diversity

Books in Books for Libraries Week

For #librariesweek, a few books about books. Because we are living in a time of library cuts, librarian redundancies, and struggling independent booksellers, children’s authors are doing more and more to celebrate not only their nostalgia for the old days of libraries, but also a burgeoning belief that they must fight to uphold every child’s right to library access in the here and now.


Madeline Finn and the Library Dog by Lisa Papp

This is a reassuring book for those readers who haven’t quite grasped the fundamentals yet, or who are struggling with their confidence. Madeline does not like to read, especially out loud, for fear of humiliation and ridicule, but she really wants to earn a star at school rather than just a ‘keep trying’ sticker. She does have a great role model in her mother, who takes her to the library, and keeps her supplied with an abundant pile of books. When the librarian suggests that Madeline read out loud to a dog, rather than a human, Madeline begins to see the merit in trying, and before long her reading abilities have caught up with her ambition.

Inspired by real-life programmes of incentivising children to read with ‘Read-to-Dogs’ sessions in order to build readers’ confidence, this is a worthy and also admirable little read.

The book deserves a mention, not only for the quality of the storytelling, but also for the clear, well-spaced text against a cream-tinted background, which provides an ease on the eye for emerging readers. The illustrations are fitting – soft, expressive, and with a winsome collection of scenes from Madeline’s life – from riding her bike, to struggling over her books, to swinging in the garden, and staring out the window, all with an ever-present favourite soft toy. It creates a rounded picture of Madeline, perfect for empathy. The dogs are all cute and fluffy, or sleek and loyal, and delighted my listeners with the several different breeds depicted, and the dogs’ loving, attentive eyes. You can buy it here.


Franklin’s Flying Bookshop by Jen Campbell, illustrated by Kate Harnett

Jen Campbell takes her bookish book one step further, with a dragon protagonist who loves to read aloud. Perhaps he needs a dog, for this dragon can find no one to read to (the people he encounters run away in fear). Then he meets an inquisitive book-loving girl called Luna, who isn’t afraid because she has read about dragons in books, and so they come up with a plan to enable the sharing of books as widely as possible – a flying bookshop on top of a dragon.

If the concept sounds a little strange, it is – but it fits with the quirky whimsy of this book, which uses the bulk of its prose to extort the virtues of reading (expanding knowledge and extending imagination) by creating a higgledy piggedly mix of what the dragon and the girl bump into within the books in their reading sessions, from roller skating and King Arthur to kung fu and pirates, carol singing and anteaters.

This is quite literally drawn out in Katie Harnett’s illustrations of ant-eaters juggling, kungfu bats and mice moving furniture. The illustrations feel dreamy and timeless, with pencil colouring textures and shading and painstaking patterning – particularly the horseshoes on the dragon’s green skin.

The book speaks to unusual friendships, accepting others who may have only kind intentions despite threatening appearances, and the power of books. You can purchase it here.


Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers

This Luna is more than just a girl who loves the library. She has a special reason for loving the library, and it’s because her Dad waits for her there, and together they explore the books. Although not explicitly stated, Luna’s mother and father are separated and so this is the time she spends with her father. In a story within the story, (a physical inset), a not-so-hidden metaphor for Luna’s family situation, the enduring love for a child is explored using trolls and mermaids, despite the splitting of the family unit.

So, of course this is a book about dealing with family breakup, and yet it will appeal to all, for its illustrations are warm, affectionate, colourful and brimming with life and imagination. Lumbers depicts the library books coming to life – with vines sprouting from one book, bugs from another, and magic tricks busting from a magic book.

More than this though, is the attention to detail in the depiction of the library: the clever welcoming posters in the foyer, the comfortable chairs, the abundance of books, and the set up, which shows a spacious, well-lit modern library with a self-checkout. Lumbers and Coelho are at pains to depict not a fanciful idealisation of libraries and family life, but a confrontation of where we are and how we can still find happiness and hope within it. (Although I wish my local library was as well-lit and stocked).

Lastly, and by no means least, are the people depicted within the book. Lumbers and Coelho tick all boxes here, both the diverse mix of people using the library, but also in the comfort and ease of the body language – the children flopped over chairs, or tucked up tight, others with legs akimbo, hair wild and smiley faces. But the best – the armchair hug with Dad. You can almost feel it. You can buy it here.

 

 

 

Shapes, Colours, Music and Mystery

One of the wonders of reading is being able to sew threads through the most unlikely of book pairings, and knit them together. Intertextuality is the relationship between texts: common links and themes, references and allusions, and working out how these make the books stand together or apart.


The Cranky Caterpillar is a new picture book from artist Richard Graham and ostensibly shows a young child, Ezra, trying to cheer up a cranky caterpillar who is stuck inside a piano. Graham utilises a great deal of humour and pathos in his tale, as Ezra tries everything from introducing fresh air to concocting beautiful meals, and buying a new hat. Graham’s artistry comes to the fore here in his depiction of a little girl employing all the schemes to cheer up the caterpillar that she would enjoy herself, and this shows on her sympathetically expressive face. But there are also clues as to where the depths of the story lie in her design – her legs, for example, are shaped like musical notes, which becomes more obvious as the book continues, and there is a growing abundance of tranquility in her face when she hears music.

Because although on one level the book is about learning to articulate emotion, showing kindness to another who is unhappy, and the importance of friendship, on another level the book introduces the world of synaesthesia – how one sensory stimulation leads to automatic secondary stimulation, such as the colour of music, or the music of colour. Here, Graham takes inspiration from Kandinsky, who believed that he could hear music when he saw colours – and the illustrations halfway through the book are a paean to Kandinsky’s abstract phase. Kandinsky, who believed that colour itself is an art form, that it isn’t always necessary to show the recognisable shape of something. The Cranky Caterpillar does have a recognisable story shape of course, with a happy ending, as with most caterpillars in storybooks – but there’s a wondrous depth and craft to this picture book too – making it work on many levels. Graham’s use of colours in geometric shapes sings through the pages of the book, at the point when Ezra gathers a band to play joyful music to the caterpillar, in a moving anticipation of his eventual flight of happiness.

In the same way in which graphic shapes work as a key component to uncovering the mystery in Robin Steven’s The Guggenheim Mystery. This new middle grade novel has, at its heart, the mystery of the theft of the Kandinsky painting, ‘In the Black Square’.

The Guggenheim Mystery tells the story of Ted, a boy with a form of autism, who is visiting his aunt and cousin in New York, when a painting mysteriously disappears from the Guggenheim art gallery, of which his aunt is the curator. When the spotlight falls firmly on her as culprit, Ted and his cousins set off on an adventure to clear her name, and by doing so learn about the value of art. (Wonderfully, the author has borrowed from an episode in her own mother’s past for this – her mother worked at the Ashmolean in Oxford when a Cezanne painting was stolen.)

The book’s sense of place is vital, as Ted and his cousins move through the subway, Times Square, Brooklyn and Central Park to follow up leads to their detective work. Having been to NY many times, and most recently last month, I can attest to the accuracy and authenticity of the settings – as well as confirm that the painting is firmly in place in the museum (and there’s a wonderful children’s audio commentary which is well worth the visit!). But reading the book, whether you have been to New York or not, certainly calls to mind the excitement and uniqueness of this incredible city.

What’s more, one gets the feeling that Steven’s protagonist, Ted, sees the world more like Kandinsky than the rest of us:

“I noticed that the tilt of the Earth and the position of the sun meant that its light was passing through more air to reach ground level in New York. Each air molecule it bumped against made it scatter more and more, so that by the time it reached our eyes it was red and yellow instead of blue.”

Of course, his autism makes his senses more acute – accentuating sounds, colours, shapes. In fact, it’s Ted’s difference in seeing things that enables him to see things that others miss, and thereby solve the mystery. He wants to find patterns and logic in what he sees, which contrasts beautifully with his absorption of the chaos and noise of New York. But it also brings into play Kandinsky and the Guggenheim itself. He transforms the chaos into a theory and finally solves the jigsaw, with much help from the shapes and patterns of the Guggenheim itself – the whorls of the ramps, the triangles of the stairs, the curvature of the exterior.

This too links back to the Kandinsky painting, which shows the order and clean shapes of the weather, as well as depicting an expressiveness of the abstract.

The power of the book is in the very fact that Stevens distils this all into logical simplicity for Ted and for the reader – each chapter fastidiously traipses through the facts of the case, eliminating the impossibles. It’s easy to follow, but intriguing to read – I didn’t guess the culprit. It also follows on from Ted and his cousins’ appearance in The London Eye Mystery, and, cleverly maintains their distinctive personalities and relationships (despite having been written by a different author, the late Siobhan Dowd).

Both The Cranky Caterpillar and The Guggenheim Mystery are stellar examples of artistic endeavours coming to fruition. Richard Graham is an upcycling artist, and took his inspiration from not only Kandinsky, but from the hammers inside a cast-off piano. Look carefully at the detail in the illustrations and you’ll see how the caterpillar is crafted, as well as the most carefully crafted illustrations – taking inspiration from great artists, but also from the visuality of music. Stevens was asked to write the mystery as a sequel to late author Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, having been left with just the title to go on. With both books there is a pattern to their work, a pattern through shapes and colours and imagination. Perfect books for exploring children’s own creative endeavours.

You can buy The Cranky Caterpillar by Richard Graham here and The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens and Siobhan Dowd here.

 

The Ethan I was Before by Ali Standish and Truth or Dare by Non Pratt

It’s funny how books bucket together. In the past two months I’ve read three books with ‘dares’ as their theme – I Dare You by Reece Wykes, a picture book for the young at heart with a wry sense of humour, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt, a most excellent YA novel with some hard truths at heart, and The Ethan I was Before, a middle grade novel with a dare at its core.

In The Ethan I Was Before, twelve-year-old Ethan is moved with his family to live with his grandfather in Georgia, a far cry from the Boston he is used to. Allegedly the move is to help his grandfather, although it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather is an independent soul, and the move is to remove Ethan from an uncomfortable incident in his past.

Ethan’s relationship with his angry older brother, his new relationship with Coralee (an enigmatic girl he meets at school), and the exploration of his new town make up the bulk of the novel, but all the time the reader is aware of a past secret that Ethan is hiding.

Standish’s prose pulls in the reader from the beginning. There are some key phrases that show flashes of great writing, her similies are excellent and create an authentic sense of place: she describes the air at one point with “humidity like a wet fleece blanket”. Her characterisations too are neat and winning, from her portrayal of forthright and keenly intelligent Mack, who runs the local store, to Ethan’s Mum, who tends to burn food because she forgets having put it in the oven in an endearingly absentminded preoccupation. Standish also has a handle on the unsophisticated twelve-year-old way of trying to describe in words the complex emotions of guilt and anxiety. She also focuses on what Ethan’s therapist has told him to do, extrapolating the way Ethan is feeling without laying it too bare for the readership:

“It’s almost funny, that everything that would make a normal person happy is what makes me feel the most sad.”

And yet, it’s the not laying it bare that holds this book back from being as good as it should be. The ‘secret’ in the past is too often alluded to by Ethan’s family, and himself, and yet doesn’t feel real. Because they are all holding back so much, the constant nudges that there is something else going on, or something big that happened in the past, feel too contrived. Although in real life, we all do keep back parts of ourselves, even in some cases from ourselves, one feels that Ethan’s family would talk more frankly – particularly his brother – or that Ethan, who narrates the story in first person, would be slightly more honest with himself and with the readership. It doesn’t sit well that he hides the past from himself, because it doesn’t fit with his character.

On the whole this was a really enjoyable book; I just felt that it could have been bigger. With slightly more depth and more subtlety, the past could have been explored in more detail and led to a weightier novel. So the denouement, when it comes, feels half-hearted, and I wanted the ‘dare’ to be more dramatic. But for glimpses of what Standish can do, and with the possibility that there is better to come, this is an intriguing debut. It will fit the bill nicely for a summertime coming-of-age novel, and gives a great sense of small town America. You can buy it here.

For meatiness I’d go to the YA coming-of-age title, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt. Although the production at first seems gimmicky, in that the first part is narrated by main character Claire Casey, leaving the story on a cliffhanger, with the second part physically flipped over so that the reader has to turn the book upside down and start from the other end to read the other main character, Sef’s narration continuing the plot, the story itself is far from contrived. In fact, it becomes swiftly apparent reading part two that this consecutive narration adds depth and substance.

Kam Malik suffers a life-changing injury after a stupid stunt goes wrong. Claire, shy and unobtrusive, volunteers at his rehabilitation clinic. When she gets to know Kam’s brother, Sef, together they come up with a scheme to raise much-needed funds to maintain his rehabilitation. It’s a Truth or Dare YouTube campaign, but before long their truths collide and their dares take things too far.

Non Pratt has a magnificent turn of phrase that enables description without the reader feeling they’re reading any. The plot is deft and agile – the book skips along punctuated with accurate and authentic dialogue, and a look into the innermost thoughts of her narrators, which is, at times, devastating.

What shines through is the depth of characterisation, as at first the reader, through Claire’s eyes, really likes Sef Malik, but what soon becomes apparent through his point of view in part two, is that no one shows their true self to everyone, and that people aren’t kind or unkind throughout. Everyone has their motivations, demons, and selfishness. Pratt wheels through a host of issues including prejudice, fame, guilt, and love without once making this an issue novel. It’s a gripping read, as tumultuous as Claire’s relationship with Sef, and deeply satisfying. You can buy it here.

 

Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth

Another new novel for children (aged approx nine years and over) that seeks to explore an immensely difficult political reality, but without making it too complicated for children to understand or too upsetting to read. Instead, it uses adventure and ongoing hope in the face of extreme adversity.

Tash lives in Tibet, where her father works for the resistance in an attempt to keep his supressed religion alive, and to get word out to the wider world about the oppression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese occupation. When a man sets fire to himself in the village as an act of protest, the Chinese soldiers step up their curfews and subjugation. Tash’s parents are taken away, so she sets off across the Himalayas to India in search of help from the exiled Dalai Lama. The majority of the book tells the account of her trek across the mountains with her friend Sam, and two yaks.

What makes the book work is that this is a depiction of an ordinary child in extraordinary circumstances. At the beginning of the novel she is shown attending school, and yet she can’t run home through the fields as she’d like because the patrolling soldiers don’t allow it. The emotions and thoughts are those of a child, with hurts, guilts and worries explored, but all the time there are small nuggets that lead the reader to believe that being small doesn’t mean that you can’t make a difference.

The prose is simple too. Short sharp sentences in short sharp chapters, with distinct character development as Tash moves across the mountains. This gives the character a clear sense of purpose, but also makes the book a swift quick read, as if the reader too is running from danger. It also lowers the age range accessibility – meaning that a young confident reader can tackle the book because the vocabulary and sentence structures are kept easy and tight. However, in its brevity, the book glosses over some of the implausibility of the journey, and the action feels a little lacking in overall cohesion – almost as if the journey dominates the overall purpose – but for children this could be read less as a flaw and more as simply a sign of a pacey read.

As with many novels for children, there is a very positive, yet dependent relationship between child and animal, (in place of family), and so the yaks become very much characters on whom the children are reliant, and so for whom the readers feel passion. There is also a huge emphasis on friendship, loyalty and courage.

And lastly, the production of the book is simply stunning. With a cover that sings of sunrise and adventure, and inside pages that hold intricate print designs and hidden yaks, this is a beautiful book to own. An eye-opening and somewhat different read. Buy yours here.

Family Love

Under the Love Umbrella by Davina Bell, illustrated by Allison Colpoys
I’m not one for sentimental stuff, as those who know me will verify. And I’m not won over by simplistic declarations of love – usually in my fiction I like a little darkness too. But this is a captivating picture book, which supplies the darkness in the illustrations – by contrasting it with the effervescent light, as seen on the cover.

In short, the book is about being loved. When you’re lost in the world, the narrator speaks as if they’re the person who will be there – holding your hand, the other end of the phone, supplying your forgotten PE Kit. But that’s not what makes this book special. Firstly, although there are different characters shown within, and the idea is abstract rather than specific – the children are given names in an illustration at the start of the book – so we’re familiar with them before any story begins.

Then the use of colour – the vivid neons of the illustrations, often set against extremely pale and muted or dark and menacing backgrounds – so that the lightness of love and the kindness in the world is shown in bright brilliant colour. And the ideas within are tangible, real. The bad things in life are clearly delineated: a dog barking too loudly, an argument with a friend, feeling left out, or simply scared of the dark, against the good comforting things: a mother tucking in a child at bedtime, flying a kite, being comforted with a story, being together as a family.

The characters are a diverse mix – all cultures, all ages. Even the text comforts – the gentle rhythm, like swaying in a breeze, and the gentle rhyming – the expected falling into place. For nights when you need a hug – this is it – in a book. You can buy it here.

We Are Family by Patricia Hegarty, illustrated by Ryan Wheatcroft
Another exploration of the love that can be found in families. This book aims to show – through a series of mini illustrations on each page – the different families that exist and the comfort they can give. Again, a mix of peoples, ages and races can be found in the illustrations here – two Dads, large families, single mothers, ethnically diverse.

There’s a theme here though – each family is shown on each page in a small vignette – with a different activity, spelled out in the text. So in the first spread, the families are seen in different weathers – from playing in a paddling pool to braving the storm. The next page is the families eating – be it in front of the television, or flipping a pancake together, or sitting round a dining table.

Other pages lay out modes of travel, feeling ill, leisure pursuits, and – the page in which things go wrong: One family suffers a flood, another a lost dog, another a broken arm. It’s both slightly humorous and rather compelling. Of course the message is that together we are stronger – in our family units we can overcome.

If you can get over the rather saccharine text, this is a touching little book, and the many many illustrations will entertain for a long time, and provide first steps in visual literacy – spotting narrative and spotting differences between what each family does. You can purchase it here.

From Ant to Eagle by Alex Lyttle

Warning, this review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where People Live

Two very different books that show us the different extremes of who we are and how we live

How Cities Work by James Gulliver Hancock and Jen Feroze

This glorious non-fiction book will be a winner in any primary school classroom studying homes, geography or urban spread, as well as a firm favourite in households stimulating their children’s natural curiosity about the world in which we live.

It explores cities with cartoon illustrations, which probe how cities are born (expanding villages and towns) to the infrastructure behind walls and underneath feet. Encompassing transportation links and how they weave through cities, to ever-expanding housing, communities, working life and the essential infrastructure of sewerage, as well as highlighting the importance of green spaces, emergency services and a look at the possibilities of cities in the future.

Ingeniously designed with many cutaways so that the reader can peek inside windows, behind walls and under pavements, as well as ever expanding pages as the city grows – fold outs to show skyscrapers and the differences between nighttime and daytime on the street, there is clear thought to the paper and cardboard structure of the book, with an added emphasis on civic life, culture and recreation.

This isn’t a book that sets out to show real-life dimensions or true representations, but it gives a canny insight and hardcore information about urbanisation through cartoon-style illustrations. The reader can peek at figures as one would a real person through their lit window on a dark night. There are also quirky titbits of information, such as which was the first skyscraper, and how many weddings are conducted each year in New York City Hall. The text often points out something random for the reader to count or find too (cowboy hats for example).

The use of colour is clever too, lots of green when the city is viewed from the outskirts, and a shimmery green/grey of skyscraper windows up close. But the city never gets too grey – as in real life, humans add splashes of colour with their red fire engines, their green parks, the flashes of red and green on recreation grounds and deliveries of fruit to shops. Watch out for the urban wildlife too.

The narrative is engaging, speaking to the reader in second person, as well as inviting them to open flaps and discover what’s inside. An excellent guide to city infrastructure for 7+ years. You can buy it here.

A Village is a Busy Place by Rohima Chitrakar and V Geetha

And now for something completely different.

In the traditional Bengal Patua style of scroll painting, this book opens out, scroll like, to an intricate detailed and stylistically authentic depiction of the indigenous Santhal people and the everyday world of their native village.

Fold by fold, the colourful world is revealed. But cleverly, before the reader opens the fold, there is a small amount of easy-to-read text that points out illustrations that will be revealed in the next fold, things to look out for, and questions about what they’re seeing. For example, the first fold shows a wedding feast complete with a grand chair for the bride and musical instruments. Animals intermingle with the people, and there are some incidentals that will be fairly different for the Western reader: special knives, the dress, and storage vessels. There are traditional occupations here too, a woodcutter, farmers, hunters. A water pump shows how the villagers obtain their water.

Once read through, the book opens to its fullest extent, showing all the pages as one complete picture in an illustration like that portrayed on the cover. Here, sadly, the paper production lets it down slightly, and there’s clear glue residue from the fold, but other than that, this is a vibrant, detailed and mesmerising picture showing a way of life scarcely seen any more, as well as an artist’s picture worthy of any wall.

By looking in detail, the reader can create the narrative of village life themselves, seeing the part that each person plays, and what each day entails.

This is an enthralling and colourful way to learn about aspects of Indian village life, as well as being a good exploration of a traditional style of art – showing ways of seeing with an unusual design.

For readers of all ages, particularly age 6 years and above. You can buy the village here.

 

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

It was with some trepidation that I started reading this novel, advertised for young teens, but I think appropriate for mature nine year olds, because of Laird’s introduction. The novel begins with a foreword from the author, which gives an explanation of why the war in Syria began and poses a question at the end about how history will judge our treatment of refugees.

Literature is there to pose questions and make us think, as well as imbue empathy. And good literature should teach us things too – but above all there needs to be a good story well told, otherwise readers won’t get to the crux of the book. Elizabeth Laird is an experienced writer, and has written many great, distinguished and prize-winning novels. Is this more than just another ‘issue’ book, a book that has written a story around an issue, rather than starting with a story and drawing an issue out of it? This isn’t Laird’s best book in my opinion, and yet this is way more than an issue book, and it certainly makes the reader think, and so it deserves this week’s book of the week spot.

Twelve-year-old Omar narrates the story – in past tense. He lives in Bosra, isn’t keen on school, but makes money selling postcards at a tourist site. His father also works in tourism – but for the government. When war breaks out, the family’s troubles grow – not least because Omar’s father has to move for work, but also because his older sister is being married off (having reached the marriageable age of sixteen). Omar’s older brother Musa suffers from cerebral palsy and starts getting in with a group who are anti-government. It’s a complicated situation and Laird does her best to navigate through the family’s journey. As the bombs fall on the city, they move again, and again, until eventually they have to flee Syria completely and cross the border to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Laird has done her research – she has spent time in the refugee camps and has prior knowledge of living in the Middle East as well as a presenting us with a hefty acknowledgements section that clearly names all the various experts and refugee families who have helped to share their experiences with her.

It’s not a short novel, coming in at over 360 pages in the proof copy, and is fast-paced and hugely enjoyable. Yet, even at this length, it still feels like a skeletal piece. The descriptions of places are somewhat lacking – particularly the urban settings, although there are glimpses of what was once there – the tourist areas boomed, and the ordinary society was buzzy and lively – and yet there wasn’t quite enough description to give that emotional evocation of what has been lost.

The secondary characters too – Omar’s sister is desperate to stay a scholar and not get married, Omar’s brother struggles with his illness that sets him apart as different (just as any boy would anywhere in the world), but neither are portrayed in enough depth to give complexity to their issues. However, other relationships do spring from the page – Omar’s mother’s relationship with her grandmother, and likewise her relationship with her sister – these feel alive and real – with just a light touch. Omar – our protagonist – is likeable despite having many flaws; he comes across as real – that awkward age of boyhood into adulthood that’s particularly difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone in wartime, and when he’s dealing with an absent father and a physically weaker older brother.

Written from a very British perspective, the language used will be vastly familiar to the Western reader – words such as ‘bungling’ and phrases such as ‘ratting on someone’ and ‘I beg your pardon’. Perhaps this is on purpose, to make the readership feel familiar with the family portrayed – to show the readership here that this is something that could happen to anyone. And yet, as with the lack of physical description of Syria, it takes away some of the authenticity of the book.

But overall this book ticks the boxes for me because it’s gripping and fast (the book sprints through the plot) and portrays the Syrian war and the refugee crisis so that an average ten year old in this country could gain some insight and experience some empathy.

The book extols the virtues of bravery and hopefulness. Of learning to look out for your family and put someone else first. And it makes you think – how will we welcome a family such as Omar’s in our country? Who are these people? Are they just like you and me?

You can buy it here. Fifty pence per copy of the hardback book sold will be donated to an international aid agency supporting the Syrian refugee crisis.

Women and Science and Achievement

There’s an enduring reality that women are underrepresented in fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) globally. For example, just 28 per cent of science researchers are women.

According to the Wise Campaign, the number of girls doing STEM subjects at GCSE is approaching an equal number to boys, but drops off at A Level, although those that do, tend to achieve higher grades, and the numbers are rising. In the professions though, there is still work to do – only one in ten STEM managers were female in 2014, and women only make up approx. 13 per cent of STEM occupations in the UK.

There’s positive news though – women are choosing to go into STEM at a higher rate than men. It’s something we can work on from the beginning of primary education though – with titles such as these:

ada scientist

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
Rosie Revere Engineer has been a staple in the primary school library since publication in 2013, with charming Rosie, a quiet girl who turns into a brilliant inventor, and dreams of engineering. Ada Twist, Scientist capitalises on Rosie’s success, (we girls working together!) but Ada is a winning tale in its own right. The character ‘Ada Marie Twist’ is named after Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, explains Andrea Beaty, and demonstrates the same glee as Rosie in asking the question ‘why’, and setting out to discover the answer.

As in Rosie Revere Engineer, the text has a bouncing upbeat rhythm and rhyming couplets, making it both easy to read aloud and easy to absorb. After observing life for three years, Ada’s questions begin, and then grow and grow:

“She started with Why? and then What? How? And When?
By bedtime she came back to Why? once again.”

The questions are so many that they fly off into the illustrations, which become more and more complex and intricate, mirroring Ada’s mind – which is clearly filled with the clutter of questions…and yet there is a preciseness in the detail – from the machines that Ada gathers to investigate, to the equipment that she uses for her experiments.

Ada fixes on solving the problem of a particular smell, and her curiosity leads her parents to despair. By the end though, they too, and her classmates, are helping her investigations.

Of course, the less than subtle message, for both Ada’s parents and the reader, is that curiosity fuels science, and that anyone can be a scientist if they are curious about the world around them – from the smallest smell to the biggest Why. Questions inevitably lead to questions.

There are some lovely touches. Andrea Beaty plays with the modern parenting ‘punishment’ of the Thinking Chair – exploring the idea that thinking is a great thing to sit and do. Roberts’ illustrations also add zing to the book – from the incredible detail of each drawing to the parents’ use of books for investigations, the diversity of Ada and her family and also of her classmates, Ada’s mother’s incredible sense of fashion style, and the ageing of Ada both in the illustrative depiction of her, but also in her questions. It’s fun, informative, inspirational and a beautiful companion to Rosie. Age six years and over. You can buy it here.

great women

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst
Too often biographies tend to serve older children. This marvellous piece of non-fiction is astoundingly brilliant for many reasons. It is accessible, bright, colourful, informative and quirky – making it interesting fodder for all readers. Not just focussing on science here, this is a book that explores women who have made a difference through their startling achievements in all fields.

Written and illustrated by Kate Pankhurst – yes, Emmeline’s descendant, who features in the book, Kate also features some lesser known female pioneers, including Marie Chilver, a secret agent during World War Two, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and Channel swimmer Gertrude Ederle, as well as curriculum staples such as Mary Anning, Marie Curie, Mary Seacole and Rosa Parks.

However, this is far from a dry documentation of their achievements. Each woman is attributed a double page spread, in which Pankhurst illuminates not only who they are and what they achieved, but also quirky facts and attitudes towards them at the time. Text is in small bite size paragraphs in designs that suit the person, such as in small smoke and speech bubbles for Marie Curie, in fossil shell shapes for Mary Anning, and in clouds for Amelia Earhart.

There are also bright bold cartoon-like illustrations, again suiting each illustration to the character Pankhurst is describing – loops and swirls for Coco Chanel’s patterns, to cartoon interpretations of Kahlo’s paintings. It’s fun, immensely readable and completely enjoyable.

It’s an eclectic mix, but interesting that the selection is not only global but pulls the women from completely different backgrounds and upbringings, as well as timescales.

A must-have for all school libraries, but an equally inspirational and aspirational book to have at home for all girls and boys! Age six years and over. You can buy it here.

women in science

Women in Science, written and illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky

For slightly older children, this beautifully written and put together book features a whole host of scientists (50), most of whom the readership won’t have heard of, but all of whom are inspirational women through the ages from Hypatia (in approx 350 CE) to Maryam Mirzakhani (born in 1977) who have contributed in some way to the world of science.

As in Kate Pankhurst’s book, they come from all walks of life, all echelons of society and from all over the world. Each profile is a double page spread, with one page given over to a two-tone illustration of the woman, complete with annotations and a decorated background (on black paper). The other page features a considerable chunk of text, but has illustrated borders with extra quirky facts. The text is easy to read – fascinating and concise biographies that explain motivations and emotions as well as the hard facts of the individual woman’s achievement.

The illustrations are striking and distinct – their personalities well-encapsulated from the focussed and rather severe looking Marie Curie to a compassionate and thoughtful Mamie Phipps Clark (psychologist and civil rights activist). None of these women held themselves back – all pushed through barriers to get to where they wanted. There are some incredible stories in here. Rita Levi-Montalcini (neurologist and Italian senator) who was forbidden by the Nazis from practising medicine because of her Jewish faith, so built her own laboratory in her bedroom. Her research led her to win the Nobel Prize in 1986, and she worked until she died aged 103. Patricia Bath, the first African American woman to complete a residency in ophthalmology and obtain a medical patent, who helped restore sight to blind people and invented the Laserphaco Probe. Her mother bought Patricia her first chemistry set.

One of the loveliest features of this book is how many biographies there are – and even some more smaller ones squashed in the back – as if saying – there are loads of women scientists out there if you just look. A glossary for scientific terms, and some research sources complete the book.

The motivation for the book is clear – to inspire a future generation to aspire. The fact that it is also aesthetically pleasing means that it will be a lasting treasure on any bookshelf. For ages 8+. Definitely buy one here.

Classic Literature’s Influence over Modern Novels – a guest post by Emma Carroll

straange star

This week on MinervaReads, two blog posts that take a look at contemporary fiction that mirrors, borrows from, or is inspired by, classic literature. Today, contemporary children’s author, Emma Carroll talks about recent examples of this, following on from the publication this month of her Frankenstein inspired story, Strange Star. To read MinervaReads’ review of Strange Star, click here

Having recently had published a story with its roots in ’Frankenstein’, my view on this subject doesn’t need much explanation. Yes, Strange Star is a nod in the direction of Mary Shelley and her gothic masterpiece- maybe it’s more than a nod (Badges? Banners? I ‘Heart’ Mary t-shirts?). I’m proud to join a long line of writers who’ve been influenced by classics from the past.

Reinventing classics is a popular, tried- and tested- genre in adult fiction. From the subtle ‘echo’ of Victorian sensation novels in books such as Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox, to direct ‘spin-offs’ such as Nelly Dean by Alison Case (Wuthering Heights), Jo Baker’s Longbourn (Pride and Prejudice), Mrs De Winter by Susan Hill (Rebecca) and the classic in its own right Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Jane Eyre). There are far too many to list here: suffice to say I’ve a soft spot for a good re-invention.

With regard to sequels/prequels/spin-offs certain classics seem to attract more attention. Often it’s because they’re very well known: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Moonstone, Pride and Prejudice. Or, rather ambiguous: Rebecca, Wuthering Heights. Or, feature minor characters whose stories are bursting to be told: Lydia Bennett, Bertha Mason, Hindley Earnshaw. I had experience of this myself last year when writing a short educational version of Wuthering Heights for Collins. They requested it be from Heathcliff’s perspective: given his almost psychopathic tendencies in the original, making him age-appropriate was a challenge. I had to give him a motivation. Bronte’s gaps in the story were what triggered my own.

Which brings me on to the influence of classics in children’s literature. Many wonderful, hugely popular writers – Robin Stevens, Katherine Rundell, Katherine Woodfine – pay homage to the likes of Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and Eva Ibbotson in their work. And I can’t go any further without mentioning the spectacular Five Children On the Western Front by Kate Saunders, which is a direct sequel to Five Children and It, and executed with incredible skill.

More recently we’ve had Return to the Secret Garden by Holly Webb, my particular favourite, the up and coming  Lydia- the Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice by Natasha Farrant, and yes, my own Strange Star. I speak for myself here, but for me, writing something so directly linked to a classic was a way of exploring my relationship with that book. Frankenstein featured heavily in my teaching years: writing Strange Star helped me move on from that time in my life. The teacher in me still exists: I hope by reading something accessible, young people will go on to seek out the classics, or at the very least be aware of their cultural significance.

I’d say all of my books owe something to the classics. It’s not deliberate. Over the years I’ve read many, many books and in that time developed tastes, preferences, interests that have shaped who I am as a writer. You are what you read. Cut me open and you’d probably find a black Penguin Classics spine running through me.

With huge thanks to Emma Carroll, one of our most essential and talented contemporary children’s writers. For MinervaReads review of Strange Star, click here. To buy Emma’s latest book Strange Star, please click here.