fiction

The Stone Bird by Jenny McCartney and Patrick Benson

One of the most beautiful picture books I’ve read this year, this story about the power of imagination marries the wondrous lyricism of both illustration and text so that the reader becomes completely immersed in the narrative, the emotion and the possibility of the story.

Eliza picks up a stone from the beach. But this is no ordinary stone. She is determined in her knowledge that it is an egg, and is not surprised to find that the stone cracks and a stone bird appears. An alive stone bird.

This simplicity is part of the beauty of this book, which seeks to explore a child’s resolve in her imagination, a steely belief that magic can happen. The story explores patience – in Eliza’s ongoing steadfastness to her ‘bird’, all through the change of seasons, her mum’s doubts and even slight mockery:

Her mother smiled, “It’s too hard to be a bird.”

“Well then,” said Eliza, “it’s a hard bird.”

And yet also, by the end, the story explores the ability to let go.

The narrative clearly takes the perspective of Eliza, but what brings Eliza to life for the reader, in the same way that the stone lives for Eliza, is not only Eliza’s speech, which is particular to her and encompasses her character, but also the expressiveness of her personality through her relationship to her friends, her school, her playing.

The illustrations are exquisite. The shifting perspective of the illustrator – seeing Eliza sometimes from above, sometimes up close, sometimes from the back – allows the reader an intimacy with the protagonist. We see how strands of hair pull across Eliza’s face, how she holds her pencil, how she lets her sandals slip from her feet, her scuffing through autumn leaves, and the crouch position on her haunches as she scoops the pebble from the sand.

Because Eliza experiences such joy and pain with her stone bird, such frustration and satisfaction at different times, the reader is constantly aware of the nuances in her emotional state through her behaviour. The delight at first discovery, the irritation and sadness at her mother’s skepticism, the wonder as the bird emerges, even the concentration as she colours in a drawing. There is so much attention to detail and close up that readers will feel as if they know, or indeed, have become Eliza.

Patrick Benson is the illustrator of Owl Babies, and once again he has achieved a picture book that feels fresh and original, and yet appears classic at the same time. Designed with the narrative at the heart, there are superb touches, such as the white space surrounding Eliza at her most miserable, and the author’s adept understanding of the simple pleasures of childhood:

“Not even the idea of her birthday made her smile.”

And also the ability of the author/illustrator to understand when to flood the page with illustration, such as the double page magic of the Christmas spread. It feels intimate, homely and yet imbued with a hint of wistfulness too.

A compelling, lyrical, superbly illustrated picture book that matches the power of imagination with the power of books. You can buy it here.

Votes for Women

There are many reasons I’ve wanted to feature suffragette books on the blog for a while now. In a world of current political turmoil, it can be helpful to look to historical fiction for guidance. Women’s rights are still an issue, with recent contention over equal pay, sexual harassment in the workplace, and ongoing struggles within families as to ‘default’ parenting. So, the women’s fight for suffrage has never seemed that far from one’s mind. Next year, attention focusses fully on this again, as Vote 100 aims to bring attention to the 100th anniversaries in 2018: The Representation of the People Act 1918 (allowing some women to vote for the first time) and the Parliament Qualification of Women Act in 1918 (allowing women to stand for election to the Commons) as well as many other anniversaries. However, my compelling reason for bringing you these ‘suffragette books’ is that they’re all so completely brilliant.


Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
One of my favourite authors for middle grade, Nicholls tells a wonderful yarn no matter her subject matter, and here she steps completely into YA territory. This accomplished novel follows three girls, Evelyn, May and Nell, through their fight for the vote at the beginning of the First World War. Each girl is from a different social strata of society, (Evelyn is expected to marry rather than be educated, and Nell is a working class girl just trying to get by), and each has different aims and ambitions, as well as winningly flawed yet determined personas. Nicholls tackles social history with aplomb, as well as LGBT issues and the tangled emotions of suffragette women as their cause became swept up in the war breaking out across Europe.

Both a fascinating historical eye-opener and a scintillating story, readers will race through the different points of view to see how the girls’ stories collide, and where they each end up. The research shines through, but never overpowers the book, and it is the girls who in the end dominate and succeed – through hardship and tears. Characters to remember, prose to devour. Who wouldn’t give these girls the vote? Buy your copy here.


The Making of Mollie by Anna Carey
For a younger readership, but another powerful novel that also includes accurate social history of the time (the author borrows from her own school’s history), with a great story.

Told in letter format to a friend at boarding school, Mollie stumbles into women’s suffrage after sneaking out after her big sister Phyllis and ending up at a suffragist meeting. Mollie empathises with the cause after relating it to small injustices in her own life, such as the free reign afforded to her brother, and the fact that he’s always given the best bits of the roast chicken first. The story strikes a lovely balance between school days (tussles with friends and enemies, conservative teachers and disapproving adults), with the political cause dominating the landscape.

Mollie and her friend take to the suffragette cause in a gentle way; attempting to attend meetings; their most daring venture being the chalking of pavements with notices. It feels real, and practical, and suited well to the age of the protagonist. This novel is set in Dublin rather than England, and also intersperses the politics of suffrage with issues of Irish Home Rule, illustrated by speeches of the time. The book doesn’t shy away from details, but mainly explores a coming-of-age at an interesting political time, showing what it means to stick up for what you believe in, and the consequences for all those involved. Clever, engaging and endearing. You can purchase it here.


Little People: Emmeline Pankhurst by Lisbeth Kaiser, illustrated by Ana Sanfelippo
Part of the series of stylish picture books on women achievers; previous titles have included Frida Kahlo, Maya Angelou, Marie Curie, telling the women’s stories simply and effectively. This one is no different.

Pankhurst’s life is explained with one or two sentences per page, from her childhood in which she first discovered the inequalities between men and women and then her inspirational fight in adulthood to obtain the vote for women. It highlights her leadership skills, the adversity she faced as a single mother after the death of her husband, and her commitment to her family as well as to the cause. Her life is distilled into a simple, harmless yet powerful biography.

With retro colouring, and great attention to detail, the illustrations make the storytelling. There is a find out more section at the back, and photographs of the real Emmeline on a timeline, but the essence of this series is that the books look as good on a coffee table as lining a child’s bedroom. You can buy it here.


Rebel Voices: The Rise of Votes for Women by Louise Kay Stewart and Eve Lloyd Knight
Cheating a little, because this book isn’t out until January, but this beautifully illustrated title celebrates campaigners around the globe who fought for the women’s right to vote. Although suffrage in this country does get a good deal of attention, there are some startling facts and figures from other countries that are worth knowing, and this book aims to highlight them. In fact, the story starts in New Zealand, with Kate Sheppard, who cycled her way around the streets in Christchurch in 1892. Maori women and female settlers in New Zealand became the first women in the world to win the right to vote in a national election in 1893. The book moves chronologically around the globe, charting the rise of women’s rights country to country, and mentions key campaigners and activists, but also points out places in which women were afforded the vote, but the right was not necessarily granted to other minority groups.

Fascinatingly illustrated too, in that the illustrations dominate each page with their bold colours, striking strength and symbolism, and each suits its country well, there is little text for the size of the book – just enough to convey the pertinent points and get the reader thinking. The book ends in 2015 with Saudi Arabia, but also draws some conclusions. The author points out that women have a long way to go in other areas of equality, such as pay, education, and opportunities, and asks the reader to think about the global patterns in which suffrage was granted – often at times of war, revolution, or changes in identity. This is a powerful-looking book for a powerful subject, and well-deserving of a place in every library. You can pre-order your copy here.


Girls Who Rocked the World by Michelle Roehm McCann and Amelie Welden
Lastly, this isn’t a suffragette book, but if you’re looking for inspiration on powerful women, as well as Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo and Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst, you’d do just as well (if you’re looking for something aimed at those a little older) to pick up this collection of biographies.

Featuring women from across the centuries and around the world who have had a remarkable influence, including suffragette Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, Hatshepsut, Florence Nightingale, Anna Pavlova, The Bronte Sisters, Indira Ghandhi and many more. It’s a weird and eclectic selection, including up-to-the-minute influencers, but it attempts to show that women, just like men, have been, and continue to be, shapers of history.

Each person is described in a few pages, highlighting what they have done, but also why they matter. The text style is chatty and informative, but also quite dense – there are very few illustrations here. Perhaps a book to dip into, rather like short stories. There are ‘boxes off’ with quotes from today’s young women, talking about what they hope for their own futures: How will You rock the world? If it’s aimed to get the reader researching further, thinking more and making a difference, it works. You can buy it here.

Christmas Books Roundup 2017

““Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo” (Little Women), but for me, presents means books. So, if you’re looking to treat your children to some rectangular shapes in their stockings and under the tree, here are my highlights…

Picture Books


Oliver Elephant by Lou Peacock and Helen Stephens (Nosy Crow)
My top pick for the season is definitely this heartwarming Christmassy through-and-through tale about a Christmas present shopping trip, in which mummy has a long list, a pram to manoeuvre, her children Noah and Evie-May, and Noah’s toy elephant. With sparkling rhythmic rhyming, and huge attention to detail in the department store colourwash illustrations, this will make every reader feel that magical Christmas time aura. There’s much to love in the familiar tale of a temporarily lost toy in a large store, but Peacock and Stephens manage to inject their own personality onto the book, with lots of love, expression and minute detail. I love the mittens on strings, the busyness of the store, the flushed faces of the customers, the diversity of the cast, and the wonderful emotion on the face of the mother (tired yet happy), and Noah (small in a world of big things). His playfulness with the elephant, and the frustrated sympathy of his mother is pitch perfect. And of course, there’s a happy Christmas ending. You can buy it here.


The Princess and the Christmas Rescue by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton (Nosy Crow)
This hilarious picture book for Christmas manages to combine fairy tale allusions (it is about a princess after all), feminism (girl engineers), and an ironic Amazon-like present-picking machine all in a neat sing-song rhyme. But mainly, this is an adorable rhyming picture book about finding friends. Princess Eliza loves to make things, but her parents are worried at her lack of friends. When the Christmas elves run into trouble in the busy lead-up to Christmas, Eliza steps in to help, and finds that as well as being a super duper inventor, there’s fun in friendship too. Exquisite illustrations in bright colours that mix the essence of Christmas (ribbons, elves, cosy armchairs by the fire) with ‘Wallace and Gromit’ type inventions. Christmas bliss. You can buy it here.


All I Want for Christmas by Rachel Bright (Orchard Books)
Rachel Bright is superb at wrapping moral lessons in her books, and this Christmas treat is no different. It’s not an illustrated version of Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit, but it does carry the same message – as well as cookies and trees, and presents and roast dinners, what this Big Penguin really wants is love. Yes, this is about penguins, not humans. Shown first in a snowglobe on a mantelpiece, the story opens up to explore the penguins’ world in the lead up to Christmas. Cute illustrations, and a fabulous spread in the middle that shows miniature vignettes of Big Penguin and Little Penguin busy doing the ‘hundred things’ to get ready, this is an adorable read. You can purchase it here.


Last Stop on the Reindeer Express by Maudie Powell-Tuck and Karl James Mountford (Little Tiger Press)
The next title also features a family with a missing adult, but here they are human, and there is a more pronounced emphasis on families who can’t be together at Christmas time. Mia’s dad can’t come home for Christmas, but luckily for her, she stumbles across a magical postbox with a door to The Reindeer Express, which manages to convey her to her father for a Christmas hug, and still be back with her mother for Christmas.

Karl James Mountford’s illustrations feel globally Christmassy, with muted earthy tones, in particular a profusion of rusty red, as he conveys a timelessness to the images – from the dress of the people, which feels old-fashioned, to the takeaway cups of mulled wine, which feel up-to-the-minute. With maps and explorers’ articles, and a globe-trotting reindeer, the book feels as if it’s digging into a magical time of exploration and discovery, as well as showcasing a homely setting with snow outside the window. Our heroine wears glasses and is an eager and curious child. But what sets this book apart is its production. With thick pages, peek-throughs and cut-outs, and the most tactile cut-away cover, this truly feels like a gift. Romantic and yet curiously real. You can purchase it here.


A Christmas Carol: Search and Find by Louise Pigott and Studio Press
Another beautifully produced book, with silver foil on the cover, this classic Christmas story is retold with search and find scenes – both the characters and setting are illustrated at the outset, with a brief summary of author and text, and then the story is told through double page illustration scenes, alongside an illustration key, which asks the reader to find certain people and objects (such as five red robins, a wistful scrooge, and the ghost of Christmas yet to come).

Through minimal text but large illustrations, both the characters and their narratives are revealed. It’s clever, and wonderfully appealing, in that it’s a book that could be shared, and certainly pored over, as each scene is so wonderfully detailed. Answers, are of course, at the back. You can purchase it here.

Chapter Books:
Three chapter books for you, each from an established series, but this time with their ‘Christmas theme’ stamped all over the cover and narrative. My testers (little kiddies) adore all three series, and couldn’t wait to read them – so they won’t be under my tree!


Polly and the Puffin: The Happy Christmas by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty (Hachette)
I have the distinct feeling that the children and I like this book for very different reasons, but that’s the joyous element of this book, which is written to be shared by being read aloud (with references to hugs, and an authorial voice).

Polly and Neil (her real puffin) are all ready for Christmas, but it’s only November, and such a long time to wait. And then things start to go wrong. Will it ever be Christmas? Will the puffling hatch? Will Wrong Puffin find his way home? There is a huge infusion of wit and personality here – from Polly’s moods, and her quirks (from calling the toy puffin Wrong Puffin, to her grumpiness with her real puffin, Neil) to the illustrator’s humour (see the contented yet oblivious cat lying on the sofa, the wine bottle from Christmas Eve and bleary parents at Christmas Day morning). The narrative voice is warm and comforting, just right for Christmas Eve. There are loads of extras at the back too – recipes, activities and jokes. Buy it here.


Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Jingle Bells by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton (Nosy Crow)
This pair of cake-baking, crime-solving dogs are never far from mischief, and the delight of these little books is that they each contain three stories in one book – good for short attention spans and first readers. Only the first story is Christmas-themed, with the delightful Santa Paws, but the other two tales are equally strong and eventful: Sea-Monster Ahoy! and Lucky Cat. With plentiful illustrations in two-tone colour, lots of lively language, and fast plots, these are lovely little bursts of entertainment. You can purchase it here.


There’s a Dragon in My Stocking by Tom Nicoll, illustrated by Sarah Horne (Stripes)
Lastly, and for slightly older readers, this Christmassy addition to the fabulous ‘There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!’ series continues the adventures of Eric, who was first introduced when he discovered a mini dragon (Pan) in his takeaway dinner. In this funny sequel, Pan’s parents arrive down the chimney. Looking after one dragon and stopping fires was bad enough, but now Eric has three on his hands, and his parents are entertaining on Christmas day. When disaster hits their lunch plans, it might just be that three little dragons come in useful. As well as being huge fun, Nicoll captures the family personalities beautifully, especially annoying Toby from next door, and his Mum (complete with mobile phone!). You can buy it here.

Happy Christmas shopping.

Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure by Alex T Smith

Barely a day goes by without a child in the library offering me their own drawing of ‘Claude’ or asking for me to order more Claude books for the library shelves. ‘S’ with Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry series, and Alex T Smith’s Claude books is a quickly emptying shelf of books. So it was with delight, and some trepidation, that I embarked on reading the first title of the new series from Alex T Smith, Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure.

Mr Penguin sets himself up as a Professional Adventurer. The only problem is that he’s been sitting at his desk, twiddling his flippers for some time. Then, a phone call comes through from Boudicca Bones, curator at the Museum of Extraordinary Objects, and Mr Penguin is needed to find some missing treasure. Together with his sidekick, Colin (a spider), and a packed lunch (very necessary), Mr Penguin sets off on a new adventure.

With magnifying glass, explorer hat, maps and museums, this is an old-fashioned adventure to which Alex T Smith has applied his zanily humorous style. There is comedy of the absurd in abundance, as into the plot go disguised identities, a log that turns out to be an alligator, and a spider who can’t talk but can write down his thoughts.

Museums are always groovy places for hide-and-seek and treasure hunts, with their cavernous spaces and dark dingy corners with weird artefacts, but Smith goes one better here, by opening up a subterranean jungle complete with waterfalls underneath the museum floor. Thus turning Mr Penguin from an investigator into an Indiana Jones type figure.

The plot moves apace, there is much humour, and of course it’s highly illustrated – this is a step up for readers of Claude, who will encounter much more text and plot here, but there are magnificent illustrations spread throughout the book. Through these, the reader can pick up visual clues to assist them in deciphering any red herrings from real clues, and the whole book is beautifully produced in a typical penguin colour – black and white with orange spot colour.

Particular highlights include an excellent vocabulary for this age group, a nod to the importance of food, huge amounts of humour, both slapstick and more subtle, and phenomenal attention to detail from the newspaper endpapers to chapter headings and page numbers.

A quirky tale, well told and full of fun. I know just where to point my young readers after Claude – it’s the extraordinary adventures of Mr Penguin. May this new series run and run (or waddle and waddle). For ages 7 and up. You can buy it here.

My Autumn Picture Book Round Up 2017

It has been so hard to narrow down this list of picture book choices – there have been so many delightful books landing on MinervaReads’s desk this autumn. But here are my absolute favourites this quarter:

Oi Cat by Kes Gray and Jim Field
You might have thought by now, after Oi Frog and Oi Dog, that this series would have become a little jaded. Judging by the colour of this new one though, you’d be completely wrong. Fresh as ever, bright and vibrant, the characters keep developing and the rhymes keep evolving. It’s all about changing the rules – depending on who’s in charge – the Dog, the Frog or the Cat. Giggly it certainly is, bright and cartoon-like, with masses of personality. There are even rhymes with alpacas, flamingos and lemurs, and a vibrant pink flip up page at the end. A book at which you must take a look. It must be catching…You can buy yours here.

Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex
And following swiftly on from rhyming animals, here be rhyming fruit. It’s long been a statement of fact that nothing rhymes with orange, but Adam Rex explores how that might make Orange feel. If grapes can wear capes and hairy pears are tied to chairs, the fruits get a little carried away and start to sing a rhyming song – except they leave out Orange. Yes, this book is as zany as it sounds. With images of real fruit stuck in a kind of weird illustrated landscape with drawn on expressions and text that looks as if it has been written with a sharpie pen, and mentions of Nietzsche, it’s a strange kind of picture book. Except that somehow it works – it certainly teaches about exotic fruits, but it also explores feeling left out and how to include someone. A bizarre and yet rather striking addition. Rhyme yourself silly here.

The Squirrels Who Squabbled by Rachel Bright and Jim Field
Another moral lesson to be learned in this picture book, with squirrels on the front who would fit in well in Oi Cat, (the illustrator Jim Field has been busy). This book about competitiveness, sharing and friendship brims forth with autumnal charm in its illustrations, and with wit in Bright’s brilliantly evocative and poetic text. It also rhymes – one squirrel is called Cyril, for example, but the rhyming here is less forced and provocative than the above picture books. The descriptions are plenty: the sky rages red, the forest towers, and the frosting of winter glitters ahead. The text tells the tale of the squirrel who saved nothing for winter and the squirrel who has an abundance. When they fight over securing a last pine cone, there is immense danger in the quest. The competitive squabbling ends in much mirth and an acceptance of sharing with friends. Great momentum, phenomenal nature landscapes – this is an autumn treat I want to share with everyone. Buy your copy here.

The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
More animal companionship, and another classic author/illustrator pairing in this tale about a duck and a mouse who get swallowed by a wolf, and decide to live in his belly. We’re back to the slightly zany here, with influences including Jonah (stuck in a whale’s stomach) but also Aesop, in animal tales that impart morals.

Turning pre-conceived ideas on their head, it turns out it’s not so bad for the mouse to be swallowed by a wolf – after all it’s rather comfy inside, and it removes the fear of being hunted. Especially when there’s a companion already within (the duck), who explains that “I may have been swallowed, but I have no intention of being eaten.” There are plenty of laughs – the stomach seems fairly well equipped; there’s even a painting on the wall, and to complement the rather old-fashioned tone of the interior – candlesticks, grapes, red wine – the language is that of old fairy-tales set in woods – ‘flagon of wine, hunk of cheese, beeswax candles’. Things turn a little strange when the animals party with a record-player (children might wonder what this is), but then strange is expected with this author/illustrator pairing. Muted grey and brown colours lend a warmth and an old-fashioned vibe. There’s a nod to being flexible and adaptable in this tale, and a hint of karma when the hunter becomes the hunted. Explore the narrative here.

Hic! By Anushka Ravishankar and Christiane Pieper
Something slightly more human in this well-crafted book about an issue that can flummox a child, but about which I’ve never seen another picture book: what to do when you have the hiccups. The simple premise of this book is the extraordinary advice given to a child as to how to rid themselves of the hiccups. The girl tries everything from the sublime to the ridiculous, and the more ridiculous. With each ‘cure’ attempted, the next hiccup is even more disastrous (as I suppose it would be if you licked mustard off your nose!). The illustrations are a delight, kept to yellow, blue and black, it lends a distinct look to the book, and the expressions of the children are energetic, humorous and endearing. Cleverly, each remedy rhymes with hic, but alas, there is no solution. Try not to catch hiccups here.

Lines by Suzy Lee
A wordless picture book that starts with a pencil line and evolves into a skater dancing her way across the ice white page. She’s small against the size of the page, but wonderfully fluent in her movements. She feels real, she seems to move. Her red cap and mittens stand out against the white, but the reader will be most entranced by the movement of her legs – the few simple pencil strokes that indicate her direction of travel, her spins and loops, her swirls and twirls. The reader will marvel at the power of the pencil. But when she falls and tumbles, it turns out that she has been nothing but an artist’s impression and the paper is crumpled.

The ending is happy. Once unfolded, the paper once again becomes an ice rink, although cleverly, not so smooth anymore, and our skater is joined by others. No words are needed to explore the narrative here: the freedom of our skater, the joyfulness of the ice rink, and the stretch of the imagination. Stunning. You can find it here.

 

The Beautiful Game

Football has always been a part of my life. I’ve never played, but I’ve watched and been lucky enough to visit many stadiums in Europe. But the reason I call it ‘the beautiful game’ is because for many of my reluctant readers, football can be a great pull into reading. This latest crop of books appeals in many different ways – each book may be ‘football themed’, but each is distinct in its approach and subject.

Striker Boy by Jonny Zucker
Nat has spent most of his life travelling with his father, after his mother died, leaving them both heartbroken. Most particularly, he spent a year in Brazil, honing his incredible football talent. When Nat and his father move back to England when Nat is thirteen, he is appalled at the house his father has bought, and completely fed up. But then he plays a footy game in the park, and every boy’s dream comes true for him – he is spotted by a scout.

The scout is from Hatton Rovers, the team he supports. However, there is more than one problem. Hatton Rovers is facing relegation and the club needs saving. Nat is only 13, but tall enough to pass for 16. Will they break all the rules and sign him up for professional football?

When the unthinkable happens and he starts training with the first team, it turns out things are even more complex than he thought, and the club’s veteran striker takes an instant dislike to him. As Nat suspects all is not what it seems, a sports reporter suspects the same about Nat…

This is a fun, exciting and pacey book with a solid main character. What’s more, the plot goes beyond football and delves into thriller territory with plenty of action on and off the field.

Footballing readers will envy Nat for his rare talent and luck in being spotted, but there is also evidence of much camaraderie among certain team mates, and the volatility of training – the on/off days, injury and team selection. Overall, Zucker shows that players are rewarded for hard work and loyalty, but that even within the golden world of top-flight first team football, there are moral dilemmas to face.

The most striking quality about Striker Boy though, is the complete zest and enthusiasm Jonny Zucker shows for the game, his characters and the story. It makes the reader want to be a teen again, to be trying out for a team again, and retain the dream of playing for a top side.

Nat is so engaging as a main character, a fabulous yet flawed boy with an empathetic nature and a good heart, so that the reader can’t help but root for him, even when he makes wrong choices. Every manager would want this kid in their team, and every librarian will want this book in their library. An excellent novel for age 8+ years.

The book has been re-published to raise awareness of mental health, after the very sad passing of author Jonny Zucker. Profits from the book are being donated to the charity Mind. You can buy it here.

Kick by Mitch Johnson
Twelve-year-old Budi works full time in a sweat shop factory in Jakarta stitching, or, if the foreman’s feeling mean, boxing football boots. He dreams of playing for Real Madrid like his hero Keiran Wakefield. But Budi’s life is a million miles away from his hero’s. Life in Jakarta is hard: he doesn’t live in the deepest slums, but there is no money for his education, and his family are struggling to get by.

One day, when he’s playing football with his friends, and they kick a ball through the window of local landlord and gang leader The Dragon, Budi will have to risk everything to pay his fine or end up dead.

This is a startlingly refreshing football novel in that it introduces a whole new way of looking at the beautiful game, and also gives an interesting perspective on a very different way of life, far removed from its Western world readers. Although some of it may be shocking to some young readers (it does contain a reference to prostitution and does climax with some violence), and the way of life itself may shock others, it also shows the similarities between football-mad children across the world. The things that Budi has in common will resonate here, such as an ongoing interest in food, football mania – both watching and playing – and most of all friendship.

In fact, above all, this is a beautifully perceptive tale of friendship between Budi and his older friend Rochy. Rochy is certainly more worldly wise, but he lives in even worse circumstances than Budi. In the end, though, the sacrifices he makes for Budi pay off, and the novel ends surprisingly, although without resorting to complete fairy tale transformation.

There is also the burgeoning relationship between Budi and his grandmother, as she relates stories to him that help him to make sense of his world, and his place within it, as well as steering him towards making the right choices in life.

The one weakness in the text is the reader’s difficulty in envisioning Budi’s entire situation. The streets and his home don’t feel described fully enough to visually create a sense of place in the reader’s mind, but Budi as a character is so well-rounded and his dreams so delineated, that it’s easy to fall under his spell.

This is a clever way into discussing other issues in the guise of a football story, and as the pundits say, ‘nice one’. You can buy this novel for 9+ years here.

  

Ultimate Football Heroes: Iniesta, Bale and Gerrard by Matt and Tom Oldfield
I honestly can’t get enough of this series of books, and nor can my library kids. These three are the latest to pop through my letterbox. The books have now divided into two series: Ultimate Football Heroes, which features popular players of the moment such as Iniesta and Bale, and Classic Football Heroes (which everyone wants to be eventually), which focusses on retired all-time favourites such as Gerrard. Each book is a self-contained biography of the individual player, but written in a child-friendly accessible way.

With each there is much to admire. Particular highlights for me are the amount of dialogue within each text – there is lots of engaging conversation to move the story along – and also the underlying message in each text, that no matter the person’s talent, it still takes an incredible amount of hard work, determination and ambition. No one wins medals by taking their journey for granted. In the Iniesta book, the authors are keen to show his innermost thoughts and fears at the start – a young player being away from his family, but kept in check and reassured by teammates. The language may not be the most literary, but as a way into reading for the target age range, this is a great jumping off point.

These newer additions also have some extra data and YouTube web links at the back of the book for watching videos of key moments. I’m not a huge fan of web links – they are so easy to get wrong, but the few I tried worked, and it’s a neat way of enticing the reader. Pick your player here.

F2 Football Academy: How to Play Like a Pro by F2 Freestylers
If you’re a fan of YouTube and football, then this last book will probably appeal. Written by Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch, known as the F2, these two men present football entertainment, tutorials on skills, and banter on their YouTube channel. The book is a spin-off; the text reads as they would speak it: “Our tekkers was bang on form.” It’s certainly not for everyone, but for fans, it treks through Brazil, tactics, skills, injuries, interviews, and is packed with full colour photographs and solid advice, such as to keep on trying. You can buy it here.

Sisters Working Together

A deliciously dark fairy tale, Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara tells the story of a small girl who is afraid of her shadow, and plots to get rid of it. With delightfully descriptive phrases such as ‘wolfish woods,’ combined with the onion turrets of Russian architecture, the book has a distinctive style. Throughout, the author and illustrator manage to give a warmth to the snowy landscapes with the innocence of dotted pastel illustrations, and a subtle simplicity within the text. 

The menace in the tall trees matches the menace Hortense sees in the stretch of her shadow, but in the end her happy ending comes when she sees that the shadowy figures in the background can be more frightening than her own shadow. Without her shadow, she is smaller. With it, despite its darkness, she grows in stature and confidence. With an allusion to Peter Pan via a sash window guillotine, and the hints of fairy tale, this is a picture book that comes from the literary canon that preceded it. 

Author Natalia and illustrator Lauren are sisters. They were born in the North of England to an English father and an Eastern European mother, and now live in London. MinervaReads asked Natalia and Lauren to discuss working together, where their ideas come from, and writing alternative modern fairy tales. The sisters, being sisters, interviewed each other. This is their conversation.

Natalia: In a way, Hortense and the Shadow was your pick, because I came to you with six or seven story ideas and asked which you liked best. What attracted you to the story?

Lauren: It felt by far the most personal of the stories you’d come up with, and also the weirdest and least commercial. Those are qualities we both seem to be attracted to. It also seemed like it didn’t have a bat’s chance of getting published – I remember us saying we’d cut our teeth on this one, and do something commercial later. Actually it was kind of liberating, feeling like we could just play and learn because nobody would ever want to publish this book.

Natalia: It surprised me when you said just now that Hortense and the Shadow was a personal idea. What do you mean?

Lauren: I don’t know if I can put it into words but there’s something about that story that always spoke to me on a personal level. It had a message about self-acceptance I loved. Remember, that was the time when I was coming out of that dark period in my life, and working hard to accept myself and my flaws. And both of us struggled with low self-esteem when we were children. I think we were just lucky that we’re not the only ones who’ve had experiences like those, so it felt personal to some other people too.

Natalia: We talked about Hortense being a kind of modern incarnation of the fairytale princess and about gender quite a bit when we were making this book. What did that mean to you?

Lauren: Well if you remember, when we very first started working on the book there was a moment where you considered making the hero a little boy. But I remember us both feeling that wasn’t the right solution at all. Because this story has a message about accepting your darkness and holding onto your imperfections. I think of course that’s important for everybody, but with the world being how it is, it’s a crucial message to give to little girls.

Natalia: Who are your favourite illustrators of fairytales, and why?

Lauren: I think the first illustrated fairytale I fell in love with was Errol Le Cain’s The Snow Queen. His illustrations for that book are just so evocative and magical. The beautiful snowy landscapes and talking animals and flower-filled gardens… I remember copying out some of the illustrations when we were little, and I feel like they worked their way into my head and found their way out again when I was illustrating Hortense and the Shadow. As you know I also love Jiri Trnka, Lisbeth Zwerger, Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen…

OK my turn! Were you ever surprised by how I interpreted your writing?

Natalia: Not really. When you showed me your first drawings the feeling was more like – “Oh there it is!”. You were developing a new style because you were illustrating for the first time, but at the same time what delighted me was how you were channeling the books and illustrators we loved as children – Jiri Trnka, Errol Le Cain, Mirko Hanak. Probably because of that your illustrations felt familiar to me.

Lauren: Do you think our Eastern European background influences the kind of stories we tell?

Natalia: How could it not really? There are subtle ways it influences us, like the mood of melancholy and nostalgia that comes from being born into a family like ours, where every generation until ours, people had to go into exile to escape horrible political events. Then there are more obvious ways, like the fact your illustrations look a lot like the hand-me-down mid-century Soviet books we had at home. Or the fact I love to write strong female protagonists, which is quite common in Slavic fairy tales where the princess often rescues the prince. So yeah, I think it’s everywhere, just like our English heritage is everywhere.

Lauren: Why do you like writing fairy tales?

Natalia: Fairy tales often seem simple and sweet, but underneath they’re full of complicated emotions and ideas that can take many readings to uncover. If it’s a fairy tale, people have an expectation that all that depth is in there and they don’t mind digging for it. Fairy tales grow up with you; they give you darkness and complexity when you’re ready for them. That’s why I love fairy tales, and why I believe they’re full of magic.

Photo credit: Charlotte Knee Photography. You can buy a copy of the book here

Storey Street Giveaway Week

Scaredy Cat, Scaredy Cat was published last month, the last book in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series. The series has tracked the lives of the children in Storey Street, from Jake in Demolition Dad, which sees Jake persuade his father to become a professional wrestler, and deals with issues around depression, to superhero-obsessed Mouse in Superhero Street. This second book concentrates on finding one’s place within a family. The War Next Door features street bully Masher when he encounters kindness for the first time, which transforms his bullying behaviour. The fourth and last, Scaredy Cat, Scaredy Cat follows the adventures and coming-of-age of Kay, a supremely nervous child who meets Wilf, in the guise of a wonderful wizard. Dealing with grief and fear, this is a charming finale to the series.

Kay’s father keeps Kay on a tight rein, terrified that she’ll succumb to disaster at every turn – he even cuts the corners from loaves of bread to keep her safe. Stemming from the loss of Kay’s mother in an accident, his obsession with health and safety stifles his daughter and manifests in her extreme timidity. But Kay has an obsession with wizards, and when she meets Wilf, she learns that inside her, a mighty lion roars, especially when it comes to standing up for what’s right. In the end, she finds that magic comes from  everyday occurrences and kindnesses, not always from a wizard.

What distinguishes the series as a whole is its gentle humour, as well as it’s coming together of a street – peeking behind the doors to see the interiors of the houses and what’s inside the minds of each person, no matter how they portray themselves to the world. Phil Earle’s voice casually talks to the reader as the story moves along, in both a self-referential way as the ‘writer’ behind the words, and also as a kind and wise guide through the world. This is a world in which community is key, and lessons are learned through actions – whether it be not judging someone for the clothes they wear, or a community pulling together to give somebody in desperate circumstances the help they need.

Earle’s voice has enormous heart, and manages to portray the extraordinary wit, pathos and depth of ordinary people, and often people with little money or resources, and those for whom life has dealt a harsh handout.

There’s also, of course, the bold, detailed, and wickedly humorous illustrations of Sara Ogilvie that enhance each book and bring each character to life vividly and emotionally. To celebrate or rather commiserate with Phil Earle on the ending of this funny series, I’m offering five readers a copy each of the first in the series, Demolition Dad. Just find me on twitter @minervamoan and retweet the relevant tweet. Ends 1st November, 2017.

Sky Dancer by Gill Lewis

So, the Arts and Humanities Council is attempting to find the UK’s favourite book about nature. This is no easy feat. There are so many wonderful books about nature, but I think the children’s book world excels in this. My book of the week the other week was The Lost Words, and you’d be hard pushed to find a better paean to our natural world. Yet, there is another writer who is doing a great deal to draw the attention of the nation’s children to the natural world and our environment. I reviewed Gorilla Dawn by Gill Lewis a while ago – a revelatory novel that brings the world’s attention to the gorillas affected by coltan mining, but in Sky Dancer, Lewis hits a spot closer to home, basing her novel here in the UK, and returning to the style and themes that led her to write Sky Hawk in 2011.

Her latest novel for children, Sky Dancer, addresses the issue of the hen harrier, one of the most threatened birds of prey in the UK, remaining rare due to habitat loss, weather and illegal killing. It’s this last aspect that Lewis tackles in her book, but this novel is not an ‘issue’ book – it’s an incredibly insightful, emotional picture of who we are, and how we are shaping modern Britain.

Three children trek the landscape of this startlingly astute novel: Joe, reeling from his father’s death, and caught in the middle of a battle for the fate of the hen harriers who nest in the heather of the moorlands where he lives. There’s also Minty, the stylish confident daughter of landowners who use the land for grouse shooting, and for whom the hen harriers are a nuisance, and lastly Ella, who seems to be a naive and rather insecure urbanite, but who manages to think as an outsider – finding solutions to which those in the midst of the struggle are blinded.

In the end, these three unlikely friends, find their way forward, and a way forward for the hen harriers. They are each drawn terrifically authentically, with clear ideas of their roots and social class, and their struggles and difficulties. Whether it be divorced or deceased parents, or simply parents with whom one disagrees, Lewis portrays the different make-up of families, and the way in which the children deal with their different situations.

Joe, in particular, is fascinating. He is at the centre of the struggle, torn sometimes between the two girls and their different views of past and present. He also has to face up to how his father acted and the consequences of that, as well as how his older brother is currently acting – what’s morally right, what’s right for his family, and what’s right for the environment. When these things aren’t the same, he has to reconcile his conscience with how to act. Told from Joe’s point of view, the reader is privileged to see what happens in his head, particularly as he’s a quiet child, loathe to speak in many cases. Lewis has accomplished a great character here, complex, sensitive and real.

Not only is the book a gripping read, but it also sparks thoughts on a range of topics: the fate of hen harriers, and the impact, and other preoccupations of the modern world such as accepting difference, the meeting of technology and nature, town and country, and questions of heritage; which traditions should continue and what needs to adapt.

Of course the book explores life on a hunting estate, in which grouse shooting is fundamental to its past traditions and current livelihood, and although that might feel remote to many young people reading the book, Lewis cleverly explores how it is not dissimilar to anywhere a child is growing up, in that there are the same battles and choices – the intertwining of community, loyalty, family and friendship.

Lewis writes with terrific empathy, eking out the reader’s sympathy for different characters at different stages of the novel, and she also evokes an extremely visual landscape, at the same time as propelling the plot – it darts along swiftly.

A captivating read that will make you think, and also imagine that you’re striding across the moors, scanning the sky for dancers. You can buy it here.

Scarecrow by Danny Weston: An extract

Jack and his Dad are running away from powerful and determined people. They take shelter in a remote lodge in Scotland on the borders of a farm, with no mobile phones, and with just a scarecrow in the next field for company. But from the moment they arrive, Jack sees something that makes him doubt whether his medication is working properly or whether his eyes are deceiving him. For this scarecrow is more than just a bit of stuffed straw, isn’t he? And when trouble comes knocking at the lodge, Jack must harness not just his own powers, but supernatural ones too, in order to save himself and his Dad from harm.

The cover image is enough to make any Halloween aficionado quake with fear, but this is more thriller for young ones than out-and out-horror. Although there are some horror moments – looking out of windows at night-time and seeing your reflection one minute, and what’s outside the next – and the set-up of course – a remote lodge – this is a gripping pacey action read with a supernatural twist.

Jack’s self-doubt inserts tension into the novel, and his dialogue with the few people he meets is authentic, so Jack feels real and relatable. Weston has a knack for making the reader want to read on and discover the truth, so to tempt you, Andersen Press have kindly allowed me to feature the prologue of Scarecrow here on the blog. Enjoy, and look out for scarecrows…you never know when they might scare more than crows…