fiction

Payback by M A Griffin

paybackWith an edgy cover that illuminates shadows of teens wearing fox masks against a stark black background, where the title winks at the reader in foiled gold lettering, Payback draws attention before the reader has even opened the book. Inside, lies a dark, gritty political thriller.

Protagonist 16-year-old Tom has long been a fan of direct action group, Payback – a modern Robin Hood heist outfit who take from the rich and give to the poor, often filming their crimes and screening them on YouTube. When they target the hotel where he works, it’s not long before he’s recruited to the cause and the group, and using his acting skills to assist in their next ventures.

In typical heist movie style, the reader is on board with the perpetrators of the crime, at first seeing what they do as necessary to combat corporate and government wrongs. The so-called victims of the crimes are not victims at all but evil money-grabbers, and the direct action group Payback doesn’t keep the money, but simply redistributes wealth – handing it off to the neediest in society.

But the beauty of the book, which reads as a thriller, gaining momentum job after job like a train rushing through stations with the brakes off, is that it makes the reader re-evaluate the protagonist’s motives, and the moral stature of the group.

Tom comes from a privileged background – something of which is he quite self-aware. And it troubles him at the same time as providing him with a cushy safety net. And Payback’s crimes are not without their innocent victims – even the ones not at the scene, such as the waiter they trick out of having a job, simply by taking his place as a disguise. As the violence ramps up, the reader becomes even more doubtful of the lines of right and wrong.

In the middle, there’s some head scratching for the reader – was Robin Hood right – is stealing from the rich to give to the poor the right thing to do – and how do you work out who should be a beneficiary and who shouldn’t? And are all the privileged evil? There’s some pretty facile arguing from some of the gang, juxtaposing benefit withdrawal with champagne expenses in the House of Lords. All this talk about the balance of wealth in society makes the book current, but what Griffin does magnificently is that he doesn’t present the story as a didactic piece – just as a kind of ‘throwing it out there, think about this’ conversation.

The teenagers read as pretty authentic, with the odd swear word grafted in, and the dialogue pretty spot-on – tidied of course for a prose novel – but they also come across as pretty insular and spectacularly naïve. In fact, at times every move seems more like a game to them – even a computer game – than real life. So when they set some of their money on fire, or badly misread a trap – it’s kind of inevitable that things will start to go badly for them, and that the smart policewoman who’s hot on their heels will piece it all together before they will.

By and by, the reader learns that much of the gang’s motivation isn’t necessarily altruistic.

However, Griffin ramps up the tension so that by the time the policewoman comes across Payback’s headquarters, the reader is in as much of a hurry to find out what happens as Tom and Payback are to get away. The second half of the book is a rip-roaring read, particularly difficult to put down.

The idea of a direct action group making changes in society rather than the people being reliant on the government to effect change is perhaps even more current than the idea of a Robin Hood figure (although Griffin purportedly took some inspiration from Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, a modern Spanish politician famous for his Robin Hood raids). The novel is highly political because it speaks directly to teenagers about how and when they could effect change themselves – and at what point a moral or legal line is crossed.

With a wonderful evocation of a slightly different Manchester, in which teens lurk in spaces under arches and access free climbing walls, and terrific scenes in the dark ‘wild nothingness’ of the countryside, Griffin nails his settings with aplomb. It’s a highly visual novel with teasing chapter endings, moral dilemmas and questions about consequences, trust and justice. But most of all, it’s a thriller of a ride. Invest in this one, and you’ll have swift payback in satisfaction. You can buy it here.

Are you more Sugar & Sparkle or Fangs & Moonlight?

isadora moonIn 2016, I discovered a phenomenal new series for newly independent readers. The children had read through the Horrid Henry shelf, and the Claude shelf, and were looking for something different. Along came Isadora Moon by Harriet Muncaster. The adventures of a half vampire, half fairy with numerous illustrations in pink or black, and first experiences the children could relate to – starting school, birthdays, a school trip – were, and still are, extraordinarily successful. Here, Harriet has set a summer challenge for you – to discover if you are more fairylike (all sugar and sparkle), or more vampirelike (fangs and moonlight). Take the test and see:

My Isadora Moon series is about a little girl who is half-fairy and half-vampire. Her mum’s a pink, flowery, nature-loving fairy, while her dad is a slick, gothic, night-time vampire. That means she’s a bit of both: she loves doing ballet in her sparkly tutu, but she also loves swooping through the night sky.

Just like Isadora, I too love the look of both glittery pink fairy visuals and sleek black gothic aesthetics. And I especially love mashing the two things together, which is how I came up with Isadora Moon in the first place. But how about you? Are you more on the side of Sugar & Sparkle or of Fangs & Moonlight?

 

isadora moon

This list of my top five picks from each side (in no particular order!) should help you decide!

Sugar & Sparkle No.1

fairy yearBetty Bib’s Fairy Year – Four Whole Seasons of Fairy Magic by Betty Bib (2007)

Presented as handbooks for fairy spotters from the perspective of someone who lives with fairies, the Betty Bib fairy books have always been a huge inspiration to me. As the title suggests, this book follows the lives of fairies over a whole year. I adore the mix of 2D watercolour illustration with photographs of beautifully-dressed 3D models of fairies. As someone who loves to make things, these photographs just captured my attention and I spent hours poring over them when I first discovered these books.

Fangs & Moonlight No.1

pongwiffyPongwiffy and the Holiday of Doom by Kaye Umansky and illustrated by Chris Smedley (1995)

Oh my goodness, I love Pongwiffy! This ‘witch of dirty habits’ lives in a filthy hovel in Number One, Dump Edge, but don’t let that put you off her: she’s hilarious. Kaye Umansky’s world comes to life with a memorable supporting cast of witches and wizards, each with their own distinct personalities. When Pongwiffy takes it upon herself to book a trip to the seaside for her coven, I love seeing them all cope on a British beach holiday for a week with no magic.

 

pookieSugar & Sparkle No.2

Pookie by Ivy Wallace (1946)

Ivy Wallace presents the sort of old-world fairytale charm you almost never see any more with her beautiful paintings of a quaint forest inhabited by various elves, fairies, pixies and, of course, Pookie himself. Pookie is a fluffy white rabbit with little fairy wings that don’t fly. He’s not like the other creatures and has nowhere to belong. This first story is about how he finds someone to love him and how she helps his wings grow so that he can soar through the air.

Fangs & Moonlight No.2

DorrieDorrie and the Birthday Eggs by Patricia Coombs (1971)dorrie and the birthday eggs

The Dorrie books are some of my absolute top favourite books of all time! Dorrie is just the cutest little witch with her odd socks and black cat, Gink. She lives in Witchville with her mother, the Big Witch. In this book, the villainous Thinnever Vetch plots to steal the enchanted eggs of the Egg Witch’s magic hen. I was actually terrified when I first turned the page as a child and saw the picture of Thinnever Vetch spying through Dorrie’s window! Mostly though, I love the creepy yet comforting atmosphere of these books. I also love Patricia Coombs’ use of pencil and crayon to create her soft and wispy illustrations, often only in black and white or with one or two other colours.

Sugar & Sparkle No.3

nursery rhymesDean’s Gift Book of Nursery Rhymes illustrated by Janet and Anne Grahame Jonstone (1965)

Like Pookie, this is another book full of old-world charm. While the text is just the classic nursery rhymes you would find in any similar collection, it’s the lavish full-page illustrations that draw me in. I love the really sumptuous way the two illustrators colour and shade all the clothing, such as the billowing skirt of the old woman who lived in a shoe. Even though the style and fashions are clearly from the 1960s, the illustrations have a timeless quality. My favourite picture is of the anachronistically ‘punky’ fairies on the title page, with their wild pink and green hairstyles.


Fangs & Moonlight No.3

Vampire Boy’s Good Night by Lisa Brown (2010)vampire boys goodnight

I love spooky, gothic children’s books, but I don’t actually have too many about vampires! This one charmed me with its pastel illustrations and warm, comforting atmosphere. It’s a very straightforward story for younger children about a vampire and a witch who set out one Halloween to discover if children are real or not. When they find themselves at a Halloween costume party full of ghouls, zombies, vampires and witches they are confused. Are these real children? It’s all the detail in the pictures though that really bring the story to life.

Sugar & Sparkle No.4

peter panPeter Pan by J. M. Barrie (1911)

Everyone knows Peter Pan from the various film adaptations, including the Disney one. If you’ve only seen the films though, then you’re missing out. My favourite aspect of Peter Pan (of course!) is his fairy friend Tinkerbell. In the book she’s a real character with a clearly defined personality. She’s very beautiful, but also jealous and mischievous and naughty. I particularly love Barrie’s description of fairies being “so small they only have room for one emotion at a time.”

 

Fangs & Moonlight No.4

The Spider and the Fly by Mary Howitt and illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi (2002)

This picture book is about as Fangs & Moonlight as you can get. Every page of this nineteenth century cautionary poem has been lavishly illustrated with elegant and gothic greyscale spreads, often featuring comically macabre details such as the dead ladybird footstool the spider uses. Inevitably the suave top hat-wearing spider succeeds in luring the naïve and dainty fly into his web, but the illustrations are just on the light enough side of gruesome to appeal to its young audience.

 

Sugar & Sparkle No.5

fairy rebelThe Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks (1985)

Like Lynne Reid Banks’ most well-known series, The Indian in the Cupboard, this story is about someone meeting a miniature person who becomes a part of their life. This time, instead of a toy Indian, it’s a denim jeans-wearing fairy. My absolute dream would be to turn myself into a fairy, but my next best thing would be to meet a real, living tiny person. You can see then why this story would appeal to me! In this story, the fairy Tikki makes friends with the human Jan. The one thing Jan really wants is a child, and Tikki has the power to grant this wish. The only problem is that the fairy queen forbids any fairy to do magic for a human.

Fangs & Moonlight No.5

whispering to witchesWhispering to Witches by Anna Dale (2004)

Like The Fairy Rebel, this novel is aimed at older children to young teens. What I look for in my favourite books is a cosy, comforting atmosphere I can get lost in, particularly when mixed with a slightly gothic vibe. This book definitely has that, not least because it’s set around Christmastime. I also love that it’s set mainly in the everyday world from the perspective of a normal boy who happens to meet a witch and get drawn into a mysterious plot involving an evil witch. This book is full of mystery, suspense and magic.

 

Which side are you?

So which side draws you in more? Will you be checking out my Fangs & Moonlight suggestions, or are you more intrigued by the Sugar & Sparkle side? Looking through my shelves to put this list together, it’s easy to see which way I lean: I have far more fairy books than gothic ones. I even went through a fairy obsession as a teenager, collecting up anything fairy-related.

That’s not to say I don’t still have a great love for all sorts of spooky and gothic children’s books though. Even though I love Sugar & Sparkle, my library just wouldn’t be complete without a mix of the two, and I think the way I smooshed them together with Isadora Moon is the perfect expression of my love for both sides.

To buy Isadora Moon, click here. With thanks to Harriet Muncaster for her knowledgeable insights. 

The Road Less Travelled

migrationMigration by Mike Unwin and Jenni Desmond
This is an spectacularly stylish book telling the story of the incredible journeys of twenty animals. Mike Unwin, UK travel writer of the year, has been superbly paired with Jenni Desmond, winner of The New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book, to draw attention to the migration patterns of the monarch butterfly, great white shark, caribou, Arctic tern and many others. Whether it be seasonal changes, a search for food, a place to breed, or an escape from a hostile environment, these are scintillating journeys that can occur annually or once in a lifetime.

Each animal is afforded a double page spread and each of these double pages looks as individual as the animal itself, and startlingly beautiful enough to hang on the wall. The butterflies, for example, in ‘Forests of Flutter’, are shown a-fluttering among the trees, with incredible perspective and perspicacity so that the reader feels as if they are standing amongst them, waiting for one to land on their palm.

The text matches the beauty of the pictures; it is told informatively but also poetically. Monarchs ‘dance’ in the air like ‘confetti’. Sentences are short and specific, and the four to six paragraphs per spread give a comprehensive overview. The reader will gasp often at the huge distances the animals travel – the delicate hummingbird, weighing less than a sugar lump, flies 800 km across the ocean.

The book manages to be a staple non-fiction text as well as depicting the awesome beauty of the world with powerful text and alluring images. The range of animals is well thought out – and well indexed at the back on a migration map of the world, with hints of conservation advice. It’s not often that a reader will find the Christmas Island red crab adjacent to the Globe skimmer dragonfly, the blue wildebeest and whooping crane. Here, they come together to create a thrilling book. Make the journey here.

journeysJourneys by Jonathan Litton, illustrated by Dave Shephard, Chris Chalk, Jon Davis and Leo Hartas
From animals to humans. This book gathers stories of human discovery, amazing endeavours, untrodden paths, and journeys that explorers have made from the earliest times – before they could even document them.

Journeys craftily concentrates on the lesser known explorers, the lesser well-trodden paths, so that although Christopher Columbus gets a mention, it is Nobu Shirase’s race to the South Pole that draws attention, the lawless Mary Bryant, the impressive James Holman, the pony express in the Wild West.

What’s great fun about these snippets is the unpredictability of the journeys – not only the road travelled and hitches along the way, but also the discovery upon arrival. Alexander Gordon Laing may have been murdered on his quest to find Timbuktu, but many others came back to tell and document their extraordinary stories.

The book is ordered physiographically, and also kind of chronologically so that it begins with exploration across the seas by the Polynesians, the history of which has been pieced together by archaeological evidence and knowledge of their culture. Towards the end of the book are journeys by motor car, and finally the exploration of space.

But as well as simply telling the stories of each explorer and each journey in paragraphs, sometimes punctuated by quotes from the explorer, the text seeks to ask questions too – why do humans make journeys with the dangers and risks involved – what are the rewards, and is curiosity itself a justifiable reason?

There are many extraordinary journeys in here, including Auguste Piccard and his balloon flights, Thomas Stevens with his penny farthing, and Nikolay Przewalski and his wild horses. Whether it’s all-encompassing across global cultures is difficult to tell, but it certainly attempts to be diverse and not be wholly ‘western’ focussed. There are bound to be sensitivities when discussing explorers and their treatment of indigenous people, the use of habitats etc, but Litton has tried to be fair.

The accompanying ink drawing illustrations are varied – some full-page pictures, other annotated maps, some vignettes, all with a sense of movement, and they balance the pages well. The character sketches all depict fierce determined travellers with a sense of a faraway look in their eyes, but again, there may be sensitivities to how some peoples are depicted. Explore it here.

mapmakers raceThe Mapmakers’ Race by Eirlys Hunter
I wanted to love this book about four children entering a competition to map a rail route through uncharted mountains. It has all the makings of a great adventure story, and from a writer who brings knowledge of the amazing landscapes of the South Island of New Zealand and Snowdonia in Wales. The premise starts off well enough. The children and their mother are on board the train to take them to the start of the competition, but when the mother fails to get back on after a break, the children are left to their own devices. There’s the inevitable panic and alarm and much humour too, before the children realise too much is at stake and they must enter the competition without parental guidance – a competition against professional adult route-finders.

There’s much debate about finding food (children left alone must deal with such matters), and of course dastardly cheating from some of the other competitors, and really beautiful descriptions of the difficult pathways and encounters with nature.

My caveat to loving this novel is the magical realism evoked when one of the children develops the ability to leave her body and fly up in the air to get a birds’ eye view and map their route. It just didn’t work for me, although other readers may find this the appealing strand of the story.

For those who love journeys though, this is a good read with beautiful illustrations throughout – particularly the maps at the beginning of each chapter. I would heartily recommend Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy and The Explorer by Katherine Rundell as other ‘exploration’ novels. To purchase The Mapmakers’ Race, click here.

 

Joy by Corrinne Averiss, illustrated by Isabelle Follath

joy
What makes us happy? Is it our genetic makeup, our life circumstances, our achievements? We constantly strive to be happy, but happiness can really only be a fleeting sensation, for without experiencing some low points in between, we wouldn’t know what happiness is.

The little girl called Fern in the picture book Joy also strives to find what happiness is, and to catch it. She is a lively active girl, with a hearteningly good relationship with her grandmother, who bakes butterfly cakes, and smiles. But one day, her grandmother – Nanna – seems down. The colour has ebbed from her page, her paintings hang skewwhiff, there are cobwebs on the mantelpiece, and a wheelchair where once there were cakes.

Fern asks her mother, who tells her that the joy has gone out of Nanna’s life, and so Fern endeavours to capture some to take to her. This brings on a beautiful few pages that try to capture where Fern finds joy – getting the giggles, or dancing with her father. In the end, the feeling is summed up with a ‘whooosh’.

Unfortunately, Fern can’t package this whooosh of joy for her Nanna – it won’t fit in her cardboard box, or stay in her butterfly net. And yet, when she goes to Nanna and spends time telling her about her joyful exploits, the joy comes back into the room in a phantasmagoria of colours. And once more there are butterfly cakes.

The illustrations are both fresh and traditional. Nanna is pictured as a stereotypical older woman – white hair in a bun, glasses on a string, and in an old-fashioned armchair. And yet the butterflies rise from a cake in a stunningly fresh kaleidoscope cascade. Fern plays with old-fashioned toys, and yet the people in the park are a diverse mix – some seem from today, others even from Edwardian times. Perhaps because ultimate happiness doesn’t change over time.

In fact there are numerous devices here to bring happiness to the reader. The contentment on Fern’s face, the use of the word ‘whooosh!’ to express how Fern feels about happiness or joy, the beautiful colour wheels used to express the bounce of a puppy, the chuckle of a baby, and the repetition of the happy words.

Follath’s exploration of colour, using mainly ink, pencils and watercolour is exceptionally stunning here, quite literally bringing joy to the reader. The careful delineation of the park and all its various elements, the exquisite ability to capture innocent expression in Fern’s face as she gathers her catching materials, and of course the abstract spreading of colourful ‘joy’ throughout.

Some negative comments on the book have pointed to how easily it offers a way out of Nanna’s depression, and doesn’t give the illness the gravitas it deserves. I’d disagree. Moments of sadness don’t always equate to depression. In fact Nanna is shown with all the colour seeped from her world, but so is Fern too at one point – when she finds she can’t capture joy in a bag. She isn’t suffering from depression – it’s a momentary sadness, just as happiness and joy can be momentary too. Nanna’s does seem prolonged, and some readers have suggested, more serious – but there’s little harm in showing young readers that there are good days to be found even with periods of persistent sadness.

There is no reason given for Nanna’s sadness, although I speculate it’s more about ageing than it is about depression, but the essence of the book is not to explore this. It’s to explore happiness – and that it’s not equated with ‘taking’ behaviour, in terms of what we have or possess. Joy isn’t in our possessions in the same way that it isn’t something that can be physically possessed. Instead, happiness is about ‘giving’ behaviour – about giving of ourselves to others, and by that making them and us feel good. Fern’s time with Nanna gives the greatest joy to them both.

And within the book it’s this inter-generational behaviour that stands out for me. The book shows what joy it can be for different generations to connect and develop an ongoing interdependent relationship. And how emotion is transient. You can buy it here.

if all the world wereAnother book that deserves a mention and seeks to explore this relationship is If All the World Were by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys. This picturebook is about exploring the death of a grandparent, but deals with it sensitively. What it does have in common with Joy is to explore the quality of the time that the grandfather and his granddaughter spend together -through the different seasons and engaged in different activities. And they have created a vast bank of memories for the girl to hold onto.

Coelho is a poet and it shows in the lyrical text, which is both touching and filled with analogies and metaphor. There are also hints of cultural inheritance, as the grandfather imparts his own childhood stories to his granddaughter. Of course the book is laden with loss, but the intimacy and warmth of the colourful illustrations lessen the load, and what remains is the inherent tenderness of this intergenerational relationship. You can buy it here.

Fabulous Fashion

fabulous hat
When I was a little I was obsessed with a small picture book called The Fabulous Hat by Joan Hickson. It’s out of print now of course and sells second-hand for about £20, but then it was a small 32 page pint-glass sized book illustrated with the most luscious psychedelic drawings. (It was published in 1970).

My fascination was not only with the dazzling bright pinks and oranges, but also with the fact that the main character, a small girl called Louisa, goes shopping with her cool older sister in an array of wonderful clothes shops but everything she tries on is too big, whilst her sister looks fabulous in everything and buys it all. Louisa gets fed up but finally finds a hat, which is indeed fabulous.

And of course to my eyes now, the hat is far from ‘fabulous’ – it looks like a shower cap.

polka dot shopFashion, and retro fashion, or vintage, is near the top of the agenda in Laurel Remington’s new book The Polka Dot Shop. But Remington brings it right up to date in this very modern tale about a girl living with her single, depressed mother, and trying to make the right choices – in friendships, fashion and finally business.

Andy’s mother runs a kooky boutique selling vintage clothes, but unfortunately it’s not doing very well. Meanwhile, her school decides to revert to a non-uniform policy, and what everyone wears to school becomes super important. (And every mother’s worst nightmare I should imagine). Andy’s wardrobe is full of her mum’s shop cast-offs – pre-owned clothes and accessories, and none of it passes the fashion police test. She longs to buy brand new high street clothes.

Then Andy finds a bag of designer goodies in the shop, and everything changes – just not quite in the way she expects.

Not only is this a heart-warming tale of friendship and first romance, written in an easy-going contemporary style, but if the reader digs deep, they’ll find a story that resonates deeply with modern life. The throwaway culture of our modern clothes obsession – buying cheap and disposable clothing, the disintegration of neighbourly awareness and community that goes hand-in-hand with the demise of our local high streets, and a creeping proliferation of mental ill-health.

That’s not to say this is a depressing novel – not in the slightest. In fact, the text and content is bouncy and full of warmth; with zest for life and hope for the future. Remington shows that the relationship between the generations is key for future prosperity – (not monetary) but finding fulfillment. When Andy and her friends reach out and learn from the histories of the older generation – particularly the man who runs the fish and chips shop next door – and when Andy reaches out to understand her own mother, then things fall into place, and Andy and her friends can hatch a plan for the future that benefits all.

What’s also magical is that Andy makes plenty of mistakes. She learns to fail and by failing, learns to succeed. It’s good to find this message in a book for this age group.

By connecting to the past and learning from it, Andy finds a new future for herself and her mother. And it’s the cast of characters around her that helps too – Andy finds it hard to make friends, and when she does, they each have their own challenges but create a support network and camaraderie to help each other through. When Andy meets her ‘boy next-door’, and they communicate properly, they are able to finish the project they started in winning style.

This is a fabulous book that doesn’t need psychedelic illustrations to bring it to life. It’s bursting with life and energy already, and would look good on any catwalk. I have a signed copy of this book to giveaway. Just find me on twitter @minervamoan and RT my tweet about the book. Or you can buy it here.

octopantsSticking with clothes, but for younger readers is Octopants by Suzy Senior, illustrated by Claire Powell. This cheeky little picture book is published on 12th July, and in rhyming verse encompasses all my woes of looking for the perfect pair of jeans.

Octopus is looking for the perfect pair of pants. He’s laughed out of town by the shop sellers who explain that he has too many legs, and has no luck surfing the net either. Then the octopus discovers the Undersea Emporium, staffed by a seahorse, and filled with clothes (even with pockets) for all types of sea creatures. They still don’t stock octopants, but a little twist in the tale means that the octopus goes away happy.

Cartoon fish are probably every illustrator’s dream, in that there are so many colours, shapes and sizes to play with. Here, Powell has had great fun playing on words such as ‘surfing the net’ with her underwater scenes. All the illustrations are bright and endearing and bursting with colour and movement, and she’s managed to bestow a full range of emotions on the sea creatures, at which younger children will delight.

It’s often the small touches that turn a picture book from something ordinary into the extraordinarily popular, and the team behind this one have put in all sorts of fun jokes for both adults and children. Look out for the sign outside the changing room, the queues, even the title of the undersea newspaper. Just as Aliens in Underpants and The Queen’s Knickers remain firm favourites in the library and at home, I have a feeling that Octopants is going to continue the underwear success. It’s anything but pants. You can buy your own pair of octopants here.

 

Art for Art’s Sake

Art is crucial in a child’s development. Children can improve their motor skills just by picking up a pencil, paintbrush, roller or sponge. Their first impressions of mathematics come from colours, shapes and patterns, and their first experiences of material science may be in their choice of chalk or paint or lead. In fact, the act of creativity itself gives them self-confidence. So it’s no wonder that so many picture books, activity books and non-fiction for young children use art as a basis for story, information and play.

More than ever, in a world filled with marketing logos and graphic design it’s important for children to learn discernment around pictures – what is each piece of visual information showing them? How can they interpret it, criticize it, learn from it? And what better way to teach them cultural awareness than through picture books that pick up on great art. (And there are fun references for adults too).

Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam Masterpiece
Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: The Missing Masterpiece by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton
This is the latest adventure about our two endearing canines, Shifty and Sam, one time robbers who have reformed and become famous bakers. The two dogs are in Paris to bake a gingerbread Eiffel Tower in their latest rhyming picture book. But of course, there is trouble afoot in the art gallery, and when art thief Monsieur Sly the fox steals the masterpiece a chase down the Seine ensues.

With mischief galore, and Parisian images, as well as dogs taking the place of humans in familiar famous paintings, this is a light and scrumptious read. A colour palette that brings out the essence of Paris with its café awnings, trees in blossom, and busy sidewalks makes this a truly European holiday read.

As well as the French landmarks, there is great characterisation that follows through the story (as always in this series), a superbly baked plot and numerous details, including introduction to French vocabulary. C’est tres bien. You can buy it here. And I have one signed copy to give away! Just find me on twitter @minervamoan and RT the link to this article.

bobs blue period
Bob’s Blue Period by Marion Deuchars
Continuing the theme of animals and art, Bob’s Blue Period explores the emotions of feeling sad. Bob the bird’s best friend is Bat and they love to paint together. But one day Bat goes away, and Bob is left feeling sad. When he paints, everything is blue. Eventually, the other birds show Bob a beautiful world of colours in the sunset, and he begins to see how he might continue on without his friend – and then Bat returns.

As well as exploring an artist’s use of a palette to express himself, the book encourages a sense of perseverance, of seeing how important it is to recognise the good in the world even when feeling down.

And in front of this message is a huge amount of humour and expression in the illustrations. Deuchars draws Bob from beak to toe with drama and pathos, exploring all his activities and all his thoughts; from laziness and contentment whilst playing computer games, to concentration at cricket, to despair when Bob is shown slumped on a chair. The adult can spy references to famous artists too, and will bask in the beauty of the book’s illustrations. A blue period to treasure. You can buy it here.

 

art masterclassArt Masterclass with Van Gogh by Hanna Konola
This great activity book takes the young reader through all the elements needed to understand Van Gogh’s painting style, and to try to mimic some of the techniques. The book is methodical in approach, leading the reader through who the artist was, and a timeline of his life, before getting into the nitty gritty of which tools to use – how to get the feel of the pencil or brush, and then graduating to copying, making marks, looking for ways to create perspective and mood, adopting different colour palettes, and understanding Van Gogh’s own grid system. It also looks at a painting’s arrangement, and steers the reader/artist through various famous paintings and formats, including landscape and still life. There are lots of ‘extras’ at the end of the book too, including stickers and a pull-out poster, which can be used within the book to create the reader’s own masterpiece.

This is a well-thought out and informative picture book, with no activity too difficult for the reading level. There’s also plenty of stimulus for thought around the paintings: including true representation, emotion and using outside inspiration. Really fun and educational too. You can buy it here.

 

great dogGreat Dog by Davide Cali, illustrated by Miguel Tango
An intriguing picture book, with much to discern and yet also leaves the reader slightly puzzled. The book is presented as a series of portraits of familial members – the father dog – dressed in a sports coat, tells his child about the different portraits in the family hall. Behind each portrait though – of each ‘great dog’ – is an illustration that belies this truth. The ‘great police officer’ for example, a proud bulldog, is seen through the gatefold as missing the crime that is going on behind his back. Likewise the ‘great teacher’ is seen behind the portrait as letting the children run riot in the classroom. Throughout the book the child of the father dog asks ‘What About Me?’, the implication being that the child wants to know if he/she will also grow up to be great.

The twist at the end is that the child is revealed to be a cat – ‘You will be a great dog or great cat,’ according to the father, and so the book turns into a tale of unconditional love rather than familial pressure.

An odd book in some ways, but fascinating to explore the intricate line drawings behind each portrait to see the dog’s true character, and a lovely sophisticated colour palette of gold and turquoise, which adds an artistic emphasis to the book. You can buy it here.

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood

a sky painted goldThere’s always that one book you read over a lazy summer, (maybe whilst swaying in a sun-dappled hammock or sitting at the edge of a swimming pool with legs dangling in the cool water), which is like a drop of sunlight itself, with its long languorous descriptions of hot lazy days and summer evening outdoor parties.

The Great Gatsby is that novel for me. Although I take great pleasure in re-reading it at any time of year, (I view it as the quintessential novel and marvel at its perfect opening and closing, its narrative arc, its unreliable narrator), it always conjures a feeling of sticky heat, of lavish summer nights and heated tension.

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood is another summer novel, and although it’s certainly been smudged with more than a hint of a Gatsby brush, and has more than a touch of I Capture the Castle to it, its narrator seems to be pretty much reliable.

Lou Trevelyan lives in Cornwall with her large family and dreams of being a writer. In search of solitude, she steals away to the large empty Cardew house on an island across the causeway, but when the owners arrive for the summer, her place of abandon is turned into an opulent party house. After gate-crashing one of their Gatsby-esque parties one night, Lou receives an official invitation to the house, and before long she’s swept into the Cardews’ decadent world and captured by their attractive carelessness.

In the same way that Lou is seduced by the brother and sister who own the house, despite them being, at times, careless with other people, so the reader is seduced too by the lush descriptions of parties on summer nights and beautiful people living luxurious lives. There is nothing new about this coming-of-age romance, but it sumptuously immerses the reader in the 1920’s era, with great period detail recounting the hairstyles, art deco, dresses and jazz music of the time as the wild youngsters experience the post-war age.

Wood carefully explores Lou’s transformation into adulthood; the conflict with her country bumpkin older sister, the astute knowingness of her parents that each of their children will grow to have different lives, Lou’s own excitement at seeing London, and her growing sense of freedom and independence counteracted with her wariness of the wider world, the temptations of the time and the wilder morals of the people she encounters.

The mood of change as the world takes breath after the First World War is well captured by Wood; her youth are more daring, embracing different styles of music and dance, and displaying the restlessness and grasping for fun so indicative of the wealthy youth of that time. Wood documents their proclivity for drinking and extravagance, and notes the growing freedoms of women and the emergence of black culture – and in doing so she shows how she has plucked her enigmatic Cardews from that famous ‘lost generation’, as well as expressing her insight into our own times with her glance at that period of history almost a hundred years ago.

And yet, this is a dreamy YA read rather than a satirical criticism of the time. The Cardews may be careless with their money, but they are not as careless as Fitzgerald’s characters: here the Cardews win the readers’ love and sympathy, and pose as victims and heroes in a mesmeric summertime escapist novel. With their increased leisure time, these protagonists have the wherewithal to devote time to sketching and writing, climbing trees and observing. And so the book matches perfectly a reader’s desire for their own pleasurable leisurely summertime read. For ages 12+ years. Publishes 5 July. You can pre-order it here.

But A Mermaid Has No Tears…

girl who thought her mother was a mermaidThe Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was a Mermaid by Tania Unsworth, illustrated by Helen Crawford-White
Not out until 12th July, but well worth waiting for, this middle grade (junior fiction age 9+) mermaid book is another triumph from the dark pen of Tania Unsworth. A master at combining reality with tinges of dark fantasy, and beguiling the reader with intrigues of what is real and what is make believe, Unsworth’s new novel picks up beautifully on the current zeitgeist for mermaid stories.

Stella is terrified of water, yet has a penchant for the ocean and the huge picture of the sea that hangs in the back of her house. Her mother died when she was eight, and left Stella a necklace called ‘the word of the sea’, but no one seems to be able to give her more information on it. When her grandmother, suffering from a form of dementia, gives Stella a hint that her mother may have been a mermaid, Stella follows a series of clues that leads her to a place called Crystal Cove and a mermaid show, where things aren’t always as they seem.

Good, sparse yet engaging text leads the reader, with Stella, into a labyrinth of truths and untruths, as she investigates whether her mother was a mermaid. The book also investigates the nature of friendship – Stella finds this difficult but has made a friend in the flamboyant Cam. There is also a look at the reliance children place upon adults to keep them safe and reveal the truth to them, but in typical Unsworth style, there is a sharp twist, and a fearsome and chillingly real villain.

The book is great at its description of the real world, especially the seaside town to which Stella runs away, but it also has a wonderful handle on depicting Stella’s inner thoughts, fears and motivations. By adding her spin on magical realism in the way of mermaids, Unsworth allows Stella and the reader to ask the bigger questions in life too.

A hugely compulsive novel, with superb characterisation. You can pre-order it here.

the surface breaksThe Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill
Almost all the current books about mermaids are influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, whose protagonist sacrifices her world, tail, and voice for love, but none are quite as sharply or devastatingly reimagined as this feminist retelling. Bringing her trademark biting satirical agenda and fight for gender equality to the tale, O’Neill has written a gripping, terribly dark fairy tale for our times.

Gaia’s world is dominated by men, none more so than her powerful and controlling father. When she spies a human boy on a boat, she falls for him and decides to sacrifice her world, and mutilate her body, in order to be with him. Unfortunately, she has gambled on his looks alone, and the reader becomes more swiftly aware than Gaia how reckless this is. The reader’s awareness of the palpable horror of her situation, a description of her ever-shredding feet that is almost too painful to read, and a mounting frustration at the treatment of women throughout, and Gaia’s hopes in particular which are so much pinned on frivolity and appearance, make this an engaging but demanding read.

O’Neill goes to great lengths here to subvert the original fairy tale so that she can pose an exploration of women as more than just a stereotype – more than just erotic objects, or manipulative shrews, but as multi-layered beings – fallible, abused, powerful, exotic, all at once. The Sea Witch is shown as feisty and motivated, not just a Disney character of pure evil revelling in her own wickedness, but in fact a believable and sumptuous character who is the most free of all the women, by vaunt of being most comfortable with who she is.

In fact, in some places it brings to mind what was really embedded in Christian Andersen’s text, which has been lost to the images in our minds of red-headed Ariel with her big blue eyes. It’s astonishing that so much of the misogynistic cruelty and darkness resides in the original story, and to find that O’Neill hasn’t deviated as much as we might think.

The book also gives a beautiful twist to women above the sea’s surface. They are not as free as Gaia imagines, and the prince is preoccupied and ungrateful – not the fairy tale beau of generosity and unparalleled power. Layers of lust and love, sibling rivalry and power dynamics ebb and flow throughout the book. It doesn’t smash the patriarchy so much as stimulate young women to think about who they are and their position in life. Clever, thoughtful and raging – this is not a soothing or subtle tale. For YA readership. Take a dip here.

bad mermaids on the rocksBad Mermaids: On the Rocks by Sibeal Pounder, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft.
For much younger readers – those aged about seven and up, Sibeal Pounder is an absolute joy to read. Her Witch Wars series is wacky and zany and never fails to raise a smile, and the Bad Mermaids series elicits the same response. On the Rocks is the second in the series about three mermaids accompanied by a talking seahorse.

Pounder’s ultimate strength is her exquisite world-building, in this case, the undersea kingdoms of the mer people. The vocabulary is broad ranging, with many plays on words and satirical digs at our normal world, (Pounder is inventive with transport and fashion) and conjures a playful fun underwater plot that keeps the reader absorbed and extremely entertained. She makes fun of the world as she writes and makes subtle winks to a feminist agenda – mermaids happily burp bubbles, which turns upside down the idea that mermaids are just aesthetic beauties, and give each other plenty of sass in their dialogue. Each mermaid has her own particular and distinctive character traits and it makes for a diverse and fascinating story.

In On the Rocks, the three mermaid heroines from book one are stuck aboard a spooky ship, but a human, Paris Silkensocks, discovers a plot to destroy the mermaid world. Paris must find the mermaids in time and avert a crabtastrophe. Fun and frolicks. With scattered black and white illustrations from Jason Cockcroft. Swim with mermaids here.

LoraliLorali by Laura Dockrill
From zany to zanier, Dockrill’s writing style can be a bit of an acquired taste – veering towards the wacky and unpredictable, so tackling mermaids and the fantastical seems like a good fit. Dockrill has two books published in her mermaid series, the first of which, Lorali, was published in 2015.

Rory finds a naked girl washed up under Hastings pier during a storm on his sixteenth birthday. But even more surprising is where she comes from. Lorali has to get used to some strange things in the ‘walking’ world, but it’s Rory’s gradual awakening to Lorali’s world and why she’s running from the sea that becomes the centrepiece of this intriguing novel.

Dockrill deals cleverly with her convoluted plot, telling the story from three points of view: Rory, Lorali, and the sea – the last of which provides the reader with the background to the world of the mermaids.

But it’s Dockrill’s handling of the teen world that is where she is most adept. The mermaid’s newness to the world is not unlike that of a teenager, exploring themselves and their surroundings for the first time as realisation dawns of the sort of adult they might turn into, and the choices they make.

There is a raw darkness to the book too, jumping from the realism of a seaside town to a world in which strange weather and pirates rule. Dockrill’s words tumble over like the crashing of the waves, and her nod away from fairy tale and to modernity lies in the way in which she addresses feminism and misogyny, but not always in the way in which the reader expects. For a YA audience. You can buy it here.

There are a few adult novels published in the past year or so that also feature mermaids, creatures that speak to our times. Mermaids are regarded as freaks, albeit beautiful ones, and in today’s society, when we are constantly alert to ‘otherness’ and ‘diversity’, the concept of mer-people on land or humans at sea is all about how we fit in, and the similarities and differences between us. Happy swimming.

 

Candy by Lavie Tidhar

candySometimes when you have a lot of something, it can begin to feel a bit samey. I read lots of children’s books, and there are moments when themes that are topical or zeitgeisty occur a little too often and the topic begins to feel a bit staid. It’s probably like eating a lot of chocolate. If it’s readily available and you eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it can taste a bit mundane. But if you live under a strict regime in which chocolate is more or less forbidden, just one taste can be electrifying.

When I opened Candy and started reading it, it was like eating chocolate again after a 12 week hiatus; it was a breath of sweet fresh air.

The press release announces that this book is Bugsy Malone crossed with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I like to think it’s a conversation between Raymond Chandler and Willy Wonka. Or Jessica Rabbit set in Cadbury World. Lavie Tidhar has written a detective story in film noir style based around the prohibition of candy. And it’s superb.

Nellie Faulkner is a child detective, living in a city in which sweets have been forbidden under the new mayor and his Prohibition Act. Roaming the unsweetened mean streets are gangs of candy bootleggers, all smuggling in sweet treats, eating their booty and making money. When gangster Eddie de Menthe’s teddy bear goes missing, Nellie has a case to solve. But when the teddy shows up and Eddie himself disappears, things turn serious.

Tidhar has gone in guns blazing on both film noir style and candy mode in the novel. Every description compares the world to candy in some way, so that the clouds are either candy floss or meringues and people are compared to sweets:

“She was the sort of person to hold on to a grudge like chewing gum stuck to a shoe.”

“He looked as trustworthy as an ice-cream seller in winter.”

But what makes the book zing is Tidhar’s talent in sustaining his Chandler-esque child-friendly film noir style throughout. Think Goodfellas, think The Godfather. For kids. There’s the bootlegger boss who throws a tantrum in his mansion:

“’Can we get some cake, boss?’ Gordon said. His friend nudged him in the ribs nervously. Waffles’s hand came crashing down on the folding table before him, sending plate and spoon and crumbs flying in all directions.
‘Nobody gets cake!’ he screamed. His face was red, his eyes bulging’”

There’s a mean girl gang led by Sweetcakes, a black car that slides in and out of view that Nellie may or may not see, and scene setting straight out of the film noir genre in which electric fans move hot air slowly round a room, for example. Tidhar’s ability to write with tongue firmly in cheek means that the style is both consistent and hilarious:

“In the morning, the sun shone through the window and the new day smelled of cut grass and fried eggs. The cut grass was outside. The eggs were in the kitchen, and they were for me.”

The book is funny, but also zings along with a great cast of characters and an excellent plot. Of course, with any book about sweets there are bound to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory allusions and there is great fun to be had spotting them, and even more fun as the adult reader spots the film noir allusions too.

But in the end, despite all this fun, this is a children’s book with heart. The book explores doing the right thing, and overcoming bullies, and is engaging, warm and topical. A mayor whose slogan is ‘Eat Your Greens’ with supporters throwing celery sticks in the air, is of our times.

The publisher has employed Mark Beech to supply illustrations throughout, and happily they are quirky, and slightly zany, beautifully matching the text style.

Candy may be Tidhar’s first novel for children, but it’s easy to tell it comes from an accomplished award-winning author (for his adult titles). Let’s hope there’s more to come for children – they’ll crave it more than chocolate (well….maybe). If you’re an adult, and want a sample of Tidhar’s bizarre film noir mind, go read his Winnie the Pooh thread on his twitter timeline. You’ll never see 100 Acre Wood the same way again.

And buy your own copy of Candy here – it’s a golden ticket of children’s books.

Mirror Magic: A Guest Post from Claire Fayers

mirror magicClaire Fayers may be known for her Accidental Pirates series, which was named a Beano.com best book of the year, but she has excelled with her latest book, Mirror Magic; a move from pirates into the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution.

Twelve-year-old Ava returns with her brother to the town of Wyse, on the border between England and Wales, after the death of her parents. But the town is famous for being the only place left in England in which magic happens. Mirrors are portals to UnWyse, where the Fair Folk live, and enchantments are commanded from them and sold in tourist shops. Ava’s arrival provokes stares and suspicions – and it’s not long before she works out why. When she travels through a mirror into UnWyse and meets Howell of the Fair Folk, the pair are quickly drawn into solving the mystery of why the magic is ending, and why Ava’s presence is stirring up suspicion. 

Refreshingly, as a break from so much angst in contemporary children’s fiction, this stands out as a fantastic old-fashioned adventure story with wit, ingenuity and charm. Any modern children’s book about magic will inevitably draw allusions to Harry Potter: here there are villains who aren’t completely whole human beings; the use of mirrors as magic entities; spells and transfigurations, but then Harry Potter wasn’t original in many of these ideas either. The wonder of magic, of course, is that you can make anything happen anywhere. What makes it work within a novel is a basis in reality and familiarity, and the ability to exploit its comic as well as dark potential. Fayers successfully does all this.

By chronicling the gradual demise and failure of the magic mirrors, and the rise of invention through the Industrial Revolution, Fayers establishes a firm link between fantasy and reality, cleverly suggesting that magic is no longer needed if science takes over. At the start of each chapter, there are excerpts from ‘the book’; a fairly unknown entity until about halfway through the novel, when it becomes apparent that the book can tell the future. Through its writing, the reader learns dates of important inventions of the Victorian era, such as the telephone and the electric oven, which lends some informative fun to the novel, and helps the narrative prose settle firmly in a rich Victorian era. As well as establishing her timeframe and setting, Fayers has a knack at moving her characters through the story with urgency, and the book becomes ever more compulsive and enjoyable. It’s a wonderful fantasy romp. 

Here, Fayers imagines some historical newspaper articles that may have chronicled the end of the era of magic:

Mirror Magic imagines a world exactly like our own but with one big difference – magic exists. Fairy mirrors connect us to the Unworld where the Fair Folk have promised to provide magical goods and services to anyone who asks.

The story starts in 1842, when most mirrors have stopped working and only one small town on the border of Wales and England still has access to the Unworld. The Wyse Weekly Mirror (expertly designed by Jess at Macmillan Children’s Books) gives an insight into daily happenings in the last town of magic.

But what of other time periods?

The first newspaper, the Oxford Gazette appeared in 1665 and newspapers were well-established by the Industrial Revolution, but what would those times have looked like with a bit of magic?

Real Garments Don’t Fade

Are you tired of your fairy gowns disintegrating around you? Are you suffering rashes and skin complaints from cloth made of dead leaves?

Wilkinson of York is a new textile manufacturer. Using the latest machinery and real human labour, we produce good-quality clothing at reasonable prices – and guaranteed not to fall apart at midnight!

Made by people for people.

Unworld Allergy to Iron ‘a Myth’

Sir Clement Clark, formerly of the Council of Conjurors, has proved that the fairy allergy to iron does not exist.

It was long thought that the rise of the iron industry may be responsible for the failure of certain magic mirrors, but Sir Clement, whose own magic mirror stopped working two years ago, has made a thorough study, including locking fairies into iron boxes to see if they suffered any ill effects from the metal. He reports that they do not, although some have emerged from the boxes looking faint from hunger.

Steam-Powered Mirrors? Fantasy or Reality?

With the failure of magic mirrors, efforts, some conjurors are spending vast fortunes on finding new ways to power their access to the Unworld. Now, steam power is seen as the new saviour of magic.

Experiments are underway, connecting steam engines to magic mirrors. These steam engines are currently coal-fuelled, but if this method proves successful, the engines could be powered with fuel brought through the mirrors from the Unworld. Thus, in effect, the engines would be self-powering.

Magic Not Needed Says Isambard Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel has caused further controversy by saying the rise of engineering proves once and for all that magic is no longer relevant to modern life.

Brunel, himself the great-nephew of a conjuror, has released designs for a suspension bridge to be constructed in Bristol. This bridge will be constructed entirely without the assistance of Unworld workers and enchantments.

Magic has been in decline for decades with mirrors ceasing to work across the country. Early research into steam-powered mirrors was abandoned after it proved ineffective. Wales and the west of England now has the highest concentration of conjurors.

With thanks to Claire for her blogpost. You can buy a copy of Mirror Magic here. For age 8+ years.

Claire’s bio:

Claire Fayers was born and brought up in South Wales, an area of the country sadly deficient in dragons. Having studied English at University of Kent, Canterbury, she built a successful career writing short stories for women’s magazines until the lure of magic became too much and she wrote The Accidental Pirates: Voyage to Magical North. It was selected for Waterstones Book of the Month and shortlisted for the FCBG Children’s Book Award 2016, and its sequel, The Accidental Pirates: Journey to Dragon Island, was published in 2017. When she’s not writing, you’ll find Claire at her allotment. Mirror Magic is her third book with Macmillan Children’s Books.

Claire’s links:

Twitter: @ClaireFayers

Facebook: /clairefayersauthor