family

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

goodbye stranger

Every so often a writer comes along who weaves magic with every book. Rebecca Stead’s books are insightful and compelling, her words flow off the page like cake batter into the tin. Her books are always unputdownable; and always ask questions.

So, it comes as no surprise to find that her latest follows suit. Set in New York, Goodbye Stranger tells three interlocking narratives: Bridge, a girl stepping into seventh grade (Year 7), and navigating her friendships, and pondering the question of life after miraculously living through a terrible car accident when she was eight years old; Sherm, who is coming to terms with the breakup of his grandparents’ long marriage and puzzling the meaning of love; and a third mystery strand told in the rare second-person narrative: “You paint your toenails. You don’t steal nail polish, though”. The three strands build together until all is revealed at the end of the book.

Topically dealing with internet safety, body image and of course the ever-present problems of friendship and peer pressure at this pivotal point of adolescence, Stead handles her young teens with emotional depth, wonderful empathy and adroitness. These are children with whom the reader immediately identifies, and wishes well. The reader waits on tenterhooks to see if everything will turn out alright. The dialogue sits well, and as always, New York springs to life under Stead’s pen.

All in all, this is the quintessential story for this age group – it discusses and makes you ponder what it means to be yourself – it pulls out arguments about identity. How much do we fit in with our peers or strike out on our own? How much of ourselves do we show to our parents or our friends? These are key questions of identity for this age group, and the book handles them responsibly without once becoming patronising.

As mentioned before the prose is idyllic – “Bridge woke to the sound of the cello. Her {mom’s} music reminded Bridge of picking wildflowers – she started with something thin and simple and then kept adding new sounds, all different shapes and colors, until she had something explosive. But in the mornings her mom tried to explode very quietly, so that the people downstairs didn’t get annoyed.”

Stead’s book is a pleasure to read from start to finish. I only wish I hadn’t read it so quickly! You can order your copy here.
For the 11+ years crowd.

Please note the book does contain a narrative about sending selfies of various poses by mobile phone.

Andersen Press very kindly sent me a copy of this book to review.

Sister Love

“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands” Christina Rossetti

Whatever Happened to My Sister

Whatever Happened to My Sister? By Simona Ciraolo
This is a brilliantly touching picture book for any younger sibling whose older sister has started on the transition out of childhood. It portrays the shift in relationship, the changing family dynamic – and Simona Ciraolo does it with great skill. From the beauty of the front cover, in which a little sister forms camaraderie with the cat outside the perceived locked door of her older sister’s room, the narrative flows through the book visually as well as verbally. The first two pages show the younger sister alone, looking through photographs in the family album, with suspicions that “someone had replaced my sister with a girl who looked a lot like her”. The following spread erupts with sensitivity and pathos as the reader sees the younger sister staring at her older sister – the teenager now resplendent with small shorts at the top of her exceedingly long legs, her midriff bare as she stretches into a high cupboard: “My sister was never so tall. Did it happen overnight?”
The colour palate is muted – the background of the house in shades of warm beige, blues, greys, with vibrant orange for detail – a modern landscape dotted with homely paraphernalia: the younger sister’s tea party, Halloween outfit, skipping rope, scooter, set against the older sister’s secret diary, computer, phone, and guitar. But it’s the positioning of the sisters that pulls at the heartstrings – the younger child’s peeking through a doorway, or locked out completely (reminiscent of ‘Do you want to Build a Snowman?’ from Frozen), as opposed to the older sister with her feet up on a desk, lounging reading a magazine, sprawled across a sofa, painted nails, chats with friends. Simona Ciraolo has captured both a small child’s stance and a teenager’s with flair. The illustrations are in soft crayon, and beautifully accomplished.
The book resolves itself with joy – as the older notices the younger’s tears and invites her to join in with dress up and music, with beautiful phrasing on the last page, which I won’t reveal. For a younger sister there is solace in this new relationship – for a mother reading it – it’s heart-breaking. A very clever picture book. To purchase, click here.

One

One by Sarah Crossan
This is another book that tugs on the heartstrings about sisters, but aimed at a teen audience, and about a completely different type of sisterly relationship. Sixteen year olds Tippi and Grace are conjoined twins, their bodies are meshed together at their hip, although they have separate hearts, heads and each has two arms. The book tells of what happens the year they start attending main school rather than being home educated (for financial reasons), and also explores the impact as their health begins to deteriorate. Sarah Crossan’s extensive research about their situation and emotions shines through the story, but what separates this book from other teen novels about serious health issues is the author’s use of free verse to tell the story.

By being so sparing with words, and by utilising not only words themselves but their positioning and spacing on the page, Sarah creates a pacey plot alongside deep and moving emotion. No word is superfluous. She integrates the rare situation the girls are in with the normalcy of teen love, friendships, sibling relationships and school. The language is so spectacularly beautiful and well-crafted that the reader melts even before the heart-breaking ending.

“We’ll just have a smoke today
and die that way,” Jon says,
and
takes such a pleasurable drag
from his cigarette you’d think he was
sucking up gold.”

to even such simple but effective similes as describing apples after a storm lying on the grass:

“like forgotten billiard balls on green felt.”

Sarah uses the same pared down power to eke out superb character portraits with just a few simple phrases. The reader’s breath is taken away before they even reach the final denouement. Highly recommended as a heart-rending read, but also to show what can be done with poetry. To purchase click here or see the Amazon sidebar.

Both these books make it into my top ten reads so far this year. Please note that Whatever Happened to My Sister? was kindly sent for review purposes from Flying Eye Publishers.

 

An Island Of Our Own by Sally Nicholls

An Island Of Our Own

Sally Nicholls’ An Island Of Our Own has been longlisted for this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, with good reason. Thirteen year old Holly and younger brother Davy have been left in the care of their elder sibling, Jonathan, since their mother died. Told in Holly’s authentic first person voice, the book recounts the year Holly was twelve, in which her Great Aunt suffers a disabling stroke, and although unable to speak, gives Holly clues to finding what might be a much-needed family inheritance. With the kindness of strangers, some savvy Internet usage and her own unflappable competence, Holly sets about solving the mystery of the missing inheritance.

Not only is this a compellingly crafted family mystery, but there are many other elements that combine to make this a joy to read from start to finish. Lacking any kind of morbidity or sentimentality, Nicholls manages to portray a family struggling with their circumstances with pathos and wit. Jonathan is beautifully drawn out by Holly’s voice, a portrayal of an older brother shouldering responsibility with dignity, sacrificing his own path for the sake of his siblings. Even though Holly has a normal twelve year old’s view of her sometimes irritating elder brother, the reader is cleverly shown how patient and loving he is. For me, he was the stand-out character of the book. By showing some of the fun that can be had without parents around, as well as illuminating those moments when the absence of parents is heartrending (eg., Holly’s shopping trip to buy a first-time bra with an older brother instead of a mother in tow), Sally Nicholls affords the book the reality of the circumstances.  Bringing in meetings with social workers, extended family complications, school, work and money issues, everything is encompassed within this accomplished book.

And yet the plot is neat, the chapters bite-size, suitable for even reluctant readers. There are numerous other wonders to be explored within the story, too, such as Jonathan’s refuge at makerspace, and the family’s adventure to the Orkney Islands, all of which is clearly well researched so that the details lend the book authenticity. Sally Nicholls set out to write about family, generosity, the goodness of the Internet and the wonder of everyday ordinariness. She has succeeded – and her characters live on in the mind. For readers aged 9 and over.

To purchase a copy of An Island Of Our Own please click here or see the Amazon sidebar.

Summer Reading List

I’m not going to be blogging in August. It’s my month to take stock, recharge, and just READ. So, in case you’re wondering which books to pack/download for your children or take out the library for the summer reading challenge (see here), then here are a few suggestions.

i want my hat backoliver and patchwinnie at the seasidekatie mcginty

I recently re-discovered I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. This is a modern classic and as close to picture book perfection as you can get. A bear is looking for his hat and asks a variety of creatures if they have seen it. It’s a simple concept expertly executed, with fabulous dry wit and wonderful facial expressions – the text and pictures complement each other flawlessly. It is fun to do different voices for different characters and good for all ages to discuss what happened to the rabbit and why! Oliver and Patch by Claire Freedman and Kate Hindley is a beautiful story about moving to a new place. Summer can be a transition time for lots of children, and it’s good to read a reassuring story about making new friends and settling into a new place. Phenomenal vocabulary, exquisite illustrations – it also shows the fun you can have in a city. For something more summery try Winnie the Witch at the Seaside by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul. Much loved by children everywhere, this episode takes Winnie to the beach – although will Wilbur the cat stay dry? A good story, well told, with Korky’s distinctive style of illustrations. If you don’t want to rely on old favourites, this summer watch out for Katie McGinty Wants a Pet by debut author Jenna Harrington, illustrated by Finn Simpson, publishing 13th August. Katie wants a very different kind of pet (bet you can guess from the cover!). Although she may end up with slightly more than she bargained for – the writing style is fun and quirky – and captures a small child wonderfully – ‘She wanted it more than Millie Phillips wanted to be able to stand on her head.’

oliver and the seawigsclever pollylottie liptonthe gingerbread star ted rules the worldClaude Lights

My newly independent reading choices are a mixture of old and new too. Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre is a gem of a book, which takes the reader on a seafaring voyage unlike any other. The illustrations are sensational, look out particularly for Iris the mermaid. A classic, which has just been reissued and is well worth a read is Clever Polly and the Wolf by Catherine Storr. With 13 separate stories this is a good starter read. Each story is a play on ‘wolf fairy tales’, but magically don’t seem dated at all – and Clever Polly is remarkably likeable. If you’re doing any museum visiting this summer, or just looking to solve some riddles, a great read is the new Lottie Lipton series by Dan Metcalf, released in conjunction with the British Museum. These are well written little mysteries for growing readers but they have real riddles in them, and activities at the end. I’d love to read one whilst in the British Museum to see if I could follow the trail too. A must for young historians. For new or struggling readers I’m also heartily in favour of the Little Gem series from Barrington Stoke. There are numerous titles by fabulous authors in this list, but recent releases include The Gingerbread Star by Anne Fine, illustrated by Vicki Gausden and Ted Rules the World by Frank Cottrell Boyce, illustrated by Chris Riddell and Cate James. The Gingerbread Star retains the quality of Anne Fine’s longer work, and tells a glorious story of a worm who wishes she was a gloworm (so she can read in bed after lights out). She perseveres yet retains her sense of right and wrong throughout her adventure. Beautifully illustrated too – worms have never been so attractive. Ted Rules the World by high calibre writer Cottrell Boyce also retains the writer’s style – his sense of humour and mischievousness shine through in this hilarious story about a boy whose opinions on politics have a direct line to the prime minister. Far from marking him out as special though, Ted finds that the root cause is rather more uninspiring. It’s extremely funny. This agegroup also adore the Claude series by Alex T Smith, and on the 1st August, the new title is published, Claude: Lights! Camera! Action!. As zany as ever, Claude and Sir Bobblesock discover a film set and when the two lead actors are injured, they are asked to step in. The jokes hit on all levels – both children and adults. And that’s not all…this summer is momentous for the release of the very last Horrid Henry book by Francesca Simon: Horrid Henry’s Cannibal Curse. Although I’ve yet to see a copy of this and hate to review books I haven’t read I’m told it has an answer to the perpetual parental groan that Henry is too horrid…as Henry himself starts to read an interesting book about a girl called Evil Evie…

elspeth hart dara palmerrooftoppersmurder most unladylike
Eight to 13 year olds have a huge choice for their summer reads in this golden age of children’s literature. Firstly, I’d recommend Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs by Sarah Forbes, illustrated by James Brown. The second in the series comes out in September, so wisely use the summer to read the first. It tells the tale of orphan Elspeth, working as a servant in the Pandora Pants School for Show-Offs, sweeping up mouse-droppings, and dodging the horrid students, until one day she realises why she’s there, and how she can escape. Comic fun and a school setting with a feisty heroine. Another show off is the eleven year old main character in Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah. This is a fantastic story about a young adopted girl who desperately wants to be an actress. The story highlights how, through drama, she becomes more aware of herself and her relationship with her friends and family. Dealing with so many issues, such as adoption, diversity “I looked like a chocolate bunny in a room full of snowmen”, Dara’s voice is fresh, funny, and heartfelt. The massively annotated pages (doodles and patterns) entice the reader, as well as Dara’s imagined film script running parallel to her normal life, but Emma Shevah also deals cleverly with sensitive issues. Both an enjoyable read and an enlightening one (about adoption and different cultures). If your child hasn’t yet read Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, then buy it before her new book comes out in September. Rooftoppers tells the story of Sophie’s search for her mother across the roof tops in Paris. Katherine’s gift for storytelling knows no bounds – her writing is exemplary – stylish, fresh, original, and imaginative. It’s a perfect book and I implore you read it, instilling virtues such as love and courage and morality and seeking for the possibles in life. Its timelessness and third person narrative set it apart from other titles for this age group and it is a deserving winner of the Waterstones Children’s and Blue Peter Book awards. For series fans, I would recommend the Wells and Wong Mystery series by Robin Stevens. The first in the series, called Murder Most Unladylike, tells the story of Daisy and Hazel who set up a detective agency at their boarding school to look for missing ties etc, but then discover the body of the Science Mistress lying in the gym, and suddenly have a real mystery to solve. It is Agatha Christie for 9 year olds and over. Robin Stevens captures the innocence and yet vivaciousness of the two girls with all their insecurities and complexities. The book is set in the 1930’s but feels fairly timeless. It’s fun, imaginative, and brilliant for those who love mysteries and school stories. (so most children!). Three in the series have been published so far – an addictive set to devour on the beach, or staring at the rain…once you’ve read one, you’ll want to read them all.

boy in the towerthe executioners daughterbinny for shortphoenix

For slightly older readers, a haunting but utterly absorbing book for those wishing to ignore their family whilst on holiday is Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen. A modern day Triffids, Ade lives with his mum in a tower block, but one day the other buildings start to fall down. Before long the Bluchers have overtaken the landscape – plants that feed on metal and concrete, and give off deadly spores. Suddenly Ade and his mother are trapped. Ade has to learn to survive, figure out why his tower hasn’t collapsed and help his mother through the situation. It’s a tense, exhilarating read with memorable characters. Other stories for those slightly older are The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff– a historical tale, set in the Tower of London, and focussing on the ‘basket girl’, – the child who catches the beheaded heads in her basket. Never a dull moment in Tudor times – as the tale turns supernatural too. Salter, the loveable boy protagonist, is a sparkling creation. The sequel River Daughter, came out earlier this year. Binny for Short by Hilary McKay swings back to modernity, with a coming-of-age tale of friendship that deals with loss, relocation, family dynamics and special needs all in a highly readable, compelling summertime story. Binny is an all-rounded character, with frustration, humour, sympathy and a fantastic sense of childhood adventure. A great read from a prolific author who can clearly observe and articulate what people are really like. The sequel, Binny in Secret, came out in June. For those approaching teens, Phoenix by SF Said is my final pick. It’s something completely different – science fiction superbly written by Said, and ethereally illustrated by Dave McKean. It’s a powerfully ambitious tale of age-old war between Humans and Aliens. Lucky thinks he is an ordinary human boy, but once he discovers his extraordinary power realises that he must harness it to save the galaxy, even if it comes at huge personal cost. Bixa, the alien girl who gets mixed up in his story, is one of the most awe-inspiring characters in children’s fiction: fierce, magnetic and witty. I would definitely choose to dress up as Bixa on World Book Day if I were younger. This book is quite unlike any other in its age range – an epic with clear language, scintillating scenes and huge themes of power and myth, the universe and love, war and sacrifice. It will stay with you long after the summer fades.

Lastly, if you haven’t yet worked through my books of the week from this year, my most memorable reads were Stonebird by Mike Revell, The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone, The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday and In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll.

 

 

In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll

My next book of the week will be published September 6th. For a list of my books of the week to date, scroll down to the bottom of this review.

in darkling wood

Both the narrative structure and subject matter of Emma Carroll’s latest story, In Darkling Wood, are indicative of her own distinct style: quietly modern and yet definitely traditional in application. The novel is told using a dual narrative – in letters dated 1918 from a young girl to her brother in the war, and a modern-day first person narrative of a girl called Alice who is sent to live with her estranged grandmother whilst her brother is in hospital for a heart transplant. By weaving the two very distinct narratives together, Emma Carroll creates a magical story that is both classical and contemporary – just like her style of her writing in all her books.
At first Alice struggles in her stay with her gruff grandmother – her anxiety about her brother shines through the text, as does her frustration with her parents and her grandmother, Nell. She befriends a mysterious girl in the woods bordering her grandmother’s house, and before long becomes embroiled in a battle to save the woods and the enigmatic creatures whom the mysterious girl claims reside within the trees. At the same time, the letters from 1918 reflect another young girl’s anxiety about her own brother, and a preoccupation with some enigmatic winged creatures in the wood. The two stories edge closer together, and the book’s resolution is satisfying and complete.
Emma Carroll neatly references the Cottingley fairies story – a series of five famous photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in Cottingley towards the end of the First World War that came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and created a stir about the existence of fairies.
In Emma’s story, the fairies come to represent hope, and lead Alice to stand up for what she believes in.
The story is told sensitively, and is utterly engrossing. Each character is superbly drawn – the voices drip effortlessly from the page – from the distant yet forthright grandmother with secrets, to the absent father, sick brother, and the cast of characters in the modern school, as well as those from 1918. In fact, Emma’s time as a schoolteacher has clearly been useful – the school environment is one of the most believable I have encountered.
Furthermore her talent as a writer shines through in her description of Nell’s house and the Darkling Woods surrounding it – they remain an image within my head months after reading the book. It’s my last book of the week before the summer. Take it with you on holiday – but be warned – wherever you go, you’ll imagine you’re In Darkling Wood…

With thanks to Faber for the review copy. You can buy your own copy from Waterstones here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

My brother is a superhero by David Solomons
Too Close to Home by Aoife Walsh
The Cake, the Wolf, and the Witch by Maudie Smith, illustrated by Tony Ross
Alfie Bloom: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent
There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins
The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan
The Boys’ School Girls: Tara’s Sister Trouble by Lil Chase
Mad About Monkeys by Owen Davey
The Broken King by Philip Womack
The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford
Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin
How to Write your Best Story Ever by Christopher Edge
Head Over Heart by Colette Victor
Wild by Emily Hughes
Violet and the Hidden Treasure by Harriet Whitehorn illustrated by Becka Moor
The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday
The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn
The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Robot Girl by Malorie Blackman
How to Fly with Broken Wings by Jane Elson
A Whisper of Wolves by Kris Humphrey
The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone
Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: Supermarket Sweep by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad
Stonebird by Mike Revell
Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty
The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley
How the World Works by Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young
I am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz
The Story of Buildings by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by Stephen Biesty

A Guest Blog from author Lil Chase

taras sister troubleabbys shadow obis secrets
“I’m so excited about the release of the third book in my Boys’ School Girls series. They look so gorgeous together! It’s about a boys’ only school that has decided to take on girls for the first time, so there are only ten girls in the whole school. Each book is about a different one of the girls – their friendships with the others as well as their home life.

The first book is about Tara when she starts a club to rival her sister. The idea came from a hen party I went to where the sister of the bride brought along the bride-to-be’s club handbook from when she was young: full of favourite colours, boys they fancied, bands they liked, and coded languages. The younger sister admitted to regularly stealing the handbook and copying down her secrets.

Abby’s Shadow is a homage to the film Fatal Attraction. It’ll teach you to never betray your best friend by telling another girl she’s your best friend. This is what Abby does when she goes on holiday, but with Facebook and Instagram the girl from holiday catches up with her, and doesn’t like being second best. Warning: this book gets pretty scary!

The third – only just released – is Obi’s Secrets. Obi has never felt special but for reasons she doesn’t understand, the most gorgeous boy in her school likes her. Like likes her. It’s a heartbreaking story with a love triangle at the centre and a massive choice for Obi: her best friend or the boy she fancies.

People often ask me where I get my ideas from. The truth is: everywhere! I keep my eyes and ears open for inspiration and it finds me. It could be a friend’s anecdote from their childhood, a film I like, or – as was the case with Obi – knowing a character so well that you know the worst possible situation for them. I got to know Obi while writing books one and two and realised that she was loyal, and desperate for a best friend. So I decided to give her the best friend she always wanted, and then do something to test her loyalty.

So where did the big idea come from? The idea for the series? When I was young – about 10 or 11 – my father was made redundant from his job. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before new job offers came in. One was to be a bursar at a boys-only boarding school. The only downside was that we’d have to move and live on site. At eleven years old, I thought this would be wonderful! I would have my pick of all the boys. When he didn’t take the job I was heartbroken from missing out on all the knights in shining armour fighting for my hand.

Years later, I realise the reality of being the only girl in a boys’ school would not have been something out of Romeo and Juliet. Boys that age would at best, ignore me, at worst, tease me. Teenage boys aren’t often very chivalrous.

So the idiom ‘write what you know’ is true. Or, as in this case – write what you almost knew but made a lucky escape from.”

Thank you Lil Chase for your guest blog today.

MinervaReads is delighted to have 2 full sets of The Boys’ School Girls to giveaway. Just send MinervaReads an email with your favourite fictional school, or follow me on twitter @mineravamoan and see my Lil Chase competition tweet. Competition ends midnight 14th July. You can read Minerva’s review of The Boys’ School Girls here. And buy copies of the book here

Too Close to Home by Aoife Walsh

too close to home

As a child I loved reading about other people’s families. Little Women, I Capture the Castle, and more recently dipping into children’s books as an adult, I felt that same pull with Perfectly Ella by Candy Harper, and the Pea series of books by Susie Day. Then, in April another book landed on my desk that worked the same magic, and pulled me into a new family, whom I adored reading about and was sad to finish. Too Close to Home follows 14 year old Minny, a thoughtful, vivacious, complicated character with an equally complicated, loud and unique family. Told in the third person, which makes a change from so many which are told from the first person point of view, this slants towards Minny, but allows the author Aoife Walsh a little distance from her main character, which helps to give a greater perspective. Minny lives with her mother and grandmother, as well as her older sister Aisling, who is autistic, her younger sister Selena who has her own quirks, and her baby brother, whom she helps to look after. They are a single parent family, yet with much mention of extended family relations, from grandparents and their add-ons, to Minny’s father and his new family. It mirrors many jumbled family situations today, and is both a good insight and good reference into family life that isn’t just two parents plus 2.4 children.
Aofie’s talent is to give her main character a sympathetic and realistic voice, and to have her surrounded with problems, not all of which she can solve successfully, and certainly not on her own, and to push the idea that today’s teens are dealing with so many issues – from helping immediate family with childcare and domestic responsibilities, to friendships and boys, to schoolwork and in this particular case, to protecting her older sister, and learning where her loyalties lie. It also makes the point that young people do need grown-ups to help them make the right decisions, and to give useful advice: grown-ups including grandparents and responsible members of society, not just direct parents. Because there are so many characters, especially those living under one roof, Walsh has used dialogue to punctuate the story and develop the plot, and she clearly has an ear for it – the conversations are realistic and punchy. The book immerses you in the family, the reader feels as if they too are in the middle of the arguments, laughter and dinner table antics; it was like being a fly on the wall of the house down the street.
There’s more than one hint of diversity here, from different social stratas – one of Minny’s grandmothers is giving shelter to a boy whose own mother has substance abuse issues – to different sexualities – Minny’s best friend has two mothers. It’s great that Aiofe Walsh is able to include diverse characters in such a matter-of-fact way – this is not an ‘issue’ book, but simply portrays people from all walks of life with their own different concerns and backgrounds.There are also references that sit the book firmly in modern times – from cultural and food references, to references as to how global our modern world is – people move country so easily. Once engrossed in the book, Walsh’s fictional family loom so large in the mind that it’s hard to believe they don’t really exist. You’ll want to remain in their house for far longer than the book. A thoroughly enjoyable read for ages 12 and up, written in a classic contemporary style. Buy it here from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

With thanks to Andersen Press for a review copy of the book.

The Cake, the Wolf, and the Witch by Maudie Smith

cake wolf witch

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Actually I’m only going to write this review if you promise not to give away any of the spoilers to your children but just give them the book to read as a surprise. Ready? This is a book set in the land of Ever After, and explores the adventures of Max and his step siblings as they attempt to overthrow the wicked witch and make sure that Ever After remains Happy Ever After.

There are of course massive overtures to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The children travel by accident, not through a wardrobe, but through a cake, to the land of Ever After (rather than Narnia) – they encounter a wolf rather than a lion – and the wicked witch is turning everything to greyness and ash rather than whiteness and ice, but rather than draw some Christian allegory, Maudie Smith is simply having fun, and her creativity shines through the story. The inhabitants of Ever After are all familiar characters from fairy stories, and the author depicts them with cheek and flourish. Little Red Riding Hood has attitude, the troll under the bridge is adorably childish with his pinky promises and appetite for a playmate, and there is even a sneaky eighth dwarf. Max’s search for the witch uses a familiar narrative of age-old quests, including an encounter with a knight, inclement weather, a maze, and finally a daunting castle over a seemingly insurmountable mountain, but the journey is exhilarating and fun for the reader. The danger is never too threatening, the familiarity of the characters is comforting, and there is the growing inevitability that Max and Ever After will have their happy ending.

Maudie’s talent for reinvention blazes a trail here, but her characterisation of her ‘ordinary’ children is what really distinguishes this book and makes it my book of the week. Max, despite being in a fairy tale land, is one of the truest children I have read. His grief over the death of his mother pours through, as does his readjustment to life with a step-family, and his fears and worries. Maudie is assured in her ability to incorporate an aspect of his personality that explains his favourite hobby, (marble runs), why it makes him happy, and how it enables him to complete his adventure. She provides the reader with a character who develops beautifully from the start of the book to the finish, growing in self-awareness and empathy. Through all the fantasticalness of the story, the character of Max and his step-siblings remain very much grounded in reality, and this makes this book a complete winner. With illustrations by the wonderful Tony Ross (of Horrid Henry fame), this is the summer’s must-read for children aged 7+. You can buy it here or purchase from the Amazon sidebar.

Children’s Literary London

My favourite activity is sitting at home in my little leafy patch of London reading a book. However, sometimes, according to my children, we have to leave the house. So here are my top tips for having a children’s literary day out in London this summer.

Lost and Found

Discover a story: The first place to grab our attention is The Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford, East London. Their current summer exhibition is the Wonderful World of Oliver Jeffers. You can actually step inside his books, immerse yourself in props from the illustrations, including the rocket, the penguin, the boat etc. It’s very hands-on, and it really lets the smallest children relive their Oliver Jeffers’ books obsession. There’s an outside story garden to explore too, as well as craft and story sessions.

Visit a good bookshop
: As if I didn’t have enough books already *waves from behind a towering stack* there are some beautiful bookshops to explore in London. Of course there’s Waterstones Piccadilly, the biggest bookshop in Europe – head for the second floor to find the newly expanded children’s department. I adore Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street – if ever there was a bookshop to entice you to browse this is it. Also, you can’t miss Foyles in Charing Cross Road, in its fairly new location. It’s Independent Bookshop Week this week, so for children’s books, you can try The Alligator’s Mouth in Richmond, the Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill, and Bookworm in Finchley Road, Tales on Moon Lane in Herne Hill, South-East London, or Pickled Pepper in Crouch End. Check them all out on Google, as they often have author events, craft sessions or storytime for children.

tiger who came to teawhen hitler stole pink rabbit

Celebrate a great author: Judith Kerr A Retrospective is currently touring England, and this summer alights at the Jewish Museum in Camden. We’ve yet to do this one – it only opens on 29 June, but I have high hopes. Judith Kerr is an author who reaches out to children of all ages, from her Tiger and Mog stories to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. This is an exhibition touring from the Seven Stories Centre in Newcastle, so should be a good one. Opens 29 June.

Visit somewhere that has a copy of every book printed in the UK: Anyone who loves books has to feel a bit of an affiliation with The British Library. This is definitely one for older children though. There is an exhibition on the Magna Carta until September, but their ongoing exhibition, Treasures of the British Library, showcasing the actual manuscripts of famous authors from Shakespeare to Austen, as well as the Alice in Wonderland handwritten original are enough to inspire any future budding writer, and awe literary enthusiasts.

alice in wonderland

Go to Wonderland: If you’re into Alice, you should also try Adventures in Wonderland at the Waterloo Vaults. Led through snaking paths into the labyrinth of wonderland by a guide, and entertained by actors dressed as the various characters from the story, this is a compelling piece of moving theatre. Children of all ages, including grown up ones, will love the disappearing Cheshire Cat, the bounciness of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and be charmed by the Mad Hatter. The crew behind the show have put a great deal of creativity and imagination into creating a wonderland under Waterloo; it’s a remarkable feat and you truly feel ensconced. There’s a daytime show for children, and an evening show for adults. During the day, if you’re feeling decadent, you can also sample a real Alice Tea Party at the Sanderson Hotel in Oxford Street with their Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea.

the rest of us just live here

Meet an author: For teens and those into young adult literature, one of the most exciting events this summer is the YALC, which is happening on July 17-19. It is a celebration of young adult literature, brought to fruition by the last children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, and now managed by BookTrust. It takes place at the London Film and Comic Con at Olympia, and includes authors such as Judy Blume, Cassandra Clare, Derek Landy, and Patrick Ness, and there’s a Harry Potter party. You can find a full schedule of panels and workshops and events on the website, although tickets sell out fast.

harry potter

Take the Hogwarts Express: Not only can you visit platform nine and three quarters in Kings Cross Station, but you can also venture a little further away from the centre and go to the Warner Bros Harry Potter studios. Even if it’s more film than book, JK Rowling’s magic pervades the site – with the Hogwarts Express, the Great Hall and more. This summer they’re concentrating on the food in the films – you can eat Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.

The twits

Travel further and be a twit: If you’re feeling really adventurous you can leave the cosy of the city for Great Missenden and visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre – this is well worth a visit – the museum takes you through the life of Roald Dahl and then has an interactive gallery focusing on his writing, encouraging you to get creative too. You can see Roald Dahl’s writing chair, dress up, use touchscreens to tell stories, and attend a storytelling session. It’s good fun, although really for children who already have a good knowledge of his work and are happy to get involved.

stig of the dump

Learn to be an illustrator: Lastly, if you’re attracted to children’s books by the illustrations, you might want to visit Quentin Blake’s House of Illustration in Kings Cross, where there is currently a Ladybird by Design exhibition featuring nostalgic Ladybird book illustrations, or attend one of their monthly family workshops led by professional illustrators. There’s also celebration of children’s illustration at The Illustration Cupboard; their summer exhibition concentrates on the work of Edward Ardizzone (Stig of the Dump, The Little Train). Beware though, it’s very tempting in here to get swept away and want to purchase your very own children’s illustration.

Lastly, there’s a neverending stream of children’s books being turned into theatre in the capital – from Matilda and Charlie to Hetty Feather, Aliens Love Underpants, Pinocchio, Horrible Histories, The Gruffalo, The Railway Children, War Horse…to mention a few.

Or, you can just stay at home and read my book of the week. As I will be doing today….

The Boys’ School Girls by Lil Chase

taras sister trouble

There’s a type of book that my readers never seem to tire of; a book based in schools, with issues around friendship, family life, and all the bother of finding one’s place in the world. I am delighted to bring you a new series that does the job so diligently with a clear understanding of 12 year olds, and with writing that sparkles with life. This is just the sort of series I wanted to read when I was young. (I confess I hugely enjoyed reading it this past week and I’m well past childhood!).

Lil Chase has created a fictional boys’ school, Hillcrest High, which has decided to admit girls for the first time. In the first title of the series, Tara’s Sister Trouble, Tara is one of these girls and she’s very excited – not least because she has a huge crush on one of the Hillcrest boys – but also because a new school means new friends, new opportunities and her best friend will be attending too. However, when Tara’s sister also joins the school, things start to fall apart for Tara. There is intense rivalry amongst the few girls at the new school, and her sister seems intent on sabotaging any relationships she does have. It’ll take Tara a fair amount of detective work and understanding to find out what’s really going on with her sister and her friends. There are a few little plot twists in the book – and it deals with some larger issues too – break up of a family, gambling, and jealousy, but Lil Chase always deals with them showing a great deal of compassion and humour. The action rolls along at a good steady pace and the reader is compelled to feel great empathy with the main character.

abbys shadow

There are three in the series, and the next two each focus on a different girl in the set of friends. Lil Chase has handled this cleverly by writing from the first person perspective each time – but the voices don’t blend into each other. Each girl in the series has a distinct voice and personality and this shines through. It’s a clever device and very enjoyable. The next two are Abby’s Shadow and Obi’s Secrets (the last published June 4th), but I’m hoping there’ll be many more. A series your 9-12yr old will devour with relish. You can buy the titles here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

obis secrets