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Storm Whale by Sarah Brennan, illustrated by Jane Tanner


There are many sorts of picture books. The ones that tickle and inspire giggles, the ones that teach a lesson on manners, those with silly monster and toilet jokes, and those that are cute and fluffy, but every so often comes one with text that reads like grand poetry, illustrations that demand to be pinned upon the wall, and an ending that calms, but also brings tears to the eyes.

Storm Whale is one of the most sumptuously illustrated, quietly intelligent, and emotional picture books I have read in some time. It tells the simple story of a beached whale and three girls’ attempts to save it. In this way it perhaps invokes memories of The Snail and the Whale, and a picture book with the same name, The Storm Whale by Benji Davies.

However, this is set apart in that it meshes together the best from each aforementioned title. The text rivals that of Donaldson’s. Sarah Brennan’s text rhymes too, and reads even more lyrically, with a lilt that gives a nod to the rhythm of the sea.

“Bleak was the day and the wind whipped down
When I and my sisters walked to town.”

It begs to be read aloud, and paints a magnificent picture of the atmosphere and the power of the wind and sea. This may be summer, but it’s a wild shoreline here, no ice creams and sandcastles, but nature – birds, unspoilt coastlines, shells and seclusion.

Brennan has carefully chosen vocabulary to illustrate the sounds of her poem, from ‘wrack and wreck’ to “the waves slip-slapped,” and the imagery is pure gold, “seaweed, high as a mermaid’s throne…” but I think it’s more than the sum of its parts. For all that the words sing, they come together in a rhythm that lulls and pulls on the emotions.

But it is also the partnering with award-winning illustrator Jane Tanner that lifts this picture book into new territory. The illustrations have a distinctive style (vastly different from Benji Davies, but with their own inimitable grace). At first the images are pencil sketched black and white, and drawn with such dexterity that the image almost makes the reader believe that the wind is rushing through the pages. The girls’ faces are expressive, betraying their delight and innocence. Then, on discovery of the whale, the colour floods in, as the sea floods into the bay, and the angle zooms out, so that the reader sees the beach from a gull’s view. Again, the movement is sweeping. Zooming in again a page later to the girls, with an intensity to their body language that implies their desperation as they try to save the whale. The illustration is so detailed and packed with emotion that the sound of the ocean’s roar is loud in the ears, the girls’ futility against nature deafening.

And then, in perhaps the most startling illustration of the book, the girls are shown warm at bedtime, home in the sanctuary of their mother’s arms. Tanner has used a mass of yellows and oranges to contrast with the blues and greens of the sea, and the page feels alive with the flicker of fire and warmth. Again, the faces of the girls are illuminated, sharp and expressive. And the ending, back on the beach, when it comes, is uplifting with hope and sunshine after the storm.

Picture book of the year. It publishes 1st August, and you can buy it here.

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

The Ethan I was Before by Ali Standish and Truth or Dare by Non Pratt

It’s funny how books bucket together. In the past two months I’ve read three books with ‘dares’ as their theme – I Dare You by Reece Wykes, a picture book for the young at heart with a wry sense of humour, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt, a most excellent YA novel with some hard truths at heart, and The Ethan I was Before, a middle grade novel with a dare at its core.

In The Ethan I Was Before, twelve-year-old Ethan is moved with his family to live with his grandfather in Georgia, a far cry from the Boston he is used to. Allegedly the move is to help his grandfather, although it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather is an independent soul, and the move is to remove Ethan from an uncomfortable incident in his past.

Ethan’s relationship with his angry older brother, his new relationship with Coralee (an enigmatic girl he meets at school), and the exploration of his new town make up the bulk of the novel, but all the time the reader is aware of a past secret that Ethan is hiding.

Standish’s prose pulls in the reader from the beginning. There are some key phrases that show flashes of great writing, her similies are excellent and create an authentic sense of place: she describes the air at one point with “humidity like a wet fleece blanket”. Her characterisations too are neat and winning, from her portrayal of forthright and keenly intelligent Mack, who runs the local store, to Ethan’s Mum, who tends to burn food because she forgets having put it in the oven in an endearingly absentminded preoccupation. Standish also has a handle on the unsophisticated twelve-year-old way of trying to describe in words the complex emotions of guilt and anxiety. She also focuses on what Ethan’s therapist has told him to do, extrapolating the way Ethan is feeling without laying it too bare for the readership:

“It’s almost funny, that everything that would make a normal person happy is what makes me feel the most sad.”

And yet, it’s the not laying it bare that holds this book back from being as good as it should be. The ‘secret’ in the past is too often alluded to by Ethan’s family, and himself, and yet doesn’t feel real. Because they are all holding back so much, the constant nudges that there is something else going on, or something big that happened in the past, feel too contrived. Although in real life, we all do keep back parts of ourselves, even in some cases from ourselves, one feels that Ethan’s family would talk more frankly – particularly his brother – or that Ethan, who narrates the story in first person, would be slightly more honest with himself and with the readership. It doesn’t sit well that he hides the past from himself, because it doesn’t fit with his character.

On the whole this was a really enjoyable book; I just felt that it could have been bigger. With slightly more depth and more subtlety, the past could have been explored in more detail and led to a weightier novel. So the denouement, when it comes, feels half-hearted, and I wanted the ‘dare’ to be more dramatic. But for glimpses of what Standish can do, and with the possibility that there is better to come, this is an intriguing debut. It will fit the bill nicely for a summertime coming-of-age novel, and gives a great sense of small town America. You can buy it here.

For meatiness I’d go to the YA coming-of-age title, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt. Although the production at first seems gimmicky, in that the first part is narrated by main character Claire Casey, leaving the story on a cliffhanger, with the second part physically flipped over so that the reader has to turn the book upside down and start from the other end to read the other main character, Sef’s narration continuing the plot, the story itself is far from contrived. In fact, it becomes swiftly apparent reading part two that this consecutive narration adds depth and substance.

Kam Malik suffers a life-changing injury after a stupid stunt goes wrong. Claire, shy and unobtrusive, volunteers at his rehabilitation clinic. When she gets to know Kam’s brother, Sef, together they come up with a scheme to raise much-needed funds to maintain his rehabilitation. It’s a Truth or Dare YouTube campaign, but before long their truths collide and their dares take things too far.

Non Pratt has a magnificent turn of phrase that enables description without the reader feeling they’re reading any. The plot is deft and agile – the book skips along punctuated with accurate and authentic dialogue, and a look into the innermost thoughts of her narrators, which is, at times, devastating.

What shines through is the depth of characterisation, as at first the reader, through Claire’s eyes, really likes Sef Malik, but what soon becomes apparent through his point of view in part two, is that no one shows their true self to everyone, and that people aren’t kind or unkind throughout. Everyone has their motivations, demons, and selfishness. Pratt wheels through a host of issues including prejudice, fame, guilt, and love without once making this an issue novel. It’s a gripping read, as tumultuous as Claire’s relationship with Sef, and deeply satisfying. You can buy it here.

 

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Crazily enough, this children’s novel is the second I have read in the last two months that is rooted in an historical leprosy colony, and explores the effects on families and society. The other novel is Lauren Volk’s Beyond the Bright Sea.

Millwood Hargrave’s second novel, The Island at the End of Everything, is set in Culion in the Philippines, which in 1902 was established by US forces as a leper colony. Ami’s ‘touched mother’ gives birth to her on the island, and they live fairly simple lives until Ami’s thirteenth year, when US forces take over the island and decree that it is to be home for the ‘touched’ only, and they ship in many more lepers, segregating them from the untouched. The new governor then strips the island of the disease-free children and ships them to an orphanage on another island, so Ami takes it upon herself to find her way back home.

The story is told in Millwood Hargrave’s lyrical style, with her zing of brevity that wings the reader through the book. She has a poet’s eye for relaying a scene swiftly without flowery embellishment, managing to write vivid descriptions that all strive for the specific. The Philippines lend themselves to this prosaic style, and their lush landscapes are brought sharply into focus – the scent of oranges and colour of butterflies remain long after the book is finished.

The prose is startlingly different from Lauren Wolk’s book. There are no truisms spoken here, although they do exist – they are more subtly buried in an undercurrent of the adventure. But Hargrave’s characters are equally impetuous – particularly Ami herself and her friend Mari – they do not stop to think or listen to the grown ups around them, but take matters very much into their own hands. This plays with a general theme in current children’s fiction in which children often try to please their parents, not realising that they have misunderstood the essence of what will make their parents happy.

Millwood Hargrave also brings in her now characteristic element of writing strong female protagonists, and managing to instill a slight feminist agenda –  in that she shows her protagonists’ ability to act equally to the boys around them, despite them often being belittled by older boys or men.

But above the layers of all this, is a page-turning adventure story, packed with verdant scenery, and a demonstration of characters’ defiance against hatred and judgement, and their defence of love and friendship. There’s a sort of ‘no man left behind’ feel to the adventure, which is populated by good people, especially children, who are all overcoming adversity and striving to do well.

I actually preferred its simplicity and pace to the Millwood Hargrave’s debut, The Girl of Ink and Stars, for which she won the overall Waterstone’s Book Prize. Island feels more effortless, as if it flowed from the pen more easily, and is a kind of flawless adventure that definitely fulfills the author’s aim in showing children how to wonder at the wonders around us. I can’t wait to see what she does next. You can buy a copy of Island here.

All The Things That Could Go Wrong by Stewart Foster


There’s been much talk recently about how reading can improve a person’s empathy. But few writers can see inside people’s heads as well as Stewart Foster, author of The Bubble Boy for children, and We Used To Be Kings (for adult readers).

His latest novel for children, All The Things That Could Go Wrong, deals with the topic of bullying in a terrifically empathetic way, alternating chapters between the points of view of the bully and the bullied.

Alex is struggling in secondary school. He has a lot of worries and his OCD makes doing the most ordinary things, such as leaving the house to go to school, very difficult. This term Sophie and Dan are picking on him, which makes life even harder.

Dan is not doing so well at school either. He’s angry because things have been different since his brother went away, and it’s easier to take out that anger on someone weaker.

So it’s mortifying for the both of them when their mothers, naïve to the ins and outs of school gangs and friendships, arrange for them to meet up outside of school to finish building the raft that Dan started with his brother.

The inevitability of the changing nature of their relationship becomes obvious from the moment that Alex’s and Dan’s mothers force them into spending time together, but Foster manages to eke out every single moment of tension between them, as well as realistically delineating exactly how their relationship changes, why, and at an honest pace. It’s not like they’ll be friends overnight.

The dual narrative works well here in a perfect equilibrium. The reader loves both the voices, so that, unlike some books in which the reader races through one narrative to reach their favourite voice, here, the scales feel well-balanced. What’s more Foster doesn’t insinuate more sympathy to or empathy with either character – they are dealt with equally but differently. Each boy’s perspective pushes the plot along, as well as revealing their gradual realisation not only of their own outward projection of how they want to be seen, but also how they are perceived. In the end of course, they have an insight into who they actually are, and how they can be the best part of themselves.

Alex is a fascinating character in that Foster makes sure that his OCD is not what defines him. He has many other interests and talents, which are easy to identify – it’s just that his OCD gets in his own way. What’s more, Foster doesn’t make the OCD the reason that Alex is bullied – in fact the bullies hardly seem aware of it – other than the physical gloves he wears. For Alex it is the preoccupying factor in his life, but for the bullies, they just pick on him because he projects weakness. In fact, they are satisfied to move onto bullying another victim when the time is right.

Also punctuating the story are Alex’s lists of worries, which he is encouraged to write down by his therapist, and the lists are both highly irrational and yet highly understandable. Written in a different typeface, the lists add yet another insight into his mind.

And Dan too is distinctly likeable, despite his bullying of Alex. He exudes a loneliness, anger and frustration symptomatic of many twelve-year-old boys struggling to understand their place in society, as well as struggling to make sense of a significant change in their home lives – in this case the absence of Dan’s older brother. Foster portrays Dan’s lack of communication with those around him, and as an extra insight into his mind, shows the reader Dan’s letters to his brother. They are immensely poignant.

Because of course, part of what defines us as human beings is our relationships with others – how we handle those around us, and as children not just the friends we make at school, but the changing family dynamic. The worry of Dan’s mother, and the portrayal of Alex’s father in handling his son’s illness, are both treated with brevity and yet clear intelligence. Alex’s frustration in not being able to be the big brother he’d like to be to his sister is also heart-breaking.

But as well as the prodigious character crafting, Foster supplies a page-turning plot, a constant anxiety about what could go wrong for the boys, and an excellent breakdown of bullying. The chapters are short and pithy, the prose perspicuous.

It’s an utterly immersive novel about learning to be yourself, and like yourself. It’s a book that I’d like to shove at primary school teachers to share with their classes because of its brilliant exposition of bullying, but also the kind of book children will read by torchlight under the covers because they need to find out what happens next. When they say ‘not to be missed’, this is the kind of book they mean. You can buy a copy here.

Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth

Another new novel for children (aged approx nine years and over) that seeks to explore an immensely difficult political reality, but without making it too complicated for children to understand or too upsetting to read. Instead, it uses adventure and ongoing hope in the face of extreme adversity.

Tash lives in Tibet, where her father works for the resistance in an attempt to keep his supressed religion alive, and to get word out to the wider world about the oppression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese occupation. When a man sets fire to himself in the village as an act of protest, the Chinese soldiers step up their curfews and subjugation. Tash’s parents are taken away, so she sets off across the Himalayas to India in search of help from the exiled Dalai Lama. The majority of the book tells the account of her trek across the mountains with her friend Sam, and two yaks.

What makes the book work is that this is a depiction of an ordinary child in extraordinary circumstances. At the beginning of the novel she is shown attending school, and yet she can’t run home through the fields as she’d like because the patrolling soldiers don’t allow it. The emotions and thoughts are those of a child, with hurts, guilts and worries explored, but all the time there are small nuggets that lead the reader to believe that being small doesn’t mean that you can’t make a difference.

The prose is simple too. Short sharp sentences in short sharp chapters, with distinct character development as Tash moves across the mountains. This gives the character a clear sense of purpose, but also makes the book a swift quick read, as if the reader too is running from danger. It also lowers the age range accessibility – meaning that a young confident reader can tackle the book because the vocabulary and sentence structures are kept easy and tight. However, in its brevity, the book glosses over some of the implausibility of the journey, and the action feels a little lacking in overall cohesion – almost as if the journey dominates the overall purpose – but for children this could be read less as a flaw and more as simply a sign of a pacey read.

As with many novels for children, there is a very positive, yet dependent relationship between child and animal, (in place of family), and so the yaks become very much characters on whom the children are reliant, and so for whom the readers feel passion. There is also a huge emphasis on friendship, loyalty and courage.

And lastly, the production of the book is simply stunning. With a cover that sings of sunrise and adventure, and inside pages that hold intricate print designs and hidden yaks, this is a beautiful book to own. An eye-opening and somewhat different read. Buy yours here.

Q&A with Catherine Barter, author of Troublemakers


I had the recent good fortune to not only review Catherine’s debut novel, Troublemakers, but also to chair a panel conversation between Catherine and Keren David, author of The Liar’s Handbook, among others. For those of you unable to attend, I also sneaked in a cheeky Q&A with Catherine so that I could share it with you here. Troublemakers is an unusual YA novel – it’s contemporary, about politics, and very apt in the current political climate. Set in London, it’s a coming-of-age novel that speaks of activism, terrorism, and family relationships.

I understand that you worked for an organisation campaigning for the rights of garment workers. Have you always been involved in political activism of some kind?

That’s right, I used to work for a brilliant organisation called Labour Behind the Label. I mostly did office admin – answering emails, stuffing envelopes, that kind of thing. I’m much too shy to be any good at direct action or street protest, so where I’ve been involved in activism it’s mainly been doing boring, behind-the-scenes things.

I’ve always been quite political, and my family talked politics a lot, but I think I got particularly switched on to it in my teens. When I was about sixteen I had that Naomi Klein book, No Logo, which a lot of people were reading at the time, and I got quite caught up in the idea of fighting back against global capitalism. Not that I exactly knew what that meant (I’m not sure I actually got to the end of No Logo), but I could tell it was important!

And then the Iraq War began the year that I started university, and I went on one of the marches against it, as did a lot of young people that year. So that was my first introduction to that kind of mass movement activism. You care very passionately about things when you’re a teenager, so I think it’s a good time to get interested in politics and activism.

You co-manage a radical bookshop (Housmans). What’s the most rewarding part of the job?

I love when young people come in to the shop looking for copies of old radical classics, things like bell hooks’ Ain’t I A Woman or Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. You get the feeling they’re just getting started on their political journeys and they’re putting in the groundwork by reading all these big, difficult, important books. And they’re really excited about it. I love seeing that.

Did the attacks on Housmans in the past in some way inspire what happens to Nick’s coffee shop in Troublemakers?

Hmm! I actually never thought about that link, but maybe on some level it was inspired by that. There’s definitely a bit of Housmans in Nick’s coffee shop, and working in the shop has made me aware that any business which has its politics up-front makes itself vulnerable to some extent. We do still get far-right people coming in to shout at us sometimes, and I can imagine Nick’s coffee shop with all its activist posters in the window would get the same.

When did you start writing Troublemakers?

I can be very specific! It was March 2011, when I took a six-week course at Writers’ Centre Norwich. I was feeling very liberated after finishing a PhD and wanted to start doing something completely different from academic writing.

Did you always want to write YA?

No. I didn’t know a lot about YA until I started writing Troublemakers. Then I sort of fell in love with writing from the perspective of a teenager and realised that YA was the right home for the kind of story I wanted to tell. Which was really exciting.

How did you feel to be shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award?

I was so happy. I can remember that whole day really vividly. It was gratifying because after I was longlisted, and before I submitted the full manuscript for the next stage, I’d worked really hard to fix all the problems that I knew the book had. I was still rewriting until the last possible moment, because I knew I could make it better. So I was thrilled when all that work paid off.

This is your debut novel. Tell me your route to publication.

After the shortlist was announced, the organiser of the Bath Novel Award, Caroline Ambrose, contacted literary agents to let them know about the books and authors on the list. As a result of that, a few agents requested to see my complete manuscript. Two of those offered to represent me–but one of them wanted me to write a different book, and one of them wanted to work on Troublemakers. So that was an easy decision! I did quite a lot of editing with my agent, who then sent the book out into the world, where it found a home with Andersen Press.

You wrote a PhD on Sherman Alexie. What attracted you to him?

I’d never heard of Sherman Alexie until I read one of his short story collections for a class on ‘multi-ethnic American literatures’. Then I got completely hooked. His writing is very funny and very sad, very immediate and sometimes flawed and all the more alive and interesting because of that. It’s very layered and political, too, and writing about his fiction was also a way to write and think about American history and politics and storytelling traditions. So all of that was very appealing. And he’s also written one of my favourite YA novels ever, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

What are you working on next?

It’s still in a bit of a fragile, embryonic stage, but I’m working on a story about four friends in a desolate Norfolk seaside town in winter. So it’s a completely different setting from Troublemakers, which has been fun to write.

Thank you so much to Catherine for agreeing to answer yet more questions. I encourage you all to read Troublemakers, it’s one of the best YA published this year. You can purchase it here.  

 

The Norris Girls by Nigel Hinton

I remember searching for new Nigel Hinton books when I was in my teens, relishing Collision Course, The Finders and Buddy. So, when I was approached by an independent publisher to review a book they were calling ‘Little Women’ for the twenty-first century, I was a little surprised to discover the author was the very same. It’s a far cry from the broken father/son relationship of Buddy, or the guilt-ridden teenage angst of Collision Course. And yet, is it?

In fact, the book owes more to Hinton’s previous novels and his exploration of family relationships than it does Little Women, (although there is a Beth in both, and a tomboy, not called Jo, but Georgy). Hinton explores sibling relationships, guilt, and personal passions, which come together to form a rounded family portrait, in this delightfully vivacious novel for children.

The father in the Norris girls is working abroad, in dangerous territory. But life at home goes on. Beth is in her early teens, keen to shine in the school musical, whilst keeping her options open with potential boyfriends, Georgy is focussed on her running and trying out for the Inter-Counties competition, and Katie, the youngest, wants a pet.

The chapters move between the siblings, giving each their own perspective on the others at home, but also insight into their own preoccupations. What Hinton does here, by voicing so many points of view, is to show a typical family structure at work – each person enveloped within their own interests and individual lives, and yet also part of a whole – sharing relationships and worries and common goals. The reader gets a clear view of the girls’ individual passions and hobbies and friendships, yet also sees how that bounces off the conflicts and dilemmas within the family. The tension mounts as each faces a struggle on their own, which is all the time very much tied to the general conflict when their father gets taken hostage.

There is a lovely balance of supportive and friendly adults, as well as those who offer support in a harsher manner, with the petty jealousies, bickering, and upsets between peers. There are also strong friendships, as well as burgeoning boyfriend/girlfriend scenarios – but all on such a tame level that it’s quite suitable for a young audience. In fact, an older audience might be less taken with the chapters told from Katie’s point of view, endearing though they are.

There are ups and downs for the girls, successes and failures. Hinton captures well Georgy’s running abilities, and gives a real poignancy to Katie’s loveable ways. I wanted to feel Beth in a little more depth – she is at that perfect age where she’s struggling to identify herself as a girlfriend and as a teen within the family – she argues most with their mother, but I would have liked to see this more. Hinton also uses the first chapter to explore her texting with her friend, but this dies down shortly afterwards and it could have been embellished further – teens look to friends so much in the scenarios in which Beth finds herself.

But these small criticisms aside, this is a read to relish. As easy and breezy to read as a Jacqueline Wilson, yet filled with pathos and understanding. For me, it was less Little Women, and more like the Gemma stories by Noel Streatfield. The characters are fresh and sharp and have so much more to give – I would warrant this could be stretched to a series easily.

Hinton’s style and characterisations shine through, and he’s embraced the modernity of the girls’ lives, with video chats, phones at the ready, and media galore. He’s collided into the world of girls beautifully, with a soft ending that exemplifies exactly why his publishers have compared it to Little Women, or The Railway Children in fact. You can’t beat a happy ending for precipitating the tears. You can purchase it here.

 

 

 

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.