family

The Boy Who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

boy who grew dragonsSo, this is not the first book about a young boy with a dragon pet. I bet you can think of a few yourself. Which begs the question, what makes this book standout from the crowd, what makes it so unique, good and worthy of the book of the week spot?

Tomas helps his grandfather with his unwieldy garden, and one day stumbles upon a strange tree growing the most peculiar looking fruit. He takes one of the fruits home, and later that evening is immensely surprised to discover a dragon hatching from it. What follows is the trials and tribulations experienced when hatching your own baby dragon.

But for me, Shepherd’s unique selling point is not her plot, although it moves with pace, but her ability to mix humour and fun with an intense pathos and understanding of human emotion. It is Tomas’ interaction with the other human characters that really pulls on the reader’s emotions – although there is plenty of fun to be had with the dragon too.

Tomas has a little sister Lolli, who although too young to talk, communicates and spars with Tomas brilliantly in her capacity as co-conspirator in hiding the dragon. Their alliance also demonstrates the uniqueness of sibling relationships – the bond that stretches from affectionate love and sharing of secrets and a helpful camaraderie at one end, to being able to blame the other for something they didn’t do at the other extreme.

The sympathetic grandparent relationship within the story also rings true, and draws the most pathos. Tomas loves spending time with his grandfather, but is torn with guilt between how much time he spends with him versus time with his friends, and Tom also shows an acute awareness, in a wondrous childlike fashion, of how delicate the relationship is as his grandfather gets older and more fragile. The feeling of not wanting to disappoint and yet also wanting to live his own best life compete beautifully within the plot structure.

This gamut of human emotion also stretches to Tomas’ new pet dragon. Feelings of responsibility compete with curiosity and awe, the knowledge of having something different and special and being the envy of one’s peers, and yet knowing that the dragon is precious and special and not merely for showing off – in fact it’s a live being with feelings of its own.

There are some lovely touches here – the timidity of the dragon at first, the portrayal of its physicality as it learns to trust Tomas, and Tomas’ inventive efforts to control the poos and treat his dragon correctly.

But none of this overshadows the sheer fun and vivacity of the novel. Shepherd brings out every flourish of her imagination in Tomas’s discovery – from the tree itself with glowing fruit, to the different types of dragons, their combustible poos, and how difficult dragons are to capture and hide.

Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations here do what they did for the characters in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series, and she brings to life the tree, the dragons and characters with limitless expression. These are warm, animated, engaging illustrations that almost seem to move across the page.

This is a sumptuous start to a new series, bursting with energy and humour, yet tinged with the darker side of life too. There’s a grumpy neighbour, aware but preoccupied parents, an eclectic group of friends, a strange gardening guide, nomenclature of dragon pets – so many facets all covered and explored. A perfect example of domesticity interrupted with a touch of magic. Dragon fruit will never look the same again! Happily for 7+ years; you can buy it here.

Exploring the Hidden World of the Young Carer

Ruby's StarMister P is the most delightful creation – a cuddly, sympathetic polar bear, whom the publishers describe as a mashup of Mary Poppins and Scooby-Doo. The bear enters the lives of those who need him most, trying to change things for the better. Readers first met Mister P when he visited Arthur, who needed some help to feel less jealous of the attention afforded his younger sibling. In this latest book, Mister P visits Ruby, a ten-year-old girl with much on her hands. She is a young carer. Ruby looks after both her mum and her baby brother Leo, as well as trying to do things other ten year olds do, such as go to school. The last thing she feels she needs is a ridiculous giant polar bear trailing after her. But as before, it turns out that Mister P can open doors for Ruby and provide her with new opportunities, different insights, friends, and finally a change in situation and behaviour – all for the better.

What’s most interesting is that there are many children’s books out there that introduce an imaginary friend, or a cuddly creature to help and advise and make the child’s life better, but mainly they are unseen by the surrounding characters, particularly the adults. In this case, the polar bear is most definitely seen – in fact rather than be viewed as something surprising, dangerous or challenging to the little girl he’s with, he’s most often seen as an irritation, something to be angry about, or amused by. Farrer’s use of the ‘friend’ device is different then. Perhaps it contains a small undercurrent of anger – because the adults very clearly see the polar bear and find that it is in their way, but they are blind to Ruby’s difficulties and struggles. They are not able to be empathetic or even sympathetic. The one adult who does understand immediately dives in to Ruby’s life to help her and is the shining example in the novel, followed by Ruby’s Headteacher, who finally seems to take notice of Ruby – but only after seeing the polar bear. 

Farrer writes with care and compassion in her portrayal of a struggling youngster with a depressed mother, and her touches of humour make this an easy and encouraging read for youngsters – the big text helps too. Daniel Rieley’s warm illustrations, although in black and white, also convey a world of colour and imagination and laughter. Here, Maria Farrer explores why writing about young carers was so touching and is so necessary:

No-one knows exactly how many young carers there are. Their role is often hidden because it is something they feel reluctant, unable or scared to talk about. Some have never known anything different and accept their responsibilities as a normal part of everyday life.

Estimates suggest that there are around 700,000 young carers in the UK, but the real figure is likely to be higher. A young carer is someone under the age of 18 who looks after, or helps to look after, a relative with physical or mental health problems. Sickness, disability, depression and alcohol or drug addiction are just some of the responsibilities that young carers take on in an attempt to support someone they love. Caring involves providing physical and emotional support and often taking on domestic duties such as cleaning, shopping and cooking as well as managing finances. Many young carers find caring a positive and rewarding experience and feel that they manage well. However, when the responsibilities mount up, there can be knock-on effects into other aspects of life—school, friends, academic attainment, confidence and self-esteem. Many find it hard to get out and relax. If a parent or sibling is unwell, there isn’t much ‘down-time’ as the worry and concern stays with you wherever you are—often more so when you are away from the home.

Ruby’s Star explores the challenges of being a young carer. Ruby was 9 when her Dad left and she now looks after her Mum who has mental health issues and her baby brother, Leo. Like many young carers, she rarely complains and is justifiably proud of the way she manages. She is tough and determined and capable—most of the time. But when things get really rough she has no-one to turn to and feels isolated and afraid. Her Mum has told her that she mustn’t talk to anyone about the situation at home in case the family gets split up—and there is no way that Ruby is ever going to let that happen. So she battles on alone, often exhausted and stressed, often in trouble at school and occasionally letting her frustrations spill over in the form of aggression and anger. Ruby doesn’t resent her responsibilities, but there are times when she just wants to be a care-free child and enjoy the things that other children enjoy—like skateboarding.

So when a large polar bear arrives and moves in to Ruby’s already crowded and hot flat on the 15th floor, it is pretty much the last straw. Another mouth to feed, another thing to worry about. And it is hard to go unnoticed when you have a polar bear in tow; a polar bear who doesn’t always do as he is told. It is through the arrival and antics of Mister P that Ruby accidentally gets to meet the wonderful Mrs Moresby on the floor below and life begins to change.

Researching for Ruby’s Star made for some pretty sombre reading. Apart from the arrival of a large polar bear, the problems faced by Ruby are similar to those faced by many young carers. When you are exhausted, it is hard to keep up with school work and sometimes hard to even stay awake at your desk. You may be absent from school a lot or too consumed by worry to concentrate on lessons. You may feel misunderstood, overwhelmed, lose friends, experience bullying. The fear of your home situation somehow being ‘discovered’ is very real and makes you increasingly isolated and lonely. The need for a support network or a trusted individual is paramount.

We need to build a greater awareness of young carers and to make sure that they know that it is safe to discuss and share their experiences without the (usually unwarranted) fear of heavy-handed intervention. Sharing brings understanding and empathy and many schools and authorities are aware of the young carers in their midst and help to support them.

We should also do more to celebrate young carers—the job they do and the responsibilities they take on from an early age are phenomenal and it would be great to let them know that they are valued, not just by those for whom they are caring, but by all of us (polar bears included!).

Further information and help can be found at:-

https://carers.org/about-us/about-young-carers

www.actionforchildren.org.uk

www.nhs.uk/conditions/social-care-and-support/young-carers-rights/

With thanks to Maria Farrer for her insightful guest post. You can buy Me and Mister P: Ruby’s Star here. And join me on twitter @minervamoan to win a copy of both Mister P books. 

Empathy Day: Robin Stevens

empathy dayMore and more, I tell parents that reading helps their children to develop great empathy skills. There’s even scientific evidence that points to this: the empathy we feel for book characters wires our brains to have the same sensitivity towards real people (Marr et al 2009, Exploring the Link Between Reading Fiction and Empathy). In fact, with hate crimes at high levels and growing polarisation of opinion, we’d all do well to harness a little more empathy. Empathy Day this year falls on June 12th, and was introduced by EmpathyLab as a call to read more, share more and do more – putting the empathy we learn from reading into our everyday actions. As part of this venture, the children’s author Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike, The Guggenheim Mystery, etc, has expressed her own feelings on the power of empathy:

The 12th of June is a very special day: it’s Empathy Day 2018, and I’m very proud to be taking part in this year’s celebrations by visiting Kenilworth Primary School.

Empathy Lab, which Empathy Day has sprung from, is a wonderful and important initiative. Empathy is a word to describe three very human qualities: the ability to understand how another person is feeling, to sympathise with them about that feeling and then to decide to do something to make their life better. But although empathy is a big part of how we connect as a society, it’s a quality that needs to be practised, especially early in life. Children can be taught to be more empathetic, in a very measurable way, and when they are every aspect of their educational and social attainment improves. Simply put, empathetic children do better in school, and they will go on to achieve more highly in adult life – it’s pretty obvious that schools should be focusing specifically on empathy in their educational strategies.

But, of course, empathy is not really about giving benefits to specific groups of children, although that’s a wonderful outcome. It’s about benefiting society as a whole, and the events of the past few years have reminded us forcefully how important it is to have an empathetic society. It is sadly very easy to be hard-hearted, to see immigrants and members of other races and religions as less than yourself. Being empathetic is more difficult. It means opening yourself up to the truth that your way of life is not perfect and that you are not the most important person in the universe. Doing this mental work and then using it to effect real-world change can be painful, embarrassing and destabilising. But it is entirely necessary.

Teaching empathy to children means that when they are faced with these challenges in later life, they will find them less confounding. I want the next generation of adults to find it easier to reach out across visible differences, to put themselves in another’s shoes and see how to improve the world not just for themselves but for others.

guggenheim mystery

Books, especially those with strong first-person narrators, can help this learning process by showing young readers the world through another person’s eyes. I am so proud that my book The Guggenheim Mystery has been chosen as one of 2018’s Read For Empathy titles. Writing it, and stepping into Ted’s unique and wonderful mind, was a process of empathy for me. Ted has what he refers to as a ‘syndrome’, a neuroatypical brain that is very different from the brains of the book’s other characters.

I used what I do have in common with Ted (our love of mysteries, our fascination with facts, the anxiety that sometimes grips us both) to help bridge the gap between my way of seeing the world and his. It was a learning process for me both as a writer and as a person, and I hope my readers can experience either an empathetic voyage of discovery as Ted goes on his quest around New York City, or a sense of joy at seeing a neuroatypical person a little like themselves starring in a fun, exciting story.

guggenheim mysteryI loved writing The Guggenheim Mystery, and I am so excited to be talking about it, and about the important of empathy, during this year’s Empathy Day on June 12th. I hope that you’ll join in however you can – by promoting empathy among your friends and family, by talking about the stories, both fiction and non-fiction, that have made you more empathetic, or just by reading a very good book!

Thank you for being part of this. Please do join in on Empathy Day itself – 12 June – by sharing your #ReadforEmpathy books.

How to join in  

  • Share ideas for empathy-boosting books using #ReadForEmpathy @EmpathyLabUK
  • Use the free Read For Empathy Guide to 30 children’s books – at empathylab.uk
  • Follow this blog tour to hear the powerful voices of the authors and illustrators involved
  • Hundreds of schools and libraries are already taking part. Gt a free toolkit from info@empathylab.uk
  • Use the ideas and free downloadable resources at  http://www.empathylab.uk/empathy-day-resources

With thanks to Robin Stevens for her fascinating blog, and you can follow the rest of the Empathy Day blogtour here:

 

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

ghost boys‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ is a question most children’s authors face at some point in their career, or on every school visit. I’ve noticed that some of the best stories spring from tiny news items hidden away on the side columns – little quirks of human misadventure. But sometimes a book springs from a really big news item. Ghost Boys is a story that is meant to bring to mind the shooting of Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy shot by a police officer in Ohio in 2014.

It’s a powerful story upon which to set a children’s book, but seeing as it involved a child itself, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be the subject of a book for this age range, especially when the author deals with the subject so sensitively, making it accessible without hiding or covering up.

Parker Rhodes has moved her story to Chicago, where twelve year old Jerome walks to school, does his homework, looks after his little sister, and tries to keep his head down. But when new boy Carlos moves to the school from San Antonio, he shows Jerome that having a toy gun can keep away the bullies. And the police officer mistakes it for a real gun, and shoots Jerome dead.

Half the story is told after the event, as Jerome’s ghost looks at what is happening after his death, and half is the recap of what happened up until Jerome was shot. It’s a compelling way to tell the story and lets Parker Rhodes introduce her ‘ghost boys’, all the other boys who have died as a result of prejudice, including the famous Emmett Till.

The case of Emmett Till is well-known in America for being a huge influence on the civil rights movement, and what happened to him is explained thoroughly within this book, and although graphic, is dealt with sensitively and honestly, bringing history to life by letting Till tell his own story to Jerome’s ghost.

But it is the one living human in Jerome’s story who can see his ghost that brings the story up-to-date and literally breathes life into it. Sarah, the daughter of the police officer who shot Jerome, is able to see Jerome’s ghost, and through their dialogue, they come to understand the impact of the incident on both families. It is through this interaction that the reader is able to explore racism and prejudice, and come away with the author’s plea that the readers learn from history.

Written in short, sharp, fairly graphic chapters, this is an engaging, fast-paced book, which is also wise and authoritative. Jerome’s death is explored within a context of racism, but also within the context of his own life – exploring his relationship with his sister and grandmother, his hopes and dreams, encounters with the bullies at school, and the significance of his place in society, his upbringing, his schooling. All are factors that make up the boy, and Parker Rhodes skillfully interweaves all the elements that divide Jerome and Sarah, as well as the basic human traits that unite them.

In the end, a young reader will come away with a greater understanding of the consequences of ingrained prejudice, the divisions in society that need to be healed, and the importance of life itself. You can buy it here.

Lucky Break: Rob Stevens Soars High

lucky breakI picked up Lucky Break by Rob Stevens whilst attending an event with Andersen Press, and my little testers loved it so much they said I must feature it. 

Leon is grieving for his twin brother, who died in a car accident. Since that fateful day, his mother has been ridiculously over-protective of him, and his family seem to have somewhat fragmented. When a new boy, Arnold, pitches up at school, Leon and he strike up a friendship.

But Arnold isn’t like anyone Leon’s met before. He’s honest, takes everything completely literally, and yet manages to get to the heart of everything and everyone. Over the course of one weekend, Arnold and Leon get into madcap capers and scrapes, playing sports and taking part in adventures that his mother would shudder at: busting the configuration of the slot machines and running away with their winnings, breaking windows, mistakenly robbing a bank, and yet they come out trumps in the end – Arnold helping Leon and his family to come to terms with their grief, and Leon helping Arnold finally make a friend. It’s a bittersweet comedy, written with pathos and insight, and in a smooth, easily readable style.

But after reading, I made a discovery. Rob Stevens, like so many children’s authors, doesn’t write full time. In fact, he’s a pilot, and one of my not-so-little testers dreams of aeroplanes, has aeroplane posters on the wall, and goes plane spotting. Perhaps he’s waved at Rob in the sky. So, with the assistance of Andersen Press, and to please my not-so-little tester, I asked Rob to provide me with his five best things about being a pilot:

My new novel, Lucky Break, published this month but writing isn’t my full-time job. I am a British Airways Captain, flying the A380 all over the world. Here are the five best things about being a pilot.

  • The A380 is a double-decker superjumbo – the largest passenger plane in the world. Being at the controls of an aircraft like that is simply a boyhood dream come true!
  • After a long flight I usually get about 48 hours off to relax and unwind before flying home. This is the perfect opportunity for me to forget about the rules and regulations of flying a passenger jet and let my imagination go free. Most of my books are written in hotel rooms and cafes around the world and I find writing the perfect counterbalance to life in the cockpit.
  • No two days at work are ever the same for me. Whether I’m avoiding thunderstorms over the equator or coping with heavy snow in Washington, I never quite know what the day ahead has in store.
  • I meet all sorts of interesting people in my job – passengers and crew. I get a lot of ideas for characters in my books from the people I meet at work. Often a single expression or a turn of phrase can be the catalyst for a whole new book.
  • I love all sorts of active sports and my job allows me to pursue them in some of the most exotic locations. Just this year I have been skiing in California, kitesurfing in Indonesia and walking the Dragon’s Back in Hong Kong. No wonder my sons say I don’t go to work, I go on holiday!

Thanks to Rob Stevens. I highly recommend his book, for ages 9+ years, which published on 3rd May and is available to buy here

A Taste of Home: A Guest Post from Victoria Williamson

fox girl and the white gazelleVictoria Williamson’s debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, is the compelling story of two frightened girls who are dealing with traumatic circumstances within their own families, and yet through their unlikely friendship, manage to overcome and even banish some of their fears.

When the two girls discover an injured fox and her cubs hiding on their estate, they realise that a friendship between them will help the foxes. Slowly, they discover that they have much more in common than just saving foxes, and soon it is Reema (a Syrian refugee) showing Caylin (a native Scot) how to fit in and belong in their local Scottish community. The power of their friendship gives a stability and a hopefulness to both girls.

Caylin is troubled – the reader first sees her in the role of bully, taking birthday money from a school girl, but the reader is soon aware that although Caylin’s actions can’t be excused, there are reasons behind her behaviour. Williamson draws Caylin with breathtaking empathy.

In alternating chapters the reader meets Reema, a refugee fleeing her wartorn country, and coming to terms with the damage the war has inflicted upon her family and the realities of facing life in a completely different country and immersing herself within its culture:
“Here even the trees speak a different language.”

Caylin is a wonderfully drawn character – distrustful of adults around her due to past circumstances, predisposed to show a lack of effort at school, and yet remarkably likeable, and completely misunderstood. And Reema too, is shown bravely straddling her old and new lives, embracing her new culture whilst trying not to eschew the old. But it’s Williamson’s own grasp of the two cultures that makes for such an effective read.

Here, she explores how she used the sensation of taste and the meaning of food to explore the characters within her novel:

Harissa cake, mint lemonade, tangerines, pears, plums, beans, soup, fish and chips, battered sausages, tea, lamb stew, peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, corned beef, porridge, pizza, chewing gum, toast and jam, tabouleh salad, chicken shawarma, baqlawa pastries, ma’amoul cookies, bubblegum, coffee, meatballs, yoghurt, ice cream, custard, sweet and sour pork, crisps, flatbread, chicken casserole, pancakes with whipped cream and chocolate, black pudding, haggis, Irn Bru and deep-fried Mars Bars.

This is just some of the food mentioned in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle.  It wasn’t until I was editing my novel that I realised just how many times food and drink was discussed, and how important it was to my characters. For Caylin, chips from the local chip shop are not just a necessity as her mother’s expensive alcohol habit uses up their benefits money, but a treat to be looked forward to at the end of a hard school day. In chapter three she says:

“I stuff the plastic bag with the wrapped chips down my jacket as soon as I get outside, hugging them to my chest and soaking up the warmth and delicious smell. Then I run home, the secret stash of chips protecting me from the wind and the rain like a magic charm.”

For Reema on the other hand, the chips in the school canteen are a greasy reminder that she’s in a foreign country very far from her beloved Syria. Even something as simple as a cup of tea that doesn’t taste the same makes her homesick, as she describes in chapter four:

Mama makes the tea that our neighbour has brought instead of using the packet of tea leaves the mosque gave us along with a big box of food supplies. She is afraid the old lady will not like our strong Syrian tea, and she wants our guest to feel welcome. I try not to make a face as I sip the weak brew. It tastes soft and sad, just like the Scottish rain. I long for a cup of strong black tea and the lashing rain of home.

Victoria in Cameroon

It got me thinking about the time I spent working as a teacher in Africa, particularly my two years in Cameroon. The food was so different from anything I’d eaten before – boiled fufu corn and Njama njama (a kind of fried huckleberry leaf), rice and bean stew, ‘foot cow’ pepper soup, and egusi pudding (ground seed paste with dried crayfish).

And then of course, there was achu.

I thought I would never, ever get used to the taste of achu and yellow soup. It looks about as appetising as it sounds: a grey, volcano-shaped mound of pounded coco yam with a play-doh like consistency, and thick yellow soup with a crushed limestone base. The first time I ate it the only way I could swallow it down was to take a big gulp of water with each bite, fake-smiling at the teacher who’d spent hours preparing it for me and hoping I wasn’t going to look like an ungrateful guest by throwing it up on the table. Try as I might to avoid it over the next two years, it turned up regularly at the end of each long school meeting, prepared by some of the female staff. We’d share a drink and a laugh together over our meal, and eventually I learned to tolerate and then grow strangely fond of the grey goo that I’d struggled to swallow at first.

Towards the end of my time there, I found my mind wandering in class when lunchtime approached, but it wasn’t the rice and beans I enjoyed so much at the local chop house I was thinking about. I couldn’t get the thought of my mother’s shepherd’s pie and cherry scones out of my head. There were times I’d even think longingly of the oxtail soup she used to make for lunch when my brothers and I would come running home from primary school, which was odd, as I didn’t even like oxtail soup!

This is where Reema’s homesick voice comes from, when she asks her little sister in chapter twelve:

“Remember the food Aunt Amira used to make? The tabouleh salads and chicken shawarma and baqlawa pastries? And the Eid al-Fitr feast when we would invite all our family and friends to eat Mama’s famous ma’amoul cookies?”

My mouth is watering at the very thought of my favourite dishes, but Sara is frowning at me as though I am speaking a foreign language.

In the months after I returned to the UK, I got to eat all of the food I’d missed – my mother’s homemade cooking, spaghetti Bolognese, moussaka, chille con carne and chocolate cake. But one day as I finished teaching a maths class just before lunch, I realised a strange thing. Instead of fantasising about the pasta and pizza, fish and chips or baked potatoes in the canteen, all I could think about was a big plate of achu and yellow soup. Two years of trying to avoid the stuff, and there I was missing it like a long lost friend. That was when I finally understood. It wasn’t about the food at all. It was about the people I’d shared the food with that made the memories of it so powerful.

That’s why Caylin loves her chips so much despite eating them every day until her unwashed uniform starts to smell of grease. They remind her of happy times and make her feel safe. In chapter five she describes sharing a meal from the chip shop with her mother:

I snuggle up next to her on the couch and rest my head against her fluffy dressing gown. She puts her arm round me and holds me tight as we laugh at the stupid film and the rubbish acting. This is my favourite time of day – just before bed, when Mum’s slept off the doctor’s tablets to help with her depression, and before she reaches for a bottle to help her through the night. This is when I can pretend we’re a proper family again and the accident that ruined it all didn’t ever happen.

No matter where we are in the world, our thoughts, opinions and memories of the food we eat will be shaped by the people we share it with. Even if at first we struggle with the flavour, texture or smell of a new dish, ultimately whether we come to love and miss it will depend on our willingness to connect to the people who sit with us round the table. Despite missing home so much it hurts, Reema comes to discover a fondness for Scottish food when she makes friends with Caylin and starts to feel more at home in her adopted country. Caylin describes this in chapter twenty-nine:

On the way home we stopped at Michael’s Superchippy. We had a great party eating Syrian food with the Haddads  a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to share something from Scotland with Reema and Sara. I asked Brian to get them a black pudding or haggis supper, but he said they weren’t allowed to eat meat that wasn’t halal, from their own Muslim butchers.  I was disappointed, but Brian winked at me and asked the guy serving us for a deep-fried Mars Bar each for pudding.

Now we’re sitting on our sofa, eating chips and deep-fried chocolate bars, and I can’t stop laughing at Reema’s impression of a Glaswegian accent when she says “pure dead brilliant!” and takes a swig of Irn Bru from her can.

“Does this mean I’m Scottish now?” Sara asks, licking the chocolate off her fingers. “Am I properly Scottish?”

Brian can see that Reema doesn’t like her saying that, so he says quickly, “You’re Syrian-Scottish, Sara. You get to be two things at once, which is extra special as most of us only get to be from one place, and that’s boring.” Brian’s good that way.  He knows how to say the right thing and make people feel more relaxed. I was totally wrong about him. He isn’t a bit like Mum’s old boyfriends.

“Syrian-Scottish? Yes, I like that,” Reema smiles and clinks her Irn Bru can against mine like it’s champagne we’re drinking.

So next time you’re far from home and faced with a strange dish you’re not sure you’ll like, take a look at the people you’re eating with. If you’re willing to let your guard down and make new friends despite language and cultural differences, then chances are you’ll come to miss that food just as much as the friendly faces round the dinner table when you leave.

With thanks to Victoria Williamson for writing with such passion about her novel. You can buy your own copy here

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

how to beeRecently, I’m seeing a great deal of science fiction that’s set in the very near future (mainly in adult fiction, but also in some children’s novels), as if we’re nearing our own dystopian landscape. But generally, this genre works well. It enables the author to envision a future not that different from the present, but tweaking elements to make a specific point. For the reader, it coaxes belief in this imagined world, in that there is a startling familiarity with specific things, despite the larger world being a little different.

In How to Bee, Bren MacDibble goes with the premise that due to widespread use of pesticides, the bees have died out, and to continue growing produce and farming, pollination must be done by children (leaping from tree to tree with special pollinating wands). Based on real practises in Chinese provinces, where humans do actually hand-pollinate pear blossom, and her real-life experience of growing up on a farm, the book feels authentic and disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful.

What shines most from this dazzlingly yellow book is MacDibble’s use of ‘voice’ to tell Peony’s story. Peony is nine years old, a worker on the farm, although not yet a Bee, because to be a Bee a child must be ten and awfully quick. She’s working towards it, but not quite there yet. Her voice, as she tells her story, feels new, fresh, lively, irrepressible but mainly fast, as if she’s scrabbling over the words as she would scrabble across the trees. The voice feels unschooled, unrestrictive, and matches her immense physicality. The play on words of the title sum up Peony’s whole existence. This is a girl bursting with life. She wants to be as much as she wants to bee.

Of course, like all good novelists, MacDibble must throw obstacles in Peony’s way, and this is where things become dark and difficult. Peony is removed to the city, away from her beloved grandfather and little sister and farm, to work with her mother in one of the big city houses. The episode of her removal from the farm is fairly traumatic, and the two worlds – city and country – could not be more disparate.

In fact MacDibble’s vision of the future is fairly bleak. Human rights are eroded – the children of the farm are broadcast ‘lessons’ on loudspeakers in the morning while they work – there is no universal right to education. Once in the city, Peony is a servant rather than merely staff – workers’ rights too seem to have been eroded. What’s more, there is unpoliced domestic abuse and cruelty to children. Poverty is widespread and there is no welfare system net in place.

But for many children, they will not read into the bleakness of this. Peony’s move to the city is an adventure, and she swiftly makes friends with the girl of the house – Peony’s kind nature and selflessness shining through. And there is an uplifting ending with Peony’s love for family and nature winning the day. Mainly because Peony’s voice is so lively and uplifting, and her shining adoration for the farm, her immediate family and nature triumphs against everything dark and evil.

The book is well paced – short sharp chapters, with quick forward movement like the bee pollinators themselves, the reader is propelled forwards on Peony’s adventure. The reader feels an enormous amount of empathy for this small child in a frightening world – having a more all-seeing terrain of her story than Peony does herself.

For all its shortness, MacDibble breathes plenty of life into the book. There are complex dynamics between characters – particularly the mother/child bond, and also an unabashed look at inequalities in society.

MacDibble writes with confidence and ease – the book feels different, atypical, which makes it shine brightly in the field of current children’s fiction. It turns out being is a complicated business, but with books such as this, children will buzz with excitement about their ability to influence their own futures. You can buy your copy here. I would suggest as 9+ years, but beware some of the darker episodes. Young teens who are reluctant readers will love the story’s depth whilst appreciating the brevity of the text.

A Child’s Best Friend

It is reasonable to assume that a certain number of children’s books will feature a dog. Not so much a man’s best friend, as a child’s best friend, dogs have been found to be perfect listeners to books, and cheering companions on adventures. My first dog was Timmy from The Famous Five, but since then they’ve cropped up in all sorts of literature. In this, the Year of the Dog, it seems fitting to bring some new books to your attention in which dogs are more than just a sidekick, they are integral to the story.

a different dogA Different Dog by Paul Jennings, illustrated by Geoff Kelly
This is a quietly compelling, and with afterthought, immensely powerful tale of a selectively mute boy and his guilt over the dog he forsook. But with a redemptive ending for both himself and a new equally-traumatised dog he stumbles across, as both discover a renewed zest for life.

Using extreme economy of words, and writing with intensity and simplicity, Jennings showcases how effective literature can be in few words and without flourish. This is an accomplished text, which draws in reluctant readers and gets across a plethora of not just emotions, but moral dilemmas and extraordinary situations.

On a dark day, a nameless boy, poverty-stricken and picked-upon by his peers, aims to complete and win a race up a mountain to win a substantial amount of money for his mother. But when an accident leaves a driver dead, and the driver’s dog alone, the boy finds friendship with the dog, and a solace in the bravery and courage it takes to survive lost on the mountain, and finally, in the denouement, to face up to those who marginalise and bully him.

Jennings’s background as a speech pathologist shines through in his dealing with the boy’s selective mutism – he only speaks when alone. But also Jenning’s experience in writing projects itself strongly through the sophisticated text. The reader sympathises immediately with the boy, there is a direct empathy with him, despite and even because of the incident which rendered him temporarily mute, and because the reader is a party to his deepest thoughts and his conversation with the new dog.

The economy of writing lends itself to the reluctant readership, but more than that it reflects the character, so that the minimalism feels fully justified and necessary.

It’s an intriguing study, in that throughout the challenges facing the boy, and there are many, the reader also feels a slight discomfort – not at the challenges, but about the decisions the boy makes. There is a questioning, a fear of what his mother must be thinking, a moral dilemma at every turn. It comes to the fore in a particularly disturbing scene towards the end of the book, but the consequences bear out what the book is all about – belonging, speaking up for what’s right, finding peace in friendships, and how sometimes the strongest communication is that without words.

There’s a resounding line in the book about relationships: “You’re heavy, not a burden” his mother says to the son, and he repeats this to the new dog, but there is much more to think about here: love, guilt, courage, resilience, persistence, bullying, treatment of animals.

For a reluctant teen audience, yet accessible for 10+ years, this is a story that is muted in tone, quiet but astonishingly powerful. I read a proof copy, but the illustrations so far are deliciously obscure too – wooded areas, dark shadows, heavy lines. They emphasise the point – the woods may be deep and dark, but there’s a path out, and the experience may effect wondrous changes in thought and deeds. You can buy it here.

elise and the second-hand dogElise and the Second-hand Dog by Bjarne Reuter, translated from the Danish by Sian Mackie, illustrated by Kirsten Raagaard
Much lighter fare in this quirky story for middle grade readers, which suggested a sort of European Ramona the Brave. Elise lives in Copenhagen, but her mother is away building bridges in the Amazon, and her father plays the violin outside the local department store. Elise misses her mother terribly and finally persuades her father to buy her a dog (although it has to be second-hand for they don’t have much money). The dog she ends up with is not a cute and fluffy pet, but rotund with bowlegged limbs and a whiffy smell.

However, she soon realises that her dog can talk. Together, then go on a series of adventures, from building their own suspense bridge across the Amazon in her bedroom to hunting vampires in Elise’s grandma’s old mill.

The dog, of course, only makes his talent known to Elise, and he’s as quirky as she, explaining that he’s from Tobermory in Scotland, speaking Danish with a Scottish accent and proving knowledgeable about whiskey.

But the book is more than a sum of its parts – what makes it so special is the community that surrounds Elise and her dog. Each character has something to add to the story, and enhances the warmth that surrounds Elise like a loving hug. The cast is diverse and different, each with their own foibles and quirks, but all with good intentions.

The interest also lies in the surroundings being removed from the familiar – not in that the book is Danish as such, but that Reuter doesn’t hold back from mentioning names of lesser well-known composers, as well as exploring life’s adult complexities – alcohol and its effects, the concept of possibly dangerous strangers walking round the town after dark. Elise is innocent, but far less mollycoddled than some in English children’s literature, and she’s all the better for it.

There’s a sense of humour that pervades the whole, and a certainty that there’s nothing more important than having imagination. The book has oodles of it, and is charming, witty and smart. Just like Elise’s talking dog, it speaks to children everywhere. You can buy it here.

Thinker, My Puppy Poet and Me by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Ehsan Abdollahi
This wonderfully illustrated, full colour poetry book is amazingly a first outing for Eloise Greenfield in the UK, despite her having published 47 books for children and having won awards for some of them in her native USA. Thinker, My Puppy Poet and Me is a collection of poems for young children, taking the premise that Thinker, the dog, is a poet, along with his owner, Jace, and together they explore the world around them using free verse.

From the magical illustration on the endpapers, in which Abdollahi portrays Thinker as a carefree happy puppy enveloped by floating flowers, and seemingly following the scent of an exquisite colourful bird, the book explores the wonders and mysteries of the world. The first poem describes Thinker’s arrival in Jace’s house, and his feeling of love and belonging. Before long they are exploring the magic of language, the learning they still have to do (Jace is only seven, after all), and the conundrums of school, all in a gentle cohesive narrative.

The text and illustrations are populated by a truly special group of people, from siblings and neighbours to friends and even a stranger in the park, but there’s a feeling of community that builds throughout. This is a wonderful introduction to poetry, including some haiku, free verse, rap and rhyme, and each poem pulsates with the rhythm of language and life. The poems can be read for pure enjoyment, or to study the shape, repetition, language and rhythm. You can buy your own copy here.

raymondRaymond by Yann and Gwendal Le Bec
A tongue-in-cheek book that toys frantically with doggie word play. Raymond is an ordinary dog until the day he has a big thought about the place of a dog within a family. Before long, he has completely anthropomorphised, and becomes a journalist, or a ‘rover’ing’ reporter at Dogue magazine.

Along with the other dogs in town, he sees things differently on two legs. He enjoys cappuccinos and the cinema; at work he sniffs out deadlines. But a chance encounter with a ball makes him see that things aren’t always that great for humans. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘working himself to the bone’, and sets out to explore that a dog’s life is a great life after all.

In bold bright colours, the detailed illustrations provide a great take on modern life, and promote the message that working too hard without seeing the pleasures of the everyday is a bad thing. Children and adults will chuckle at the two-legged life of all these urban dogs, despite the message being less than subtle. The cartoon-digital feel of the book lends itself well to the glamorous lifestyle of a glossy magazine. A fun book to spark debate about having it all, and all-too-fast modern living. Lead your doggy life here.

 

What Lexie Did by Emma Shevah

what lexie didEmma Shevah’s previous novels, Dara Palmer’s Major Drama and Dream On, Amber have been hugely popular in the library, so it was no surprise to hear that my first tester readers of Shevah’s newest book, What Lexie Did, had been queuing to read it after me. Answering my question, what did you like about it, they were thrilled to tell me: “there are absolutely no boring bits at all”. High praise indeed from Year Six pupils.

Lexie is part of a large Greek-Cypriot family living in London. She has a very close relationship with her first cousin, Eleni, until a new friend arrives, Anastasia, and simmering jealousy rises to the surface at a family picnic. Lexie’s subsequent brush with telling the truth and being labelled a snitch makes her re-evaluate her loyalties, and also when to tell the truth and when not, so the next time an opportunity arrives to lie, she knows just what to do…

Shevah’s prose is immensely easy to read. What Lexie Did is written in first person from Lexie’s point of view, and accompanied by extensive doodles framing the text on every page, as if it were a pre-teen diary. (Ilustrations by Helen Crawford-White). This establishes an intimacy with the reader, so that although the reader sees the narrative unfold from Lexie’s point of view, they can understand where she’s going wrong, and see further than Lexie herself.

It’s a clever strategy, and neatly evokes a strong camaraderie between the reader and the protagonist, helped hugely by the fact that Lexie’s narrative is bouncy and vivacious, just like the character herself. She is quirky, interesting, and completely honest with the reader, and so the reader feels immediately immersed within the story.

Although ostensibly a story about a loss in the family and a subsequent argument, the plot unfolds to address two very current issues – the fracturing of society through loss of a sense of community and family, and our ability to know when to tell the truth and when to lie, and how we know what is fake and what is real.

Lexie is part of a large Greek-Cypriot community that spreads beyond her immediate family to encompass cousins and grandparents, but also friends and neighbours. When her grandmother dies, it affects more than just her immediate family. Shevah portrays the positive aspects of the feelings of belonging the community promotes. There’s food of course – delicious descriptions of the sensuous nature of food and the memories and emotions it arouses. There’s also a vast support network, shared passions and behaviours, and the strong moral ground the community gives. The argument fractures this community temporarily, and through its absence Shevah explores the power it had when it was in place.

The portrayal of a Greek-Cypriot community also affords Shevah the space to explore the special memories of childhood that it is giving Lexie – the days out, family gatherings, routines, Sunday school, and intimacy and love. Shevah isn’t Greek-Cypriot herself, but this doesn’t matter. Her extensive research gives form and passion to the community she describes.

The other aspect – the truth telling – is integral to the plot. Lexie’s lie leads to a heap of trouble for herself and her family, but also provides her with the opportunity to grow as a person. Shevah explores how a warm and loving childhood provides us with the space to make mistakes and learn from them. And it is more than just one large lie. Lexie looks at the confusing nuances of truth-telling – when it is right to lie and when not, when secrets are justified and when not. And funnily enough, her grandfather’s resolution creates confusion of its own, satisfying the issue the family has, but masking the original version.

Lexie also learns the value of friendship and loyalty, in a novel that reaches for honesty, identity and integrity. Shevah has succeeded in all three – this is a warm and accessible novel, and leaves the reader desperate to make their own cinnamon cake and galaktoboureka (recipes at the back), to experience a smidgen of the life Lexie leads. You can buy it here.

The Mystery of the Colour Thief Cover Reveal

colour thief

I am thrilled to showcase this gorgeous animated gif of the cover for The Mystery of the Colour Thief by Ewa Jozefkowicz, cover design by Sophie Gilmore, published by Zephyr on 3rd May.

The Mystery of the Colour Thief is a captivating and uplifting novel about twelve-year-old Izzy, trying to cope with her mother being in a coma after a car accident, her father’s resulting disintegration, and her best friend dumping her. Meanwhile, she has nightmares about a shadowy man stealing colours from her world; nightmares that seem to seep into her daytime consciousness as she watches the colours fade from the mural on her wall.

But things start looking up when she meets her new neighbour, Toby, and together they embark on a plan to save a small cygnet on a nearby river, and find that saving a swan may end up saving Izzy too.

This extremely readable novel lays bare the emotions of friendship and family, as well as exploring the impact of nature on our urban lives, and the ways in which we can find hope and confidence in ourselves. Toby is wheelchair-bound after an accident of his own, but together with Izzy, the two new friends find that positivity and confidence help them through adversity. With authentic characterisation, nuanced emotional intelligence, and gentle unravelling of the mystery, Jozefkowicz has written an impactful and memorable story. Here, she explains how she was inspired by colour.

the colour thief“Let go!’ said the colour thief and he loomed large, long fingers ready to snatch the last of my colour. The world flickered like a faulty lightbulb and then everything went dark.”

The quote above comes from Izzy’s recurring nightmare in which a mysterious figure calls out to her from a cloud of smoke, each time issuing a warning about something terrible that’s about to happen. When she wakes up in the morning, she finds that another colour has disappeared from the mural on her bedroom wall and she begins to panic, as she has no idea about how to bring it back.

I’ve always been fascinated by colour and particularly its link to human emotion. We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘black dog,’ which is an image associated with sadness and the idea of ‘seeing red’ when you’re angry or turning ‘green with envy’. But until relatively recently, I hadn’t heard anybody talk about things becoming ‘colourless’ when they feel down.

The idea for Izzy’s story actually came from a young girl in a school where I was a governor, who was going through an incredibly tough time at home and when asked by a teacher about what impact it was having on her, she said that it felt as though all the colours had disappeared from her world. It was a touching image – when I heard it, I could imagine what it must be like to look at the world as if through the screen of an old-fashioned film, where everything is in shades of grey.

Ewa Jozefkowicz

Ewa Jozefkowicz. Photo credit: Ruta Zukaite

Before the thief entered her life, Izzy’s world was filled with colour. Her mum was an artist, and she was used to helping her mix her paints to create the most amazing hues. She appreciated everything from the deep azure blue of the summer sky above her head as she daydreamed looking up at the clouds, to the particular chocolate brown of her dog Milo’s coat. But then the car accident happened which left her mum in hospital, and all of the colours that they used to enjoy together suddenly began to fade away.

The Mystery of The Colour Thief is a tale of a broken friendship, of illness and of sadness, but there is also much light in it. Izzy loses an old friend who no longer understands her, but she also gains a new one in her neighbour Toby, and she discovers a nest of swans with a tiny cygnet, Spike, who is even more lost than her. Both help her on her quest, so she is no longer alone.

I wanted to convey two important messages within the story – the first is that if you’re going through something similar to Izzy, if you find that your world is a little greyer, the colours a bit toned down, you most definitely are not alone. Sometimes a ‘colour thief’ might descend on you when you least expect it, through no fault of your own. The second, and most important one, is that there are always kind people around you who can help you to repaint your world – you just need to seek them out.

With thanks to Ewa Jozefkowicz and Zephyr, an imprint of Head of Zeus publishers. You can pre-order your copy of The Mystery of the Colour Thief here.