family

The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

skylarks warQuoted in the bibliography as an influence, and reading almost like an homage to Testament of Youth, Hilary McKay’s latest novel The Skylarks’ War is a highly readable, beautifully imagined story of a girl coming of age during the devastation of World War I. Clarry and her older brother are largely ignored by their single parent father, but spend their summers in glorious freedom in Cornwall at their grandparents’, where wonderfully charismatic and free-spirited cousin Rupert rules the roost. But when war breaks out, family and friendships are wrenched apart, and the Skylark summers seem a thing of the distant past.

McKay has a remarkable gift for writing. Her characters are fully rounded, developed people who you want to stay with long after the last page is turned. Clarry reads like a warm hug, Rupert is exactly the heroic soldier one would fall for, and Clarry’s brother Peter is a complicated, sensitive sort – he heart-wrenchingly jumps from a moving train to avoid boarding school and damages his leg, with only the reader fully aware of the consequences of his actions, seeing as war will erupt a few years later.

Also lending heart and soul to the novel is Simon, Peter’s friend from boarding school, who gives the reader a glimpse of the social history of the piece from the knowing standpoint of a more enlightened future. Simon, as much as the reader, is patently in love with Rupert, but of course homosexuality was forbidden then.

As well as character, McKay writes with specificity, elegance and precision in her portrayal of the time, lavishing period detail, but more intelligently, rendering the emotions of the time so clearly – leaving the reader with a sense of the social history without in any way preaching. She shies away from anything too gruesome in her sparse prose about the Front, but there is enough tension and heartbreak to transport the reader to the desolation of that time and place.

McKay concentrates mostly on the home front, managing to include both the suspension of time for women left at home as they waited for news and letters, but also the occupying of that time and the growth of importance of women as they took up roles in society away from the domestic sphere, and become more visible. Above all, what marks the book is the amount of hope and courage portrayed, and the feeling that Clarry’s breathless determination and grit will prevail.

This sort of storytelling is reminiscent of those great classic novels – the gathering of the family around letters from Father in Little Women, the closeness in relationships in Noel Streatfield novels, the insight into women’s feelings in Testament of Youth.

Marking the centenary of the First World War, this is a most beautiful introduction to that time period for children, and an unforgettable classic read. One of the best children’s books this year – do not miss. For 9+ years. You can buy your copy here.

Rituals and Community

Although on the surface it would appear that the following three books are vastly different – a historical novel set in the Philippines, the first in a new fantasy quartet, and a dystopian novel published in 1993, I notice that they all rely heavily upon a coming-of-age ritual for their plots. Today in modern society, we still have coming-of-age rituals be they religious such as a bar mitzvah, or secular such as the transition to high school (made into quite an ordeal with end of primary proms, new uniform shopping, perhaps the purchase of a new phone etc.)

Each culture focussed in the three books has their own coming-of-age ritual central to their community – it marks the turning of children into adults and in all three cases gives them their adult role in the community. Each ritual is incredibly different but they retain similarities in design and all are deemed important by the community – indeed these societies are each bound as a community to the rituals, rules and beliefs that they inherit. And questioning of the rituals, rules or beliefs threatens the community…

bone talkBone Talk by Candy Gourlay
Gourlay’s latest novel sees her attempt to give voice, with a first person narrative, to the native Filipino’s view of history as she describes a boy on the brink of manhood in a tribal village in 1899. Although she fictionalises her story, this is a rare view of history in this land, seen before only through the eyes of occupying forces or anthropologists. Samkad is about to undergo the ‘cut’, the ceremony that turns him from boy to man and lets him join the warriors of his tribe who are fighting the headhunting enemy.

Samkad’s innocence is apparent immediately. He has never met anyone from outside his tribe, or been beyond the marked territory of the village’s paddy fields, and he also enjoys his time with his friend Luki, a girl who is also desperate to be a warrior, although held back by the view of gendered roles within her tribe. However, his innocence is not seen as a negative, and Gourlay writes intelligently about how he thrives within his community, and the importance of the community’s ‘innocence’ – the fact that they are undisturbed.

However, it takes more than a cut to make a man, and when Samkad’s coming-of-age ceremony is derailed, and a pale-skinned man, an American, arrives, Samkad and the reader learn that experience, not necessarily ritual, is what changes a person.

Gourlay is terrific at describing the landscape of Samkad’s village, from the mountains of rice paddies to the trees that surround them, but mostly at the intricacies of the customs of the tribe, the hierarchical structure of their community, and the rituals, sacrifices and beliefs that bind them together. Soon, it’s clear that the existential threat to the tribe comes not from enemy headhunters or snakes, but from the Americans, who aren’t as friendly as they first appear when they come bearing sweets as well as guns.

The story is fast-paced and written with an immediacy and visceral quality that immerses the reader in Samkad’s way of life and his emotions. Gourlay tells the story with an immense sensitivity towards the way of life she is describing but also with heat and power. The Americans bring a different kind of knowledge to the tribe – some of which is good and useful, and some of which is highly dangerous. As well as exploring these ideas, Gourlay poses questions about the nature of land ownership and territory, about warfare, and community, about changes that come from within as well as what happens when new people arrive. The story is about culture, belief, loyalty and the meaning of community and is historical fiction at its finest, with a fresh and invigorating outlook. Age 10+. You can buy it here.

storm witchStorm Witch by Ellen Renner
Another child facing her rites of passage ritual is Storm in Storm Witch by Ellen Renner. Now 13, she must undertake the Choosing ceremony to see if she will be claimed by one of the Elementals: Air, Water, Earth or Fire, and this Choosing will determine her course in life – her vocation. This is a fantasy novel set in some distant land at an unspecified time, but it’s clear that inspiration has been taken from a rural life – Storm’s village community lives from the land – pots are fired, food is fished or hunted, and cloth is woven from natural product. This is a place and time in which technology hasn’t been harnessed.

In a highly unusual occurrence, Storm isn’t chosen by one Elemental, but three, turning her into a witch, and one whose powers are not understood even by the village Elders, headed here by a matriarch. When the village is under threat from the Drowned Ones, (a separate tribe who live at sea) will Storm be able to harness her powers to save her community and particularly those she loves?

Renner has built her world around the power of the elemental forces of nature, and throughout the novel Storm’s people either harness the power for their own use, or suffer its dangers. This works cleverly, so that fire is a dangerous element with the power to destroy, but also of course with the nurturing power to bring heat and light. Water too is dangerous if combined with wind, but is useful in providing a way of passage to trade, and also for its fish. The reader feels at one with nature too reading the book, as though the sound of the sea is a constant backdrop to village life.

The magical elements are woven naturally into the landscape and don’t feel too fantastical, more a way of life and part of the rituals and beliefs of the society Renner has created. But what stands out most is the authenticity of her characters. Storm is a great teenager – on the cusp of womanhood but still bound into childhood squabbles and fighting, split between the childhood of her younger cousin and yet wanting to be part of the adult conversations, and desperate for adult wisdom and knowledge. She is modern in her outlook – her haste and impatience showing through, but also her loyalty and love. The other characters are fully fleshed too, from Storm’s patient mother to her guide and Elder, Teanu.

This is another community set apart and cut off from others, and so strangers are unusual, and when one arrives he brings excitement and danger. This novel too is fast-paced and powerfully written – and although I am generally not a great fan of fantasy, I remained gripped and bound to Storm’s world. Age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

the giverThe Giver by Lois Lowry
This isn’t a new book or even a new edition, but rather was a summer read for our family, and intersected with these other two books so neatly that I couldn’t help but mention it. For those of you new to it, The Giver tells of another community – set in a dystopian future, cut off from the rest of society and indeed from history. It follows a boy called Jonas who is also approaching his ceremony of adulthood – when at 12 the children are assigned the jobs and roles they will play within the community for the rest of their lives. However, Jonas is given a rather different job than the rest of his cohort: he is to be the new Receiver.

This is an unsettling futuristic read about a ‘utopian’ world in which all aspects of pain and suffering have been removed, and fairness rules. Each matched couple is given two children, a boy and a girl, whose own adolescent stirrings are repressed with medication. None of the community has memories, and the elderly and those who don’t fit are ‘released’ with great celebration.

Lowry gradually builds up the reader’s awareness of the world as they progress through the book, so that the reader is more and more unsettled,  until the full scale of the ‘utopia’ becomes apparent. When Jonas receives his new job, and starts to be fed memories of what human society used to be like (in order that he can dispel advice and wisdom to the Elders), the reader realises what the community has sacrificed and the path they have chosen, most unwittingly, and the reader’s moral compass kicks in to question which elements make life worthwhile and valuable.

This is a fascinating allegorical book that stimulates questions about how we live, about difference and sameness, about memories and creativity, about beliefs, rituals and community. It’s dark but simply told so that the horrors creep up stealthily. Lowry’s skilfulness in writing is immediately apparent. The prose is disturbingly simple and information is only drip fed until the reader is so immersed with Jonas, so emotionally entangled and engaged that they could not possibly release him without reading to the end.

It’s a powerful and provocative novel and poses many more questions than it answers. Age 11+ years. You can buy it here.

 

The Lost Magician by Piers Torday

the lost magicianWhen I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a child I had no conception of the word ‘allegory’, and certainly hadn’t grasped the idea that I was reading a story that CS Lewis described as ‘supposal’: “Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there.

Piers Torday has taken Narnia to heart in his latest novel, The Lost Magician, writing it he says as an homage to Narnia. And although there is no Christian allegory, there is definitely much ‘supposing’, and a supposition of a world that mirrors our own in presenting conflict and argument and much darkness, except that, in Torday’s Folio (his version of Narnia), there are talking bears and a self-doubting unicorn.

It is 1945 and Simon, Patricia, Evie and Larry have survived the Blitz, despite the scars it has left on their memories. They arrive at Barfield Hall, a country house, where lives a female professor involved in experimentation revolved around imagination. Through a portal in a strange library in the attic they stumble across a world called Folio – an enchanted kingdom of bears and knights and other creatures found in stories, but also of futuristic fluid metallic robots. These two factions are at war, and the children’s learned horrors of their own war teaches them that they must stop this war, the key to which is finding the lost magician – the creator of the library who has been missing for centuries.

On the surface this novel is a good classic adventure story, with a cast of empathetic children who feel far more authentic than the Narnia quartet, with an intrusion of real world scars into their psyche. Simon, the eldest, has his perceived ideas of masculinity on display, wanting to show his prowess to emulate his war-hero father. Evie experienced trauma in the war, whereas for Larry, the youngest, shown still clutching his teddy and bumping him up the stairs (a la Christopher Robin and Pooh), the rubble of the Blitz was merely a grand landscape for exploration. With them all, their witness to the horror of war informs their decision making.

And the world of Folio that Torday has conjured feels as well-drawn as Wonderland. The reader can see the beauty of the green countryside of fairy-tale land – the house of the three bears, the trees, the fields, the wind buffeting the foliage. And yet also, all too clearly, the metallic glint of the oppositional city, with its enduring light glowing like a beacon of future possibility, and the metallic people, strong and upright.

So on one level this is, as Narnia, a simple trip into a new world through a portal in the old, told in gripping, pacey language with tension and pathos and humour, with Torday’s marvellous descriptive language carrying the reader through with a light touch of his magic pen. And yet, there is so much more when one looks beyond the surface enchantment.

Of course there are literary allusions within the text. Nuggets of Narnia are dripped like gold leaves into the novel, and any novel that uses a library as a portal is bound to make use of the literary canon of children’s literature, and a particular action sequence reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark….

But peel further, and the layers of the novel reveal much much more. Whereas Larry enters Folio through the shelves of ‘Read’ books – representing fiction, Evie enters through the UnReads – the books that represent the facts of the future, the non-fiction. And there is still another shelf in the library through which no-one enters, but which poses the greatest existential threat of all – the Never Reads. These represent ignorance.

When the children enter Folio, they discover that the Reads are at war with the UnReads – a clash of fiction and fact, of fairy tale characters and fact-based sci-fi robots. Larry chooses the Reads, as one would expect from the way he treats his teddy as a live being. Evie ‘betrays’ the other children by choosing the UnReads, wanting to believe in the bright shiny future of hard fact. Here, Torday is clever to draw some ambiguity over the ‘truths’ given by the Queen of the Unreads – a shady figure although physically illuminated in bright numbers, with a body that’s essentially fluid – much like her facts. She is mirrored of course on the White Witch.

By casting his war as story vs fact Torday is speaking to the very heart of what is happening in our society today. The battles in the book are ferocious, the sides pitted heavily against each other; a fractious world of polarised arguments in an angry climate. Here truth is twisted to lies, story is laid as propaganda, news is fake, and trust is misguided.

But this is a novel, and so Torday waves his wand to provide some clarity. The children discover that stories, even of one’s own past, are crucial in providing explanation for our world. That knowledge is valuable and true facts worth remembering, that imagination can provide a crutch when dealing with our own reality.

And yet all this is at risk from the fire and fury of the Never Reads – the ignorant. This last ‘shelf’ of books poses a threat to both the Reads and the UnReads. Whether the threat of the ignorant recalls the Nazi book burning, or Trump’s reported lack of reading will depend upon the reader – and this too is where Torday makes another point. This book is about the power of the reader, and particularly the child as reader – again a paean to those Victorian and Edwardian children’s authors, Carroll, Lear, Barrie, Milne, and CS Lewis who understood the deep influence of the literature people read when they were children, and the power of the child to see wonder in the world.

By the hopeful end (this is a children’s book), the reader understands their own power and also how to use it wisely in reaching across the gulf to understand another’s point of view, recognising that humans have more in common than that which divides them.

There is much more here too – the importance of libraries, a clever nod to the evil of numbers in WW2, building the new without destruction of the old, an understanding that not all children are avid readers – Simon in the novel is dyslexic in a time when dyslexia wasn’t recognised. But above all, there is the beauty of Torday’s writing in telling a good story.

The Lost Magician proves that Torday is on top of his game in spinning the storytelling magic – this magician is anything but lost and any reader who picks up the book will be well and truly found. You can buy it here.

Joy by Corrinne Averiss, illustrated by Isabelle Follath

joy
What makes us happy? Is it our genetic makeup, our life circumstances, our achievements? We constantly strive to be happy, but happiness can really only be a fleeting sensation, for without experiencing some low points in between, we wouldn’t know what happiness is.

The little girl called Fern in the picture book Joy also strives to find what happiness is, and to catch it. She is a lively active girl, with a hearteningly good relationship with her grandmother, who bakes butterfly cakes, and smiles. But one day, her grandmother – Nanna – seems down. The colour has ebbed from her page, her paintings hang skewwhiff, there are cobwebs on the mantelpiece, and a wheelchair where once there were cakes.

Fern asks her mother, who tells her that the joy has gone out of Nanna’s life, and so Fern endeavours to capture some to take to her. This brings on a beautiful few pages that try to capture where Fern finds joy – getting the giggles, or dancing with her father. In the end, the feeling is summed up with a ‘whooosh’.

Unfortunately, Fern can’t package this whooosh of joy for her Nanna – it won’t fit in her cardboard box, or stay in her butterfly net. And yet, when she goes to Nanna and spends time telling her about her joyful exploits, the joy comes back into the room in a phantasmagoria of colours. And once more there are butterfly cakes.

The illustrations are both fresh and traditional. Nanna is pictured as a stereotypical older woman – white hair in a bun, glasses on a string, and in an old-fashioned armchair. And yet the butterflies rise from a cake in a stunningly fresh kaleidoscope cascade. Fern plays with old-fashioned toys, and yet the people in the park are a diverse mix – some seem from today, others even from Edwardian times. Perhaps because ultimate happiness doesn’t change over time.

In fact there are numerous devices here to bring happiness to the reader. The contentment on Fern’s face, the use of the word ‘whooosh!’ to express how Fern feels about happiness or joy, the beautiful colour wheels used to express the bounce of a puppy, the chuckle of a baby, and the repetition of the happy words.

Follath’s exploration of colour, using mainly ink, pencils and watercolour is exceptionally stunning here, quite literally bringing joy to the reader. The careful delineation of the park and all its various elements, the exquisite ability to capture innocent expression in Fern’s face as she gathers her catching materials, and of course the abstract spreading of colourful ‘joy’ throughout.

Some negative comments on the book have pointed to how easily it offers a way out of Nanna’s depression, and doesn’t give the illness the gravitas it deserves. I’d disagree. Moments of sadness don’t always equate to depression. In fact Nanna is shown with all the colour seeped from her world, but so is Fern too at one point – when she finds she can’t capture joy in a bag. She isn’t suffering from depression – it’s a momentary sadness, just as happiness and joy can be momentary too. Nanna’s does seem prolonged, and some readers have suggested, more serious – but there’s little harm in showing young readers that there are good days to be found even with periods of persistent sadness.

There is no reason given for Nanna’s sadness, although I speculate it’s more about ageing than it is about depression, but the essence of the book is not to explore this. It’s to explore happiness – and that it’s not equated with ‘taking’ behaviour, in terms of what we have or possess. Joy isn’t in our possessions in the same way that it isn’t something that can be physically possessed. Instead, happiness is about ‘giving’ behaviour – about giving of ourselves to others, and by that making them and us feel good. Fern’s time with Nanna gives the greatest joy to them both.

And within the book it’s this inter-generational behaviour that stands out for me. The book shows what joy it can be for different generations to connect and develop an ongoing interdependent relationship. And how emotion is transient. You can buy it here.

if all the world wereAnother book that deserves a mention and seeks to explore this relationship is If All the World Were by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys. This picturebook is about exploring the death of a grandparent, but deals with it sensitively. What it does have in common with Joy is to explore the quality of the time that the grandfather and his granddaughter spend together -through the different seasons and engaged in different activities. And they have created a vast bank of memories for the girl to hold onto.

Coelho is a poet and it shows in the lyrical text, which is both touching and filled with analogies and metaphor. There are also hints of cultural inheritance, as the grandfather imparts his own childhood stories to his granddaughter. Of course the book is laden with loss, but the intimacy and warmth of the colourful illustrations lessen the load, and what remains is the inherent tenderness of this intergenerational relationship. You can buy it here.

Fabulous Fashion

fabulous hat
When I was a little I was obsessed with a small picture book called The Fabulous Hat by Joan Hickson. It’s out of print now of course and sells second-hand for about £20, but then it was a small 32 page pint-glass sized book illustrated with the most luscious psychedelic drawings. (It was published in 1970).

My fascination was not only with the dazzling bright pinks and oranges, but also with the fact that the main character, a small girl called Louisa, goes shopping with her cool older sister in an array of wonderful clothes shops but everything she tries on is too big, whilst her sister looks fabulous in everything and buys it all. Louisa gets fed up but finally finds a hat, which is indeed fabulous.

And of course to my eyes now, the hat is far from ‘fabulous’ – it looks like a shower cap.

polka dot shopFashion, and retro fashion, or vintage, is near the top of the agenda in Laurel Remington’s new book The Polka Dot Shop. But Remington brings it right up to date in this very modern tale about a girl living with her single, depressed mother, and trying to make the right choices – in friendships, fashion and finally business.

Andy’s mother runs a kooky boutique selling vintage clothes, but unfortunately it’s not doing very well. Meanwhile, her school decides to revert to a non-uniform policy, and what everyone wears to school becomes super important. (And every mother’s worst nightmare I should imagine). Andy’s wardrobe is full of her mum’s shop cast-offs – pre-owned clothes and accessories, and none of it passes the fashion police test. She longs to buy brand new high street clothes.

Then Andy finds a bag of designer goodies in the shop, and everything changes – just not quite in the way she expects.

Not only is this a heart-warming tale of friendship and first romance, written in an easy-going contemporary style, but if the reader digs deep, they’ll find a story that resonates deeply with modern life. The throwaway culture of our modern clothes obsession – buying cheap and disposable clothing, the disintegration of neighbourly awareness and community that goes hand-in-hand with the demise of our local high streets, and a creeping proliferation of mental ill-health.

That’s not to say this is a depressing novel – not in the slightest. In fact, the text and content is bouncy and full of warmth; with zest for life and hope for the future. Remington shows that the relationship between the generations is key for future prosperity – (not monetary) but finding fulfillment. When Andy and her friends reach out and learn from the histories of the older generation – particularly the man who runs the fish and chips shop next door – and when Andy reaches out to understand her own mother, then things fall into place, and Andy and her friends can hatch a plan for the future that benefits all.

What’s also magical is that Andy makes plenty of mistakes. She learns to fail and by failing, learns to succeed. It’s good to find this message in a book for this age group.

By connecting to the past and learning from it, Andy finds a new future for herself and her mother. And it’s the cast of characters around her that helps too – Andy finds it hard to make friends, and when she does, they each have their own challenges but create a support network and camaraderie to help each other through. When Andy meets her ‘boy next-door’, and they communicate properly, they are able to finish the project they started in winning style.

This is a fabulous book that doesn’t need psychedelic illustrations to bring it to life. It’s bursting with life and energy already, and would look good on any catwalk. I have a signed copy of this book to giveaway. Just find me on twitter @minervamoan and RT my tweet about the book. Or you can buy it here.

octopantsSticking with clothes, but for younger readers is Octopants by Suzy Senior, illustrated by Claire Powell. This cheeky little picture book is published on 12th July, and in rhyming verse encompasses all my woes of looking for the perfect pair of jeans.

Octopus is looking for the perfect pair of pants. He’s laughed out of town by the shop sellers who explain that he has too many legs, and has no luck surfing the net either. Then the octopus discovers the Undersea Emporium, staffed by a seahorse, and filled with clothes (even with pockets) for all types of sea creatures. They still don’t stock octopants, but a little twist in the tale means that the octopus goes away happy.

Cartoon fish are probably every illustrator’s dream, in that there are so many colours, shapes and sizes to play with. Here, Powell has had great fun playing on words such as ‘surfing the net’ with her underwater scenes. All the illustrations are bright and endearing and bursting with colour and movement, and she’s managed to bestow a full range of emotions on the sea creatures, at which younger children will delight.

It’s often the small touches that turn a picture book from something ordinary into the extraordinarily popular, and the team behind this one have put in all sorts of fun jokes for both adults and children. Look out for the sign outside the changing room, the queues, even the title of the undersea newspaper. Just as Aliens in Underpants and The Queen’s Knickers remain firm favourites in the library and at home, I have a feeling that Octopants is going to continue the underwear success. It’s anything but pants. You can buy your own pair of octopants here.

 

The Boy Who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

boy who grew dragonsSo, this is not the first book about a young boy with a dragon pet. I bet you can think of a few yourself. Which begs the question, what makes this book standout from the crowd, what makes it so unique, good and worthy of the book of the week spot?

Tomas helps his grandfather with his unwieldy garden, and one day stumbles upon a strange tree growing the most peculiar looking fruit. He takes one of the fruits home, and later that evening is immensely surprised to discover a dragon hatching from it. What follows is the trials and tribulations experienced when hatching your own baby dragon.

But for me, Shepherd’s unique selling point is not her plot, although it moves with pace, but her ability to mix humour and fun with an intense pathos and understanding of human emotion. It is Tomas’ interaction with the other human characters that really pulls on the reader’s emotions – although there is plenty of fun to be had with the dragon too.

Tomas has a little sister Lolli, who although too young to talk, communicates and spars with Tomas brilliantly in her capacity as co-conspirator in hiding the dragon. Their alliance also demonstrates the uniqueness of sibling relationships – the bond that stretches from affectionate love and sharing of secrets and a helpful camaraderie at one end, to being able to blame the other for something they didn’t do at the other extreme.

The sympathetic grandparent relationship within the story also rings true, and draws the most pathos. Tomas loves spending time with his grandfather, but is torn with guilt between how much time he spends with him versus time with his friends, and Tom also shows an acute awareness, in a wondrous childlike fashion, of how delicate the relationship is as his grandfather gets older and more fragile. The feeling of not wanting to disappoint and yet also wanting to live his own best life compete beautifully within the plot structure.

This gamut of human emotion also stretches to Tomas’ new pet dragon. Feelings of responsibility compete with curiosity and awe, the knowledge of having something different and special and being the envy of one’s peers, and yet knowing that the dragon is precious and special and not merely for showing off – in fact it’s a live being with feelings of its own.

There are some lovely touches here – the timidity of the dragon at first, the portrayal of its physicality as it learns to trust Tomas, and Tomas’ inventive efforts to control the poos and treat his dragon correctly.

But none of this overshadows the sheer fun and vivacity of the novel. Shepherd brings out every flourish of her imagination in Tomas’s discovery – from the tree itself with glowing fruit, to the different types of dragons, their combustible poos, and how difficult dragons are to capture and hide.

Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations here do what they did for the characters in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series, and she brings to life the tree, the dragons and characters with limitless expression. These are warm, animated, engaging illustrations that almost seem to move across the page.

This is a sumptuous start to a new series, bursting with energy and humour, yet tinged with the darker side of life too. There’s a grumpy neighbour, aware but preoccupied parents, an eclectic group of friends, a strange gardening guide, nomenclature of dragon pets – so many facets all covered and explored. A perfect example of domesticity interrupted with a touch of magic. Dragon fruit will never look the same again! Happily for 7+ years; you can buy it here.

Exploring the Hidden World of the Young Carer

Ruby's StarMister P is the most delightful creation – a cuddly, sympathetic polar bear, whom the publishers describe as a mashup of Mary Poppins and Scooby-Doo. The bear enters the lives of those who need him most, trying to change things for the better. Readers first met Mister P when he visited Arthur, who needed some help to feel less jealous of the attention afforded his younger sibling. In this latest book, Mister P visits Ruby, a ten-year-old girl with much on her hands. She is a young carer. Ruby looks after both her mum and her baby brother Leo, as well as trying to do things other ten year olds do, such as go to school. The last thing she feels she needs is a ridiculous giant polar bear trailing after her. But as before, it turns out that Mister P can open doors for Ruby and provide her with new opportunities, different insights, friends, and finally a change in situation and behaviour – all for the better.

What’s most interesting is that there are many children’s books out there that introduce an imaginary friend, or a cuddly creature to help and advise and make the child’s life better, but mainly they are unseen by the surrounding characters, particularly the adults. In this case, the polar bear is most definitely seen – in fact rather than be viewed as something surprising, dangerous or challenging to the little girl he’s with, he’s most often seen as an irritation, something to be angry about, or amused by. Farrer’s use of the ‘friend’ device is different then. Perhaps it contains a small undercurrent of anger – because the adults very clearly see the polar bear and find that it is in their way, but they are blind to Ruby’s difficulties and struggles. They are not able to be empathetic or even sympathetic. The one adult who does understand immediately dives in to Ruby’s life to help her and is the shining example in the novel, followed by Ruby’s Headteacher, who finally seems to take notice of Ruby – but only after seeing the polar bear. 

Farrer writes with care and compassion in her portrayal of a struggling youngster with a depressed mother, and her touches of humour make this an easy and encouraging read for youngsters – the big text helps too. Daniel Rieley’s warm illustrations, although in black and white, also convey a world of colour and imagination and laughter. Here, Maria Farrer explores why writing about young carers was so touching and is so necessary:

No-one knows exactly how many young carers there are. Their role is often hidden because it is something they feel reluctant, unable or scared to talk about. Some have never known anything different and accept their responsibilities as a normal part of everyday life.

Estimates suggest that there are around 700,000 young carers in the UK, but the real figure is likely to be higher. A young carer is someone under the age of 18 who looks after, or helps to look after, a relative with physical or mental health problems. Sickness, disability, depression and alcohol or drug addiction are just some of the responsibilities that young carers take on in an attempt to support someone they love. Caring involves providing physical and emotional support and often taking on domestic duties such as cleaning, shopping and cooking as well as managing finances. Many young carers find caring a positive and rewarding experience and feel that they manage well. However, when the responsibilities mount up, there can be knock-on effects into other aspects of life—school, friends, academic attainment, confidence and self-esteem. Many find it hard to get out and relax. If a parent or sibling is unwell, there isn’t much ‘down-time’ as the worry and concern stays with you wherever you are—often more so when you are away from the home.

Ruby’s Star explores the challenges of being a young carer. Ruby was 9 when her Dad left and she now looks after her Mum who has mental health issues and her baby brother, Leo. Like many young carers, she rarely complains and is justifiably proud of the way she manages. She is tough and determined and capable—most of the time. But when things get really rough she has no-one to turn to and feels isolated and afraid. Her Mum has told her that she mustn’t talk to anyone about the situation at home in case the family gets split up—and there is no way that Ruby is ever going to let that happen. So she battles on alone, often exhausted and stressed, often in trouble at school and occasionally letting her frustrations spill over in the form of aggression and anger. Ruby doesn’t resent her responsibilities, but there are times when she just wants to be a care-free child and enjoy the things that other children enjoy—like skateboarding.

So when a large polar bear arrives and moves in to Ruby’s already crowded and hot flat on the 15th floor, it is pretty much the last straw. Another mouth to feed, another thing to worry about. And it is hard to go unnoticed when you have a polar bear in tow; a polar bear who doesn’t always do as he is told. It is through the arrival and antics of Mister P that Ruby accidentally gets to meet the wonderful Mrs Moresby on the floor below and life begins to change.

Researching for Ruby’s Star made for some pretty sombre reading. Apart from the arrival of a large polar bear, the problems faced by Ruby are similar to those faced by many young carers. When you are exhausted, it is hard to keep up with school work and sometimes hard to even stay awake at your desk. You may be absent from school a lot or too consumed by worry to concentrate on lessons. You may feel misunderstood, overwhelmed, lose friends, experience bullying. The fear of your home situation somehow being ‘discovered’ is very real and makes you increasingly isolated and lonely. The need for a support network or a trusted individual is paramount.

We need to build a greater awareness of young carers and to make sure that they know that it is safe to discuss and share their experiences without the (usually unwarranted) fear of heavy-handed intervention. Sharing brings understanding and empathy and many schools and authorities are aware of the young carers in their midst and help to support them.

We should also do more to celebrate young carers—the job they do and the responsibilities they take on from an early age are phenomenal and it would be great to let them know that they are valued, not just by those for whom they are caring, but by all of us (polar bears included!).

Further information and help can be found at:-

https://carers.org/about-us/about-young-carers

www.actionforchildren.org.uk

www.nhs.uk/conditions/social-care-and-support/young-carers-rights/

With thanks to Maria Farrer for her insightful guest post. You can buy Me and Mister P: Ruby’s Star here. And join me on twitter @minervamoan to win a copy of both Mister P books. 

Empathy Day: Robin Stevens

empathy dayMore and more, I tell parents that reading helps their children to develop great empathy skills. There’s even scientific evidence that points to this: the empathy we feel for book characters wires our brains to have the same sensitivity towards real people (Marr et al 2009, Exploring the Link Between Reading Fiction and Empathy). In fact, with hate crimes at high levels and growing polarisation of opinion, we’d all do well to harness a little more empathy. Empathy Day this year falls on June 12th, and was introduced by EmpathyLab as a call to read more, share more and do more – putting the empathy we learn from reading into our everyday actions. As part of this venture, the children’s author Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike, The Guggenheim Mystery, etc, has expressed her own feelings on the power of empathy:

The 12th of June is a very special day: it’s Empathy Day 2018, and I’m very proud to be taking part in this year’s celebrations by visiting Kenilworth Primary School.

Empathy Lab, which Empathy Day has sprung from, is a wonderful and important initiative. Empathy is a word to describe three very human qualities: the ability to understand how another person is feeling, to sympathise with them about that feeling and then to decide to do something to make their life better. But although empathy is a big part of how we connect as a society, it’s a quality that needs to be practised, especially early in life. Children can be taught to be more empathetic, in a very measurable way, and when they are every aspect of their educational and social attainment improves. Simply put, empathetic children do better in school, and they will go on to achieve more highly in adult life – it’s pretty obvious that schools should be focusing specifically on empathy in their educational strategies.

But, of course, empathy is not really about giving benefits to specific groups of children, although that’s a wonderful outcome. It’s about benefiting society as a whole, and the events of the past few years have reminded us forcefully how important it is to have an empathetic society. It is sadly very easy to be hard-hearted, to see immigrants and members of other races and religions as less than yourself. Being empathetic is more difficult. It means opening yourself up to the truth that your way of life is not perfect and that you are not the most important person in the universe. Doing this mental work and then using it to effect real-world change can be painful, embarrassing and destabilising. But it is entirely necessary.

Teaching empathy to children means that when they are faced with these challenges in later life, they will find them less confounding. I want the next generation of adults to find it easier to reach out across visible differences, to put themselves in another’s shoes and see how to improve the world not just for themselves but for others.

guggenheim mystery

Books, especially those with strong first-person narrators, can help this learning process by showing young readers the world through another person’s eyes. I am so proud that my book The Guggenheim Mystery has been chosen as one of 2018’s Read For Empathy titles. Writing it, and stepping into Ted’s unique and wonderful mind, was a process of empathy for me. Ted has what he refers to as a ‘syndrome’, a neuroatypical brain that is very different from the brains of the book’s other characters.

I used what I do have in common with Ted (our love of mysteries, our fascination with facts, the anxiety that sometimes grips us both) to help bridge the gap between my way of seeing the world and his. It was a learning process for me both as a writer and as a person, and I hope my readers can experience either an empathetic voyage of discovery as Ted goes on his quest around New York City, or a sense of joy at seeing a neuroatypical person a little like themselves starring in a fun, exciting story.

guggenheim mysteryI loved writing The Guggenheim Mystery, and I am so excited to be talking about it, and about the important of empathy, during this year’s Empathy Day on June 12th. I hope that you’ll join in however you can – by promoting empathy among your friends and family, by talking about the stories, both fiction and non-fiction, that have made you more empathetic, or just by reading a very good book!

Thank you for being part of this. Please do join in on Empathy Day itself – 12 June – by sharing your #ReadforEmpathy books.

How to join in  

  • Share ideas for empathy-boosting books using #ReadForEmpathy @EmpathyLabUK
  • Use the free Read For Empathy Guide to 30 children’s books – at empathylab.uk
  • Follow this blog tour to hear the powerful voices of the authors and illustrators involved
  • Hundreds of schools and libraries are already taking part. Gt a free toolkit from info@empathylab.uk
  • Use the ideas and free downloadable resources at  http://www.empathylab.uk/empathy-day-resources

With thanks to Robin Stevens for her fascinating blog, and you can follow the rest of the Empathy Day blogtour here:

 

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

ghost boys‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ is a question most children’s authors face at some point in their career, or on every school visit. I’ve noticed that some of the best stories spring from tiny news items hidden away on the side columns – little quirks of human misadventure. But sometimes a book springs from a really big news item. Ghost Boys is a story that is meant to bring to mind the shooting of Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy shot by a police officer in Ohio in 2014.

It’s a powerful story upon which to set a children’s book, but seeing as it involved a child itself, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be the subject of a book for this age range, especially when the author deals with the subject so sensitively, making it accessible without hiding or covering up.

Parker Rhodes has moved her story to Chicago, where twelve year old Jerome walks to school, does his homework, looks after his little sister, and tries to keep his head down. But when new boy Carlos moves to the school from San Antonio, he shows Jerome that having a toy gun can keep away the bullies. And the police officer mistakes it for a real gun, and shoots Jerome dead.

Half the story is told after the event, as Jerome’s ghost looks at what is happening after his death, and half is the recap of what happened up until Jerome was shot. It’s a compelling way to tell the story and lets Parker Rhodes introduce her ‘ghost boys’, all the other boys who have died as a result of prejudice, including the famous Emmett Till.

The case of Emmett Till is well-known in America for being a huge influence on the civil rights movement, and what happened to him is explained thoroughly within this book, and although graphic, is dealt with sensitively and honestly, bringing history to life by letting Till tell his own story to Jerome’s ghost.

But it is the one living human in Jerome’s story who can see his ghost that brings the story up-to-date and literally breathes life into it. Sarah, the daughter of the police officer who shot Jerome, is able to see Jerome’s ghost, and through their dialogue, they come to understand the impact of the incident on both families. It is through this interaction that the reader is able to explore racism and prejudice, and come away with the author’s plea that the readers learn from history.

Written in short, sharp, fairly graphic chapters, this is an engaging, fast-paced book, which is also wise and authoritative. Jerome’s death is explored within a context of racism, but also within the context of his own life – exploring his relationship with his sister and grandmother, his hopes and dreams, encounters with the bullies at school, and the significance of his place in society, his upbringing, his schooling. All are factors that make up the boy, and Parker Rhodes skillfully interweaves all the elements that divide Jerome and Sarah, as well as the basic human traits that unite them.

In the end, a young reader will come away with a greater understanding of the consequences of ingrained prejudice, the divisions in society that need to be healed, and the importance of life itself. You can buy it here.

Lucky Break: Rob Stevens Soars High

lucky breakI picked up Lucky Break by Rob Stevens whilst attending an event with Andersen Press, and my little testers loved it so much they said I must feature it. 

Leon is grieving for his twin brother, who died in a car accident. Since that fateful day, his mother has been ridiculously over-protective of him, and his family seem to have somewhat fragmented. When a new boy, Arnold, pitches up at school, Leon and he strike up a friendship.

But Arnold isn’t like anyone Leon’s met before. He’s honest, takes everything completely literally, and yet manages to get to the heart of everything and everyone. Over the course of one weekend, Arnold and Leon get into madcap capers and scrapes, playing sports and taking part in adventures that his mother would shudder at: busting the configuration of the slot machines and running away with their winnings, breaking windows, mistakenly robbing a bank, and yet they come out trumps in the end – Arnold helping Leon and his family to come to terms with their grief, and Leon helping Arnold finally make a friend. It’s a bittersweet comedy, written with pathos and insight, and in a smooth, easily readable style.

But after reading, I made a discovery. Rob Stevens, like so many children’s authors, doesn’t write full time. In fact, he’s a pilot, and one of my not-so-little testers dreams of aeroplanes, has aeroplane posters on the wall, and goes plane spotting. Perhaps he’s waved at Rob in the sky. So, with the assistance of Andersen Press, and to please my not-so-little tester, I asked Rob to provide me with his five best things about being a pilot:

My new novel, Lucky Break, published this month but writing isn’t my full-time job. I am a British Airways Captain, flying the A380 all over the world. Here are the five best things about being a pilot.

  • The A380 is a double-decker superjumbo – the largest passenger plane in the world. Being at the controls of an aircraft like that is simply a boyhood dream come true!
  • After a long flight I usually get about 48 hours off to relax and unwind before flying home. This is the perfect opportunity for me to forget about the rules and regulations of flying a passenger jet and let my imagination go free. Most of my books are written in hotel rooms and cafes around the world and I find writing the perfect counterbalance to life in the cockpit.
  • No two days at work are ever the same for me. Whether I’m avoiding thunderstorms over the equator or coping with heavy snow in Washington, I never quite know what the day ahead has in store.
  • I meet all sorts of interesting people in my job – passengers and crew. I get a lot of ideas for characters in my books from the people I meet at work. Often a single expression or a turn of phrase can be the catalyst for a whole new book.
  • I love all sorts of active sports and my job allows me to pursue them in some of the most exotic locations. Just this year I have been skiing in California, kitesurfing in Indonesia and walking the Dragon’s Back in Hong Kong. No wonder my sons say I don’t go to work, I go on holiday!

Thanks to Rob Stevens. I highly recommend his book, for ages 9+ years, which published on 3rd May and is available to buy here