dyslexia

Summer 2019 Reading Recommendations

I always like to leave a list of great new children’s books on my main page at the end of July, because MinervaReads doesn’t blog in August. And, usually you’d find a small selection of picture books, nonfiction, novels etc. This year THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS. Narrowing down my summer reads for you has become increasingly difficult. So without further ado, I’ve tried to sum up each book in a concise way in order to feature as many as possible. Flick to the heading for the correct age group.

picture books

Picture books

Falling below the threshold of the age group for whom I normally review, but too adorable to ignore, is a new series of lift-the-flap board books called Treacle Street by Kate Hindley. From following Marcel Trunkmore delivering parcels in Marcel’s Parcels, to the star ballerina bunnies in Prima’s Missing Bunnies, the books are tightly plotted with intricately detailed illustrations for curious minds.

Stylistically arresting, Grandma Z by Daniel Gray-Barnett is a curiosity in itself. Coloured orange and blue, it not only explores the dynamism of a grandparent/grandchild relationship and the power of imagination, but adds retro dimensions and quirky elements to stand out from the crowd. Wild, exuberant, full of energy.

In the holiday spirit, Clem and Crab by Fiona Lumbers is cognitively dissonant as it feels both traditional and completely fresh. Clem explores the beach, and rescues a crab stuck in plastic. If ever a book made you wish you were at the seaside, this is it. And with an environmental message. Illustrations are expressive and wholesome – a whole story encapsulated in each vignette.

Also by the beach is The Tide by Clare Helen Welsh and Ashling Lindsay. Slightly more linear illustrations with harder colouring, this also captures the sensual nature of the seaside, but deals with dementia too. A heartwarming grandfather/grandchild relationship with clever analysis of memories and making memories.

For fun, The Big Stink by Lucy Freegard will capture hearts from the cover, just as mouse is captured by cat in this heist adventure. Nods to Mission Impossible, among other references, this mouse-led caper will have adults chuckling along with captivated children. Who could escape arrest with ears like that?

young fiction

Young Fiction (ages 7-9 years)

Newly independent readers are well served nowadays. Ariki and the Island of Wonders by Nicola Davies and Nicola Kinnear is pure summer adventure. Shipwrecked to a paradise island, Ariki and Ipo are initially struck by the wonder of nature they encounter, but then realise there is a darkness to paradise. With conservation overtones, and textured black and white illustrations, this is an immersive text that sparks a real sense of purpose and love for nature.

It’s not a new premise, but My Babysitter is a Robot by Dave Cousins, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri is neatly executed. A grandma inventor, twins, swimming pools, football and more, this is a fun and funny new series.

Fairy tales remain high on the list of starting points for stories, and Cinders and Sparks by Lindsey Kelk, illustrated by Pippa Curnick is another twist on the Cinderella story. A talking dog, an unreliable fairy godmother, and neighbours called Jack and Jill combine in a modern deviation and continuation of the traditional fairy tale. Fun, neat and magical.

middle grade

Middle Grade (Novels for 9+ years)

Abi Elphinstone’s new novel Rumblestar is possibly her best yet, and that’s saying something. She writes with a keen intelligence, a fiery spark, and a wisdom that infects the fantasy she writes, so that the reader feels there is an importance to the story being told. And she sweeps the reader away with engrossing, action-filled storytelling. In this first of the Unmapped Chronicles series, Casper accidentally stumbles into an unmapped kingdom in danger, and finds out that the peril is tied to his own world.

More peril in Peril En Pointe by Helen Lipscombe, described as Ballet Shoes meets Murder Most Unladylike. The novel has a relatable protagonist and a surprising reveal. A series to watch.

The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike delves deep into fantasy, as main character Rayne discovers more about the magic that keeps her village safe. A wholly original idea with a great mother/daughter dynamic, and a sense that magic and darkness pervade everything. Well crafted.

Ben Davis often makes me laugh, whether it’s a one line tweet or a whole novel. What’s That in Dog Years? is a tender book about losing a dog but gaining perspective. Part narrated by owner, part by dog, this is a heartfelt and touching book about friendships and families with a mystery at its heart, and a bucketful of humour. Makes the reader laugh and cry.

Stewart Foster’s Check Mates offers a surprising twist and marries ADHD, chess and the Stasi. It’s a longer, slower read, but merits rewards to those who stick the course with superbly drawn characters and a great reveal.

Halo Moon by Sharon Cohen is an easy read, but the short sharp chapters belie a degree of profundity in its message. Blending two disparate cultures – Ageze in Ethiopia and Halo in Yorkshire, Cohen uses the stars to navigate her protagonists towards each other and avert a disaster. Told with aplomb, this is a hope-filled, inspiring story.

Fleur Hitchcock’s The Boy Who Flew has an explosive opening and immerses the reader in Bath during the Georgian era. It’s dark and inventive, and leads the reader in a twisty mystery involving flying machines and shadowy villainy.

A much more down-to-earth mystery in A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths, also set in the past, this time the 1930s, in which the heroine is sent to boarding school, where crimes and misdeeds need investigating. From an experienced adult crime writer, this is a delight, with common room gossip, games in the rain, and a Christmas play, and although the ingredients feel old, the result is fresh and lively, and will be devoured in one day by competent readers.

Scavengers by Darren Simpson is for those looking for something completely different. It’s a coming-of-age that’s gritty, clever and brave. With a sort of wild abandon, this novel shows how far an imagination can go, and there’s a terrific undertone of tenderness and empathy.

I was blown away by Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm last year, and this year Wildspark: A Ghost Machine Adventure is another success. A sort of steampunk mechanical adventure, reminiscent of Tin by Padraig Kenny and Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart, this has a particular focus on dealing with grief, and the things that drive us. Hardy is most adept at creating new worlds and absorbing the reader with superb detail.

As climate change dominates the young generation’s thoughts, Sita Brahmachari’s timely Where The River Runs Gold explores a dystopian future of rations and compounds, in which children labour to pollinate the crops. But of course, there is hope amid the inequality and deprivation. Dense and thoughtful.

If you’re just after some short stories – the Return to Wonderland anthology brings some of the very best modern children’s writers together in a mission to re-imagine Alice and her Wonderland.

YA

YA (novels for 12+ years)

It’s rare for a book to catch the attention of both my older children – but William Sutcliffe’s The Gifted, the Talented and Me was whipped through by both, each stopping only to roar with laughter. Light and humorous, this satire of a modern middle-class family who go to live in Hampstead hits all the right spots.

Slightly darker but also an accessible read is Because of You by Eve Ainsworth, a dyslexia-friendly story about family dysfunction and learning to live with a parent’s new partner. Ainsworth excels at getting inside the head of a teen, particularly a victim of bullies, and this is an emotionally astute short novel.

Rose Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence is another tale that invokes social media, so important to today’s teens, but it explores it from a different angle, as Rose and brother Rudder have escaped from a religious sect and are coming at it anew. How do you navigate this new world where everything is so alien? A coming-of-age that uses a new approach to show us the perils of modern life, and how we work out who we really are.

Lastly, The Boxer by Nikesh Shukla is a brilliant exploration of the psyche. Told over the course of the rounds of a boxing fight, with flashbacks, this is a fantastic read about a seventeen-year-old who feels disengaged, but finds a community and a purpose. With themes of radicalisation, violence and belonging, this is an essential teen read.

non fiction

Nonfiction

Three completely different reads here. Be a Super Awesome Photographer by Henry Carroll gives 20 photo challenges for the budding photographer, with real photographs to illustrate and inspire, and ideas for tasks to make different and interesting photos. We’ll be using it on our summer holiday.

Incredible Journeys by Levison Wood, illustrated by Sam Brewster is an informative and inspirational large-size book about famous explorers. With illustrated maps and full page illustrations, this book travels from The Silk Road to Zheng He, and all the way to Nellie Bly and into space.

Watched too much Love Island? A modern and relevant book for teens is Body Brilliant by Nicola Morgan. It takes the reader through the steps to embracing a positive body image. Morgan provides data, encourages taking challenges to make her points and inspire confidence, and aims to change mindsets. Common sense goes hand-in-hand with examples and explanations.

glitchLastly, a graphic novel for you – the only one that dropped in my mailbox this summer, but anyway, Glitch by Sarah Graley would be a good choice. Ever since Aha’s Take On Me, we’ve dreamed of entering into our own comic. Here, 14-year-old Izzy, the protagonist, is depicted in a comic, but enters into her video game. But what happens when she gets Game Over? Great bright visuals, humorous too.

Well that should keep you busy reading over the summer! Come back in September for ballerinas in Russia, furious teens, prison camps, 1870’s opera houses, shadows in the woods and frosty hearts.

Football Feats

the unlucky elevenThis weekend is the Champion’s League Final. If you know me in real life, or even virtually, you’ll have an inkling that this is a big weekend for me (clue: I’m a Spurs fan).

But what about the little games that go on up and down the country, in a public park, or someone’s back garden? What about the children who aren’t terrifically talented at football, but still enjoy a dribble with a ball, or even just a good read?

The Unlucky Eleven by Phil Earle, illustrated by Steve May, wonderfully combines love for the beautiful game with a great dose of sports’ superstition in this Little Gem reader that’s super readable and designed with colour illustrations throughout. Not every pitch can be as smoothly laid as that at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid, and the story begins with a bad bobble on the pitch for Stanley and his Saints team. But it turns out, they’ve had a bad run all season, with unfortunate decisions, own goals and injuries (this last is beginning to sound more like the Spurs team)!

But then, one of the team, (and this is a glorious mixed-gender team, just as the one I watched in a local game last week), suggests that the Saints might be cursed. Now they have to find out exactly what is cursed (is it the kit?), and how to rid their team of it. Of course, in the end, it’s not a curse they need to overcome, but their own lack of confidence.

This is a smart, funny read with exuberant active illustrations to match the fast witty text. For ages 5-8 years. You can buy it here.

kickaroundI’m also a huge fan of football magazines.

Often grabbing the reluctant readers in the school, periodicals are a chance for them to dip in, snatch some new knowledge and vocabulary, and still find time to play sport in the playground. Kickaround is aimed at ages 7-13 years and is a great stepping stone before teenagers reach for the newspapers’ sports pages. Of course there are snippets of news, full page pictures of heroes, team and match profiles, but it also pretty fairly represents the women’s game too, explores history around the game, the media angle, and gives persuasive argument pieces as well as straight forward news reporting.

The interviews are easy to read but compelling – taking angles such as how foreign players cope with language differences, diversity within football and more, and there’s a delicious little comic spread too. Skills classes, a focus on kit, and lots of interaction with readers means that this is a sure winner.

For the World Cup last year, they printed a giant world football map with every football playing nation and flag. I always knew my son obtained his geography skills from football.

It’s a meaty magazine, so shouldn’t be discarded in one quick skim, and feels as if it has a more rounded offering than most of its competition. Highly recommend. Check it out here.

Ultimate Football Heroes SmithLastly, to my absolute joy, as a woman into football myself, I’m delighted to see that the Ultimate Football Heroes series has started churning out biographies of women footballers, written by Charlotte Browne.

One of the most popular series on my non-fiction shelves in the library, I’ve reviewed these books before, but recently have been impressed to see Kirby, Marta, Morgan and Smith leading the charge for the women’s game. The biography of Kelly Smith nicely highlights her frustration, as angry parents complained she was making their boys look silly at her local club. Although it doesn’t dip too far into gender equality, there are some lovely touches, such as explaining how Smith was judged by some on her looks as well as her skills, and how important it is to be a role model for schoolgirls. The series is published in time for the Women’s World Cup starting 7 June. You can buy it here.

The Disconnect by Keren David

the disconnectI’m as guilty as the next person with regards to phone use. My weekly checker tells me if I’ve spent more time on my phone this week than last, and I feel relief when the numbers move down. Should we feel guilty though? Is phone use a bad thing? The headlines flip-flop back and forwards with regards to children and screen time – children need to be tech savvy, ready for a changing workplace, and yet social media is damaging their mental health, their brains are rewired with over-use of the phone, their concentration spans zapped. Which of the screaming headlines is true? It’s a question that dogs this moment in time – perhaps even more than Brexit.

Keren David has written a fascinating novella that more than lives up to its topical and intriguing premise: Could you live without your phone for six weeks?

When an eccentric entrepreneur challenges teenagers in a school to give up their phones, offering a cash incentive (£1000 for six weeks), it’s not wholly surprising that many don’t participate. Esther gives it a try, wanting to use the money to visit her sister and father in America. But of course, with most of her friends on their phones, what will she miss, and can she stay the course?

Esther is introduced to the reader as an average Year 11 student: she takes validation selfies – seeking her friends’ advice on what to wear before going out, she has major FOMO (fear of missing out), and she uses her phone to stay in close contact with her older sister, who has moved to New York. She misses her terribly and their relationship is crucial to her wellbeing.

So when she gives up her phone, she is inevitably going to miss out on friends’ interaction and gossip, and on her relationship with her sister – after all, old-fashioned snail mail is exactly that – slow. But David goes much deeper, exploring all the elements she misses out on by sacrificing her phone, and all the benefits she reaps.

Yet this isn’t an essay of pros and cons, this is a concisely written story about fully-rounded people with whom the reader can identify, with advantages and disadvantages of life without a mobile phone carefully extrapolated and interwoven into the story. What’s more, David probes deeper into the more nuanced arguments around social media – whom to trust, tech giants’ motivations for making their products and the software within, and issues around privacy.

This last issue is particularly pertinent to one character – a crossover from another Karen David book called The Liar’s Handbook, in which she investigated undercover policemen who fathered children with unsuspecting women. The boy, River, features as the protagonist in that story, and a secondary character in this, and David deftly explores his ongoing sense of mistrust of those in positions of authority, and his influence on Esther, in a lovely twist on the ‘disconnectivity’ in the title here, seeing as the books are so neatly connected.

There’s a lively authenticity to the setting here too – London feels very much alive, and in particular the café that Esther’s stepfather runs, and David deftly depicts the Middle Eastern food with mouth-watering descriptions.

The little details are carefully thought out – Esther and her peers are self-conscious about using their voice – so much of their interaction comes from texting and written language – and they are also self-conscious about their appearances, stemming from a constant need to monitor who says what about how they look. Social media accentuates social groupings, instant gratification, knowing stuff about people that usually would take time, or that wouldn’t even be known.

But there’s also a brilliant summation of the emotional importance of Facetiming a relative who lives far away but stays close to the heart, and the usefulness of knowledge at one’s fingertips.

In the end, David portrays a good equilibrium in her answers. Esther comes to understand the uses and abuses of her phone. There’s loneliness both with her phone and without it; everyone needs to appreciate solitude and understand its difference from loneliness. And Esther has a new-found understanding that self-worth doesn’t just come from other people’s online likes and comments. Offline interactions are just as important, although interestingly can be damaging too, but it’s those ‘real-life’ face-to-face connections with family and friends that build confidence and self-belief and help a person to sustain them. Through real-life human interactions we form resilience and find confidence within ourselves. Taken all together, facial expressions, tactileness, actual physical presence and words spoken can mean much more than a text or a Facetime conversation. It is no coincidence that when writers write their characters, they use the full gamut of senses – they explore the character’s body language, facial expressions, the physical presence in a scene including scents, flavours, touch, sound and words spoken. Esther will come to find that she can choose an outfit without using validation selfies and waiting for likes.

Mainly though, time away from the phone gives Esther space to think and to read a physical book, an appreciation of a calmer, quieter, slower way of living, and the overriding message is that some degree of disconnectivity is healthy.

This is a thoughtful read but also a gripping one – will Esther win her money, and will it have been worth it? You’ll want to disconnect yourself for a while just to find out. Click the button to ‘connect’ you to a bookshop here!

International Women’s Day 2019

I’m a keen viewer of University Challenge on the BBC, a quiz show for students. Recently, I’ve noticed more and more questions creep in that refer to women in history, previously unnoticed women composers and artists, those whom the layperson in the street definitely couldn’t identify. I admit, I don’t know enough about women in history either, and my shouting ‘Beethoven’ in answer to most questions just doesn’t cut it! Luckily, on this International Women’s Day, children’s publishers are waking up to these lesser-known important historical figures too. And so today’s collection is a definite celebration of women – from famous sisters in history, to lesser-known scientists and pioneers, to modern celebrity women pushing boundaries.

the bluest of bluesThe Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs by Fiona Robinson
This extraordinarily exquisite picture book is a biography of British botanist and photographer, Anna Atkins, who lived 1799 to 1871, and used the newly-invented technology of cyanotype photography to record her catalogue of plant specimens.

What could be quite a dry biography is manipulated into an aesthetically intimate and touching portrayal of Anna, her enthusiasm and love for her craft – and a meshing of science and art, creativity hand-in-hand with discovery.

The book is cast in an illustrative shade of blue, mimicking the cyanotype’s blue and white tones – with Robinson cleverly incorporating the odd splash of red or yellow to emphasise inspiration – the first poppy Atkins examines, the roses in her marriage bouquet, the red ribbon round the gift of her first camera.

The book explores her life and works, and also the support from those around her, particularly her father, who educated his daughter in science, despite it being unusual at that time. This is good narrative non-fiction, delineating the scientific concepts of photography and botany, whilst remaining true to telling Atkins’ life. You can buy it here. 

the brontesThe Brontes by Anna Doherty
Another picture book that frames the world of important women in a single hue, this time a turquoise minty green. Of course, these sisters are well-known to many, but may be accessed for the first time by readers of this picture book, as it is squarely aimed at a young audience. Illustrations dominate the pages, as Doherty documents the girls’ life story from their childhood through to publication, illness and death.

A family tree starts the book, and individual profiles of the sisters and Branwell come near the end. The story is inflected with the author’s own perspective, clearly infused with feminist undertones as she explains how the sisters first published under male pseydonyms. The text is simplistic but clear, and the author takes the opportunity at the end of the book to articulate further social history, exploring why the Brontes were so fantastically feminist.

The book is marvellously attractive, speaking not only to the power of women, but to the power of imagination and story. An inspirational book that makes the world of the Brontes feel intimate, and fascinating. First in a series. Other titles include Ada Lovelace and Michelle Obama. You can buy it here. 

grace hopperGrace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu
With a rhyming poem on the endpapers introducing the scope of this lively picture book for youngsters, ‘Software tester. Workplace jester. Order seeker. Well-known speaker…’ the reader is immediately engrossed in this enthusiastic exploration of how Grace Hopper discovered computer code and became a trailblazing STEM advocate. What’s intriguing about this book is that it highlights that women’s involvement in computers and tech isn’t a recent phenomena  – Hopper was engaged from the beginning – she was a pioneer.

Hopper developed a ground-breaking way of writing computer code, as much from her understanding of how things work, numbers and logic, as from her intuition and creativity. The book carries that perpetually important message of determination and perseverance, especially in the face of adversity, and ends on a high hopeful note.

The full-colour, almost cartoonish illustrations provide an insight into the zest and energy that powered Hopper, from showing her as a frustrated but determined and curious little girl, to a hardworking, brave and intrepid Navy employee. Her insatiable curiosity and her ability to step away from code to find the answers in life as well, show her as a fully rounded, identifiable human. This is an informative and aspirational picture book – you’d do very well to show this to your sons and daughters. You can buy it here. 

one shotOne Shot by Tanya Landman
Ever since my parents took me to see Annie Get Your Gun in the West End as a child, I’ve had a thing about Annie Oakley. With numbers like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, and ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’, who wouldn’t be inspired by this trailblazing feminist? Landman’s novella on Annie Oakley’s childhood, One Shot, (which is completely fictionalised) is just as powerful and poignant, although in a very different way. Set in the later part of the 19th century, this sometimes disturbing, haunting book imagines Annie’s harsh upbringing – the death of her beloved father, her rejection by her mother, and her abusive treatment by adoptive parents (there are references to rape).

But mainly this is a compelling historical visualisation of the social normalities that Annie had to fight in order to prove her worth as a sharpshooter, to rebel against the constrictions imposed on her because of her gender. Powerfully dressing herself younger so her rebellion looked more excusable to outsiders, and her constant seeking of parental approval, are both markers of the nuance and depth of Annie’s character that Landman has imagined in her novella. Written for a reading age of nine, but with teen content, this is another example of a strong inspirational woman fighting for survival and recognition, and beautifully conjures the landscape and political reality of America at that time. Landman cleverly incorporates Annie’s bravery into her fight to do what feels natural, even though it is classed as unladylike, and also showing her courage in admitting her abuse to her future husband. The chapter in which she steps into the shooting competition with Frank Wilkes made me want to sing again. I’m hoping Landman will bring her own targeted eye to writing the next part of Annie’s life. You can buy it here. 

ariane grandeUltimate Superstars: Ariana Grande by Liz Gogerly
Hot on the footsteps of the wildly successful Ultimate Football Heroes, comes this new series on ‘superstars’, a loose concept, but so far comprising Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. It doesn’t matter how famous a person is for these biographies, it’s the journey to get there or the quirkier achievements that make for a decent life story.

The focus for Ariana Grande is, of course, the bombing at her Manchester Arena concert in 2017, and this is where this life story starts and ends, and is dealt with sensitively, making much of the fans, and also her shock at the time and sympathetic nature afterwards. Grande’s life story has been one of success after success from early days as part of the cast of 13, a ground-breaking all-teenage production on the Broadway stage, to Victorious on Nickelodeon, and then onward to her music career, including performing in front of President Obama at the age of 21.

Success may have heralded success, but the book documents Grande’s tough skin, her hard work and determination, her efforts and affinity with fans through social media, and her supportive family, including her much-loved grandfather. For fans, a must. For others, I’m generally of the opinion that a subject needs to be slightly older to have a truly interesting biography. Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez publications follow in May. You can buy it here. 

gloria's voiceGloria’s Voice by Aura Lewis
A good premise to showcase the influence and achievements of feminist Gloria Steinmen needs more explanation in this picture book for a young audience. Illustrated in throw-back 1970’s oranges and pinks, the text is simplistic and yet in some places rather cryptic – simplistic in the language used that explains how Gloria dreams of being famous, yet cryptic in that it fails to explain the name or influence of her magazine ‘Ms’. However, it does explore the aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and it does draw attention to global inequalities that Steinmen witnessed then, and that persist now. So this is an interesting biographical text that may stimulate further curiosity. Watercolour illustrations range from the fantastical to the strange in showing Steinmen playing unhappily with a dolls’ house, representing her care-taking role in her mother’s illness, to a rather strange portrait of Steinmen flying ‘a la Wonder Woman’ above a suburban neighbourhood. Extra information at the end gives some context, but really the text needs more explanation from the beginning so that young readers understand why Gloria was so influential. You can buy it here. 

Fiction Books with Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Dyslexia and Writing: Amber Lee Dodd

lightning chase me home

There’s a glut of new middle grade books arriving this January, and it’s intriguing for a reviewer to try to pick up on a ‘trend’ or theme running through them. What were the writers preoccupied with while they were writing, what did they want to say?

Amber Lee Dodd’s Lightning Chase Me Home feels personal from the beginning. Told in first person narration by Amelia Hester McLeod (named for two explorers: Amelia Earhart and Lady Hester Stanhope), this is a heart-wrenching tale of a girl embarking on a new adventure herself – starting a new school. Amelia is immediately endearing – and struggling – her mother is absent, Amelia suffers from dyslexia, and to make matters a little more complicated (and fictional), after she makes a wish on her eleventh birthday off her small Scottish island on the Serpent’s Tooth Rock – she finds herself magically disappearing and reappearing elsewhere. Will she work out why, and can she use it to find the courage to push through, and maybe, maybe could she use the strange power to find her mum?

Lightning Chase Me Home is one of those treasured novels for the 9+ audience, packing in a great plot, some magical realism, but also issues that dominate ‘primary school and beyond’ discussions – how to deal with an elderly grandfather who doesn’t always remember where he is, managing with the emotions invoked by an absent parent, the constant building of resilience and harnessing bravery, and the power of folklore and magic to explain our own small lives. Dodd has a gift for identifying the makeup of a person – be it the objects that help to define us and our relationships, the difficulties some children have in learning or making friends, and how schools and parents deal with this, and the understanding that not all people are what they first seem.

Amber Lee Dodd portrays her main character with an acute sensitivity, but manages to weave in magic, a sense of great explorers of the past, and an endearing friendship that feels as real as it is strong. Below, she reveals why Amelia is so close to her own heart.

As someone with dyslexia, I thought that writing and reading were impossible. Before secondary school, I had real struggles with reading. In fact I hated it! I hated reading, I hated writing and I hated books. I sat in my special needs classes reading Fuzz Buzz books. Books about a blue spiky ball with enormous legs who never did anything more exciting that remark on the weather. If this is what books are, I thought, there is no point in me learning to read.

amber lee dodd
Amber Lee Dodd

But even when my teachers gave up, saying I was hopeless, my parents refused to. They would make me read through my reading books again and again. I ended up memorising them from the pictures before I could make out the words. Slowly, painfully, I started to recognise words, memorise them and store them away. My word bank began to build, until one day, like magic, I realised I could read.

After spending so long struggling to read, when I finally could it felt like I had personally discovered books. At school, I would pour through Tintin and Asterix comics. I read every book on how to care for everything from puppies to pet spiders. Then I found even more books to fall in love with, The Worst Witch series, Jacqueline Wilson’s books and Malorie Blackman’s. Once, I spent a whole day on a kitchen chair with Double Act wishing desperately that I could be a twin.

The only thing better than reading turned out to be writing.For a long time it was the one and only thing at school I was good at. I found that I could invent stories from thin air and filled pages of my exercise books with big wobbly writing and dramatic inky pictures. I once even made my teacher cry with one of my stories. Writing stories became my super power.

And I want to share that power with everyone. So here are my top tips for dyslexic writers (and for non dyslexic writers too).

Firstly, don’t worry about your spelling. I still make massive spelling mistakes. My first book had a spelling mistake in the very first sentence and it still went on to be published. Plus writers get to work with magical people called copy editors and like teachers they can fix all your spelling mistakes. Being creative does not include being an expert at spelling!.

Secondly, read. And read lots. Don’t worry if you’re slow about it. It still takes me about a month to finish reading one book!  But I take a lot of that book in. And I still go back and reread things if they didn’t make sense to me first time or I jumped a few lines. It may be a slow process, but the advantage is you can learn more from it and start to unravel how the author put things together.

Thirdly, don’t worry if you’re doing it differently. My dyslexic brain makes me jump all around a story narrative and I often have to write quite a bit before I can sort out the plotting. Find a way to organise your thoughts and ideas that works for you. Some people make visual diagrams,or come up with places their characters visit and fit the plotting around that.I write lots of lists and notes and flow charts often on the back of used envelopes. There is no right way, only the way that works for you.

And lastly, for me the best way to start a story is just to start writing it. Write that first line. Make it intriguing, or scary, or funny. Make it the best first line you can think of. Then think of who that first line is about. How are they feeling? And what’s happening to them? Stories are all about questions and finding the answers to them is half the fun.

There’s much to extrapolate in Lee Dodd’s second novel, many issues and great characters, but in essence, Lightning Chase Me Home is a good adventure story. Amber Lee Dodd’s first novel, We Are Giants, is reviewed here, and you can purchase Lightning Chase Me Home here.

Cover Reveal: Good Boy by Mal Peet, illustrations by Emma Shoard

In our busy lives, it’s not often that a book arrives and sweeps everything else away – work, washing, worrying. The late Mal Peet had a way with words that was more than immersive – his stories have the power to create not only belief in the authenticity of the story, but a whirlwind of sensation and wonder, a lasting sense of intelligent thoughtfulness. Good Boy is an unsettling novella, published by Barrington Stoke in a slim yet captivating volume that features Shoard’s emotive illustrations, enhancing and emboldening Peet’s text. With content aimed squarely at the YA audience, yet a reading age of 8, this is an accessible story, an examination of fear that leaves the reader ruminating and discussing long after the final page.

Sandie has been battling it since childhood: the hulking, snarling black dog of her recurring nightmare. Although a solution is found during childhood, it is the black dog’s return in adulthood that will test Sandie’s courage to the limit…

I’m delighted to showcase the cover for Good Boy. For me, Emma Shoard’s cover bristles with both menace and vulnerability. What do you think? Read Emma’s view below:

good boy

Emma Shoard says:

Though this cover went through quite a few variations, we always wanted it to show the black dog and for the overall impression to be dark.

I wanted to make something of the juxtaposition between the image of the nightmarish black dog and the title, Good Boy. I like the way that it makes you look again and see his moon eyes and hunched shoulders in a different light, perhaps interpret the posture as protective, curious, monumental even, not just menacing. I needed this to come cross in my illustration so it took quite a few attempts to get him right. The result is a design which I hope reflects the ambiguity of Mal Peet’s story.”

Fear stalks us all in some way or another, and this is a masterful way of exploring where it comes from, how it manifests itself, how we deal with it, and if we can overcome it.

On reading the novella, the reader senses immediately the confidence of the writing, the simplicity of the story, yet the powerful insight of Peet’s observation and reflection. A girl is comforted by ‘the biscuity smell of her mother’s bed-warmth’, a dog has ‘wet black button’ eyes in a patchwork head, a building on an estate is ‘a huge slab of a place jutting rudely up into the sky’. And Shoard’s illustrations run through a gamut of feelings with just a few brushstrokes – a mother’s embrace, a pet dog’s vulnerability, the darkness that lurks in us all. A haunting, captivating, ambiguous story. Don’t miss this one. It’s published on 15th March 2019.

Zebras and Lollipops

On route to take my younger children to school, we have to cross four roads. Two are minor, and two are main roads, neither of which two years ago had a zebra crossing. I decided to use my campaigning skills to petition the council and Transport for London to install one on the school’s road. And to my delight, a year later, they did. Now I use it about four times a day, and it serves the local park too.

phantom lollipop manAnother school that has a zebra crossing outside, is Izzy’s school in the Pamela Butchart book, The Phantom Lollipop Man, illustrated by Thomas Flintham. This seventh book in the ‘Baby Aliens’ series continues the exploits of Izzy and her friends and their school. In this title the friends are shocked to discover that their lollipop man has disappeared. Instead, they feel an unsettling coldness even when wearing tights, and start to see wispy clouds in the playground. Could he have died and now be haunting the school? So Izzy and her friends determine to find out.

On the surface, this is another exuberant adventure from brilliant comedy writer Pamela Butchart. The text flows with Izzy’s characteristic breathlessness, driving the reader through the plot and as always staying true to the brilliant friendship group, each member clearly distinguished by their character traits.

But what makes the book so endearing, other than the CAPITAL LETTERS, illustrations and energetic use of dialogue, is Butchart’s complete comprehension of schools. From her understanding about the importance of blu tack through to school office workers’ signs and the attitude of lunch supervisors, this is imperative as young readers feel a sense of familiarity with the world being created.

And although the books are hilarious – this one in particular had me laughing out loud every few pages and is definitely the funniest so far – there is an insightful compassion for the community of a school – the way that each component is dependent on another, and some real truths about what we value in society.

Izzy and her friends point to the lack of value we place upon certain people – lollipop workers included (but also perhaps, the school officer workers, the librarians, careworkers etc) and how important their roles are, and how they should be recognised. It’s a subtle message underlying the hugely comedic text, but a vital one. And Butchart also points out the loneliness that can be experienced in old age – when juxtaposed with the intense intimacy of Izzy and her friends, it becomes even more apparent.

This is a superb book that deals with community, values and society, and rounds off nicely with good use of the library and empathy for other people. A riotous, happy, storming success. A really top series for newly independent readers. I hope they keep coming. You can buy it here.

zebra crossing soul songOn a similar theme, but for teen readers is Zebra Crossing Soul Song by Sita Brahmachari. This is a book published by dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke, and is suitable for a reading age of 8, even though its subject matter is for teens. But it’s an enjoyable read for all.

Lenny has spent most of his eighteen years crossing the nearby zebra crossing, aided by the singing ‘zebra man’ Otis. But when Otis isn’t there anymore, Lenny, who is himself struggling as he sits his psychology A-level, looks back on his memories of them together, through music, and finds a way to move forwards.

Cleverly, the fixed point of the zebra crossing gives a clear focus for Lenny to look back on his school years from nursery to A-Level as he reaches a crossroads in his life. And the shared passion of music gives Lenny and Otis a clear bond, and also a vehicle for Brahmachari to use music as a distinguishing feature in her novel, as the story is written in music memory tracks – music as a recall mechanism, but also as a form of writing in its own right – like a poem.

When Otis disappears, Lenny uses his knowledge of psychology and memory, as well as music to find out what happened in Otis’s past to affect his future, and discovers that not only does music hold a bond with the past, but a vital component of Lenny’s life going forwards.

This is a cleverly woven piece, with a sympathetic bond between two people, and, as in Butchart’s light-hearted book, an awareness that although some people aren’t highly valued by society, they are highly valuable as individuals and in the role they play. Lollipop men and women are there to save lives – and sometimes literally do, and they play a positive role in shaping the community they serve. Sometimes it’s the quiet people who make the difference. You can buy it here.

 

 

Armistice Day

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Adventurers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

great adventurersAlistair Humphreys’ Great Adventurers, illustrated by Kevin Ward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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