fiction

New Detective Fiction

I’m sure there weren’t as many detective novels for children when I was young. For me, my most memorable encounter with the genre was one summer, on our annual trip to Cornwall. We were staying in a hotel with its own giftshop – the height of luxury, I thought. To my dismay, halfway through the trip, I ran out of reading material (despite probably having taken about 10 books for a two week stay). In those days, gift shops rarely stocked books, and certainly not children’s books. But I was in luck. The books they did stock were a collection of Agatha Christie novels, and so, aged about ten, I embarked on a journey on the Orient Express, found a cat amongst the pigeons, and journeyed along the Nile.

Today, the mystery/detective/crime novels for children drop onto the doormat almost daily. Here are three new novels that are everything one could ask for in the genre – gripping, tightly plotted, with excellent characterisation, and all superbly written.

lori and max

Lori and Max by Catherine O’Flynn
With a good eye for giving her characters backstory, introducing first Lori, wannabe child detective with deceased parents living with her grandma, and then Max, new girl in school with too-small clothes, a depressed Mum and gambling Dad, O’Flynn deploys enough wit to stop the book descending full flow into misery.

These girls have gumption and spark, the steel and resolve to see their detecting through difficult areas. When a stack of charity money goes missing from school, and Max is accused of the crime, Lori sets out to prove that her new friend is innocent.

Although contemporary, the characters rely on skilful sleuthing and walkie talkies rather than the Internet or mobile phones, and with lashings of descriptions of food, the understanding of real friendship, and a writer’s keen eye for observation and nuance, this is a well-told, brilliantly executed detective story. One of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t miss it. Buy it here.

trouble in new york

Trouble in New York by Sylvia Bishop
It seems Sylvia Bishop can do no wrong – I’ve loved every single one of her books. In her latest, she turns to an analysis of news and fake news in her crime caper set in 1960’s New York.

Jamie Creeden delivers papers but he wants to be a reporter. When he stumbles into the mystery of a missing actress, he realises he’s stuck fast in the middle of a network of corruption and criminality. Assuming the role of investigative journalist, he sets out to discover the truth, and whether that truth is always what’s printed in the papers.

Bishop writes with an assured confidence, imbuing her characters and her insights with warmth. She has a style that brings the essence of a children’s world into a larger view of right and wrong, so that the reader feels secure in the familiarity of the adventure, whilst at the same time having their horizons broadened. My favourite insight comes early on: in the building of the Yorker, the newspaper featured, there is a statue of a woman in the entrance, to symbolise the motto of the paper – ‘Always punctual, often accurate’. Bishop goes on to say:

“In one hand the woman held a lantern for Truth; and in the other, a Rolex watch, for Punctuality. (She used to hold an hourglass, but the Rolex company paid the Yorker a great deal of money to change it.).”

It’s simple, but effective, bringing our real world capitalism to a child readership, and lightly placing clues for them to question what they see and what they hear.

There’s more of course: two plucky female sidekicks to the protagonist, a tight plot, and an pervasive enthusiasm for the plucky innocence and perseverance of children, the truth, and the beauty in both. Effortless and yet brilliant. Another triumph. Buy it here.

agatha oddly

Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key by Lena Jones
From New York to a detective story set firmly in London, complete with secret comms in the London Eye, and a girl who resides in the groundsman’s cottage of Hyde Park.

Thirteen-year-old Agatha Oddly, named for Agatha Christie, adores detecting, and so when a motorbike knocks over an old lady in the middle of Hyde Park, Agatha is straight on the case. But the lady isn’t whom she first appears, and when London’s water pipes are filled with a toxic red algae, Agatha has to join the dots in a relentless adventure around London in order to come up with the culprits behind a dastardly plan to change the way Londoners drink water for ever.

There is so much to love here, from the hidden network of super spies in London’s midst, to the secret tunnels and gatekeepers of London, to the everyday reality of Agatha in school, and dealing with who and who isn’t her friend. Smartly plotted, and hugely enjoyable, this is a fast easy read that zings with character and energy.

Although slightly predictable for those of us with some reading experience, Agatha’s quirks and indomitable spirit lead the way here. It’s fitting that the series bears her name, and for readers age 9+ approaching the book, they’ll find something to love in her slightly obtuse and subversive nature. The plot is key, of course, but it is in her friendships – battling with the popular kids, understanding the needs of her best friend, and coming to see that people aren’t always as they present in one scenario, that this book wins big. Plenty of dialogue, an understanding of when mobile phones can assist the plot and when not, and carefully laid red herrings all make for a perfect crime caper. Highly recommended. The second in the series, Murder at the Museum, has been published too. You can buy Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key here.

With thanks to Firefly Press, Scholastic and HarperCollins for the review copies.

FloodWorld by Tom Huddleston, illustrated by Jensine Eckhall

floodworldDo you ever debate with your friends where you would flee to live if you had to? Maybe because I’m of Jewish descent, this is a question that comes up every now and then. Recently, I explained to someone that this could actually be a pertinent question for many of us, seeing as how the sea levels are rising, and habitable areas of the world will be flooded if climate change continues on track.

Tom Huddleston has taken this idea and run with it in his futuristic dystopian children’s novel, FloodWorld, which opens in a future London in which the rich area is divided from the poorer area by a wall, and most of the poorer area is under water, with residences on floating barges or the upper floors of tall buildings – known as the Shanties.

Kara and Joe live in these Shanties, where Joe makes salvage dives for artefacts long since abandoned in flooded waters, in order to earn a meagre living selling them to crooks. When Joe has a near miss with a Mariner (a supposed terrorist or pirate), who crashes his jetski near him, Joe ends up in possession of a cryptic map, and Kara and Joe become wanted persons – ensconced in a world of criminality, gangsters and corruption.

Initially, scenes of destitute children, a general lack of welfare state, and intense poverty feels increasingly Dickensian, especially as Joe dives for a Fagin-esque type figure called Mr Colpeper, whose dodgy morals ensure the reader isn’t quite sure whose side he’s on. But as the novel progresses, the quickness of scene changes, the escalating tension, numerous cliff-hangers and fast-moving scenes of chases across and under water, bombs, shoot-outs and more, nods more to our modern age of Bond and Alex Rider than to the past.

In fact, our present is more than once referred to as the recent past. With inspiration, wit and an eye for detail, Huddleston has his characters frequently refer back to the Tech Age (our own era), in which there were trains, democracy and cinemas, and everyone was out for themselves. More often than not the characters aren’t sure about these relics from the past – things have become distorted over time, such as references to Olive Twits, and one great scene in which the children stumble across submersibles called Dory and Marlin, and can’t work out why they are named so.

Huddleston’s talent lies in his filmic awareness – he is, after all, a film reviewer. Not only is the landscape believable and highly visual – with floating towns, a deserted flooded world of underground stations and more, but the scenes zip from one thing to the next, the camera zooming in and out and from set to set, with constant thrills – low-level warfare, high-tech submarines and more. The illustrated map helps, and is a delight, but even without, the landscape glows with well-crafted other worldliness that is embedded in familiarity.

Frequent nods to wry humour win favour from the reader. In this brave new world, Canada welcomes any child refugee, Huddleston finds a new use for computer tablets, and a series of climactic endings one after the other give a fine wink to the movie industry.

Without good characterisation though, a thriller is just a shell. Here, Kara feels like a protective older sister to Joe – like a Carrie to Nick from Carrie’s War, and yet, as any protagonist, she’s flawed. Determined and fierce but hot-headed too. Joe is calmer, using his skills of observation, and he brings a sense of nuance to the plot, and together they make a perfect duo.

In the end, Huddleston goes full youth warrior, inspired by the passion of today’s #climatestrikesforschools message as Kara channels her inner Greta Thunberg by speaking truth to power. In his stretched-out ending, Huddleston suggests that a better world can exist through human cooperation, equality and justice, but there’s a long way to go – not only do the kids have to work out which authority is trustworthy (if any), but also how to stop society breaking down and following the same corrupt patterns over and again.

Recommended for ages 10+ according to the publisher, but avid fans of Alex Rider from about 9+ could handle the violence depicted here. With thanks to Nosy Crow for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here.

Fairy Tales for a New Generation

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about fairy tales. In fact, I probably have a fairy tales blog every six months or so. Why is that? Are fairy tales so important? Yes, they are. People have written whole theses on the topic…but essentially fairy tales work because they give us a view of how life is within a set structure. Within this fantasy framework we can formulate dreams and understand our deep-set fears.

Publishers aren’t just reprinting old fairy tales in new editions though. With a sense of our own changing societal rules and preoccupations, they are releasing anthologies that aim to subvert the status quo, or shine a light on forgotten tales, and writers are retelling tales with modern twists.

hansel and gretel
Hansel and Gretel by Bethan Woollvin
is my favourite fairy tale this autumn. With a subversive grin at parents everywhere, Woollvin neatly turns this fairy tale on its head by making the children the villains. In this retelling, Hansel and Gretel are a little entitled, helping themselves to sweets from a strange house. Woollvin pushes this idea, subverting who is good and who is bad, as the children’s naughty antics test the witch, even though she tries so hard to be a good hostess. In the end, of course, even the nicest witch can be driven too far. No stranger to subverting fairy tales, with past titles including Little Red and Rapunzel, Woollvin’s clever two tone illustrations highlight the pertinent points of the story, zooming in and out as if the reader is operating a film camera. Witty and wise. You can buy it here.

secret of the tattered shoes
The Secret of the Tattered Shoes by Jackie Morris and Ehsan Abdollahi
A completely different take on the traditional fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses is illustrated with great intricacy in this slightly melancholic version. Morris plays with themes of love and redemption in her poetic retelling, her soldier ‘a hollow shadow of a man’, her princess with ‘a smile like frost on glass’. Abdollahi matches the depths of Morris’s story with fully detailed illustrations, turning the characters into complex puppets, and inserting golden headpieces that illuminate the page, fruit that tempts the reader to try to pluck it, and a weariness in the eyes of her tired dancers. A supreme and surprising twist makes this a complex but worthy new interpretation. You can buy it here.

reading beauty
Reading Beauty by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt
My last fairy tale picture book retells Sleeping Beauty with a rhyme, transplants it to the future, and gives it a feminist feel. Lex is a booklover, but her parents remove all her books when she is 15. No, not because they feel she’s a fully fluent reader and doesn’t need more help, but because a nasty fairy cursed Lex with the promise of a paper cut, which would put her in a death-like sleep. Of course, a bookworm such as Lex uses knowledge from her books to overcome the curse, and outwit the nasty fairy, who it turns out, has a reason for her evil-nature. A fun, futuristic, humorous retelling with bold, bright, and busy illustrations. You can buy it here.

eight princesses
Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror by Natasha Farrant, illustrated by Lydia Corry
More modernity in this collection of original short stories, which takes eight princesses and gives them modern cause. There’s the princess who saves natural landscapes from urban developers, the princess who discovers being kind trumps being royal. Bookended with the tale of an enchantress and a magic mirror who long to discover what princesses are really like, the stories are told in the rhythm of traditional fairy tales, but with a firmly modern outlook, as the princesses are revealed not to care so much about their looks and future husbands, but more about being brave and determined and independent (even those who do marry). Illustrated in colour throughout by Lydia Corry, each tale feels quite distinct from the next, and yet form a cohesive whole. Perhaps a Christmas gift for Meghan? Age 8+. You can buy it here.

lost fairy tales

The Lost Fairytales, retold by Isabel Otter, illustrated by Ana Sender
It seems not all traditional fairy tales need to be reimagined or repurposed for our new sensibility. This anthology gathers tales from around the world, all of which feature heroines who demonstrate bravery and wit and none of whom needs rescuing. Instead, Isabel Otter has rescued the stories from their precarious position outside the canon of traditional tales. A story map at the beginning helpfully shows where the tales have been rescued from – so we find out that Sacred Waterfall, a fairy tale about Bending Willow, who won’t bend to her fate but shows persistence in what she believes to be right, is a tribal story hailing from what we now know as Canada, and The Shining Dragons, the tale of a fearsome orphan called Thakane who shows both immense bravery and also huge cunning, comes from Lesotho. Illustrated throughout with warmth and spirit, and with sensitivity to the region from which the stories come, this is an intelligent collection. More information in the back about story origin and thinking points. Age 7+. You can buy it here.

forgotten fairy tales
Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls with a foreword by Kate Pankhurst
Although I have qualms with books that advertise ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ on the cover, lest it should be off-putting to others, this collection also aims to firmly reclaim fairy tales with a feminist agenda. These traditional tales haven’t been retold with a twist, but rather are retold as they were, with modern language but the same storyline in order to show that traditional fairy tales featuring brave, determined women as protagonists did, and always have, existed. As attitudes change, so do the stories being told. This anthology sets text against a plain white background, with simple prose, and colour illustrations dotted throughout. The tales feel familiar – goblins, giants and castles, sisterly love and happy-ever-after marriages, but all with strong, agenda-setting female protagonists. For age 7+. You can buy it here.

folk tales for bold girls
Folk Tales for Bold Girls by Fiona Collins, illustrations by Ed Fisher

Lastly, something a little different, in that this is a compact book that concentrates far more on the text – black and white illustrations heading up chapters only. But the illustrations do something clever – they transpose real bold girls (from photographs) into the folk characters (in illustration).

The text too is clever, simply told, and yet with a distinctive rhythm to its plainness. There is no didacticism – the tales are for the reader to disseminate. Tales from other countries abound, even some familiar tales such as Red Riding Hood retold as a non-traditional version. Collins lists her sources at the back, and this too is fascinating, with an emphasis on the reader looking up further tales and retelling them themselves. A sort of pass-it-on telling, which is the very essence of folk and fairy tales anyway. And of course they all feature bold girl protagonists. For age 7+. You can buy it here.

Chessboxer by Stephen Davies

chessboxerThere’s something special about being recommended a book by one’s own children, and this is one such novel. My daughter pressed this into my hands, despite neither knowing how to box, nor play chess, although I reckon she’d be great at both.

I can see why she liked it. This scintillating book pulses with energy. Chessboxer pounds with the punch of a boxer, and yet remains contemplative, with ideas behind the fast-paced plot as thoughtful as a chess player.

Leah Baxter is the quintessential feisty protagonist. She’s a chess whizz, just a few wins away from being heralded a junior chess grandmaster, and yet she’s lost in life…not just over grief for her father, but also in her chosen field – she’s not quite sure that chess is for her.

Davies introduces the spikiness of this seventeen-year-old straight away, as the story is told in a series of Leah’s blogposts. At first, these are public, and with them comes the inevitable array of comments, to which Leah replies with snarky sarcasm and a growing hostility.

After an encounter with one such commenter face to face, Leah turns her blog private, and the comments disappear, but her thoughts remain loud and clear for the reader to see. Davies has a firm grip on character – Leah treads the trembling tightrope between adolescence and adulthood, often making impetuous decisions, sometimes leaning towards self-destructive behaviour, and always with a firm eye on her obsessive nature regarding her passion.

Through the over-curious commenter on the blog, who turns out to be less stalker and more friend, Leah discovers new passions in life, including chessboxing. This strange hybrid sport blends bouts of boxing with rounds of chess, mixing the highly physical with the highly intellectual, and challenging Leah’s strategic thinking. Of course, the reader sees that the boxing is great physical therapy for Leah in the midst of her grief, which doesn’t seem to have been dealt with previously, but the amount of violence may be shocking for some younger readers.

What draws the reader in is the amount of grit, determination and resilience demonstrated by Leah, yet also her capacity for making impetuous and wrong decisions. And although her anger can be alienating at times, the reader stays the course with her, sees her processing the world, finding a way to trust people, and in the end her goodness shines through.

Her new hobby of chessboxing lends itself well to a build up of anticipation throughout the novel, honing a new skill, learning new tactics, and of course being tested time and time again. Davies holds this together well, drawing from extensive research, and also carefully plotting his novel, as tightly as the footwork of a boxer, neat and balanced, keeping the reader on their toes.

The setting is almost another character in the book – the streets of New York throb with an equal energy to Leah, from the green spaces to the donut shops, and even the local police station. Davies has a way of navigating the streets without resorting to description, but just strewing objects and places throughout the text – Washington Square, the fire escapes, tattoo parlours.

This is a novel with a delicate strength, a snarky protagonist, and an interesting presentation of prose. It made me think of that other recent YA with its angry girl protagonist, Furious Thing, featured just a couple of weeks ago on MinervaReads.

With our world as it is, we need lots of these intelligent and angry girls – those with drive and passion, with complexity that feeds their anger but can also quell it, and above all, with their hearts and minds in the right place. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Andersen Press for the advance review copy. A suggested teen read.

Friendship Picture Books

How has the first half term of school been? Has your child made lots of new friends? It’s a perpetual anxiety for a parent – whether their child has made friends at school, and the tricky dynamics of friendship continue long into adulthood. From sharing toys in reception, to peer pressure in the teen years, to sociability as adults, our ability to befriend others can be an ongoing worry:
“Why haven’t they texted me back?”

A plethora of recent picture books show us some of the pitfalls of making friends, some of the benefits of friendship, and the fun to be had in another’s company.

misadventures of frederickThe Misadventures of Frederick by Ben Manley and Emma Chichester Clark
There is so much to love about this book. Emma Chichester Clark has long been a favourite illustrator of mine, ever since Blue Kangaroo got lost on the bus, and this new book shows off Clark’s wonderful depth of expression in her characters, her warming and familiar use of colour, and the positivity that flows through scenes of childhood joy. Add to this a wonderful yet somewhat subversive story about a quirky boy called Frederick who lies in a mansion but is very bored. Emily invites him (in a series of letters) to play outside with her, but he is reticent – what if he gets hurt? Emily’s perseverance pays off, and before long the thrills of nature have made themselves abundantly apparent.

There’s a skill in a good picture book, and this one excels in every way. The growing sense of adventure and wonder of nature creeps slowly into the mansion, poking Frederick with tendrils that seek to disturb and tempt him. Emily lives the idyll of childhood – leaping freely into water (shown mid-air), riding a bike, climbing a tree.

Frederick lives surrounded by stuff, yet in much more muted colours, and all the time his wallpaper, his TV shows, his toys, remind him of what might lie outdoors. The possible bond between the children is the stream of letters (shown in text and illustration) that flow between the two like a rushing stream. There’s even a funny ending. You can buy it here.

the pirate tree
The Pirate Tree by Brigita Orel and Jennie Poh
This slightly more lyrical text reminded me of On Sudden Hill with its imaginative children who turn a simple tree into a pirate ship. At first rejected because he is new to the area, Agu is quickly permitted onto the boat when Sam realises that Agu has useful knowledge, borne from his experience of leaving Nigeria. By the end, the girl and boy have sailed the seas, discovered a deserted island, reefed the mainsail, sparred with rival pirates, and made friends.

A large amount of white space on each page allows the reader to absorb the poetical prose and textured neat illustrations, as well as fill the gaps with their own musings and imagination. Beautiful, with a stunning vocabulary. You can buy it here.

my friends

My Friends by Max Low
With a title as blatant as that, it’s clear what this book is about, but it mainly appealed to me because the illustrations reminded me of Heathcliff and Henry’s Cat (1980’s cartoons). Each page introduces a new character and their characteristics or hobbies, all with a massive dollop of humour. Pepper cooks yummy food, Olga listens to music. The trick is that on each page, the first person narrator describes how he gets involved with this new friend through this shared hobby. There’s even an imaginary friend, and also the virtues of having some time to oneself. Simple, bright and illuminating the benefit of having lots of friends who like different things. You can buy it here.

golden acorn
The Golden Acorn by Katy Hudson
A more pointed message in this longer animal story about teamwork; the book sits firmly in the ‘autumn’ canon of children’s books. The third in the series about Squirrel, Rabbit, Beaver and Tortoise, following Too Many Carrots and A Loud Winter’s Nap, this book highlights Squirrel’s desire to win The Golden Nut Hunt for the ninth time. But this year, the tournament has been turned into a team event, and so she reluctantly drags in her friends – they just don’t have the skillset to win. Of course, in the end she puts her friends before trophies. Great illustrative vignettes showing the myriad of different obstacles in the race make this a winning title – the characters’ expressions match the energy of the race.

flock
Flock by Gemma Koomen
Another celebration of nature in this whimsical picture book from a new author. Sylvia is a Tree Keeper, one of a tiny community of little people who live in trees (their heads are the size of hazelnuts). They ‘nurture and mend, gather and tend.’ Sylvia is a loner, but a chance encounter with a baby bird encourages her to rejoin her flock and find comfort in friendship. The book celebrates community spirit, and will be loved by youngsters who like their picture books full of tiny people from old-fashioned magical lands – the Tree Keepers are pictured playing musical instruments, dancing around the maypole, and celebrating with wholesome homemade food. The main illustrative treat comes not from the Tree Keepers though, but from the flock of birds, the ‘thousands of wings beating as one’. A good guide to nature as well as to neighbourliness. You can buy it here.

humperdink
Humperdink Our Elephant Friend by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Clare Alexander
The illustrations in this young picture book are less intricate, slightly vaguer and more haphazard, which lends well to the playgroup setting. With black outlines and careful choice of colour, the playgroup feels authentic and familiar – a yellow rug on the floor, coloured building blocks, and much role play; the children hail from a variety of different backgrounds. Weirdly enough, the new kid isn’t a kid at all, but an elephant. And he fits in as well as a bull in a china shop, despite the children’s best efforts. In the end of course, they discover how he can contribute to the group.

Like some of the other picture books here, the book has a gentle nod towards the benefits of nature – the children venturing into the jungle with the elephant and finding a plethora of fun activities there. It’s a magical title, adding huge excitement to normal tales of playgroup friendship, and of course giving the message that inclusivity is key. There’s a wonderful exuberance to the illustrations here – children love slides! You can buy it here.

we are together

We Are Together by Britta Teckentrup
Teckentrup has a distinctive style all of her own, and it is easy to spot her books in the library. Inside, the books all sing with a similar rhythm, a lovely rhyming poetry. And many tend to have cutouts within, giving an extra physical dimension to the book. We Are Together has all of these, and here they work particularly well. The message is unity and teamwork – the power of a group, particularly a diverse group who are supportive of each other. With references to needing support in unhappy or difficult times, with an understanding that we are small in comparison to the big world, and an absolute appreciation of nature all the way through, this is a neatly told message. The cutouts provide endless amusement and bring a smile – each page reveals the group to be larger and larger – lots of small people eventually making a circle. It reminded me of the Coca Cola advert of old, teaching the world to sing. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Two Hoots, Lantana Press, Otter-Barry Books, Curious Fox, Frances Lincoln, Words&Pictures and Little Tiger Press for the review copies.

The Tzar’s Curious Runaways by Robin Scott-Elliot

tzars curious runawaysEarly on in this historical novel, author Scott-Elliot introduces a footnote to a particular scene that simply says, ‘This really happened at the court of Peter the Great’. This tempting piece of information follows the reader throughout this startling novel – did that really happen, could that really have happened, stimulating both interest in the story, but also great intrigue in the historical setting. The reader is bursting to know more.

Good historical fiction not only holds a mirror up to our own times, pointing to similarities, and lessons learned or unlearned, but it also encourages the reader to think more about that period of history and entice them to discover more about it. Scott-Elliot does both these in his first novel for children, The Tzar’s Curious Runaways.

Katinka is a ballerina with a hunchback, part of a collection of people in Peter the Great’s Circus of Curiosities, his Kunstkamera. (The Tzar was particularly interested in deformities, collecting specimens and people (such as dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks and more) as a way to dispel myths that ‘monsters’ and monstrous formations came from the devil. He frequently put them on display and used them as tools for humiliation and cruelty.) On his death, Katinka and the other ‘curiosities’ are to be killed on the orders of the even nastier Tzarina. Together with her friends Alexei the Giant and Nikolai the dwarf, Katinka escapes the palace in St Petersburg and sets off across the snowy Russian steppe to find her parents, from whom she believes she was snatched by the Tzar’s henchmen.

This is, of course, an adventure story as journey, and therefore one of a tide of children’s novels that fits this description. What sets The Tzar’s Curious Runaways apart is not only the historical and geographical setting of 1725 Russia, but most particularly the intense suspense and danger conjured by a plot unfolding in an immensely cruel, violent and unforgiving society.

This Russia is a place of fear: The court around the Tzar, all in fear of being humiliated or worse, being killed; the peasants in surrounding areas fearful of any change or anything different; humans in general scared of wolves and bears and the darker side of nature. And in every facet of this society, Scott-Elliot describes those in power or holding authority as being corrupt, greedy or just cruel, from the adults in the village to the monks in an onion-turreted church, who of course, should provide the moral code. This is a poverty-stricken and cruel society – scenes include prisoners in chains being made to work on The Grand Canal, fearful adults throwing rocks at mere children.

Beauty, in this book, lies both in the endless snowy steppe and the mountains that take the form of animals, but also in children – their innocence, their bravery, their self-belief, and their hope.

Although the book is hugely scenic, with its dense forests, ornate palaces and snowy landscapes, and the plot reliant upon a magical map, this is a story about personalities overriding visuals, about not being judged for one’s physical imperfections, but rather using them to advantage, or overcoming their adversity.

In this way, the book shines a light on our current times – about the possibilities offered in a diverse society and about how people shouldn’t discriminate based on looks or beliefs. Of course our current society isn’t utopia, and has a long way to go for acceptance and tolerance to reign, particularly with regards to minorities, those with disabilities, and even women. But, if anything, Scott-Elliot shows us how far we’ve come.

Despite its use of historical research, this is still a novel, and Scott-Elliot cleverly draws attention to our understanding of history and the past by muddling Katinka’s memories of home. She is a protagonist seeking to belong, seeking a home, and yet her memories of the past are hazy – she isn’t sure whether they’re derived from her actual childhood surroundings, or from story books. And so the novel asks the question: what memories and histories of the past can be trusted? How much are we fabricating and filling in the gaps in our historical knowledge?

Into this mix, Scott-Elliot throws a wise librarian named Johann Daniel, who imparts a great deal of survival knowledge to the children and also gifts them a magical map to guide them on their journey. This light relief from the cruelty and harshness around them gives the children and the reader hope. It is with magic and story that a happy ending can be reached, despite the tribulations on the way.

For those who enjoy historical novels, this is something a little different, a curiosity in the children’s literature canon. You’d be wise not to run away from it.

With thanks to Everything With Words for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here. Suggested for ages 8+.

Invisible in a Bright Light

invisible in a bright lightIt has struck me recently that the newspapers have been full of the word ‘reckoning’, particularly of course, over Brexit. A Day of Reckoning – when we look back at past misdemeanours, and try to deal with them, perhaps seeking forgiveness; a time in which we have to deal with something unpleasant that so far has been avoided. Whatever happens with Brexit, Boris Johnson will have a ‘reckoning’, a choice as to whether he fulfils his promises or not.

Sally Gardner’s new book for children aged 9-12 years, Invisible in a Bright Light, toys with the idea of a game of Reckoning – a ‘gutter of time’ moment in which we make a choice – do we go one way or another? And what consequences does that decision bring? How does it change the course of our life and, by extension, who we are?

Celeste works as a runner in the Copenhagen Opera House in the 1880s, but when she wakes one day in the costume basket, everyone seems to think she’s someone else – a ballet dancer called Maria. Celeste knows she is Celeste, even though all she can remember is a Man in an Emerald Coat and a game she must play called the Reckoning.

When a crystal chandelier falls from the dome of the opera house, she is badly injured, too injured to dance, and so begins to recuperate in the house of the star opera singer, a spoiled and nasty diva. Before long, clues as to who she really is begin to emerge, and soon the reader and Celeste see that time is of the utmost importance, and she must take part in the Reckoning Game, because everything, including her life, is at stake.

This mysterious riddle-strewn novel, set within the grandeur of a Royal Opera House, calls on fairy tales and the appearance and reality of theatres to dazzle the reader with its tale of mistaken identity, sea-faring, and performance. Gardner waves her wand throughout the novel, creating play with language, narrative, and time structures, to create the most intriguing and unique book for the age group – reminiscent in ways of I, Coriander, and yet totally original.

Insightful readers will pick up intertextual clues of Alice in Wonderland, the Phantom of the Opera and more, and will be richly rewarded for pursuing this sophisticated read. Part historical novel, part surrealism, the writing shines as much as the chandelier that inspired Gardner, and readers enthralled by theatre stories will adore the sumptuous scene setting of costume fittings, theatre sets, rehearsals and more.

There are many contemporary children’s writers playing with the concepts of time and narrative, but Gardner does it with style and panache. You’ll have to read the book to see if Celeste wins her game, but Gardner is definitely at the top of hers. You can buy it here.

Frostheart by Jamie Littler

frostheartWith exquisite artworks to match the finely tuned world-building, illustrator turned author Jamie Littler has written a captivating fantasy adventure.

Ash is a Song-Weaver, a boy with a powerful ability to tame the monsters that lurk in the Snow Sea, the vast tundra that surrounds the human-kin stronghold in which he lives. But he doesn’t fully understand his power, and nor do the other human-kin, choosing to shun him for his ability.

When the book opens, Ash is waiting for the return of his parents, who left the stronghold many years before. All he has to remember them by is a lullaby, although this too he doesn’t fully understand. When Ash uses his song to calm the monsters as visitors approach the stronghold, the rest of the human-kin are scared, and they exile him along with his guardian, a grumpy Yeti called Tobu. Ash and Tobu leave with the visitors on their sleigh, the Frostheart, set to traverse the snowy tundra in order to find Ash’s parents and solve the mystery of the left-behind lullaby.

In a nod to time-honoured explorer adventures, the crew of the Frostheart together with Tobu and Ash visit many strongholds, all separated by the Snow Sea, and in each stronghold discover a different kind of tribe, some human-kin, others not, such as the Vulpis (small fox-like creatures who like shiny things). This Gulliver’s Travels-esque set up provides much momentum and intrigue across the book, but at the same time the reader, with Ash, is grappling with Ash’s own individual mystery – how to solve the riddle of the lullaby and the whereabouts of his parents.

Along with these questions, comes the question of the motive of the other members of the Frostheart crew, such as the captain (a wooden-legged walrus), Lunah, a young girl mapping the undiscovered world, who soon becomes a close friend for Ash, and the shadowy Shaard, a knowledge-hunter looking for clues from the World Before.

Littler uses classic tropes in his fantasy adventure, from the role of the protagonist Ash as an outsider, to his mentor and teacher Tobu, who appears grumpy and sets Ash repetitive tasks, but actually holds and gives intense wisdom. In this way, he reminded me so much of Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid films. But because Littler has built such an extraordinary new world, these tropes are welcome as familiar signposts in an unfamiliar landscape.

Themes of friendship and family and belonging pervade the entire story, as Ash seeks his heritage and his true clan, all the while learning to be part of a team with the Frostheart crew, and finding true friendship with Lunah.

Littler’s clever use of song, positing Ash as a Songweaver with unexplored powers, points to the power of creativity and the creative arts, something that seems to get a little lost in education today, and the power of song gets Ash into trouble, but also proves to be a solace and salvation, as well as a way into his emotional well-being.

The other intensely creative element across the book is Littler’s illustrations, which almost spill into graphic novel territory – there are so many and they are so intricate. They delineate the characters, both complementing and going further than the text, and in some cases are hugely humorous.

The book is so punctuated by these illustrations that it helps the reader along the voyage – this is a lengthy adventure for the age group. However, it is always packed with action and onwards momentum, with numerous dangers, and interesting technologies, using a mixture of age-old weaponry such as bows and arrows, but also solar polar in the sunstones.

There’s an innate pull to nature too – the power of fire and light, the bleakness and intensity of cold and snow.

Yet, what remains strongest is the characterisation of Ash. His vulnerability makes him endearing, and Littler has a good eye for compassion and when to pull at the reader’s heartstrings. In fact, with his sublimely executed illustrations, and his well-constructed other world, this awesome adventure won’t leave any reader with a frosty heart. The only problem is that it does leave them hanging – the ending points thoroughly towards the sequel, and threads are left untied.

Look out too for the gorgeous production – the book has a die-cut foil cover, and Waterstones are selling a special edition with sprayed edges. For ages 9-12 years. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Puffin for a review copy.

Furious Thing by Jenny Downham

furious thingAre you angry? Is it justifiable anger? And when is it appropriate to express it? This is an even harder question when you’re a woman. Just ask Serena Williams.

It was difficult to listen to the radio interview with Sally Challen a couple of weeks ago, the wife jailed for her husband’s murder and subsequently released after it was established she had suffered from coercive control. Emotional abuse is often hidden in plain sight.

For a child, it is even worse – how can children distinguish correct behaviours in relationships if they have only ever experienced the bad? In a time of fake news and half-truths, of increasing polarisation and threatening language, it’s more important than ever that young adults can dissect the truth, can learn to trust their instincts, and can distinguish between right and wrong, between whom to believe and whom not to believe.

Fifteen-year-old Lexi has always been told she has a problem with anger. In fact, if she just learned to control it, apparently, all would be well. Lexi lives with her mother, her mother’s fiancé John, and younger half-sister Iris. As her mother’s wedding draws near, Lexi can’t seem to help erupting, especially in scenarios involving her soon-to-be stepdad.

And then it spills over at school, at first in small incidents, and then culminating in violence. When she throws a chair through a window at school, she realises that her rage is out of control, and quite probably misdirected.

Of course, this isn’t her only preoccupation. There’s school, and romantic interests. At school, Lexi auditions for The Tempest, and Downham weaves an intelligent dissection of the play and its characters into her novel, as well as exploring the interactions between staff and pupils. Lexi’s romantic issue is more complicated, seeing as she has confusing feelings for John’s son from his first marriage. This is handled with great sensitivity in the novel, Lexi to-ing and fro-ing on whether feelings are returned, and Downham evokes a lush confusion from both parties as to what they feel when.

And all the time, threaded neatly throughout the story, is the slowly dawning realisation for the reader, and also more slowly for Lexi, that Lexi herself isn’t the problem in the family dynamic, John is. This is abuse, albeit not physical, just a slow grinding-down of self-awareness, confidence and trust.

Each piece of dialogue feels authentic, from the manipulative language John uses, to the timidity of Lexi’s mother, depending on whom she is speaking to, and the dialogue of all the youth, which feels fresh, spikey and young. Where Downham excels is in the gaps between the words – the pauses and silences, the loud unspoken.

Beautifully observed, this is particularly established in how the novel captures the confusing metamorphosis as the fifteen year olds morph from innocence to sexual beings, both in how they view themselves, and also in how they are viewed. In a party scene, Downham captures the essence of this with deep understanding in its complexity – exploring the scents of the bar, nitrous oxide, the whiff of sexual power, particularly in that although sexual allure leaks from the girls, they often don’t understand it themselves. And therefore it’s even harder to avoid it being abused.

This is a masterfully written novel, as one would expect from Downham. The sort of YA that the industry should be aiming for – with depth and nuance, and still holding extraordinary pacing, as well as pulsing with energetic prose. There is an intense subtlety in the slow deterioration of Lexi’s sense of self, made even more compelling as the reader discovers that not even everything Lexi says can be trusted – she may be narrating the story, but she’s not entirely reliable.

There are some lovely periphery characters, especially well-meaning adults, who also feel conflicted and don’t have all the answers, from John’s ex-wife to Lexi’s mum’s friend.

In the end, Lexi uses her anger as a force for good, and sees what’s really important in a family dynamic – as does the reader.

At times this is an uncomfortable read. Lexi makes bad decisions time and time again, and the people around her don’t help. But by the end, there is immense growth and understanding. For those who want more nuanced YA, and a better grasp of what constitutes a healthy relationship, this is an excellent and dynamic read.

With thanks to David Fickling Books for the early review copy. You can buy it here.

Beyond Platform 13: Through the Gump

beyond platform 13Three years before JK Rowling published her first book, making a tourist attraction of Platform 9 and 3/4 at Kings Cross Station, Eva Ibbotson published The Secret of Platform 13, an adventure about a magical island populated with wizards, ogres, hags and fairies, access to which is through the ‘gump’ – a portal under platform 13 at King’s Cross Station that only opens once every nine years. Although it has been 25 years since the original, Sibéal Pounder has re-opened the gump with her sequel, Beyond Platform 13, illustrated by Beatriz Castro.

There’s risk in this, of course. Writing a sequel to a late author’s original book, which was shortlisted for the then Smarties prize, is an adventure of its own, but Pounder pulls off the sequel with aplomb, not only staying true to the original characters, but creating her own stand-alone read.

The island is under attack from the Harpies, intent upon ethnically cleansing the island of hags, ogres, wizards and more. Odge and Prince Ben hatch a plan to recruit a mist-maker to save their island, but when they pluck nine-year-old Lina from Vienna in a case of mistaken identity (her fluffy rucksack looked very much like it belonged to a mist-maker), they have to work out a different plan to overcome the Harpies.

Although set mainly on a mysterious island with mythical creatures (veering into London territory occasionally), this is a superb satire, as well as a pacey adventure. Sibéal Pounder (of Witch Wars fame), neatly digs into our current psyche and preoccupation, with subtle references to corrupt societies, banishment/immigration, sly politics, and the struggles of feminism, all with a huge dollop of humour. With moral messages about collaboration and standing up for what’s right, a huge understanding of children, and lashes of sharp wit, this is both a great little adventure and a huge amount of wicked fun. Below, Sibéal gives her readers five ideas of books to take with them on holiday, I mean, through the Gump!

FIVE BOOKS TO TAKE THROUGH THE GUMP

THE EXPLORER by Katherine Rundell
Rundell lists Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea as a key inspiration for her Costa-winning future classic, and The Explorer would be at the top of my pile of books to take through the Gump. It also has useful information about eating tarantulas should you find you get peckish…

DIAL A GHOST by Eva Ibbotson
Along with The Secret of Platform 13, Dial a Ghost was up there with my favourite Eva Ibbotson books. It tells the story of a young boy who orders a haunting only to find he’s sent a lovely family of ghosts, not the terrifying one he requested. Reading up on ghosts is essential when going through the Gump – they guard the gumps and are very important to everyone on Mist.

THE TRAIN TO IMPOSSIBLE PLACES by P.G. Bell
This is essential reading given you’re travelling to an island with trolls. The story begins when Suzy finds a grumpy troll building a railway through her house. It will give you plenty to talk about with the residents of Thwompburg should you stop by for a bite of cheese at Han’s famous eatery Hans-ome Cheeses.

RETURN TO WONDERLAND by Robin Stevens, Pamela Butchart, Patrice Lawrence…
This compilation of Wonderland tales from best-selling authors is fabulous, and a great collection of short stories to accompany you on a journey through the Gump. Each focuses on a different character from the Wonderland universe – from Patrice Lawrence’s story about the hedgehog croquet ball to Robin Stevens’s innovative story about the real Alice’s sister Lorina Liddell.   

RUMBLESTAR by Abi Elphinstone
Elphinstone’s magical tales will make you crave adventure, so her latest gem, Rumblestar, is a must to get you in the mood for an adventure on the island of Mist. It features a harpy villain, which is important reading given harpies lurk beyond the Gump!

With thanks to Sibéal Pounder, Clare Hall-Craggs and Macmillan publishers for the early review copy. I highly recommend Beyond Platform 13 by Sibéal Pounder and Eva Ibbotson for ages 8+, and dare adults not to read and chuckle too. You can buy it here.