family

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.

 

Alfie and Dad by Shirley Hughes and The Dressing Up Dad by Maudie Smith and Paul Howard

In a media world in which fathers are often portrayed as useless and laughed at for their inabilities (yes, I’m talking about Homer Simpson and Daddy Pig), these two books show fathers who are anything but. They are involved, interested, capable and loving. Perfect for Father’s Day.

Alfie and Dad by Shirley Hughes
Even for those not involved in the children’s book world, Shirley Hughes’ illustrations are instantly recognisable. They paint a picture of childhood as it should be – children who are loved and given attention, who experience small moments of difficulty, but triumph through and end up being comforted, consoled and rewarded for their perseverance. You’d be hard pushed to find an adult who didn’t want to look back on their childhood and see it reflected thus.

Alfie and Dad is a collection of short stories, all illustrated in Hughes’ eminently recognisable style, which tell of Alfie’s relationship with his father. From reassurance during a sleepless night (the worry in Alfie’s expressive eyes is heartbreaking), to Dad sharing tasks with Mum and finding Alfie’s lost toy, to being a detective. But like all good picture books, the tale is so much more than just plot. For me, and many others, it’s the pictures that win over the reader with their vitality. Alfie’s family feels real – from the way Alfie’s Dad sits relaxing in his chair, back to the reader with mug in hand, to the scrunching of his jacket as it meets his trousers when he takes Alfie to the lost property office. The small inconsequential details are actually what count in all Hughes’ pictures – what makes the people feel as if they belong in our own memories.

The pictures feel nostalgic but also timeless – and the many instances throughout of small acts of kindness, especially from strangers, are what gives them the feeling that these are books to be cherished. Read it with your Dad on Father’s Day. You’ll see what I mean. You can buy your copy here.

The Dressing-Up Dad by Maudie Smith and Paul Howard
Something new for those who want, here’s a winning tale about a son and his father who both love dressing up. Coming from a family in which the men detest dressing up in costume, this rather tickled me. But of course there comes a time in which Danny (the boy) doesn’t want his father to dress up. He wants him to behave as all the other dads: and be ‘ordinary’. And yet, when he does, something doesn’t feel right to Danny.

As with Alfie above, the plot is secondary to the nature of the book, which is just as well as there’s nothing that original about our parents embarrassing us. But the illustrations bear out what the story is really about – and that’s having fun and spending time with family. Because it’s the exuberance of the father playing with his son that wins over the readership – not which costume they wear. Play-fighting ‘George and the dragon’ with the hoover (with the dog as a slain princess), playing sharks at bathtime, and particularly the scenes in which Danny’s Dad plays with Danny’s friends too. He’s the father that all the children gravitate to, because he engages with them and they can feel the enthusiasm spilling over.

You can tell it’s a modern picture book – the Dad even sports a beard, and there are party bags and posing for a photo, but it’ll have timeless appeal for its beautiful depiction of a father and son relationship. You can buy your copy here. Happy Father’s Day.

Troublemakers by Catherine Barter

Astute, intelligent, gripping, and thoroughly enjoyable, this is the best YA novel I’ve read this year.

Fifteen year old Alena has been happily brought up by her older brother, Danny, and his boyfriend, Nick, since her mother died when Alena was a baby. But nerves are now on edge as London is threatened with a bombing campaign. Danny starts work for a controversial politician who promises to protect London, at the same time that Alena discovers that her mother was a political activist, and that her history may not be all that it seems.

When she attends Danny’s place of work, and sees something not meant for her eyes, Alena faces a small dilemma, with seemingly huge consequences.

I can’t work out if I loved this book for the fact that it was like no other YA I’ve read, whether the depth of the characterisation is so perfect, or whether the book whips along with clear succinct prose at a lively pace, or possibly just all three.

Alena’s voice is likable, sympathetic, startlingly real and full of emotion without once resorting to melodrama, but it is the fully-fleshed out surrounding cast that blew me away. Danny and Nick are both lovable despite their flaws, both intriguing characters, written with understanding, depth and a clear view of their motivations and desires, so that although the reader only hears Alena’s voice telling the story, we fully understand everyone around her too. This takes some skill.

What’s more, published at the most relevant time – did Andersen Press know about the election before Theresa May? – this is a political novel for our times. It manages to capture a mood of a resilient yet frightened city, constantly threatened by terrorism, as well as delving into the world of politics and journalists – exploring theirs and our sense of morality, and finally looking into the world of activism – questioning the strength of ordinary people – what change can the public effect, what issues matter, and what can one person do about it?

Of course there are insightful touches about Danny and Nick’s relationship – seeing how a parenting partnership works from the teen’s point of view, as well as the prejudices Nick and Danny come across as gay men in contemporary London.

Added to this is Barter’s emotionally intelligent writing of Alena’s investigation into her past. The poignancy of her grief for her mother, and her questioning of whether you can miss something you didn’t have in the first place.

And what Barter does with aplomb is to develop the idea of a mass crumbling of everything that you’ve held dear from one tiny split-second decision. By having Alena’s dilemma buried right in the heart of the novel, the reader already has a bucketful of feelings about the characters, so not only does it explode the text, but also subtly makes the reader wonder what they would do if put into the same situation.

The book made me nod in agreement, sigh with exasperation at some of Alena’s actions, laugh, cry and desperately want the characters as my friends. We all need a Nick in our lives for sure. This is an excellent pertinent coming-of-age book for our times, written with masses of empathy and pathos and, to my delight, sprinkled with a few Bob Dylan references.

Buy it, read it, then give it to everyone you know. This is what reading is for. You can buy it here.

The Real Defenders of the Realm: A Guestpost by Nick Ostler

For the first in my summer series of literary connections in London, Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler visited The Tower of London at night to attend the Ceremony of the Keys. I’m delighted they chose to share their account with us on my site, and explain the links to their fantastic middle grade series ‘Defender of the Realm‘. 

The Tower of London has been getting urgent phone calls all day. Journalists from major newspapers are enquiring after the health of its most famous residents: the ravens. Are they all alive? Are they still there? Have they flown off never to be seen again? Ever since King Charles II decided to move the Royal Observatory from the Tower to Greenwich, rather than displace the ravens that had been disturbing its work, legend has it that should the ravens ever leave, then the White Tower will fall and calamity for the entire kingdom will surely follow. The reason for the press’s sudden concern today is news of an emergency meeting of the entire royal household. Speculation is rife that something terrible has happened – perhaps even a death among the most senior members of the Royal Family. Later they will learn the reason for the hurried get together is in fact the decision that Prince Philip will cease engagements from the autumn, which will be greeted by an overwhelming chorus of “Fair enough, he is ninety-five.”

“Wait though, they literally called you up to ask if the ravens were still at the Tower?”

“Oh yes, I get lots of calls every time anything like this happens. They take it all very seriously.”

We are sitting in the bar of the Hung, Drawn & Quartered Pub, a few hundred yards as the raven flies from the high walls of the Tower of London. The man answering our questions is Chris Skaife, the Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster, who has for the last twelve years had the kingdom-saving responsibility of looking after the Tower’s ravens. Tonight he is off-duty and in civvies rather than his scarlet tunic and Yeoman’s bonnet (though his tweed jacket and bow-tie are almost as dapper) and in light of what we’ve just been told I am relieved to find that no ravens have vacated the Tower to accompany him. Although, as we are to learn later, they could if they wanted to.

We are to be the Ravenmaster’s guests at the Ceremony of the Keys, the nightly ritual that takes place after the tourists depart, in which the Tower is ceremonially locked up for the night – one of the many ancient traditions we recreate in our British fantasy book series, Defender of the Realm – and something not to be missed. But first there will be an informal tour, encounters with ghosts and gangsters and another rather pleasant pint of bitter. So we decide we’d better get a move on. On the way out of the pub, Chris points out that it should more correctly be called the Drawn, Hung & Quartered, because that is the order in which the gruesome disemboweling process is actually performed. I don’t think he is talking from personal experience, but a beefeater is the sort of person who should know these things, so I don’t argue.

As we cross the drawbridge and pass beneath the Byward Tower, it is easy to see why this place continues to cast a spell over otherwise rational thinking people. Myths and ghost stories that we might have dismissed as nonsense back in the cozy pub, suddenly seem all too plausible as we follow the Ravenmaster through the eerie, wide cobbled lanes of the fortress. This is a different place at night. Gone are the gaggles of tourists with their flapping maps and the unruly herds of schoolchildren demolishing packed lunches. What we are left with now is the arrow marks dug into the wall by a bored guard centuries before, the names – Traitor’s Gate, Bloody Tower – that hint at the gruesome fate of those who came here but never left, and the tales of apparitions that still have the capacity to send grown adults running in tears from the Beauchamp Tower. If Horrible Histories did a theme park, this would be it.

But there is much more to the Tower of London than torture and horror and death, fun as all that is. Because there is life here too and rather a surprising amount of it. The Ravenmaster is just regaling us with another tale of doom and imprisonment when he pauses to wave hello to a young woman wearing headphones as she ambles passed. “My daughter,” he explains. It seems odd to think that to some people this isn’t merely one of the world’s most famous historic places, it is also simply ‘home’. But around one hundred and fifty people, the Yeomen and their families, live within the confines of the Tower’s walls. It has always been a workplace and home as much as it has a fortress and prison. And no-one here works harder than the Ravenmaster. From replying to the queries he gets from all round the world about the ravens (which can take up to three hours a day), to conducting tours for visitors and VIPs (Game of Thrones author, George R. R. Martin particularly enjoyed meeting the ravens, no surprise there) – this is one busy beefeater. And that’s before the none-too-small matter of tending to the Tower’s seven ravens (six and a spare).

We could hear the gentle, throaty ‘gronking’ of Erin, Harris, Gripp, Rocky, Jubilee and Munin (Merlina, the only truly ‘tame’ raven, has her own digs elsewhere), long before we reach them. “They know I’m coming,” says Chris. Had they heard and recognized his voice in the distance? Or do they have some sort of primal sixth sense? As you might expect after years in their company, Chris has developed a deep understanding of the raven’s ways and crucially of how much there is still to learn about them. Ravens are said to have the same intelligence as a 3-4 year old child and the current Ravenmaster has dedicated himself to making their lives more natural and enjoyable, despite their celebrity status. For starters there are their plush new quarters, a row of large enclosures in the shadow of the central White Tower, where they can sit outside on their perches all night long, safe from foxes. Then there are their wings – Chris does not clip them nearly as much was the case in the past, so they can fly reasonably well. Well enough to reach the spire on top of the White Tower, as he found to his cost one day when a particularly adventurous bird refused to come down and he had to climb up to get her. But with intelligence comes a sense of humour, and the raven flew just before he reached her. He has even had to retrieve the occasional wanderer from outside the Tower walls, but the kingdom remains very much intact. Chris’ love for his birds is infectious as he recalls, with a glint in his eye, how one raven put an entire school party off their lunch by plucking a leg clean off an unfortunate pigeon right in front of them!

Before the main event, there is just time for a refreshing pint of ‘Beefeater Bitter’ in The Keys. Yes, the Tower even has its very own pub, for the sole use of the Yeoman Warders, their families and lucky guests like us. Tonight, as on many nights, the bar has been given over to a charity fundraiser, and we enjoy our drinks to the sound of announcements about the upcoming raffle results. It’s another example of how these days the Tower of London uses its unique position to quietly educate and inspire rather than to intimidate. And talking of intimidating, the Yeoman Warder who will be guiding us the short distance down the lane to watch the Ceremony of the Keys has an important announcement:

“If you have a camera, kindly place it carefully on the ground… and then stamp on it.”

Some rituals are too solemn, too important and well, too plain cool, to be interrupted by the flashes of camera phones. The Ceremony of the Keys has taken place every single night for the last seven hundred and forty years. The one night it was a few minutes late, the Officer of the Guard wrote a formal letter of apology to the king. The reason for the delay? The Luftwaffe had just dropped a bomb on the old Victorian guardroom. Tonight, as the Chief Yeoman Warder locks the mains gates and returns down Water Lane with his escort of four guards, we are treated to an ancient piece of military theatre. A young sentry steps out, points his rifle at them and barks out “Halt! Who comes there?” “The keys!” replies the Chief Warder. “Whose keys?” demands the sentry, who is clearly no pushover. “Queen Elizabeth’s keys,” the Chief Warder patiently replies, and that seems to do the trick. “Pass, Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. And all’s well,” concludes the sentry, and with that the escort makes its way to the Broadwalk Steps by Tower Green where the Tower Guard presents arms and the Chief Warder declares “God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” to which we all respond with a resounding “Amen!”. Precisely seven minutes after it began, the ceremony is brought to a close as the clock tower strikes ten and we listen to a rather chilly bugler squeak his way through the Last Post.

If you’ve read our first book in the ‘Defender of the Realm’ series, you’ll know that it is at this point that all hell breaks loose. The monstrous Black Lizard attacks in an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels and is fought off by the brave beefeaters and mysterious white knight superhero, the Defender. We are suitably relieved as this fails to happen in real life and instead return to The Keys for a farewell drink. Like all great British traditions, the Ceremony of the Keys is short, simple and rather moving. It has been a privilege to witness.

Afterwards, on the way back to Tower Hill tube station, we pass the Merchant Navy Memorial – the place that in ‘Defender of the Realm: Dark Age’, Hayley discovers a secret entrance to a ‘sally port’ tunnel leading under the road into the Keep beneath the Tower. It is a reminder that although our Defender stories put an affectionate, fantastical spin on British history and traditions, the people who live and work within the Tower of London’s walls are the real, living embodiments of the selfless duty that has served our nation for generations. It is a story they retell every night for seven minutes, starting at 9:53pm sharp.

Tickets to the Ceremony of the Keys are free of charge, but there is a long waiting list (unless you’re lucky enough to know a beefeater!).

Once again, thanks to Nick Ostler for this brilliant blog. ‘Defender of the Realm’ and ‘Defender of the Realm: Dark Age’ by Mark Huckerby & Nick Ostler are published by Scholastic and you can buy them by clicking on the titles. I heartily recommend that you do. For more information, go to www.ostlerandhuckerby.com

 

 

Enduring Friendships in Story: a guestpost by Melissa Savage

The publishers describe Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage in three words as ‘bittersweet’, ‘quirky’, and ‘adventure’. I wholeheartedly agree, and would add that this is a beautifully written tale, in which the voice of the protagonist, Lemonade, comes across strongly and perfectly – with just enough bite to ensure that her sweet winning personality has a lemony tang to it. It’s a tale set in California during the time of the Vietnam War, and describes how Lemonade fits into her new surroundings and makes new friends after she moves to live with her grandfather. With emotionally astute adults, a sensitivity to loss, and themes of identity and belonging, this is a fantastically enjoyable book, and I am delighted to host author Melissa Savage on the blog. 

I have had the great fortune of meeting many children as I have shared my new debut middle grade novel, Bigfoot, Tobin & Me (Lemons in the United States) and I’m often asked which part of the book I enjoyed writing most. My answer is always the same. Writing scenes between Lemonade and Tobin. I love their unconventional friendship. They are so different in so many ways and they must argue their points until they can come to some type of agreement on how to come to some sort of agreement. Although they are very different, there is so much about them that is also the same. And they soon learn they need one another. They may not know it at the start of the story, but they soon learn that their friendship will be one of endurance because of who they are, what they’ve been through together and what they now share. Doesn’t everyone want that very special friendship that endures regardless of our differences, foul moods and bad choices, and even change?

I remember while growing up, I loved to read about friendships that endure. Some of the most impactful stories that spoke deeply to me included Katherine Paterson’s Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia, Bette Greene’s Beth Lambert and Phillip Hall from Phillip Halls Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, and Judy Blume’s Sheila Tubman and Mouse Ellis from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. What these three duos have in common is their contrasting personalities and how these opposite traits are just the thing that binds them.

Jess and Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia are an unlikely pair and become friends after Leslie moves to town. Jess is a sad and lonely boy while Leslie is outgoing and imaginative. The two are soon inseparable and together form a secret kingdom, which Leslie names Terabithia. One of the lovely aspects to this friendship is that it sustains even in death, as Leslie is tragically killed in a drowning accident and Jess finds a way to accept the reality of her loss and honor her memory.

Beth and Phillip from Phillip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, have what one could describe as a boisterous relationship at times. Beth has a crush on Phillip and the two are in constant competition with one another for being the best in the class. Beth wonders if she is letting Phillip be number one because she thinks he is the cutest boy in school. However, at the end of the story when Beth finally does win a 4-H competition over Phillip, she realizes that even if she is number one occasionally, their friendship will sustain.

Sheila and Mouse from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great is a story I have read countless times growing up. Sheila meets Mouse when Sheila’s family spends the entire summer in upstate New York’s Tarrytown. Sheila is a fearful child, riddled with anxieties, however overcompensates for her fears with boastful inaccuracies to hide her self-perceived weaknesses from others. As she and Mouse become friends, Mouse begins to see through Sheila’s façade and finally lovingly confronts her about her falsehoods. And it is through this honest interaction that Sheila begins to shed her mask and learn to take chances she hadn’t done before, even if she’s scared.

What qualities do these friendships share? Honesty, sensitivity, empathy, and fun.

There are many themes present in Bigfoot, Tobin & Me, but enduring friendship is one very important one. The friendship between Lemonade and Tobin is one that is honest and loyal, and it soon becomes unconditional no matter how many times they disagree on Twinkies, steer, or where to keep the message pad, because of all that they have endured. Enduring friendship continues to be a desired theme in story in childhood and beyond. It is my hope that Lemonade and Tobin’s enduring friendship is one that speaks to kids around the world as the many enduring friendships in my most favorite books growing up have spoken to me.

With thanks to Melissa Savage. Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). It is filled with clever character descriptions, including wise Mrs Dickerson and her “bright pink lipstick that looks like it’s slipping off”, and expert perceptions of child preoccupations such as: “I surf wind waves with my hand out of the window and try to ignore him” on a car journey. The writing is immersive and a pleasure to read, and the tale, although far-fetched, draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. One of the best books for this age group that you’ll read this summer. You can buy it here and I heartily recommend that you do. Ages 8+ years. 

 

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Lauren Wolk’s much anticipated second novel for children, after the phenomenal Wolf Hollow, does not disappoint. Set on the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts, Beyond the Bright Sea also features a young girl coming of age, but in a different time and in a very different way. This is a book about finding out who you are, and what defines the self.

Crow was taken in as a baby by her adoptive father Osh, when she was found in a boat washed up on his island. They live a simple life in a simpler time – the book is set in 1920 – their house is made from assorted remnants of shipwrecks and they spend most of their days in the pursuit of survival – fishing for food, drying their bodies from the sea and sand, keeping warm. Osh also paints, and sells his paintings to the tourists who frequent the islands in the summer months.

But Crow knows that there is much mystery surrounding her origins. Local people shun her, believing that she arrived when her boat was set adrift from nearby Penikese Island, which used to house a leper colony. When she spies a strange fire alight on that long-abandoned island, it sets her on her quest to discover where she really came from, and why she was cast away.

The plot itself unfurls at a steady pace, each chapter posing a new element to the mysteries in question, although all are answered fairly swiftly. But it is the poetic intensity of the prose that fires the reader, as well as the impeccable characterisation of Crow herself – a resolute, vibrant, curious and yet thoughtful heroine – and the two adults who orbit her – Osh (a loner and thinker), and Miss Maggie, who both provide Crow, and by default, the reader, with a library of quiet wisdoms.

“an island is one thing when a man has a boat, quite another when he doesn’t.”

Wolk has a way of crafting her sentences like a balancing scale, they sit calmly on the page, and yet have the slight rhythm and undulation of the sea. Although the book is layered with such phrases, Wolk never stoops to sentimentality or preaching.

“I was learning that some things take time, and worrying wouldn’t change that.”

She writes of simple people living a minimalist way of life by the sea, and she echoes this in her precise vocabulary, which feels of the landscape (and new to an urbanite such as myself), with words such as skiff, bluff, and kettle ponds. But all the time, it is precise and economical and sparse – Wolk pursues specificity, and describes things in just a few words, making the prose all the more powerful for its simplicity, just like Osh’s painting:

“sometimes Osh painted a single yellow flower in a pale green marsh, and it was all the better for being just one.”

The nationality and skin tones of Osh and Crow are unclear, although Wolk shows the reader that they are different from each other and the rest of the islanders, but that is part of the beauty – her vagueness in this matter lends the text a feel of the everyman.

The book does dip slightly in the second half. As Crow’s mysteries were solved fairly easily, I became frustrated that deeper questions I had about Miss Maggie and Osh were left cloudy, but then one could argue that the writer always leaves some gaps for the reader to paint in themselves. I also query the slight overuse of foreshadowing, which tends to interrupt the flow, but these are minor criticisms – if all writers could write half as well as Wolk, we’d have a phenomenal literary party.

There is no moralising in this tale, just a simple message of people and their actions: family is the one you choose yourself, not that which you are born to, in the same way that who you are is what you do, not where you come from. You can buy it here.

Growing teens’ romances

It’s slightly stretching my usual coverage of children’s books for primary school children, but somebody with teenage children told me that it was really hard to differentiate between age appropriateness in books once their children got to the point of browsing the ‘YA’ shelf. I agreed. It’s so hard to know which books are aimed at the lower teen market, and which for the young adult. Also, as with all these things at all ages, each child is different. One shy hesitant prudish 16 year old may want to read very different things to an outgoing knowing tween.

Interestingly, the younger age is more often defined as ‘teen’ (gentler content), the older books more as ‘YA’, (may include swearing, frank descriptions of sex, more challenging issues).

Three gorgeous romances came through the letterbox this year – all for different ages. Here are my thoughts.

My first teen, tween romance is One Silver Summer by Rachel Hickman. Suggested for 11+ years, this is a gentle story about a burgeoning friendship between a boy and a girl, and the feelings they start to have for each other.

Fifteen year old Sass, grieving for her mother after her sudden death, has moved from America to live with her uncle in Cornwall. She falls for an old grey horse that she stumbles upon in a meadow, and before long also falls for its owner – a young boy bunking from his privileged boarding school after hearing of his parents’ divorce.

Both children are hiding secrets, and both seek consolation in the feeling they get from riding horses against the backdrop of a windswept Cornwall beach and the vast sky over the sea.

Before long it becomes apparent that the boy, Alex, is heir to the throne, and there follows a tumult of trouble that threatens to wrench Alex and Sass apart – from the jealousy of one of Alex’s school friends, to the media attention that follows Alex’s school absence and his parents’ divorce.

The writing is ever evocative of the ranging Cornwall scenery – the coastline, the gossamer-white seeds of a dandelion, the mist off the sea, and even at times falls into poetry as Sass struggles to articulate what Alex means to her.

Hickman navigates the different voices of the characters by dipping in and out of a full cast, but the narrative is weighted so heavily onto Sass and Alex, that it might have been better and more effective to have stuck to a two person point-of-view. However, the whole piece comes across as sweet and endearing, despite the trauma that Sass has suffered, and the high beauty of the landscape eclipses any faults in characterisation. This is a horsey, dreamy, feel-good summery read – great for a first romance.

Please note I read a very early proof copy. Win your own proof copy and chocolate by finding me on twitter. Or pre-order your own copy here.

And Then We Ran by Katy Cannon. Suggested for 12+ years by the publisher.

Despite being about two 17-year-olds, the plot spinning on an elopement, and mentioning losing virginity in the first sentence, this is overall a tame teen contemporary read, which is why it sits comfortably in my 13+ age range.

This gorgeous, lovable narrative tells the story of Megan and Elliot, and takes the format of alternate first person point of view chapters, which works well – Cannon capturing the different voices with distinction, so that the reader can tell who is narrating even without the labels at the beginning of each chapter.

What’s also well-conceived is the entire plot. Elliot wants to study archaeology at University in London, but funding is an issue, especially since his father is serving time for fraud. Megan’s parents, reeling from the recent death of Megan’s older sister, are pushing for her to go to university, but Megan is set on doing a photography course.

When Megan discovers that she will inherit a London flat upon turning 21 or getting married, she hits upon the latter as a way to serve a purpose for both herself and Elliot (even though they’re not even dating!).

The book veers off into a road trip to Gretna Green, with much self-discovery along the way.

The characterisation in the book is what makes it. The reader gets a real feel for the anxieties of these two teens, both on the cusp of adulthood. Their heightened emotions (both of them impacted by the recent traumatic changes in their lives), feel authentic and honest. It’s studded throughout with great humour as well, and the secondary characters – Elliot’s brother, and Megan’s best friend, are both rounded and convincing characters.

Cannon also deals with a theme not much touched upon in YA that I’ve read, of the idea of university and which path to take into adulthood.

But themes and genres aside, this was just a compelling, well-written, and touching story, with fantastic characters and a genuine warmth to the story. Highly recommend. Run away with your copy here.

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

A confession – I veered away from this book to start with, believing it was pitched at just too high an age group for my blog, but then a very highly-thought of children’s books expert told me to read it, and I devoured it in one sitting. Suggested also for the 12+ age group according to the publisher, this book does contain many more references to sex, and the issues are altogether darker.

Petula blames herself for her young sister’s death, and because her anxiety is out of control, she attends an art therapy group with a mishmash of other teenagers who are also experiencing issues with family, sexuality, addictive substances etc. It is here that she meets Jacob, an amputee, who likes to tell stories to cover the real reason for his injury. When the truth comes out about what really happened, Petula is already too far into her relationship with Jacob, and the truth threatens to destroy them.

Nielsen’s deft writing skill is apparent in abundance here. Not only is it a gripping read, but the characters, no matter how minor their part, come across as authentic teens, with agonies and anxieties, which Nielsen portrays with sympathy and sensitivity as well as a clear sense of humour (teen cynicism and sarcasm). She zips around the themes with ease, especially Petula’s anxieties about everything around her, and manages to incorporate a sense of the consequences of the tragedy on Petula’s parents too. Despite the tough subject matter, there is no overdramatisation here – it’s a carefully sewn tapestry of teen angst.

But what the book does that’s really sparkling for a teen audience, is give the reader the courage to face down adversity – showing that other people’s problems may not be apparent but may be larger than one’s own, and that each person can find courage somewhere to overcome obstacles – especially if they speak up and speak out. It’s about trust, and friendship and guilt and grief. I’m optimistic you’ll buy your own copy here.

 

 

 

Refugee Stories

One thing I always knew I had to instil in my own children, and in the children I work with, is a sense of history. Where they come from, from whom they are descended, how they got where they are today. Whether it’s tracking a grandparent’s entry here via kindertransport, or a boat, smuggled on a truck, or simply purchasing a plane ticket, most of us have a story if we look back further enough, and dig deep enough. Not many of us were born and bred where we live today.

But not all children equate their own great-grandparents’ journeys with the stories of refugees and migrants they see in today’s news headlines. How do we make our children see and understand their plight, and how do we explain what we mean when we say ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’? Luckily, there are a whole host of books that can help guide us in this education, teaching compassion and empathy at the same time. In fact, the number of new ‘refugee’ stories being published is quite startling. Here’s my pick…

Three novels that take away the label and instead highlight individual stories – so that we can see the people behind the headlines – are A Dangerous Crossing, The Bone Sparrow and A Story Like the Wind. There’s not just a stark photograph of suffering here, splashed across a newspaper, but fully rounded characters, with hopes and fears, with pasts and futures. They all desire food and shelter, but they all have different ideas of home, of safety, of the kind of future they want. They are all individuals. What they have in common is the need to move from the place they called home.

A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell
When 13 year old Ghalib Shenu is caught in a barrel-bomb explosion in Kobani’s souq in Syria, his family decide enough is enough and they must leave. Together with his siblings, parents and grandmother, Ghalib begins the long journey from Syria to Europe.

The compelling force about this book is that it feels completely real – from the dangers surrounding the family, to the banter they engage upon on their way. The questions posed are real and immediate – what should they take with them – Ghalib is reluctant to leave his belongings behind, but the further into the journey he gets, the more he realises how it is just the essentials that matter. There are other realities – the images of other people living their normal lives even as the refugees are passing through their territory; the stigma attached to refugees, as Ghalib realises how unwelcome the Syrian people have become:

“We look. A cardboard sign in Turkish and Arabic is stuck inside the door. No Syrians. The Arabic is not written properly but the message is clear.”

Because the reader is so involved with Ghalib and his family, the hurt and humiliation sting. Mitchell also allows the reader to dwell on things that we ordinarily might take for granted – the wrench to leave the future you had assumed would be there for you in your home country – the bonds at home – family, friends, a business, books, belongings – all those things which give a person a sense of individual identity – something that’s stripped when you’re labelled as a refugee.

As Ghalib and his family progress further on their journey, the book becomes tenser, at first crossing the border, then leaving the refugee camp, and finally attempting the boat crossing. This last piece causes stomach-churning anxiety – Mitchell’s writing prickles with tension.

Mitchell portrays the family’s powerlessness brilliantly, and although the language is English and written with literary style, using challenging vocabulary such as ‘redolent’ and ‘pulverise’, the reader does get a good sense of the Syrian lifestyle – the smells and tastes of Ghalib’s home, the way of life.

Told in first person, the text feels immediate, but the secondary characters are also fleshed out well, each bringing authenticity to the story, but also highlighting different issues, from the treatment of the elderly, to treatment of women, as well as those who are too young to have experienced any other Syria than one which is at war.

This is a powerful book, well-researched and written, and achieves its aim of encouraging sympathy and understanding, but importantly, telling a really good story.

The publisher recommends the book for 11+ years, but I would wager a fluent reader aged 10+ would be capable of understanding the text too. You can buy it here.

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
This is a gripping story without a physical journey, and tells the story of one boy who was born in a detention centre, and has never known anything different, and highlights a group of people who aren’t brought to the media’s attention very much. Subhi, aged 10, is a member of the Rohingya people of Burma, but has never known his homeland, relying only upon the memories of the older generations. This gives the novel both the grief of the elders for what was known about Burma, but also gives Subhi a grief for all the unknowns too.

Fraillon excels at highlighting the extreme hardships and terrible conditions of the refugee camp without the book becoming too depressing or maudlin, by the fact that Subhi possesses an overwhelming optimism – a sunny disposition no matter how hard things get.

Much of his day is spent in drawing and stories. There is no entertainment, no outside distractions. His height is measured on the diamonds on the wire fencing, there is no school, scarce food.

In a Boy in the Striped Pyjamas allusion, Subhi is befriended by Jimmi, a girl who gets through a hole in the fence from outside and rejoices in Subhi’s ability to read stories to her. In return for his reading, she brings food from the outside. It’s never explicitly stated in which country the camp is, but the reader assumes it is Australia. Both children seem fairly oblivious to the fact that their meeting is unusual, and that the way Subhi is treated is profoundly wrong and must be changed. In fact, it’s not just Australia that isn’t mentioned – Faillon, one must assume deliberately, doesn’t show many traits of the Rohingya people. Also, the gap in the fence, set against the rules and severity of camp life, seems fairly unrealistic so that, as in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the story becomes fairly allegorical.

What does feel very real though is the depiction of the harsh life and treatment within the refugee camp – the terrible conditions, and the references to the horrible scarring – both mental and physical – that the older refugees faced before their arrival in the camp.

The crescendo of the story when it comes is horrible beyond words, and yet because the children have shown how powerful friendship and storytelling can be, there remains a great deal of hope at the end of the book – even if Fraillon’s afterword brims with anger.

Fraillon displays a wonderful lyrical lilt to her writing, a compelling voice with a gripping story, and has been shortlisted for both The Guardian Children’s Fiction prize and for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2017.

The overall message is one of hope, but also the meaning of freedom – it’s more than just being free from the containment of fencing, it’s the entitlement of a future. 10+ yrs. You can buy it here.

A Story Like the Wind by Gill Lewis
This highly illustrated book for seven year olds and over, meshes myth with reality in this storytelling tale about a boy who narrates a story over a night spent adrift at sea, to a boatload of fellow refugees escaping from their war-torn homeland. They carry nothing with them, except their names and their memories. Rami, the narrator, cleverly plays his violin to accompany his storytelling, using music as the universal language to bind humans together. In this way, reminiscent perhaps of The Mozart Question by Michael Morpurgo – which used music to highlight the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing the camps of the Holocaust – Lewis attempts to use the story of how the violin came about to tell a story of hope and freedom in a time of war and injustice.

Rami tells his fellow refugees the story of a young boy who rescues a wild foal from near death and nurtures him to life, whilst refusing to claim ownership of him. When he races the horse against the Dark Lord and wins, the Dark Lord banishes him, and takes ownership of the horse – treating it cruelly – until it escapes and finds its way to the boy in exile, before collapsing and dying. The boy takes the beast’s bones and carves a violin from them.

The story that Rami tells draws connections between the cruelty of the Dark Lord and his harsh treatment of his subjects, to the cruel treatment that the boat’s passengers have endured in their war-ravaged country from which they are escaping, as well as explaining the meaning of freedom and dignity. There is no resolution to the overarching story – the refugees remain floating in their boat with only the beauty of the music against the waves to succour them – but this is an interesting fable to disseminate the big issues that face humanity today.

Beautifully illustrated by Jo Weaver in a dream-like fashion, this is an unforgettable little story. You can buy it here.

Children In Our World: Refugees and Migrants by Ceri Roberts and Hanane Kai is a non-fiction text that seeks to explain gently what we mean when we label someone a refugee or a migrant. Who are they? Where have the come from? In very clear, unchallenging text, this square book – laid out like a picture book – presents a tame factual reality of what we mean by refugee and migrant.

It describes why people move from their homeland, what they have left behind and why they might leave in a hurry, as well as life in refugee camps, what it means to seek asylum, and lastly what the reader can do to help people.

The text is written for a Western audience, explaining to a child to make a new child welcome in their school, as well as repeating the usual rhetoric nowadays that children should discuss with an adult any worries or fears they have, making clear how unlikely it is that they themselves will become refugees. There’s a glossary at the back, and a ‘find out more’ section.

The images seem to imply there are different families and children being shown, although always with the same cat, and although there is clearly a diverse range of nationalities from the clothes and hairstyles, the colour of skin remains the same. The imagery is supposedly generic in tone – pastel colours throughout, and the trees remain the same in all landscapes, presumably putting across the message that we are all the same the world over. The cat brings slight levity to the subject.

It’s a good text to have in a school library for a 6+ age group who may have questions, but I think for greater depth and insight individual stories, highlighting our differences whilst at the same time delineating our common necessities – love, shelter, food etc – will always win out. You can buy it here.

There are so many many more refugee stories, from the obvious, such as Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere, picturebook The Journey by Francesca Sanna, and the everyman refugee story, Close to the Wind by Jon Walter.

 

The Huntress by Sarah Driver

Bookshops and libraries don’t shelve children’s books by genre. They don’t want to limit children’s choice, or pigeon-hole them into reading only selective genres. I can see one child in the library who sticks firmly to the ‘boarding school’ genre, and another who adores ‘mysteries’, but where possible it’s good for children to look around, to sample all genres. As adults we tend to be more categorised. You may like ‘crime’, or ‘fantasy’ or ‘romance’.

I find that most books tend to stretch across more than one genre anyway – even if they’re sitting firmly within one space in a bookshop.

Sarah Driver’s The Huntress is a prime example of a book that straddles genre. Marketed as a fantasy, it definitely fits into the ‘adventure’ story box, as well as being distinctly unique, thanks to its quirky, evocative and inventive language.

Thirteen-year old Mouse lives aboard the ship The Huntress, which is captained by her one-eyed grandma, a captaincy Mouse is due to inherit according to the destiny bestowed upon her. She promised, upon her mother’s death in childbirth, to look after her younger brother Sparrow, who is both sickly and also imbued with strange powers. But when her father doesn’t return to the ship when they dock, and instead a stranger boards, Mouse must fight to ensure her destiny and family remain intact.

Driver’s world-building is immersive and dark – a time of deathly cold and swirling seas, in which  strange dinosaur-like creatures called terrodyls plague the skies, and beneath the depths of the sea lurk vicious gulpers and mystical merwraiths. People, named for the most part after animals, journey in tribes on sea, land or in the sky. Mouse’s tribe stays at sea and survive by bartering. Mouse, for example, searches for pearls under the sea, to trade on land.

Driver shows particular flair with her knowledge of ships (a topic mysterious to this landlubber reader), and this is enhanced by the wonderful map at the beginning, illustrated by Joe McLaren and Janene Spencer. This is the first of the trilogy, and it seems logical that the second two titles will dwell in the other landscapes, and complete Mouse’s quest – which is not concluded in this first book.

There is a murky and stormy atmosphere to the novel, which adds to the mystery of the mysticism that surrounds the tribes. The sea tribe worships the whales, who in turn steer the ship through the sea and respond to Sparrow’s haunting songs, but further religion/magic is merely hinted at rather than fully explained. Moon-gathering for example, with pet moonsprites.

But despite some unfamiliarities in the set-up, Driver adds in enough storytelling tropes to keep any reader happy – a mystery surrounding a missing father, a riddle to solve, a quest, a feisty female protagonist and questions surrounding loyalty, family, love and jealousy. There is good vs evil, and plenty of rumbustious action.

Mouse is an exasperating if loveable protagonist. She is in constant movement, never stops to plan or think through the consequences, but she shows enormous pluck and heart.

And it’s this heart, exemplified mainly by the language (for the novel is told in first person), that distinguishes this book and holds it above the crowd. The language is dense, yet highly readable. It contains many new compound words, which Driver has thrown together to exemplify the simple way of life of the tribes, and the expression of their thoughts and emotions. For example, Mouse travels while asleep in a ‘dream-dance’, she can ‘beast-chatter’ with animals, and gives ‘heart-thanks’ to people who help her. She is, above all, ‘heart-strong’. The language lends a lyricism and rhythm to the book, mimicking the rhythm of the waves. It reflects her abode, being the simplistic language of survival, whilst being poetic at the same time. And because the made-up terminology rings bells for the reader – merwraiths like mermaid, terrodyls like pterodactyls, land-lurkers for land-dwellers, it’s easy to translate.

The harshness of the landscape and the ferocity of the violence will thrill many, but it is not for the faint-hearted. Far beyond the ordinary realm of feisty pirates, this fantasy adventure bears out the adage that home is where the heart is – not always the physical place we think it is. Just like a book straddling genres – a book’s home can be in the heart, rather than just on the shelf. For age 10+ years. You can buy it here.

Family Love

Under the Love Umbrella by Davina Bell, illustrated by Allison Colpoys
I’m not one for sentimental stuff, as those who know me will verify. And I’m not won over by simplistic declarations of love – usually in my fiction I like a little darkness too. But this is a captivating picture book, which supplies the darkness in the illustrations – by contrasting it with the effervescent light, as seen on the cover.

In short, the book is about being loved. When you’re lost in the world, the narrator speaks as if they’re the person who will be there – holding your hand, the other end of the phone, supplying your forgotten PE Kit. But that’s not what makes this book special. Firstly, although there are different characters shown within, and the idea is abstract rather than specific – the children are given names in an illustration at the start of the book – so we’re familiar with them before any story begins.

Then the use of colour – the vivid neons of the illustrations, often set against extremely pale and muted or dark and menacing backgrounds – so that the lightness of love and the kindness in the world is shown in bright brilliant colour. And the ideas within are tangible, real. The bad things in life are clearly delineated: a dog barking too loudly, an argument with a friend, feeling left out, or simply scared of the dark, against the good comforting things: a mother tucking in a child at bedtime, flying a kite, being comforted with a story, being together as a family.

The characters are a diverse mix – all cultures, all ages. Even the text comforts – the gentle rhythm, like swaying in a breeze, and the gentle rhyming – the expected falling into place. For nights when you need a hug – this is it – in a book. You can buy it here.

We Are Family by Patricia Hegarty, illustrated by Ryan Wheatcroft
Another exploration of the love that can be found in families. This book aims to show – through a series of mini illustrations on each page – the different families that exist and the comfort they can give. Again, a mix of peoples, ages and races can be found in the illustrations here – two Dads, large families, single mothers, ethnically diverse.

There’s a theme here though – each family is shown on each page in a small vignette – with a different activity, spelled out in the text. So in the first spread, the families are seen in different weathers – from playing in a paddling pool to braving the storm. The next page is the families eating – be it in front of the television, or flipping a pancake together, or sitting round a dining table.

Other pages lay out modes of travel, feeling ill, leisure pursuits, and – the page in which things go wrong: One family suffers a flood, another a lost dog, another a broken arm. It’s both slightly humorous and rather compelling. Of course the message is that together we are stronger – in our family units we can overcome.

If you can get over the rather saccharine text, this is a touching little book, and the many many illustrations will entertain for a long time, and provide first steps in visual literacy – spotting narrative and spotting differences between what each family does. You can purchase it here.