diversity

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.          

 

We Are Giants by Amber Lee Dodd

we are giants

Amnesty’s poll for International Children’s Book Day revealed that half of parents surveyed think reading a book is the best way to develop empathy. (YouGov 53% of 964 parents, March 2016). But to evoke empathy a character has to be fully-fledged, fully-rounded – believable.

The book doesn’t have to be ‘issue-based’ to achieve this. Amber Lee Dodd’s debut children’s book is about a girl whose mother has dwarfism. So it fits into the ‘issue’ and ‘diversity’ mould. But, actually, the book transcends this compartmentalisation, because the author has written her protagonist in quite an exceptional way.

Nine-year-old Sydney is concerned and upset that she has to move away from her home and her school and friends when her mother loses her furniture shop. They uproot to be nearer Sydney’s grandmother, and Sydney has to make new friends and fit in at her new school. She also has an older sister entering her teens – Jade, who is sparky and fractious, adding conflict and a great dynamic to the family:

“Let’s just say she no longer needs to stuff cotton wool down her bra. I catch Mum looking at her sometimes with a sad look on her face.”

Throughout the book there is the underlying message of learning to accept others, in all guises, reflected in Sydney’s mother’s dwarfism – she is particularly resilient – a favourite moment is her moment of self-control in the face of prejudice with the landlord:

“I knew I shouldn’t have let people like you have this place.” He says to her.

But essentially the book isn’t about dwarfism – partly because Sydney deals with her mum’s difference in such a matter-of-fact way that it doesn’t intrude the narrative. It’s about Sydney – a child coming to terms with change in her life.

And Amber Lee Dodd handles this so well that the reader feels they are right inside Sydney’s head. That’s why the novel flies past at such pace – it’s so easy to read and quite gripping, because it’s like reading an email from a friend about her new struggles and experiences.

Sydney has also suffered the death of her father at a young age, and so some of the book deals with her grief – as she retells stories she remembers that he told her, as well as thinking about what would have made him proud.

There are some particularly great psychological touches in that Sydney wants to stay small – to be like her parents – but also I think a universal childhood desire, which is the wish to remain the ‘baby’ and small, but also that conflict of wanting independence – and this goes to the heart of the novel – the thrust behind it. Sydney, as with most children, wants both – and Dodd manages to convey this so well with the theme of dwarfism behind it:

“I tried to do a shrinking exercise to calm myself down…imagining myself disappearing for a few seconds and coming back smaller, disappearing for a few more seconds and getting even tinier.”

Sydney also talks about her ‘wild thing’ inside – that hard to control emotion of anger, which can jump to the surface with no warning. It’s executed well:

“It wasn’t me speaking any more, it was the Wild Thing. And the Wild Thing was angry.”

Of course, the plot sings along too – there are some dramatic scenes with Sydney’s sister as she too tries to come to terms with their new circumstances, the mother’s frustration with her job, and lastly the grandmother – a wonderful character, who means well but doesn’t always fit to the primary family group!

“The thing I’ve learned about grandmas is this. They can’t resist if you ask them for help.”

There is lots to talk about within the book and lots to like about it too. It doesn’t set out to be too complex, but tells a story by wholeheartedly bringing its characters to life. The story has giant heart – although of course, size doesn’t matter. You can buy it here.

Out of Africa

Recently the journalist Ainehi Edoro wrote an interesting article in The Guardian about the bias of the book industry in terms of African novels, comparing the Western agenda when we publish, read and review African novels to the agenda applied when reviewing novels from the Western canon. We tend to attribute an imagined anthropological value to African fiction, assuming a cultural viewpoint about their issues and themes first, rather than seeing them as we would American or British books – in which we are simply guided in our reviews by characterisation, plot. Ie. Writing first and themes secondary.

bobo road

So it was with great interest that two picture books set in Africa arrived on my desk in the same week. One, published by an award-winning children’s publisher, is All Aboard for the Bobo Road, written by Stephen Davies and illustrated by Christopher Corr.

What’s extraordinary about this picture book is the colour. It is as if the African sun is shining directly out of the pages – the amount of brightness and colour detail is completely captivating – the children testers I used for this book positively beamed back at the lustre and glow.

Fatima and Galo board the bus bound for Bobo. Their father Big Ali drives the bus, and on the journey the children keep track of all the livestock, people and goods that are boarded onto the bus, as well as watching the landscape go past.

Readers can help to count cargo on and off the bus, including three bicycles, seven watermelons, five sacks of rice, nine goats and much much more. Along the way, the children see a hippo lake, a waterfall, the forest, rock domes, market stalls, and the Grand Mosque. Each page brims with detail and above all, colour.

At the waterfall for example, the water is like big slaps of blue paint against a brown rock background with a multitude of colourful patterned rugs in the foreground, plants at the summit, and people everywhere, with colourful clothes, bags and hats. The goods are stark and bold – blue and orange bicycles, colourful bundles on heads, an assortment of vehicles ferried on top of the bus. The ground itself isn’t brown or beige – but a bright purple. Each spread is differentiated in its colour, from the vibrant oranges of the rock domes to the lush green of the forest, the blue of the town.

Even the endpapers blaze with light and interest – tracking the different sites of Burkina Faso, which is where the author based his story, after his experiences there over several years. The text too shines, with the unloading and loading of cargo, the counting within, and the descriptions: the children are ‘tired and hungry’, Galo unloads watermelons ‘huffing and puffing’ and Fatima unloads rice ‘craning and straining’.

The last pages are particularly effective, subtly showing the difference between what children see and what adults see.

There are familiar traits for a bus picture book, such as the wheels of the bus turning round, and the beep beep as the bus sets off, but in other ways this is a truly original picture book, and stands out from the crowd as being the brightest I have ever seen. You can buy a copy here.

princess arabella

The other picture book is published by Cassava Republic Press, whose very ambition is to change the narrative on African books, rooting African writing in all its different experiences, be it rural or urban, past or future.  Princess Arabella’s Birthday by Mylo Freeman aims to show that not all princesses are blonde and blue-eyed, whilst also containing a clear message that princesses should be careful what they wish for.

Princess Arabella has everything she could possibly want, so her parents are stuck as to what to buy her for her birthday. The princess decides that she wants a real live elephant, and her wish is granted. The only problem – this is not a compliant elephant. The twist at the end of the book is delightful – but it’s the small illustrations throughout that endear Princess Arabella to the reader, and serve to make this a series to watch.

From the elephant-shaped balloon on the cover, to the hilariously bad parenting of the King and Queen and the size of the net used to catch the elephant – there is plenty in each illustration to make the reader giggle. The colours are vibrant, the jauntiness of facial expressions well-executed. It’s a simple story – for young readers – but conveys a vibrancy of personality and landscape, and conveys the beauty of another country – from the sandals on her feet to the sunset in the background – with ease and simplicity.

You can buy the book here.

Mothers in Modern Children’s Books

In a great deal of children’s fiction, mothers are either dead, disappeared or distant. As a mother myself, that’s always a little frustrating – although I realise that the reason my children haven’t discovered a Magic Faraway Tree in the garden, escaped to another world through the wardrobe, or fallen down a rabbit hole is because I’m always there, beating on the door, interrupting every scene, making a nuisance of myself with my rules and fussiness.

The following children’s books all feature mothers very kindly – in one even pointing to the fact that they are superheroes – so for mother’s day, I’m celebrating the mothers who feature, rather than fade into the background.

the paper dolls

The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
One of the slightly lesser known Julia Donaldson stories, this is a nostalgic ride through childhood, describing the craft activity of a small girl, and her memories of it as she grows. The mother, first labelled as ‘nice’ in the text, is portrayed with more empathy in the pictures – the reader sees her on her knees beside her daughter with a cup of tea in hand. She looks on fondly at her daughter colouring in the paper dolls. She has clearly helped to make them.

The mother disappears as the girl takes her dolls away to play, but returns to join in the make-believe at the breakfast table – donning a crocodile puppet. Unfortunately she can’t rescue her daughter’s paper dolls when a nasty boy comes to snip them to pieces. The little girl then grows into a mum herself:

“And the girl grew…into a mother”, my favourite illustrations portraying the child growing from holding a book to holding a baby – and then

“who helped her own little girl make some paper dolls”, this time at the table, but mimicking the former picture, with similar props.

The text doesn’t rhyme, as in many favourite Donaldson titles, but there is a superb sing-song rhythm to the story, which a reader can’t help but pronounce as its read aloud.

Of course I’ve picked it for the depiction of a mother who plays with her child, but actually the story is about loss – the fluidity of time, the memories of things now long gone, including people, and the inherited culture that continues from one generation to the next. Because after all, as mothers, we’re teaching children about our heritage, and giving them tools to manage and enjoy their future. Purchase it here.

polly and puffin

Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty
Just published, this is a book that captures the relationship between mother and child in a few simple words, and with just a few pages evokes real emotion in the reader.

Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day is the second in the series. Polly is waiting for her father to come home in his boat, but the waiting is difficult, and even harder when it’s raining outside and a storm makes her feel anxious. With beautiful two-colour illustrations throughout, shades of orange and grey creating the perfect mix between a child’s outlook and the approach of a grey storm.

Of course, her puffin, Neil, features heavily in this series of books about the friendship between the girl and the rescued puffin – and the illustrations of Neil are also accentuated by the chosen colour palette (black and white and an orange beak). Polly is distressed when he flies off into the storm and she has to wait for him to return as well as her father.

There are some beautiful touches of interplay between mother and daughter. Polly wakes up early, the inference is that it is too early, and:

“Mummy was trying to do Busy Stuff.”

She asks Polly for five minutes – and the author turns to talk to the reader:

“Can you just give me five minutes?” said Mummy. (Does your mummy ever say that?)”

There are some real moments of emotional intelligence all the way through the book, from the illustrations of Mummy at the computer with Polly hanging round her neck, to Mummy’s comforting of Polly during the storm:
“I would come and find you. That’s what mummies do. Shelter you from storms.”

Mummy also shows Polly that she is not alone in her waiting – with a sympathetic and understanding explanation of all the other people who are waiting in the café. There is a beautifully happy uplifting ending of course – a hug of a story. At the end there is information on lighthouses, recipes and activities. Perfect for newly independent readers, and mums who want their heartstrings twanged. You can buy it here.

superhero street

Superhero Street by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
For my eagle-eyed readers, you’ll see that this is the second in Phil’s series of Storey Street books, and the first, Demolition Dad, I featured last Father’s Day, so it’s rather fitting that this second slots into my Mother’s Day post.

Mouse lives on Storey Street with his twin and triplet brothers. He is obsessed with superheroes, and knows he could be one himself, as heroes tend to come from the ordinary – just look at Clark Kent. So far though, he hasn’t been successful.

When he and his mother accidentally foil a bank robbery, his dreams of being a superhero come true. When other ‘superheroes’ arrive at his house, he and they band together to stop a dastardly villain returning to claim her missing diamond.

The story is slightly more insular than Demolition Dad – it is almost entirely focussed on Mouse’s family, with friends on the street as periphery characters only, but this is mainly because Mouse’s own family is a bit of a mess, and rather sprawling. Mouse feels overlooked at home, with five smaller brothers to look after, his parents are exhausted. Then when his Dad walks out, Mouse’s despair sinks to new levels. If children are unhappy at home, it’s hard to shift the focus away.

Because this is for younger readers than Phil Earle’s YA territory, he very cleverly weaves the silliness of the story, complete with madcap and lunatic characters such as superhero Dandruff Dan, into the mix, so that bodily function jokes mask the seriousness of a father leaving home and the burden left behind on the mother.

The underlying message is that anyone can be a superhero if they act in the correct way – Mouse’s mother is certainly a superhero in my eyes, and in illlustrator Sara Ogilvie’s eyes: her portrayal of Mum in the kitchen supervising her six boys. Mouse’s mother is also the school lollipop lady – another community superhero.

Phil’s penchant for authorial references and asides to the reader always makes me giggle, and emphasise that he’s telling a story:

“People throw parties for lots of different reasons. Birthdays, weddings, chickenpox…don’t laugh, it’s true, go and ask your mum. Well, go on! OK, are you back? Comfy? Good…”

So combined with the silliness of the plot, the hilarious illustrations, and the comedic text, this makes for a riotous book despite the underlying seriousness.

A superhero writer – showing the goodness of mothers. For readers aged 7+ years. You can buy it here.

sam and sam

The Secrets of Sam and Sam by Susie Day

What’s better than one mum? Two mums! As Susie Day puts it in The Secrets of Sam and Sam:
“One mum was good. Two mums was best.”

This novel is a spin-off title from Susie Day’s much loved series about Pea (including Pea’s Book of Best Friends). Secondary characters in Pea’s books, the twins Sam and Sammie move centre stage with their own story here, in a loveable tale about being twins, having a loving family, school trips, conquering fears, making friends and builders!

Told in a series of vignettes about Sam’s secrets, and then also third person narrative about both twins, as well as letters, annotations on the book Mum K (child psychologist) is writing, and various other documents and text messages, this is a hilarious look about finding out who you are, what you can achieve, and how to make friends.

Sam is scared of heights and wants to avoid the school trip, which sounds dangerous and risky. Sammie is delighted about the school trip, but rather worried that her best friend has a new best friend. And she needs to prove to everyone that she’s definitely the Best Twin. Meanwhile Sam and Sammie’s two mums have secrets of their own.

This is a fun story that children will whizz through, sympathising at times with both twins, and seeing the delightful irony and wit that shines through Susie Day’s writing.

The author is brilliant at conveying the messiness, stresses, and love of the family unit in all its different guises and ways – even with the peripheral characters in this novel, and that’s what makes the read heart-warming, sincere, and sharp too. She imbues her characters with a warmth and generosity – even when they’re making mistakes (the adults too), so that the reader both empathises with them, and feels a familiarity with the book too. Her settings are incredibly visual – the street is particularly well-described, so that the reader is completely immersed.

Dotted throughout with doodly illustrations by Aaron Blecha, the book feels both meaty in content and yet satisfyingly easy to fly through – highly recommended for children aged 8+ years. And it features a family with two mothers. Hard to beat on Mother’s Day. You can buy it here.

Have You Seen Elephant? by David Barrow

have you seen elephant

There are very few picture perfect picture books. Some have great illustrations, some great words, and occasionally both. This one is exquisite, for not only does it pair words and illustrations well, but it prompts the reader to think – reminiscent of I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen for its use of inference.

Barrow’s debut picture book begins with elephant asking the small boy if he would like to play hide and seek. The boy decides that elephant should hide, but in a beautiful close up on the next page elephant warns the boy “I’m very good.” The boy and his dog count to ten and shout “Coming! Ready or not!” and the game begins.

The reader’s glee comes from the boy’s apparent ineptitude to see the ‘elephant in the room’ (although he might be pretending as one reader pointed out!), but the reader’s laughter also comes from the astuteness of the dog – he sniffs elephant out every time. For the reader, it’s plain to see where the elephant is – his bulk is hard to miss and of course this is part of the joke – but Barrow has executed each page beautifully – the illustrations in hues of blues or greys or purples or oranges depending on the room, giving the elephant a chance to fade into the background.

Particular joys include the page in which the boy asks his father if he’s seen an elephant – the father answers “What elephant?”, and the picture shows the reader that the elephant is holding the television screen on which the Dad is watching football.

Barrow’s endpapers (the motif of which continues onto the first page) tell a story in themselves. They are a series of portraits of family photographs (drawn in illustration) – from relatives not even in the story, to the boy’s mother and father on their wedding day, to the dog, the boy as a toddler, and at the back of the book – the elephant’s trunk weaselling into the photos.

Watch out too for the tortoise, who offers to play a different game with the boy, the elephant and the dog at the end – also warning he’s rather good at it. It’s left to the reader to decide if a tortoise really would be good at tag. Fabulous stuff, and definitely an illustrator to watch. Buy it here.

wheres elephant

David Barrow is not the only illustrator playing hide and seek with an elephant this year. Barroux has produced a stunning book, Where’s the Elephant? which through very clever use of a Where’s Wally inspired theme, aims to shock the reader into seeing how deforestation is affecting the planet. It’s another totally exquisite picture book.

The first page explores the three creatures the author wants the reader to find within the book – an elephant, a parrot and a snake. Then the first pages show a dense forest – trees of all different colours and types swamping the page with their magnificence. Barroux has used blues, oranges, yellows, greens to depict his trees – this page alone is a lesson in illustration.

The animals are hard to find. But gradually as the reader works through the book, the trees are given less and less space, at first just logged tree trunks are shown on the left of the page, then they start to crawl across, as houses, cars, roads take over the space. By the end the creatures are easy to spot – there is no camouflage, food, shelter left for them – and they are reduced to living in one tree, then just the zoo.

It’s a fabulous illustrative demonstration of what is happening, inspired by Barroux’s trip to Brazil. The shocking difference between the first page and the page of the one tree is quite something to behold. There is some kind of salvation at the end though. Read it with children – you’ll see the impact a picture book can have. You can buy it here.

Flying Females and Clusters of Cats

Mary Poppins blew in with her umbrella on a very strong wind, and these two new books for children breezed through the letterbox earlier this year.

miss petitfour

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Anne Michaels, with illustrations by Emma Block

This is Anne Michael’s first foray into children’s books, although she won accolades galore for Fugitive Pieces, amongst other writing. And what a book! The Adventures of Miss Petitfour is split into five separate stories about the main character, an eccentric lady who lives alone, except for her 16 cats, to which there is an illustrated guide at the beginning so that the reader can distinguish between them. Miss Petitfour also has the ability to fly when the wind takes her – merely by shaping a tablecloth into a type of hot air balloon and going where the breeze dictates.

Anne Michaels has created a world of jumble sales, grand village picnics, stamp collections and the Festival of Festooning.

But it’s the use of language that is so unique and exciting. From her orange and italicized highlighted vocabulary, explaining long and difficult but thrilling new words, such as ‘debonair’ and ‘gesticulating’; to encouraging the reader to count Michael’s authorly ‘digressions’ from the main story – the word digression also highlighted in orange – to the careful construction of each story, the use of the words ‘the end’ at the end of every story in a different context:

“…she placed especially lengthy chocolate eclairs crammed with whipping cream, which they gobbled up with great cat smiles from the beginning to THE END.”

and the simple poetic lyricism of each phrase, from “sixteen cat acrobats on a thrilling coat hanger trapeze” to the stories Miss Petitfour tells her cats:

“…stories full of rolling waves and motorcades, damp caves and last-minute saves, musketeers and mountaineers.”

It seems effortless, although of course it isn’t – it is highly thought out, and of the highest quality – and poetic in its lyricism. As a reader, you savour the words in your mouth the way you would savour the delectable treats she describes:

“currant toast squishy with butter, caramel-marshmallow squares, strawberry boats oozing custard, chocolate eclairs that exploded with cream when the cats bit into them with their little white teeth…”

She explains the construction of her stories as she writes – from ‘then one day’s’ to ‘meanwhiles’ without any condescension, as well as including the most luscious descriptions from clothes and fabrics “bolts of rustling stiff crepe paper and spools of silent velvet ribbon; there was the swish of tinsel and the jittering of plastic beads”, to the line of cats dangling in the wind, to the colour of marmalade. And Michaels does all this as well as writing interesting plots with drive, so there is never a dull moment.

The accompanying full-colour illustrations by Emma Block are sophisticated, humorous and almost as eccentric as Miss Petitfour herself – with massively differentiated cats, ear muffs, dancing, piano playing, and also simple tea. They are sharp and well matched to the text.

This is a meticulously crafted book – refined and delightful. For 7-12 years, and beyond. Buy a copy here.

harper scarlet

Harper and the Scarlet Umbrella by Cerrie Burnell, illustrated by Laura Ellen Anderson

With its irresistibly shiny cover, this tale does indeed sparkle from beginning to end. For newly independent readers, (the text is much larger, and the story shorter, than the title above) it tells the tale of Harper, a small girl who lives in the City of Clouds in a tall apartment block. Her friends come from the different flats within the building, each child having a defined personality from the start. But Harper’s best friend is her cat Midnight. When Midnight goes missing, along with all the other cats from the City of Clouds, Harper must harness her scarlet umbrella (which enables her to fly) and track down the lost cats.

Laura Ellen Anderson’s illustrations made this book for me. From the endearing portrayal of Harper on the cover with the cat perching on her head to the most incredible full page illustration of the cat orchestra inside, the artworks, despite being all in black and white, made me want to savour the book for longer. Small details abound in each illustration, from the smattering of freckles across Harper’s face to the cat licking its paws in the middle of an orchestral warm-up, to the view from the rooftops down to the trail of cats below. Each chapter starts with an illustration of Midnight in a different pose, and the book ends with her curled up comfortably asleep on the last page.

The writing is intensely lyrical, mirroring the themes of the story, which are music, adventure, care for others, all set in an imaginary world where there are different types of rain, “Summer Dew” and “Sea Mist” being just two, so that everyone owns an umbrella. The world also contains a plethora of musical instruments. Time and attention is lavished on children by grownups who really care, and the story is populated by overly exaggerated characters brimming with arty skills – they can dance, or write, or play music with incredible aptitude. It makes for magical reading, each sentence carefully honed with an abundance of adjectives and similes.

It is short and reads as sweetly as the story within, although for older children the language may seem a little cloying. For first readers, the magic of language will spring off the page, and I can happily see children revisiting the story for comfort, and definitely for those stunning illustrations. For 6+ years. You can buy a copy here.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

Hell and High Water

Opening with a filmic scene of main character Caleb and his father staging a Punch and Judy show, this scintillating excellently-written historical novel never lets up momentum. Caleb’s father is shortly thereafter accused of theft and transported to the Colonies. But Caleb knows his father is not guilty, and so he sets off on a journey to both find his only other living family – an estranged aunt, and to prove his father’s innocence.

When a body washes up on the beach near where his aunt lives, Caleb is swept into a world of smuggling and intrigue, mystery and lies, which leads him and his new-found family into terrifying danger.

Landman captures the eighteenth century brilliantly – from the clothes and transport, to the marketplace and food, not to mention the hardships and hierarchies that penetrated society.

In fact, for all that the plot is fast-paced and exciting, Landman also deals deftly with perceptions of race, gender and wealth, and their accompanying inequalities. Caleb has dark skin, and is treated like a leper in places, and mistaken for a slave boy. Meanwhile his aunt’s stepdaughter is given a lovely gender ‘twist’, as although a girl, she takes on all the boy’s roles – rowing the boat, hefting heavy items, even adopting the role of puppeteer, despite the negativity associated with female performers. Tanya plays beautifully with perceptions here – putting a historical setting to good use in exploring how our world has progressed (or in some cases not) in how we view race and gender.

The other inequality that Landman manipulates is wealth distribution – describing the hierarchy of society, and delving into questions of morality and generosity, or the lack thereof. Her descriptions are wry and satisfying:

“Both bonnet and gown seemed designed more to scream aloud their vast cost than to show her face or figure to their best advantage.”

Her key plot hinges on the different types of thievery – the starving petty thief’s need for sustenance versus the morally corrupt landowners who claim tax and insurance in illegal circumstances.

The historical references are rife and intriguing. Set specifically in 1752, Landman has fun playing with the Act of Parliament that lost the country 12 days so as to set the country in time with the rest of Europe. She also explains in the ‘author’s note’ at the end that her tale is inspired by true events of a villainous smuggling landowner and the sinking of his ship, the Nightingale in 1752.

The sea too is a huge inspiration for Landman – her descriptions of the landscape are atmospheric and dark, using tidal rivers to great effect from the sweep of the water, to the mud flats, and water penetrating the land. With many allusions to other literature, exploration of the role of parents and family, as well as themes of loyalty, bravery, and being morally upstanding – this is a work of beauty.

It is so well-written, the words stay even when the story is concluded:

“When Letty moved, she moved quietly, but sound behaves differently in the dark. Each creak of floorboard, each rustle of cloth is magnified. A breath becomes a shout, a footfall akin to the blast of a cannon.”

With descriptions of dead bodies, and an exhumation, moral corruption, and a growing love story, this is for the upper end of my age scale – recommended for 12+ years. You can buy it here.

 

With thanks to Walker Books for sending me a requested review copy.

Picture Books with A Message

Learning to Share

moonlight school

Owl Wants to Share at Moonlight School by Simon Puttock, illustrated by Ali Pye
Actually, there is much more to this book than a simple lesson about sharing – it’s about using your imagination, being kind to each other, and accepting difference. However it is not preachy at all. In fact I fell in love with Miss Moon, Moonlight School’s teacher, the most understanding teacher in literature since Miss Honey! Simon Puttock demonstrates his understanding of children’s behaviour within a classroom environment (even if they are animals here) with accuracy and skill, and Ali Pye’s phenomenal illustrations, capturing shadows, mannerisms, and expressions are a delight.

At drawing time, there aren’t enough night-time colours to go round, so after Cat, Mouse and Bat have helped themselves, Owl has to draw using bright daytime colours. What will he come up with, and will the other students learn about sharing in the process?

Silver glitter on the front, attention to detail inside (look for Mouse’s tail accessory and her body language as she puts her paw up), the clever use of perspective to stop the reader from seeing Owl’s picture before Owl is ready – there is so much to admire in this picture book.

The language too is pitched perfectly – “Owl looked clever and said nothing”, whilst Miss Moon is a shining example of every good primary school teacher, with positive reinforcement, classroom control, and of course giving out stickers at the end.

This is a sumptuous picture book. Recommended to all. Buy a copy here.

 

Owning Up

the whopper
The Whopper by Rebecca Ashdown
Perhaps slightly less subtle, The Whopper by Rebecca Ashdown is certainly comical. Percy’s grandma comes to stay, and as a gift she gives him a hand knitted jumper. Percy hates it of course, and decides to take her words literally when she says it is “just right for walking the dog in”. When the dog ruins the jumper, Percy tosses it away, but when he lies to his Mum about what happened to it, a little creature called the Whopper appears. Before long the Whopper has taken over Percy’s life, to the extent that the only way he can get rid of it is to admit the truth. He does so, and of course, Grandma shows her acceptance of his apology with a new gift!

There are some hysterical moments in this book – from the picture accompanying his lie to the baby brother’s and Percy’s classmates reaction to the whopper, and the whopper’s ultimate defeat!

The message is how a lie, no matter how small, can loom large and take over quite quickly, and it’s drawn with some relish here. Very enjoyable as a lesson in telling the truth, but not necessarily a go-to picture book for bedtime. You can purchase it here from Waterstones.

 

Trying New Things

bogtrotter
Bogtrotter by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Judith Rossell
Bogtrotter is a simple creature. Furry green, with keen eyes, lively hair and a toothy expression, he runs day after day, year after year around the bog – hence Bogtrotter! But he’s not entirely content. When the frog asks him why he doesn’t ever do anything new or different it sets in motion alarm bells, and Bogtrotter starts to take notice of the world around him, and think of possibilities for the future.

The frog’s second question makes him think even harder, and he goes on a full adventure, with surprising results – not spelled out for the reader in text, but inferred in the picture. It’s a gem of a title, exploring what can happen if a person goes outside their own comfort zone, and takes stock of other creatures and the surrounding landscape.

The illustrations are adorable – the sort of depiction of a creature that a child wants made into a soft toy, as well as endearing human touches for animal creatures – the Bogtrotter sleeps with a mug of tea beside him and pictures on his wall (presumably of himself). Even the illustrations from behind of him ‘trotting’ are quite something to behold. A great book, with humour, insight and inference. Highly recommended. Buy here from Waterstones.

 

Being Brave

brave as can be
Brave As Can Be: A Book of Courage by Jo Witek, illustrated by Christine Roussey
Another fairly unsubtle book, but so excellently produced that you’ll think seriously about buying this and referencing it over and over. Sturdy thick cardboard pages with die cut shapes cut out lend a special element to this dynamic book.

An adorable little girl depicted in black lines with red cheeks, red bow in her hair, and red spots on her dress, takes the reader through the book in first person narrative, recalling how when she was little she had many fears. Ironic of course, as the little girl is still pretty little. Firstly she introduces her huge mountain of scary things.

Two die cut eyes in the mountain turn it into a kind of monster, but on the next page those die cut holes turn into snowflakes – showing that our fears are simple shape shifters – we can choose to see things as scary or we can choose to view them as something other than that.

The little girl then goes through her fears one by one, but instead of dismissing them, she tells the reader how she dealt with them – from using a night-light in the scary dark, to her mum’s explanation that the dog’s bark is just him saying hello. She even points out that sometimes we use being scary as a way to entertain – such as Halloween and telling spooky stories.

The illustrations are very clever – not only using the die cut shapes on each page to turn into something fresh, but also the combination of pencil lines and colourful crayons, as if the little girl had drawn the illustrations very neatly – the tangle of adult legs with scary boots on the ends is very effective when the little girl describes getting lost. (She overcomes her fear by becoming a brave explorer).

I wasn’t convinced about the ending though, which I found to be a bit of a letdown, although perhaps it is apt for the target readership. Size is said to be important here. As the little girl grows up, she realises that fewer things seem scary. As she grows as a person, her fears diminish.

Certainly the things that were scary as children no longer seem scary…it’s just that for this reader, other stuff does. You can buy a copy of the book here.

Picture Book Round-Up

monster in the fridge

There’s a Monster in My Fridge by Caryl Hart and Deborah Allwright
Just in time for Halloween comes a hide-and-seek picture book with monsters. Green witches, werewolves and vampires abound behind split-pages in this messy, colourful and fun picture book. The text rhymes, the monsters are mischievous, jovial, and in some places, rather cute. The pictures are boldly coloured; monsters in green, purple, orange, blue – depicted firstly making a huge mess in the kitchen, and then moving through the other rooms of the house. There is lots to take in on each page – the fridge has monsters in its door compartments as well as in the main fridge and the surrounding shelves. The bathroom is particularly fun with the monster coming out the toilet, the toothpastes using toothbrushes to fight each other, and hidden skeletons with their bubble guns in the bath. A rollicking monster laugh, with some well-pitched vocabulary in the rhythmic text. You can buy it here.

i will love you anyway

I Will Love You Anyway by Mick and Chloe Inkpen
Mick Inkpen has long been a staple for first readers of picture books. Both Wibbly Pig and Kipper are household names. Now in a co-author and co-illustrator team with his daughter, rather like Shirley Hughes and Clara Vuillamy, I will Love you Anyway reads more like a poem than a picture book. Told from the perspective of a naughty dog, this a winsome tale of an irrepressible dog: one who cannot communicate well with his owners, who will not do as he’s told, but nevertheless one who is loved and loves back.

Even from the cover illustration, the dog is irresistible. Huge innocent eyes betray his inherent naughtiness, as he pulls at socks, makes a mess and nips and bites and licks. The rhyming and rhythm are spot on, with much repetition. This is a fast-paced story with humour and wit in abundance.

The illustrations are phenomenal – from the adorable little boy owner of the dog, to the various expressions of the dog, who always looks one moment away from mischief. As with all good partnerships between author and illustrator, both elements tell the story so that some aspects of plot and humour are only discovered by looking at the illustrations.

There’s even pathos as the parents (out the picture) debate the merits of keeping such a difficult dog, and the little boy and dog sit eavesdropping on the stairs. A delightful and funny end, this will be cherished by all readers. A fabulous picture book. You can buy it here.

The Burp that saved the world

The Burp That Saved the World by Mark Griffiths and Maxine Lee-Mackie
Irreverent and humorous, this reviewer is not usually one for bottom and burp jokes, but this book’s magnificent greens and oranges are rather irresistible. Ben and Matt are twins who are famous for doing massive burps. When aliens come to Earth and want to take all the children’s toys and books, the army and navy are useless to fight them. So Ben and Matt devise a plan to let off the largest burp in the history of the world, thereby scaring off the aliens.

Despite the shaky scansion on one or two pages, and the use of the American word ‘pop’ to help with rhyming, the text holds such fun ideas and vocabulary in other places, and the illustrations are so brightly coloured (particularly the street in which all the houses are different colours; the three-eyed red-jacketed aliens in their spaceships with flashing lights) that it makes for a fun read throughout. Children will love the naughtiness. You can buy it here.

oddsockosaurus

Oddsockosaursus by Zanib Mian and Bill Bolton
Another lovely premise for a picture book – a boy who feels that he’s not always understood and so attempts to make up a new dinosaur for every facet of his personality. There is Oddsockosaurus for when he just feels like wearing odd socks, Whyceratops for when he just can’t help asking question after question, and Hungryophus for when he gets a dinosaur roar in his tummy. It’s a lovely idea for those who are obsessed with dinosaurs, and also for exploring how we make and use words in the English language. The illustrations of the little boy depict him dressed up as different dinosaurs and are bold and engaging. Particular chuckles for Nevertiredophus and its accompanying illustration, as well as for Whyceratops’ question ‘Why can’t Grandma do cartwheels?’. Fun and funny. You can buy it here.

brian and the giant

Brian and the Giant by Chris Judge and Mark Wickham
Another household name, Chris Judge is the award-winning author of TiN and The Lonely Beast. Here pared with Mark Wickham for their second book about Brian Boru, who was the High King of Ireland about 1,000 years ago. There are not many picture books based on history, so this is an interesting addition to any picture book collection. In Brian and the Giant, catastrophe strikes the village when the river dries up, the houses are smashed, and there’s a dreadful smell. The villagers are perplexed, until Brian discovers that a huge smelly giant has built a dam and a bath out of their houses in order to create a bath for himself. The giant is not unfriendly though, so once his destruction has been pointed out, he works with Brian to restore the village and build a shower.

This is clearly taking a leap of faith with the whole history premise, but the depiction of resources and engineering in this picture book makes it stand out. Brian is hugely likeable and clever, and the tones of blue and greens make for a great rural Irish backdrop. This isn’t stocked on the Waterstones website, but order through your local bookstore or click through to Amazon.

 

 

 

Football Mad

Parents often regale me with their tales of despair about their children who aren’t interested in reading – they are interested only in football. To them I tell the story of one boy – so desperate to learn the football results on a Saturday afternoon that he learned to read the results ticker-tape scrolling at the bottom of the screen. He was delighted when he could read Liverpool 1-2 Tottenham, and then devastated to read Arsenal 4-1 Southampton.

From the tickertape he progressed to football magazines, then to match day programmes (personally I have yet to find much duller reading material), and finally to football books. Now to my delight, the range has widened and books on other subject matters are read too. But it all started with that football tickertape.

There is some great children’s fiction on football, but three new books that grabbed my attention recently are three biographies of famous footballers. They aren’t fiction – but tell non-fiction in a classic narrative style, so that non-fiction fans are drawn in and learn a story arc at the same time as gaining knowledge about their favourite footballer (and shhh! reading!) For all that I loathe celebrity culture, I recognise that this is a great way into reading for some children, and that emulating that famous football star is often the way to go. You only have to look at the success of the Premier League Reading Stars programme to see how one passion can lead to another.

Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale: The Boy Who Became a Galactico by Tom and Matt Oldfield tells the story of Gareth Bale’s career, from being taken to his first match aged three to watch his uncle play, to his move to and his first goal for Real Madrid. It isn’t easy to write a biography for a child readership – as Gareth gets much older than the readership some of the emotions and relationships could be hard to understand – but the authors have pitched this perfectly. There is far more emphasis on life on the pitch than off it.

In all the books, the parents and those in authority make it clear, without being patronising, that the footballers’ careers aren’t just reliant on skill. There’s an emphasis on practice, and attitude – and the importance of family and friends supporting the player. This is a team game – both on and off the pitch.

In Gareth’s story, the authors show his progression from a small skinny boy to a more bulked-out player, with nods to extensive training, the difficulties of loyalty when a player moves from one club to another, coping with the frustrations of injury, and lots of detail about specific football matches. The statistics and games are accurate – the authors have acknowledged their research at the back of the book. Even for non-football fans, it’s a good read from start to finish with a clear biographical progression (the structure is tight) and simple language. To purchase, click here.

Raheem SterlingWayne Rooney

Raheem Sterling also struggles with his size in his story: Raheem Sterling: Young Lion, but his background also plays a major role in his story, and there are some touching moments about the sacrifices his mother made in order for Raheem to have his opportunities. You can buy it here.

The third title in the series by Tom and Matt Oldfield is Wayne Rooney: Captain of England. You can buy it here.

Football Academy Boys United

If children like reading about sport, but want fiction, then I would recommend the author Tom Palmer. Tom has done amazing work with the Rugby World Cup – he has a series of books out on this – but he also wrote Football Academy: Boys United, which is for newly independent readers looking for a great story.

Tom writes with beautiful fluency, excitement and emotion, so that the characters come alive and the story seems real. The first in the Football Academy series sees Jake try out for United’s under-twelve team. He is good, but is he good enough? Tom Palmer incorporates issues with his team-mates, friendships, relationships with family, as well as what happens when you support one team and play for another. There’s plenty of football too, and plenty of emphasis on working hard for what you want. It’s enjoyable, and inclusive with a diverse range of characters. It remains my top recommendation for encouraging young football fans to read. There are four titles in this series. To buy the first, click here.

I would also recommend Frankie’s Magic Football series by Frank Lampard, and Helena Pielichaty’s Girls FC series (sadly not widely available, but it is an excellent series and reminds us that football is for girls too). All 7+ yrs. Lastly, if your child is older, leave Mal Peet’s Keeper lying around for them to find. It contains the most beautiful writing, with an amazing football/ghost story about a world-famous goalkeeper, and the importance of believing in oneself.