fiction

Train No. 4: Ister (Bucharest to Istanbul)

secret of the night trainConfused by the title? Don’t worry, I haven’t started trainspotting instead of reading. Today, I’m delighted to welcome Sylvia Bishop onto the site. Her latest book, The Secret of the Night Train, is my current book of the week, and features an intrepid young girl crossing Europe by train without her family. As if this wasn’t adventurous enough, she also uses the journey to find out if one of her fellow passengers is a jewel thief. The book is wonderfully written, intensely gripping, and one of my top books this year. To celebrate its publication, Sylvia has written a different blog each day to mirror her book’s structure – the train journey from Paris to Istanbul. Here, on MinervaReads, she celebrates the last part of the journey – from Bucharest to Istanbul. And I have two copies of the book to giveaway – see details at the bottom:

In my new book, The Secret of the Night Train, Max Morel takes a journey from Paris to Istanbul on four trains. She is accompanied by a nun called Sister Marguerite, and must solve the mystery of a smuggled diamond. I was lucky enough to do this journey myself, and wrote a lot of the book on board. In this series of blog posts, I talk about my real journey, and how it informed the book.

I had a very short window of time to make this journey, and to my grumpy and continued regret, the Ister wasn’t running. There were major reconstruction works at Sirkeci station. Woe is me! How shall this poor author write about a train she hasn’t travelled on?

I still wish I could have gone, but in the end it prompted quite a useful decision. I tried to conjure up this fourth train using the pictures on Google, but it felt abstract and boring, and I knew I had to do something else. To be honest, I am not sure if seeing the real train would have helped. I realised, as I crossed out a description-of-train passage for the nine millionth time, that maybe I had just described too many trains. Maybe we were train-ed out. It was time for a new setting.

Which was all very well, but short of shoving Max off and making her walk, I had no choice. She had to travel on a train.

I was discussing this dilemma with my endlessly-helpful housemates, when one casually suggested “Maybe you need to find a different way for her to travel by train. Like, she could do the classic roof-of-a-train scene.”

My housemates, for the record, are first class genius muses of the highest order.

So the next day found me glued to YouTube videos about thrill-seekers who climb on the outside of trains, which are a great thing to watch if you happen to enjoy feeling sick to your stomach or yelling “No, you fool, what are you doing, oh my God” at strangers on your computer who are genuinely extremely likely to die. As a result, the Ister section of Night Train is not much of a travel guide. It is more of a how-not-to-travel-guide. Poor Max. I put her through a lot.

This is the last train of the journey, but we are still only about two-thirds of the way through the story. From then on, while I was writing, I really missed the trains. They made so many decisions about the narrative for me – I very literally just followed the tracks. Once the characters arrived at the end of the line I was back in the big bad world of choices, where I had to carve out a narrative path for myself.

This, therefore, is the point in the book where things get odd. There are live jewel-covered birds and plant-based-disguises and elaborately constructed break-ins, because my untrammelled brain can’t be trusted.

Taking this journey was the most enjoyable, useful, memorable writing process I have ever tried. If you ever want to take the journey yourself, or any other international train journeys, I highly recommend www.seat61.com – incredible stuff. And I hope you enjoy the book!

The Secret of the Night Train by Sylvia Bishop is out now, published by Scholastic (RRP £6.99), and you can buy it here. Or, win one of my two copies (with thanks to Scholastic) by finding my MinervaReads Facebook page and commenting on this post.

 

The Secret of the Night Train by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Marco Guadalupi

secret of the night trainI’m often asked, how do I pick a book to be my book of the week? With non-fiction it’s easy to tick off criteria, and then spot the something special about the book. With fiction, it’s almost easier. The books pick me. Within about ten pages I usually suspect if it’s got that hint of magic that makes me want to keep reading, that quality which makes me feel for the characters, the emotion that gives me that tinge of sadness or spark of happiness. Very rarely, with great hope and shining eyes, I pencil in a book that hasn’t even arrived yet. I feel the tingle from afar, based on past novels, or something in the publisher’s email that pulled.

The Secret of the Night Train was pencilled in, but within ten pages I knew it was a dead cert. Sylvia Bishop previously won my heart with The Bookshop Girl, and she has twiddled her pen and made magic again.

Max is on a thrilling train journey across Europe. Her Great Aunt Elodie in Instanbul summons a member of her Parisian family to be her temporary companion, and Max, being the youngest and the least busy, takes the challenging adventure. Except it becomes so much more than she imagines, because the Heartbreak Diamond is missing, and the police think it’s on her train. With her travelling chaperone, a nun, will Max find the will and the way to seek the diamond herself and capture the thief before the train reaches Istanbul?

The book takes the format of the train journey, setting the chapters in different sections of the journey from Paris through Munich, Budapest and Bucharest to Istanbul. And while Max whittles down the passengers to a final list of suspects, she may be closer to the thief than she had imagined.

This is the tale of an ordinary life interrupted, told beautifully and with childlike wonder. Bishop completely nails Max’s feeling of trepidation for her journey – a homesickness before she’s even left, and plays on this subtle combination of wistfulness for home and longing for adventure. Bishop also has impeccable comic timing, and a deliciously wicked insight into being the smallest of a larger family.

Tucked in are a few jokes for adults too, in case this is an adventure the reader is sharing with their child, and I particularly chuckled at Max’s mother’s mannerisms and question avoidance. Bishop has a delightful turn of phrase, which makes an everyday story feel fresh and lively with every sentence:

“Then one day, when December had arrived and iced Paris all over with a slippery frosting, Max skidded-slid-stumbled home from school to find her mother on the phone. She was saying ‘Mm-hmm, of course’ with her voice, and YOU ARE AN UNBEARABLE STRAIN ON MY SAINTLY PATIENCE with her eyes.”

And also tenderly wise:

“That is the trouble with ideas that you have before dawn: they are extra sticky.”

Bishop also plays with expectations: not only in Max’s gender – full name Maximilienne, but also with the suspects and their intentions and motivations – keeping the reader guessing. The narrative feels slightly retro or timeless with parents who don’t helicopter or track their child’s movements, but also a child who has the time to be bored, and thus to seek adventure. But there are still moments of modern sensibility throughout:

“it turned out that even in this strange new country, miles away from her own, all the statues were still of a man-on-a-horse,”

But I think one of the most stellar qualities about this piece of writing is that despite having a gentle rhythm that mimicks the chugging of a train, it also feels tense and exciting, mirroring Max’s emotions.

This is a fabulous story with suitably elegant European illustrations, a terrifically authentic heroine (who often takes the naughtier option), and a cast of eccentrics who are beautifully imagined. Don’t miss your own trip on the Night Train, it’s a winning adventure. (I’ve even pencilled in Sylvia Bishop’s next….you probably should too). You can buy The Secret of the Night Train here.

Lucky Break: Rob Stevens Soars High

lucky breakI picked up Lucky Break by Rob Stevens whilst attending an event with Andersen Press, and my little testers loved it so much they said I must feature it. 

Leon is grieving for his twin brother, who died in a car accident. Since that fateful day, his mother has been ridiculously over-protective of him, and his family seem to have somewhat fragmented. When a new boy, Arnold, pitches up at school, Leon and he strike up a friendship.

But Arnold isn’t like anyone Leon’s met before. He’s honest, takes everything completely literally, and yet manages to get to the heart of everything and everyone. Over the course of one weekend, Arnold and Leon get into madcap capers and scrapes, playing sports and taking part in adventures that his mother would shudder at: busting the configuration of the slot machines and running away with their winnings, breaking windows, mistakenly robbing a bank, and yet they come out trumps in the end – Arnold helping Leon and his family to come to terms with their grief, and Leon helping Arnold finally make a friend. It’s a bittersweet comedy, written with pathos and insight, and in a smooth, easily readable style.

But after reading, I made a discovery. Rob Stevens, like so many children’s authors, doesn’t write full time. In fact, he’s a pilot, and one of my not-so-little testers dreams of aeroplanes, has aeroplane posters on the wall, and goes plane spotting. Perhaps he’s waved at Rob in the sky. So, with the assistance of Andersen Press, and to please my not-so-little tester, I asked Rob to provide me with his five best things about being a pilot:

My new novel, Lucky Break, published this month but writing isn’t my full-time job. I am a British Airways Captain, flying the A380 all over the world. Here are the five best things about being a pilot.

  • The A380 is a double-decker superjumbo – the largest passenger plane in the world. Being at the controls of an aircraft like that is simply a boyhood dream come true!
  • After a long flight I usually get about 48 hours off to relax and unwind before flying home. This is the perfect opportunity for me to forget about the rules and regulations of flying a passenger jet and let my imagination go free. Most of my books are written in hotel rooms and cafes around the world and I find writing the perfect counterbalance to life in the cockpit.
  • No two days at work are ever the same for me. Whether I’m avoiding thunderstorms over the equator or coping with heavy snow in Washington, I never quite know what the day ahead has in store.
  • I meet all sorts of interesting people in my job – passengers and crew. I get a lot of ideas for characters in my books from the people I meet at work. Often a single expression or a turn of phrase can be the catalyst for a whole new book.
  • I love all sorts of active sports and my job allows me to pursue them in some of the most exotic locations. Just this year I have been skiing in California, kitesurfing in Indonesia and walking the Dragon’s Back in Hong Kong. No wonder my sons say I don’t go to work, I go on holiday!

Thanks to Rob Stevens. I highly recommend his book, for ages 9+ years, which published on 3rd May and is available to buy here

Riding a Donkey Backwards

riding a donkey backwardsAs we celebrate the month of Ramadan, and think about how to increase diversity and representation in the books our children are reading, this sumptuous hardback, Riding a Donkey Backwards dropped onto my doormat, and I had to share it with you. It’s a collection of 21 tales and riddles about a trickster known across Muslim culture. Mulla Nasruddin is both the wisest man and the biggest fool. Through telling some of his stories, all contained on one or two pages, Sean Taylor, the Khayaal Theatre, and Shirin Adl bring the tales to life with drama and creativity.

Each tale is only a paragraph or two long – spanning one or two pages, with full double page colour collage illustrations. The text is jaunty and chatty, as befits the subject, and some tales and riddles leave a wry smile, others pose philosophical questions. Many invite critical thinking, but there are those that are just silly – on purpose. The text feels modern, but the illustrations feel traditional – set in familiar age-old landscapes, such as a school, a kitchen table, a market place. A Nice Steam Bath is illustrated to look as if it’s a wordless comic strip or an ancient scroll, and many of the collages use domestic materials such as a child might use: cotton wool beards, glass bead rivers. They are bright and welcoming, playful and intelligent.

Below, Sean Taylor explains about the book.

How did Riding a Donkey Backwards come about?

“It came about, indirectly, because of a terror attack. Back on 7th January 2015, there was a massacre in Paris, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. That day, I could feel people in the UK were shaken by the nearness of the violence, and I sensed some ‘retreating into shells’ going on. This made me want to do the opposite. At an event at Shakespeare’s Globe about 12 years previously, I’d met Luqman Ali and he’d given me a leaflet about Khayaal Theatre. Khayaal is a theatre company founded by him and Eleanor Martin. It is dedicated to showcasing the rich traditions of story, poetry and humour in Muslim cultures, and also to building engagement between Muslim communities and the wider world. I kept the leaflet Luqman had given me. Sometimes I’d come across it, wonder if there might be some way of collaborating with Khayaal, and decide probably not. But, that day, I wrote to Luqman. Looking back, my message said, among other things:

I have no more connection with, or understanding of, the Islamic world than you would expect from a man with an interest in stories and poetry who grew up in the home counties of England. My strongest connections are, in fact, not to the east, but to the west. My wife is from, Brazil. We have lived there on and off over the past twenty years. But rather than seeing these things as obstacles, I shall, for the sake of this message, see them as reasons for making connection. Might we meet? Might we talk a bit about stories, and about theatre and about work with young people? Might something fruitful result from this impulse to reach out? ”

What happened next?

“We did meet, at the British Library, a few weeks later. And it was clear that, though we are from quite different cultural backgrounds, we had a lot in common in terms of our work around story and education, and our shared interest in the imagination, dreams and humour. So it seemed natural to try to find a way to work together. I had in mind there might be ways Khayaal could make use of my experience of writing for theatre. Actually, they expressed an interest in writing a children’s book. So the idea of retelling some of the stories of Mulla Nasruddin in a publication for young readers was born. I thought newly-founded Otter-Barry Books might show interest in the project. And I’m happy to say they did.”

Who exactly is Mulla Nasruddin?

“There’s no exact answer. Some say Nasruddin was a real man who lived in the thirteenth century. Nobody knows for sure! Many different countries claim to be his birthplace, including Turkey and Iran. In the introduction to the book we say:

He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh. If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!”

Why retell these Nasruddin stories?

“They are age-old stories, but I think they are absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Nasruddin challenges fixed ways of looking at our world, and stuck ways of behaving. So the stories about him fly in the face of fundamentalist thinking – whether it be the single-track thinking of Islamist fundamentalism or the equally narrow thinking of Islamophobia. Take a story like the one we’ve called They Can’t Both Be Right! In this, Mulla Nasruddin is asked to settle an argument between two men, in a tea house. Nasruddin listens to the first man and says, “You are right.” Then he listens to the second man and says, “You are right.” Then the owner of the tea-house says, “Well, they can’t both be right!” And Nasruddin says, “You are right!” This is a brilliant, light-hearted way of pointing out that the world cannot be seen in black and white (as more and more people seem happy to see it.) In another story, called Don’t Ask Me! the donkey Nasruddin is riding is startled by a snake. As the donkey gallops madly off, a young farmer calls out, “Where are you going, Nasruddin?” Nasruddin calls back, “Don’t ask me! Ask the donkey!” Can you feel how this has a message for anyone who thinks they have simple answers to the challenges of our times? When an out-of-control donkey is carrying you, how can you sit there stiffly certain about where you are going? At one level this tale is just a funny anecdote. But scratch its surface (or the surface of the other stories in our book) and you find wisdom. Nasruddin asks fresh questions in the face of ready-made answers. The stories in Riding a Donkey Backwards offer new ways of thinking to anyone numbed by the world, or feeling driven to recrimination and aggression. These are reasons why we wanted to bring Nasruddin, his provocations and his heartfelt laughter to life for young readers.”

How was the book created?

“Khayaal Theatre’s Eleanor Martin joined Luqman and me in the writing process. And it turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, with lots of discussion, and drafts to-ing and fro-ing as we worked out which Nasruddin stories to include and how to tell them on the page. Otter-Barry Books brought Iranian illustrator Shirin Adl on board, and Shirin came up with the wonderfully crafted illustrations which make Riding a Donkey Backwards so beautiful to look at.”

With thanks to Sean Taylor. You can buy Riding a Donkey Backwards here.

A Taste of Home: A Guest Post from Victoria Williamson

fox girl and the white gazelleVictoria Williamson’s debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, is the compelling story of two frightened girls who are dealing with traumatic circumstances within their own families, and yet through their unlikely friendship, manage to overcome and even banish some of their fears.

When the two girls discover an injured fox and her cubs hiding on their estate, they realise that a friendship between them will help the foxes. Slowly, they discover that they have much more in common than just saving foxes, and soon it is Reema (a Syrian refugee) showing Caylin (a native Scot) how to fit in and belong in their local Scottish community. The power of their friendship gives a stability and a hopefulness to both girls.

Caylin is troubled – the reader first sees her in the role of bully, taking birthday money from a school girl, but the reader is soon aware that although Caylin’s actions can’t be excused, there are reasons behind her behaviour. Williamson draws Caylin with breathtaking empathy.

In alternating chapters the reader meets Reema, a refugee fleeing her wartorn country, and coming to terms with the damage the war has inflicted upon her family and the realities of facing life in a completely different country and immersing herself within its culture:
“Here even the trees speak a different language.”

Caylin is a wonderfully drawn character – distrustful of adults around her due to past circumstances, predisposed to show a lack of effort at school, and yet remarkably likeable, and completely misunderstood. And Reema too, is shown bravely straddling her old and new lives, embracing her new culture whilst trying not to eschew the old. But it’s Williamson’s own grasp of the two cultures that makes for such an effective read.

Here, she explores how she used the sensation of taste and the meaning of food to explore the characters within her novel:

Harissa cake, mint lemonade, tangerines, pears, plums, beans, soup, fish and chips, battered sausages, tea, lamb stew, peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, corned beef, porridge, pizza, chewing gum, toast and jam, tabouleh salad, chicken shawarma, baqlawa pastries, ma’amoul cookies, bubblegum, coffee, meatballs, yoghurt, ice cream, custard, sweet and sour pork, crisps, flatbread, chicken casserole, pancakes with whipped cream and chocolate, black pudding, haggis, Irn Bru and deep-fried Mars Bars.

This is just some of the food mentioned in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle.  It wasn’t until I was editing my novel that I realised just how many times food and drink was discussed, and how important it was to my characters. For Caylin, chips from the local chip shop are not just a necessity as her mother’s expensive alcohol habit uses up their benefits money, but a treat to be looked forward to at the end of a hard school day. In chapter three she says:

“I stuff the plastic bag with the wrapped chips down my jacket as soon as I get outside, hugging them to my chest and soaking up the warmth and delicious smell. Then I run home, the secret stash of chips protecting me from the wind and the rain like a magic charm.”

For Reema on the other hand, the chips in the school canteen are a greasy reminder that she’s in a foreign country very far from her beloved Syria. Even something as simple as a cup of tea that doesn’t taste the same makes her homesick, as she describes in chapter four:

Mama makes the tea that our neighbour has brought instead of using the packet of tea leaves the mosque gave us along with a big box of food supplies. She is afraid the old lady will not like our strong Syrian tea, and she wants our guest to feel welcome. I try not to make a face as I sip the weak brew. It tastes soft and sad, just like the Scottish rain. I long for a cup of strong black tea and the lashing rain of home.

Victoria in Cameroon

It got me thinking about the time I spent working as a teacher in Africa, particularly my two years in Cameroon. The food was so different from anything I’d eaten before – boiled fufu corn and Njama njama (a kind of fried huckleberry leaf), rice and bean stew, ‘foot cow’ pepper soup, and egusi pudding (ground seed paste with dried crayfish).

And then of course, there was achu.

I thought I would never, ever get used to the taste of achu and yellow soup. It looks about as appetising as it sounds: a grey, volcano-shaped mound of pounded coco yam with a play-doh like consistency, and thick yellow soup with a crushed limestone base. The first time I ate it the only way I could swallow it down was to take a big gulp of water with each bite, fake-smiling at the teacher who’d spent hours preparing it for me and hoping I wasn’t going to look like an ungrateful guest by throwing it up on the table. Try as I might to avoid it over the next two years, it turned up regularly at the end of each long school meeting, prepared by some of the female staff. We’d share a drink and a laugh together over our meal, and eventually I learned to tolerate and then grow strangely fond of the grey goo that I’d struggled to swallow at first.

Towards the end of my time there, I found my mind wandering in class when lunchtime approached, but it wasn’t the rice and beans I enjoyed so much at the local chop house I was thinking about. I couldn’t get the thought of my mother’s shepherd’s pie and cherry scones out of my head. There were times I’d even think longingly of the oxtail soup she used to make for lunch when my brothers and I would come running home from primary school, which was odd, as I didn’t even like oxtail soup!

This is where Reema’s homesick voice comes from, when she asks her little sister in chapter twelve:

“Remember the food Aunt Amira used to make? The tabouleh salads and chicken shawarma and baqlawa pastries? And the Eid al-Fitr feast when we would invite all our family and friends to eat Mama’s famous ma’amoul cookies?”

My mouth is watering at the very thought of my favourite dishes, but Sara is frowning at me as though I am speaking a foreign language.

In the months after I returned to the UK, I got to eat all of the food I’d missed – my mother’s homemade cooking, spaghetti Bolognese, moussaka, chille con carne and chocolate cake. But one day as I finished teaching a maths class just before lunch, I realised a strange thing. Instead of fantasising about the pasta and pizza, fish and chips or baked potatoes in the canteen, all I could think about was a big plate of achu and yellow soup. Two years of trying to avoid the stuff, and there I was missing it like a long lost friend. That was when I finally understood. It wasn’t about the food at all. It was about the people I’d shared the food with that made the memories of it so powerful.

That’s why Caylin loves her chips so much despite eating them every day until her unwashed uniform starts to smell of grease. They remind her of happy times and make her feel safe. In chapter five she describes sharing a meal from the chip shop with her mother:

I snuggle up next to her on the couch and rest my head against her fluffy dressing gown. She puts her arm round me and holds me tight as we laugh at the stupid film and the rubbish acting. This is my favourite time of day – just before bed, when Mum’s slept off the doctor’s tablets to help with her depression, and before she reaches for a bottle to help her through the night. This is when I can pretend we’re a proper family again and the accident that ruined it all didn’t ever happen.

No matter where we are in the world, our thoughts, opinions and memories of the food we eat will be shaped by the people we share it with. Even if at first we struggle with the flavour, texture or smell of a new dish, ultimately whether we come to love and miss it will depend on our willingness to connect to the people who sit with us round the table. Despite missing home so much it hurts, Reema comes to discover a fondness for Scottish food when she makes friends with Caylin and starts to feel more at home in her adopted country. Caylin describes this in chapter twenty-nine:

On the way home we stopped at Michael’s Superchippy. We had a great party eating Syrian food with the Haddads  a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to share something from Scotland with Reema and Sara. I asked Brian to get them a black pudding or haggis supper, but he said they weren’t allowed to eat meat that wasn’t halal, from their own Muslim butchers.  I was disappointed, but Brian winked at me and asked the guy serving us for a deep-fried Mars Bar each for pudding.

Now we’re sitting on our sofa, eating chips and deep-fried chocolate bars, and I can’t stop laughing at Reema’s impression of a Glaswegian accent when she says “pure dead brilliant!” and takes a swig of Irn Bru from her can.

“Does this mean I’m Scottish now?” Sara asks, licking the chocolate off her fingers. “Am I properly Scottish?”

Brian can see that Reema doesn’t like her saying that, so he says quickly, “You’re Syrian-Scottish, Sara. You get to be two things at once, which is extra special as most of us only get to be from one place, and that’s boring.” Brian’s good that way.  He knows how to say the right thing and make people feel more relaxed. I was totally wrong about him. He isn’t a bit like Mum’s old boyfriends.

“Syrian-Scottish? Yes, I like that,” Reema smiles and clinks her Irn Bru can against mine like it’s champagne we’re drinking.

So next time you’re far from home and faced with a strange dish you’re not sure you’ll like, take a look at the people you’re eating with. If you’re willing to let your guard down and make new friends despite language and cultural differences, then chances are you’ll come to miss that food just as much as the friendly faces round the dinner table when you leave.

With thanks to Victoria Williamson for writing with such passion about her novel. You can buy your own copy here

You’re Safe With Me by Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry

you're safe with meThere’s something about the physicality of a book that can’t be matched. Perhaps that’s why, as Egmont report in their Print Matters findings, 94% of children’s books bought in 2017 were purchased in their print format. If we look to history, it was the most important texts that were physically preserved – revered for the time invested in them. The Grimm Brothers saw the necessity of the oral folk tales, and therefore wrote them down. And picture books earn their place in this tradition of printed matter, with the attention to detail and care that goes into them.

Mass printed they might be, but sometimes picture books are so beautiful they appear as if they have been created with the individual reader in mind. This latest picture book, You’re Safe With Me from Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry, catches the eye with its lyrical prose, but also stands out for its stunning design, which calls up the kalamkari tradition of textiles, apt because the name derives from the Persian words for pen and craftsmanship – and this book does feel like a piece of exquisite craft.

It is a dark and stormy night, and the baby animals within the Indian forest are scared: a monkey, a loris, a tiger and a pangolin. Two familiar animals, two rather more exotic – familiarity for cosiness, and exotic for exploring and learning. Looking after them all is Mama Elephant – her size and wisdom providing solace and comfort.

A ‘Raindrops on Roses’ story for the young, this is a more in-depth and intelligent soothing of fears. Mama Elephants attempts to explain, with her scientific knowledge, the logical reason for the storm – why the wind blows, why the thunder clatters, why the river rumbles. In doing so, she explains the weather cycle – the ability of the wind to bring seeds, the rain to cause them to grow, the river to take the water back to the sea. But her language is poetic; and she speaks in a rhythm that soothes like a lullaby.

By naming each sound for the babies, and then explaining its purpose, she dispels their fear with understanding – a lesson for our times. This feels like an old fable, brought up to date with understanding and modern sensibility. An emotional attachment is formed with the animals, and a sense of relief in their comfort, much like the smell of Earth after a rainstorm.

But it is the illustrations that propel this book and make it so much more than a comforting bedtime read. The patterns on the page, the fusion of geometry and art, are drawn with a richness, almost a hypnotic quality. The reader sees the shapes of the animals, but each is so exquisitely drawn, etched with colour and design, so that the frogs are both stark against their background, but also blend into it with a riot of line and pattern. The fish swim on a background of blue circles, the lightning sparkles against a black background of shining diamonds and circles. It is absorbing, glossy and appears almost three-dimensional in its intricacy.

You’re Safe with Me is a triumph of a picture book. The rhythm of text and illustration sweep the reader into the story. I can imagine children hugging it to sleep, the physicality of this book reassuring and mesmeric. You can buy it here.

An Interview with Bren MacDibble

how to beeThe other week, I featured How to Bee by Bren MacDibble as my book of the week. It’s a near-future fictional look at the plight of children in a world in which bees have been wiped out from pesticide use, with a stand-out protagonist in the shape of Peony, a farm child who longs to be a bee (a worker who manually pollinates the trees). Bren MacDibble kindly gave me some time and answered my many questions – the book itself throws up many topics of debate and is a fascinating study, as well as a bold and gripping novel.

How To Bee is a phenomenal story set in the future after the loss of bees has caused an environmental disaster and famine. How did you come up with this idea?

For a long time, I’ve been looking for a farm story (being a farm kid, write what you know and all that stuff), but I love fiction set in the future, so it came about pretty naturally after looking into food security and all the possible threats to our food supplies. Bees and their current plight are definitely worthy of a story, having worked alongside English crops for centuries, and their current situation being so dire.

The future in the novel is fairly bleak, not only the environmental impact, but in terms of a massive divide between rich and poor, and a seeming lack of human rights/right to education/child protection. Did you set out to show this wealth divide for a reason?

I see it happening all around us right now, so a future without it didn’t seem honest. When you have money there are so many ways to use that money to make more money, but the poverty trap is just that, a trap. Once you’re poor, there are so many barriers to getting work, to getting by, to getting ahead. So many people, and societal structures that tell you daily you’re worthless and stupid, adding your own lack of self-worth to the trap. Working for just enough money to keep working is another form of poverty. Maybe you feel safer, because you can buy enough to eat, and the clothes you need to keep working, and pay for the travel to the job that pays just enough to keep you employed.

The poor and the working poor suffer first and suffer most in any catastrophe. Floods, fire, famine. Money, and the insurance it buys, is insulation that carries people through a catastrophe, but the poor don’t have that. They were struggling already to pay rent, to buy food, they didn’t have the funds to plan for the unexpected. That had to be shown if this was going to be an honest story. And I wanted this to be an honest story.

In the novel, Peony, the main character, has a truly distinctive voice, which reflects her lack of schooling and her rural upbringing. Did you find writing the voice easy?

Peony’s voice was so easy. She just got into my head. Her voice was full of the bravado of someone who has mastered her own small world, but also so simple and honest. There were a few elements I had to think about, like that fruit and flowers were precious in this new future so all good things like the children’s names, and the term ‘super-cherries’ had to celebrate fruit or flowers, also I wanted to set it in the future, but I needed them to still speak like farm kids. So it had to be futuristic with words like ‘diz’ for disrespect and ‘Urbs’ for city dwellers, but roughed up and full of farm terms like ‘go stomp yourself,’ which is how they get rid of pests in the future on farms with no pesticides.

The rich people in the novel still have phones and computers and televisions, yet the poor people don’t at all. Do you see our use of technology dying out in the future, rather than extending communication between different people?

In this future, young Esmeralda can play games on her fridge and in her room, and no doubt her parents use technology in their jobs much as we do, but there are so many poor in the post famine world, that I expected any technology they once owned would’ve been swapped/sold/pawned for food long ago. Electricity and internet fees would be further costs that could better go towards food and shelter. Maslow’s hierachy of needs does not have technology in the bottom layers.

In the book’s acknowledgements, you mention that you wished the foreman on the farms had been as nice as you had made Boz, the foreman in the book. How many farms have you lived on and what was your experience? How did you use that experience to form How to Bee?

There were about five farms between the ages of 7 and 17. On one, we lived in little more than a shed, surrounded by an electric fence and a chow chow paddock full of steers. I was alternately electrocuted and chased by young bulls, the bare wooden floor gave me splinters and the water chugged out of the taps brown. At the local school which had two classrooms and four kids in my year level, no one would talk to me because their parents owned land and we were the scruffy kids who lived in a shed in the chow chow paddock. The land owners certainly made it known that we were lesser beings. Whether they were swearing at us to round up sheep faster, or giving us a dressing down for stealing fruit from their orchards, we certainly got the impression that we were feral sub-beings who should just be quiet and behave. The last two farms were better, the land owners were nice, often had things to give away, and would invite us to use their pool on hot days.

You also write school reading books. Is there a big difference between writing these stories and your novels? Is it more restrictive?

I just write what I want, which doesn’t really fit with most publishers in the educational market, just those keen on humour, with fun series. Okay, mainly just one publisher, but their series are hugely popular and sell into the UK and US as well, so I’m very lucky to have found that one educational publisher that likes me. Mostly these are short concise stories and there’s not the room to be intensive with the characters, the way Peony is written.

I’ve read that you have quite a bit of wanderlust. How does travel inform your writing?

I think it’s built into me, this moving on thing. We moved around a lot when I was a child, I backpacked the world in my 20s, travelled across the US on motorbikes recently, and now I live in a bus. I think it does inform my writing because if you’re living how I’m living right now, which is with only the basics, you understand what you really need to get by. Travelling lets me meet a lot of people, see a lot of lives, hear a lot of accents, gather ideas, avoid the need for a full time job, and understand what it is a human really needs to be okay.

What do you think has been the biggest influence on your writing?

Reading. I read widely. I read all the time. I get upset that people think I have to read all the latest and greatest or all the classics because I need time to read all the obscure and wonderful too. It’s a terrible shame our lifetimes are too short to read everything. I read my favourite writers when they talk about what they do and I try to understand how they do it. So basically, finding authors I love, whatever the genre, and listening to their observations. Shoving it all into my head so I can understand how to do what I want to do, which is write with honesty and heart and really connect with readers.

Are you excited to bring your novel to the UK? Do you think readers here see differently from those in your native Australia/New Zealand?

Super excited. In Australia, the bees don’t have the varroa mite and deformed wing virus, yet. The bees are not suffering as much as they are in every other country. So there isn’t as much noise about saving bees as there is in the UK. I think people in the UK are more ready to see the importance of this book. Young readers in Australia and New Zealand have given me absolutely wonderful feedback about How to Bee, and I think young people in the UK will love it too. Peony’s way of talking is universal, being a future/country mash up rather than anything colloquial, and young UK ears will tune into it very quickly given their exposure to accents and slang. It’s been shortlisted/won six awards down under and it’d be super-cherries if it took off in the UK as well.

What are you working on next?

Dry Running is almost done, and comes out this year in Australia. I have created another famine, this time caused by the death of all grass and grains due to a fungus (this was recently reported in Queensland, but I promise I’m not writing these things into existence!). A brother and sister have to escape the city and drive their dog cart, pulled by three Malamutes and two Huskies, 600 km to safety to reunite their family. Two kids, five big dogs, and a wide bare land to cross. It’s going to be an adventure!

With huge thanks to Bren MacDibble for so patiently answering my questions. And I highly recommend How to Bee. You can buy it here

 

Branford Boase Award Shortlist: A Guest Blog from Philip Womack

branford boaseToday the shortlist for the Branford Boase Award 2018 is announced. This award is given annually to the author of an outstanding debut novel for children, and uniquely honours both the author and the editor – highlighting the importance of the editor in nurturing new talent. I am happy to welcome Philip Womack, one of the judges of this year’s award, to explain his judging process and reveal the shortlist. Philip Womack is himself the author of six critically acclaimed novels for children. His latest, The Arrow of Apollo, is on Unbound. He is also a literary critic, and teaches Children’s and Young Adult Fiction at Royal Holloway.

I was delighted to be on the judging panel for this year’s 2018 Branford Boase award. It’s an unusual and interesting prize, in that it looks at not just the author of a debut novel, but also at the role of the editor. My fellow panellists were M G Leonard, author of the best selling Beetle Boy series; Urmi Merchant, from Pickled Pepper Books, and librarian Helen Swinyard.

We began with a huge pile of books: all showing promise, all with something exciting to say, all crafted with love and care, all with editors who had found  in this new author’s voice something that sparked them.

We read, diligently; I often had two books in my pocket when on the tube. I developed my own system of ranking, mentally moving books up and down the list as I went.  I began to tire of certain tropes that infect children’s and Young Adult fiction – I feel no compunction in saying that I think there is a time and place for the first person present tense narrative, and that most of the time, that place is not in the pages of a book.

I also felt that too often the main characters  were weighted down with serious problems that, rather than being the story, got in the way of the story itself. But these are debuts, and in a debut a writer will be exploring ideas, and the joy of the Branford Boase is that it recognises this: not all debuts are perfect, and many  will lead their authors on to great things. (Show me the first page of my debut novel now, and I will show you a man biting his nails with embarrassment.)

Then came the difficult bit. I’d made my list, weighed up the pros and cons, developed my own criteria. But then how on earth do you whittle down over 20 books to a shortlist of just 7, with a vocal panel of often conflicting opinions, and with such a wide range of subjects and age ranges? The discussion between the four panel members was always lively, aided by sandwiches and tea.

There were a lot of narratives that, read in conjunction with each other, seemed remarkably similar, usually involving a child or young adult with an illness in an enclosed environment. Whilst each had its own merits, it became clear that there was a formula; and (which is my own opinion, and not necessarily that of the other panellists) it does make for a rather depressing children’s literary landscape.

Other books caused surprising polarisations, with half the panel loving them, and the other half really not; these were placed on “maybe” piles. We drank more tea, ate – in my case, at least – more sandwiches.

branford boase shortlistSlowly, the shortlistees began to emerge.  Tony Mitton’s Potter’s Boy, elegant and surefooted, had the gravitas to be entirely sure of itself and the story it was telling. Yaba Badoe’s Jigsaw of Fire and Stars was characterised by a rich vividness. Sharon Cohen’s The Starman and Me was slick and involving. Chloe Daykin’s Fish Boy at first appeared to be of the common type of “enclosed child” narrative, but became something else. Mitch Johnson’s Kick was powerful and reached out into the world. Jacob Sager Weinstein’s The City of Secret Rivers showed remarkable comic control and imaginative flair; whilst Elys Dolan’s Knighthood for Beginners was appealing and funny.

Our shortlist is not perfect: how could it be? If there had been four other people in the room, no doubt it would have been different. However, I think our shortlist reflects the quality and range of debut children’s fiction at the moment; and I look forward to the exciting futures in store for these writers – and for those on the longlist too.

The Shortlist in Full

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars by Yaba Badoe, edited by Fiona Kennedy (Head of Zeus: Zephyr)
The Starman and Me by Sharon Cohen, edited by Sarah Lambert (Quercus Children’s Books)
Fish Boy by Chloe Daykin, edited by Leah Thaxton (Faber)
Knighthood for Beginners by Elys Dolan, edited by Clare Whitston and Elv Moody (Oxford)
Kick by Mitch Johnson, edited by Rebecca Hill and Becky Walker (Usborne)
Potter’s Boy by Tony Mitton, edited by Anthony Hinton (David Fickling Books)
The City of Secret Rivers by Jacob Sager Weinstein, edited by Gill Evans (Walker Books)

The winner is announced on Wednesday 4th July. For more information about the award, click here 

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

how to beeRecently, I’m seeing a great deal of science fiction that’s set in the very near future (mainly in adult fiction, but also in some children’s novels), as if we’re nearing our own dystopian landscape. But generally, this genre works well. It enables the author to envision a future not that different from the present, but tweaking elements to make a specific point. For the reader, it coaxes belief in this imagined world, in that there is a startling familiarity with specific things, despite the larger world being a little different.

In How to Bee, Bren MacDibble goes with the premise that due to widespread use of pesticides, the bees have died out, and to continue growing produce and farming, pollination must be done by children (leaping from tree to tree with special pollinating wands). Based on real practises in Chinese provinces, where humans do actually hand-pollinate pear blossom, and her real-life experience of growing up on a farm, the book feels authentic and disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful.

What shines most from this dazzlingly yellow book is MacDibble’s use of ‘voice’ to tell Peony’s story. Peony is nine years old, a worker on the farm, although not yet a Bee, because to be a Bee a child must be ten and awfully quick. She’s working towards it, but not quite there yet. Her voice, as she tells her story, feels new, fresh, lively, irrepressible but mainly fast, as if she’s scrabbling over the words as she would scrabble across the trees. The voice feels unschooled, unrestrictive, and matches her immense physicality. The play on words of the title sum up Peony’s whole existence. This is a girl bursting with life. She wants to be as much as she wants to bee.

Of course, like all good novelists, MacDibble must throw obstacles in Peony’s way, and this is where things become dark and difficult. Peony is removed to the city, away from her beloved grandfather and little sister and farm, to work with her mother in one of the big city houses. The episode of her removal from the farm is fairly traumatic, and the two worlds – city and country – could not be more disparate.

In fact MacDibble’s vision of the future is fairly bleak. Human rights are eroded – the children of the farm are broadcast ‘lessons’ on loudspeakers in the morning while they work – there is no universal right to education. Once in the city, Peony is a servant rather than merely staff – workers’ rights too seem to have been eroded. What’s more, there is unpoliced domestic abuse and cruelty to children. Poverty is widespread and there is no welfare system net in place.

But for many children, they will not read into the bleakness of this. Peony’s move to the city is an adventure, and she swiftly makes friends with the girl of the house – Peony’s kind nature and selflessness shining through. And there is an uplifting ending with Peony’s love for family and nature winning the day. Mainly because Peony’s voice is so lively and uplifting, and her shining adoration for the farm, her immediate family and nature triumphs against everything dark and evil.

The book is well paced – short sharp chapters, with quick forward movement like the bee pollinators themselves, the reader is propelled forwards on Peony’s adventure. The reader feels an enormous amount of empathy for this small child in a frightening world – having a more all-seeing terrain of her story than Peony does herself.

For all its shortness, MacDibble breathes plenty of life into the book. There are complex dynamics between characters – particularly the mother/child bond, and also an unabashed look at inequalities in society.

MacDibble writes with confidence and ease – the book feels different, atypical, which makes it shine brightly in the field of current children’s fiction. It turns out being is a complicated business, but with books such as this, children will buzz with excitement about their ability to influence their own futures. You can buy your copy here. I would suggest as 9+ years, but beware some of the darker episodes. Young teens who are reluctant readers will love the story’s depth whilst appreciating the brevity of the text.

Let Them Eat Cake!

There’s a lot of cake in publishing: book launches have their fair share of wine, but there is a trend too for book-themed cakes and cupcakes. Has cake hit the zeitgeist because of the Great British Bake Off? Or is it just a perpetual British tradition?

Those looking after children have long known the effect of baking a cake with youngsters – you may end up with flour all over the kitchen, but it teaches science and maths, and there’s always a treat at the end. These picture books have captured the moment:

i really want the cakeI Really Want the Cake by Simon Philip and Lucia Gaggiotti

It’s so terribly tempting. A luscious chocolate cake has been made and is sitting on the table. There is no one around. Who could resist?

The little girl is intent upon having her cake and eating it in this endearing rhyming picture book. So much so, that just licking is not enough, and she resorts to eating the entire thing, (despite her mother’s note informing her not to), and then attempting to rectify her mistake by baking another.

Not only is the story terrifically entertaining, and written in such an enticing way that the reader simply has to read the story out loud with the correct inflection, but the illustrations match the tone completely.

This picture book hits every taste bud perfectly – because although the premise is simple, the execution is as flawless as smooth chocolate fudge icing, and the small details all piped on perfectly. Note the cakes instead of pupils in the little girl’s eyes, the dog a complicit partner in crime, and the exquisite mix of mischievousness, wicked intent, culpability and cuteness of the protagonist. There’s a recipe at the back for those who wish to also make a cake as an apologetic gift for their mother! Top prize. Devour it here.

Cake by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet

One of my little book testers stopped eating peas a couple of years ago, and I’m sure it’s got something to do with Sue Hendra’s Supertato books and the evil nemesis within – Evil Pea. So, we were both eager to read Cake, Sue Hendra’s latest book.

Cake has been invited to his first ever birthday party, but feels he looks plain. He buys a hat with candles on top, on the advice of his friend Fish, and goes to the birthday party, where the hosts have been long awaiting him. The reader has a slight inkling that Cake maybe isn’t prepared for what’s about to happen, and may be awfully relieved when he escapes as the candles are extinguished. There’s a neat sting to the tail though in the final twist – if readers have a vivid imagination, then things could get quite nasty!

The sense of humour prevails throughout, in the plot and the illustrations: from the penguin shop assistant to Cake riding his bicycle, to the absorbing emotions of Cake’s face.

This is a delicious book, warm, witty, and bearing the authors’ joint bold and brilliant styles. If the little testers ask for Cake over and over, and yet they’re not talking about the edible kind, you know you’re onto a winner. Buy yours here.

Great Bunny Bakes by Ellie Snowdon

Watchers of that famous television programme will notice something similar in this Bunny Bake Off book, in which Quentin the wolf enters a competition designed for baking rabbits (no, not rabbit pie, but bunnies who bake). The wolf loves baking, but has to disguise himself as a rabbit to enter.

Luckily for the bunnies, Quentin is much more interested in perfecting each round of baking rather than eating rabbits, and before long has shown off his bread loaf and his wibbly wobbly trifle. But one particular bunny is jealous and aims to sabotage the rest of the competition. Quentin survives this slight, and slipping on a banana skin, and eventually being outed as a wolf, and still emerges the triumphant winner, winning not only the competition but some bunny friends too.

The tone is light and fluffy, the illustrations rich and full of incident, and there’s a nice sprinkling of kindness throughout. Snowdon is adept at adding in as many extras as she can, from honeybees swarming the honey buns to cherries popping from the trifles, all of which add to a general feeling of busyness, mayhem and delight in the baking. This is a very tasty debut. You can buy it here.