family

The Stone Bird by Jenny McCartney and Patrick Benson

One of the most beautiful picture books I’ve read this year, this story about the power of imagination marries the wondrous lyricism of both illustration and text so that the reader becomes completely immersed in the narrative, the emotion and the possibility of the story.

Eliza picks up a stone from the beach. But this is no ordinary stone. She is determined in her knowledge that it is an egg, and is not surprised to find that the stone cracks and a stone bird appears. An alive stone bird.

This simplicity is part of the beauty of this book, which seeks to explore a child’s resolve in her imagination, a steely belief that magic can happen. The story explores patience – in Eliza’s ongoing steadfastness to her ‘bird’, all through the change of seasons, her mum’s doubts and even slight mockery:

Her mother smiled, “It’s too hard to be a bird.”

“Well then,” said Eliza, “it’s a hard bird.”

And yet also, by the end, the story explores the ability to let go.

The narrative clearly takes the perspective of Eliza, but what brings Eliza to life for the reader, in the same way that the stone lives for Eliza, is not only Eliza’s speech, which is particular to her and encompasses her character, but also the expressiveness of her personality through her relationship to her friends, her school, her playing.

The illustrations are exquisite. The shifting perspective of the illustrator – seeing Eliza sometimes from above, sometimes up close, sometimes from the back – allows the reader an intimacy with the protagonist. We see how strands of hair pull across Eliza’s face, how she holds her pencil, how she lets her sandals slip from her feet, her scuffing through autumn leaves, and the crouch position on her haunches as she scoops the pebble from the sand.

Because Eliza experiences such joy and pain with her stone bird, such frustration and satisfaction at different times, the reader is constantly aware of the nuances in her emotional state through her behaviour. The delight at first discovery, the irritation and sadness at her mother’s skepticism, the wonder as the bird emerges, even the concentration as she colours in a drawing. There is so much attention to detail and close up that readers will feel as if they know, or indeed, have become Eliza.

Patrick Benson is the illustrator of Owl Babies, and once again he has achieved a picture book that feels fresh and original, and yet appears classic at the same time. Designed with the narrative at the heart, there are superb touches, such as the white space surrounding Eliza at her most miserable, and the author’s adept understanding of the simple pleasures of childhood:

“Not even the idea of her birthday made her smile.”

And also the ability of the author/illustrator to understand when to flood the page with illustration, such as the double page magic of the Christmas spread. It feels intimate, homely and yet imbued with a hint of wistfulness too.

A compelling, lyrical, superbly illustrated picture book that matches the power of imagination with the power of books. You can buy it here.

Christmas Books Roundup 2017

““Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo” (Little Women), but for me, presents means books. So, if you’re looking to treat your children to some rectangular shapes in their stockings and under the tree, here are my highlights…

Picture Books


Oliver Elephant by Lou Peacock and Helen Stephens (Nosy Crow)
My top pick for the season is definitely this heartwarming Christmassy through-and-through tale about a Christmas present shopping trip, in which mummy has a long list, a pram to manoeuvre, her children Noah and Evie-May, and Noah’s toy elephant. With sparkling rhythmic rhyming, and huge attention to detail in the department store colourwash illustrations, this will make every reader feel that magical Christmas time aura. There’s much to love in the familiar tale of a temporarily lost toy in a large store, but Peacock and Stephens manage to inject their own personality onto the book, with lots of love, expression and minute detail. I love the mittens on strings, the busyness of the store, the flushed faces of the customers, the diversity of the cast, and the wonderful emotion on the face of the mother (tired yet happy), and Noah (small in a world of big things). His playfulness with the elephant, and the frustrated sympathy of his mother is pitch perfect. And of course, there’s a happy Christmas ending. You can buy it here.


The Princess and the Christmas Rescue by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton (Nosy Crow)
This hilarious picture book for Christmas manages to combine fairy tale allusions (it is about a princess after all), feminism (girl engineers), and an ironic Amazon-like present-picking machine all in a neat sing-song rhyme. But mainly, this is an adorable rhyming picture book about finding friends. Princess Eliza loves to make things, but her parents are worried at her lack of friends. When the Christmas elves run into trouble in the busy lead-up to Christmas, Eliza steps in to help, and finds that as well as being a super duper inventor, there’s fun in friendship too. Exquisite illustrations in bright colours that mix the essence of Christmas (ribbons, elves, cosy armchairs by the fire) with ‘Wallace and Gromit’ type inventions. Christmas bliss. You can buy it here.


All I Want for Christmas by Rachel Bright (Orchard Books)
Rachel Bright is superb at wrapping moral lessons in her books, and this Christmas treat is no different. It’s not an illustrated version of Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit, but it does carry the same message – as well as cookies and trees, and presents and roast dinners, what this Big Penguin really wants is love. Yes, this is about penguins, not humans. Shown first in a snowglobe on a mantelpiece, the story opens up to explore the penguins’ world in the lead up to Christmas. Cute illustrations, and a fabulous spread in the middle that shows miniature vignettes of Big Penguin and Little Penguin busy doing the ‘hundred things’ to get ready, this is an adorable read. You can purchase it here.


Last Stop on the Reindeer Express by Maudie Powell-Tuck and Karl James Mountford (Little Tiger Press)
The next title also features a family with a missing adult, but here they are human, and there is a more pronounced emphasis on families who can’t be together at Christmas time. Mia’s dad can’t come home for Christmas, but luckily for her, she stumbles across a magical postbox with a door to The Reindeer Express, which manages to convey her to her father for a Christmas hug, and still be back with her mother for Christmas.

Karl James Mountford’s illustrations feel globally Christmassy, with muted earthy tones, in particular a profusion of rusty red, as he conveys a timelessness to the images – from the dress of the people, which feels old-fashioned, to the takeaway cups of mulled wine, which feel up-to-the-minute. With maps and explorers’ articles, and a globe-trotting reindeer, the book feels as if it’s digging into a magical time of exploration and discovery, as well as showcasing a homely setting with snow outside the window. Our heroine wears glasses and is an eager and curious child. But what sets this book apart is its production. With thick pages, peek-throughs and cut-outs, and the most tactile cut-away cover, this truly feels like a gift. Romantic and yet curiously real. You can purchase it here.


A Christmas Carol: Search and Find by Louise Pigott and Studio Press
Another beautifully produced book, with silver foil on the cover, this classic Christmas story is retold with search and find scenes – both the characters and setting are illustrated at the outset, with a brief summary of author and text, and then the story is told through double page illustration scenes, alongside an illustration key, which asks the reader to find certain people and objects (such as five red robins, a wistful scrooge, and the ghost of Christmas yet to come).

Through minimal text but large illustrations, both the characters and their narratives are revealed. It’s clever, and wonderfully appealing, in that it’s a book that could be shared, and certainly pored over, as each scene is so wonderfully detailed. Answers, are of course, at the back. You can purchase it here.

Chapter Books:
Three chapter books for you, each from an established series, but this time with their ‘Christmas theme’ stamped all over the cover and narrative. My testers (little kiddies) adore all three series, and couldn’t wait to read them – so they won’t be under my tree!


Polly and the Puffin: The Happy Christmas by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty (Hachette)
I have the distinct feeling that the children and I like this book for very different reasons, but that’s the joyous element of this book, which is written to be shared by being read aloud (with references to hugs, and an authorial voice).

Polly and Neil (her real puffin) are all ready for Christmas, but it’s only November, and such a long time to wait. And then things start to go wrong. Will it ever be Christmas? Will the puffling hatch? Will Wrong Puffin find his way home? There is a huge infusion of wit and personality here – from Polly’s moods, and her quirks (from calling the toy puffin Wrong Puffin, to her grumpiness with her real puffin, Neil) to the illustrator’s humour (see the contented yet oblivious cat lying on the sofa, the wine bottle from Christmas Eve and bleary parents at Christmas Day morning). The narrative voice is warm and comforting, just right for Christmas Eve. There are loads of extras at the back too – recipes, activities and jokes. Buy it here.


Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Jingle Bells by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton (Nosy Crow)
This pair of cake-baking, crime-solving dogs are never far from mischief, and the delight of these little books is that they each contain three stories in one book – good for short attention spans and first readers. Only the first story is Christmas-themed, with the delightful Santa Paws, but the other two tales are equally strong and eventful: Sea-Monster Ahoy! and Lucky Cat. With plentiful illustrations in two-tone colour, lots of lively language, and fast plots, these are lovely little bursts of entertainment. You can purchase it here.


There’s a Dragon in My Stocking by Tom Nicoll, illustrated by Sarah Horne (Stripes)
Lastly, and for slightly older readers, this Christmassy addition to the fabulous ‘There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!’ series continues the adventures of Eric, who was first introduced when he discovered a mini dragon (Pan) in his takeaway dinner. In this funny sequel, Pan’s parents arrive down the chimney. Looking after one dragon and stopping fires was bad enough, but now Eric has three on his hands, and his parents are entertaining on Christmas day. When disaster hits their lunch plans, it might just be that three little dragons come in useful. As well as being huge fun, Nicoll captures the family personalities beautifully, especially annoying Toby from next door, and his Mum (complete with mobile phone!). You can buy it here.

Happy Christmas shopping.

The Beautiful Game

Football has always been a part of my life. I’ve never played, but I’ve watched and been lucky enough to visit many stadiums in Europe. But the reason I call it ‘the beautiful game’ is because for many of my reluctant readers, football can be a great pull into reading. This latest crop of books appeals in many different ways – each book may be ‘football themed’, but each is distinct in its approach and subject.

Striker Boy by Jonny Zucker
Nat has spent most of his life travelling with his father, after his mother died, leaving them both heartbroken. Most particularly, he spent a year in Brazil, honing his incredible football talent. When Nat and his father move back to England when Nat is thirteen, he is appalled at the house his father has bought, and completely fed up. But then he plays a footy game in the park, and every boy’s dream comes true for him – he is spotted by a scout.

The scout is from Hatton Rovers, the team he supports. However, there is more than one problem. Hatton Rovers is facing relegation and the club needs saving. Nat is only 13, but tall enough to pass for 16. Will they break all the rules and sign him up for professional football?

When the unthinkable happens and he starts training with the first team, it turns out things are even more complex than he thought, and the club’s veteran striker takes an instant dislike to him. As Nat suspects all is not what it seems, a sports reporter suspects the same about Nat…

This is a fun, exciting and pacey book with a solid main character. What’s more, the plot goes beyond football and delves into thriller territory with plenty of action on and off the field.

Footballing readers will envy Nat for his rare talent and luck in being spotted, but there is also evidence of much camaraderie among certain team mates, and the volatility of training – the on/off days, injury and team selection. Overall, Zucker shows that players are rewarded for hard work and loyalty, but that even within the golden world of top-flight first team football, there are moral dilemmas to face.

The most striking quality about Striker Boy though, is the complete zest and enthusiasm Jonny Zucker shows for the game, his characters and the story. It makes the reader want to be a teen again, to be trying out for a team again, and retain the dream of playing for a top side.

Nat is so engaging as a main character, a fabulous yet flawed boy with an empathetic nature and a good heart, so that the reader can’t help but root for him, even when he makes wrong choices. Every manager would want this kid in their team, and every librarian will want this book in their library. An excellent novel for age 8+ years.

The book has been re-published to raise awareness of mental health, after the very sad passing of author Jonny Zucker. Profits from the book are being donated to the charity Mind. You can buy it here.

Kick by Mitch Johnson
Twelve-year-old Budi works full time in a sweat shop factory in Jakarta stitching, or, if the foreman’s feeling mean, boxing football boots. He dreams of playing for Real Madrid like his hero Keiran Wakefield. But Budi’s life is a million miles away from his hero’s. Life in Jakarta is hard: he doesn’t live in the deepest slums, but there is no money for his education, and his family are struggling to get by.

One day, when he’s playing football with his friends, and they kick a ball through the window of local landlord and gang leader The Dragon, Budi will have to risk everything to pay his fine or end up dead.

This is a startlingly refreshing football novel in that it introduces a whole new way of looking at the beautiful game, and also gives an interesting perspective on a very different way of life, far removed from its Western world readers. Although some of it may be shocking to some young readers (it does contain a reference to prostitution and does climax with some violence), and the way of life itself may shock others, it also shows the similarities between football-mad children across the world. The things that Budi has in common will resonate here, such as an ongoing interest in food, football mania – both watching and playing – and most of all friendship.

In fact, above all, this is a beautifully perceptive tale of friendship between Budi and his older friend Rochy. Rochy is certainly more worldly wise, but he lives in even worse circumstances than Budi. In the end, though, the sacrifices he makes for Budi pay off, and the novel ends surprisingly, although without resorting to complete fairy tale transformation.

There is also the burgeoning relationship between Budi and his grandmother, as she relates stories to him that help him to make sense of his world, and his place within it, as well as steering him towards making the right choices in life.

The one weakness in the text is the reader’s difficulty in envisioning Budi’s entire situation. The streets and his home don’t feel described fully enough to visually create a sense of place in the reader’s mind, but Budi as a character is so well-rounded and his dreams so delineated, that it’s easy to fall under his spell.

This is a clever way into discussing other issues in the guise of a football story, and as the pundits say, ‘nice one’. You can buy this novel for 9+ years here.

  

Ultimate Football Heroes: Iniesta, Bale and Gerrard by Matt and Tom Oldfield
I honestly can’t get enough of this series of books, and nor can my library kids. These three are the latest to pop through my letterbox. The books have now divided into two series: Ultimate Football Heroes, which features popular players of the moment such as Iniesta and Bale, and Classic Football Heroes (which everyone wants to be eventually), which focusses on retired all-time favourites such as Gerrard. Each book is a self-contained biography of the individual player, but written in a child-friendly accessible way.

With each there is much to admire. Particular highlights for me are the amount of dialogue within each text – there is lots of engaging conversation to move the story along – and also the underlying message in each text, that no matter the person’s talent, it still takes an incredible amount of hard work, determination and ambition. No one wins medals by taking their journey for granted. In the Iniesta book, the authors are keen to show his innermost thoughts and fears at the start – a young player being away from his family, but kept in check and reassured by teammates. The language may not be the most literary, but as a way into reading for the target age range, this is a great jumping off point.

These newer additions also have some extra data and YouTube web links at the back of the book for watching videos of key moments. I’m not a huge fan of web links – they are so easy to get wrong, but the few I tried worked, and it’s a neat way of enticing the reader. Pick your player here.

F2 Football Academy: How to Play Like a Pro by F2 Freestylers
If you’re a fan of YouTube and football, then this last book will probably appeal. Written by Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch, known as the F2, these two men present football entertainment, tutorials on skills, and banter on their YouTube channel. The book is a spin-off; the text reads as they would speak it: “Our tekkers was bang on form.” It’s certainly not for everyone, but for fans, it treks through Brazil, tactics, skills, injuries, interviews, and is packed with full colour photographs and solid advice, such as to keep on trying. You can buy it here.

Storey Street Giveaway Week

Scaredy Cat, Scaredy Cat was published last month, the last book in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series. The series has tracked the lives of the children in Storey Street, from Jake in Demolition Dad, which sees Jake persuade his father to become a professional wrestler, and deals with issues around depression, to superhero-obsessed Mouse in Superhero Street. This second book concentrates on finding one’s place within a family. The War Next Door features street bully Masher when he encounters kindness for the first time, which transforms his bullying behaviour. The fourth and last, Scaredy Cat, Scaredy Cat follows the adventures and coming-of-age of Kay, a supremely nervous child who meets Wilf, in the guise of a wonderful wizard. Dealing with grief and fear, this is a charming finale to the series.

Kay’s father keeps Kay on a tight rein, terrified that she’ll succumb to disaster at every turn – he even cuts the corners from loaves of bread to keep her safe. Stemming from the loss of Kay’s mother in an accident, his obsession with health and safety stifles his daughter and manifests in her extreme timidity. But Kay has an obsession with wizards, and when she meets Wilf, she learns that inside her, a mighty lion roars, especially when it comes to standing up for what’s right. In the end, she finds that magic comes from  everyday occurrences and kindnesses, not always from a wizard.

What distinguishes the series as a whole is its gentle humour, as well as it’s coming together of a street – peeking behind the doors to see the interiors of the houses and what’s inside the minds of each person, no matter how they portray themselves to the world. Phil Earle’s voice casually talks to the reader as the story moves along, in both a self-referential way as the ‘writer’ behind the words, and also as a kind and wise guide through the world. This is a world in which community is key, and lessons are learned through actions – whether it be not judging someone for the clothes they wear, or a community pulling together to give somebody in desperate circumstances the help they need.

Earle’s voice has enormous heart, and manages to portray the extraordinary wit, pathos and depth of ordinary people, and often people with little money or resources, and those for whom life has dealt a harsh handout.

There’s also, of course, the bold, detailed, and wickedly humorous illustrations of Sara Ogilvie that enhance each book and bring each character to life vividly and emotionally. To celebrate or rather commiserate with Phil Earle on the ending of this funny series, I’m offering five readers a copy each of the first in the series, Demolition Dad. Just find me on twitter @minervamoan and retweet the relevant tweet. Ends 1st November, 2017.

Sky Dancer by Gill Lewis

So, the Arts and Humanities Council is attempting to find the UK’s favourite book about nature. This is no easy feat. There are so many wonderful books about nature, but I think the children’s book world excels in this. My book of the week the other week was The Lost Words, and you’d be hard pushed to find a better paean to our natural world. Yet, there is another writer who is doing a great deal to draw the attention of the nation’s children to the natural world and our environment. I reviewed Gorilla Dawn by Gill Lewis a while ago – a revelatory novel that brings the world’s attention to the gorillas affected by coltan mining, but in Sky Dancer, Lewis hits a spot closer to home, basing her novel here in the UK, and returning to the style and themes that led her to write Sky Hawk in 2011.

Her latest novel for children, Sky Dancer, addresses the issue of the hen harrier, one of the most threatened birds of prey in the UK, remaining rare due to habitat loss, weather and illegal killing. It’s this last aspect that Lewis tackles in her book, but this novel is not an ‘issue’ book – it’s an incredibly insightful, emotional picture of who we are, and how we are shaping modern Britain.

Three children trek the landscape of this startlingly astute novel: Joe, reeling from his father’s death, and caught in the middle of a battle for the fate of the hen harriers who nest in the heather of the moorlands where he lives. There’s also Minty, the stylish confident daughter of landowners who use the land for grouse shooting, and for whom the hen harriers are a nuisance, and lastly Ella, who seems to be a naive and rather insecure urbanite, but who manages to think as an outsider – finding solutions to which those in the midst of the struggle are blinded.

In the end, these three unlikely friends, find their way forward, and a way forward for the hen harriers. They are each drawn terrifically authentically, with clear ideas of their roots and social class, and their struggles and difficulties. Whether it be divorced or deceased parents, or simply parents with whom one disagrees, Lewis portrays the different make-up of families, and the way in which the children deal with their different situations.

Joe, in particular, is fascinating. He is at the centre of the struggle, torn sometimes between the two girls and their different views of past and present. He also has to face up to how his father acted and the consequences of that, as well as how his older brother is currently acting – what’s morally right, what’s right for his family, and what’s right for the environment. When these things aren’t the same, he has to reconcile his conscience with how to act. Told from Joe’s point of view, the reader is privileged to see what happens in his head, particularly as he’s a quiet child, loathe to speak in many cases. Lewis has accomplished a great character here, complex, sensitive and real.

Not only is the book a gripping read, but it also sparks thoughts on a range of topics: the fate of hen harriers, and the impact, and other preoccupations of the modern world such as accepting difference, the meeting of technology and nature, town and country, and questions of heritage; which traditions should continue and what needs to adapt.

Of course the book explores life on a hunting estate, in which grouse shooting is fundamental to its past traditions and current livelihood, and although that might feel remote to many young people reading the book, Lewis cleverly explores how it is not dissimilar to anywhere a child is growing up, in that there are the same battles and choices – the intertwining of community, loyalty, family and friendship.

Lewis writes with terrific empathy, eking out the reader’s sympathy for different characters at different stages of the novel, and she also evokes an extremely visual landscape, at the same time as propelling the plot – it darts along swiftly.

A captivating read that will make you think, and also imagine that you’re striding across the moors, scanning the sky for dancers. You can buy it here.

Hide and Seek by Anthony Browne

Antony Browne is a long-time stalwart of the children’s illustration scene, so it’s always a pleasure to embrace a new book of his. Hide and Seek bears all the attributes for which Browne is so acclaimed – seeing the dark side of ordinary, playing with perspective and the seen and unseen, exploring the liminal between light and dark. So it’s most fitting that the book deals with the childhood game of Hide and Seek.

Siblings Cy and Poppy have lost their dog in the woods. To distract them from their sadness, they start to play a game of hide and seek with each other. Poppy counts to ten while Cy hides. The reader sees them both – Poppy seeking and Cy hiding. By the end, the dog is found, the game finishes and comfort is restored.

But there’s so much more to this picture book than the description implies. It’s all about the seeking and what’s hidden.

There is something playful already in choosing such an ordinary staple childhood game, which has a lengthy history, and Browne lets the shadows in, allowing room for the dark side of this familiar game. One only has to look at historical depictions of the game in paintings to see that the very idea of hiding and seeking can be played with itself. Tchelitchew’s painting from 1942 displays an enormous amount of ambiguity in the hiding among the trees, likewise Meyerheim’s famous hide and seek game also takes place in a forest, with a child summoning the idea of fairy tales in the woods, as she hides behind a red shawl next to her picnic basket. There is menace in the entire concept.

 

The reason so many depictions of Hide and Seek games are set within woodlands is why Browne has chosen the route himself. Of course there’s a nostalgia for childhoods spent playing in wooded areas, but there’s also the startling effect of light and shade to be found among trees – what light seeps through the canopy and what doesn’t, and so leading on from that the feeling of menace that accompanies it. There’s a fear playing hide and seek in the woods – the fear of not finding whom you are seeking, or of not being found yourself. And the limitless space. A fear that just doesn’t exist inside a house (see Tissot’s 1877 painting Hide and Seek).

Browne’s brilliant picture book plays on these menacing fears. Strange shadows leap up behind the children. In places, the trees appear elongated and towering to further highlight Poppy’s fear. And Browne uses light deliciously to evoke menace at times – throwing shadows of logs across faces or illustrating the depth of the woods stretching out into darkness, but yet also showing safety and warmth with his vibrant tones of yellow when Cy is found, and green when the children return home. This last page holds so much – the light emanating from the caravan in the middle – with the implications of safe adulthood held in the large wellington boots by the door, the friendliness of the plants and flowers, the comfort of the tea cup on the table. Furthermore, it brings together the urban and rural with the towerblock peeking through the trees at the rear.

Throughout the book, Browne not only invokes the darkness that can lie in everyday life, but also provides elements of fun for the young reader – there is an assortment of items (listed at the back of the book) to find among the pages, items that slide out from the shadows and bend reality – whether it is a tap hidden among the branches, the shape of a giraffe among the trees, wood knots and knarls that look like common objects.

This tips the illustrations into surrealism territory, something for which Browne is famous, but it also provokes the question as to what each individual sees. When you read it with different children, they all spot different things at different times, and often, things that you certainly didn’t see first time round. In this way it’s all about ambiguity and perspective – the act of looking and the patterns within the world.

It’s also the perfect book for autumn – the lush carpet of red, brown and yellow leaves on the forest floor almost emit the crunch underfoot. You can play your own game of hide and seek here.

 

Eloise Undercover – WW2 and France: A Guest Blog by Sarah Baker

Sarah Baker’s first novel, Through the Mirror Door, is an historical novel with a time-travelling touch. There’s nothing supernatural about her latest book, Eloise Undercover, a historical novel documenting a girl’s assistance to the French resistance during the Second World War. Cleverly, Baker has set her novel in the same area of France as her first, using the same house, Maison de Noyer, as a focal point. This time, though, it is the Nazis who are occupying the space. With a couple of smartly dropped hints to her first novel, this latest is a sensitive and plot-twisting drama following those who were brave enough to stand up to the foreign invaders who persecuted minority groups. With a courageous heroine, luscious descriptions of baking, and a clever use of lessons learned from reading mystery stories, this is a wise and tender read. Here, Sarah Baker explains how it came about.

Eloise Undercover is set in France during WW2. Eloise lives a short bicycle ride away from Maison de Noyer, the house that appears in Through the Mirror Door. The book is a prequel, of sorts, and there are a number of reasons why I decided to set it during the Second World War.

Both my grandfathers and my great-uncle fought in WW2 (Major, Lieutenant Colonel and a Spitfire pilot). My great uncle would tell me stories, which I’d include in school projects, my favourite being the one where he was shot down, escaped from the Germans, was hidden by the French Resistance and then credited with liberating an entire town. Other tales I’d learn later, about Grandfather H wading ashore on D-Day carrying not a weapon, but a violin. His task was to get all the landing craft back to Southampton as fast as possible to bring in the next wave of soldiers. He was due to play a concert that evening, so to ensure he’d make it back, he took his violin to Normandy. Grandfather W, however, couldn’t bear to talk about it, so we didn’t. That led me to read everything I could, to understand why.

War stories are important and the Second World War is a period of history that’s close enough to feel real. It wasn’t that long ago (relatively speaking) and many of us had or have a family member that got caught up. We have excellent records of it, even films and photographs, as well as personal accounts. I think the scale, the magnitude of what happened, the horror, the bravery and the sheer human experience of it all draws us as readers and writers. We remind ourselves, and each other, how important it is not to forget.

It was really important for me to get the research right. I read a lot of middle grade and adult books, either set or written during WW2 (I’ll be sharing my bibliography very soon). I also did a lot of internet research. I work visually so I create Pinterest boards for each book to help me ‘see’ the characters and place settings. It’s really handy to be able to check the correct uniforms, weapons, vehicles and boats used too. I spent quality time at the Imperial War Museum in London and I asked my Dad a lot of questions (he’s a bit of an unofficial WW2 expert). My editor, Melissa, helped too. Any mistakes are mine.

But although Eloise Undercover is set during the war, it’s not simply a war story. It’s a tale of bravery and friendship and how far we’ll go for the people we love. I think, in the end, that’s what drew me to this period of history, a time of such fear, uncertainty and upheaval. I‘m thrilled to share Eloise’s adventures and a little more of Maison de Noyer with readers today.

ELOISE UNDERCOVER by Sarah Baker, out now in paperback (£6.99, Catnip). You can buy it here

 

 

The Snow Angel by Lauren St John, illustrated by Catherine Hyde


Writers love to inflict great harm on their characters – the more dramatic their downfall, the more a novel can pack a punch. And Lauren St John’s latest novel certainly puts her main character to the test. Sadly, it was the all-too-real plight of orphaned and abandoned children in Zimbabwe (those who have lost parents, become war children or refugees), which inspired St John to pen The Snow Angel. However, like all good children’s literature, it not only reflects the world but strives to find a positive note, an optimistic resolution, showing the goodness that can be found too.

Eleven-year-old Makena lives happily in Nairobi with her mother and father, and like her father (who is a mountain guide), she adores the mountains, and she hopes that one day, with his help, she will climb Mount Kenya. But, as can sometimes happen in life, one day everything she knows turns upside down, and she is orphaned and alone, and St John shows the reader just how far children can fall in a flash.

Although Makena is taken in by a family member, she is treated abhorrently, and runs away, managing (just) to carve a life for herself in the Nairobi slums. Here, surprisingly, St John changes perspective briefly to a third person adult point of view, an unusual proposition in a children’s book, to explore the narrative from a rescuer’s viewpoint. Makena, seemingly, is in too much danger and too weak to view what happens next. The introduction of an adult’s perspective here (Helen, a woman rescuing children from the slums) gives the reader a new insight and, then, once switched back to Makena, shows how redemption can come, although slowly, and happy endings abound.

The issues within this book are many and layered, and yet the reader never once feels as if they are reading an ‘issue’ book. The book touches upon ebola, famine, child soldiers and the like, explaining the reason for the multitude of children living alone in the slums, but far stronger than the issues is St John’s evocation of the setting – the beauty of the African mountains, the colour of the fruits and scents of food at roadside vendors, the wonder of flowers and plants, and the overriding sense of the healing power of nature.

Lauren St John keeps eking out pockets of hope even in the midst of Makena’s deeply despairing situation. From the friendships she forges around her, to the talk of inspirational people, to the optimism she encounters that shows her a way forward. This is mainly down to a character called Snow, another child all alone, who teaches Makena how to find the good in things – how to have ambition and believe in a future, and to see the magic in everything.

There is, in fact, not a blatant magic in the book, but a subtle undercurrent of coincidence, folklore, superstition and in the end, an animal that seems to be able to show Makena the right path, physically and spiritually. As with real life, there is wonder in the world if you look for it. This is brought to life not only by the story, but by Catherine Hyde’s subtle interspersed black and white illustrations, which increase the idea of magic, nature and this sense of wonder.

But overall, and what drives the narrative, is not just the goodness and kindness pointed out by St John, but the vivacity of the characters. Each child, in their struggle to survive, shows believable tenacity and courage, and each adult is rounded and real – not completely selfless, not completely faultless, and when it comes to the ‘baddies’, not completely evil. The characters are as diverse and vibrant as the settings.

Not every book is written for a reason, other than that there’s a great story to tell – but beneath the story the reader can tell that St John is attempting to influence her readers – getting them to see changes that can be made for a better future. The hardback copy comes complete with a ribbon bookmark, and you’d do well to bookmark the acknowledgements too, in which St John mentions a few ways in which children too could try to have a positive impact on the world, even if they don’t write their own novels. It’s an inspiring list, which I think Makena would try hard to complete. A great story, easy to read, and swiftly devoured. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Please note that I carried out some paid work for the publisher on the above title, but this is no way influenced my review of the book.

Writing poetry and prose: Brian Moses


Human beings like to classify and label things – it’s how we distinguish one thing from another, it’s how we name things to be able to convey and signify ideas to each other. One only has to look at John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding to see a grasp of these principles. In writing, we like to clarify the difference between prose – from the Latin meaning straightforward – and poetry. Tomorrow is National Poetry Day, and children in schools up and down the country will be pulling out poetry from their bookshelves, and hopefully reading it and enjoying it. One of our foremost children’s poets is Brian Moses, but this National Poetry Day, he’s also published a prose novel.

Of course sometimes the line between poetry and prose is blurred. Both communicate ideas, feelings, a story; and both play with language, crafting it so that what is said is not only communicated in language but also by the choice of language, the positioning of the words, the use of punctuation. Two authors (Sarah Crossan and Kwame Alexander) immediately spring to mind when crossing the borders between the genres, because most readers think about novels as being written in prose form, whereas these two write some of their novels in free verse poems. There are some who call poetry a form of art, and prose merely communication; but overall I think the distinction would have to be the sound crafted from poetry – the overarching stretch of the meaning by the way the poem sounds. With prose, the meaning is inherent within the text, held within it.

Python doesn’t ring with the same sounds as Moses’s poem, The Snake Hotel, for example (which you can listen to here), but it definitely strikes a chord of fear in the reader, and is written in clear, precise prose.

Daniel lives with his zookeeper father, and also with his father’s pet snake, a python residing in the attic. Unfortunately, Daniel is terrified of the snake and his imagination conjures up the horrors of the snake’s escape from its cage. But added to Daniel’s nightmares is his waking life, in which he is bullied by a girl gang who roam the streets on his way to and from school.

When he starts to study the Second World War at school, as well as taking refuge from the girl gang in his grandfather’s house, the stories of the past start to merge with Daniel’s current fears, and before long snakes, girls and ghosts of the past all converge.

Moses’ prose is certainly more straightforward than some of his poetry, but it still conveys plenty of emotion. A whizz with language, the author uses his prose form to whip the plot at pace, and with economy, so that action is always forefront, all the time managing to eke out enormous authenticity in the characters. From Daniel and his friend Errol and their believable camaraderie, to the relationship between Daniel and his grandfather – the weariness from boys who despair of that generation’s ‘going on about the war’ and so rarely visit, but also seek wisdom and enlightenment and eventually realise that their grandparents are real people with exciting stories to impart.

The book is set in the 1980s with all the freedom afforded to children that this entails – ghost-hunting on their own, and the lack of health and safety implied in keeping snakes in attics, and yet the novel also touches on parental break up and a child returning to an empty house from school – something that feels completely up to date.

An entertaining mix of history, the supernatural, contemporary families, and snakes. You can buy your own copy here.

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell


There’s so much chatter about ‘gender’ at the moment, so it’s liberating to see another children’s book with dual protagonists – a boy and a girl, both on a mission to overcome perceived ideas of who they should be and how they should turn out.

Set in a sort of long-ago Iron Age, in which iron defeats magic, and before the British nation has any sort of identity, this is tribal warfare in deep dark forests, in which warriors are pitted against wizards, and witches are a third tribe, perhaps extinct, but definitely most evil.

Prince Xar is a princely Wizard, whose magic hasn’t ‘come in’ yet, and is desperate to join his peers and brother in that attribute. Wish is a Warrior, determined to express both her independence and worth to her mother, the Warrior Queen. When tweens Xar and Wish meet by happenchance in the woods, both rebelling against their parents, it sets forth a rollercoaster of events and opportunities for both of them to prove themselves. Before long, it becomes apparent that the two tribes may need to come together in order to defeat a third.

Cressida Cowell is an accomplished storyteller, having risen to fame with her prior series, How To Train Your Dragon. Not dissimilar, this is a world teeming with engaging characters, effervescent humour, and hugely wondrous world-building. Cowell has a particular ability to pit deep questions alongside silliness and humour, so that readers are absorbing both with great delight. Cowell poses terrific questions such as, ‘what if what you had been taught to believe was wrong?’, and shows the reader how to see beyond someone else’s differences, as well as challenging perceived notions of upbringing and parents’ perceived perfection.

There is plenty to love. Both characters, being royal subjects, are surrounded by entourages – Xar’s is particularly large, and includes a bird with a screaming sense of when things are rebellious or wrong (reminiscent of The Lion King’s Zazu). Wish’s entourage includes a bodyguard who faints at the first sign of danger, and an enchanted spoon.

This kind of wackiness is enhanced by the purposefully haphazard illustrations (drawn by Cowell herself) that sit alongside the text, from the map of the lands at the beginning, to the various facial expressions of the spoon. The illustrations are scribbly and sketchy and give the impression of being spontaneous and highly creative, as energetic as the prose itself.

The pace is fleet of foot and unrelenting, and this new world is populated with a realm of enchanting and peculiar creatures, from slow but philosophical giants to sprites, fairies, and ogres, all with their own individual personalities – be it cute and small, or large and menacing.

But most of all, two things stand out. Firstly, Cowell’s voice, which is confident and unswerving, appealing to her young readers without didacticism or being patronising, but making them think. It also carries a humour and slight quirkiness, even posing the question to her readership of who this omniscient narrator might be within the story. And secondly, the emotional intelligence with which she writes her young characters – they are authentic in their selfishness and desires as well as their relationships with their parents and siblings, and yet courageous and resilient, adaptable to the changes happening around them.

If you buy a hardback copy, do look under the dust jacket for a rather shimmery surprise. Unfortunately though, the only fault lies also in the production. In my copy, the blackness of the background on many pages rubbed off on my fingers, leaving an inky residue, which meant that the book not only touched my heart, but certainly left its mark. For the younger end of the middle grade category – this is suitable from 8+ years. You can buy your own signed exclusive edition from Waterstones here.