family

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

Father’s Day

Sometimes the best presents are those that you share. For Father’s Day – and I’m posting this early so that you have time to buy the right gift, here are some books about dads that fathers can share with their children. For me, and many others, the quintessential father in children’s books features in Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World: “My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”

But I’ve found some other marvellous and exciting fathers for you in children’s literature. First, picture books:

superhero dad

Superhero Dad by Timothy Knapman, illustrated by Joe Berger
A simple idea, astutely executed. To the narrator (the small boy) of the picture book the boy’s Dad is a superhero – everything he does is super. Of course to anyone else, he is a normal Dad. Although, clearly an excellent modern Dad who spends a considerable amount of time with his son, cooking for him, telling him jokes, and playing with him. An exuberance pitches the reader headlong into the book and the rhyming text and joyful rhythm continue to the end. The illustrations match perfectly, so that our rather comical fairly skinny ordinary Dad in glasses is seen holding the tiny dog Jumbo above his head in an extraordinary pose:
“His jokes are Super Funny…
…and his laugh is Super Long.
He can pick up our dog Jumbo
so he must be Super Strong.”
Every word is taken tongue-in-cheek, every picture matches. And yet the tone is loveable, warm and enchanting. The punchline is simplistic yet apt – the father denies he is a superhero, insisting instead that he knows of a superhero – his superhero son. There is also playfulness with the layout of the text – using bold and larger letters to convey emphasis and differentiation. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

my dad beard

My Dad’s Beard by Zanib Mian and Laura Ewing
This was published last year by a new publisher, Sweet Apple, which continues to grow their list. Although slightly niche, in that it appeals obviously to those whose fathers have beards, it is both cute and original. For younger children than those I usually cater for, each page draws on an example of why the child loves his Daddy’s beard – and how it defines him. It draws on our sensory perceptions from describing the look of the beard – how it is different from other family members’ beards – to the feel of it in different situations, and finally to what the child imagines lives in it (spoiler: a teeny tiny cat). It also manages to draw in the rest of the family as the child witnesses their perceptions of what the beard means to them. This is clever in that it highlights the important place the father has within this family – as a protector, and a person whom they trust and look up to. It draws on Islam in that it explains why this particular Dad has a beard, and so works as a picture book that reaches out to a diverse audience. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

my dad birdman

My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
Many children’s authors absent one or both parents so that the children of the story can go on an adventure without parental restrictions. What’s beautiful about David Almond’s writing is that so often (as with Roald Dahl), it is the adults themselves who bear the idiosyncrasies that make the story so appealing. Although one parent is absent here – the death of the mother is an overriding concern throughout this short tale – the consequences lead to a strengthening and developing of relationship between the daughter and the father. Lizzie’s Dad wants to enter a Human Bird competition, and believes he needs to adopt the characteristics of a bird to be able to fly. He encourages Lizzie to join him in this mad venture, despite the protestations of her adorable Aunt Dotty. The premise is barmy, the characters eccentric – but illuminated by Polly Dunbar’s flamboyant illustrations, the book manages to soar. Highly original, imaginative and everything a children’s story should be. Wonderfully typical David Almond. Age 6+. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

demolition dad

Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
Phil Earle’s fictional father comes about as close to Danny the Champion’s Dad as I can find. However, as with much children’s fiction I’ve been reading recently, this is a depiction of a modern Dad who fits right into our current world. Jake and his Dad love to spend every Saturday together pursuing their hobby in common – wrestling. Jake’s Dad George knocks down buildings as a day job, and at the weekend takes part in wrestling matches – knocking down other men – and he’s really good at it. So good, that Jake thinks he should go public, and so secretly enters a video of him in action in a pro-wrestling competition. When George wins, he agrees to travel to America for training and a headline fight, mainly for Jake, but unfortunately things start to unravel, and it’s not quite the dream venture they had all planned.
There were so many things to love about this book. As a refreshing change from much of the ‘humorous’ fiction in the marketplace for this age group – this book wasn’t full of silly jokes and slapstick happenings. It is extremely funny but the humour is carefully woven into the story; there are many wry laughs here, not fart jokes. Also, the wrestling is a major factor but doesn’t dominate. What comes across and leaves quite an impression is Phil’s adeptness at portraying the hidden emotions of parents, the sense of a community in a town, friendships, and most importantly father and son relationships. It’s clever, has emotional depth, and packs quite a punch. Touches I enjoyed – how the mum’s past career influences her behaviour, Phil’s capturing of the small town landscape complete with the ‘house that was stolen’ mid terrace, and Jake’s wonderful innocence and naivety – and his gradual responsive awareness. There are some stunning illustrations from Sara Ogilvie – the cover itself betrays this – but there are even better ones inside (the fight scenes are spectacularly hysterical). Moreover Phil Earle’s self–referential authorial musings are brilliant – see chapter 17. If you buy your Dad just one book this Father’s Day – make it this one. (then keep it for yourself). Age 8+. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

a boy called hope

A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson
On the other end of the spectrum from Danny Champion of the World’s Dad is the Dad in A Boy Called Hope. That’s mainly because he’s absent, having left his family and remarried. This is heartbreaking for Jake Hope, the boy in the story, especially when his Dad appears on the television in his role as a journalist – the first time that Jake has seen him in four years. Sadly, this speaks to so many children today. But despite the sadness of the situation, this is a poignant and uplifting story. Jake comes to see that he is surrounded by a loving family – especially as his Mum has met someone new, Big Dave, who actually turns out to be a terrific father to Jake.
Lara Williamson has magic on her side – she imbues the novel with a myriad of symbols and devices from sky lanterns to glow-in-the dark statues and stars that lift Jake’s situation from the humdrum of normality to the wonder of childhood – she lets us see things through Jake’s eyes that we would never normally capture in our vision.
There is humour too – Jake frequently misinterprets situations which leads to some trouble, but in the end, much laughter, and there are some splendid characters too – from his friends Christopher, who has his own troubles, to Jo, who is obsessed with the saints. It was also hugely enjoyable to read about Jake’s teenage sister through his eyes – older siblings can seem so detached from the family until you dig beneath the surface a little.
This is a wonderful book – fantastically true characterisation, and great writing. Be prepared for tears to accompany the laughter though – as in real life – sometimes you have to make the best of what you’ve got. You can buy it here from Waterstones or see the Amazon sidebar.

Pranking Both Sides of the Pond

prankenstein yankenstein

I’ve never been one for pranks. I did get a fright recently when my son left a plastic spider in my kindle cover, and yes, I did get him back (although somewhat lamely). Then I read Prankenstein vs Yankenstein by Andy Seed, illustrated by Richard Morgan – and although it was snatched off me by the pesky children not long after, I’m now brimming full of new prank ideas. I just hope they don’t enact them first. The first described prank is that of prying apart an oreo biscuit, eating or discarding the cream, then squeezing toothpaste in its place and remaking the sandwich biscuit. For an inexperienced pranker, this sounded great, and made me want to read more! This book is the second in the Prankenstein series by Andy Seed, and it is an extremely funny read. It describes how Pugh, otherwise known as Soapy, wakes up to find himself handcuffed to a toilet seat. A master prankster himself, he decides it must be the work of his visiting cousin, Topazz and therefore he must wreak his revenge. The added twist however, is that both cousins, if they eat the wrong foods, turn, by night, into prank monsters, Prankenstein and Yankenstein, and perform outrageous tricks and inflict chaos and damage throughout their town. The plot races along with tit for tat pranks, mystery and intrigue, before coming to a climactic Butch Cassidy and Sundance ending – both pranksters trapped in a barn and facing their comeuppances. Add to the mix the Estonian ‘twince’ as Soapy calls his twin friends, and you have a hilarious cast of characters in a stupendously silly story. One for kids who like to laugh! Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

tapper twins go to war

Things reached tipping point though when I read The Tapper Twins Go to War (with each other) by Geoff Rodkey. This had me chortling from the get-go – I nearly snorted cornflakes up my nose. My son also massively enjoyed it, although I have the feeling we were laughing at completely different things. This is a realistic situation, as opposed to the fantastical scenarios presented in Prankenstein vs Yankenstein, and is a highly visual read – the twins’ world and their apartment remain fresh in my mind. For an older audience than Prankenstein and by a US author, it tells the story of 12 year old twins, Reese and Claudia, and the pranks they played to get each other back over a missing pastry. Told as a reported ‘history’ by Claudia, using friend’s witness statements, Reese’s arguments, and the parents’ text messages, it documents (with pictures too) the pranks and their consequences. It’s both witty and clever – I particularly liked the parents’ text messages to each other discussing the twins, whereas my son enjoyed reading about the pranks they played as well as the small handwritten comments in the margins, as if added later to amend text and correct mistakes. We both enjoyed Claudia pranking Reese in an online gaming situation as well, and the moral dilemmas it presented to her. It’s well executed, in that both twins do learn something from their experiences without the book descending into morality or preachiness, and Geoff Rodkey has pinned down their separate distinctive voices expertly. The setting is New York, and for children in the UK, it draws a good picture of Manhattan life. It’s modern and relevant, using a wealth of different narrative structures, text devices and points of view. I highly recommend and will be buying the next in the series. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

terrible two

Lastly, for budding or experienced pranksters, there’s The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John, illustrated by Kevin Cornell. A mixture of the above, in that it doesn’t descend too much into farce and the fantastical, as in Prankenstein vs Yankenstein, but it is also not as realistic as The Tapper Twins. It does, however, contain plenty of laughs. Miles Murphy is known for his pranking. But when he moves to a new school in a new town, and realises that the new school already has a master prankster, he has to decide whether to go it alone in the war of the pranksters, or team up in order to pool strengths. The beauty of this book is threefold. The characters Miles meets in his new town are pretty much all caricatures, enhanced hugely by the illustrations, so that his eventual partner in crimes, Niles, gives off the appearance of the quintessential class ‘goody’. The headmaster comes from a long inherited line of headmasters and is struggling to live up to the family reputation. He comes across as an overarching fool. The pranks themselves and their consequences are delightful – from a car parked across the school entrance so that every child must clamber across the backseat to get into the school, to the ‘fake’ birthday party in the town square, resulting in a standoff between Miles and Niles. There are some fun extras, such as facts about cows interspersed throughout the story – they become an essential part – as well as chapter 6, which is written as a list. The chapters are all short and bite sized, sitting comfortably with reluctant readers, and Kevin Cornell’s illustrations truly accentuate the text. Another heartily recommended prankster book. I’m not having you on! Buy it here from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

With thanks to Fat Fox Publishers for the review copy of Prankenstein vs Yankenstein, and to Orion for The Tapper Twins Go To War.

 

The Girls of Year 7

completely cassidyperfectly ella Dog Ears

I have three excellent books for those children facing, with some trepidation, the start of secondary school. Each book has its own distinct qualities and themes, but the one aspect they all share is demonstrating that with support from friends and family the upheaval and newness of Year 7 can be conquered: from dealing with a new faculty of teachers, juggling different subjects and homeworks, meeting and making new friends and keeping old ones, and other people’s expectations of a Year 7’s greater personal responsibility. Year 7 can be daunting and tough, so three great protagonists with whom young readers will identify are Cassidy from Completely Cassidy, Ella from Perfectly Ella, and Anna from Dog Ears.

completely cassidy

Completely Cassidy: Accidental Genius by Tamsyn Murray, illustrations by Antonia Miller
This book had me chuckling from the outset, and kept up the humour and pace all the way through. I devoured it in one sitting and highly recommend it. Tamsyn Murray captures the essence of what it means to be a tweenager in this endearing new series about a girl called Cassidy. Written in the first person, Cassidy is just starting secondary school and intensely worried about looking right and fitting in. Her mother is pregnant with twins, and her big brother is annoyingly at the same school, and just generally annoying! In the first in the series, Cassidy’s test results get muddled with someone else’s, and the school mistakenly place her in the Gifted and Talented group, as well as putting her on the school quiz team. Overnight she’s the school genius! At the same time she’s juggling her old friends, one of whom has a crush on her older brother (much to her annoyance), her transformation from little girl to bigger girl – from still wearing fairy knickers to dying her hair – and her changing family situation. Tamsyn employs the use of CAPITAL LETTERS to accentuate her tweens’ intonation, as well as random doodles and squiggles, and graphics showing ‘torn out’ to do lists, extracts from diaries, and lists of facts that Cassidy attempts to learn to keep up her genius status. But above all, what shines through is the realism of Cassidy’s voice, in her deepest thoughts, her squabbles with her brother, and her conversations with her friends. I can’t wait for the next book. This one was fantastic. (and there’s a website www.completelycassidy.co.uk). You can purchase it from Waterstones here.

perfectly ella

Perfectly Ella by Candy Harper
Although this book also opens by talking about knickers, it’s not meant to be as comical as Completely Cassidy. The voice of Ella, also in the first person, seems slightly more imbued with the author’s voice, with a more serious sensibility and worldly awareness. Ella’s family situation dominates the novel, for although Ella is also starting Year 7, she is still dealing with the breakup of her family:
“I don’t think their divorce will ever really make sense to us”
Her weeks are split between time at home with her teacher mother and three sisters, and time with her sisters at her Dad’s place with his new partner and new baby. Ella is also dealing with a sharper case of insecurity – she struggles to define herself against her other sisters, all of whom appear to her to have much more distinctive characteristics. They also deal with the outcomes of the divorce in different ways; her eldest sister bottling up the emotions but releasing a drip of anger and resentment; and her littlest sister wanting her whole family to live together under one roof. Ella herself counts the exact days since the divorce, and tries to make an effort to get everyone in her family to be happy, no matter the cost to herself. The accuracy of the situation is heartrending and I particularly loved that Ella prized her time alone with each parent more than anything. Ella is also contending with the dynamics of bringing two old friends of hers together at school and attempting to make them like each other – and then realising that a threesome of girls can be tricky. It’s a well-crafted book, and the writing shows that the author herself comes from a large family. She picks up the dialogue superbly. For her readers, there’s the added delight of craft activities, recipes and quizzes at the back of the book. You can also read my Q&A with Candy Harper here, and buy Perfectly Ella from Waterstones here.

Dog Ears

Dog Ears by Anne Booth, cover by Pip Johnson, illustrations by Anne Booth
This author shot to critical acclaim with her debut novel, Girl With a White Dog, in 2014. It gently introduced the topic of Nazi Germany to a young audience and makes for compelling reading. Her new book, Dog Ears, also uses the device of a dog to bring a much bigger topic to life. Anna, halfway through the autumn term of Year 7, finds that she can’t easily talk to anyone in her family, so relates her day to day thoughts and feelings to her dog. This works well, as the reader is the dog and therefore privy to Anna’s struggle as she tries to balance the hectic life of a Year 7 schoolgirl with problems at home. Her father is away, her mother dealing with an ill premature baby, and so Anna is left to pick up the pieces, dealing with domestic duties and the increasing stress of her home environment. Anne Booth wants to draw attention to the multitude of children who suffer the pressures of being young carers at the same time as dealing with schoolwork and friends and growing up. She manages to strike a fine balance here between bringing an issue to light and making this a fun read. Through the telling of the story we gradually realise that Anna is finding it harder and harder to keep up with not just her schoolwork – but also to remember things for school such as ingredients for food technology, costumes and musical instruments for school performances. The extent to which Year 7 can be overwhelming is patently laid bare here. Anna is also under pressure from her Gran to be more helpful at home, and all of this is set against the backdrop of an exciting talent competition at school. There’s the fluctuating emotions of her mother because of the situation with her sick baby brother, as well as frustrating Skype conversations with her absent father. By the end she has realised that she is not alone in her predicament, and also that once her feelings are properly aired, she has a huge support network around her. Anne Booth manages to pack a great deal into this slim manageable book. It’s a complex situation dealt with simply and deftly, and an enjoyable read. Buy it here.

 

With thanks to Usborne Publishers for sending me a copy of Completely Cassidy for review, and to Simon and Schuster for sending me Perfectly Ella for review.

 

Head Over Heart by Colette Victor

Head over Heart

A common topic of conversation in the children’s book industry is diversity. From authors and illustrators to publishers, publicists and reviewers – are we doing enough to engage all children from all different backgrounds in books? Children aged between 6 and 11 consistently look for books in which they see themselves reflected – characters who look like them. At a recent seminar at the London Book Fair, Inclusive Minds talked about turning that conversation into action. Last year, Chicken House published a book called Head Over Heart by Colette Victor. It’s a lovely coming-of-age tale about thirteen year old Zeyneb who is struggling to juggle her life just like any other teen – schoolwork, family, friends, future, feelings for a boy – but she has another issue, in that as a Muslim girl coming of age, she needs to decide whether to start wearing a headscarf or not.

The thing is, I’m not recommending this novel because it’s inclusive and features a Muslim character. That’s just an added bonus. It’s a compelling well-written read, with a lovely description of a father/daughter relationship, and a beautiful depiction of what it’s like to first fancy a boy. Zeyneb struggles to follow the ground rules that her parents have set out for her, and struggles in her frustration to communicate with her parents. This is a common teenage trait and Colette Victor portrays it adeptly. I warmed to Zeyneb’s character from the first page, and continued to sympathise with her throughout the book. I liked that she is an ordinary, good girl – there’s no dramatic action here or tale of the unusual – it’s an everyday story with believable relationships and simpatico characters, and woven into the story are all sorts of components that form the life of a British Muslim – which meat she can eat at a friends’ barbecue, whether she can see a boy alone or not, the scope of her freedom, and her perception of her non-Muslim friends. This is for my older readers though – definitely recommend for about 11+ years. You can purchase a copy from Waterstones here.

 

With thanks to Colette Victor for arranging for me to see a review copy. Cover and interior design by Helen Crawford-White

Candy Harper Q and A: The Perfectly Ella Blog Tour

perfectly ella
Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing three books that feature Year 7 girls as protagonists. One of them is Perfectly Ella by Candy Harper, a new witty and enjoyable coming-of-age tale about Ella, who is the fourth of five sisters. Ella has to deal with family break-up, shifting friendships, and being part of a large family of girls. Author Candy Harper is herself the fourth of five sisters, so I wanted to quiz her on her fabulous family.

MinervaReads: I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a Jo from Little Women, or Saffy from the Casson series of books. Who are your favourite fictional sisters?

CH: Ooh, loads. The Conroys in Hilary McKay’s The Exiles series. The Fossil sisters in Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes. Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and BeezusThe Penderwicks. Laura and Mary from Little House on the Prairie (I love it when Laura pinches Mary because she can’t stand what a goody-two-shoes she is.) The Bennets in Pride and Prejudice (When people hear that I’ve got four sisters they ask me if we’re like the Bennet sisters, I tell them actually growing up with a load of sisters is less about helping each other do your hair for a ball and more about learning to eat with one hand guarding your plate.)

Are any of your siblings also writers – like an Emily to your Charlotte Bronte?

CH: No, but my 10 year-old daughter, Lyra, is a brilliant writer and illustrator. Her latest picture book ‘The Day All the Pets at the Pet Show Died’ is a heart-breaking work of staggering genius and I’m sure we’ll see it in bookshops soon.

Many groups of siblings have formed some kind of group act – Jackson Five, The Von Trapp singers, etc. Does your family have a special talent?

CH: We can’t sing, dance or play the ukulele, but we do know how to put on a rollicking good row. During which, two sisters are usually blisteringly angry, and the other three are convulsed with laughter. Seeing my littlest sister (who is actually quite tall) grab my middle sister (who is Kylie Minogue sized) by her collar and pin her up against a wall is a special memory I will treasure forever.

candy harper sistersCandy (second from left), and her four sisters (when they were little)

You have four sisters. Did you miss not having a brother?

CH: When my mum was pregnant with my little sister I really hoped she’d be a brother. When she was born, my parents bought me a boy doll to make me feel better. For the next three years I spoke to the doll more than I did my little sister. Then I discovered she was small enough to sneak under our back fence into the neighbour’s raspberry patch, and all was forgiven. Ever since then, as long as people bring me something nice, I don’t mind which gender they are or whose garden they’ve stolen it from.

What is the best and worst thing about having four sisters?

CH: Growing up, the worst thing was that they were EVERYWHERE. We were a family of seven living in a three bedroom semi. I used to climb into the airing cupboard to get some peace and quiet. But on the plus side, there was always someone to play with.

You are the fourth of five sisters. Did you ever get bought anything new?

CH: Ha! You sound like a younger sibling yourself. The short answer is no. I was always optimistic about the whole hand-me-down process; I used to admire the new things my big sisters got and imagine how great I’d look in them years later, ignoring the fact that they’d be covered in felt tip stains and bobbles by then. It took me a while to consider the impact of changing fashions, too. I remember looking at my eldest sister’s mint green court shoes and thinking ‘One day those babies will be mine.’ When they finally reached me in the ’90s, everyone was wearing Doc Martins and I was a lot less keen on them.

With huge thanks to Candy Harper for being so honest and sharing her stories of sibling rivalry with me. Look out for my review of Perfectly Ella here. To win one of five giveaway copies of Perfectly Ella, find me on twitter @minervamoan and follow and retweet. If you’re not lucky enough to win, you can buy your own copy in the shops here.
Perfectly Ella blog tour bannercandida harper photo

Tell Me Another: Jewish Festival Storytelling

The Jewish festival of Passover is an interesting festival for me because it’s all about storytelling. Commonly, Jewish people retell the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt over a meal. There are many children’s books on the market for Passover, because there is quite a lot about the festival that needs explanation for children – why bread isn’t eaten, why a special meal (the seder) is held, why it lasts for eight days, and the story of the exodus itself.

And Then Another Sheep Turned Up

And Then Another Sheep Turned Up by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Amy Adele is a gem of a Passover book, published in February this year. Sheep are often associated with spring, and it being a spring festival, the characters fit in perfectly. The scene at the table is great, from the seder plate to the wine, books on the side table, and matzah. The family of sheep are all ready for their special Passover seder and just about to begin, when Grandma Sheep turns up to join in, followed by many more unexpected guests. Told in rhyme, the beautiful illustrations evoke a warmth in the scene from the tight hugs with Grandma to the dog’s and cat’s movements as the evening progresses. The little touches are great – from the children’s tiredness, to Papa sheep’s final words:
“Time to get our kids to bed.
Next year in Jerusalem!
And next year….PLEASE CALL AHEAD!”
To purchase through Waterstones, click here. Available from 28 March 2015. Ages 3+

engineer ari and the passover rush

Another new title, Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush by Deborah Bodin Cohen, and illustrated by Shahar Kober, continues the Engineer Ari series inspired by the historic rail line from Jaffa to Jerusalem. Ari has to gather everything he needs for the Passover seder on the last day of driving his train to Jerusalem and back to Jaffa before Passover begins. He watches the workers in the matzah factory in Jerusalem, and admires their speed, before heading back to Jaffa, and gathering horseradish, parsley and an egg from his friends in exchange for boxes of matzah. Fabulous illustrations of the train, the market in Jerusalem and the baking of the matzah make this a special picture book, and it ends in the same way as many seders – with someone asleep! It’s a charming little story, which captures a nostalgia for Israel, and the feelings of joyfulness and anticipation as time rolls towards a festival. To purchase, click here. Ages 5+

Dinosaur on Passover

An old favourite is Dinosaur on Passover by Diane Levin Rauchwerger. A rhyming story about a dinosaur who gets involved in the preparations for Passover and causes havoc at the seder table, especially when searching for the afikoman. It’s always good to have a more secular topic (dinosaurs) interacting with a religious festival, as for many children it helps to familiarise it in their minds. Bright colours, easy words and basic concepts make this a winning formula for the youngest at the seder table. To buy this title click here. Ages 2+

sammy spider's first passover

I have chosen Sammy Spider’s First Passover by Sylvia Rouss mainly because it contains the line, “Sammy had never seen so much food!” which makes me chuckle every time I read it. Published as long ago as 1999, Sammy Spider remains ubiquitous with the Jewish festivals for many families. Sammy Spider is alarmed by the family doing housework and sweeping away his web, but by the end of the story (and the seder meal) he has spun a new web to help point the children in the right direction of the afikomen. He also uses shapes to spin his web, in the end ‘passing over’ one shape with another. It’s a cute link to the festival. To buy this title click here. Ages 3+

Passover Around the World

Lastly, and for slightly older children is Passover Around the World by Tami Lehman-Wilzig, illustrated by Elizabeth Wolf. Many families delight in reading about the different customs that different strands of the religion or people of different nationalities bring to the seder table. Although it’s traditional to have the same format every year, it is great to learn about other ways too. This book features stories, recipes and histories of Jews in America, Gibraltar, Turkey, Ethiopia, India, Israel, Iran and Morocco. From the brick of Gibraltar to the Mimouna celebration in Morocco, these are all intriguing customs, with a great glossary at the back to help. A useful and different addition to any child’s Passover bookcase. To buy this title, click here.
Age 8+yrs

Thank you to Kar-Ben publishers for review previews of And Then Another Sheep Turned Up and Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush