family

The Lifters by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Aaron Renier

the liftersMany of my test readers adore short chapters in their children’s fiction. It might be because they are reluctant readers and getting through the chapters feels like an achievable accomplishment. Or perhaps because they enjoy the cliff edges in the chapter cliffhanger endings, or simply because they can easily find a place to stop at lights out.

The Lifters by Dave Eggers has one hundred and thirteen chapters – not because it’s War and Peace for kids, but rather because most of the chapters are only a couple of pages long. Brief they may be, but they certainly contain a depth of metaphor.

Like many books for children this age, the main character’s story begins when his family move house to a new town. However, unlike anyone else, this boy is called Granite Flowerpetal, which he shortens to Gran as he starts his life afresh in the town called Carousel.

Life isn’t everything he and his parents had hoped in the new town. Gran is not teased at school, more ignored than anything, and his father fails to find the work he hoped would materialise in the new town. Instead, he travels miles away, leaving Gran, his sister and their wheelchair-bound mother.

Not long after they arrive, houses and buildings in Carousel start disappearing into massive sink-holes, and it turns out to be no coincidence when Gran follows a girl into a series of hidden underground tunnels, in which children called Lifters prop up the foundations of their towns.

The metaphor is blatant, but cleverly written. The town, particularly this kind of traditional manufacturing town, is literally sinking or collapsing because of the depth of misery and disheartened thinking, and it’s only the hope for the future (represented by the children) than can help to lift it again.

Granite, named for strength, turns out to be stronger than he thought, and Catalina, the girl who at first had questioned his moniker: “Don’t you realise Gran sounds like you’re a grandmother?” turns out to appreciate his company, especially after he proves his worth in the tunnels.

Although this was written before Trump became President, Eggers skilfully picks up on the US rust belt towns’ feeling of hopelessness: Carousel is a fictional town that was famous for making carousels, but has fallen victim to the new thrill seekers who prefer rollercoasters.

This is no rollercoaster of a novel – it’s more an extended metaphor with plenty of critique of the times in which we live. Adults come across quite badly – they cannot cope with conflict and tend to avoid trying to see another’s point of view at all. When part of the school falls in, the teachers act as if the sinkhole is inevitable and offer counselling to the children by way of individual cubicles and a psychology examination by an automaton on screen.

But although the responsibility for healing the community falls squarely onto the children’s shoulders, there is enough humour to lift the reader’s spirits, and plenty of great writing that keeps the reader turning the page, especially the little universal truths interjected by the writer. Away from the despondency and overplayed metaphor, I really rather enjoyed it. A good choice for older primary school readers looking for meaning behind a story. You can buy it here.

Lollies: An Interview with Liz Pichon, author of Tom Gates

LolliesThe Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (Lollies) is a celebration of the very best and funniest books for children, voted by children themselves after judges choose the shortlist.

The Lollies are a relatively new award in the world of children’s books, started in 2016 as a riposte to the demise of the Roald Dahl Funny Book Prize. So many children rate the value of a book by its comedy, with 63% of children surveyed for the Scholastic Kids Reading Report 2014 indicating that they wanted a book that made them laugh. This was their top priority, the next criteria was identifiable characters.

This year, the four shortlisted titles in the 9-13 years shortlist are Football School Season 2: Where Football Saves the World by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttelton and Spike Gerrell, Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure by AL Kennedy and Gemma Correll, My Mum’s Growing Down by Laura Dockrill and David Tazzyman and Tom Gates Epic Adventure (Kind Of) by Liz Pichon.

I took my own epic adventure and asked Liz Pichon some questions, on your behalf, as a celebration of her shortlisting, and also as part of the Lollies Blog Tour (when many book bloggers each take a different title on the shortlist and celebrate it for a day).

Tom Gates Epic AdventureHi Liz. You’ve won numerous awards for Tom Gates, including the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, Waterstones, Blue Peter Book Award etc. What does it mean to be shortlisted for a Lollies prize – you must be pleased humorous books are being recognised again.

I’m THRILLED! I love the fact it’s a prize for funny books too. It’s a great list so I’d encourage everyone to read them all and have a really good laugh!

Before Tom Gates, you worked on greetings cards with Giles Andreae in his Purple Ronnie days. Are you now happy working as author and illustrator on your own – or have you thought about making a book that’s a collaboration?

That’s right I did. I took my portfolio of designs to the Spring fair in Birmingham where all the companies who make cards and gift items sell into shops. Giles was on one of the stands and he looked at my work and then I got commissioned to do a range of cards which sold pretty well (I think!).

I used to illustrate other people’s work, but now I like illustrating my own stories as it means I can think about every aspect of what the book will look like. But never say never!

The doodling illustrations of Tom Gates are highly distinctive, and you often wear Tom Gates decorated accessories. Do you draw things in other styles any more or is Tom forever in your mind (and hand)?

Yes I do – I’m about to start work on a completely NEW story which will look different to the Tom Gates books – still funny hopefully, but different characters.

Does this mean the end is in sight for Tom Gates? And will Tom ever grow up – like Harry Potter?

Tom will remain the same age for now – like Bart Simpson I think. I have lots of ideas left for Tom and the family still – as long as I’m enjoying it and the readers are too – I’ll keep going. 

Apparently Tom Gates is headed for the stage with a brand new story in 2019. How involved are you in this venture and how different is it from producing a book?

So far I’ve been very involved and it’s SO exciting! I’ve been working a lot on the script which is a brand new story and my husband Mark is doing the music for the play. Some of the songs already feature in the books – but we have new ones too.

It’s The Birmingham Stage Company who’ll be taking the play on tour and Neal Foster – who runs it – has been amazingly collaborative. They already do Horrible Histories and Gangsta Granny – so they are experts at putting on fantastic children’s theatre. It’s going to be amazing I know.

It’s quite different from the books in some ways because this is the chance to find out different things about the characters and bring them to life. I have loved the process so far. It’s on tour all next year – so go and see it!

Are you surprised by the popularity of Tom Gates? Is it particularly pleasing to have Tom Gates books recommended as being for reluctant or struggling readers?

You always HOPE that the books will do well – but until they’re out in the world you really have no idea!

I love that kids who don’t think reading is for them seem to be enjoying the stories and being creative too. That’s been amazing – watching the way children have got into the doodling and making stuff from the back of the books as well. All I wanted to do – was to make a book that I would have loved at that age and every time I start a new book, that’s what I keep in my head.

Lastly, I have burning question from one of my blog readers’ children, who is a big fan of Tom Gates: “Please ask Liz if she used to play the caramel wafer trick on her parents and if not, where did she get the idea for it?

Good question! I used to play this trick on one of my sisters and she’d do it to me too. We’d use club biscuits as well (other biscuits available!). They worked really well because they used to have an outer wrapper that you could slide the EMPTY biscuit back into and then put it on a plate. The other thing that would DRIVE everyone crazy is if we had a box of chocs – I’d pinch the good ones from the bottom layer as well! Ha! Ha!

With huge thanks to Liz Pichon for her time, and good luck in the awards. The winning book in each category will be decided solely by children’s votes, with schools and parents encouraged to help kids get involved and vote via the Lollies website.

The winning books will be announced in January 2019. If you haven’t read Tom Gates: Epic Adventure (Kind of), you can buy it here.

Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer

armistice runnerTom Palmer has been writing books about sport for some time, and combining history and sport to bring each of those subjects to children who wouldn’t necessarily access the other. Armistice Runner is Palmer’s latest book, published in conjunction with Barrington Stoke, and placed perfectly in commemoration of the centenary. But publishing something at an opportune time doesn’t make it a success – it takes a whole host of other factors. Factors that Palmer demonstrates in abundance in his latest book – a gripping story that parallels and contrasts historical and modern, pointing to the individual to bring out the whole, and dazzling the reader with its historical research, compelling descriptions, and mostly, its massively empathetic characters.

Lily is struggling to compete in her fell-running races, often losing to a rival competitor named Abbie. Maybe it’s because Lily has other things on her mind. Her grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and her father is increasingly upset by the disease’s development. When they go to visit, Lily’s running reminds her grandmother of her own grandfather – a fell runner himself, who also served at the Front during the First World War. When Lily discovers her great-great-grandfather’s (Ernest’s) diaries, they help her to make connections with her grandmother, as well as give her the confidence and inspiration to keep attacking her own runs.

The book splits off into dual narratives – the reader exploring the historical diaries alongside Lily, and thus as invested emotionally as Lily herself. When she stops reading because of an incident with her family, the reader feels Lily’s frustration at being unable to dive back into the diaries and carry on, and yet the reader also wants to hear more about Lily’s story. It’s a well-concocted balance of voices.

The parts of the book in Ernest’s voice are evocative of the Front (he was a runner messenger on the front lines) and yet not so gruesome or devastating as to put off young readers – a feat hard to capture. Again, the balance is just right. Descriptions of rotting flesh feel very real, as do Ernest’s emotions and friendships, and it becomes apparent how delicate the communications were during the war at the Front, particularly in the days and hours preceding the Armistice.

This is a good view of the effect of war on the individual, and Palmer draws clever comparisons between the two time periods – Lily’s and Ernest’s – in terms of them both dealing with loss, loyalty, friendship and seeing things from others’ points of view.

Palmer deals particularly sensitively with Lily’s grandmother. It can be confusing for a pre-teen, at a time in which they’re dealing with defining their own identity, to have a close relative mis-remember who they are. And Palmer explores Lily’s emotions in dealing with her little brother and her father with regards to their relationships with the grandmother, and her debilitating disease. It can be upsetting to see one’s parents in pain, at the same time as discovering that they’re fallible creatures themselves who don’t have all the answers. And Lily tries to have the right answers for her little brother.

Ernest’s grief is also portrayed – his struggle with the loss of his brother, and seeing his own parents suffer – but Palmer brings in here the emotional release of physical exercise. Fell running is distinctive in the effort needed to run uphill and the strength of character involved, but also the freefall sensation of running downhill in fell running – the battle against one’s own instincts to hold back and retain control.

The story of Lily’s great-great grandfather’s past and the lessons he learns about reaching across barriers, and loyalty to others, helps strengthen Lily’s confidence in dealing with her own rivalries, and her family issues, showing that the past really can inform the future.

And I can’t help but mention how accessible the text is – both in that it has been written for publisher Barrington Stoke, (specialists in producing books for struggling readers), but also in that Palmer has two genders telling the story, and a female dominating, in the type of story (sport and World War I) usually dominated by men.

If the book stimulates discussion and further study, you’d do well to look at Tom Palmer’s own website with its brilliant range of accompanying resources. And you can buy the book here.

The Plight of the Refugee

the day war cameThe Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
This is a powerful book that works because it touches the ordinary in each of us. Cobb is an illustrator in the ilk of Judith Kerr and Shirley Hughes – she draws her characters and situations with a crayon childlike warmth, summoning a familiar feeling of domesticity, with her children’s faces expressing the wonder and hope so redolent of innocent childhood. Yet, as in her best work, including Paper Dolls and The Something, she manages to create the darkness and uncertainty that can befall a child, whether it be the bittersweet passing of time in Paper Dolls, or the fears that lurk within the depths of imagination in The Something, or indeed war in The Day War Came.

She complements Nicola Davies’ text wonderfully, which itself tells this story with an acute simplicity, stirring the heart because it bears inside it the pang of extreme suffering. There is a superior energy and force behind the text and illustrations’ understatement:

“I drew a picture of a bird.

Then, just after lunch, war came.”

The war itself feels brutal, as does the journey to flee it. The girl is shown in distress, and there are symbols throughout – of domesticity altered, destroyed and damaged – red shoes adrift on the tide, orange flowers echoing the orange flames leaping from the buildings, children’s drawings strewn in a blast.

the day war came
But even more haunting are the images and words afterwards – the internal war that follows the child in the doors shut in her face, the turning away of people. The image of hope comes in the end with an empty chair borne by a welcoming boy.

The picture book came out of a campaign called #3000chairs, after 3000 child refugees were refused entry to the country in 2016. Nicola Davies’ poem started the ball rolling, and artists contributed drawings of chairs. You can read more about this campaign here, but the picture book will have an effect for years to come – changing minds and moving hearts about the plight of children caught up in war. You can buy a copy here, £1 from every copy sold goes to the charity Help Refugees.

boy at back of classThe Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf, illustrations by Pippa Curnick
An empty chair starts this book too, but it is soon filled with a Syrian refugee. The narrator (who remains anonymous in name and gender until fairly near the end of the book) is empathetic towards him, and soon envelopes him within the friendship group. What begins as a mundane look at an outsider fitting into a new school, complete with language barriers, a bullying problem, and sympathetic teachers, turns into an interesting political commentary on the UK’s treatment of refugees, all told within the neat confines of a children’s adventure story.

The narrator and his/her friends pick up on attitudes and information from the grown-ups and news broadcasts around them, and their naivety and misunderstanding leads the group of friends to find a rather far-fetched solution to reuniting Ahmet with his parents (whom it is presumed are waiting to cross the border into the UK to be with their son again).

The differing views on refugees and acceptance dominate the book, and cleverly, by keeping the narrator anonymous, the reader will find their own views challenged in the presumptions they have made about the protagonist, which comes to a head at the climactic point of the novel.

Above all though, this is a neat, well-told story that explores the power of small actions to initiate change – that calls upon the role of the individual in society, and the impact that kindness can have.

There are nods to other children’s books, but what the author has done most wisely is perfect the innocence and openness of the narrator’s voice in encapsulating the simplicity of school life as seen through a nine year old’s eyes, alongside the complexity of issues in wider society. Suitable for 8+ years, and you can buy this novel here.

tomorrowTomorrow by Nadine Kaadan
Another child who has had his domestic routine disrupted is Yazan, a Syrian boy, in this wordy picture book by Nadine Kaadan, herself from Damascus. At first the war curtails his activities and routines, confining him to the house and subjecting him to boredom. Then, it intrudes his confined space – coming into his house in dark poignant watercolour abstract shapes leaking from the loud noise of the TV news. When Yazan escapes outside in the hope of riding his bicycle to the park he sees only emptiness, and buildings that seem to tower over him, confining him in a different way.

There is much to explore in the imagery here, with anxiety and fear portrayed within a deconstructed urban landscape – buildings are blood red and crooked, or grey and strewn with cracks – even Yazan’s parents are drawn with buildings as their clothes as if the destruction outside is eating them up, the war-torn streets projected inside their circle of domesticity.

As Rebecca Cobb, Kaadan looks to the everyday domestic images – a child’s paper aeroplane, the excitement of a red bike and its bell to express an affinity with this ‘everychild’. Kaadan reaches for a hopeful ending, pictured in the illustrations of happy colourful days and the limitless freedoms of nature and the park in the imaginations of mother and child.

A fascinating exploration of how an illustrator can take one symbol of war and use it throughout a book, whilst also showing her characters with sympathy, humanity and depth. You can buy a copy here.

World Mental Health Day

It is World Mental Health Day today, and research from University College London shows that the number of children and young people with long-standing mental health issues is soaring, rising six fold from 1995 to 2014. Whether it’s pressure from school, social media, or the pace of our world, it’s clear that all agencies are interested in building resilience and promoting emotional and mental wellbeing in our children. There’s only so much schools can do (despite the govt promising training for teachers in dealing with mental health issues in the classroom), so much of it is left to parents.

I’ve been listening to Ester Perel’s psychology podcast, and although she’s known for her books on grown up relationships and fidelity, this particular podcast was on parenting. Her advice is stellar; insightful and sympathetic whilst being wise and objective. How do we make sure our children grow up to be happy and confident, yet also thoughtful and good citizens? How do we make sure that they come and talk when they are scared or sad and how do we listen so that we don’t show a matching fear or sadness or disappointment? I think whenever I need help with anything I turn to those closest to me, but I also receive much wisdom from books.

70 Ways to Boost Your Self Esteem70 Ways to Boost Your Self-Esteem by Jenny Alexander
I’ve started with this excellent book for two reasons. Firstly, having good self-esteem is essential to mental well-being. If you love and feel proud of yourself, you will recognise your own value and importance and consequently you will take good care of yourself, make good decisions and have a positive outlook. Don’t we all want that for our children? Secondly, self-help books can be rather worthy enterprises – for author and reader. We read the book and think, hmm that sounds good, but we never actually put it into practice. Especially when it’s an abstract concept. It’s one thing following a recipe in a diet book, quite another thing to improve one’s self esteem. But this book not only explores what self-esteem is, and why it’s good, but sets tasks at the end of each chapter to achieve good self-esteem. And the tasks are fun.

It splits the steps to gaining self-esteem into seven parts – each with its own designated chapter, example, and tasks. For example: being the hero of your own story; getting life goals; recognising weakness; and celebrating oneself. There’s also a chapter about awareness of others and respect for other people, because although this is about the individual, it’s important that each individual can operate within the real world and work in collaboration with others.

What’s more the tone is friendly – certainly not patronising, with a quirky personality shining through, so that you feel as if the author is a real person talking to you. With some quizzes, diagrams and funny cartoons, the book is set out with plenty of breaks in the information flow so that the reader doesn’t feel overwhelmed. There’s good advice on setting goals and addressing failure, but most importantly clarity and perspective on being one’s own person and getting to know oneself. Having listened extensively to Yuval Noah Harari on our changing world, one of the most important qualities a person will need is self-knowledge and awareness. Why not start them young? For 7+ years (I would add, with parental guidance too). You can buy it here or visit Jenny Alexander’s website and buy it there.

the book of no worriesThe Book of No Worries by Lizzie Cox and Tanja Stevanovic
Speaking of Yuval Noah Harari (whose adult books are excellent btw), this book starts with a section on mindfulness. If you have a child who lies awake at night worrying, or who frets like AA Milne’s old sailor: “There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew, Who had so many things which he wanted to do That, whenever he thought it was time to begin, He couldn’t because of the state he was in,” then this book might help.

With full-colour throughout and bite-size chunks of information, Q and A’s and lists, this is an interesting book that aims to dip in and cover lots of subjects with the intent of calming worries. There are so many topics though, that the advice can feel a bit fleeting, the issues skimmed. However, for short attention spans, this might serve well.

Of course the thing about worries is that they can multiply like bacteria – so honing worries is hard. The book addresses surface worries about school, stress, friends, appearance, puberty, family and love. The advice is slim, but picks out the key points – particularly on social media, by explaining that likes don’t measure worth, and when to stop looking at the phone.

I think what I like best about the book is that in almost all scenarios, one of the key pieces of advice is to talk to someone. For a snapshot of dealing with life’s worries for those approaching and going through puberty, this is a good dip-in guide. You can buy it here.

sign hereSign Here by Gabrielle Djanogly, illustrated by Adele Mildred
This intriguing new activity book is what I’d call a self-help book by stealth. Appparently inspired by playing with mini post offices when little, Djanogly has created a book of forms to fill in that encourages a child to express their emotions, albeit surreptitiously through play. Djanogly imagines a new world of bureaucracy, including The Department of Regret, Remorse and Reconciliation, the Union of Childhood Revenue, the Ministry of Dreams and so on, although this is not some Orwellian nightmare of red tape and officialdom, but a neat way for a child to express emotions and thoughts that may not be so easy to articulate. Thus, saying sorry or thank you, and even filling out the form titled ‘Declaration of Sad’ may better hone a child’s feelings and enable them to decipher where they are coming from and even what’s causing them. There is a tick box for ‘I don’t know, I just feel sad’ as well.

There are plenty of forms for happy occasions too, including the Birthday Party form issued by the Board of Celebration, which my youngest has no problem putting into words, but I’m sure she’d delight in this ‘official form’ to hand over requesting which cake etc. All the forms have authenticity stamped all over them, with logos, frames, tick boxes, signatures, a variety of fonts and so on, and each is neatly printed on good quality paper that is easily detached from the book via its perforated edging. The publisher even recommends photocopying the forms so that they can be re-used.

As well as declarations of sadness, fear and happiness, there are also forms to say sorry, to say thank you, to request a raise in pocket money, a contract with a babysitter, a Christmas present request form, a lost property form, a pet request form and a tell me a story form, as well as many more. Because the deeper emotions are sat alongside the everyday requests, it normalises the emotions and helps to make them everyday things to be shared. There are also ideas for making things better – the Acknowledgement of Anger Form includes tick boxes for requesting a hug or stomping around. Both can be ticked! Lots of asterisks in places allows the author to interject with warmth and comfort:

“**sometimes needing a hug is tricky to admit. If you want a hug, make a BIG tick in the box so that it can be spotted quickly.”

A fun way to express oneself. Apply for your forms here.

 

 

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

no fixed addressIf the subject matters weren’t so tough and gritty, readers would float through Nielsen’s stories like a cloud. She writes the kind of books that a child devours in an afternoon, or sneaks a read of in double maths because they just can’t put them down, and even the most reluctant readers will be hooked by her prose. Her words conjure moving images in the head; a full immersion in the text. Her latest, No Fixed Address, is perhaps her best yet, and reaches to a slightly younger audience than her previous YA novels.

Thirteen-year-old Felix and his mother Astrid move into a van, temporarily ‘borrowed’ from Astrid’s former boyfriend, after they are evicted from their shabby apartment at the beginning of the summer. Astrid convinces Felix that it’s a temporary adventure – a summer of being flexible and moving around, but when school starts again and months later they are still living in a van, and Astrid has sworn Felix to secrecy for fear of the Ministry of Children and Family Development taking him away, Felix realises that their situation is rather more desperate than his mother is letting on.

Nielsen deals with Felix’s situation with pathos and skill. She shows when and how Felix is embarrassed, whether it’s from lack of personal hygiene, coping in deteriorating weather, or forming friendships when there is such a huge secret lurking in the background. She portrays Felix with humour and positivity – he’s so likeable that the reader feels his pain and embarrassment as their own.

Her portrayal of Astrid is nicely contentious – she is not overtly evil as Roald Dahl might have written her, nor good and compassionate, but somewhere in-between. This is a nuanced look at parenthood. Astrid is authentic, written astutely; Nielsen shows a damaged view of motherhood and the bad choices a person can make, but also offers a sympathetic look at the effects of depression, and envelopes the whole relationship with a feeling that although Astrid fails in many areas, she does have an overwhelming love for her son. This is inadequate parenting indeed, but not cruelty.

The reader will feel impatient with Astrid – she’s a fly-by-her-pants kind of mother – shifting Felix from four different homes before resorting to the van, which isn’t even hers, and she acts rather carelessly and disrespectfully, lying to authorities and so on. But the book poses questions around motherhood and parenting that will give the reader an insight into moral choices, and when sympathy and empathy are due.

Felix’s two friends are capably written; I particularly appreciated the way in which Felix reacquaints himself with Dylan – a friend from early childhood – showing the circularity of life, as well as juxtaposing Felix’s own life against Dylan’s, and showcasing their witty friendship banter. Their friend Winnie has a shade of Hermione about her, but is a good charming sidekick within the story, and it is the characters on the sidelines who lend the story its ability to impart moral growth and learning – the teacher and shopkeepers who show that small kindnesses can make all the difference.

In fact, what one takes away from the novel, is that despite the grittiness of the subject matter and the exploration of the harsher elements of life, this is ultimately a story about friendship and community. Although Felix comes up with his own solution to his problems through his skill at trivia and his love for quiz shows, Nielsen explores that not every problem can be solved on its own – to help yourself sometimes you need to let others help you.

Nielsen adeptly explores how people often hide their problems either from embarrassment or shame or simply an unwillingness to be open, and even close friends can miss the signs of a problem. She makes the point throughout that it is through sharing problems that they can be solved. This is ultimately a novel about life’s realities, about the power of community, and it should not only grip readers but make them appreciative of what they have.

This is a massively accessible piece of first person fiction that has heart and humour, and is a compelling read. You can buy it here.

The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton, illustrated by Angela Barrett

the restless girls

It’s not hard in today’s modern society to view the Grimm fairy tales as patriarchal in their outlook, some verging on misogynistic, and although I firmly believe that they should be read within the context of their time, it’s easy to see how modern authors might want to write their own versions to realign some of the prejudices expressed within the original tales. Grimm’s original The Twelve Dancing Princesses, published in 1812, bears many of the hallmark tropes of patriarchal fairy tale narratives – the girls are locked up at night by their father, they keep their night-time activities secret, and they are nothing but the prize for the male who solves the mystery of where they go (he may choose whomever of them he wants for his wife). Thus, a father who cannot accept the girls’ transition to maturity (the wearing out of their shoes), girls who act in a duplicitous manner, and princesses who are passive entities and must submit to their fate.

However, the original tale does hold some morals that may be of use today – the idea that parents need to give their adolescents some freedom (otherwise they sneak out in secrecy to who knows where!); and conversely a lesson to young readers that duplicity is always outed in the end. And there are numerous variations on the Grimm’s version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, each pulling out morals according to their era.

Luckily for us, Jessie Burton has re-crafted the story for our times, retaining the key narrative but twisting it just enough to add modern flavour and feminism, as well as her own philosophy and musings on life’s lessons. Enhanced by Angela Barrett’s dazzlingly diverse illustrations (of what I’ve seen so far in early proofs), this finally is a story for the 21st century.

Queen Laurelia’s tragic death in a motor car accident results in the King’s over-protectiveness of his daughters: instead of letting them pursue their passions and talents (everything from astronomy to painting, comedy to botany), he denies them their lessons and belongings and locks them up in a dormitory. The girls turn from despair to hope when they discover a secret passageway behind their mother’s portrait, and take night-time excursions across a lake and through a magical, wondrous silver forest before dancing the night away at a palace filled with talking animals, where a constant party, with feasting and merriment, is in sway. Dance, here, is very much an expression of freedom and happiness rather than an overtly feminine activity.

Burton doesn’t just update the story with modern nuance by including motor cars and telephones; she litters it with her musings on life, philosophies that determine our own age but also future times, and asks the reader to think hard too, whether it be about the role of imagination in our lives, where story meets memory in remembering someone lost, and when darkness can sometimes be kind.

This is a feminist re-telling, so Burton twists the story, overtly judging their neglectful father who encourages strange men to spy upon the princesses, and wryly exploring the teamwork of the 12 sisters, although she also showcases their individuality by naming each, and by having each sister use their different strengths to overcome adversity. In the end, their supreme wit and intelligence reigns as they turn the King’s own words against himself, and seize their future with ferocity. In our time in which girls self-harm, Burton shows how girls can save themselves, forge a sisterhood, look out for each other, and use wisdom to seek positive futures. At the same time, it doesn’t feel ‘anti-men’, because the advisers surrounding the King embrace the future too.

Within the writing itself are sumptuous descriptions – one would be hard pushed to read about the food offered at the palace without salivating – and although richly English, with its hot buttered toast and sausages and mash, there are spices from around the world, and indeed the book feels global in its telling.

This is not just a feminist tale – Burton beguiles the reader with the magic of fairy tales by retaining initial features such as a secret door to a secret world, the lights and twinkling forest treats that the girls find, lush descriptions of food and parties, and she also subverts all political assumptions by populating the night-time party with mysteriously flamboyant anthropomorphised animals.

the restless girls illustrationInitial illustrations (having only seen an early proof) depict the girls as individuals, busy at their own tasks, yet with a collaborative spirit, and indeed their spirit is apparent in the movement and strength demonstrated by Frida, the eldest daughter, shown early on flinging back curtains to let light illuminate the King’s advisers – an illustrative metaphor.

This is a book of freedom and independence; dare I say girl power. Written like a waltz, it dances the reader through the pages with pace and movement, and celebrates laughter and love in swirling pirouettes of plot. You can buy your own copy here.

Autumn 2018 Picture Book Round-up 1


The Best Sound in the World by Cindy Wume
A debut picture book that will strike a chord with readers, it tells a simpatico tale of a lion who wants to capture the best sound in the world. He tries to imitate the sounds he hears by reproducing them on his violin – but nothing sounds quite right, particularly with annoying neighbour Jemmy dancing, clapping or singing along to the music. Roy the lion leaves on a mission to find the most beautiful sound and explore the world, but realises in the end that the most beautiful sound is back home – the music he makes with his neighbour, and now, friend.

Wume’s gouache, coloured pencil and ink illustrations are detailed and wondrous, conveying precisely the mood of each page – from the monkeys leaping in the forest to the train rumble in the city. What’s more, her vocabulary pitches perfectly when pulling out each sound – from the pling of the rain to the chitter-chatter of the market. There is much to explore and disseminate here, from the mix of rural and urban, to the clever use of movement to convey dance and sound. The message of course, is that friendship wins out, and what you’re looking for is often within rather than in the outer world, but there are also subtler issues around observation and subjectivity. If nothing else, it will make the reader appreciate the sounds around him/her in the everyday world. Aesthetically astute, intelligently observed and warm. You can buy it here.


Sing to the Moon by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and Sandra van Doorn
Even from the front cover, reality mixes with magical realism in this universally themed book of what to do on a rainy day. Ever since before The Cat in the Hat: “The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold cold wet day,” the weather has been a source of inspiration for writers. Used well, it can dictate mood, create atmosphere, and influence plot. This rainy day is during the rainy season in Uganda, and the source of inspiration for the child’s use of time is not a cat in a hat, but the child’s Jjajja – the grandfather.

This is a good introduction to Ugandan life. This child completes chores with his Jjajja, from packing peas to clearing the veranda, but all the while is engrossed with the tales his grandfather tells. The day passes quickly, and is filled with the dreams and stories of the past and the future.

Domestic detail sings from the pastel illustrations, but there are also wishes and dreams spun and illustrated as the boy thinks of the adventures he would take. The illustrative stickmen figures with large heads create a further dreamlike status, and the text rhymes in a rhythmic fashion, almost as if to the beat of the rain itself. Children will appreciate the mischievous white dog on each page – but I particularly enjoyed the descriptive language: ‘the clouds spread like a charcoal stain’, and ‘the drops…muddle the view’. Comforting and illuminating. You can buy it here.


The Dress and the Girl by Camille Andros, illustrated by Julie Morstad
We are taken back in time in this lyrical story of immigration, which begins in a slightly idyllic Greece, with donkeys, blue skies and days of freedom at sea and in the fields. But these large vistas with their white buildings and flowered landscapes are not enough and the family long for change. The family immigrate to New York, and upon arrival the girl and her beloved dress are separated. Here, the dress takes on its own persona and searches for the girl. Years later, they are reunited and the dress fits the girl’s own daughter.

Nostalgic illustrations give good period detail, and tell a tale with their muted colours at Ellis Island. At the same time there is a clarity and sharpness to the drawings, as if they have been rendered with a precision that conjures months and years in small pen strokes.

This is not a refugee story of migration, but a desire for an easy passage and a better or even just different way of life, which makes an interesting contrast to recent picture books about modern migration, such as The Journey. The Dress and the Girl is worth examining for the opening and closing spreads and their theme of separation and reunion – a complete circle if you will, as well as an examination of memory and possession. You can buy it here.


Daddy Hairdo by Francis Martin and Claire Powell
A light-hearted look at hair in this delightful picture book about overlong hair and the passing of time. Amy doesn’t have much hair when she’s born, and her Dad has plenty. But then her hair grows, and her Daddy’s seems to disappear. After considerable searching for it, they settle on dealing with the problem of Amy’s hair, which is becoming inconvenient due to its length. Amy’s Dad comes up with some incredible solutions, before reason kicks in.

This is a wonderfully amusing book for anyone who’s ever de-tangled a web of hair, and a cool nod to crazy fashions. Francis Martin lets loose his inner child with some excellent wordplay – hair-raising of course, while Powell has immense fun illustrating hairstyles with aplomb – accentuated by wonderful facial expressions. This is a fun, giggling-inducing picture book, and one which also celebrates the father/daughter relationship with zest and affection. You can buy it here.


Fearless Mirabelle by Katie Haworth and Nila Aye
Perhaps it’s the celebration of individuality, or having confidence in your own unique skill set, or looking after your sibling, but this picture book appeals on so many levels. There’s the circus element, which is always a winner, and the attention to quirky detail, such as Mirabelle balancing on a galloping horse on one leg, whilst eating a bowl of cereal.

Mirabelle and Meg are identical twins, but although Mirabelle is fearless in the circus, Meg is scared of heights. When they realise that Meg’s asset is her ability to speak in front of a crowd (which terrifies Mirabelle), the girls realise that together they can be a supreme double act.

The limited colour palette of primary colours, with black and white, makes for a distinctive look – the characters look a little like friendly Coraline’s, and children will delight in the veneer of simplicity in the scribbled illustrations – they are stylish and endearing – like sugar candy with an edge. Different typefaces explore direct speech, capitals are used for emphasis. Much to look at, just like the circus. You can buy it here.


How to be a Lion by Ed Vere
Or how not to conform to type in this fairly new picture book from Vere. Here, Leonard the Lion isn’t a roary hunter but the sort of lion who likes to ponder upon his ‘thinking hill’, and write poetry. When bullied by the pride for not devouring a duck whom he has taken as a friend, Leonard and Marianne the duck collaborate on a poem to explore individuality.

It may sound whimsical but Vere’s thick black outlines convey a ruggedness to the story, and the book publishes at an apt time as society rethinks its stereotypical view of masculinity. It’s a call to not bend to peer pressure, and the tightness of the text brings the message home without sentimentality. A celebration of creativity and words too, and of the benefits of thinking rather than being the loudest voice in the room. Bold oranges and yellows bring to mind the African Savannah, and as always with Vere, there is abundant humour tucked in with the message, wit in both text and picture, and a great understanding of the rhythm of the language. A proud and majestic picture book. You can buy it here.


Can You See a Little Bear by James Mayhew and Jackie Morris
A new gift edition for 2018 with phenomenal production quality, this much-loved picture book first published in 2006. Aimed at younger children, with its delightful premise of ‘seeing’ not only the little bear in different imaginative landscapes, but also spying patterns and colours, contrasts and opposites within Morris’s exquisitely beautiful illustrations, this also feels relevant for older children and artwork students because of the theatrical and circus settings, and the sumptuousness of the watercolours.

The text rhymes, and its intent is to pull you into the pictures, leading the reader to spy and spot certain things, but it also captures the soporific tone that has affected the bear – this is a dreamscape after all. The incredible detail of the illustrations, depicting medieval scenes, wild landscapes and exotic buildlings, before gently falling back into the more domestic sphere of bathtime and bedtime under the moon, will entrance adult and child alike. You can buy it here.

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.