family

Cloud Boy by Marcia Williams

cloud boyWhat makes a children’s book good? In Edwardian times, critics might have been concerned with the imparting of morality within the text. These moral instructions can still be valid – does a book show the reader how to be socially conscious, perhaps about discrimination, difference or the environment? Or perhaps it’s about psychological improvement – teaching a child about empathy, imagination, making them happy? Helping that child to identify with someone different, or to see themselves mirrored within the story, to validate their identity and their difficulties, to reinforce the self.

But above all, it’s about believable character and good story.

Experienced author Marcia Williams imparts knowledge – this time about some little-known history – in Cloud Boy, and provokes psychological conscientiousness by showing children how to overcome deep adversity, but she has also created a thoroughly authentic main character within an accessible, gripping text.

The book is written in a child’s diary format, which gives the text an absolute simplicity and makes it easy to read. Angie keeps a diary about her life and her friendship with Harry, the boy who lives next door. Together, their fathers have built them a treehouse, which straddles the two children’s gardens, and serves a purpose for them both – a place for Angie to draw and write, and a place for Harry to watch the clouds – he’s an expert in identifying the different formations.

When Angie’s grandmother comes to stay, she shares with the children the letters she wrote as a prisoner of war during Japan’s occupation of Singapore. Drawing on a survivor’s tales of life in the Changi Prison during the Second World War, Williams blends the two stories – the modern children and the tragedy that strikes them, and the history of the Guides in the Changi Prison, and how they sewed quilts to pass the time and create a symbol of hope and endurance.

There is a poignant naivety to Angie’s writing, as she struggles to comprehend how sick Harry is becoming, whilst the reader is all too aware. The stabilising force of her grandmother, who has endured hardships unimaginable to our modern sensibility, enables Angie and Harry to find coping mechanisms to face their own adversity. Like other modern children’s books, the growing awareness of inter-generational relationships and their intense value is well documented here, as grandmothers in literature become more than silver-hair-bunned figures knitting in rocking chairs.

The children’s eagerness to hear their grandmother’s history speaks to the need within us all for a knowledge of our ancestry and identity, but also provides a framework for learning about resilience. All the while, the treehouse represents a place of calm and safety, of independence, as Angie has to learn to deal with her emotions. A treehouse also provides the ability to see things from a different perspective – gazing at the clouds or perhaps on the people below. The careful positioning of it in this novel gives the children a physical structure in which to cement their friendship.

But readers should beware – at times the cruel adversity written about seems much more advanced and harsher than the level implied by the simplicity of the vocabulary and ease of the text. The brevity may suit reluctant readers but there is immense depth in the emotion portrayed – and this is one of Williams’ strengths – she easily portrays Angie’s difficulty in dealing with her strong emotions, and shows incredible pathos in her depiction of Harry’s mother. This is not an easy read in terms of subject matter, but it is worth acknowledging that not all children’s books can be filled with happy endings – not everything does end happily. However, there are glimpses of hope and optimism, and the possibility of how life continues despite the adversity faced.

Williams has woven her own gem here, inspired by an exhibition at the V&A Museum in London, and a glimpse of a Changi quilt – a single object of love and endurance. It’s a fascinating piece of social history, and well worth exploring. You can buy a copy here.

The Middler: Exploring birth order in dystopia

the middlerDoes birth order affect one’s personality? One’s success? There have been numerous scientific studies aiming to explore the effect of being a firstborn or a middle child or the youngest, and also of course an ‘only’. Even in The Bible, the firstborn inherited double that of other siblings, and was the new head of the household. Our royal family decide the line of succession by order of birth. Studies have shown that US presidents and science nobel laureates have been overwhelmingly first-borns, as were 21 of the first 23 NASA astronauts. But Charles Darwin, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King Jr, Bill Gates are all middle children. Does it really have a bearing on personalities, achievements, or is it down to parenting? Or nature?

Kirsty Applebaum has written a fascinating dystopian novel for children based around this very premise, that birth order dictates one’s role in a society. In her timeless setting, communities live in closed villages, and the firstborn is revered and idolised for fourteen years until each is sent away on the important mission of fighting in the Quiet War (never to return).   

Told from the point of view of a Middler, eleven-year-old Maggie resents the lack of expectations on her simply because she was born second in her family. But then she meets a wanderer – a girl who is living outside of the village boundary, a person whom Maggie has been warned against  – wanderers are ‘dirty’ and outside of civilised society. But gradually Maggie strikes up a friendship with wanderer Una, and before long she is questioning authority and the way of life she’s been used to.

Reminiscent of The Giver by Lois Lowry, Maggie is a strong-willed character who is willing to push against the physical and psychological boundaries placed around her – sensing that not all barriers between places and people are strictly necessary. Like Maggie Tulliver in Mill on the Floss, who subverts gender expectations by racing ahead of her big brother, Maggie here subverts expectations of her birth order, and goes against established duties and rules to summon her instincts and pursue what she feels to be right. She shows compassion and understanding for the wanderers, and a sense that all she has been taught about The Quiet War might not be completely true.  

Applebaum neatly explores what it is like for a child to test boundaries, to realise that authority is not always correct and that what she and the village are being fed is propaganda not truth. But at the same time, understanding the sense of disquiet going against the grain creates, and how difficult it is for a child (particularly a middler) to push against accepted rules and customs.

The book feels fresh and timeless, and speaks to our current zeitgeist of children standing up and questioning ‘received truth’, and then making a difference in the world. Here, Kirsty Applebaum explores the role of birth order in writing her novel:

Kirsty Applebaum: pic credit Donna Slater

It’s said that middle children often feel overlooked and unimportant – and Maggie Cruise is no different. She lives in an isolated community where only the eldest children are considered brave and special – like her older brother Jed. And her younger brother, Trig, is sweet and vulnerable – people can’t help but love him. So Maggie’s pretty fed up with being in the middle.

When I first began The Middler, I wrote from the viewpoint of an eldest child. The book was completely different, with a different title – and it wasn’t working. Then, in a flash of inspiration, I remembered an exercise I was given at school, to re-write a Greek myth from a particular character’s point of view. It was The Judgement of Paris. I chose the messenger Hermes, tasked with escorting three goddesses to the mortal Paris, so he could judge which one he thought the most beautiful. But afterwards, I realised I’d missed an opportunity – I should have chosen one of the losing goddesses. Surely they were the most interesting characters – the ones who lost out, the ones on the sidelines? I was annoyed with myself for weeks.

I decided to change my novel to the viewpoint of the middle child – the one who’s not special or brave or heroic. I re-wrote the opening lines, and The Middler sprang to life.

Maggie, though, is based very much upon myself – and I’m not a middler. But I often felt overlooked and unimportant, in spite of a happy childhood. Could it be that we all feel these same things to a greater or lesser degree? Eldests, youngests and middlers alike – and single children too? That we’re not always special? That we’re on the sidelines sometimes?

The good news is, from my conversations with friends and their children, many middlers find a lot to like about their position in the family. There’s nearly always someone to play with, for example. And a middler can be their ‘older self’ or their ‘younger self’, depending on how the mood takes them, and still have a suitable buddy to join them.

In The Middler, Maggie finds the brave, special hero that was inside her all along, ending up proud to be a middler. I hope all children can relate to her, regardless of their birth order, and be inspired to live as the courageous, unique person they already are inside.

With thanks to Kirsty Applebaum for her guest post. You can buy a copy of The Middler here.

Unstoppable by Dan Freedman

unstoppableI sometimes look at the lives of the children around me and marvel how they fit so much into each week. Whether it’s keeping up with friends, schoolwork, celebrity gossip, world news, or the myriad of hobbies, sports and activities they all seem to undertake. As well as copious hours on Insta of course (and reading!).

But it’s not just physical time and energy these activities consume, it’s also copious amounts of mental space. And with this busyness comes pressure.

Dan Freedman (author of the Jamie Johnson football novels) has tapped into this busyness, and also into the zeitgeist, by writing a pertinent YA novel for our times about pressure on teens, and linked to this, about the causes and motivations behind the rise in knife crime. Combining his knowledge of sports, and real-time information gathered from conversations with children during his school visits, Freedman has penned a gripping novel about how life for these children can seem unstoppable, how pressures build up and can lead to the difficult choices that may set them on the right or wrong path in life.

Covering a range of hugely contemporary issues, from alcoholism, first love, knife crime, gang warfare, poverty, parental and school pressure and the meaning of sports, Freedman keeps his novel fresh and spikey.

Fourteen-year-old twins, Roxy and Kaine, used to be close. But recently, their pathways have diverged – both are excellent sports players, Roxy training to be a tennis champion, Kaine good enough at football to be scouted for the Premier League.

But the path to success isn’t easy. As well as the hard work that needs to be put in, the teenagers face a daunting series of barriers – from their father’s joblessness and alcoholism, parental pressure to succeed, poverty, and, seeing as they live in London, the ongoing gang recruitment on their doorstep. It’s only a matter of time before knives are involved.

Highly readable, and with as much pace as a professional tennis serve, Freedman’s prose is in the ilk of genre writing – concise and tight, going for the simplest words but still managing to convey a depth to both setting and character. The writing is particularly astute on the sports field, and it is here that Freedman excels, making the reader believe that they are learning about two future sports stars.

There’s also the continuing issue of the teens’ mental health. Written in third person, but alternating between the points of view of Roxy and Kaine, this is a close up view of the pressure both children are under, but in different ways. What the book does, very cleverly, is point to the issues that are occupying today’s children and try to disseminate them within the narrative arc.

Supplementing the main prose are diary entries, flashbacks, old-fashioned notes!, and also text messages – with plot points turning on photos that come up on people’s social media feed. It might sound overwhelming to the reader, but is actually straightforwardly packaged, so that the reader is empathetic to Roxy and Kaine, (despite their differences), without feeling the pressure him/herself.

It’s interesting that there is equal emphasis on the internal and external for the twins. Their own determination and grit to succeed, their interior struggle with mental wellbeing, but also the sphere of their family and its wellbeing, and finally the exterior of peers and the dangers of the community in which they live.

A tribute to Freedman must go to his understanding that it is through individual acts of kindness (one person seeing employment potential in Roxy and Kaine’s Dad), and trusted adults (a teacher consistently rooting for Kaine; the memory of an unfaltering grandparent relationship) that the youngsters come good.

Despite the many issues, this is in essence about sibling rivalry and sport, and the story zings through the teens’ potential to their ultimate triumph, despite the hurdles in their way. For a rattling good read, and a dissection of how we live today, even unbookish sporty readers will be tuning in. And with an equal balance in having both gender protagonists, the book looks set to be Unstoppable. You can buy it here. 

Mike by Andrew Norriss

mikeThere is something special about this book, and I’m not sure whether it’s the message behind it, the story itself or the style of writing. It could be the combination of all three, although I’m edging towards the last, simply because it’s not often that I finish a book in one sitting – but this hooked me almost by magic.

The prose is so faultlessly lucid, like the cascade of a clear waterfall, and I was spellbound by the fluidity with which the words flowed on the page.

Fifteen-year-old Floyd is training to be a tennis champion – a talented and dedicated sportsman and the star of the under-eighteens circuit. The reader first meets him in the midst of a tennis tournament, and swiftly learns that tennis is his life and that he’s destined to be a professional tennis player. But as we meet Floyd, so Floyd sees Mike again, walking along the top row of tiered seating, his black coat billowing behind him (which rather made me think of Christian Slater in The Breakfast Club, with that haunting yet inviting look in his eyes). At first, Floyd thinks that Mike is a nuisance, an over-eager fan perhaps. But it becomes apparent to the reader, and to Floyd’s great surprise, that only he can see Mike.

Before long, Floyd is seeing a psychologist to try to eke out why he is seeing ‘Mike’ at his tennis practice and during tennis matches.

With straightforward clarity, Norriss and by default, the pleasantly authentic and sympathetic psychologist explore parental pressure, and life choices. There’s philosophy underpinning this story – a sort of moral guide to how we make choices, how we steer our lives through fate or instinct, and an exploration of our conscious and unconscious minds. Most particularly, Norriss touches upon our connections with other people and how that affects our journeys through life. With Floyd and Mike, the reader will come to understand a little bit about their own self – what we are doing for ourselves, or for others, and how to come to an understanding of serving both.

But there is no heaviness to this novel, no preaching, no deep philosophy. Instead, with remarkable pace and with much humour and levity, the reader is steered through Floyd’s path – from tennis through to marine biology, and although written with a breezy simplicity, Floyd’s path is far from easy. Without delving too deeply into the angst, Norriss shows us the difficulties Floyd faces, the lessons he has to learn, the pain that sometimes must be experienced.

Whether this is in part inspired by the movie Harvey with James Stewart (referenced in the text), or in part by Jiminy Cricket or other such fictional guides that give the character a steer through life, this is a fascinating look at finding oneself and one’s true desires and seeking and owning the power and responsibility to make one’s life’s choices.

Norriss’s characters feel real and likeable, the book almost true in its matter-of-factness.

I actually can’t recommend this book enough – it’s now out in paperback and I suggest you all read it – young and old. It’ll definitely make you think, and might turn the most reluctant reader into a reader. If only all books were like Mike. Suggested for age 12+ years. You can buy it here.

Humans

January seems like a good time to address the different things that make us human, and to show the differences between us.

humans
Humans: The Wide World Awaits by Susan Martineau, illustrated by Vicky Barker
The award-winning team behind Real-life Mysteries have produced a new series called Geographics, which aims to show intriguing geographical facts with dynamic infographics design.

Geographics: Humans certainly is appealing. A thin book with a sturdy paperback cover, the book is bright and colourful throughout. It is quirky too, in that this isn’t just a fact book of information, but aims to provide guidance too.

There is typical geography information, such as on the page entitled ‘Where We Live’, and this shows the world at night with the lights indicating population, and shows the most populated cities, and the least, and the spread of humans around coastlines and in the Northern hemisphere. Following pages have information on water, resources, transportation, power and inventions, but there is also guidance on recycling and communication.

This is a wonderful first approach to human geography, which despite its small size, reaches further than most – using its vibrancy to illuminate facts and the author’s emotional intelligence to promote the idea of being a global citizen, understanding and caring for the planet on which we live. I’m proud to have absorbed the information within easily, and have learnt facts including: more people have a mobile phone than a toilet, and Papua New Guinea has 841 living languages. You can buy it here.

i am human
It’s not just our impact on the Earth but our impact on each other. I am Human: A Book of Empathy by Susan Verde, art by Peter H Reynolds aims to explore, through simple illustrations and text, the idea of who we are inside ourselves – a person who is always learning, with dreams and hopes, but also one who makes mistakes and feels pain and fear and sadness. The third part of the book aims to show the choices available – to be kind and fair, to forgive and move forward – in essence to show empathy. The book is about being the best human you can be, reminding children that they are unique at the same time as belonging to the human race, in which there is familiarity.

Reynolds’ line drawings bring to life this manual for living. The people are diverse and different, yet similar in their thin legs and neat noses. They feel vivacious and active, even when they are blue in both feeling and colour:  fear is represented as a huge ladder stretching to the unknown, sadness is a boy sitting on a ledge – followed swiftly by him standing, arms outstretched, hope on his face as he makes a new choice. There is a wonderful empathy that Reynolds delineates in his expression.

In it’s ability to showcase both self-worth and caring for others, this serves as a good guide in both home and school, for children and adults. You can buy it here.

when I was a child
When I was a Child by Andy Stanton and David Litchfield
is a picturebook that also uses colour wisely, bursting with a zest for nature and life, as it aims to show how humans can embrace the world around them. Ostensibly a book about a child aiming to show her grandmother that the world is still magical, and that wonder still exists, this is also an exploration of imagination and curiosity bearing a subtle environmental message. The grandmother believes that her world is now grey, but through the child’s eyes, through her innocent wisdom, we see that what we have lost sight of as we grow older is still abundant if seen through the eyes of the child.

The prose is poetic: faces in raindrops and heartbeats in mountains, but once again it is the power of the illustrations that lifts the book. Litchfield brings his remarkable talent for different perspectives and clever use of light to insert his own magic on each spread. Whether it’s a parade of people in a sunrise, with the light flooding translucently through the leaves on the page, or the underwater fragmented light shimmer of a layered background as strange and wondrous horse fish swim through the river, there is both a lifting and lightness to the colourful illustrations. Each drawing pulsates with imagination in a kind of modern dreamlike wonderland, the book getting more and more fantastical as it progresses.

This is an enchanting book about humanity – encouraging intergenerational relationships, wonder in the world around us, and also the power of the imagination to soar and grow. A rainbow of images and prose. You can buy it here .

human body
The Human Body: A Pop-up Guide to Anatomy by Richard Walker, illustrated by Rachel Caldwell
Lastly, it would not be right to explore humans and humanity without one in-depth look inside the body.  This comprehensive, somewhat gruesome, guide to the human body invites the reader to venture on a real post-mortem examination, cleverly using paper engineering so that the reader can look beneath body parts – my favourite section definitely the abdomen, in which you can open up the body to see the kidneys and small intestine from different angles.

The illustrations feel old-school, traditional, multi-layered in their detail (each is highly captioned to show which body part is which), and also with instruments pencil-sketched too, so that the scalpel and tweezers lie happily next to the body. The book explains the different systems of the body – circulatory, respiratory etc, with keen observation and elucidation. Sentences are short and sweet, keeping it simple without numerous subclauses interrupting the information, and it feels matter-of-fact and clear.

You can lift the blood spatter to see it under a microscope, or open the heart to see how it works. Each tooth has been extracted so that they can be labelled, and the thorax can be opened in many layers to explore the ribs, lungs and heart. There’s even opportunity to remove the skin from the upper arm and shoulder to see the muscles underneath. This is a thoroughly enjoyable way to be educated on the human body and how it works, and a beautifully stylised well-thought-out book. You can buy it here .

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

our castle by the seaI don’t know what the state of the world will be like this first Sunday of 2019, because I’m writing this review from the depths of Brexit mania in December 2018, but I do know that this historical fiction for readers age 9+ will still be relevant. Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange is set in a lighthouse overlooking the sea – looking out towards Europe from our tiny island – and the book, like the lighthouse, takes a wide perspective on our world – on conflict, family and belonging.

It is 1939 and Petra lives in a lighthouse that dominates a landscape of secret tunnels, sweeping beaches, and ancient legends. Stormy skies above are swiftly being overtaken with enemy planes. To complicate matters, Petra’s mother is German, and before long the police suspect that spying activity is going on within the lighthouse and ‘Mutti’ is interned for being a foreign enemy.

Strange’s attention to detail creates a filmic picture in the reader’s mind – in a visually notable scene the family have to paint the lighthouse green to camouflage it – and Strange also details the lighthouse’s workings and logbooks. There is another fabulously memorable scene in which Petra tries on a gas mask for the first time – the sensory feelings invoked feel authentic as if Strange has experienced it first-hand.

So the book works as an excellent study on the home front during the war – but it also excels in delivering on its themes, not only across the novel but also in small linguistic ways – using imagery of the sea and water in metaphor:

“like water freezing in the cracked surface of a stone, those secrets were growing colder, harder, starting to force us apart.”

Strange also ties ancient legend from the location into Petra’s situation: the nightmare of the legend of the Wyrm, the swirling treacherous waters that devour ships off the coast, comes to life in the danger that stalks ordinary people in wartime.

And yet there is also the extraordinary dichotomy of carrying on life as normal whilst things are clearly not normal in wartime. Strange explores this with her controlled plot and confident writing. There is a clear sense of a family trying to swim when all about are sinking and no one is willing to throw a lifeline.

Historical fiction works best when it gives an accurate portrayal of how people once lived and excavates the social fabric of their lives, and also when it manages to invoke thoughts in the reader about their current situation – and fundamental to Strange’s plot is working out where people’s allegiance lies – and where the finger of suspicion is pointed. Not all is as it seems in Petra’s life, people hide who they are and what they are doing, and as she uncovers the truth, so does the reader, triggering thoughts about the still common practice of attributing labels and stereotypes to people – framing them within a pre-conceived identity. Historical novels can be a great indicator of the present day.

Not unlike Letters to the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll, published for children last year, the landscape is fundamental to the plot, and it provokes thought on what we make of the structures and landscapes we inhabit.

Strange doesn’t hold back on her fiction just because it’s for children, and this is another powerful novel from a skillful writer. Absorbing and truthful, the characters are a far cry from the stony coldness or petrification that the name Petra implies. In fact, they show bravery, compassion and emotional strength – something we could learn from, entrenched as we are in our present political turmoil. You can buy yourself Our Castle by the Sea here, and be transported to its wild coastline and wartime experience.

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com and follow Lucy Strange on twitter @theLucyStrange

Paper Avalanche by Lisa Williamson

paper avalancheThis is a book with a mental health issue at its heart, and although like No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsin, Williamson has clearly taken a ‘theme’ or ‘problem’ she wants to address and written a story on it, the novel in no way feels like an ‘issue’ book. The characters are so well drawn, so likeable and sympathetic and written in such an understanding way, that they could be real, and so it feels more like a character exploration than a focus on ‘issue’. 

Year 9 student Ro Snow spends much of her time at school trying hard to be invisible. She’s one of those children at school who wanders the corridor alone, keeps her head down in lessons, and doesn’t shine in any after school clubs or at any talent because she wants to be un-noticed. She’s a ‘behind the scenes’ kind of person. The reader first meets her at an after-show drama club party where she is shying away from the teenage boy who clearly has noticed her and taken an interest. It feels authentic, and squirmy and also deeply moving.

Ro’s mother is a hoarder, and their house, to Ro, is both highly embarrassing from the outside and an absolute shocker from the inside. Piles of dishes litter the sink, piles of paper line the corridors. Ro can’t see her carpet anymore, and she has to shuffle sideways to make it through her hallway. Her room though, with a lock on the door to keep her mother out, is spotless, clean, minimal. However, she can’t make friends, in case they expect an invite home, so she keeps herself to herself.

Ro feels that her mother’s mental health issue defines her whole life. Until that is, things start to change, as life invariably does. A new family with teenage boy move in next door. And a girl called Tanvi starts at her school who takes an unlikely punt as who’s to be her new best friend – picking Ro. When Tanvi forces Ro into joining the school choir, and Ro discovers how talented she really is, it becomes harder and harder to hide from the spotlight. But with a light shone on her circumstances, things could go drastically wrong…By the end Ro comes to understand that she isn’t defined by her mother or her hoarding, nor limited by it, and it’s through the kindness and caring of people around her that this becomes apparent. 

Williamson is masterful in drawing out the usual trials and tribulations of the teen years into a captivating read, in which the reader feels every emotion with the characters. Her writing is unobtrusive, leading the reader flawlessly from one scene to the next, never breaking the spell of imagination, but managing to show the profound effects of loneliness and shame.

Included in the narrative is Ro’s ever more absent father, who has found a new wife and daughter, and some of the scenes with him are excruciatingly real. With her embarrassment of her home life, her feelings of rejection around her father, and her worries about everyday practicalities, Williamson shows a teenager under huge pressure and anxiety, but still incorporates enough humour, wisdom and kindness from friends and outsiders to make the reader feel that resolutions will come. And they do, but like life, not in all areas, and sometimes they’re still a bit messy.

I particularly enjoyed how Williamson very slowly incorporated into the text Ro’s first experience of having a boyfriend, only at the end revealing how many parallels there are between the pair.

This is a great book from one of the best YA authors around.  Whether it’s showing how secrets are best shared, the small intimate details between mother and daughter, a teen’s frustration at fighting to be in control and yet still wanting a responsible parent, first love that’s not too complicated or angst ridden, or just the emotional pull of engaging characters, this is a book not to be missed.

Paper Avalanche strikes deep, yet remains phenomenally readable. Age 12+ years. You can buy it here.

Famous Family Trees by Kari Hauge, illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger

famous family treesResearch seems to indicate that children who have a strong family narrative, who are in touch with their roots, have better emotional health. Knowledge of this ancestral past seems to give children a grounding, a sense of control, and an ability to understand how their family functions. (Fivush and Duke, Emory U, Atlanta). I’ve written about this before when reviewing books that allow a child to explore their own family history, learning their genealogy but also understanding the environment in which their parents, and grandparents, and ancestors grew up. The combination of nature and nurture.

But what about if you could find out about a famous person’s family tree? What further insights could it give you to that person? Perhaps they were an only child, or had a famous parent, or an influential cousin? This fascinating, and rather beautiful book, aims to show some of the history and nature and nurture of famous individuals. These are biographies conveyed in a unique way, and of course the attraction of laying out each personality within their family tree also gives the book its own pretty aesthetic.

There are over 30 family trees portrayed in the book, including the Brontes, Shakespeare and Ghengis Khan, as the book explores both famous and infamous lives. The family trees not only explore the relatives or ancestry, and in some cases descendants of the person, but also the time in which they lived, the history and circumstances.

Depending on the person, the family tree highlights different branches. So for example, Mozart is shown in relation to his parents and siblings, and yet his wife’s family is also portrayed – with parents and siblings. Abraham Lincoln is shown only within the context of his own family, from his grandparents to his last direct descendant. The authors of the book have been clever here, showing the reader the most interesting lives and stories within each family.

Every famous person is afforded a couple of paragraphs about themselves as well, and also background to the time in which they lived and other small details. In the crowded pages about Charles Dickens, the reader learns about his family, but also how his books were published as instalments in newspapers, the debtors’ prison, and much more. Ada Lovelace’s complicated family history is extrapolated in the ways in which Byron was associated with so many of her relatives, but the page also explores the influence of Ada’s mother and grandmother on her, and side details on the analytical engine.

Anyone who’s ever attempted to draw their own family tree will recognise how difficult it is to lay it out, and how complicated it can get. Mildenberger does a fine job of fitting the complex relationships onto a page without it ever feeling too squashy – despite the number of children people tended to have many years ago! Each character isn’t just named, but is drawn as a small portrait, and this itself is fascinating – including hairstyles, hats and clothes. The illustrations feel folksy and old-worldly and the illustrator is particularly adept at making each family look distinct, but the characters within one family share similar traits. Clever and humorous.

For those who aren’t familiar with family trees, there is an introductory spread on how family trees work and the symbols. The book includes profiles on Mary Shelley, Queen Elizabeth I, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, William Shakespeare, Catherine the Great, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and many more. A fascinating way to look at biographies. You can buy it here.

Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway

unicorn girlThere is a Year 1 girl in my library club who is obsessed with unicorns. She can recall every book in my library that features a unicorn (and not just on the cover). So, in a few years’ time, she’ll delight in reading Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway.

Not many children’s books start with a funeral, but when Ariella’s grandma dies she not only leaves her with a sense of sadness, but also a unicorn charm. Days later, Ariella spies a real unicorn in the empty field at the back of the house. The unicorn proves useful in helping Ariella with her feelings of grief, as well as with her worries about her baby brother who is born with a hole in his heart, and settling in at her new school – which is proving more difficult than she thought, especially when one of the girls, Belinda, starts picking on her for her size (Ariella is small for her age).

Wouldn’t it be helpful if we all had a unicorn to deal with our anxieties? This novel from the award-winning author of Butterfly Summer captures its readership with its authenticity – despite the book venturing into magical realism with the appearance of a unicorn. Conway works as a drama teacher, and her knowledge of schools and how they operate today is plainly apparent and lends the book a huge dose of realism. The lessons, the teachers, and the pupils feel more real than many depictions in the children’s books I read – even down to the minute details of topics learned, the impact of a good teaching assistant on children who are struggling, and the ability of children to perform actions unseen by staff, no matter how diligent the teachers.

Many of today’s children are consumed with worries, observing the stresses of their parents, absorbing the changing attitude of older teen siblings, and struggling to navigate through the landscape of friendships. Conway piles worries on Ariella, but the book never feels too sad – there are shimmers of hope in kind supportive adults, and also of course in the introduction of the unicorn and its magic. Conway is clever here too, giving the unicorn its own backstory, and applying scruffy characteristics to it, so that by the reveal at the end, it becomes very clear to the reader what’s going on. The unicorn brings not only a sense of wonder and possibility, but also a calm space in which Ariella can breathe and contemplate.

Conway’s prose is absorbing and readable, and she touches on difficult themes with a sensitive and emotionally intelligent eye, observing not only the realism of schools, but also a keen understanding of a family under stress, and the dynamics of how each member of the family deals with the emotional upheaval, before finally coming together.

What’s particularly heart-warming is the way in which the book has been published. Anne-Marie Conway had finished her draft of the book, in which Ariella finds incredible solace in a particular unicorn book she finds in a hospital library, when she was approached to raise some money to build a new school library at her child’s school.  Now,  profits from Conway’s published book are being donated to building that new school library for her local school. You can click on the link here to see the fundraising project, and here to buy a copy of the book.

Younger Fiction

There have been some beautiful stories for younger children recently – books for newly independent readers (those comfortable enough to tackle chapter books by themselves).

legend of kevinThe Legend of Kevin by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Reeve and McIntyre, of Cakes in Space fame, bring their zany storytelling to this new magical tale about a rotund flying pony, blown from the outermost West to a tower block in Bumbleford. The over-riding theme is friendship but there’s a pervasive feeling of community throughout, and an understanding of providing solutions for problems, no matter how peculiar the problem (mermaid hair styling), and how outlandish the solution. There’s acceptance of difference, and an emphasis on ordinary heroes.

The success of this author/illustrator pairing, and there are those who wait ravenously for each new book, is that the text and pictures work perfectly in harmony. Gaps in the text are filled by the pictures, humour in the pictures is enhanced by the text. The pair know exactly how to pace the book, when to digress and when to pull back to the plot. With their trademark mermaids and naughty sea monkeys, this is a delight (for slightly younger audiences than their previous books), and marks a determined shift towards reality, as the Outermost West comes to a city not unlike the reader’s, complete with mundane shops, headmasters and mayors. You can buy it here.

sherlock and baker street curseSherlock and the Baker Street Curse by Sam Hearn

Super sleuthing comes to the younger fiction department in this glorious play on the trope of Sherlock Holmes. Transported into a school, the Baker Street Academy, Sherlock is just a school boy solving mysteries. But it’s the use of media that works so well here. The plot is relayed through a series of different text formats – Watson’s diary, comic strip illustrations, notice boards, webchats, emails etc. There’s a mystery to solve of course – and the reader can solve alongside Holmes, Watson and Hudson, as long as they don’t get misguided by a red herring.

In this book in the series, Sherlock and his friends have to solve a ghost mystery, dating back to when the school building was a family home. There is a great warmth that exudes from the text, and the dialogue feels authentic and friendly. A slick introduction to mysteries. You can buy it here.

ivy and beanIvy and Bean: One Big Happy Family by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I had my favourite American characters when I was little – Ramona Quimby and Amelia Bedelia spring to mind instantly. I don’t know if it was their spunky characters or their derring-do adventures, or perhaps the setting – in a school grade system I didn’t understand, with towns boasting large white houses with sweeping driveways, and vibrant lawns with tyre swings hanging from trees. For the next generation, and slightly more down-to-earth, is Ivy and Bean. This delightful friendship between quiet Ivy and rambunctious Bean, two seven-year-olds who live in the same street, is a celebration of old-fashioned values and community America. But mainly it’s just a fun chronicle of two girls and their neighbourhood adventures. What appeals most is the amount of free time the girls have to indulge their passions and make their own fun – rather like The Secret Seven did.

Barrows seems to have an understanding of the limitless possibilities offered by the best childhoods, and she includes all the fabulous childhood obsessions from glitter, to being made to tidy up, to sharing. This eleventh book in the series celebrates being an only child, or rather not being spoiled. You can buy it here.

first prize for worst witchFirst Prize for the Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Another series that should be celebrated for its longevity is The Worst Witch. Not only bearing my favourite character names, Mildred Hubble’s and enemy Ethel Hallow’s images are burned onto my brain – those illustrious illustrations of schoolgirl witches hanging on broomsticks with plaits flailing behind them, dangling untied shoelaces, and the haughty thinness of Miss Hardbroom. The utter enjoyment of seeing Mildred learning from her mistakes continues to this day, with Mildred battling to be chosen as Head Girl, against all the odds. Although the first in the series was published in 1974, this latest (and reportedly last) lives up to the high standard set by the first, and is an utter nostalgic joy for the adult reader, and an excellent gentle introduction to chapter books for new readers – it’s humorous, accessible and still relevant. You can buy it here.

nelly and monster sitterNelly the Monster Sitter: the Grerks at No. 55 by Kes Gray, illustrated by Chris Jevons

Repackaged in August with new illustrations, although the original text was first published in 2005, these hilarious books sit comfortably between Horrid Henry and The Bolds as accessible, funny, highly illustrated chapter books just right for newly independent readers. Nelly likes monsters, and happily takes care of the little monsters in the neighbourhood after school whilst the parent monsters take some time off. She’s in high demand, but has no idea of the type of monster she’ll encounter before she arrives. Each adventure showcases Nelly’s wit and quick-thinking – she’s a brave, down-to-earth and likeable protagonist, and as one would expect from Kes Gray, there is plenty of word play, great visual description (enhanced by the illustrations), and a lively exuberance that permeates the text. The winning formula here is that the monsters’ lives are so mundane. You can buy it here.

oscar and catastropheOscar and the CATastrophe by Alan MacDonald, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Another skilled writer for this age group is the indomitable Alan MacDonald, author of the Dirty Bertie and Superhero School series, among others. His straightforward easy to understand style is great for flourishing readers, and enables them to zip through his books at speed, promoting confidence and fluency. Oscar and the CATastrophe is the third in this series about Oscar the talking dog and his owner Sam. In this latest adventure, Oscar has been shocked to silence by the appearance of a neighbourhood cat and Sam is worried about the jewel thief in town. Gentle humour and basic plotting, but perfect for growing readers. You can buy it here.