fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis

For Christmas Day, a special classic. This key text in the children’s literature canon is always a delight to revisit, and once it’s been read with the children, it’s always fun when they spot a ‘Narnia’ lamppost when out and about. In fact, it’s the wondrous images created by the book that endure, and is one of the reasons why it’s a classic. From Turkish delight, to a fur-coat laden wardrobe, to a lion (Aslan means lion in Turkish), to Mr Tumnus.

In fact, the book reportedly began as such an image, when CS Lewis pictured a “faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood,” according to his essay ‘It All Began with a Picture’. This, is in fact, a wonderful resource for writers, showing how Lewis wrote, and how a picture that had been in his head since the age of sixteen turned into a novel at the age of forty.

So what’s the book about? Four children, evacuated from London during the blitz, stumble upon a strange new land through a wardrobe in their new house. This land, Narnia, is under the spell of the White Witch, (a spell of eternal winter with no Christmas). But with the help of the four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, soon a new dawn arrives with spring on the horizon. It’s a fantasy landscape, with magical creatures, and yet the normalcy of sibling relationships and rivalries is never far away.

Of course, in children’s literature terms, the blitz was a gift as a literary device – an absence of parents, a new landscape, and a dark threat of insecurity hanging over the children’s lives. Numerous authors made use of this device – Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, and Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian are another two evacuee classics. But Lewis juxtaposes the very real experience of being a wartime evacuee with a fantasy landscape.

Many point to the Christian allegory that they say underpins the book, the seasons of winter and then the spring when Aslan (representative of Christ) arrives, the stone table for the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the temptation of Edmund eating the ‘sin’ of Turkish Delight just as Eve ate her apple. But C S Lewis tended to deny this was the crux of his story – in fact there are many mythologies and fairy tales alluded to within the text, none more obvious than the borrowing of the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Andersen; Lewis transforming her into the White Witch who turns people to stone rather than ice, and who also manipulates a boy from the comfort of her sleigh.

It also features Father Christmas.

But for me, and for many others, this book is simply a great fantasy adventure story with the most delightful images, and speaks to the possibility of the impossible. It’s a feeling the book exudes – like any great piece of literature, which when devoured, lets the reader experience a feeling – just how the name Aslan made the Pevensie children feel:

“At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

You can buy it here.

Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood, illustrated by David Wyatt

podkin

If you want to buy your child a sumptuous book this autumn, which will inspire a love for storytelling, adventure and imagination, and one which has a wintery flavour, this is it.

Podkin One-Ear is a legend, a fearsome warrior rabbit with a reputation for fighting and winning against the Gorm (a dangerous and evil iron-flesh-clad rabbit breed that invades warrens and kills or captures those within). When a traveling bard arrives at Thornwood Warren on Bramblemas Eve, the bard is welcomed into the hall with its warming fireside glow and given food and drink in return for a tale of Podkin One-Ear. He tells the story of how the young Podkin fled his warren with his baby brother and older sister, how he lost his ear, and how he grows and learns until he is ready to fight back against the evil greedy Gorm. The bard’s version is not only enthralling, but far more realistic than his little rabbit listeners have heard before.

This is the classic story within a story – telling a fantasy tale of a family of rabbits turfed out from their home, seeking not only to escape the Gorm but to protect a sacred sword that bears good magic, and eventually to overcome the evil Gorm.

With influences of Watership Down (inevitable – there are rabbits on a quest against evil), and even Station Eleven (this is a dystopian future in which humans have clearly gone and all that is left is a landscape of scattered rabbit warrens, and travelling storytellers), this is a sumptuous tale that manages to pull on the emotions and remind readers of classic tales and classic tropes.

As well as the old traditions of storytelling (and Larwood intersperses the tale of Podkin with interlude chapters in which the Bard and his audience interact and discuss the role and purpose of storytelling), Larwood also introduces familiar traditional tropes from the human storytelling mould, such as there being 12 ancient tribes of rabbits with 12 handed down symbols (the magic sword being one of these), allusions to religion or a higher being (in this case a goddess), a warring balance of good vs evil magic, and the traditional make-up of families and the patriarchal royal lineage. All this adds to the feeling that the reader is digesting a classic tome.

If all this feels heavy, it isn’t at all. The bulk of the story follows three sibling rabbits, Podkin and his older sister and younger brother, as they escape from and finally fight the Gorm. The narration delves inside their heads so that the personification of the rabbits is complete, exploring their worries, fears, comforts and hopes.

There are familiarities for children too, as well as the old storytelling tropes, such as the hunt for painted carrots at Lupen’s Day at the start of spring, which of course parallels Easter egg hunts.

Larwood is particularly good on his observational details of his fantasy landscape. He insinuates that social skills are important for warren life – all those rabbits in such close proximity. He also, through various characters, makes poignant matter-of-fact philosophies on the painfulness of loss and death, and memories living on, as well as on bravery: “You don’t have to be brave or strong or powerful to do incredible things.” Larwood describes well the loss of Podkin’s ear and the aftermath of this loss, and Podkin’s observation about how quickly life can turn upside down.

Podkin is reflective without ever being insular, and is fully rounded – he bemoans the loss of his ear, and is bad-tempered, but shows depth of character in his recovery. His sister, Paz, is sensitive and empathetic. She makes astute observations about everyone they meet, most tellingly, with the ‘witch’ rabbit, Brigid, a grandmotherly figure who facilitates good magic restoring the balance with bad. Her relationship with the young rabbits portrays what the elderly traditional can teach the new upstarts, as well as pulling into the equation the benefits of folklore and understanding nature.

There’s some lovely language in the book, introducing vocabulary such as ‘scrying’ at the same time as playing with words to describe iron – a dangerous and evil substance in this fantasy landscape.

The storytelling is fluid, and feels like a cosy Christmas telling with interludes breaking tension, and the analysis of storytelling itself, which gives the book both a sense of history and depth.

Faber publishers have given this story the love it demands, pairing the tale with Wyatt’s beautiful black and white illustrations, so that every so often the reader is thrown into a whole page picture, showing depth and detail and throwing an added warmth and tenderness to some scenes, as well as displaying the Gorm’s menace in others. There are further nice illustrative touches – the constellations in the sky in rabbit shapes, the map of the landscape at the beginning.

But most of all, it feels as if there is a sprinkling of magic across this book. A modern, yet old-fashioned story that is captivating and comforting. Like a warm hug, this is a fantastic children’s book, with a cute little surprise at the end.

As the bard in the story says, “my bard’s memory filled it [the story] with little things that made it real. Everyday details. Feelings and sensations. Nothing but a piece of storytelling magic.”

For readers 9+ independently, earlier for sharing. Do buy it here.

An Interview with Mike Revell for YAShot

stormwalkeruntitled

I discovered Mike Revell’s first book, Stonebird, when Quercus publishers sent it to me in addition to a prize I won. I was captivated from the first page – you can read the review here. Earlier this summer, Mike’s second book, Stormwalker was published. Stormwalker is the ultimate mash-up book for the age group – combining a contemporary story about Owen, a young boy both struggling to cope after the death of his mother and struggling to help his father, a writer, rediscover the joy of writing. This is meshed with an apocalyptic story set in a futuristic parallel universe in which a raging storm called the Darkness threatens to obliterate everything. The startling thing is that Owen is operating as a dual character featuring in both – with two different identities, one in each world, the latter world being the story his father is writing.

Stormwalker is a fantastic read – paced beautifully, with incredible tension and yet a thread of fun simmering throughout. Like all the best apocalyptic movies – it has a running sense of impending doom that is lightened by an everyday boy’s approach to the danger. In fact Owen (Jack) is desperate to return to real life for a football game! Friendships are explored, and there is a fast and zippy dialogue…Mike knows exactly how to get into the head of an eleven year old boy. But he agreed to re-find his adult to answer some questions for me in association with YAShot.

When did you start writing – and what was your journey to publication?

I started writing when I was about 16, but I could never finish what I started because other ideas kept popping up. Ever since reading the third Harry Potter book a few years earlier, I knew that writing stories was something I had to do, so I kept at it, and eventually managed to finish a book. I sent it off to every agent I could think of, and it was rejected by all of them. I was expecting to get rejected, and every letter made me more determined to succeed, so I wrote another book and sent that out too. The first agent on my list both times was Gemma Cooper at The Bent Agency, and by some touch of magic she decided to sign me based on that second book. She remembered me from the first submission (note to aspiring authors: rejections aren’t all bad news!) and I think she quite liked that I had come up with two very different books. We sent this second book out, but it was rejected by every publisher. Somewhere along the way, I must have improved, though, because the third book I wrote was Stonebird, and that got picked up very quickly when we submitted it.

What inspires you to write?

The memory of what I was like as a kid. I was a very reluctant reader until I found Harry Potter as an 11 year old, and I have friends who never found their book and never started reading. I know what it’s like to hate reading, and what it’s like to love it, and that transformation is what drives every story I write: I hope to be able to give that feeling to other readers.

Do you use a local library for research/writing?

Yes indeed! Local libraries are always a starting point for me when I’m researching a book. The peace and quiet and rows of books provide a perfect oasis where whole worlds are waiting to be discovered. Sometimes I browse without any direction, just ambling along to see what I find, and this can often lead to some great nuggets I wouldn’t have come across otherwise. When doing the actual writing, I tend to stick to my writing room (in a cupboard under the stairs – ha!) or sometimes a cafe to change it up a little bit.

Both your books feature sad family events – one in which the grandma is suffering from dementia and a child’s mother is failing to cope, and another in which the boy’s mother has died. Do you think it’s important in literature to portray children going through difficult times?

That’s a good question. I don’t think it’s imperative to portray children going through difficult times in that sense. Of course, every story will have some innate difficulty, because a story without conflict isn’t really a story at all. But books have a special kind of magic in that they allow you to talk about things and think about things that are otherwise quite difficult subject matters to discuss – like dementia. I didn’t write about dementia expressly because it’s important to portray it in literature; it was just a personal story that I had to tell. But if I can help children dealing with difficult times through my writing, then that’s something very special and unique to the magic of stories.

Both of your children’s books so far weave real life with the fantastical (magical realism). Do you prefer books that have a balance of the two? In Stormwalker, there is a particular duality – one person with two different lives. Do you think people are like that in reality – the person we are, and then the person other people see?

When I write, I think back to what I was like as a kid, because I figure that if I can write a story that the me-who-hated-books would like, then hopefully I’m doing okay. And back then, unless there was something fantastical about it, I wasn’t interested in the slightest. I think everything I write will always have some form of magic in it, however small. But it’s great fun playing around with that fantastical element, and balancing it with reality. I think both Stonebird and Stormwalker have been experimentations with that balancing act. And totally – especially in today’s social media world, there’s always going to be a bit of a duality reality!

You’re something of an expert on American football. Would you consider writing a series of fiction titles based on the sport?

Ooh, I do LOVE American football. It would be great to weave it into a story somehow, especially as the kids in schools over here always seem very interested in it, but I haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet.

Which children’s book would you most like to have written? 

As for the children’s books I would most like to have written, I’ll have to say The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, and of course Harry Potter.

You say you write for your 11 year old self. Despite being a reluctant reader as a child, was there any particular book or magazine that hooked you into reading?

The earliest story I remember enjoying was The Hobbit, which my teacher read to me in Year Five. Incidentally, she was the same teacher who used the magic marble egg that I pilfered for Stonebird. But at this point, reading still felt too much like work to me. I enjoyed having stories read to me, but I never wanted to read myself. Harry Potter opened that door, then afterwards I was able to find other books, books like Skellig, which really helped to develop that fledgling love of reading. There’s something so purely beautiful about that book, it’s hard not to enjoy reading it.

YA SHOT BANNER SIDE

With thanks to Mike for answering all my questions without hesitation. You can purchase Stonebird here and Stormwalker here

When MG Becomes YA

So I’ve been thinking about age. Not just because this year holds a milestone birthday for me, and for many of my friends, but also in terms of storytelling. I don’t think age matters too much in deciding what we choose to read – I am equally happy to read about Julian Barnes or Philip Roth’s older men as I am to read books with child protagonists; Life of Pi, Room, My Name is Leon etc. It’s more to do with our interests and personalities. However, stories do appeal because they resonate, so I think my father, for example, would more happily read Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett than Not Working by Lisa Owens (two great books I devoured this summer).

With children though, it’s more contentious. There are those that say we shouldn’t ‘gate keep’, and that we should let children read anything – if they don’t understand it, it doesn’t matter because the content will go over their heads. The same people say that censorship by age is nonsense – who are we to know the emotional intelligence or sensitivity of a child? Each one is an individual.

However, several things occurred to me recently. Firstly, I’m running an INSET this week about school library use and helping children to choose books. I’m sure there are some books the Headteacher vetoes (and rightly so, deeming them too old for the primary school library). Secondly, I read two books this summer aimed at the younger end of YA, but which for me, contained too much disturbing detail for me to suggest for that readership. Thirdly I read a review in The Times newspaper of Mal Peet’s newest novel, posthumously finished by Meg Rosoff, in which the reviewer stated that it contained details of rape, and therefore was suitable for 14 years plus – thus putting a direct age censorship on one particular issue.

Michael Morpurgo stated recently that hugely disturbing images come flooding at our children all the time – mainly because of their access to multimedia and because of the media’s access to what’s happening in the world as never before: Earthquakes, floods, war, terrorism. But how much do we protect children from this, or explain it? I have the headlines rolling into my kitchen every breakfast time, but I distinctly remember turning down the volume when, for a while, all the headlines were about Operation Yewtree, and I didn’t want my children (all aged under ten at the time) to hear details of that.

Some may think it’s good that MG (middle grade) and YA (young adult) books deal with difficult issues. I certainly agree that no literature for children should ‘dumb things down’. Children and teens are intelligent and should be presented with books that are well written, clever and ‘good’ literature, and which confront topics that they don’t necessarily, and wouldn’t want to, experience personally – in fact, sometimes with issues that don’t ‘resonate’ personally but which they want to read about happening to others to explore the emotional empathy it provokes. But, as in all art, there’s a reason that a TV watershed was introduced, that some music is labelled ‘explicit’. It’s to point out what’s contained within.

When I started my website, and my reading consultancy, I gave myself a remit. I would suggest books for children up to about age 14. This covered primary school, and those children who are advanced readers and emotionally astute – thus pushing the boundary slightly above their 11 year old selves, because, as above, I believe in each child being an individual.

And then this summer I read two books from publishers who thought that they fitted my remit. Possibly because they have young protagonists. And yet, although they’re both good reads, and in fact one is stunning, I couldn’t just review them on my site as books of the week without this mitigating introduction. Because the subject matter, well – it’s up to you as your child’s book buyer, hand-holder, confidant, judge of their own emotional intelligence – to decide if it’s appropriate for your young teen.

stars at oktober

The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard

Told in immensely lyrical, poetic, and emotional prose, Alice tells her story. She is 15, but trapped as a pre-teen from her acquired brain injury, a result of a horrific assault (with an implied, although not blatantly stated, rape.) Her speech is slow. Her words, however, fly out on paper, and she writes poems to express herself, leaving them adrift throughout the small town, Oktober Bend, in which she lives. No one takes much notice, until Manny appears in town. A former child soldier, adopted in Australia from his native war-torn Sierra Leone, Manny runs round town to overcome his past, and finds Alice’s poetry. Manny’s story is told from his point of view, in chapters with a different typeface and a starkly different tone and prose style – far more matter-of-fact, much starker. (Personally I felt that Manny’s story was too buried beneath the starkness, but two woeful emotional tales may have been an overload).

In essence, then, this is a love story between the two – but readers will fall in love with the setting, the characters surrounding the protagonists, but most of all with Alice’s voice.

Not only is Alice’s voice poetic – but it is written with a lack of capital letters, and punctuation in unexpected places – some of the prose weaves into poetry. This lifts the voice from the page, so that the reader is fully immersed inside Alice’s head; creating an intimacy as if Alice is speaking aloud to the reader in a way that she cannot speak in her own world. Perhaps, also because of her isolation from the rest of her town – defined by her slow slurred speech and the townspeople inability to understand her/fear of her – the inner monologue creates an intense intimacy with the reader. Some of Millard’s phrases – as seen through Alice’s eyes, are startling in their poetry:

“in seconds we were racing along the damp dirt track beside the river. tiger-striped with sunlight and shadow.”

And yet all the time giving Alice an acerbic and humorous teen perspective on things:

“at day centre they showed us how to make things like paper, aprons and library bags, then they sold them to people who could have made anything they wanted, but didn’t because they went to school and university and got jobs and then there was no time left over for making anything.”

The love story is not just between Manny and Alice though, (as they come through their painful pasts to accept a hopeful future), but also the distinct and clearly written characters of Alice’s grandmother and brother – both Alice’s protectors. As Joey, Alice’s brother, grows older himself, so their relationship twists and changes, and this is one of the most special aspects of the book – an increasing awareness of the bond between the two siblings stretching and changing as they both find love outside the family unit. So too, as Alice’s grandmother grows older and more frail, does the relationship between the two of them change – one protecting the other and then flipping, as relationships do. It feels real, and heartbreaking and is written with expert emotional intelligence.

The setting too adds to the whimsical poetry of the book; a sleepy closed-off town, on a river – which is key to the story – both the place where Alice was attacked, and the denouement where the characters learn about revenge and forgiveness.

This is a book filled with soul, and beautifully written. Compelling and emotive, it’s recommended as a read for ages 13-17 by the publisher. To fully understand the implied issues, I feel that the book warrants a deeper maturity on behalf of the reader, so would recommend for older YA readers (and adults). A great, stunning read. You can buy it here.

what sunny saw

What Sunny Saw in the Flames by NNedi Okorafor

This is a scintillating read, written in matter-of-fact prose from the point of view of twelve year old Sunny. She lives in Nigeria, but was born in America, and struggles to fit into either country. What makes it harder for her is that although her features are African, she is albino. It’s hard enough entering the teenage years, without feeling like a misfit already.

But when she discovers that she has a magical gift – she is one of the Leopard people, imbued with an ability to see into the future with magical power, she is sucked into a fantasy world. Together with her new friends, she visits the city of Leopard Knocks and learns that her destiny is to destroy Black Hat Otokoto, a monstrous serial killer who also happens to be a witch.

By traversing the fantasy with reality, Okorafor poses Sunny in both familiar territory as a skilled soccer player yet one who cannot easily be in the sun, and the difficulties that she faces as albino in Nigeria, along with placing her firmly inside a tightly built fantasy world that draws inevitable comparisons with Diagon Alley and the team pursuits in Harry Potter.

The writing feels childlike – told from Sunny’s point of view, it dances around with exuberance – a running train of thought with observations that are both childlike and yet expose quite brilliantly the difference between the two cultures, which Sunny experiences – even down to the gritty detail of the differences between mosquitoes in Nigeria from those in America. The imagery is quite stunning – from her burning anger to the flames and the sunshine of her name – but also mixing the exotic and the familiar – the imagery of Africa with the more familiar territory of America and her American friend – to the fantasy world of the Leopard people.

Yet, for me, despite it being marketed as being for 10-14 years, Sunny’s battle against the serial killer contains frightening imagery. A killer who focuses only on children, and who maims them in the process – a five year old child found dead in the bush with no eyes or nose, for example.

Of course there’s a difference between fantasy darkness, such as Voldemort, and a darkness that intrudes upon everyday reality. And although there is darkness in Okorafor’s fantasy landscape, it pervades Sunny’s reality too, a familiar world to the readers, and so for me, was too frightening to recommend for the pre-teen market.

However, this is a novel of startling strengths – not least in the mix of the exotic and the familiar, and the ease with which Okorafor shifts between her landscapes. An absorbing book, although with a protagonist who could do with being slightly more dynamic – she is far too reliant on her friends making decisions for her. You can buy it here.

It could be argued that this age-group (Year 7, and so 12 years +) are recommended to read The Diary of Anne Frank for example, and not much is more horrific than the reality of the Holocaust, but somehow I felt that the topics of rape and maiming in the above titles could wait to be confronted. A fictional landscape of such horrors can be dealt with when readers reach a more mature age – it’s not as if there’s a lack of material available to read for ages 10-14.

Disagree? Catch me on twitter @minervamoan

 

 

Bikes, Trains and Boats

No information books about transport here, but three lively stories for newly independent readers. Each contains phenomenal illustrations, making these all easy transitions from picture books.

the secret railway

The Secret Railway by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Sam Usher

This is a sparkling book, everything one could want for a young child starting to read, as it bursts with joy and magic and the silliness of fantasy lands where anything is possible. Wendy Meddour is the author of the quirky series Wendy Quill, as well as more recently, How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel, and she does have a wacky way of looking at things, which is a delight in a young children’s book.

A gorgeous sibling relationship between older brother Leo and younger sister Ella develops throughout the story. The children have moved house and while the parents unpack, the siblings go exploring and discover a secret railway in the station workshop of their new station house. But of course it’s not just a disused train line, but a magical railway that leads to the Kingdom of Izzambard where Griselda, the Master Clockmaker, has stopped time.

Riding the train in error, Ella and Leo are informed that they must return the magic magnifying glass to The Chief Snarkarian at The Great, Grand Library of the Snarks, and receive a key in return that will help them back to their own world. It’s as crazy as it sounds, but satisfyingly eventful and imaginative. With swooping mechanical birds, butterfly spies, and a marketplace full of beavers reminiscent of the munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, this is a jam-packed story of wonder and adventure. For an early reader it bursts with action and non-stop fun.

The book talks to the reader with text that is spunky and full of vitality, from the beginning where it asks for the readers’ tickets, to the description of ‘ordinary children’:

“Ella and Leo Leggit were not ordinary children. ‘Well, of course, you’ll say: ‘No children are’
And you’d be right. I’m sure you’re very peculiar. But what I mean is, Ella and Leo were extremely not ordinary.”

Each chapter is a different platform number, and the entire story is accentuated by Sam Usher’s now distinctive and endearing illustrations. Usher draws the sort of children that you want to hug, and manages to make every scene seem three-dimensional – you could just step into the story.

More to follow in The Secret Railway and the Crystal Caves in July 2016. You can chug along on the first Secret Railway here.

grey island red boat

Grey Island Red Boat by Ian Beck

A Little Gem by name (from Barrington Stoke’s Early Reader series) and a little gem by nature, Ian Beck writes a story that makes you want to sink back into a comfortable chair and be sailed away into the magic. He tells a modern day fairy tale with his own illustrations punctuating the text, and has dedicated it to his grandson. It’s exactly the tale you would imagine a grandparent telling a grandchild.

A princess lives with her father, the King, on the Island of Ashes. As the reader may expect from the name, everything on the island is grey. The sea, the sky, the land. The black and white illustrations convey this too. It rains all the time, and the month is always November. The princess feels that something is missing, and the tone of the text is muted, sad and withdrawn.

Then one day a small boat washes up on the island – and there’s something different about it. It’s red. Before long the stranger aboard has disembarked and is colouring the world with every touch of his hand. Some people are bewitched by this – the Princess and others feel “tickled” by it. But the King fears change, and takes action to prevent it, although change proves inevitable.

Ian Beck brilliantly captures the rhythm of a fairy tale or legend, as well as an underlying depth beneath the simple story. Reading the book was like feeling a warmth spread across one’s body. Children will adore the gradual introduction of colour into the illustrated landscapes, and the perfectly easy descriptions of the feelings colour gives the people on the island. Adults will see the depth of the message. You can buy it here.

fergus

Flying Fergus: The Best Birthday Bike by Chris Hoy, with Joanna Nadin, illustrated by Clare Elsom

Sometimes I feel reluctant to review ‘celeb’ books on the blog, knowing that they will probably gain a huge audience in the wider press anyway. But the publishers have paired Hoy with children’s author Joanna Nadin quite brilliantly, and the result is a hugely entertaining story.

Fergus desperately wants a Sullivan Swift for his ninth birthday. A stupendous bike with “24 gears, hydraulic brakes and state of the art suspension.” When he receives a rusty old second hand bike, he’s a little disappointed. Until he discovers something magical happens when he rides it in the right way.

The story whisks the reader into a fantasyland, complete with a princess (who wears mismatched welly boots), a Swamp of Certain Death, and some rather ridiculous rules.

Clare Elsom’s illustrations deserve great credit. The book is jam-packed with them, and each is as funny and madcap as the text. The princess in particular, with her dishevelled hair and wonky eyes, is a sight to behold. There are also two maps at the beginning.

But despite cramming this slim little early reader with oodles of fun and endless adventures, there are still some great messages within. Fergus has a heart-warming relationship with his grandfather, who is endlessly encouraging about Fergus’s ambition to win a cycle race. But he firmly believes that it’s not about luck – it’s about hard graft.

There is also some poignancy within the story as Fergus’ father has been missing from his life for nine years and Fergus still dreams of finding him and making his father proud.

There are so many facets to this book that each child will be able to extract their own enjoyment – whether it be fantasy, the reality of the bullies, a missing father, a princess, or simply ambitions and dreams. A good start to the series. Pedal your way to your copy here.

 

 

Defender of the Realm by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler

Defender of the Realm

A superb premise, well executed. It’s easy to tell that authors Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler are screenwriters – the book begins with an action scene of the heir to the British throne dashing through the streets to avoid both paparazzi and security guards. You can almost hear the director’s voice – zooming the camera in here, sweeping through the streets there.

Fourteen year old Alfie is a reluctant heir to the throne, particularly when his father dies suddenly and it is thrust upon him rather more prematurely than he had hoped. However, there’s more to the job than photo ops and ribbon cutting – and Alfie discovers that the lineage of royalty is also a lineage of superhero power – fighting a centuries old battle against monsters and supervillains (all in immense secrecy – the public is unaware of the King’s dual royal).

At the same time, the reader’s focus is drawn to a commoner – teenager Hayley Hicks – who happens to get caught up in one of the secret battles, and before long is more embroiled in royal shenanigans than she could imagine. She is the perfect antithesis to the privileges and snobbery of royalty, and a great sparring partner for Alfie.

What’s delightful about this novel, as well as the constant flux between ‘real’ life and ‘fantasy’, and the grounding of the teens who are as normal, acerbic, and witty as a reader could want – is the phenomenal ‘history-building’ that the authors have imagined to accompany their premise.

Alfie has a ‘mentor’ and guide in the shape of advisor, Lord Chamberlain, who is a great pontificating character. He teaches ‘real’ history to Alfie, including the magical powers of the crown jewels, how King Alfred the Great really fought the Vikings (and their dogs!), how Elizabeth I fought the Spanish king and his armada of vampire mermaids…plus a whole new way at looking at Beefeaters.

It’s lovely because it ties in British history, especially the places Alfie must go to fight the Black Dragon: Westbury, Stonehenge, Edinburgh Castle, as well as royal settings in his real life rather than superhero life – the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, even Harrow School. This makes the book very British in ‘feel’, which is exactly how a book about royalty should be.

The characters are all well drawn, the action is relentless, the plot tight. But most of all it’s pure fun. This book definitely gets my royal seal of approval. You can buy a copy here.

For age 8+

An Interview with Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, authors of Defender of the Realm

Defender of the Realm

Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler are an Emmy and Bafta-Nominated screenwriting partnership, and scriptwriters of the new and highly acclaimed Danger Mouse. Their first foray into the world of children’s publishing, Defender of the Realm, is published on World Book Day – it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s an action-packed, gripping novel, about fourteen year old Alfie, heir to the throne. What Alfie doesn’t realise is that as well as becoming King, he also assumes the inherited role of ‘Defender’ – superhero, who must battle to save the country from the Black Dragon. My review will be published Sunday, but I had the honour of interviewing the writing duo behind this fab new series. This is what they said.

You’re an award-nominated screenwriting duo. What made you decide to write a children’s book?

Well, we both love books in the fantasy genre for this age and writing a novel was always something we wanted to try. But really, it was the content that dictated the form in this instance. Defender of the Realm takes place in a parallel reality version of Britain and we needed to figure out the big rules for that universe… a universe where monsters are real and Kings and Queens are secret super heroes. We felt only a book would allow us the freedom to explore all of that in depth and get it right!

www.sarahweal.com +07957284588

There are a lot of inventive ideas in the book such as the magic of the crown jewels and playful ideas with the magic of lineage. How did you come up with them?

It all flowed really from the “what if?” idea of Kings and Queens being secret superheroes. That was the big idea and from there, the supporting ideas of magical crown jewels, alternative secret history of Britain and inherited blue blood super powers seemed to come naturally. It was so much fun to work on because of that, you know you’re on to something when the ideas don’t stop. It felt like striking oil! The rules of it all were hard to figure out and pin down but that was part of the job of this book, set out the stall for our world and tell it in a fun and exciting way. We did a lot of research into the royal history of Britain as well. The more we looked into the idea of monarchy, the greater the similarities to superheroes were apparent.

Writing is usually quite a solitary act, how do you pen a novel together? What are your writing practises?

We’ve got immense respect for writers who write on their own. It’s a tough gig keeping a level head when dealing with the ups and downs of the business and keeping yourself fresh, happy and ready to write! So it helps to have someone to laugh with about things- so much of this business is out of your control it’s good to have someone alongside reminding you of that. Work wise,  we spend a lot of time talking before writing anything, a habit picked up in screenwriting where producers invariably want to see outlines before you can proceed to script. So we spend hours breaking the story, then we extensively outline to the end and only then do we start writing. We take alternative chapters, then switch over, give notes and plough on, fighting to get that first “dirty draft” done. Then we rewrite. It’s fun seeing each other’s chapters because even with all the detailed outlining, we surprise each other with how we’ve written it.

The book mixes fantasy and reality, with giant powerful lizards and also the paparazzi and a citizen’s viewpoint, in that of Hayley. Is one of you better at fantasy and one reality?

No, it’s part and parcel of the Defender world- those rules I mentioned above. Nailing the level of reality, how the fantasy and reality of the world intersect, was part of the development we did. We both brought ideas to the table, from big action sequence ideas to smaller (but no less important!) character details.

Do either of you plan to write solo at any point? What would you miss most about the other if you did?

I don’t think so. I hope not! Cue Nick announcing a new six part, solo graphic novel. Here’s the thing: the big concept of the King or Queen of Britain as a superhero was Nick’s idea way back when and he unthinkingly and unselfishly let me in on it purely because we’re a writing partnership. It wasn’t called Defender of the Realm then, it was only a germ of an idea and it’s now very much “our” idea now. But I thought it was a great pitch with massive potential. Hopefully people will think the same after reading the book. We always say the best thing about working in a partnership is that you only have to have half a good idea and then the fun is working it up together.

Have you already written the film script for Defender of the Realm, and who would you cast as the Lord Chamberlain (a somewhat staid and grumpy, though very knowledgeable and quite endearing, authoritative character)?

Good question. Before Defender was a book we were thinking it was a big TV show or film and we considered doing it that way. As I said, doing it as a book gave us the freedom and time to explore the world and get it right. Of course, we dream that one day the film rights might sell (!) but who knows, it would be an expensive film to make and make right. I always imagined LC as Ian McKellan myself. Charles Dance would also be perfect. We’re lucky in the UK that we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to actors with great gravitas who would fit the bill. Someone with bearing, hidden depths and possessed of a withering glare!

With thanks to Mark and Nick – you can pre-order your copy of Defender of the Realm here, or you can read my review on Sunday and then buy it!