fiction

The Summer of No Regrets by Kate Mallinder

the summer of no regretsHas the trend for up-lit died down? The zeitgeist that propelled Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine to the top of the bestseller charts and made it the bestselling novel of 2018? Judging by today’s lists, there’s still an appetite, even if we like murder more. But what about for today’s teens?  Recent discussions assumed that all YA books either slot into the fantasy genre or deal with issues such as eating disorders, bullying or depression. But what should parents and their offspring buy if they want to read something lighter? Some humour? Some clean teen fun? These books do exist, they just might not be face out on the bookseller’s shelves, and you’ll need to ask the bookseller. Start by requesting this one.

The Summer of No Regrets is clean teen uplit. After their exams, four sixteen-year-old friends are ready to embark on their summer together; long lie-ins and fun days out. But then Sasha is given an opportunity to go and stay with her estranged father in Geneva, and on the advice of Hetal’s Nani, they decide to opt for a summer of no regrets, (embracing adventure and new challenges), even if that means going their separate ways. Home-loving Hetal takes up a place at an exclusive science camp, Nell goes for a job she wants, out the way of her over-protective mother, and fostered Cam decides to look for her birth father. But will their summers work out the way they anticipate?

Each chapter is written from one of the four girls’ points of view, and Mallinder executes this skilfully, nicely imbuing each voice with its own idiosyncrasies and character. As with these types of novels, the reader may identify more with one girl than another, although they will possibly see characteristics of themselves, or their friends in all four. Each character is nicely flawed, and self-critiquing, sometimes overly as teens are prone to do – but they are rescued from too much introspection by Mallinder’s lightness of touch, and her use of the secondary characters around each girl.

But it is the four friends who dominate because the book is about friendship – a refreshing reminder that not all friendships degrade because of sniping about each other on social media or griping behind each other’s backs. Although some of the foursome are more in tune with each other than others – splitting into twos occasionally depending on circumstance and personality, all four have a wonderful support network of the other three behind them – even if they are geographically apart. Nowadays this is easy to portray with the use of mobile phones and Mallinder nicely portrays the girls’ messages to each other without it becoming overbearing or interrupting the flow of plot, but she also hints at a shared history, an ongoing bond between them that’s deeper than text messages.

The book is character-led, and each girl does have her own ‘issues’ within her story – whether it is a summer romance, an overly-competitive streak that gets them into trouble, or more serious issues such as post-traumatic stress, and feelings of abandonment and rejection. However, these issues never dominate – they are just a part of each girl’s life – a test they have to go through on their own, but which ultimately they can do because they have the strength of friendship behind them.

This is a story about real friendship – trusting, kind and generous; the sort of friends who pop by and see you while you’re at work, or answer your cries for help immediately. As the author William Sutcliffe pointed out a few weeks ago in The Times, it’s what makes the sitcom Friends so enduring – not just the humour, but the appealing essence of true friendship.

But this is about sixteen-year-olds rather than adults, and Mallinder captures well the liminal space they occupy between being children and stepping into their own independence – they still need guidance and still push boundaries.

As intimated by the glorious rainbow cover, this is a light, breezy summery read, which I read in one sitting, happily engrossed in the girls’ stories. A clean teen read, I’ll be heartily recommending it to every teen and pre-teen this summer. You can read your own copy for pleasure here – and pleasurable it will be. For ages 12+ years.

An In-depth Read: Indonesian Children’s Literature: When It Rains…

when it rainsThere’s a magic to life that children see, but adults are quick to forget. Perhaps this is why we like to revisit children’s stories so often and see things through a child’s eye. When it Rains by Rassi Narika, translated by Ikhda Ayuning, Maharsi Degoul and Emma Dai’an Wright, starts as a grumble about all the things we cannot do when it rains. But the book soon branches into what joy awaits if we look for positivity – even in the rain.

The narrator, Kira, and her friends, explore in the rain: they see the colours of umbrellas, the animals that enjoy the wet, and the joy and safety and privilege they have of coming home to a hot shower or bath and warm towels to dry them. This is a lovely experience picture book for a very young reader, and encouragingly has a wonderful map of the adventure at the end for readers to peruse. It doesn’t look too dissimilar from the map I might draw of my surroundings here, and yet this picture book heralds from Indonesia.

Many times, I’ve looked at the UK book market and marveled that the books we see here aren’t the same as in any other country – even those that share the language. American friends are constantly baffled that so many titles are different – but the sharing of cultures and stories is becoming more widespread. Below, author Rassi Narika, gives us a glimpse into Indonesian Children’s Literature, and how the future of children’s books there looks bright:

Inside pages from When It Rains by Rassi Narika

Indonesian children’s literature is a bit tricky. It’s there, but at the same time it feels weirdly invisible. When I was studying in the UK, I saw how important children’s books were. In bookstores, children’s books were displayed prominently and there would be storytelling sessions for kids a couple of days a week, and universities even ran courses in children’s literature – I never thought that this could be a thing. I enjoyed seeing this all so much and wished we had the same environment in Indonesia.

A couple of years ago, I started working on a children’s book called Terbang (Fly). I was going to self-publish it through an independent publishing initiative called Seumpama, which I co-founded with a friend. I wrote and illustrated my first book while nervously wondering if anyone – other than family and friends – would ever be interested in buying it. We didn’t really know what we were getting into. Our initial idea came from thinking about how my friend couldn’t find any Indonesian children’s books that she wanted to read to her young daughter. So, we did some research to try and understand why this was.

When It Rains

We found that, despite having the biggest share of the book market, with 22.64% of the total sales at the biggest chain bookstore in Indonesia (from 2013 data published by IKAPI, The Indonesian Publisher Association), Indonesian children’s literature was barely recognised by the literary scene. At book events, there were few talks focusing on children’s, and for whatever reason, I could only name a handful of notable Indonesian children books or authors. I felt it wasn’t getting the attention it deserved from the industry and its readers.

Perhaps it’s a mindset: adults thinking that children’s literature is just for children, so they stop paying attention as they grow older and until they have their own offspring. Or perhaps it’s something more fundamental that is preventing the scene from thriving. Four years after my first book, I find myself utterly compelled by this challenging journey; the combination of frustration and excitement at finding a new playground and experimenting with its complexities.

The ‘research’ I did at the start of my writing and publishing journey was brief and hardly captured the big picture. But one thing I realised was that the market share of children’s book sales was not representative of growth in Indonesian children’s books, especially in terms of quality. In big chain bookstores, translated children’s books and Japanese comics were highly popular; you’d see them everywhere and you’d see more varieties of their titles and stories too. I used to read these too when I was a child. Now I wonder if this was because I preferred them to Indonesian books or if it was because of the limited range of local books.

I remember feeling like something was missing when I skimmed through the books from local publishers. I thought that most of their stories were predictable; they always ended with a moral, and promoted stereotypical values in their narrative.

There is nothing wrong with talking about morals and values, of course. It is necessary to introduce them to children. But children have the right to be part of more diverse and rich conversations too, and they were not getting that from the books available to them. Despite diversity being embedded in our nation’s official identity, with ‘Unity in Diversity’ as Indonesia’s national motto, Indonesian children books weren’t really providing that. They didn’t feel inclusive to a variety of children’s perspectives, backgrounds, ideas, and interests. It also bothered me that most of the stories focused more on what the adults had to say, rather than celebrating children and allowing them to be part of the narrative.

Nevertheless, there has been an exciting change in Indonesian children’s literature these past couple of years. Waves of independent literary organisations have been springing up and pushing for Indonesian children’s literature to be a more versatile and collaborative playing field.

One of the prominent names is Litara Foundation. Litara is an independent publisher that has been a real breath of fresh air to the scene, introducing good books and giving local contexts a more contemporary approach. They have published some of my favourite titles, with themes that were quite unheard-of in most Indonesian children books. Srinti is my favourite book from Litara. It is about the post-disaster trauma of a girl who lives in Yogyakarta, Central Java, where earthquakes had devastated the area. The journey to find Srinti, a doll that was lost under the debris of the earthquake, is a journey about experiencing loss as told from a child’s perspective. It is a hard topic to deal with, yet it’s a conversation in which children should be included.

Other publications from Litara Foundation explore issues of cultural diversity, like in Cap Go Meh, which is the name of a celebration at the end of the 15th day of Chinese New Year. The title also refers to a local cuisine that is central to the Eid-al Fitr celebration. It’s very refreshing to find books where children become the centre of their own experiences.

I think celebrating childhood should be a significant part of children books, and the Na Willa series, by Reda Gaudiamo, is a perfect example for that. This is my other personal favourite and is hands down one of the best works of Indonesian children’s literature today. It brilliantly captures the voice of Willa, a little girl who lives in Surabaya, East Java, in the ’60s. The amazing thing about this book is that regardless of where you live and whichever era your childhood was, Willa’s story feels extremely close to heart.

The book was inspired by Reda’s own childhood experience and her feelings as a young girl when facing issues of multiculturalism, racism, bullying, family, and friendship, as well as simply encountering things in everyday life that excited her – like the little chicks or her favourite food. The book captures the innocence of children and at the same time gives voice to their wisdom in seeing the world. I love that Reda is giving a platform to children that allows them to be part of the cast of an imperfect world. (The Adventures of Na Willa has been translated into English by The Emma Press, who also helped to translate my book, When It Rains. They did an amazing job translating it).

What’s also exciting is that this momentum has extended to other aspects in children’s literature. It’s now easier to find community-based children’s libraries, and children’s storytelling events are taking place in coffee shops. I’ve seen a higher quality in the Indonesian children’s book selections in mainstream bookstores, and independent bookshops are giving more space to children’s literature. I have met academics who are sharing their findings with the public, like Herdiana Hakim who’s currently doing her PhD in Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow and spreads the word about Indonesian children’s literature through her blog Si Kancil. Also there are communities like Ayo Dongeng Indonesia (Let’s Do Storytelling, Indonesia), which runs the annual Indonesian International Storytelling Festival.

The scene is still growing and there’s a lot of work to be done. I’m looking forward to there being more books and authors and illustrators who depict children’s perspective and capture stories in which children’s voices are heard. We need to form a better infrastructure, educate institutions, and get more attention. We need to claim physical spaces to allow Indonesian children’s literature to thrive and be part of society. The challenges remain but the possibilities are endless, and those who share the passion are finding their way to meet up and continuously build the scene.

It is definitely an exciting time to be in.

With thanks to Rassi Narika for her fascinating article. You can buy When It Rains from The Emma Press here

Malamander by Thomas Taylor

malamanderSometimes a story lures you in like a beckoning finger, and as you step over the threshold, what seems familiar turns gothic and dark, and you are swept away on a tide of imagination and character.

Malamander is one such story. In Cheerie-On-Sea (the letters c and h fall off the sign every winter), Herbert Lemon, the lost-and-founder of the Grand Nautilus Hotel, finds a lost girl one snowy winter evening. She too is sweet, named Violet Parma, and she’s an orphan, looking for her parents who disappeared one night twelve years ago when she was just a baby staying in the hotel.

Together they form a formidable duo, as they roam the coastal town looking for clues as to where Violet’s parents might have gone, and also learning more about the legend of the unctuous sea-monster who stalks the town in winter, hiding in the rolling sea fog, and waiting for its mate on the longest night of the year. This, of course, is the Malamander.

Taylor’s writing is both highly gothic, and laced with a fine dose of humour. The plot whips along at 100 knots, and the tantalising descriptions of the familiar turned dark make this story hugely appealing. The seaside town at close-season is sensually described; it may be without ice cream and sandcastles, but it is imbued with the warmth of fish and chips that steams up the café and gives comfort, and also the horrific sounds of the sea-monster’s shrieks, the frightening foggy sands, and the sea mist that makes the town more than live up to its wintry name of Eerie-on-Sea. The tangible salty fishy smell almost seeps from the pages itself.

But it is the way Taylor has populated his book that makes it so special, drawing on familiar tropes and yet giving it a twist of his own. Every name in the book is joyfully Dickensian, from the sweetie-named children to the villainous slippery Sebastian Eels (a writer with dubious motives), and a very Famous-Five-ish, Scooby-Doo-type villain in Boathook Man. The hotel owner, a reclusive Lady Kraken (think Miss Haversham) holes up in her tower with her claw-like hands and her cameraluna – (a camera-obscura-magic looking-glass) – spying on those below.

What’s more there is a kind bookshop owner, a talking cat, a beachcombing forager, and a mechanical mermonkey who spits out book references to where the correct book for each individual is stored in the bookshop – reminiscent of all seaside towns and their strange magical arcades (think the movie Big).

As Herbet and Violet’s quest for her parents turns into a quest for the egg of the Malamander, so they traverse the town and meet its people, and here Taylor excels in his use of dialogue, which is full of dramatic tension, slowing down in the right places, pausing, leaving gaps, all weaving in and out of his tale with its gothic mystery slant.

The denouement is like an action movie, set in a tide-filling shipwreck just off the coast, with Taylor even managing to make the reader as sympathetic to the Malamander as to the children.

By threading his coastal novel with ancient legend, and misleading the reader with red herrings, mysteries and untrustworthy adults, Taylor has shown he can write with flair, embedding hidden depths into the plot. He himself has hidden depths too – he illustrated the first Harry Potter editions. No wonder the map at the beginning of Malamander is as atmospheric as the prose itself.

This is a novel to hook you in from the first word. It’s cunning, clever, manipulative, deliciously dark and fun, and also holds delightfully old-fashioned storytelling. Don’t miss it. For ages 9+. You can buy it here.

Cover artwork by George Ermos. With thanks to Walker Books for a review copy.

The First Novel: Branford Boase Award

BBA 2018 winners

Branford Boase Award 2018 winning author Mitch Johnson with his winning editors Rebecca Hill (left) and Becky Walker (right).

The Branford Boase Award is given annually to the author of an outstanding debut novel for children. Uniquely, it also honours the editor of the winning title and highlights the importance of the editor in nurturing new talent.

The novel that won the Branford Boase Award 2018 was Kick by Mitch Johnson, and this year he is serving on the 2019 Award Panel. Below, he introduces the 2019 shortlist and explains what makes each of the books so special:

I think for many authors, the publication of their first novel can be an ambivalent experience. On the one hand, all the hard work has paid off, your dream has come true, and finally (FINALLY) your book is out in the world. But on the other hand, what if no one reads it? Or what if people read it and hate it? Or what if there’s been some mistake, and it actually belongs under the bed with all the other unpublished novels you’ve written, rather than on a shelf with proper books written by real writers?

kickNeedless to say, publishing your first novel can be a jittery time. Luckily, the Branford Boase Award is here to help.

It’s difficult to express just how important an award celebrating debut authors – and the editors who bring their books into print – can be. For me, being recognised by the Branford Boase Award gave me renewed confidence in my writing, and encouraged me to pursue projects that I might otherwise have considered too ambitious to attempt. Even now, the trophy reminds me, on the bad days, why I sit at my desk and risk another bad day. And that is to say nothing of the prize money and the financial lifeline that it offers.

Participating as a judge on this year’s panel has been great fun, and to think that Kick survived the process is really quite humbling. (I’ve just about stopped wondering exactly what last year’s panel said about my book.) This year’s shortlist showcases the quality and diversity of publishing for younger readers, and it’s fantastic to see publishers investing in new talent. From imaginative adventures to stories of war-torn Europe to novels tackling contemporary issues, there really is something for everyone on the shortlist. Each deserves a wide readership, and together they form a worthy list to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the award.

And so, in alphabetical order by author, to the books we shortlisted:

house with chicken legs
The House with Chicken Legs
by Sophie Anderson is a wonderful retelling of a Slavic folktale about – you guessed it – a house with chicken legs. The writing is dreamy and magical, the characters feel like old friends, and the book is beautifully packaged. But my favourite thing about The House with Chicken Legs has to be the way it handles death. Death is so often portrayed as a thing to be feared and avoided in storytelling (and for good reason), but The House with Chicken Legs repaints it as the destination that makes life’s journey so special.

train to impossible places
The Train to Impossible Places
by PG Bell is a wildly imaginative adventure that hurtles along at breakneck speed. As I read it, I found myself desperate to know where the next stop would be (my favourite was the Topaz Narrows), and Bell’s wonderful way with words brings each impossible place to life. It also contains one of the best chapter titles I’ve ever seen. The only downside to The Train to Impossible Places is that it will make any future Interrail trips across Europe seem a bit tame by comparison.

rosie loves jack
Rosie Loves Jack
by Mel Darbon was a surprise package for me. I was completely disarmed and wrong-footed by the unique voice, and what I expected to be a fairly predictable love story quickly evolved into something much darker and more complex. The protagonist, Rosie, has Down’s syndrome, and you really feel her frustration as she is repeatedly underestimated and misunderstood by the people she meets. More than anything else, this novel reminds you of how underrepresented some voices still are in fiction, and how desperately we need writers like Darbon to create some balance.

the goose road
The Goose Road
by Rowena House is a real treat to read; the writing is wonderfully evocative, and right from the first chapter – when you learn of the protagonist’s relief that her father has died in battle – you just know that you’re in safe hands. I’ll admit I was initially sceptical about the premise of herding geese through war-torn France, but the writing absolutely blew me away. It was refreshing to read a story from a French civilian’s perspective, and for a time defined by bombs and bullets, the danger in this novel is chillingly subtle.

i am thunder
I Am Thunder
by Muhammad Khan tackles a highly emotive, heavily politicised subject: the radicalisation of a young Muslim girl. Khan does a brilliant job of exploring the tensions that can arise when cultures clash and allegiances are tested, and the sensitivity with which he handles such a volatile subject is astounding. I think it would be easy to underestimate just how difficult this book must have been to write, but Khan’s prose is as subtle and seductive as the grooming it depicts.

orphan monster spy
It’s hard to think of anything more terrifying than being a Jewish spy in Nazi territory, but that is the prospect faced by Sarah, the protagonist of Orphan Monster Spy (by Matt Killeen). Killeen’s novel grabs you by the throat on page one and doesn’t let go: it’s an irresistibly compulsive read. The Second World War may be well-trodden terrain, but this novel brings something fresh and dynamic. The stakes are high, the characters are delightfully flawed, and the result is just as tense and twisty as an espionage thriller should be.

boy at back of class
The Boy at the Back of the Class
by Onjali Q Rauf has already received heaps of recognition, and I was similarly impressed by Raúf’s tale of a young Syrian refugee trying to find peace in the UK. It’s so heartening to see a novel for younger readers tackling the refugee crisis, and books like this one make you hopeful that the next generation will be a more tolerant and understanding one. It’s the kind of book that everyone, young and old, should read.

So there we go. Seven brilliant titles, and I have no idea who is going to triumph when the judging panel reconvenes to discuss the shortlist. It could be any one of them.

With huge thanks to Mitch Johnson. The winner will be announced on Thursday 27th June. 

The Words That Fly Between Us by Sarah Carroll

the words that fly between usLanguage is important. Of course it is, it’s one of the ways in which we communicate, and as a reader and writer it’s my primary source of information, and of huge value. But one of the things new writers are taught is the importance of words that are left unsaid. In dialogue, what’s underneath the words, what lies in the silence, which emotions are left hanging in the air – the words that are never spoken but which fly away. Listen carefully to the next conversation you have – who isn’t saying what?

Carroll delves into the world of examining language, secrets, lies, manipulation and communication in her emotionally deep novel, The Words That Fly Between Us

Lucy lives in a large house with her parents, seemingly all privileged and happy. Yet, Lucy lives in a state of heightened awareness; attune to the words that aren’t being spoken, and the manner in which those words that are shared are spoken. Her father uses words to bully and manipulate, and although Lucy is a talented artist, her father’s words hinder even this form of expression. Her confidence is chipped away, her place of safety gone. What’s more, the abuse towards her mother is teetering from just verbal towards the physical.

Lucy takes consolation in the loft space above her room, but she discovers that it links to the attic space of all the other houses in her street, and before long Lucy’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she finds that other people have unspoken secrets in their houses too. But she comes to realise that knowing other people’s secrets can create even larger dilemmas.

In today’s world, the language we use seems to take on an even greater import because quite often it is not accompanied by body language or pitch. Many people today communicate more by written word than spoken word – in text, online comments, direct messages. Carroll touches on this too, with her depiction of Lucy’s friendship with Megan, who writes a blog, but starts to receive unwelcome and bullying comments online.

And incorporating a diary into the novel as part of the plot, means that the reader can start to understand the power of secrets, the power of the written word, and the lies we tell ourselves, or portray to the world. Communication is a powerful tool.

By weaving together these strands, as well as incorporating a homeless girl with a distinct message, a reclusive neighbour who isn’t all she seems, Carroll forms a multi-layered story that mirrors the multi-layers of her characters. Because the bullies in the stories aren’t simple two-dimensional fairytale villains – these are complex characters with deep flaws and insecurities that manifest themselves in harmful ways. By portraying them as humans too, Carroll portrays an ever greater emotional depth to her already heart-wrenching story.

In fact, it is the very appealing first person voice of Lucy that pulls the reader in. And just as Lucy sees the menace behind ordinary words, so the reader begins to see the depths behind the simplicity of the voice, and that although this is an easy read in terms of accessibility, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Carroll deftly imbues her main character with a talent for drawing – a way of expressing her feelings beyond words. And although the book isn’t illustrated, the author shows enormous talent at describing Lucy’s drawings, so that we can see them in our mind’s eye and extrapolate the emotion they are depicting.

This is a powerful book for a 10+ age audience. With compelling, confident writing, a clear understanding of relationships, and a good illustration of how language works and can be manipulated.

Carroll shows what it is for a child to feel safe, to find their voice, and then develop the confidence to use it. Again, what’s key is the kindness of strangers, true friendships and an empathetic heart. You can buy it here.

Runaway Robot by Frank Cottrell-Boyce: the humanity in artificial intelligence

runaway robotIan McKewan caused a bit of a stir the other week over claims that his new novel, Machines Like Me, about artificial intelligence (ie robots) was not science fiction, remaining firmly in the genre of literary fiction. He also claimed that future writers might look at the ‘human dilemmas’ posed by artificial intelligence.

As readers know, writers have long-looked at robots or artificial intelligence as a way of examining our own humanity, starting perhaps with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley…and spinning onwards through HG Wells to Margaret Atwood and beyond. But the snootiness over whether something is sci-fi just because it contains robots luckily doesn’t infiltrate children’s fiction. What’s always rather startling, and somewhat refreshing, is that despite holding a market-share of about a third of print books, the children’s book shelves are still arranged by age rather than genre. Thus Enid Blyton’s adventure capers sit neatly next to Tony Bradman’s historical fiction, Holly Smale’s contemporary fiction sits next to SF Said’s science fiction, David Walliam’s comic mass market books sit adjacent to Robert Westall’s fiction.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce, shelved under C for those in doubt, is a master of comic fiction, and his latest adventure for children, Runaway Robot, definitely speaks to the humanity in us all.

Alfie, very much human, but with a bionic hand, discovers a robot with a missing leg in his local Airport Lost Property. The robot happens to be a giant robot called Eric, with manners as good as a butler, and a demeanour as chivalrous as a knight. The only problem is that he takes instructions quite literally, and is rather large. Alfie and Eric have much in common. Alfie is boyishly charming, Eric is gallant almost to a fault. Both have a missing body part, and both are missing the memory of how they lost their missing parts. Together, they try to solve the clues without leaving too much destruction in their wake.

Cottrell-Boyce writes with confidence and flair, spilling his story into the reader’s head with artistry and comedy, so that readers are equally amused and enthralled, but also touched with a large brush of heart. He has a keen eye for human quirks, and seeing them play out both robotically as well as in humans, is rather fun. And Steven Lenton’s illustrations create that extra dimension of humour.

It is Alfie’s distinctive voice that propels the fiction forwards – written in first person it is as if Alfie himself is telling the reader the story, perhaps sitting next to you or by your bedside, with modern phrases slung in, such as ‘oh my days,’ and the specific brand of truisms that children see when adults don’t – such as the scene in which Alfie is surrounded by his old schoolmates wanting to look at his new bionic hand, and he describes one of them as ‘one of those people who thought the news always understated things so you had to exaggerate to get the truth’. There is also a spectacular twist on how Alfie is telling the story towards the end, which took even this experienced reader by surprise.

What’s more, Alfie is surrounded by a super cast of characters, both in the Limb Lab, where other children with missing limbs are helped by a super scientist and a 3-D printer, including in particular, Shatila, a girl who suffered the loss of her foot by stepping on a mine in Bosnia, and who speaks with extra punctuation. She’s a fantastic character, clearly thought-out, and an attribute to the human feel of the book.

There’s a specific passage in the book about the different ways of walking, which is clever as it speaks to how a good writer depicts character: everything from a person’s walk to their speech and mannerisms forms their character, and the more detail there is, the more authentic the character.

The adults are well drawn too, maybe because Cottrell-Boyce has a knack of depicting adults from a child’s perspective. Alfie sees his Mum through the prism of comfort – food, routine, boundaries and unconditional support. He sees the woman who runs Lost Property through her badge and demeanour – ‘Happy to Help’ – a complete misnomer judging by her expression.

The only flaw I found in the entire book was the profession of Alfie’s mother – in this automated world they live in, it came as a surprise that they still have postwomen.

For although the world Cottrell-Boyce has created will be familiar to readers, with schools and buses and airports, there is a sense that automation has taken over many jobs – the buses are self-driven, there are robot street cleaners and robot pizza delivery ovens, but the most comedic fun for me was Alfie’s house itself, which greets him upon arrival, tells him if he has a high heart rate (‘have you been running?’), and turns all lights and devices off at 10pm.

As with all good fiction, it is the way it makes us look within ourselves that sets this novel apart. Setting a novel in an imagined future where things can be slightly uncomfortable causes us to look at our own present and see the direction we want to go in. Do we want everything to be automated? When there’s an accident, is human error more or less acceptable than machine error?

Although Cottrell-Boyce writes with a deft touch and a comic heart, there are themes pushing up against the reader all the time – with artificial body parts, and thinking chivalrous robots, what makes us human? What possibilities are there for a machine-led future, and how much do we want it? What do we project onto the machine that tells us more about ourselves than it does about the machine?

This is a confidently written, pacey novel with a beating heart in the middle of it. Warm, funny, enjoyable – a great children’s book, whichever genre you think it is.

For age 8+ years. You can buy the book here. And I have one copy to give away. Just comment on my Facebook page below the review.

What My Pupils Have Taught Me About Writing: A Guest Blog by Catherine Bruton

no ballet shoes in syriaA couple of weeks ago my book of the week was No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton. An astute, moving novel about a refugee, drawing on influences from Noel Streatfield to Pamela Brown, it publishes today, at a time when the media is talking about how many adults are reading children’s books, and why. One of the reasons, of course, is that we adults can learn so much from the children around us – their views are fresh and often untainted, their hope more sustained, their outlook less jaded. Many children’s authors start as teachers, reading other children’s books and picking up dialogue or character traits from the children populating their classrooms. Catherine Bruton is one such author: teaching and writing. Here, she outlines what her pupils have taught her about writing:

Being an English teacher is a great privilege. I get to spend all day talking books and writing with young people. Ok, sometimes we have to do grammar and learn how to jump through GCSE exam hoops and write timed A Level essays, but the rest of the time we read and write and talk about stories and poems and words and ideas.  And for everything I’ve managed to teach in over 20 years at the chalkface, my pupils have taught me a hundred times more. Here are three of the biggest lessons I have learned.

  1. Never underestimate young readers.

Reading books together means we end up talking about  all the important stuff – love and hate,  death and despair, loss and longing, family and friendship and freedom and growing up – books cover it all. And my pupils show me daily how open-minded, how thoughtful, how receptive young people are – often much more so than adult readers. I learn so much from the way they react to books and characters – from their openness to new ideas – from the new and changing perspectives they bring to texts each time we read them.  Which is probably why I don’t shy away from big topics in my books (terrorism and Islamophobia in We Can be Heroes; family breakdown and reality TV in Pop!; urban poverty and institutional racism in I Predict a Riot; refugees and most recently the migrant crisis in No Ballet Shoes in Syria) My pupils teach me never to underestimate my readership – and that’s a great lesson as a writer.

  1. Go with the flow!

Teaching creative writing to young people has taught me so much! The youngest writers I teach bring an energy and excitement to writing tasks that I wish I could bottle and imbibe (or sell – I’d make a fortune!) Whatever prompt I bring, whatever idea I suggest, they are immediately fizzing with ideas – ideas which pour out of them unfiltered, uncensored, unquestioned.  They don’t second guess themselves, they don’t question their right to tackle a particular topic, or their ability to realise their vision – you certainly don’t hear young writers  debating what the market predicts for publishing trends!  They trust their imaginations, they enjoy their ideas, they are playful, unfettered and free – and it is glorious to behold. As you get older and more self-conscious/ self-critical that joy is incredibly easy to lose, but my pupils remind me how central it is to the process. Writing is work but it can also be like play – and a degree of abandonment is necessary to get into the state of ‘flow’ which is when the best ideas come pouring out. So I try to remind myself that there will be time to edit later, time for apostrophes and self-doubt later, time to interrogate the concept later (time to dust later!) – sometimes you need to go with the flow and allow yourself to enjoy it!

  1. Learn to love your internal critic.

As my students get older I witness the arrival of their ‘internal critics’. It’s a stage all young writers go through, which tends to hit around adolescence, and it leads them to question themselves, to doubt their creative impulses, to fear failure, to worry about how their writing will be received. Sadly, for many young people this is the moment when they stop writing – and many adult writers find themselves paralysed by similar sentiments! But as I try to explain to my pupils (and remind myself!)  it means they are coming of age as a writer, because the ability to be analytical, critical, objective about your work is absolutely necessary to the editing process. As Dorothea Brande explains in ‘Becoming a Writer’ an author needs two heads – the creative head and the editing head. They need to be kept apart as much as possible but they are BOTH necessary to crafting a successful piece of work. I advise pupils to put work aside for a period before returning to it with an objective critical frame of mind and I try to follow my own advice and learn when to shut out the internal critic – and when to invite her in. It’s not always easy though!

So, a huge thank you to all the wonderful young people I have had the privilege to teach over the years – and who have taught me more than they can ever know! Mrs B (or Miss P!) loves you all!

With thanks to Catherine Bruton. No Ballet Shoes in Syria publishes today and you can read my review here, and buy the book here

The Dog Runner and Climate Change

the dog runnerBren MacDibble’s latest book for children is set in a dog-eat-dog future, in which food production has failed and energy sources have dried up.

Ella and her big half-brother Emery live in a future dystopian Australia, where a fungus has wiped out grass and led to worldwide famine. They live in the city, but when Ella’s mother fails to return from her job trying to restore the solar power grid, and then their father fails to return home, they gather their dogs, make a dry-land dog-sled and set off across the open countryside to make it to Emery’s grandparents’ farm.

This is a journey novel – an adventure story about two children making it across rough terrain. But MacDibble gently nudges the reader into deeper thought about the way we treat the land, our food, our future, and each other.

In the wake of famine, societal norms have broken down. Cities, and sometimes houses themselves, are enclosed by security guards as much to keep people out as keep people in; there are checkpoints and rogue gangs, empty promises by the government of food distribution. For a society starving to death, behaviour disintegrates. The children learn to trust no one – not even a mother with her pushchair and crying toddler. Gangs roam on solar-powered motorbikes, trigger-happy with guns and eager to find any food – even dogs, and willing to shoot children who get in their way.

In a particularly difficult scene, the children come across a farm that has been razed to the ground, the farmer killed, presumably for the meat they were harboring, for the few fruit trees they had left.

As Ella relates, the news tells them that there is no rice in Asia, no maize in Africa, no corn in America. The book explains the importance of grass for all food production.

With her idiosyncratic prose, MacDibble sets to show how over-production and inattention has wiped out the consideration that must be given to the land we harvest. She gives voice to indigenous cultures in the form of Emery, who is of Afghani/Aboriginal ancestry, and whose grandparents are attempting to re-utilize the old ways of storing grain – working on the land with people who have garnered knowledge about it over time.

In fact, what MacDibble shows is that respect must be given equally to other people and to the land we care-take, and in the absence of both, people die.

The children’s relationship is highly reminiscent of Scout and Jem from To Kill a Mockingbird: the younger feisty sister, and an older protective brother, but in circumstances that dictate it is Ella, the younger sister, who must summon all her courage, step up and take the lead after Emery is hurt.

Above all though, this is a fast-paced adventure novel, about adaptability, the importance of kindness, and a showcase for children’s hope in the future of the planet.

Bren MacDibble

Issues of climate change surface in MacDibble’s novels, firstly in How to Bee and now in The Dog Runner. Here, she gives her top tips for everyday changes we can all make to fight against climate change:

What can I do about climate change?

Walk, cycle or take public transport

Plant trees or volunteer to help reforest an area

Eat what is grown locally

Cut back on red meat, especially save beef for special occasions

Stop using pesticides

Plant wildflowers

Leave some areas wild as a haven for insects

Create a bug hotel

Reduce single use plastic bags, cups, bottles, straws and packaging

Pick up litter to prevent it entering waterways

Turn lights and switches off when you’re not using electrical items

Write to your local government about creating more forested or green spaces

Bren MacDibble was raised on farms all over New Zealand, so is an expert about being a child on the land. After 20 years in Melbourne, MacDibble recently sold up, and now lives and works in a bus travelling around Australia. In 2018, How to Bee – her first novel for younger readers – won three major awards in Australia. The Dog Runner, her second children’s novel, publishes 2nd May. You can buy it here.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

no ballet shoes in syriaOne of the most important skills reading teaches us, albeit subliminally most of the time, is that age-old question: ‘What must it feel like to be you?’, or ‘empathy’. The word empathy stems from the Ancient Greek, em – in, pathos – feeling. In fact, our usage of the word has increased, in particular from the 1950’s onwards. This is interesting, as most people might feel that in recent years our feelings of empathy have waned.

Because of course, as our world becomes more global, our acceptance of others seems to decline. Despite the fact that our high streets look the same, we drink the same brands, own the same clothes and do the same jobs, we keep recognising and highlighting our differences. Sometimes recognising difference is good, but when used against people, it is not. Identity politics has never seemed such a loaded term. Setting us straight, is this insightful and winning new novel from Catherine Bruton, No Ballet Shoes in Syria.

Eleven-year-old Aya could live anywhere. She has a father and mother, a little brother, and a huge passion for ballet, which she learns under the tutelage of Madame Belova in her dance studio near home. However, that’s Aya’s previous life. In Aleppo. Since the war, she has had to flee, and the reader meets her as she seeks asylum in Britain. When she stumbles across a ballet class in the community centre in which her family is seeking help with their asylum application, the instructor recognises her talent, and her situation. Before long, Aya is fighting for a ballet scholarship, a place in Britain, and contact with her lost father. Luckily for her, she has more than one empathetic English resident on her side.

This nuanced gentle portrayal of a young Syrian girl is a fantastic read and an eye-opening book. Bruton successfully shows her roundedness and that of the characters around her. Aya has had to take over and assume a great deal of adult responsibility in the wake of her mother’s traumatised state – the loss of Aya’s father and the journey has been too much. Aya takes great care of her baby brother Moosa, fights for their rights, and also tries to navigate the delicate balance of still being a child, and adapting to life in a foreign country.

The girls in the ballet class are also beautifully brought to life, but play a very distinct role within the novel. It is their attitudes (and changing attitudes) to Aya that inform the reader and will start to pose questions in the reader’s mind. Here, with their youth and naivety making them susceptible both to what they’ve been told by elders, but also making them more open to Aya, they come to discover the differences between refugees and asylum seekers, but also come to understand the cyclical role of history through their ballet teacher, Miss Helena.

Aya’s situation calls to mind Miss Helena’s own past – her own refugee status in the Second World War, as she fled Nazi Germany and found a home in England. Her experiences, although very different from Ava’s, show how time moves on, but the same wounds are inflicted. By that token though the same wrongs can be corrected – through kindness and empathy:

“Perhaps if history was always repeating itself – wars and families fleeing their homes; persecution, refugees – then other stories recurred too: stories of kindness, sacrifice, generosity.”

Through this very stark quote, Bruton also pulls the reader into the stories that have preceded No Ballet Shoes in Syria, and those to which she refers in her introduction – Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, the books of Lorna Hill and Pamela Brown and many more.

Alongside Aya’s gradual acceptance into the ballet class, Bruton flashbacks through Aya’s journey from Syria to Britain – interlaying the text with memories. This slow revealing of Aya’s past is like the slow learning of friendship – a gentle discovery of the other person, helping us to know and understand what they have been through, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

At the same time as the reader’s growing awareness of Aya’s past, Aya slowly learns about the country she’s come to – the accents, the food, the different ways the children live and behave, and also the similarities – in particular the global language of dance.

But perhaps my favourite element of the novel is the idea of community. It is not carelessness that sets the world of form-filling and yet also ballet classes within a community centre. Bruton cleverly shows the reader all the different forms of community that exist, and how useful they are for us as human beings to reach across the divide. The community of asylum seekers themselves, helping and looking out for each other, and slowly replacing the community they have lost in leaving home. The community of ballet dancers, all helping each other to improve and succeed. The community of global dance – the fact that Miss Helena recognises and knows about Aya’s dance teacher from Syria. And of course, the global community of human beings and how by recognising ourselves in each other, we can come together and accept and invite difference.

To assuage any fears about getting Aya’s voice wrong, Bruton took the opportunity to work with Bath welcomes Refugees and Bristol Refugee Rights in the writing of the book and her research sparkles throughout. She’s also the alter ego of Cate Shearwater, the author of Somersaults and Dreams, and her ability to see dance, creativity, and sport as outlets of expression and emotion are very apparent.

The book is published on 2nd May and you can pre-order and buy this story of hope here.

CBA: The Storm Keeper’s Island, A Q&A with Catherine Doyle

It came as no surprise to me that children shortlisted The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle as one of their top three books for older children this year in the Children’s Book Awards. One of the most beautifully written children’s books in recent times, Doyle mixes the magic of everyday children’s lives with the ancient magical legends of the island of Arranmore (off Ireland) in a gripping, dark, bold and imaginative story that is about hope and courage, family love, and memories. Most importantly, there is a wonderful humour blended within the text, striated throughout like the swirls in candle wax, and storytelling as strong as the wildest storm.

It tells the story of 11-year-old Fionn Boyle, worrying about his ill mother, his deceased father and his annoying older sister, and transported for the summer onto his grandfather’s island. All is not as it seems, and there is magic within. Doyle is a master at describing bickering siblings, the taste of a summer ice cream, and modern sensibilities, whilst also contrasting with a setting that comes alive with an ancient magic.

I’m delighted that Catherine has taken the time to answer my questions.

The book is set on the island of Arranmore, a real island, which you’ve imbued with magic. The island feels very real the way you’ve described it – particularly as Fionn approaches it on the ferry. Does familiarity help you write a setting? Did you write the book while on Arranmore?

Arranmore Island is the place where my grandparents were born, grew up and fell in love. It holds the beginning of their story, as well as those of my many sea-faring ancestors, so it has always occupied a very special place in my heart. Arranmore has been such a huge character in my own life, I’m not surprised that it naturally assumed a similar position in Fionn’s story.

I began writing The Storm Keeper’s Island after spending a week on Arranmore. I explored the sheer cliffs and hidden lakes, the secret Sea Caves and the towering cliff steps as well as the houses where my grandparents were born and the beaches where they played as children. That week was the closest to real magic I have ever come.  I was so inspired by the rugged landscape and the wild Atlantic Ocean, as well as the enchanting experience of walking in my ancestor’s footsteps, that I immediately began writing about it when I got home. When I started, I couldn’t stop!

One of the most delightful and humorous aspects of the book is the sibling relationship between Fionn and his older sister Tara. Did you draw this from your own experiences?

This dynamic was very much inspired by my relationship with my brothers when we were younger. In fact, when my younger brother Conor read the book last year, he called me to say how delighted he was that I had based the main character Fionn on him. He had come to this conclusion because of what he described as the ‘striking similarities’ between Tara’s attitude and my own attitude at 13 years old! I like to think that when it comes to sibling relationships, some days you’re the Fionn and some days you’re the Tara.

Early on in the novel, there’s a wonderful scene of the children eating ice-creams – one of the best descriptions of devouring a Twister, Magnum and Calippo. Did you try them all out as research? And seriously, how much research did you need to do into the Irish legends in The Storm Keeper’s Island?

I took this scene very seriously, because going to the corner shop to buy an ice-cream was a very important ritual of my childhood. I picked the ones that my brothers and I used to choose every Sunday after mass. I haven’t eaten a Twister in years, but I can still vividly remember what it tastes like!

Growing up in Ireland, my childhood was steeped in Irish myths, so I started out with a pretty solid level of knowledge about all things Dagda and beyond. From there, it was just about choosing the legends that I loved the most, researching them properly, and then finding a way to weave them into Fionn’s tale.

The device for revisiting the past in Arranmore is candle wax – a clever idea as it is transient, and the swirling of the coloured wax is like the memories themselves, slippery and abstract. Where did this idea come from?

I moved to Dublin from the West of Ireland for a stint a few years ago, and I remember really struggling to write in my new surroundings. I missed being near the sea, and felt claustrophobic being cooped up in a much busier, city area. As a way to help with this, my mom bought me a candle called ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’, and told me to burn it whenever I wanted to write. This idea was met with great scepticism on my part, but to my surprise (and delight), when I finally did light the candle, it filled my bedroom with the unmistakeable scent of sea air. Immediately, I was transported back to the Salthill promenade in Galway, and my creativity kicked straight into gear. There was a kind of magic in it, so I tucked the idea away. When I started writing The Storm Keeper’s Island, I knew I had the right story for that particular device.

The use of memory is key in the book, as the grandfather is beginning to lose his. How important is it for you to portray grandparent/grandchild relationships in children’s literature?

I think the grandparent/grandchild relationship can be one of the most formative and important relationships in a child’s life. There’s just something so special about it. Having enjoyed a wonderful bond with my grandfather growing up, I felt it was important to explore it in The Storm Keeper’s Island. I have also experienced the sadness and confusion that comes with the onset of dementia in a grandparent. I wanted to explore this aspect in Fionn’s story, but not in a melancholic way. It was important for me to write about a grandfather who lives with memory loss but is not defined by it, a man who is still the sum of his experiences despite his inability to sometimes recall them. I wanted to write about hope, instead of despair, and portray the love between a grandfather and grandchild as one that will always anchor you no matter the changing tides of memory.

Another element in the novel is the island breathing. It inhales as Fionn time travels. How do you write the magical elements – do they occur to you mid-stream or do you pre-plan these markers for the reader?

The island’s actions occur organically mid-stream. It sounds peculiar to say, but I wasn’t even expecting the first exhale until it came out on the page. Up until that point, I wasn’t intending to make the island its own character, but as I was writing, it just felt entirely natural.

You’ve previously written a YA mafia romance trilogy. Was writing this very different?

Writing The Storm Keeper’s Island was a truly magical experience. It poured out of me, in a way that I’ve never quite experienced before with any book. There was something so freeing about being able to write magic that was big and grand and rippling with adventure. My YA books were darker and more serious, and had to be handled with a slightly different level of care. The process of including humour and emotional development was quite a similar experience, despite the different genres, however, and one I always thoroughly enjoy as an author.

How do you feel about being shortlisted for the FCBG Children’s Book Award, voted for entirely by children?

I squealed with delight when I found out! It is an incredibly special feeling to know that The Storm Keeper’s Island has been embraced by children. That not only are they enjoying it, but they’re voting for it. There really is no other word for it – it really is a dream come true.

Lastly, is there a second Arranmore book coming?

The sequel, The Lost Tide Warriors, will be out on July 11th, and I cannot wait to share it with everyone!


Good luck to Catherine Doyle for the Children’s Book Award. You can add your voice to the mix by voting here. The winners’ ceremony is on 8th June in London and the CBA are giving away a pair of tickets to the ceremony to one lucky voter and their carer.