fiction

Prescient Publications

“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.”
Orwell 1984

My last blog listed some children’s books that described a future dystopia of some kind. Today’s books are so acutely in tune with what’s happening right now that you might find them kind of spooky. However, as Orwell wrote, it is indeed the best books that tell us what we already know, and so below are two that feel weirdly prescient.

astounding broccoli boy
The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce, illustrated by Steven Lenton
Cottrell-Boyce has been reading this book in extracts on his Instagram feed during the lockdown from his grand storytelling chair – it’s worth it just to see the chair – and his voice is calm and soothing, but die-hard readers will want to read the book for themselves too.

Rory Rooney is locked up in isolation as a medical mystery after he unexpectedly turns broccoli-green on a Y7 school trip. Then, the school bully, Tommy-Lee, also turns green, and the pair are locked up under observation together. Rather than admit they may be medical guinea pigs or in throes to a horrid disease, Rory decides that he must be a superhero (after all the Incredible Hulk was green).

Before long, the pair are escaping into night-time London, which itself is under threat from a weird feline flu virus, known as Killer Kittens.

As with many children’s books, and ideal societies, it isn’t a far stretch in the story before the unlikely heroes decide that they could do a better job of running the country than the incumbent prime minister, and the climax feels typically Cottrell-Boyce as it makes the most of a wonderful London setting to stage its extreme denouement.

Brimming with humour and likeable characters, this is a gripping read told in short digestible chapters. As one would expect from Cottrell-Boyce, the scenes are filmic, the storytelling dripping with adventure, pathos and excellently-timed humour. With Steven Lenton’s impeccably comic illustrations, this is a great children’s adventure story that deserves to go viral! You can order the book for delivery here.

where the world turns wild
Where the World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold

Published earlier this year, Nicola Penfold’s characters were in isolation long before our lockdown. The majority of people in Penfold’s book are forced into lockdown under strict regimes in order to protect themselves from a nasty disease that is spread by ticks. This future dystopia is set in a world in which most of the Earth has been destroyed, and a group of ‘ReWilders’ create a tick-borne disease to enable nature to claw back some of its wildness.

Following protagonists Juniper and Bear, two children who are immune to the disease, the book tracks their adventure from closed city to wild nature in order to find their mother.

Part paean to nature, part thrilling dystopia, the book picks up on so many dystopian traits, including the banning of books (this time those to do with nature), the fierce importance of immediate family, the role of the outsider and the acceptance of the ‘new normal’ despite its negative and dangerous undertones.

A lush description of the natural world, and a good old-fashioned chase make this a good book, but the relationship between Juniper and Bear, and the authenticity of their emotions from fear to hope and back again is what separates this from the crowd.

A truly hopeful book, and in some way a call to arms. Thoughtful, wise and perfect for lockdown. You can order it for delivery here.

With thanks to Stripes publishers and Macmillan for the review copies.

A Dystopian Landscape

“Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”
― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

I go through phases with the current situation. There are moments of pragmatic acceptance when I believe that all will be well in the end and there will be an afterwards to this mayhem. At other times, I spiral into complete anxiety, in which I believe we are at end-times, and it’s only a matter of months before the electricity and water supply run dry. In this scenario, my family will perish because although we read a lot and play a lot of sport, we lack basic survival skills such as foraging, hunting, or making fire. The nearest we’ve come to building a shelter is stringing blankets between cupboard handles and calling it a ‘den’.

My far-fetched imagination of #endtimes stems from reading too much dystopic fiction. In normal times, we read dystopic narratives as a warning to what might come to pass, for example, if we continue to destroy natural animal habitats, then the animals will die out. If we continue to take risks with artificial intelligence, then the robots might take over.

What about if you’re already living in a dystopian reality? The children’s fiction highlighted below may deal with frightened people living in terrible times, but they all offer more than a glimmer of hope – they’re positive affirmations of the kindness of humanity, our willingness to build decent communities, and the belief that good will come again. Perfect for age 9+ reading lists right now.

the last wild
The Last Wild by Piers Torday
Possibly my favourite children’s book of the last decade, The Last Wild is the first in a trilogy about a boy called Kester. Opening with Kester locked in a home for troubled children, it tells of a world in which animals no longer exist. When a talking cockroach approaches him, he thinks he’s gone mad, until he sees that maybe there is a last wild – a last group of surviving animals, and he could be the one to save them. The Last Wild explores the concept of another large extinction, but also holds underlying tones of how humans are guardians of the planet. It’s written with such a complete lack of condescension that adults will identify with Kester just as much as children. My go-to page-turning children’s read.

boy in the tower
The Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen
A modern day Triffids for children, Ade lives with his mother in a tower block. Then one day, the buildings around them start to fall. Before long the Bluchers – plants that feed on metal and concrete and give off deadly spores – have overtaken the landscape. Ade is trapped. But why hasn’t his tower block fallen to them yet, and how will he get his mother out before it does?

outwalkers
Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
England has closed its borders, not following a virus, but following the ‘Faith Bombings’, and Scotland is now entirely an independent country. Individuals are chipped to enable government tracking, and there are even clearer distinctions between class groups – your microchips dictate whether you can enter a department store or a food-bank. The story follows twelve-year-old Jack, who plans to break out of his state institution, find his dog, and escape to his grandparents in Scotland. This is a fascinating thriller, with political currents and a filmic dystopian landscape. For older readers.

the giver
The Giver by Lois Lowry
A community cut off from all others, and more importantly, cut off from any form of history. Jonas is approaching adulthood and must be given a role in the community. Unlike his peers though, his role is as the new Receiver. In a world in which all pain and suffering have been removed, someone has to remove the painful memories. This dystopian vision of a future way of living reveals itself by slowing peeling back the layers of this community, but ultimately leads to Jonas and the reader questioning the value of life. Powerful and provocative.

the middler
The Middler by Kirsty Appplebaum
If birth order dictates your role in society, would you want to be first born or last born? Applebaum takes the point of view of eleven-year-old Maggie, a middler, and therefore one with a lack of expectations upon her. And yet, when she meets a wanderer – someone who is deemed even lower in society, she begins to question all the things she’s ever been told. A novel that explores a child testing her very literal boundaries, and how going against the grain is difficult, but sometimes necessary, in order to find the truth. Exceptionally crafted.


The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
First published in 1962, this alternative version of England, in the early 19th century reign of King James III, explores a time in which wolves from Europe and Russia have entered Britain via a channel tunnel, and prey upon and terrorise inhabitants in rural areas. Focusing on two cousins, Bonnie and Sylvia, it is in essence a triumph of good over evil, as they combat the dastardly plans of their evil governess Miss Slighcarp, and their boarding school teacher, Mrs Brisket. A tale of children doing the right thing, and corrupt adults getting their comeuppance, told in simple engaging prose.


Z for Zachariah by Robert C O’Brien
If you were a child in the 1980’s, then your fear was not a global pandemic but nuclear annihilation. Capturing the zeitgeist, this novel written in 1974 was actually one I studied at school (just so we were more terrified of global events that we could not control). Set in America, it’s a diary-form first person account of Ann Burden, who has survived a nuclear war, and believes she is the only survivor. A year after the war, a stranger approaches her farm. This is for an older teen, and brings up a host of intriguing issues, including the morals behind science, and individual freedoms.


Floodland by Marcus Sedgwick
More pertinent than ever as the flood waters subside (for now) in parts of England, this short book is set in a near future in which many parts of England are permanently underwater, and people survive by living in gangs on raised patches of land, fighting over food and territory. Zoe has been left on an island that used to be Norwich, and when she discovers a boat, decides to try and escape for a better land, and to find her parents. Although concise, Sedgwick’s future dystopia feels very real, and explores how societies form and disintegrate, as well as alluding to William Blake in a ruined cathedral setting.

floodworld
FloodWorld by Tom Huddlestone
Another flooded future, with sunken cities ripe for scavenging, this is a gripping thriller following Kara and Joe, who forage for a living in their new dystopian ruins. But when they find a much-wanted map, they too become much wanted. This may be a dystopian world, but familiar elements come to the surface – pirates, gangsters, hi-tech submarines. It’s a good versus evil action story, with excellent characterisation and a look to a better future with cooperation, equality, and justice.

how to bee
How to Bee by Bren MacDibble
The bees have died out, and so children are used for pollination. Peony is nine years old and works on the farm, although she is not yet a ‘Bee’. With her unschooled, unrestricted voice, she tells of how she is moved to the city before she can become a Bee, to work with her mother in one of the big city houses. This is another tale of a future dystopia in which society is even more starkly delineated by class and money. This future is bleak. Human rights have been eroded; there is no right to education, poverty is widespread. However, though dark, there is an overwhelming sense of light through Peony’s prose, and readers will come to consider how they want their future world to be shaped. It’s also worth looking at The Dog Runner by the same author, another dog-eat-dog future, in which food production and energy sources have dried up, and society is once again in huge peril.


Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari
Once more, a society in which the divide between rich and poor is strongly felt, and children are used as labourers on farms, pollinating by hand. Following the story of Shifa and her brother Themba, the book explores the treatment of people who don’t quite fit the mould, as well as how we cultivate and protect nature. A journey story, and one not for the faint-hearted, Brahmachari weaves her lyrical prose in such a way that the words show the beauty of nature, and freedom is seen to be the most coveted concept. For slightly older readers.

All available to purchase through Waterstones for home delivery. No need to venture out!

 

Escapism

“Fear unmans us. Fear degrades us. Fostering less fear—that’s your job and mine.”
― Philip Roth, Nemesis

Perhaps like me you’re oscillating between joy at having the children at home with their wonderful laughter, and an enormous paralysing anxiety about everything else. As I said last time, I’m finding it really hard to focus. Particularly on the reading and writing, which for me is profoundly unusual.

One solution however, is in finding a children’s book and reading it out loud to the children, or even to a partner, or a dog (failing any other willing listener). There’s something about reading a book out loud that forces the mind to concentrate more, to think about the expression one is putting into each phrase, to notice the difference in speech patterns between characters, to note the change in timeframe as a novel builds suspense or accelerates to a climax.


Currently we are reading Black Beauty by Anna Sewell to child three at bedtime – the novel a complete antithesis to our current situation. Actually intended for an adult audience, it is now firmly regarded as a children’s classic, and tells the story of a horse from the horse’s own point of view. Written in a time when horses were the primary means of road transport, Sewell offered a fictional story as a way of showing the population the price of animal cruelty, and how important it is to care for animals.

The book takes the form of showing Black Beauty’s life through its owners: some kind, some cruel; and there are many scenes of companionship among horses, as well as some dramatic episodes. The language is as sleek as a horse’s groomed mane, and although historical, there are signs of basic human kindness and community spirit that are terribly apt. Age 9+ years. You can buy this very beautiful hardback here or opt for a cheaper option by typing Black Beauty into the Waterstones home page.

freddy yates
For some, the best antidote to anxiety is laughter. The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson, illustrated by Rob Biddulph is snortingly chucklesome. It tells of fact-obsessed Freddy Yates, who is desperate to find his biological father, even if it means taking part in an onion-eating competition, a loo explosion, and donning a supergirl costume on national television. Although there’s pretty much a joke a page, there’s a serious undertone too, as Freddie learns the true meaning of friendship and family, and that maybe miracles can happen. We have never needed laughter and miracles so much. For age 9+. You can buy it here.


If you are after pure escapism, then look for Orla and the Serpent’s Curse by CJ Haslam. This fantasy adventure is written by The Sunday Times Chief Travel Writer (and he’ll be wanting to keep writing children’s books at this time). Publishing in a couple of weeks – you can pre-order and have something to look forward to – it is about Orla and her family who arrive in Cornwall for a relaxing holiday, only to discover that Orla may have uncovered an ancient curse. What’s more, their holiday cottage seems surrounded by a coven of elderly ladies, who do more than just flower arranging at church. With two brilliantly drawn brothers, and a family dog who has a large role to play, this mash up of the Famous Five’s adventures, folklore, witches and pirates is powerfully imagined, and deftly crafted. The dialogue between siblings is as good as in Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island, and the book feels fresh and feisty. Age 10+ Pre-order here.


Lastly, for those who want to scare themselves silly in a completely different way, Crater Lake by Jennifer Killick is just the answer. For those Year Sixes who are missing out on their end of year residential, they’d do well to read this instead – it will make them feel relieved they didn’t have to go! From the moment a bloodstained man tries to stop their coach on route, to the lack of human activity when Lance and the rest of Year Six arrive at the Crater Lake activity centre, something doesn’t feel right about this school trip. Although there is horror here, (they must NOT fall asleep), and peculiar things happen, Killick is another children’s author who has managed to capture the particular politics and dynamics of a Year 6 class – from friendships and individual circumstances to loyalties and fears. Her dialogue is authentic, and there is more than a touch of well-placed humour. For ages 10+. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Firefly, Usborne, and Walker publishers for review copies.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: A Retelling by Tanya Landman

jane eyreI first came to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte as a naïve impressionable teenager, and like many before me, read the book as an exciting gothic coming-of-age, willing Jane on, admiring of her ability to use her intellect and shrewd judgement to succeed, and feeling desperately that I wanted her to have a happy ending. ‘Reader, I married him,’ was a pivotal and satisfying point in the novel.

It was only a few years later, when I realised Jane Eyre was simply the first stepping stone on a reading footpath that led to the literary exploration of giving the madwoman in the attic a voice.  An understanding that the shut-away first wife, Bertha, was in fact representative of both the treatment of women, and a symbol of colonialism, and from there it was a swift leaping across the stones to The Yellow Wallpaper, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and of course Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. But above all, it was Bronte’s hauntingly dark gothic draw, the story of Jane’s development, the appealing beginning with Helen’s tragic death, and the consequent love for a dark dangerous brooding man that pulled me in and made the biggest impression.

Unfortunately, the Victorian prose of Charlotte Bronte can be a barrier to some, particularly those who are reluctant readers or struggle with dyslexia. Not usually one for abbreviations, adaptations or deviations from the original, with this retelling I sensed that Tanya Landman is actually opening up the text to a group of readers who otherwise wouldn’t have seen it through.

What’s more, the reader and purist is in safe hands with Landman. She understands how to condense the prose of the original, whilst staying true to the plot, although of course picking the key elements and components and having to lose others. But images of import remain: Jane reading on the window seat behind the curtain, the fire at night in Rochester’s room, the laughter emanating from the attic, the fortune teller, the desperate ruins of Thornfield across the moors.

And despite the brevity of this new text, the characters shine through. Helen is good and true, Adele frivolous and actually slightly more endearing than in the original, Mr Rochester cool and aloof, yet prone to mood swings. Landman also captures the vanity and privilege of Miss Ingram, seen through Jane’s eyes, and cleverly gives clues of plot and character to the reader through use of repeating images (the window seat), and the understanding of how people present differently depending on who they are with.

What Landman does particularly well though is convey the character and emotions of Jane herself. Jane Eyre has an impeccable self-awareness, and it’s this sense of self that comes through and reaches a modern audience. Jane is ever-aware of her own identity, her shortcomings, her desires, and Landman keeps all this within the text in her first person narration, with tiny inflections of simile and metaphor to guide the reader through.

Virginia Woolf expressed Jane’s sense of self as: “some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently.”

Jane is a character of unflinching agency, moving with passion through the novel, seeking newness and adventure, acting upon her curiosities – and Landman captures this sparky energy, this spirit, and makes her seem historically accurate yet presciently modern too.

Of course not everything can be transplanted to this retelling, but an essence of wisdom remains – Jane recalls the wise words of Helen Burns as she visits her Aunt’s deathbed, albeit in a different way from the original, and some of the maturity of Jane’s perspective of looking at her childhood through adult eyes does surface. Landman keeps to the same pace as the original – in interrupting Jane’s love infatuation with Rochester by taking her away to her childhood home, and thus creating the same suspense, and also introducing the idea of a closure of her childhood and an advent into adulthood.

For greater depth, the original must be studied – the darkness of the slave trade, the evocation of Thornfield, the gothic genre, and the idea of religious forgiveness, but overall this is a smart and endearing version, eliciting the same emotions as the original, in all the same places. The prose sits well in its historical time period, and the story is as immersive as ever.

Jane Eyre is a novel that may have brought about a trail of other stories that gave voice to the madwoman in the attic, but it first and foremost gave a voice to that other visible and yet invisible woman – the plain woman, the orphan, the disinherited, the mere member of staff. And Landman does the original full credit by capturing much of the passion and understanding that Bronte gifted her heroine.

Reader, I enjoyed it.

With thanks to dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stoke for my super-readable advance copy. You can buy yours here.

Small in the City by Sydney Smith

small in the cityPicture books are often banded together as if they were a simple genre. But even in one quick thirty-minute book club session at school, I can show my Year 6 cohort that picture books come in all shapes and sizes, are aimed at all different ages, can be about a multitude of topics, and really shouldn’t be all lumped together in a kinderbox. And really great picture books manage to traverse these different categories all in one book.

Small in the City by Sydney Smith (winner of the Kate Greenaway in 2018 for Town is by the Sea, and winner of many awards for Sidewalk Flowers) is ostensibly the travails of a small child in a big city. But delve within, and it’s a picture book about loss.

A small child, first seen on a bus, as on the front cover, travels into a large city, depicted with large steel skyscrapers, traffic, and many people. Wordless at first, the text begins a few pages in with Small’s voice, and at first the reader may believe that Small is talking to them, explaining the noise of the city and the busyness. But it very gradually becomes apparent that this internal monologue is not to you, the reader, but to a missing cat.

The text is observational but also advisory – explaining that the child feels empathy for the lost pet, and wants to guide them home with hope and clarity. The text initially feels as if it is advising the navigation of a big city, but it also merges with advice on life itself; beware of big dogs, look for friendly faces.

After a time, the reader sees that the child is putting up pink posters all over the city for the missing cat (readers will have to look back through the book to see where they missed this first time round), the cleverness of the child apparent in where the posters are placed – a fishmonger, for example.

But it is the cleverness of the illustrator that really shines through here. The child is an everychild – anonymous and gender-less, mainly seen from behind, or when straight on, with a body wrapped up against the cold, head-down. The city too is faceless – this could be any global metropolis.

The illustrations show Smith’s astuteness at perspective – the smallness of Small against the backdrop of skyscrapers, traffic, other people, construction works and telephone poles, even pointing towards the fact that taller adults might feel small against the enormity of the anonymous busy city. And with the search for something, there is an added dimension to the smallness, as if the loss of another can diminish a person and make them feel smaller anyway.

There are close ups, use of a wider lens, all capturing the intimidating nature of the city. This is not claustrophobic, but rather atmospheric. Dangers are implied rather than seen in desolate dark alleys. All angles are covered – looking up, looking down, looking out from a bus. Darkness is all around, and ever approaching as the day draws in – there are black shadows that dominate a vignette, stark plant shapes against a criss-cross window, an extreme close up of a traffic signal, mainly black in its squareness.

But conversely there’s an interesting growing familiarity with the city. Initially, the reader may feel as if the child might be lost – their smallness an indicator of their lack of direction, but this child demonstrates a knowledge of the city – as if they have been searching a long time or repeatedly, or perhaps it is their home town. Yet, the feeling of smallness persists – the city is held at a distance, the child is shut out. The church in which the choir practises is seen only from outside, the person who always plays the piano in the blue house is also anonymous, seen from behind, glimpsed blurrily through the window.

Even the reader is kept at a slight distance – there’s an amazing illustration of the child reflected in a series of mirrored glass panels on a building, the pastel traffic reflected behind, and a slight distortion of the image in the mirrors, the slight wobble that feels both real and haunting. More brilliance in the picture of the child on the bus; the close-up of a woman’s hand on the rail near the child, too close for comfort; the reflection of the city in the window of the bus, as well as the view through the bus to the city the other side, and the silhouettes of adults standing on the bus.

The day may start cold and sunny, but as the child moves through the pages, snow begins to fall. Now the picture blurs again as the streets are seen through increasing snow, red taillights standing out, sleet tyre marks on the road.

So then the illustrator’s detailed knowledge of the city appears – the child is shown positioning their back against the warmth exhalation of a dryer vent.

The text is shut off from the pictures – Small in the city is also alone in the city. Text appears only in the white gaps between the pictures, the illustrations themselves separate within hard black ink frames, locked apart from each other. There’s isolation here, and acute poignancy.

And yet there’s a juxtaposition between the griminess of the city, the urbanity of it, and the child’s calm pace and advice, and the peaceful hush as the snow falls. The lack of panic and anxiety, and the gentle determination of Small. As the blizzard blurs and the darkness increases, the heartfelt loss of the child is what’s felt, until towards the end there’s a glorious illustration of the child walking towards a female adult, with matching bobble hat signifying their kinship, and then Small’s confident resignation in the arms of a comforting adult.

The brilliance of course, is that although the book is about a missing pet, a child in a city, it’s also about the devastation of loss, the moments of waiting, the anticipation of return. Adults will see the emotional depth, young children will look for the pink posters, the hint of a cat, the draw of the city, and those in between will marvel at the detail in the artworks, the intelligence of the text. Most will notice the packaging of this tall book – a skyscraper itself.

Reassured, the final page gives a resolution, but the heartfelt haunting of this wintry book never quite dissipates. Exceptional. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Walker Books for the review copy

Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

sofia valdezI have a soft spot for the Questioneers, the series of picture books that includes Rosie Revere, Iggy Peck and Ada Twist. They started a STEM revolution all of their own, and their now distinctive look, complete with graph paper background, is a constant presence in any good library or children’s bookcase.

With the latest in the series though, Beaty has captured the zeitgeist, deviating slightly from science and focussing on politics. Here, she points to the hope that children can provide, especially in the face of poor management and inept leadership by adults. With a nod to inclusivity and equal rights by both author and illustrator, Sofia Valdez’s first policies focus on the environment, namely waste management and green spaces.

Sofia is quite rightly disturbed by the landfill site in her neighbourhood, especially when she sees its dangers. She decides it’s time to replace it with a park for her community, but finds that facing city hall is harder than she thought. It takes determination and the support of her neighbours to see it through.

Of course there are repeating themes here from the former picture books on Rosie Revere and crew, including determination and putting in the hours, but there are new themes springing up all the time. Sofia walks to school with her Abuelo, and this cross-generational relationship is of the utmost importance. Moreover, bureaucracy reigns large at City Hall, and author Beaty and illustrator Roberts have both had great fun exploring the humour and ridiculousness of sprawling officialdom and red tape. Of course, the book rhymes, as per the rest of the series, and Beaty plays on the idea of having different departments in different rooms, with silly names and fun numbers.

The most galling aspect for Sofia is the clerk’s quick dismissal of her as ‘only a kid’. In our current times of Greta Thunberg, this is clearly highly ironic. Sofia doesn’t turn away from this, and in an insightful way asks the clerk what she would do if she were in Sofia’s shoes.

After a daunting presentation, a plethora of ideas, a march and a petition, surveys and budgets and more, Sofia’s dreams become a reality. Her diverse community receives a much-wanted green space.

This is a feel-good picture book. It demonstrates the power of the individual to make a difference, but also the power and meaning of a community. And it pulls together the strands of science and creativity – change is brought about only after an individual has a vision.

Beaty impressively keeps the tight rhythm and rhyme that gave her such success with her other picture books, and Roberts’ expressive illustrations add humour and bite to each scene. As well as the blatant message, and the plot-driven text, it’s worth a longer linger over the illustrations. Sofia’s bedroom betrays her character, the mountain of trash is telling in itself, but most of all the community is portrayed in all its glorious differences and similarities. Children will love spotting Rosie, Iggy and Ada. Definitely one to add to your collection. Who knows, books such as these may inspire a better calibre of leader in the future.

With thanks to Abrams books for the review copy.

Vote Sofia Valdez, Future Prez here.

World War Two Explored

A range of books to explore World War II with any budding historian, including a young adult title suitable for reluctant readers or dyslexics, a middle grade adventure story with a shocking ending, and a non-fiction book that brings the National Archives to children’s learning so that they can see history from actual source materials.

white eagles

White Eagles by Elizabeth Wein
As war breaks out across Europe in 1939, Kristina Tomiak has been called up to join the White Eagles, Poland’s air force. But when the Nazis invade Poland, and reach her town, killing her twin brother, she knows she must use her flying skills to escape. What she doesn’t realise is that there’s a stowaway in her plane, and he wants her to fly further than she thinks is possible.

Wein is a master at depicting a female perspective during World War Two, and this doesn’t deviate, in that she shows both depth of character and the horrors of war all within a small novella. Kristina is based on the true story of Anna Leska, a pilot for the Polish Air Force, and Wein’s passion and in-depth research of this period of history and the female aviators really shines through.

Although this is more character-led than plot led, it gives a good insight into the fears and determination of different people at this time, and inserts tiny details that resonate in the mind and stay with the reader long after the book is finished.  

It may have been written and published with struggling or dyslexic readers in mind, but the relationship within the story, and the authentic descriptions of flying make for an altogether brilliant read. An author’s note at the end gives some extra true detail to her fictional story. You can buy it here

the runaways
The Runaways by Holly Webb
The story begins in London at the outbreak of the Second World War. Molly’s school is being evacuated to the countryside, but her mother refuses to let her go, and so she’s stuck at home, helping her mother in the shop, and watching her older sister go off to join the war effort. When she hears that Londoners’ pets are to be put down, because supplies will be short, she runs away with her beloved dog Bertie. Once in the countryside, she meets other runaways, with even sadder stories, and before long, home seems like a distant memory.

After reading some of Webb’s other stories, I imagined that this book might be fairly animal-led and quite tame, so it was a surprise to read that Webb doesn’t hold back in trying to present some sort of reality of how miserable the war might have been on the home front. It wasn’t all gusto and bravado, and some children (and adults) suffered terribly. The book is an easy read – fast-paced and punchy, but it also bears a depth of loss and grief, which is sensitively dealt with, even if the end comes as rather a shock.

This is carefully written historical fiction that aims to portray the uncertainty of wartime, and show the effect of displacement and family break up. A refreshingly different take on World War Two fiction. You can buy it here

national archives
National Archives: World War II by Nick Hunter
So often, secondary school children are told to look at the source material when writing about history. And yet for many primary school children, source material is a distant object – they are just presented with a list of facts. This lively, colourful, and informative book aims to lay out some primary sources and let children discover them for themselves.

From Hitler’s rise to power to the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, the book uses photographs, artefacts and original documents from the National Archives to bring the history to life. Each spread has a sprinkling of colour as well as a number of black and white photographs and documents, all interestingly laid out to pique a child’s curiosity. To accompany the archive, Hunter includes introductory paragraphs, captions and facts, to provide a fuller explanation of what happened.

Children may read it chronologically, or dip in for information they need. There’s a lovely range of sources and some interesting detail on technological advances, and war on the home front. I’m impressed that it doesn’t shy away from details on the horrors of the Holocaust and Nagasaki, but it also brings the book to a good close with reflections on physical reminders of the war, and the importance of historical documentation and remembrance. You can buy it here

With thanks to Barrington Stoke, Scholastic and Bloomsbury Publishers for the review copies. 

Nevertell by Katharine Orton

nevertellMany a children’s book has been set in a snowy landscape with chasing wolves and stretching vistas, from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken to Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder, promising the romance of ice crystals and the danger of snapping jaws. Of course, there’s nothing romantic about the punishing Siberian prison camps under the reign of Stalin, which is where Orton has chosen to set her debut children’s book, Nevertell.

Lina, born inside one of these Siberian prison camps, has never seen the outside world, so when the opportunity for escape is presented at age eleven, she grasps it wholeheartedly, despite having to leave her mother behind. However, Lina and best friend Bogdan are soon pursued not by Soviet guards, but by ghost wolf hounds and a dangerous sorceress, who lives in a Frozen-esque ice palace and bears a resemblance to Baba Yaga and The Mistress of Copper Mountain from Russian folk tales.

This is in essence an adventure story across the snowy tundra of a Russian winter, and Orton’s lyrical writing interweaves the magic of the landscape she is describing with the thrilling pace of a chase. Her descriptions of cold are indeed chilling, and the frozen fractals feel both dangerously icy but also wonderfully enchanting, as if the reader is spellbound by the cold as Lina and Bogdan are by the sorceress.

“The sky itself stretched cloudless and pale, like a flawless frozen lake. It all felt upside down, as if the sky had switched places with the earth while they slept and now they were wading through yesterday’s storm clouds.”

As well as the escape to freedom, Lina is on a quest to discover her heritage. She sets out on a path to Moscow to find her grandmother and discover what she is like, all the time wondering who in the left-behind camp is her father. What becomes apparent through the telling is the importance of family – both in their presence and their absence, and how belonging is so key. Separation was a cruel punishment oft inflicted by Stalin.

There are familiar children’s books tropes in Nevertell: a chase across countryside, a fierce and loyal friendship between the protagonist and a sidekick of the opposite gender…but where the novel stands apart is the terrific juxtaposition between the harshness of Russian gulags and Stalin’s reign with local folklore and fairy tales, which conjure a different kind of adventure story.

The idea that creativity was stifled in Stalin’s Russia, that a repressive regime sought to shut down any telling of fairy tales and folk stories is barbaric – after all freedom of thought and imagination are some of the most precious assets of being human. Orton plays with this idea of repression, and of course sets it free by taking Lina and Bogdan away from the harsh realism of a Siberian prison camp and placing them within the magical realms of a sorceress, even if that magic can also be used for harm.

Orton also plays on the importance of objects – again a device taken from native folk and fairy tales, in which one thing can be of such import – be it a house of chicken legs, or simply a stone. Lina wears a stone around her neck that provides pulsing warmth in times of great cold and throbbing heat in times of danger. The sorceress relies on her cape for much, but it is also in the human realm that objects are important: a winter coat, a bag of vegetables, a horse for transportation. These are essential elements of survival: food, warmth, shelter.

At times the magic is complex, at times simple, as are the relationships, but there’s a shining simplicity to the images of growth and gardens that frame Lina’s story. The idea of being able to conjure magic within a garden has been used for decades in children’s literature – a garden showing the flourishing of the heart and soul, the blossoming or growth of a forbidden fruit actually proving to be sustenance and food for thought rather than evil temptation. Orton sets up the magic vibrancy of fruit vines against a Siberian snowy backdrop and it is with strong images such as these that her power as a storyteller glitters most strongly.

The reader is left with an array of visuals – ice crystals frozen from wintry breath, a fluttering moth, a shadowy girl, an ice palace. With a startling cover illustrated by Sandra Dieckmann, interior illustrative snowflakes and more, this is a winter read with staying power. You’ll be as enchanted as if you had been captured by a sorceress. A perfect wintry read. For ages 8+.

With thanks to Walker books for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here.

The Lollies 2020: A guest post from author Jo Simmons

lollies


The Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (Lollies) celebrates the funniest children’s books in the UK and Ireland, and is voted for by children. In surveys, children tend to cite laughter as a key reason for keeping reading a book, and so I’m delighted to introduce one of this year’s shortlisted books for 9-13 year olds, I Swapped My Brother on the Internet! by Jo Simmons and Nathan Reed. This book had me chortling away – I would never dream of swapping my own brother of course – but the book let me wonder about what would happen if I did!

Jonny is sick of his big brother Ted, so when he hears about the website, SiblingSwap, he figures he has nothing to lose. But it turns out his new choices aren’t so great either. You can read MinervaReads review here, and below Jo Simmons asks ‘What makes the Perfect Sibling?’

i swapped my brother
When I was about eight years old, having tea with my slightly older brother and a couple of friends, he smashed a Dairylea Triangle against my forehead. The creamy contents burst through the foil wrapper and became stuck in my fringe. The perfect sibling would not have done that to me but, then again, I was not being the perfect sibling when it happened. I was being annoying and provoking and probably deserved a Dairylea Triangle to the face. There was blame on all sides, and outrage. This is not perfect sibling behaviour – but what is?

A quick check list of perfect sibling attributes might read like this: someone who is fun and cool (but not too cool – no one wants to be the square sibling). He or she is ready to defend you against the forces of evil (your parents, annoying relatives, bratty friends) and always has your back, offering rock-solid friendship that can stand the strain of a few petty sibling squabbles. Perfect siblings share their stuff happily – from toys and sweets to bikes and makeup – but give you space. They understand you inside-out but respect your individuality. They keep you company, make you laugh, share adventures.

The perfect sibling sounds really great – like your best friend, only better. After all, siblings understand first-hand all that grubby family stuff, too – how loud your dad blows his nose, or how your mother’s obsession with vest wearing is tough in the teen years. But does the perfect sibling exist? Probably only in moments and flashes, here and there, but not all the time. It’s not their fault. The sibling relationship is under constant pressure; all that sharing of space, toys, clothes and, worst of all, your parents’ attention.

It’s no wonder that most siblings have far from perfect relationships. Instead, theirs are loaded with tension, competition and fury; a blend of love and annoyance, incredible but infuriating closeness. And fights. Always fights. Hopefully just the garden variety bickering and squabbling that gives each sibling a chance to behave in a way that they just couldn’t with friends, for fear of being dumped, and not full-on combat or wrestling (although, inevitably, that can happen, too).

I had a lot of fun in I Swapped My Brother On The Internet with the idea that, via a website that works a bit like a dating app, you could choose a sibling. How might that go? Spoiler alert – not that well. We are stuck with our siblings, but we should take comfort from the fact that some improve with age, like a fine wine or a very bouncy dog. That brother who smashed a Dairylea Triangle into my forehead in the late 1970s is now a lovely friend, who cooks me dinner and goes running with me. So, what makes the perfect sibling? The answer, perhaps, is time.

With thanks to Jo for her guest blog. I Swapped My Brother on the Internet is published by Bloomsbury and is available to buy here. The full shortlisted titles are as follows: 

You can vote for your favourite here until 13th December:

The winner will be announced in early 2020.

The Pearl in the Ice by Cathryn Constable

pearl in the iceSet in 1912 with an impending global conflict, twelve-year-old Marina is the daughter of a Naval Commander and a long-absent mother, so is often left on her own. The book opens with Marina up a plane tree in a leafy London suburb contemplating imminent boarding school. Yet, bound within Marina’s daydreaming and watery metaphors, is the inexorable pull of the sea, and before long Marina is swapping one train for another and heading to Portsmouth to stow away on her father’s ship.

But as with so many stories, all is not what it seems. In any way. This 1912 is a slightly alternate reality, with the enemy of the British the fictional Mordavians, and a battle over codes, transmitters and missing ships being waged near the fictional town of Svengejar near the very real Sea of Murmansk. By cleverly mixing reality with fiction, Constable creates a tangible landscape for her story, and makes sure that mentions of sea beasts and mermaids don’t feel as far removed as they should.

Much of the novel takes place aboard The Sea Witch, where Marina’s father is the captain. Discovered by the crew, Marina quickly earns her place on board, looking after the dogs who will eventually pull the sleds when the ship docks in the Arctic Circle. As well as painting an intriguing picture of life on board a ship, complete with sailors’ superstitions, roles and responsibilities, ropes and rigging, there’s also the tension of imminent war, codes and code-breaking, and the mysteriousness of her father’s real role in the conflict.

By basing her book half in reality and half not, Constable sets up some wonderful tension in her characters; the reader having to guess who is speaking the truth, and who not. Near the beginning, Marina makes fast friends on the train with a Miss Smith, whom she admires for her feminist outlook, her insistence that women are just as good as men. This modern sensibility takes a battering on the ship, where Marina is referred to as ‘Boy, 2nd class,’ as girls do not feature as seamen. But her respect and admiration for Miss Smith doggedly follow her through the story, and by the end her feminist beliefs are restored, although she learns that even the bravest feminist can be on the wrong side.

The main tension in the book though, is not Marina’s seafaring adventure, or the end quest to save her father, but more her understanding of where fantasy meets reality, and the true understanding of why her mother disappeared. This is most clearly borne out in the very frightening and gripping dream/memory sequence at the end of chapter three, as Marina’s earliest memory seems to be that of being nearly drowned in the bath. From this sprout ongoing hints as to who Marina’s mother really is. By the end, the book’s plot – filled with double lives, spies, and codes – bends to encompass a fantasy realm too.

For readers of this age group, there is solace to be found in reading of a girl’s search for greater independence, not just in knowing who she is and where she comes from, but mainly in where she is going as she makes the leap from childhood to adulthood, understanding the premise that not all adults are to be believed and that challenging them can reap its own rewards.

This is a far from watery novel – in fact like the dark shape that follows Marina’s quest across the seas – it has real bite. The characters are well-formed – Miss Smith rather glamorously reminiscent of shades of Mrs Coulter – and the messages behind the story strong and well thought-out. But it is the imagery of the sea and what lies beneath that leaves lingering visions in the mind: the power of a storm, the surging dance of the waves, and the ever-changing colours of the water above the darkness below.

For 9+ years.

With thanks to Nina Douglas and Chicken House publishers for my review copy. Catch up with the rest of the blog tour below. And you can buy your own copy here.