fiction

Lockdown Home-School Reading

There’s a wonderful wealth of activities and online resources opening up for children who are, once again, home-schooling and remote learning. I’m not going to list all of them here, as others have brilliantly done this already, including A Library Lady, whose blog handily lists almost everything you will need for encouraging reading at home. Click here.

There’s also, of course, the national efforts from the BBC starting next week, and Joe Wicks, as well as normally subscription only services opening up for primary school pupils during lockdown, and Jane Considine who’s offering live writing lessons here, as well as science for under 14s here.

Of course, the issue, is that even looking through these and finding what’s right for your child or composing some kind of timetable of events and activities for them is highly time-consuming and what with work continuing for most parents, and/or juggling more than one child at home, elderly parents to care for etc time can be really tight.

So my advice is to prioritise reading. (And exercise). Take time to read each day – and this can be in several ways. Each household member could read independently for ten minutes a day before bedtime or during the day. Try a family read-a-long, in which you all read the same book together, perhaps taking turns to read aloud, depending on age of children.

We’ve found immense joy in creating individual accents and ways of speaking for characters in our read alouds – from the deep resonant tones of Hagrid in Harry Potter to the piratey ‘rrr’s’ when reading Treasure Island.

We’ve also explored picture books again – even though children may ‘seem’ too old for them, they aren’t. Picture books can work in two ways – there are those that are specifically aimed at younger children, and these can be fun to revisit with an older child – reliving memories and also letting them take the lead in reading to you – and also older picture books with difficult themes or issues that are well worth exploring in conversation while reading.

There’s also benefit in comics. We subscribe to The Beano, and it’s good for tracking narrative, learning to be concise in expression, and understanding the visual effects. To remain hopeful in light of the news, The Week Junior continues to excel in presenting the facts but balancing the doom with light, insight and interest.


There is also delight to be found in structure, and reading A Poem for Every Winter Day edited by Alli Esiri, hands out that on a plate, seeing as each poem is given a date. Today’s is Journey of the Magi by TS Eliot, and although this is one I personally studied for A-level, it’s surprising and wonderful what an eleven year old can bring to the table upon hearing it!

The rewards of reading can’t be stressed enough. Whether it’s diffusing family arguments in a tight space by just switching off and letting everyone’s imaginations take them to desert islands or deep forests or unexplored planets, or whether it’s sharing in the nostalgia of the past, I highly recommend that even if you eschew Joe Wicks and endless multiple choice maths questions, you buckle down to a good read.


Natasha Farrant’s Voyage of the Sparrowhawk picked up the Costa Children’s Book Award this week, and is an uplifting tale promoting a future full of hope, so may be just what you need. Set just after the First World War, it tells of the adventures of two orphans as they cross the channel to find long-lost relatives, and is perfect for 9+ readers.


Also for this age group, and by debut author Lesley Parr is The Valley of Lost Secrets, set during the Second World War and featuring evacuee Jimmy, who finds life very different in a small village in Wales as compared to his home life in London. However, the discovery of a skull in a tree makes even a docile village seem scary.


More history in Cat Weldon’s How to be a Hero, publishing later this month and featuring a trainee Valkyrie, this is the first in a new trilogy about being heroic, and exploring the confusing world of Norse Gods. Filled with illustrations and a couple of maps, this is hugely fun, and also fascinatingly informative.


For laughs, and also large dollops of pathos, you’ll want to read The Perfect Parent Project by Stewart Foster. Unfortunately, it didn’t show me how to be a perfect parent, but it did make me laugh, and kept me gripped. My review is being published in Books for Keeps later this month, and I highly recommend the novel – it’s terrific for building empathy, showing insight, and portrays a great child perspective on the world.

silent stars go by
If you missed The Silent Stars Go By by Sally Nicholls in December, I recommend you read it now, even if it builds to a pivotal Christmas scene. Nicholls is a sublime writer, and this book – for young teens – is a comfort read, a beautiful historical romance that I read in one sitting, feeling both transported and charmed. Set in 1919, Margot’s fiancé Harry has been reported missing, leaving her at home with a devastating secret. When Harry returns, she has to build up the courage to tell him the secret and see how he responds. Will it change the course of their lives forever? The characters are so real that the reader feels as if they are friends, and the only fault I could find was that the book was too short – I wanted more.


The Violin Players
by Eileen Bluestone Sherman is a quick romance read for teens, which aims to highlight prejudices that can be held and acted upon, and yet not challenged for years. Featuring a Jewish teenager in America, Melissa, who moves with her parents from New York to a small town, she confronts anti-Semitism whilst also finding romance. The writing and characterisation feel a little clunky and contrived, but the novel warms as the plot thickens, and was more enjoyed by my teen than by me.


Lastly, a book I’ve been using for younger readers, and published last year, is The B on your Thumb by Colette Hiller and Tor Freeman. A fascinating and fun book of 60 poems, these aim to use the letters of the alphabet to show how words are pronounced and spelled. It’s clever and funny, and excellent for reading aloud, and will make phonics learning that little bit more exciting.

The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll

The Ghost Garden
The Secret Garden
by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a much-loved and yet rather strange children’s book. Although it can be embraced as a paean to gardens and the healing power of nature, and although it remains a favourite of mine for its ability to feature prickly rather than immediately loveable children protagonists, when you come to it as an adult you have to ponder its darker side. After all, the novel starts with Mary’s family all dying quite horribly and the child being forgotten. Then when Mary arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, a father is projecting his grief onto his son and purposefully making him out to be ill – Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Whatever you think of it, its imagery lingers, which is why modern-day books that allude to it hold a special place in my head and heart. Emma Carroll’s newest book, The Ghost Garden, her first with dyslexia-specialists Barrington Stoke, is beautifully atmospheric, historically detailed, but also contains barely contained allusions to the aforementioned Secret Garden. Indeed, even on the cover, a girl pushes around a boy who has become wheelchair-bound.

The Ghost Garden is set in the summer of 1914, and a young girl, Fran, stumbles across a bone whilst digging in the garden of a country house. That same afternoon, coincidence strikes when the young boy of the house breaks his leg. Then more strange happenings in the garden lead to a burgeoning friendship between the two, all set against the very dire backdrop of impending war.

With stylised illustrations from Kaja Kajfez, The Ghost Garden is marginally spooky, but bursting with particular detail. As one would expect from Carroll, the characters are swiftly yet beautifully drawn, so that the reader feels as if Fran exists far beyond the pages of the book, and the tale is well-executed and rather fun. Its final message is that, despite the world’s sometime devastating bigger picture, things are best faced as a community rather than alone. And that we should create and embrace positive moments and memories during the good times, making the most of the time we have. At the end of 2020, what better message could there be? A sumptuous little feast, to be devoured in one go.

With thanks to Barrington Stoke for the review copy. The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll is published in January 2021 but is available to pre-order now for a post-Christmas treat.

Friend Me by Sheila M Averbuch

friend me
Do you have children with phones? Silly question really, as Ofcom’s 2019 survey found that 83% of 12 to 15 year olds in the UK owned a smartphone. So, it’s only fitting that some of the contemporary literature for this age group features interaction with a digital device. Yet, writers of fiction have argued for some time that phones get in the way of plots. It’s harder to go missing and have an adventure if your parents can text you every two minutes. It’s easier to solve mystery clues if you can just ‘Google’ the answers. And far less interesting for the reader.

But Averbuch has discovered a cruelly satisfying way to lend interest to the digital device. It can, as she says in the book, become an easy way for a loner to look busy or popular – they can just look down at their phone.

Friend me is a cautionary tale. Roisin, recently moved from Ireland to America, and struggling to fit in, is bullied in school by Zara. Happening in person, but exacerbated online, Roisin finds herself unable to confide in her parents (her mother is a workaholic, her father back in Ireland), or her older brother. However, she finds a true friend in Hayley, online. Someone who lives at an inaccessible distance in real life, but who online, not only sympathises with Roisin’s experiences, but has shared similar, and completely agrees with Roisin on pretty much everything.

But then Zara, busy taking selfies, has a dreadful and shocking accident, and when Roisin thinks about it, it’s not that shocking in regards to private conversations she has had with Hayley.

The book almost pivots at this point, from a contemporary tale about a new girl, into a scintillating, positively filmic thriller, in which Roisin must race against time to discover who Hayley really is, what impact she may have had on Zara, and perhaps while Roisin’s doing her detective work, discover a bit more about who she is herself and what true friendship means.

What could seem unrealistic towards the end, never quite reaches implausible limits, simply because the premise is so simple – when we get sucked into our phones, it can have an effect on our real lives, and friendship can be a messy business.

Grippingly tense in the second half, and nicely built in the first, this is an exciting new read for tweens and young teens, and an excellent warning about phone over-reliance. As we know in our Covid times, there really is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, and friendship in person.

Roisin is a well-rounded character, with identifiable weaknesses and immaturity, and yet possesses a good moral compass and firm grounding. She is easy to know and like, and the reader is rooting for her all along, even when perhaps wincing at some of her text messages.

The prose-style lends itself well to the subject matter – this is an easy, absorbing read, with enough incident and drama to keep readers fully engaged, and most thrillingly it doesn’t dictate the rights and wrongs of the situation, but lets the reader find their own way through the dilemmas and trials so common to this age-group. The author clearly has a great grip on tech, and young people’s use of it, and the story feels authentic and apposite.

A good read, highly recommended. Put one in the teen’s Christmas stocking!

(An American text, this was sent to me by the publicist in exchange for an honest review). Published by Scholastic, and  currently available in hardback and kindle.)

The Wolf Road by Richard Lambert

wolf road
Fifteen-year-old Lucas survives the car accident that kills his parents, but amid the horror and devastation, the image that floods his memory is of the wolf on the road, the wolf that he believes caused the accident. Uprooted, and moved to the Lake District to live with his estranged Nan, he discovers that there too roams a wolf, killing sheep in the hills and, now, coming for him.

Lambert’s poetic prose skips between the lyrically descriptive and the pace of an action thriller in his boldly imagined tale of loss and grief, with just a hint of magical realism. He possesses the mind of a teenager with lithe agility, fully empathetic of Lucas’s mood swings, his reticence, his taciturn manner, and his truculence, enhanced even more by the dreadful grief from which he suffers. Yet this protagonist is unfailingly easy to sympathise with, even when he makes his glaring teenage errors.

Lucas grows ever more maniacal in his obsession with the wolf, but this is set against his growing affinity with nature and the hills that surround his Nan’s cottage. As time passes, the characters in his peripheral vision – the bullies at school, a girl and her father on the neighbouring farm, all grow more familiar, and set the scene for a dramatic climax.

In the end, though, Lucas’s restraint spills over into the plot, and the denouement is less visceral than one might imagine – the ending more inclined towards the realism of grief rather than the neat winding up of the storyteller. This is grief both profound and buried, like lost wildlife under the snow-clad mountain. The book’s quiet and intense main thread is both powerful and eerie, lingering in the mind long after the turning of the final page. A filmic book with a poetic undercurrent.

For ages 14+. The Wolf Road is published by Everything With Words and is available from all book stores.

Prescient Publications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dystopian Landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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

 

Escapism

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader, I enjoyed it.

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

Small in the City by Sydney Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With thanks to Walker Books for the review copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With thanks to Abrams books for the review copy.

Vote Sofia Valdez, Future Prez here.