fiction

Earth Swarm: A Hal Strider Adventure by Tim Hall

earth swarmDrones over airports, artificial intelligence making human work obsolete, new kinds of warfare. Whatever it is that keeps you awake at night, bear in mind that Tim Hall probably suffers from the same insomnia. Although he’s put his to good use in a new book for children aged about 10+ years.

A Terminator-style battle of humans versus machines is the premise of this new novel, and yet it is distinctive for Hall’s canny take on the science-fiction/dystopian tech aspect.

Hal Strider’s father owns a biomimetics company, designing drones and other airborne machines. He works hard, and is often away from home, leaving Hal and his sister Jess alone. When drones start to attack London, and Hal’s father is nowhere to be found, Hal and Jess must battle to figure out what the drones have to do with their father, and in the end try to save their country.

The drones are cleverly designed to mimic certain features of insects – and the different types of drones are like different types of bugs. There are hornets – mean angry buzzing fliers; and burrowers working like ants with highly damaging proboscises. Others are beetle-like, their mandibles adapted with metal saws. There’s even a pheromone-copier, the insects leaving a green dust on their victims to better seek them out and destroy them. Hall neatly uses insect vocabulary throughout to enhance this – cocoons, scavengers, infestation. Of course, with added dangerous explosives, metal components, added artificial intelligence and computer technology, they can adapt and evolve to suit the environment and their new circumstances, and they can do this at pace.

Which the book is all about – the action unfolds at extraordinary pace, jyst like watching an action or disaster movie – the different perspectives feel like a camera (or drone-mounted camera) zooming in and out, unfolding before the eyes, so that the reader sees the action from the air, below ground, street level etc. Inspiration must stem from 9/11 or similar real-time disasters and news incidents played out on the television, because the scenes presented in the novel are frightening and dystopic, but not so much removed from our own reality – tower blocks in London fold in on themselves just as the twin towers did, others topple, tube stations implode, people swarm away from disaster zones; Hall is great at the visual immersion of destruction.

But to capture the reader’s emotions, the characters need to have dynamism just as much as the drones, and Hall throws in a frisson of attraction between Hal and Sky, a daughter of another engineer at the biomimetics company, as well as the genuine sibling loyalty and protectionism between Hal and Jess. The teens all speak in snappy, urgent dialogue, which is both disaster-movie filmic (all action and command), but also with some realism in their interactions.

Unfortunately, the adult villains are somewhat two-dimensional, ruthlessly motivated by money, but it is the drones who incite the tension and danger, and feel like the real enemy.

Occasionally Hall dips into the drones’ minds/databases too, a fascinating style that lends itself more to computer code than novel-writing, but works well here in short bursts.

The novel is tightly structured, the essence simple, but the execution gripping, dynamic and unbelievably visual. Want to draw your child away from the video game – chuck this book at them – they’ll never look at a drone or insect in the same way again.

You can buy the book here. With thanks to David Fickling for the review copy.

Jemima Small Versus the Universe by Tamsin Winter

jemima small versus the universeIs it Love Island that perpetuates the non-stop pre-occupation with looks, eating and fitness? Or the sense that Insta is feeding into our kids’ idea of their appearance and how they would want to change it? If feels as if children’s focus on body image is as strong as ever.

Neatly fitting into this zeitgeist is the latest offering from Tamsin Winter, author of Being Miss Nobody, (a top hit in my school library with the Year 6s, who adore its modern take on bullying and its consequences, and read it as a key text for transition into high school and Year 7). Winter’s new book, Jemima Small Versus the Universe, also takes the reader into secondary school, and deals with bullying, but with a different focus and a very different protagonist.

Jemima Small’s surname is a bit of a misnomer. She’s actually rather the opposite in terms of her brain – she’s super brainy and an expert at quiz questions and random facts, and her personality too is large and joyful – she has a wicked sense of humour and a zest for embracing life. But for most people, they see that the misnomer lies in her body size, something pointed out rather distinctly when her school forces her to join a healthy eating group at lunchtime.

The focus on Jemima’s weight ranges from the blatant bullying and name-calling at school and on the bus (not made any easier by the fact that she’s been asked to join the school’s fat club), but also from the not-so-subtle looks exchanged by strangers, the whispers by fellow customers in the pizza restaurant.

Winter pulls attention to it as well, showing Jemima’s discomfort at squeezing into a booth or a bus seat, her excessive sweating in the face of pressure, her embarrassment at trying on clothes (think swimming costumes), and her dread of the upcoming school camping trip. But perhaps the most excruciating moment in the novel is science teacher Mr Shaw’s bananometer, which is intended to demonstrate estimation – he wants to see how many bananas class 8N weighs, and therefore needs to weigh each child and convert the weight to bananas – writing each person’s on the board. When I read this scene, I thought it was fairly implausible, but then after talking to some pupils in Y7 and Y8, discovered that some teachers do the daftest, and sometimes most insensitive things. In the book, this scene is spectacularly cringy but superbly effective.

However, Winter doesn’t just concentrate on Jemima’s weight. In fact, much of the book is taken up with Jemima’s larger-than-life personality, and her intelligence and wit. But we see, as the book progresses, the ease with which someone’s confidence can be knocked. Jemima should be happy and outgoing, but gradually others’ bullying increases Jemima’s lack of confidence in her body, which leads to a lack of confidence in her whole self. She can’t be happy in herself. And when the school is asked to take part in a television show – the general knowledge quiz show Brainiacs – she should be an obvious candidate, but her worry about being on television because of her size dominates her thoughts.

Winter’s knack at drawing a complicated 13-year-old is evident throughout – Jemima’s sassiness is often crushed by bullies, and the reader feels every blow, every slight with her. Cleverly, it’s not just a black and white issue though – Jemima faces jibes from her older brother Jasper, but there’s a nuance therein, as Jasper is both supporter and tease – there’s a deep love and affection, even an admiration that comes across under the layers of mischief. Indeed, Jasper and Jemima share a bond in that their mother left them when they were young and when emotions about this come to the surface, they are definitely a team.

It is the support network behind Jemima that enables her to find her confidence, and feel happy in herself – her father, who also has a nuanced relationship with her weight, seeing his daughter’s positive sides and yet aware that maybe he needs to take some responsibility for his daughter’s fitness and eating habits, and also Gina, the ‘healthy body guru’ at school, who initially is viewed with suspicion, but carefully comes good with her positive energy. Jemima’s best friend Mika is a key supporter too – a good friend who consistently boosts Jemima’s confidence.

This isn’t a novel that preaches losing weight, but it subtly shows the benefits of a healthy mind and healthy body and that the two are neatly intertwined. It also cheers the celebration of intelligence and brains, and perseverance.

The book is obviously issue-based, but it is so much more than this. It celebrates being happy with who you are, with not being afraid to use your strengths, and seeing each individual shining brightly in their own field.

An accessible contemporary novel that feels both of the moment, and yet bigger than that too.

For ages 11+. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Usborne Publishers for the review copy.

Fashion Fun

With the Christian Dior and Mary Quant exhibitions at the V&A in London, and an increasing awareness of the dangers of disposable fashion, plus an appreciation of the ability of fashion to define an era, an identity, a personality, it feels timely to introduce the study of fashion and clothing to children. I have encouraged my children to learn to sew (something I never mastered), in the hope that they will mend and re-use, rather than succumb to the fashion pitfalls of wearing something only once. For those who prefer to indulge their fashion sense with reading, here are some stunning options – all beautifully produced as one would expect from a fashion book.

planet fashionPlanet Fashion: 100 Years of Fashion History by Natasha Slee and Cynthia Kittler is a large square book bursting with an exuberance and vitality that static pictures often can’t convey.

Here, the illustrations walk the clothes.

There are 25 scenes of fashion history from around the world, capturing the time and place of that moment, in chronological order throughout the book from 1890 to 2012.

The first scene shows a waltz in a ballroom in 1890 in the UK. The captions give a perfect flavour of the era, but also show how carefully the illustrations have been chosen and annotated – there is intense attention to detail within the book, including pointing out how the corset made a ‘pigeon breast’ shape, and how wide necklines accentuated the curve of the shoulder.

Just as every stitch counts in a dress, so every word has been carefully placed here. There is more too, from the hairstyles to the accessories, highlighting both men and women’s fashions.

The 1930s moves to Shanghai where the clothes tended to be figure-hugging with upright Mandarin collars. The scene highlights the street, a bustling metropolis featuring expats as well as residents, modes of transport, and even points to culture and politics in explaining about the movie stars in China, and the rise of the feminist movement.

Further in, readers can compare Bollywood with Hollywood, understand the effects of wartime on fashion, and begin to understand how fashion became a statement.

And at the back, there are some brilliant timelines, featuring moments of political, social and cultural significance as well as timelines dedicated to silhouettes, shoes and bags.

This book is a riot of colour, charm and clothes. A classy reference book for age 8+. You can buy it here.

wonderful world of clothesA younger, more straightforward look at clothes and their uses is The Wonderful World of Clothes by Emma Damon. Ordered completely differently, this is not a historical look at clothes, but a celebration of global fashion, showing cultural diversity, the future of technology in clothes, and the bits and bobs that may seem like trivia, but actually make an outfit.

Damon looks around the world to see what people wear in different climates and why. She then explores the clothes people wear to do different things – whether it’s uniform, sports clothes, equipment for a job, or for religious and celebratory purposes. This is fascinating, stemming from an underwater photographer to a Sikh wedding ceremony.

For me, the real fun came with Damon’s small vignettes about accessories, exploring different types of shoes (tiger slippers and brogues, for example) to jewellery and buttons (the satsuma button stood out, as did her clever instructions on how to wear a kimono and sari).

With bright personable illustrations, and an eclectic gathering of information, this is a unique and quirky book. Highly recommended for children aged 6+ years. You can buy it here.

midnight at moonstoneWhere better to go for clothes information than to Lara Flecker, who worked for 15 years as a Senior Textile Conservation Display Specialist at the aforementioned Victoria and Albert museum in London.

Midnight at Moonstone by Lara Flecker, illustrated by Trisha Krauss is an adventure novel for children aged eight and over, and takes the reader on a journey with Kit, who has gone to stay with her grandfather at Moonstone Manor, a costume museum threatened with closure.

Creative Kit decides she must save the museum, particularly after realising that the costumed mannequins come alive at night, and by persuading them to help under cover of darkness, and encouraging her grandfather that it is worth saving, Kit manages to pull off a feat of some imagination and skill.

With nods to the meaning of teamwork, family, and above all the wonder and usefulness of creativity, this is a marvellous novel.

Moreover, to fully celebrate the costumes, the book is illustrated throughout with modern scenes of Kit, but also the most exquisite capturing of the mannequins donning their costumes, from 18th century silks to Chinese dragon robes, 19th century bustle dresses and more.

Designed with French flaps, and patterned borders around the text, as much love has gone into the production of the book as the writing of it. This is a treasure to look at and read, so much so that I had to buy a finished copy after seeing just a few pages of the proof.

A wonderful paean to the inspiration of costume design and small museums everywhere. You can buy it here.

Anna at War by Helen Peters

Anna at war‘There aren’t too many of us left, and it would be a shame if our stories died with us.’

There is an abundance of adult’s and children’s books set during the Second World War. It’s a period of great interest to many people, and just about remains an era in living memory. However, as the last soldiers reach a very old age, and the last Holocaust survivors too, the valuable resource of living witnesses on whom we have so long relied for testament and truth, is whittling away. And it becomes even more important to cherish their memories, to hear survivors talk, to share their stories.

As someone who has worked on Holocaust books, I always approach those for children with trepidation. Will it warp the truth and tread dangerous ground, will it remain true to events, and will it represent what happened in a palatable way for children to comprehend? With true stories of shattering horror, this is always a difficult topic. But Helen Peters, with her extensive research, and able storytelling, has managed a book that both has a light touch and yet deals with a dark truth.

Apparently Peters came to write this  story about a Jewish girl on the Kindertransport by being inspired from a re-reading of Anne Frank, two survivors getting in touch with her husband, and also that she saw similarities in the plight of today’s refugees.

It’s always a puzzle why certain stories percolate in the mind of authors. Peters has no direct connection with any of the Kindertransport children, she isn’t Jewish herself, and after the controversy that still haunts (quite rightly) The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, a certain wariness might creep into novelists’ desire to tell the stories of others. In fact, Catherine Bruton, author of No Ballet Shoes in Syria, highlighted just this in a recent blogpost for Booktrust.

I have no fear of others telling the stories of the Kindertransport. Many survivors have now died of old age, and many are not able or willing to write down their stories in a way in which children can relate to them or understand them. So, instead of ‘appropriating’ the stories, I would suggest that Peters is giving voice to them for us – using her skill and aptitude for writing children’s books to bring one such story to life.

A story within a story, Anna at War begins in modern day Year 6, in which Daniel is learning about World War II in school, and decides to ask his granny about it, knowing that she came over from Germany before the war. Bringing the story to current children’s contemporary landscape is a clever pathway in.

The grandmother’s story, Anna’s, starts in Germany in November 1938 on Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass, in which the Nazis attacked Jewish people and properties in a night of violence. Fearing for her safety, Anna’s parents secure her a ticket on the Kindertransport, an organised rescue effort that took about 10,000 Jewish children to the UK and placed them in foster homes. Quite often, entire families the children left behind in Germany perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Peters doesn’t hold back with her description of Kristallnacht. Told from Anna’s point of view, the night is terrifying; a child’s fear for her teddy abandoned on the bed in front of a Nazi Stormtrooper, a mother’s unearthly scream, the silent disappearance of family members. And then the terrifying decision, taken by Anna’s parents, to send her away, not knowing what will happen to any of them. The descriptions of the parting, and Anna’s journey to the unknown is authentic, heart-rending and gripping – told from a child’s perspective there is fear, but, with parents removed, the children on the train step up to the responsibility of caring for each other – a kind of team spirit and camaraderie. And also, of course, the descriptions of food – so important to every child.

Once in England, Peters not only describes the newness of the English countryside to Anna (she is taken in by farmers), but also brilliantly takes on home life during the war with all its detail – mixing the humdrum of every day with war time changes. Describing the Home Front, Peters tackles not only food shortages, but the wariness of foreign spies, the feelings about German refugees, the fear of invasion when the Nazis get close – for even reading this with hindsight – the reader gets the impression of the Nazis invading country after country and coming nearer and nearer. Although this may seem horrifying, the text is just gentle enough that it remains a children’s adventure story – the everyday juxtaposed with the war, so that it is both removed and yet very close.

And here, Peters lets rip with Anna’s adventure story – working in conjunction with British intelligence. Within the darkest depths of her story – her sad plight, her desperation for her parents to join her, her bullying at school for being German – comes a hopefulness and light as Anna begins to work in secret for the British.

At all times, Anna is presented as a sympathetic and very real character, with layers of resilience and yet a fearsome compassion. The storytelling is deft – the reader always feels in the hands of a supremely confident writer. And the ending, when it comes, is both good and bad. There isn’t perfect happiness – there were few happy endings for Jewish children at the end of the war, but in this novel there is a hope for the future, an insight into the effect of an enormous global event on the individual, a humanising of the victims. A message of remembering with sadness, but letting the memory forge a better future.

Helen Peters has clearly done meticulous research to write this magnificent historical fiction, and every step feels real and immersive, even Anna’s grand adventure in England, which makes the novel zip along at some pace with its spy adventure. The parts that deal with the Jewish experience and the Kindertransport are sensitively and delicately handled, taken from real life experiences, and it is the voices of the actual Kindertransport who sound loudly throughout.

This is a highly readable, engrossing adventure story. For anyone approaching World War Two for children, this is a fresh modern take on a classic genre, and a book that should have longevity and win prizes.

You can buy it here. With thanks to Nosy Crow publishers for my advance proof copy. Recommended age 10+

The Dragon in the Library by Louie Stowell, illustrated by Davide Ortu

dragon in the libraryJames Daunt might be straddling the Atlantic by now being both Managing Director of Waterstones bookshop chain and newly appointed CEO of Barnes & Noble bookshop chain, but for those with an interest in books this side of the Atlantic, we seem to be getting something wrong.

The book market is going from strength to strength, but in these lean times of government cuts, the UK is pulling investment from libraries – those most important bastions of a civilised society.

In 2018, about 130 public libraries closed outright, whilst many others (as yet unnumbered) fell into voluntary hands with limited opening hours and services. Most recently children’s authors stepped in to protest against Essex County’s proposed closure of up to 44 libraries.

So it’s incredibly timely to read Louie Stowell’s excellent younger fiction novel, The Dragon in the Library, set in a library that is threatened with closure by a Simpsons’ Mr Burns-type villain, who wishes to turn the space into a shopping centre. He represents those who believe that economics rules over creativity and knowledge, and those for whom moneyed connections are deemed to be more important than empathy and curiosity. Who needs libraries, he says, when there is the Internet?

Our unlikely protagonist is Kit, a reluctant reader, who prefers climbing trees and getting messy outside to time spent inside, particularly in a library. But her two friends are desperate for the latest book in a series of books they are into, and they drag her along to the library. Once there, they stumble on a secret – the librarian is a wizard. What’s more, Kit herself seems to have magical powers, and the library is the most magical place of all.

Stowell goes to town on her magical tropes – there are librarian wizards, hidden creatures in secret stacks, portals from one magic place to another. Nowhere could be quite as exciting as the library, and she excels at extolling the absolute magic of reading and story – books literally take the reader into a different world. She also weaves a wonderful intertextuality in the book – for those who know their children’s literature there are nods to it all over the place from Ursula Le Guin to Baba Yaga to fairy tales and Harry Potter of course. There’s even a nod to the old trope of children drinking lemonade and eating something gingery (memories of Enid Blyton picnics come to the surface). Although the world-building of this magical structure of wizards and libraries seems a little confusing at first, it soon becomes apparent what’s at stake and why.

And it is the characterisation of the three children that makes the novel. Each child has his or her own attributes, goals and motivations, worries and anxieties. Kit and friends Alita and Josh feel very real, and support each  other in a wonderful triumvirate of camaraderie. Although Kit is the only wizard of the three, she’s the least ‘into’ books, and so it takes the help of her friends for her to be able to pursue her wizard path.

Faith Braithwaite is a wonderful role model of a wizard librarian and teacher/mentor to Kit. She is sassy and warm, modern and authoritative, understanding and knowledgeable, in essence, everything a librarian should be. Plus, in the times we live in, brave too.

So Stowell nods to our current preoccupations, not only in the fight for survival of the library, but also with dripped-in truisms about our modern obsessions with risk awareness, knowing what’s real and what isn’t, gender bias and diversity.

And cleverly, above all that, lies the essence of the novel, which is the celebration of the story behind the book. It is rare in a children’s book, particularly one set in a library, to have the protagonist as a reluctant reader, but here, although Kit hates reading aloud, and doesn’t particularly want to sit and read a book quietly either, Faith Braithwaite shows her the magic behind the book – the power of the story – the magic that’s contained within, especially when the reading is pleasurable and not graded or schooled in some way. How a story can teach and explore, delight and entertain, stimulate and encourage.

This is an exciting, pacey book for the 7-9 years (and beyond) readership, with superb neon packaging and a plethora of black and white illustrations throughout, which feel cartoonish and vivacious.

Oh, and there be dragons.

You can buy your copy here. Thanks to Nosy Crow for the review proof.

Great Guinea Pigs!

harry stevensonFleabag might seem quite a leap from children’s books, but when The Adventures of Harry Stevenson by Ali Pye arrived on my desk, I saw the link straight away. Guinea Pigs. A sometimes symbol of loneliness (guinea pigs like their buddies), the guinea pig is a great creature for children because even the name itself is a bit of a conundrum – they’re not from Guinea and they’re not pigs.

The Adventures of Harry Stevenson is a younger fiction title told from the point of view of Harry, Billy’s guinea pig. Like some other popular titles for this age group, there are two stories within the one book, both highly illustrated in neon orange as if Harry is a little radioactive or glow-in-the-dark. He isn’t a radioactive super-powered guinea pig, but he does have some remarkably outlandish adventures for a pet that mainly likes to eat and sleep.

In the first story, Billy and his family move house. Pye plays on the idea of the lost pet during a house move – a cage escapee, and the story brought back memories of Topsy and Tim Move House in which their cat escapes from the car en route to their new house (Topsy blames Tim). Here, Harry has no one to blame but his own greed, but due to some ingenuity, bravery, and the haplessness of pizza delivery drivers, he does make it back to Billy.

After the implausibility of this, story two is almost easier to believe, if you can picture Harry suspended in balloon strings and floating away from Billy’s birthday party to land in the middle of a football stadium during a cup final.

But for all the ridiculousness of his adventures, what grounds these stories is the familiarity of Billy’s worries and joys, the normality of Harry’s hunger, and the friendliness of the tone – it’s as cuddly as stroking a guinea pig.

With inclusions of a diverse family setting, and one that isn’t affluent, references to an imaginary local football team, this is certainly a zany and slightly surreal addition to the younger fiction market, but much needed and hugely enjoyable. This is, in part, because Pye makes the stories pacey and action-filled, despite some initial scene-setting.

Pye’s initial foray into the world of children’s literature was picture books, and her illustrations here represent Harry’s character well – they are scrappy and look simple, but actually manage to portray a depth of emotion and movement.

Some cute factual details at the end illuminate that guinea pigs shouldn’t really be kept as lone creatures, as they do get lonely.

And it’s this theme that pervades the book. Billy worries about making new friends on moving house, and who he should invite to his party, but he’s not lonely, and friends rally. Harry isn’t lonely because he has the committed love and loyalty of Billy. There’s a warmth that exudes here – a humorous tale that aims to show children overcoming fears of shyness and loneliness, whilst also offering the tranquility achieved by being alone with their pet – or their book! For newly independent readers, age 5-8+. You can buy it here.

Father’s Day 2019

It’s Father’s Day today. Apparently consumers spend half as much on Father’s Day as they do on Mother’s Day. (Global Data Retail Analysis). Whether this is because consumers regard fathers as less important, or there are fewer of them, who knows. If we look to children’s books, the traditional classics tend to show women as the primary caregivers – The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Where the Wild Things Are, The Cat in the Hat. I’d argue that although fatherhood has come a long way, it’s often the woman who is still the default parent, the ‘emergency contact’ in heterosexual relationships. However, the children’s book world is changing things, and here are two picture books that neatly celebrate the father/child relationship.

the way to treasure islandThe Way to Treasure Island by Lizzy Stewart
The compelling hook of this picture book is not so much the riff on ‘Treasure Island’, that trope of children’s literature that presents an adventure and a quest for treasure, but instead it is the growing and tender relationship between the characters of Matilda and her father (seen on the front cover in their boat). Introduced Roald Dahl style: ‘This is Matilda, and this is Matilda’s dad’ the reader learns that although they have a very close relationship, they are very different types of people. (As the obsessively tidy mother of a messy daughter, empathy is easy here).

Nicely turning things around and playing with the reader’s expectations, here the child is neat and tidy, the Dad is depicted as messy and noisy. Matilda is beautifully drawn – she has a distinct personality from the beginning – her big red glasses a focus of her face, her eyebrows a mirror of her Dad’s, and the simple way they are drawn executes her mood wonderfully.

From the beach the pair set sail to follow their map to get the treasure. The journey is as important as the destination here, the quest being about the discovery of how wonderful the natural world is. The endpapers mirror this with their depiction of a shoal of fish, and some of the most splendid, colourful, detailed and interesting full page illustrations in the book are the depictions of nature – the underwater vista, the flora and fauna on the island. For those who have sampled Lizzy Stewart’s first book, There’s a Tiger in the Garden, some of the more jungley scenes will ring familiar.

Of course, in the end it is the combined strengths of the pair, their different skills and personalities, that enable Matilda and her dad to find the treasure. The treasure, of course, is not monetary – it is in fact the natural beauty surrounding them – this ‘discovery’ page is a glorious celebration of the natural world’s colour, and the reader will admire the illustrator’s ability to depict the moment of discovery and achievement.

A glorious book, vibrant with story, messages and illustrations, and a true celebration of enjoying the journey one’s on with the people one loves. Exemplary. You can buy it here.

raj and best holiday everRaj and the Best Holiday Ever by Seb Braun
Another Raj and Dad adventure book, following earlier picture book Raj and the Best Day Ever, takes a familiar theme of the Dad wanting to prove that he can really treat his son to a fantastic day, but admitting near the end that a bit of help would come in handy.

I admit that camping isn’t my thing, but Braun depicts the anticipation of a camping holiday beautifully, even the long journey with petrol stops is portrayed with humour, but it is the arrival at the campsite that makes it most appealing. Each tent a different colour against the blue/black background of night-time, and illustrated as if lit from within by torchlight. Raj and his Dad take a birds’ eye view of the campground from a high point, and it is indeed a high point in the picture book.

There are some clichéd moments to follow – Dad finds it hard to put the tent up, and to cook breakfast, he loses a paddle canoeing, takes an ambitious trek with a tired child, all the while refusing help from the annoyingly smug family of bears in the adjacent tent – who have clearly achieved camping perfection.

The ending is as expected – they join company with the bears for a jolly singsong round the campfire, and of course it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship and the end of the ‘best holiday ever’. Raj and his father are depicted as tigers, and other anthropomorphised creatures populate the landscape, in spreads that are packed with things to find – a pig paragliding, a donkey backpacking, the frog taking a dive, not to mentione concerned-looking fish. There is humour throughout, look out for the pile of books on the title page, including one entitled ‘Managing Expectations’.

A heart-warming story, bound to be a ‘best book ever’ for some youngsters on Father’s Day. You can buy it here.

The Garden of Lost Secrets by AM Howell

garden of lost secretsThere’s a noticeable rediscovering of nature in current children’s books. It’s the theme of the moment, maybe inspired by the fact that today’s children spend less time outside, and certainly less time being wild than they used to, or perhaps because they have less awareness of where their food comes from, yet at the same time a creeping alarm over climate change and how nature can wreak havoc if not nurtured.

The Garden of Lost Secrets from debut author AM Howell takes the reader back to 1916, when World War I is wreaking havoc on the human population, and urban children were sent away from the cities after Zeppelin airships flew overhead. Twelve-year-old Clara is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Suffolk, not as a result of air raids, but rather because her father is convalescing after being gassed in the war.

Clara’s aunt and uncle are housekeeper and head gardener of an estate, living in a small cottage on the edge of the grounds. But rather than welcoming her kindly, her aunt in particular is austere and formidable, showing none of the kindness of her previous visits. What’s more, there’s a strange boy in the grounds at night-time, and an unopened letter from the War Office that Clara has intercepted in London and brought all the way with her.

As each day passes, more and more mysteries are presented, from the stealing of fruit from the gardens, to the appearance of mandarins in peculiar places, and a locked room in the house in which Clara is staying. Clara tries her best to be good, but the idea of solving the mysteries is too great a temptation to ignore, and before long her adventures are getting more than just herself into trouble.

This is a nostalgic, wonderfully atmospheric novel, taking the reader into a world in which, despite the war, children roam free, unhindered by parents and school, and everyday delights are simply the exploration of a large manor house’s grounds and greenhouses. Inspired by the real diaries from a 100 years ago of a gardener at Ickworth House in Suffolk, AM Howell has created a detailed, authentic imaginary tale.

The characterisation is spot on – from her pinafore to her small disobediences, Clara feels wholly from 1916; her head is consumed with worry for her family, but her heart is set on making everyone happy, and the reader is plunged inside her head, privy to all her thoughts. The secondary characters are equally well-drawn, with the layers of society firmly in place, the staff and their duties, the soldiers exercising in the woods nearby, and the ever-present over-arching fear about the war that consumes everyone, from the distance noise of gunfire to the threat of Zeppelins.

An abundance of period detail, including the cultivation of exotic fruits (pineapples) in hothouses, the damp coal cellars, and the features of the town, all transport the reader firmly to 1916, and open up a world of England on the home front, seen from a child’s perspective. There’s both knowledge, and yet still a profound innocence.

There is definitely a classic feel to this book, bringing to mind such greats as Tom’s Midnight Garden, although The Garden of Lost Secrets has a modern bent with its themes of the natural world, child sleuthing, and bravery. It is far pacier than The Secret Garden and other Edwardian literature, layering questions and mysteries in each short chapter, and only revealing the depths of the secrets near the end. With fresh modern writing, a sublime use of simile where needed, and extolling the virtues of the power of true friendship, this is an excellent new children’s novel, which is both gripping and fun.

For children aged 8+ years. You can buy it here. With thanks to Usborne for the review copy.

Detective Geniuses: Introducing Sophie Johnson

sophie johnson detective geniusWhat do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a perennial question asked of youngsters, and Sophie Johnson is the most winning picture book character to help answer it.

In her first foray into the book world, she was a ‘unicorn expert’, but now she is trying her hand at detecting.

In the Sophie Johnson picture books by Morag Hood, illustrated by Ella Okstad, (strapline: Meet Sophie Johnson: outgoing, optimistic and oblivious), there is a perfect match of text and picture, the two working harmoniously to give a greater whole. Indeed, despite Sophie’s bragging of her expertise in her chosen career, the pictures give a slightly different perspective.

That doesn’t detract from Sophie Johnson’s awesomeness. In the latest book, Sophie Johnson: Detective Genius, she is enthusiastically looking for the thief who has stolen Lion’s tale. She doesn’t have the time to train her assistant, Bella the dog. But maybe Bella doesn’t need as much training as Sophie thinks.

A riotous, clever, and thoroughly enjoyable picture book, I fell for Sophie as soon as I saw her. Her character’s personality, oozing warmth and exuberance, is infectious. The zesty conversational prose instantly sucks in the reader, and the illustrations are endearing, vibrant, colourful, and full of familiar domestic details, as well as wit and energy.

Here, author Morag Hood gives us Sophie’s favourite detectives:

Top 5 Detective heroes:

My name is Sophie Johnson and these are my top 5 Greatest Detective Geniuses Ever in the Whole World (apart from me).

Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

People always call him a ‘classic’ detective (which I think is probably just a nice way of saying he is really quite old now) but Sherlock is a genius just like me. He can solve any mystery and he doesn’t let silly things like manners get in the way of him cracking a case. He also has a hat which looks a bit like mine so he must be pretty clever

Basil The Great Mouse Detective (Disney)

In some ways Basil is just a smaller, mousier version of Sherlock Holmes, but I think he has a lot more fun. He also has a snazzy outfit and a dog assistant just like me. Although his assistant is called Toby and he does actually help a little bit, unlike my assistant Bella who just barks at things.

Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

This man does have a very funny moustache, but Poirot is actually quite good at solving cases most of the time. He can spend a bit too much time thinking rather than doing, but we can probably forgive him for that because he did live ages ago.

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong (Murder Most Unladylike books by Robin Stevens)

Finally, a detective with a good assistant! Although actually I think they are probably just joint Detective Geniuses. They prove that girls like me are even better than grown ups at crime solving. I’m sure I will solve all kinds of mysteries once I am at school.

Dr Mark Sloan (Diagnosis Murder)

He is a detective and a doctor and he sometimes wears roller skates and sings.

With thanks to Morag Hood for letting us read Sophie’s detective choices, and S&S UK for the review copy. Sophie Johnson: Detective Genius by Morag Hood and Ella Okstad is published by Simon and Schuster and is available to buy here. I suggest you do!

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

good thievesFairy tales were often told as warnings or instructions on how to behave. Don’t play with the forbidden spinning wheel, don’t wander alone through the dangerous woods (even if you’re wearing a bright red cape), don’t break into someone else’s house and eat their porridge… Today’s tales are different. Children can do naughty, even bad things, if they are fighting evil or battling for the greater good. In essence, they can be good thieves – not good at thieving (although that too), but both good and a thief.

Set during the Prohibition in New York, during the 1920s, Vita (meaning life itself), has come over from England with her mother in order to set her grandfather’s affairs in order so that he can return home with them. It turns out, he has been cheated out of the ancestral home by an unscrupulous villain, Victor Sorrotore. Whereas her mother is all for signing paperwork and leaving swiftly, Vita is determined to win the house back for her grandfather, and recruits a pickpocket, and two apprentice circus performers to help her.

Set in a time well before house alarms and mobile phones, when picking locks is an asset for any thief, and children are left to their own devices, Rundell cleverly weaves period detail into her heist novel. Bootleggers and speakeasies, beautiful brownstone buildings and the intricacies of Carnegie Hall, as well as the specific grid system of New York, all provide a compelling and different backdrop for her children’s novel. And gender and race attitudes of the time are dropped into the story with deft awareness.

But it is the characters who win over the reader. They are bold and brave and keen to make their mark upon the world, always active, strong and memorable, but above all passionate about something, whether it be finding an emerald long since hidden in the ancestral house, or pursuing their vision of their future circus act, or simply surviving the mean streets of 1920s New York. They are fierce in their love for those they care about, and inspire a fierce loyalty from the reader.

Vita is slowed in movement by an episode of polio when younger, (a limp), and this hampers her throughout, although Rundell is keen to show the other children’s compassion, yet not pity for her. Vita is also a determined child with distinct attributes, which Rundell brings to life with little touches – Vita has ‘six kinds of smile, and five of them were real’, and she owns a supremely active way of thinking about things – Vita wears ‘a skirt you can kick in’.

Vita’s accomplices are well-drawn too, most particularly the circus apprentices, and this is where the story picks up zest and flair. Flying through the air, being an escape artist, understanding animals or throwing knives are all prized skills in both the ring and in life itself, and Rundell imbues her descriptions with colour and artistry, bringing the acts and performers to life.

As always, Rundell’s writing is swift and breathless, propelling the reader through the text like a glider through air, swooping and diving in and out of the plot, with short paragraphs and snippy dialogue. She uses simile and metaphor with the precision of a knife thrower. She cuts through excess, landing each word with specificity and wisdom. It is this apparent confident knowledge of the world, of higher truths, such as that ‘sometimes it was sensible not to be sensible,’ which gives her text its gravitas in the middle of scintillating storytelling.

With themes of loyalty and friendship, righting wrongs and clever thinking, this is a smart, pacey heist novel, with an inherent sense of wit throughout. Reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives in its wise way of children working together and outwitting evil adults, yet with the Rundell idiosyncrasies that mark her stories as being a cut above the rest. A must read. For 8+ years.

The Good Thieves publishes on Thursday 13th June, and you can pre-order it here. With special thanks to Jade at Bloomsbury Publishing for my review copy.