family

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.

From Ant to Eagle by Alex Lyttle

Warning, this review contains spoilers.

They say write what you know. Canadian paediatric oncologist Alex Lyttle has certainly done that, but this novel is about much more than childhood cancer. It’s a tale of sibling love, and the healing power of friendship.

Eleven-year-old Calvin Sinclair is bored. It’s the summer before sixth grade, and his parents have moved from big city to a small town, leaving him with no local friends, and only his six-year-old brother Sammy to play with. To alleviate his boredom, and to express his sibling dominance, Cal comes up with a series of tests for his brother to pass in order to move up the various levels of a made-up chart – battling from lowly Ant through to the awesome Eagle Level, where Cal sits. The chart is meaningless, of course, and Cal hasn’t done anything to deserve Eagle Level, it’s just a simple display of power. The tests include everything from shooting hoops to disturbing a wasp nest.

Then Cal meets Aleta, a girl of his own age who is also new to the area, and the two of them go off on day long adventures, leaving Sammy at home. Cal gives Sammy a series of tasks to complete in his absence. As the summer progresses, so does Cal’s friendship with Aleta, but also Sammy’s number of sick days. From being unable to keep up with Cal and Aleta on a bike ride, suddenly Sammy is too ill to stray far from the house. When a collapse at school leads to a serious diagnosis, Cal has to re-evaluate whether he himself passes the test of decent big brother; does he himself even deserve the status of Eagle Level, or were the challenges he set Sammy essentially mean-spirited? For now, with a series of real tests in the hospital, Sammy has to show true bravery.

The text is beautifully readable, and the setting highly visual – from the countryside Cal and Aleta explore, to the contrasting confines of the hospital. But the main focus of the book is the sibling relationship – Cal’s feelings of annoyance at his little brother quickly turn into guilt when Sammy gets sick, but also love and protection…something that’s actually been there all along. As well as this, the reader sees how much Sammy looks up to Cal too – something that Cal comes to recognise through gradual self-awareness.

Cal’s voice is honest and direct, which at times of course, is brutal in its direct confrontation of a fatal illness, but also incredibly moving. And through this honesty, the book is admirably empathetic of all characters – doctor, parents, patients and siblings. There are some lovely touches – a fascination with the Goosebumps series of books, as well as the emotional understanding displayed by Cal in gaining the trust and friendship of new girl Aleta.

This book isn’t for everyone – with intensely adult themes, including the death of a six year old, this will be a hard book for some to swallow – yet it’s so honestly written, so tender, that for those willing to confront life’s darker side, it deserves a wide audience. For 11+ years. Please note that this book was initially published by Central Avenue Publishing in North America, and may not be as widely distributed (yet) in the UK. It is, of course, available on Amazon.

The State of Grace by Rachael Lucas

This past week has been Autism Awareness Week. So I step slightly out of my usual territory to review a teen book, one that explores what it’s like to have Asperger’s, but one that is also a sumptuous read. Books are a great pathway to developing empathy, and The State of Grace really opens up readers’ minds to autism.

Grace, 15, has Asperger’s, but she doesn’t let that define her. She has a phenomenal best friend, Anna, and a potential teen romance with newcomer Gabe, as well as well-defined passions, including horse riding and Dr Who. But there’s an undercurrent of tension at home: her father is working away from home as a wildlife photographer, and her mother is not only trying to cope on her own, but is ever aware of her own changing role as her children grow up.

Grace’s mother invites an old friend into their lives, who exerts a certain amount of influence over her – not always for the good of the family – serving to superficially inflate Grace’s mother’s self-confidence whilst denting Grace’s own. Grace fears the changes being wrought on her family, at the same time that she is unwittingly seeking to change her own with a teen romance.

The book is told from Grace’s point of view – she explains her thoughts to the reader as if she’s talking directly to them, explaining what her experiences are like. There’s her everyday reality of living with Asperger’s – when she feels tired from socialising she reaches the point in which:

“the noises in the house have separated and I can hear each one individually. And at the same time I can hear them all together – it’s hard to explain. It’s like I’m trying to process what’s going on and I can’t filter anything and I can’t think at all.”

But there’s also the distinctive moments in life – emergencies, first kisses, fallen horses. What becomes startlingly obvious is that Grace, of course, is just like any teenager: the first kiss, the first date is nerve-wracking. She is constantly preoccupied that her friends will tire of her. She worries about her relationship with her mother, as well as having moments of taking out her anger and stress on her little sister.

Of course this book will be cheered for bringing a girl with Asperger’s to the front of the action – she’s our protagonist and she’s portrayed brutally honestly. Lucas gives her a romance, shows that she can be both good at communicating like any teen, and also clumsy in her romance like any teen:

“And I wonder if dates are supposed to be like a rollercoaster of amazing bits and uncomfortable silences and kissing and not knowing what to say.”

Grace has no ‘special’ quirk with her autism, as is sometimes portrayed in literature, such as an ability to process maths sums quickly. What she does fear most though, is change. Familiarity is key to her stability, so when changes seem to lurk on the horizon, her world comes crashing down.

The book poses lots of questions – about fitting in and standing out, about the lovely awkwardness of a first tender romance, and a teen’s dawning recognition of her parents’ fallibility.

The secondary characters in the book are particularly effective – from the little sister – also struggling through teen hood in her own way – an understanding and sympathetic grandma, and an undaunted ever-loyal best friend.  Wouldn’t we all love an Anna in our lives?

The book feels current and fresh in its references. But what I particularly enjoyed is how readable and relatable the text is, and how well Lucas voices Grace’s feelings – bluntly: extrapolating exactly how she feels, particularly her tiredness after social interactions, and her attempts to force her face out of her ‘resting bitch face’ into something more compassionate to show that she’s listening to the conversation. Lucas should be pleased – her readers will certainly listen.

A sensitive and charming novel. For 12+ years. You can buy it here.

The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

This book came out in 2016 and rather slipped under the radar, but despite that, has continued to haunt me since I read it – in the same way that the song from somewhere else haunts our protagonist.

Frankie (Francesca) is out distributing leaflets to try to find her lost cat. But when she is hemmed in by bullies in the park, she is rescued by school outcast Nick Underbridge (the name is a carefully chosen clue to the later events in the story). Nick is ostracised in school, and smells slightly, but Frankie finds herself accompanying him home out of a sense of duty and thanks.

At his house, Frankie is drawn by a haunting and beautiful song, but she can’t locate where it comes from. She starts to spend more time with Nick, despite the worry that she too will be cast out at school because of the friends she keeps.

Gradually, the song exerts more and more influence and pull on her, and the story dovetails into part fairytale/part fantasy other world, as it becomes clear that the song originates from the dimension of another world – a kind of fairy tale world. With fairy tales comes danger and darkness, and Frankie’s friendship with Nick is tested to extreme limits when the two worlds collide.

The duality of the story is what makes it so special. The book is set in a time in which kids get on their bikes and ride to freedom, of lego and drawing, but also the internet and mobile phones, yet Harrold makes it feel sort of timeless. The effect of the everyday objects is to ground Frankie deeply in reality, within a contemporary story about friends and bullying, yet there are clear shadows of another world that seep into this – a fairy tale dimension that echoes the heightened emotions of our main story. There are both intensely dark and frightening emotions, and yet also visionary and pure and light overtones to this ‘magical’ dimension of the story. In this way, Harrold uses the duality of his fairy tale to mirror reality and his contemporary story – we all have the darkness and purity inside us.

Pinfold echoes this in his black and white illustrations – they are realistic in what they depict – the estate, a cat at night, Frankie on a bench, Nick’s Dad opening the front door. And yet, because of the shadows cast, the point of view from which the picture is drawn, the intensity of the pencil lines, and yes, more by what is hidden than what is shown – they are deeply dark and disturbing – mysterious and haunting. They feel slippery and ethereal.

The text too – telling a compelling story of friendship in a lyrical way – there is comedy and poetry mixed with darkness. Its evocative and ghostly. Each word is carefully chosen – it’s minimal, and pure.

But most of all, all this combines to make a text that is easy to read, and scattered with illustrations. In fact, the reader devours the book – identifying with the choices Frankie makes about friendship, and her conflicts within herself – especially when she is drawn to a song but can’t quite work out what it is or what it represents. It implies a feeling of loss and absence throughout, and leaves the reader with a sense of bittersweet sadness, as well as uplifting lightness.

This is a great book for deciphering and picking apart friendships – understanding not only who we choose to be friends with, but also how we demonstrate our loyalty to our friends, and how we come to understand them. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been picked up by award lists…this is a hidden gem – perhaps it needs to come out of its own shadows.

Suitable for 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Fish Boy by Chloe Daykin

There aren’t many TV programmes that pull the whole family together for family viewing time any more. Maybe X-Factor or BGT. But one that still has resonance and meaning, and is guaranteed to pull a family crowd, is a documentary from Sir David Attenborough. So when I heard that Fish Boy by debut author Chloe Daykin was about a boy who channelled the voice of Sir David in his head as part of the narration, I was more than intrigued. I was super excited.

For any of you out there who know a boy who is tentative about reading, but gripped by facts of nature or animals, and loves the environment – this is an intriguing premise. However, it’s not quite as I thought, less about channeling the facts of nature, although there is plenty of that, but more an invocation of Sir David’s soothing tones, his lilting voice, his reassurance, and this, above all is what gives Fish Boy its ultimate charm.

Billy is picked on at school, feels and acts like a bit of a loner, and added to that his Mum is sick – an undiagnosed dragging sickness. Living by the sea proves to be his perfect escape, especially as one day a sense of magic seems to come alive under the water, (more than a sense of magic – almost a dreamlike second dimension). Then a new boy starts at school, and changes everything – the way Billy thinks, his time at school, and most importantly how he views his family.

There is an element of surrealism about the book – a large element, in that every time Billy goes swimming he becomes ‘one’ with the fish, swimming with them, communicating with them. For some children, this might be offputting, although if like me, you like a bit of quirkiness chucked in with the realism (think David Almond in particular), then this is the book for you. What could venture into the bizarre and zany, rests beautifully in Daykin’s hands, as her prose is sparkling, unique and captures Sir David Attenborough’s calming and soft overtones. It lulls the reader, and soothes them, so that the overall effect is rather like being underwater.

There’s no satisfying explanation for the adventures under water with the fish, which perversely serves to make the book more satisfying. Some things in life are just unexplained, just mystical, and that’s fine. What is resolved is the friendships and family conundrums.

Most particularly, the resolution between Billy and his mother is poignant, as towards the end she is diagnosed – but more than just having an answer, Billy comes to an acceptance of what’s happening with his family. It’s uplifting and hopeful.

With swirls of humour, as well as some fairly frightening undercurrents, this is a refreshing read – quite unlike anything else I’ve read recently. And what pulled mainly for me was not so much the story, as the fact that Daykin’s prose matches her story – typical modern boy/parent dialogue pared with short sharp pithy prose when swimming – almost as if it’s mimicking the short flap of a gill as a fish breathes – but also all massively imbued with the character of Billy. Clever. Watch out for her second, it’s sure to swim freestyle too. You can buy it here.

The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King

So there’s chocolate and there’s books. Two favourite things of mine. Sylvia Bishop clearly feels the same for she has transplanted the idea of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory into a book about bookshops.

Property Jones was left in the lost property cupboard of a bookshop when she was just five. Now she lives with the owners – a mother and her son. She loves living there, with her adopted family, but as was the case with Charlie Bucket and his family, they are impoverished. And Property is impoverished in more than one way, for she is harbouring a terrible secret – she is illiterate and cannot admit it.

And then, fortunes appear to change when the family win a competition to own Montgomery’s Emporium of Reading Delights, perhaps the greatest bookshop in the world. The shop smells of books, the rooms are themed on a grand scale: a dictionaries room in which everything has a brown tag label; the room of knights and castles books with stone walls and tapestries, books of woodland tales in a room in which the floor is covered with pine needles – and so on, all operated with a series of levers and pulleys – stacks of rooms in loops.

But with more power comes more responsibility, and possibly great danger, not in terms of the grumpy cat who resides there, but the grey man who lurks mysteriously in the shop.

This is an old-fashioned adventure story, wrapped up in the fantastical delight of limitless imagination. There are forgeries and baddies, befuddled old gentlemen and oddball cats, and children seeing and doing more than the adults. But above all, a shining colourful adoration for books.

The ultimate message is one of honesty – being true to yourself and others, and seeing what’s true and what isn’t. What message could be more pertinent in this era of fakery and falsification? And most of all the text and characters feel fresh; the premise may not be new, but it has been executed as if it is – the prose reads freely, the plot moves like liquid gold. If I was seven again this is the book that would make me fall in love with reading. And bookshops.

I was sent this book to review in the early proof stages, but have been promised (and given a sneak peek) of the illustrations that will embellish the book. I have no doubt that they too will be as exquisite as the text.

Don’t miss out – this could be your child’s golden ticket to a lifelong love of books. Suitable for age 6+ years.

You can buy your own golden ticket/bookshop girl here.

The Absent Parents: A Guest Post by Christopher Edge

There’s something to be said for writing any book – it’s not an easy task – takes time, effort, perseverance and grit, as well as, more obviously, great imagination and observation. Edge not only writes great fiction for kids, but in his latest two novels, has managed to incorporate topical science in a subtle and interesting way. No mean feat. Last year I reviewed The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, which combined quantum physics with a heartrending story. This year’s offering, The Jamie Drake Equation, also separates our protagonist from his parent, but for a very different reason. Combining space and family dynamics – this is one special book. Christopher Edge explains below about writing ‘the absent parent’ in children’s fiction.

The first rule of children’s fiction is often to get rid of the parents. From orphans such as the unfortunate Baudelaire children who lose their folks in a house fire to the eponymous James of Giant Peach fame whose mother and father are run over by a runaway rhinocerous, sometimes it seems that the beginning of every children’s book is just focused on clearing the stage so the child protagonist has free rein.

I must admit I’ve been guilty of this myself in my time, choosing to make Penelope Tredwell, the heroine of my Victorian-set Twelve Minutes to Midnight series, an orphan heiress, and more recently, in The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, telling the story of a young boy’s quest to use quantum physics to reunite himself with his dead mother.

As in The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, sometimes the absence of a parent or parents in a children’s novel can create the central mystery to be solved, such as Darkus Cuttle’s search for his scientist father in M.G. Leonard’s glorious Beetle Boy. However in other books, parental absence can simply colour the intricate web of relationships that the central character spins around them, with the emotions depicted ranging from anger and loss, to an uneasy fear that an absent parent will never return.

In children’s fiction, the reasons for a parent’s absence can be as numerous as in real life, from soldiers at war (Stay Where You Are and Then Leave by John Boyne), imprisonment (The Railway Children by E. Nesbit) or just a job that takes a parent away from the family home (Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce and The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange). In these stories, the protagonist’s desire to see their parent again is often the emotional thrust that fuels the narrative.

In The Jamie Drake Equation, the absent parent can’t be found anywhere on Earth, but is instead floating on the International Space Station in lower-Earth orbit, spinning round the world at 27,000 kilometres per hour. Jamie Drake’s dad is astronaut Commander Dan Drake who’s headed into space on humanity’s first mission to launch interstellar probes for the stars. Ten-year-old Jamie ought to think it’s really cool to have a dad who’s an astronaut, but really he just misses him and can’t wait for him to come home.

Our relationships with our parents or guardians are ones that can go on to define us in later life, and often a key staging post in childhood is the recognition of a parent’s flaws. Jamie’s dad might be able to fly like Superman on board the International Space Station, but back on Earth it takes an alien to help Jamie realise what it means to be human, and how the moments we have with the ones that we love can be the most precious in the universe.

With huge thanks to Christopher for his insightful guest post. To buy a copy of The Jamie Drake Equation, click here

 

So Good They Did It Again

Don’t we just love a good series? Box sets are all the rage. And children are no different. They love a series that gives an extra helping of the characters and adventures they liked the first time round. It makes a new book choice easier, perpetuates that reading experience, and develops character even further. Last year I highlighted four great new books, and this year each has a sequel out. And they’re just as good, if not better than the first.

Rabbit and Bear: The Pest in the Nest by Julian Gough and Jim Field

The first Rabbit and Bear book was an inspired mix of great bedtime story with subtle educational facts, dominated by wit and humour. This second in the series is no different.

Bear has woken from winter hibernation, and Rabbit is spring cleaning his burrow. But then various elements in the woods disturb Rabbit’s peace, and it is up to Bear to use his wisdom to educate Rabbit about not getting quite so het up about things, and seeing the disturbances from a different point of view. I could learn a thing or two!

Vastly reminiscent of the character of Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh for this Rabbit’s general grumpiness, but also reminiscent of the Pooh books more generally, in the ability of the characters to demonstrate the finer qualities of friendship – loyalty, kindness and gently educating each other, this is a warm story for newly developing readers.

The writing excels here. Gough has a way with words – which he transposes to Bear, of pointing things out in the most straightforward way possible. Rabbit has issues with things that are both too noisy and too quiet – Bear explains that the only thing in common with these irritations is Rabbit himself.

In this clever way, Gough gently points the reader towards learning about tolerance, and seeing things from a different perspective, but all the time through the gentle humour of Bear and the funny grumpiness of Rabbit, and with a plot that develops at pace.

There are other elements introduced, such as the usefulness of practising something, overcoming fear, and finding happiness.

The illustrations help to exemplify both the gentle message and the humour – different perspectives of the forest and the animals, but also the characters’ brilliantly expressive faces. There’s so much packed into this small book – and wonderfully the publishers have produced it to a high quality – with thick pages and hardback cover, knowing that children will want to revisit it many times. Ages 6+. You can buy it here.

King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong by Andy Riley

This series about a nine-year-old king and his hilarious adventures is suitable for the whole family and has strands that are reminiscent of The Simpsons (mimicking the stupidity of Homer and the mischievousness of Bart), but also the all-out craziness of rulers, and I’d expect nothing less from one of the writers of Veep.

When a huge monster called the Gizimoth stalks a nearby land, King Edwin (Flashypants) decides that in order to prove his kingliness he must go and fight it, but evil Emperor Nurbison has plans of his own, and they include squishing King Flashypants and his kingdom.

The book is packed with illustrations, which always convey wit, and either gently nudge on the story or give an extra emotional depth to the characters. The characters remain consistent from book one, with Nurbison’s evil laugh, Edwin’s penchant for sweet foods, and Jill’s sensibleness, but each develops further with this second book.

There’s the usual amount of silliness – things being too small, or oversized, words being overused, vomit and poo etc., but there’s also a clever wit behind it all, and twists on modern everyday references that children will recognise – such as portions of fruit and vegetables, and talking about what they’ve learned after the adventure (circle time).

In fact, the book is incredibly cartoon-like – from characters falling off cliffs, to breaking their weapons, to my absolute favourite – the illustration of the evil Emperor’s sidekick Globulus on his knees, wailing “Emperooor” as his beloved Nurbison is….(no spoilers here!)

Riley is clever – there is a joke on almost every page, either tucked into plot or character, or poking the reader right between the eyes. It’s almost as if the humour is infectious – you can tell the author must have had a huge amount of fun writing it.

All in all, a preposterous story, but utterly brilliant. Packed with great character, subtle heart, charm, and nods to the history of storytelling and modern culture. King Flashypants and the Dolls of Doom is due in the autumn. Ages 6+. You can buy King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong here.

Dave Pigeon (Nuggets!) by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Whereas in the first Dave Pigeon book humans were friends – keepers of jam biscuits and distributors of bread, in Dave Pigeon (Nuggets!) the new human is most definitely the enemy.

With their normal human and her Mean Cat away on holiday, Dave Pigeon and his friend Skipper need to find another source of food. When they stumble upon Reginald Grimster beckoning them with crumbs, they think they’ve found another patron, but would a man with mini-umbrellas on his shoulders, who keeps other pigeons in cages, really be friendly towards birds, or is he looking to make some nuggets?

This is another fabulously funny tale about Dave, our pigeon with a complete lack of self-awareness, or in fact general awareness, other than for food. Luckily he has a great friend in Skipper, who is a tad more worldly, and manages to keep them both from fatal danger.

The laughs in this story come from either Dave’s lack of self-awareness, or from the fact that all the pigeons featured are so uncompromisingly human in their thoughts and actions, such as putting up one feather in front of their beaks to keep each other quiet.

Also much of the humour comes out of misunderstandings and slapstick – a pigeon called Fienne, pronounced fine, whom none of the others realise is saying his name rather than his state of being, some nervously pooing pigeons, and a pigeon spy agency… Of course the whole premise and plot are so ridiculous that this is what makes it funny, particularly when the enemy this time is a man with a chip on his shoulder about pigeon poo.

As before, the story is punctuated with little speech bubbles from the pigeons arguing with each other about the book they are writing or talking directly to the reader, and these are all funny as well as providing interesting interludes. And because the pigeons are purporting to write the books themselves, there is an added element of self-reference in the writing too.

The illustrations are glorious – particularly as there is a fair cast of pigeons in this book as opposed to the few in the first book, and some particularly enthralling scenes in a supermarket. Never have pigeons seemed quite so appealing. Ages 6+. Buy it here.

Waiting for Callback Take Two by Perdita and Honor Cargill

Picking up more or less where the first book left off, this witty contemporary YA (although suitable for tweens) second book, Waiting for Callback Take Two, tells the tale of Elektra, a young teen wannabe actress. It can be read as a stand-alone though, as book two joins Elektra about to embark on her first film role in a dystopian thriller with some A-list stars. The book follows the trials and tribulations of filming – the delays, the stars, the arguments and the rewrites. At the same time, Elektra is just a normal teen living at home, and the reader sees her juggle her normal life of summer holidays, friendships, studying and boyfriends along with her new career.

As with the last novel, Elektra is a wonderful protagonist. Witty, somewhat self-deprecating, a little prone to peer pressure and manipulation, she is a character with whom to identify. Her supporting cast works well too – a loyal best friend, an ongoing boyfriend (will they/won’t they communicate properly?), an eccentric and loveable grandmother, and of course a home life with an over-wrought mother who struggles to make peace with her daughter’s new found passion for acting. If anything the character of the mother in this second book is slightly overdone compared to the first – less subtly witty and more full-on anxious, but she also becomes more of a minor character here.

The book feels warm and friendly throughout – mainly down to the main character, and has pace and a good evolving plot. There are interspersed gossip columns reporting on showbiz, as well as letters from Elektra’s agent, and the most winning bit for me were the text messages between Elektra and various people, but most particularly her boyfriend. Archie is a phenomenal character – a great teen boy trying to navigate his way in the world, and with women.

It’s a book that hooks the reader right from the beginning, with great dialogue, realistic inner consciousness, and oodles of heart and humour. Age 11+. Take a look here.

 

Wintry Tales for Cold Days

snowflake-in-my-pocket

Snowflake in my Pocket by Rachel Bright, illustrated by Yu Rong

A wintry picture book about a squirrel’s first experience of snow is a perfect first experience book, which also teaches that sharing a new adventure with someone we love is the most gratifying way to experience it. The personification of a squirrel to show a child’s exuberance and delight in first snow is a clever choice – the scampering and scurrying reflects a child’s enthusiasm.

There is much to be said for the beautiful language in the book, transposing the vocabulary for snow onto the language of everyday: Squirrel has a flurry of dreams. It even starts, “once upon a winter…” There is lots of sound language too – the thud of the heart, the squeedge as he wipes a paw across the hole to see outside – in fact this window circle is cut through to the next page, adding an extra element of wonder and magic for the reader.

An anticipation of snow is tensely built and then the fun really starts when it snows – told in an active vignette of images, from the crunch of footsteps, to snow angels, and the creation of a snow bear. But there is also the stillness that snow lends to a landscape.

But most of all the book shows the relationship between the two friends: his companion, the old Bear, who has seen many seasons, whereas Squirrel, has seen only three. When the snow finally comes, Bear is ill in bed, so Squirrel brings him a gift, with the innocence of one who doesn’t realise the transience of snow.

The illustrations of the characters are cute, from their black noses and whiskers to their rounded silhouettes. A bright colourful palette is lit particularly by the squirrel who is a luscious orange red colour, and wears bright clothing to distinguish him from the brown trees and snow. This accentuates his youth even more – he lifts off the page, whereas the Bear is shown more muted with age, shown on some pages from just his reflection in the pool of water, or just his back shown in an armchair, or just his arms, holding and consoling Squirrel.

This is a lovely winter book, with sneezles and snowflakes. You can buy it here.

the-snowflake-mistake

The Snowflake Mistake by Lou Treleaven and Maddie Frost

Ever since Frozen, the idea of an ice palace has been a coveted house in many young children’s minds. This ice palace is actually a factory that makes snowflakes, with the boss being The Snow Queen, a sort of Willy Wonka who insists on perfection in her flakes. Princess Ellie would rather play with the weather, riding storm clouds or sliding the rainbow.

When the Queen leaves Ellie in charge of the machine while she attends to other weather business, the snowflake machine comes to a grinding halt and the princess has to make flakes by hand.

The vocabulary here is also full of sounds, as the author explores what the machine needs to do to make snowflakes, from splatting the clouds to crashing, boings, bangs, and pops – it’s a great book to read aloud – the size of the typeface reflecting the words’ noise level.

Again the essential fun of playing in the snow is captured in a beautiful double page spread as the children below the clouds play on their ‘iced bun’ hills, shown sledging and skiing and making snow angels and rolling snowballs. The colours of the children, each in bright coats, hats and scarves mean that the twinkling of the snowflakes are a perfect background to the riot of colour.

All the illustrations are a child’s delight – lots of different shaped snowflakes falling on every scene, and a princess and her mother who look particularly picture-book friendly with small yellow crowns, rosy cheeks and shiny blue hair.

The rhyming is spot on, and it turns out that homemade snowflakes, each unique in its own way, are better than factory created ones. Perhaps a bigger moral for us is that the Queen ends up making snowflakes with her daughter. You can buy it here.

raven-child

Raven Child and the Snow Witch by Linda Sunderland and Daniel Egneus

Lastly, the Raven Child and the Snow Witch. A slightly more sinister story, although by far the glitteriest front cover. Drawing on tales of evil Ice Queens, such as the Snow Queen in Narnia, this is a tale of a stolen mother, a brave, slightly feral, child and her relationship with nature and animals.

As in Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast, in which the picking of flowers leads to danger, Anya’s mother journeys to the glacier to pick blue gentian flowers. But one year she doesn’t return, and Anya and her father must travel there too to find out what has happened. She has been trapped inside the ice by the evil Snow Witch, and Anya, with her father and the ravens, must battle to save her.

A haunting fairytale, this book excels with its dramatic artworks. Rather like the textures and colour layering used in Eric Carle books, the child is depicted as of nature, with her brown leaf dress, and her affinity with the ravens and the foxes. The illustrations are drawn from different points of view – looking through the trees towards the building that dominates the snow garden, or seeing the trees in the forest as if they are watching, or zooming in to the Raven Child’s face and her huge blue eyes as she receives a vision of where her mother is being held. Dreamlike and lyrical, the illustrations have sharp edges, which lends a darkness to the tale.

The place could be anywhere, with fragments of the Northern Americas, with Inuit overtones, and yet also, strangely, slightly European – calling up the huge expanses of Germanic forests.

Big ideas and concepts flow into the book, from the spookily shimmery elongated shapes of the Snow Witch – cascading white strips down the page as if the snow is swirling and whirling around, and language too that speaks to poetry, from the Arctic fox, “ghost of the snow”, to “the lightning that stabbed the darkening sky.”

In the end it is bravery and the power of love that conquers all. One to savour and revisit – reminiscent of Peter and the Wolf, set to music I can see this as being a classic winter tale. Check it out here.

 

 

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

It was with some trepidation that I started reading this novel, advertised for young teens, but I think appropriate for mature nine year olds, because of Laird’s introduction. The novel begins with a foreword from the author, which gives an explanation of why the war in Syria began and poses a question at the end about how history will judge our treatment of refugees.

Literature is there to pose questions and make us think, as well as imbue empathy. And good literature should teach us things too – but above all there needs to be a good story well told, otherwise readers won’t get to the crux of the book. Elizabeth Laird is an experienced writer, and has written many great, distinguished and prize-winning novels. Is this more than just another ‘issue’ book, a book that has written a story around an issue, rather than starting with a story and drawing an issue out of it? This isn’t Laird’s best book in my opinion, and yet this is way more than an issue book, and it certainly makes the reader think, and so it deserves this week’s book of the week spot.

Twelve-year-old Omar narrates the story – in past tense. He lives in Bosra, isn’t keen on school, but makes money selling postcards at a tourist site. His father also works in tourism – but for the government. When war breaks out, the family’s troubles grow – not least because Omar’s father has to move for work, but also because his older sister is being married off (having reached the marriageable age of sixteen). Omar’s older brother Musa suffers from cerebral palsy and starts getting in with a group who are anti-government. It’s a complicated situation and Laird does her best to navigate through the family’s journey. As the bombs fall on the city, they move again, and again, until eventually they have to flee Syria completely and cross the border to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Laird has done her research – she has spent time in the refugee camps and has prior knowledge of living in the Middle East as well as a presenting us with a hefty acknowledgements section that clearly names all the various experts and refugee families who have helped to share their experiences with her.

It’s not a short novel, coming in at over 360 pages in the proof copy, and is fast-paced and hugely enjoyable. Yet, even at this length, it still feels like a skeletal piece. The descriptions of places are somewhat lacking – particularly the urban settings, although there are glimpses of what was once there – the tourist areas boomed, and the ordinary society was buzzy and lively – and yet there wasn’t quite enough description to give that emotional evocation of what has been lost.

The secondary characters too – Omar’s sister is desperate to stay a scholar and not get married, Omar’s brother struggles with his illness that sets him apart as different (just as any boy would anywhere in the world), but neither are portrayed in enough depth to give complexity to their issues. However, other relationships do spring from the page – Omar’s mother’s relationship with her grandmother, and likewise her relationship with her sister – these feel alive and real – with just a light touch. Omar – our protagonist – is likeable despite having many flaws; he comes across as real – that awkward age of boyhood into adulthood that’s particularly difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone in wartime, and when he’s dealing with an absent father and a physically weaker older brother.

Written from a very British perspective, the language used will be vastly familiar to the Western reader – words such as ‘bungling’ and phrases such as ‘ratting on someone’ and ‘I beg your pardon’. Perhaps this is on purpose, to make the readership feel familiar with the family portrayed – to show the readership here that this is something that could happen to anyone. And yet, as with the lack of physical description of Syria, it takes away some of the authenticity of the book.

But overall this book ticks the boxes for me because it’s gripping and fast (the book sprints through the plot) and portrays the Syrian war and the refugee crisis so that an average ten year old in this country could gain some insight and experience some empathy.

The book extols the virtues of bravery and hopefulness. Of learning to look out for your family and put someone else first. And it makes you think – how will we welcome a family such as Omar’s in our country? Who are these people? Are they just like you and me?

You can buy it here. Fifty pence per copy of the hardback book sold will be donated to an international aid agency supporting the Syrian refugee crisis.