learn from their expertise rather than treat them as subservient) is part of what made him so successful, enabling him to go from impoverished youth to sailor to navigator, craftsman to explorer. Johnson cleverly inserts subtle parallels here, foreshadowing the plight of the black man with Henson’s freeing of a caged bird, and  contrasting Henson’s deep respect for the ice and the Inuit with the disrespect he was shown in his Western world.

This is both a coming-of-age and an adventure story, but brought to life with evocative descriptions, an understanding of racial relations and social history at the beginning of the 20th century, and yet also the tiny acts of kindness that lead to world-changing events. Although not all plain sailing, Henson’s adventures highlight the importance of determination, patience and friendship. A fantastic story, illustrated with Katie Hickey’s vignettes on the bottom of each page highlighting which section of the narrative you’re in, that brings attention to a well-deserved hero. It just goes to show that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

The title is published by Barrington Stoke, who create readable books for reluctant or dyslexic readers with phenomenal storytelling. Explore it yourself here.

great adventurersAlistair Humphreys’ Great Adventurers, illustrated by Kevin Ward

For those new to adventuring, Alistair Humphreys is an English adventurer whose first big adventure was cycling round the world. It took him four years, and he was the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012. Looking him up, I see that he is just a few days older than me, which puts me to shame as most days the furthest I go is about five kilometres.

Anyway, for those who want to be inspired, or live vicariously through books, you will want to read his stunning children’s book, Great Adventurers, in which Humphreys profiles 20 heroic explorers who have undertaken some of the most incredible journeys and expeditions in history.

The choice of adventurers is certainly broad and eclectic, ranging from Rick Hansen, the Paralympian who wheeled around the world, to Ibn Battuta, the 14th century explorer who visited more countries than Marco Polo, to Audrey Sutherland who paddled the Alaskan coastline on her first expedition at the age of 59.

Each adventurer is treated differently in the book, but with the same awe-inspiring imagination, attention-to-detail and simple storytelling. With full colour throughout, some of their adventures are drawn in cartoon comic-strips, others contain lists of kit equipment with illustrations, others a map of their route, and each is different. Dervla Murphy’s destinations are shown in an array of postcards, Ranulph Fiennes has a page of floating icebergs that give facts about his Transglobe Expedition. Colour pallettes distinguish each adventure from the next – Nellie Bly is illustrated with a delicious traditional sea-mint green, with illustrations and motifs echoing the time period – a distinctive wallpaper, the underwear she packed, a fake newspaper front page.

But I think one of my favourite things is the small box accompanying each adventurer that explains why Humphreys included that person. Some inclusions are for the person’s enthusiasm, others for their message of a slow and simple life, some for bravery and resourcefulness, and others are deeply personal to Humphreys but all model good adventuring in one way or another – even those who suffered terrible journeys.

This is a glorious non-fiction title that explains, explores and fascinates. With cartoon strips, maps, charts, varied layouts, illustrations, points of interest and colour, I was bowled over by the expeditions I read about as well as the production of the book. It seems Humphreys is not only good at adventuring.

Did I mention he’s also rowed the Atlantic, run six marathons through the Sahara, and crossed Iceland by foot and packraft? Although now he’s a pioneer of microadventures – a movement that encourages people to seek short, local adventures. That’s more like it – perhaps even with a book in hand? Take your adventure here.

 

Spring 2018 Picture Books

Picture books is a genre that groups books together because of their format rather than their content. The books reviewed below are all strikingly different – some we may think of as traditional picture books in that they’re aimed for younger readers and impart a funny story using animals as characters, and often deliver a message while doing so. But I’ve also covered some books for the slightly older reader in my ten picture books picks of this season, in no particular order:

a bear is a bear
A Bear is a Bear (except when he’s not) by Karl Newson and Anuska Allepuz
A wonderfully simpatico book about a tired bear who forgets who and what he is until a good sleep sees him wake up refreshed and knowledgeable. He tries to be all kinds of animals, from a bird to a fox, but the other animals’ habitats, behaviours and eating habits do not suit his skills and sensibility. After hibernating, he rediscovers the truth and finds his appetite. This is a warm and humorous book with rhyming text, a delightful exploration of the seasons through illustration, and the introduction of woodland creatures, including a moose. The text is written in an invitingly read-aloud style, as if the reader is a narrator talking to the bear. Endearing, friendly and colourful. You can buy it here.

i do not like books anymore
I Do Not Like Books Anymore! by Daisy Hirst
Another one for the fairly young, this will also be a favourite among teachers trying to encourage first time readers to push through. Characters Natalie and Alphonse first appeared in Alphonse, That is Not Okay To Do, primarily about sibling relationships, but this story takes these two little monsters through the course of learning to read. Although they adore books and stories, Natalie starts to struggle to learn to read and in the process, becomes disillusioned about books. With some help from her little brother, Alphonse, Natalie comes up with a strategy to rebuild her confidence, and before long stories and books are favourites again. A fantastic tale about perseverance that is close to home for many readers. Hirst is particularly clever in portraying a familiar domestic environment, with the monsters in typical childlike poses – be it on a swing or reading with legs in the air, sitting on a bus or playing in the bathroom. Look out for the wider cast of characters – a simple but effective way of drawing our modern world. You can buy it here.

almost anything
Almost Anything by Sophy Henn
On a similar theme, although not so specifically on reading, this is Henn’s message that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it. George is a rabbit with somewhat downcast ears. Everyone else in the woods is busy (birds who play chess, a squirrel who reads, a mouse who knits), but George doesn’t feel confident doing anything, and so does nothing. It is only when Bear comes up with a simple yet cunning plan that George finds the confidence to attempt everything and stop at nothing. Despite Bear’s scruffy looking appearance, she comes up trumps with wisdom, ensuring and inspiring self-belief in others. With Henn’s gentle colour palette, and deceptively simple plot and illustrations, this is a clever, inspirational little picture book that captures the essence of finding confidence, having a go, and importantly, enjoying oneself too (as well as, may I suggest, respecting the wisdom of elders). You can buy it here.

dinosaur juniors
Dinosaur Juniors Happy Hatchday by Rob Biddulph
Long a fan of Biddulph’s simple, almost monosyllabic, rhymes, it seems this author/illustrator can do no wrong. With this first of a brand new series, he has now turned his attention to that perennial love of pre-schoolers – dinosaurs. The illustrations are trademark Biddulph – simple shapes with almost three-dimensional texture, and a bold colour palette – dominated by green in this tree-filled landscape of our green protagonist dinosaur. Biddulph brings a range of topics to this ostensibly simple text about a group of dinosaurs hatching – from counting, to fitting in, to naming dinosaurs, to friendship. Greg is the last to hatch, but is shown to be equally loved and appreciated by the end of the book. Biddulph’s bright colours and stylish illustrations will delight a whole truckload of wannabe palaeontologists. You can buy it here.

nimesh
Nimesh the Adventurer by Ranjit Singh and Mehrdokht Amini
Taking a more complicated route with illustration is this dynamic and interesting new picture book about imagination. Nimesh is an Indian boy in London who uses his imagination to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, from crossing the road to walking through the park on his way home from school. His school corridor is fairly nondescript: a range of notices upon the wall, a few cupboards and chairs, and a wall display of a hammerhead shark as part of shark week. But the following page leads the reader into Nimesh’s imagination, as he sees the corridor as an underwater labyrinth, a school door sprouting from the sea bed, sharks, plants and fish layered upon the school floor with the staircase and fire exit in the distance. The illustrations are collage – a remarkable letting loose of the illustrator to use their imagination as they envisage what Nimesh sees in his vivid mind. The entire book is related in dialogue too – as if the voice of reason is in conversation with the voice of imagination. Children will delight in finding the clue in each ‘ordinary’ picture of the ‘extraordinary’ to come. London becomes magical in this richly layered, diverse and fascinating tale. Extraordinarily different. You can buy it here.

little mole
Little Mole is a Whirlwind by Anna Llenas
Another story revealed in collage illustrations is this interestingly busy book about a little mole with ADHD. Mole can’t stop – the book is full of distraction and interaction as Mole moves through his school day at pace, fidgeting, forgetting, and playing the fool. Unfortunately, his peers find him irritating rather than funny, and his mole parents try to find a way of helping their whirlwind son. Serena the bunny gives Mole the space to experiment and explore, to talk and to listen, and finally Mole and his classmates accept who he is. This may be an unsubtle way of dealing with an issue – Mole at one point is illustrated with luggage labels ‘labelling’ him, but the overall premise is dealt with wonderfully in the busy collage style – pencil and cardboard drawings cut out and layered on top of each other. It creates a busy landscape and shows Mole’s world well. Frenzied but enjoyable. You can buy it here.

forever or a day
Forever or a Day by Sarah Jacoby
In complete contrast, this magically calm picture book for older readers tries to explore the concept of time. Taking subtlety to an extreme, the book reads as a poetic meditation, alluding to the subject matter rather than addressing it directly. Both picture and text combine to explore the elasticity of time – the calm pictures of seaside days contrast with the rushing for a train. There is musing on ageing and how time stretches back and seems far away, as well as added humour in the time spent waiting for a bus. There is the mindfulness of being in the present and appreciating the time now. With a mixture of striking landscapes from afar and up close domestic scenes, this is a thoughtful and somewhat wistful look at how we live and what we lose as we move through life. Clever parallel images appear throughout the book, letting the reader make connections between things and people, between time when young, and time when old. A sandcastle washes away to nothing, a train recedes into the distance, days turn to night. This is a complex, powerful book about one day, and how in memory a day may last forever. You can buy it here.

red bottomed robber
The Case of the Red-Bottomed Robber by Richard Byrne
Master of the playful picture book, Byrne returns with this old-school tale about chalk who love to draw but get upset when their drawings are erased while they are out at play. In true mystery style, they investigate the ‘theft’ of their drawings, weighing up the evidence, which is chalk dust, and rounding up suspicious characters, including the scissors, glue and ruler. When they finally catch the robber red-handed, or rather ‘bottomed’, he feels unjustly accused – after all rubbing out is his raison d’etre. A funny tale, well told on black backgrounds representative of the chalkboard, children will delight in the ‘bottom’ tale, as well as the use of chalk with expressive personalities. Not too far removed from The Day the Crayons Quit, this picture book is shorter, and perfect for exploring a first mystery case, or just enjoying the colourful mess chalks can make. You can buy it here.

glassmakers daughter
The Glassmaker’s Daughter by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray
Far more long-lasting than chalk is coloured glass, in this exquisitely beautiful fairy tale of Daniela, the daughter of a 16th century Venetian glassmaker. Daniela is miserable, and her father offers a glass palace to the first person to make her smile. In true fairy tale trope, many try, including jugglers, mask makers and trumpet players, but only the last glassmaker manages, by making Daniela a mirror in which she can laugh at the sad miserable face she shows to the world. Although it feels like a classic princess tale, there is no ‘happy marriage’ at the end, and indeed those of both genders who try to make her smile are not motivated by thoughts of a wedding. This is about finding happiness within oneself rather than with another person – and how laughter is catching. But more than this, the picture book gives historical detail about glassmaking in Venice, and shows originality and immense detail in the exquisite illustrations – and a sparkle of glass when it shatters in the middle. An intriguing, historical, luxurious picture book that explores European culture. You can buy it here.

out out away from here
Out, Out, Away From Here by Rachel Woodworth and Sang Miao
A completely different illustrative style, but also in a book lavishly produced, is Woodworth’s tale of exploring emotion and escape. The red-haired narrator of this book acknowledges in very few words that sometimes she feels happy, but sometimes mad and sad, and sometimes all at once. When things are particularly overwhelming, she seeks escape in her imagination, a wild place populated by nature, with faces in the shapes, and strange creatures, with domestic objects inserted in wild landscapes, where the domestic merges with the wild. But at the end, she always comes back to her fully domestic family scene. Miao has had fun with the scant text, letting her own imagination create crazy landscapes within the mind. The fusing of the familiar with the strange and the dreamlike colours are particularly effective – from orange skies to flying fish, vivid blue seas and unidentifiable shapes in greys and greens. The domesticity is well executed too, from the yellow mac on rainy days to the zoomed in picture of the girl with her hands in her hair as she listens to the baby scream. This is another well thought out book of emotion and intensity, with just the right balance of darkness and depth to create a wonderful narrative to promote discussion of our emotions and how we respond to them. Excellent. 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.

The Mystery of the Colour Thief Cover Reveal

colour thief

I am thrilled to showcase this gorgeous animated gif of the cover for The Mystery of the Colour Thief by Ewa Jozefkowicz, cover design by Sophie Gilmore, published by Zephyr on 3rd May.

The Mystery of the Colour Thief is a captivating and uplifting novel about twelve-year-old Izzy, trying to cope with her mother being in a coma after a car accident, her father’s resulting disintegration, and her best friend dumping her. Meanwhile, she has nightmares about a shadowy man stealing colours from her world; nightmares that seem to seep into her daytime consciousness as she watches the colours fade from the mural on her wall.

But things start looking up when she meets her new neighbour, Toby, and together they embark on a plan to save a small cygnet on a nearby river, and find that saving a swan may end up saving Izzy too.

This extremely readable novel lays bare the emotions of friendship and family, as well as exploring the impact of nature on our urban lives, and the ways in which we can find hope and confidence in ourselves. Toby is wheelchair-bound after an accident of his own, but together with Izzy, the two new friends find that positivity and confidence help them through adversity. With authentic characterisation, nuanced emotional intelligence, and gentle unravelling of the mystery, Jozefkowicz has written an impactful and memorable story. Here, she explains how she was inspired by colour.

the colour thief“Let go!’ said the colour thief and he loomed large, long fingers ready to snatch the last of my colour. The world flickered like a faulty lightbulb and then everything went dark.”

The quote above comes from Izzy’s recurring nightmare in which a mysterious figure calls out to her from a cloud of smoke, each time issuing a warning about something terrible that’s about to happen. When she wakes up in the morning, she finds that another colour has disappeared from the mural on her bedroom wall and she begins to panic, as she has no idea about how to bring it back.

I’ve always been fascinated by colour and particularly its link to human emotion. We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘black dog,’ which is an image associated with sadness and the idea of ‘seeing red’ when you’re angry or turning ‘green with envy’. But until relatively recently, I hadn’t heard anybody talk about things becoming ‘colourless’ when they feel down.

The idea for Izzy’s story actually came from a young girl in a school where I was a governor, who was going through an incredibly tough time at home and when asked by a teacher about what impact it was having on her, she said that it felt as though all the colours had disappeared from her world. It was a touching image – when I heard it, I could imagine what it must be like to look at the world as if through the screen of an old-fashioned film, where everything is in shades of grey.

Ewa Jozefkowicz

Ewa Jozefkowicz. Photo credit: Ruta Zukaite

Before the thief entered her life, Izzy’s world was filled with colour. Her mum was an artist, and she was used to helping her mix her paints to create the most amazing hues. She appreciated everything from the deep azure blue of the summer sky above her head as she daydreamed looking up at the clouds, to the particular chocolate brown of her dog Milo’s coat. But then the car accident happened which left her mum in hospital, and all of the colours that they used to enjoy together suddenly began to fade away.

The Mystery of The Colour Thief is a tale of a broken friendship, of illness and of sadness, but there is also much light in it. Izzy loses an old friend who no longer understands her, but she also gains a new one in her neighbour Toby, and she discovers a nest of swans with a tiny cygnet, Spike, who is even more lost than her. Both help her on her quest, so she is no longer alone.

I wanted to convey two important messages within the story – the first is that if you’re going through something similar to Izzy, if you find that your world is a little greyer, the colours a bit toned down, you most definitely are not alone. Sometimes a ‘colour thief’ might descend on you when you least expect it, through no fault of your own. The second, and most important one, is that there are always kind people around you who can help you to repaint your world – you just need to seek them out.

With thanks to Ewa Jozefkowicz and Zephyr, an imprint of Head of Zeus publishers. You can pre-order your copy of The Mystery of the Colour Thief here.

YA Shot: An Interview with Sita Brahmachari

ya shotYA Shot 2018 (an author-run books festival) is human rights themed this year, which makes it a perfect opportunity to interview Sita Brahmachari. Sita’s novel, Tender Earth, has been nominated as one of the UK Honour Books by IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People).

The characters in Tender Earth are diverse in both their backgrounds and their outlooks, and Amnesty International has endorsed the book as illuminating the importance of equality, friendship and solidarity. But it’s not just Tender Earth that eschews these qualities. Sita’s books cover a range of topics, from refugees in Worry Angels and Artichoke Hearts to dealing with divorce in Red Leaves, to the rights of a lollipop man, music, and dealing with loss in her latest for Barrington Stoke, Zebra Crossing Soul Song.

But although they cover so many issues, each book always includes a diverse range of characters. Sita has been the online Writer in Residence for Book Trust, discussing finding a voice and being engaged in current affairs, and Writer in Residence at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, and is an Amnesty Ambassador championing Universal Human Rights. So I asked her the following:

How much of an impact can storytelling for children have on changing the world/on influencing human rights?

Tender EarthI read I Know Why The Caged Bird’s Sings by Maya Angelou when I was twelve years old. I forgot that I was reading. I had stepped into the life of another human being.  I was walking with the young Maya through all her struggles in a time and a country that I had never visited. Reading this book opened a portal in my mind and heart. My reading journey really started there and it has led me to explore so many territories and realities that I would never get to visit in one life time. I love that (if libraries and specialist librarians are properly supported) all books can find their way into the hands of all children. Access to books is perhaps the greatest indicator of equality. In Tender Earth Laila is partly inspired to become an activist by reading I am Malala. This is close to my own experience and I hope young readers might be inspired to empathise with many people through my stories and that their empathy might lead them to act, as Laila does to show her support for what she believes in.

Your books are often about identity, whether it be our cultural identity, heritage, nationality. How important is it for children to know their family background?

I’m interested in all kinds of different identities. There is the identity that we grow up with which we may be comfortable with or not. I’m also interested in the identities we choose.

zebra crossing soul song

I think of it this way. When I was a young child my parents made choices on my behalf – nothing unusual there – But as we grow we gather our own tastes and interests, as well as strong feelings about the identities and  beliefs we should be free to choose. In Jasmine Skies Mira is interested in tracing her family history. It gives her a sense of belonging to a wide diaspora family. However, In Red Leaves Aisha, a young girl who is a Somali refugee, is deeply connected to the family she has had to leave behind, but she must forge a new identity in a new land. We all have several identities depending on context. I think I’m really interested in how identities inform character. In my latest story for Barrington Stoke Zebra Crossing Soul Song Lenny is shocked that Otis his friend would stare at his dads as they stand kissing on the doorstep.

Many children like Aisha or Lenny are adopted or fostered and their early stories may be very unknown or unlooked for…what I’m interested in is depicting communities that are open to allowing us to explore all of who we are and can become, including who we love, how we love, what we believe, our cultures, where we come from, where we travel to.

For me, exploration of identities is a rich seam for storytelling… I would say most human beings do seek places where they feel a strong sense of belonging whether that be in stories or life.

I’ve noticed lots of inter-generational relationships in your novels. Is this something drawn from your own experience?

I find the way we structure and segregate a society through age to be limiting.

I often find that young people in mixed age groups are more open to widen their horizons and listen to each other. In Tender Earth Dara, who was a Kindertransport refugee, has much to share with Laila about her first-hand experience of being a refugee. I am fascinated in the relationship between oral history and storytelling. Whenever I meet young people I encourage them to ask members of their family about their histories. My first novel Artichoke Hearts explores the idea of what we inherit from people who come before us. In Brace Mouth, False Teeth on work experience in a nursing home, Zeni discovers a whole world in the mind of Alice a woman with dementia. I try to paint many different kinds of families in my stories… there is no one size fits all, but in all the kind of families I depict they quite naturally include members of every generation.

Many of your books deal with refugees and the global diaspora.  Do you think we are getting better at welcoming refugees in this country, or worse?

worry angelsWe are at a moment in history where the politics of migration rages through every media discussion. Some of the language used de-humanises. We are also at a moment when our children are growing up with images of children their own ages drowning at sea and making terrible journeys to find safety. Many unaccompanied children have been denied their legal right  (UDHR) to join families who already live in this country. In Tender Earth Dara (who arrived here as a refugee on Kindertransport) cries as she watches the news. But Laila (12 years old) and Pari (the child of Iraqi refugee parents) become best friends. Since Jide in Artichoke Hearts, my stories include refugee children as part of the narrative…Aisha, Janu, Rima, Amir, Pari…they are part of all our stories. How we welcome children in stories matters deeply. Amy May’s and Grace’s welcome of Rima and her family in Worry Angels is the welcome I would like to see in stories as in life. It’s the welcome that I think is just as important for Amy May as it is for Rima in order for all of us to live in a more empathetic society.

I’m glad you mentioned empathy. Can you tell me a little about your involvement in Empathy Lab

I am delighted that Empathy Lab have picked Tender Earth as one of thirty stories that can help young people feel more empathy. I had early discussions with Empathy Lab about the kinds of activities I do in schools and the strongly empathetic responses young people have to my stories.

Writers must fully enter into the worlds of so many different characters. I will often engage in thorough research to get under the skin of situations. The process of having empathy for characters and people who may on the surface feel unapproachable is a valuable one as a storyteller and a reader but also in life in general.

I would go so far as to say that it is perhaps the most important ability we can learn as human beings whatever we choose to do.

For me empathy is active … it creates stories and characters but it also leads me to act differently eg. my discussion about refugee people above led me to work as writer in residence in a refugee centre for several years along with Jane Ray. It also led me to become an Amnesty Ambassador.

I’ll be joining six other writers to work in libraries with inter-generational groups to explore how empathy in stories and life can help us to connect and feel more deeply for each other. In Worry Angels Rima tells her friend Amy May to ‘feel about it.’ Her translator corrects her English to ‘think about it’ but I want my stories to go beyond thinking to make readers ‘feel about it.’

Do you think it is necessary to portray life’s difficulties and sadness in books for children?

kite spiritChildren experience every human emotion just as adults do, and they are often experiencing them intensely for the first time. If we don’t include the full range of human emotion in stories we deny access for children to explore their own emotional worlds.

Stories offer a place for us to explore difficulties as well as mysteries and wonders. Very often they allow us try on different ways of being, paths to avoid as well as those to take.

Just as Nana Josie in Artichoke Hearts involved Mira in all aspects of her planned funeral, I think it’s vital that children and young people are given access to all that impacts on their lives. In Kite Spirit I explore the impact of ‘not speaking’ and ‘ staying silent’ about the pressures faced. I am very happy that this story has been taken up by The Reading Agency as a story that helps young people explore their own mental health, and PHSE resources will be created around the story.

 

Reading your books, it always feels as if they are very much character led. What comes first for you as a writer – the character, the plot or the setting?

Characters always come first for me. They often lead me to their stories in unexpected ways. This is the adventure of writing …characters, like people, won’t be confined and limited by conscious thought, list making and planning….they grow best when you give them space to dream, imagine and expand and then they can take you places in a story and landscape you never plotted out for them. It’s in the space between what you think you might be writing and what you actually write that the magic and mystery of writing lies. Being free to explore in that space allows the imagination to flourish and the possibilities for your stories to open up.

Landscape is also a character in my stories. The Kolkata in Jasmine Skies is perhaps one of the biggest most vital character in that story and its human characters grow out of the landscape. In Kite Spirit I draw heavily on the Lake District landscape of my childhood. Similarly the North London Woods in which Red Leaves is set provided the inspiration for the character of the homeless ‘Elder’… whose skin resembles a gnarled tree trunk in that wood. I find plot from placing my characters in juxtaposition with each other, with landscape and situation and seeing what they say and do! In many ways plot is what comes to me through improvising with my characters.

We have symbols for religion, countries etc. There are also lots of symbols that leap out from your books. How important is it for you to attach a symbol to a story – for example – the artichoke charm in Artichoke Hearts?

artichoke heartsI’m one of those people who likes to collect things! It’s not only Nana Josie in Artichoke Hearts who collects random things like ‘holey stones!’ I have to admit that my bookshelves need cleaning and sorting as much as Uma’s do in Tender Earth. In her keenness to throw out some old objects that have been kept on the shelves because they originally meant something Uma almost throws away the most important symbol in the story. The charm that chimes back to Nana Josie in ‘Artichoke Hearts’ is only saved at the last minute because of Laila’s inquisitive nature. Most children I know like to collect things… shells, pennies, books…

These unifying metaphors often come to me in quite a random way… the artichoke was a vegetable on my table before it was a charm… but it was perfect as a way of drawing together what I was writing about…the complex layers of a life…and what’s at the heart of it.

Often these symbols have a deep personal meaning for me and by planting them in the story they act as a story hearth hidden deep in the centre of the book and giving warmth… it’s these symbols that keep the core of the story alive.

Does it irritate you to be asked about diversity in your books or is it cheering? Do you think we’ll ever get to a point when it’s a given and not an asked question?

We’re not at a point where the children we write for and the characters in the stories are representative of the diverse, global, economically unequal world we live in, so quite simply I see it as part of my job to talk about this and where I can promote change I do. For me it’s not an agenda… all those who love stories want more diversity of stories.

As a child I needed them and didn’t find them, as an adult and as a parent of three young people ranging from early twenties to thirteen years of age, I was shocked to find how little things had changed. Over the past decade the debates around diversity including BAME, LGBTQ and disability representation, and also the need for global stories to be translated into English, have become greater and there is activism and the realisation that outreach is needed in many areas of the children’s publishing world. However, this takes place at a time when there are cuts to library services and in the roles of professional librarians. There is little point writing stories with diverse heart and souls if all young people don’t get access to them.

In my stories, I believe I normalise diversity by populating my books with a diverse cast of characters and stories… this goes far beyond including names from different cultures. It’s about deep engagement with different people…with difference and with similarity…and it’s about a joy in the mystery of travelling a wide, diverse universe of cultures, histories, languages, experiences and beliefs. This is the normal of how we humans live in the world and increasingly so with technological connectivity. It’s the world our children are growing up in but it’s not the norm in books yet. Until it is, everybody’s horizons are limited. Many children will feel their absence in stories and this can have a deep impact in them finding their presence valued in all aspect of their lives.

Can you tell me a little about your route to publication?

Sita Brahmachari

I was late to learn to read. I lived in my imagination for a long time. I was a doodler and a daydreamer like Mira! When I was ready I became a voracious reader and got a reading chair at the age of thirteen – no one else was allowed to sit there! I travelled to new galaxies on that chair!

I studied English at Bristol University. I was in a community theatre play and discovered I loved working with young people on creative projects. My first work was at The Royal Court Young People’s Theatre where I was lucky enough to work on the National Young Writers Festival. Over the next years I wrote plays with and for young people and worked for many different theatre companies.  At the heart of my work I have always felt the importance of young people’s voices being heard. I was writing novels and poetry before I started reading but never showed my work to anyone. In 2005 I finally plucked up courage to send my story Artichoke Hearts to agents. It was miraculous to me that Macmillan Children’s Books published it and it won The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Since then I have been commissioned to write four futher books for Macmillan Children’s Books, four for Barrington Stoke Publishers, short stories in anthologies for Amnesty International and Walker Books and Stripes Publishers (Crisis at Christmas) and a theatre adaptation of Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival. In September I have my first illustrated novella published by Otter Barry Books, illustrated by Jane Ray. I am currently under commission to write two new novels.

With many thanks to Sita Brahmachari. She will be on the ‘Family, faith and identity panel’ at YA Shot on 14th April at 5pm.