fiction

Bookwandering with Anna James

Pages & CoPages & Co: Tilly and the Bookwanderers by Anna James is the first in a trilogy that tells the story of eleven-year-old Matilda (Tilly) Pages, who has lived with her grandparents above their bookshop ever since her mother disappeared shortly after Tilly was born. If you’ve ever witnessed a child completely immersed in a book so that they don’t even hear their own name being called, then you’ll understand the type of character Tilly is. She loves books, and with good reason. Her grandparents’ bookshop is an idyll – with nooks and hidden corners, chairs to nestle into, and all the time the permeating aroma of hot chocolate and fresh baking from the café.  

But there is more magic to the bookshop than great cakes and good books. Before long, Tilly is seeing characters from books come alive inside the shop – at first they speak to just her grandparents, but before long she meets Alice (from Wonderland) and Anne (from Green Gables). And then, to her surprise, she finds she can accompany them back to their own worlds too – and her book wandering adventures begin.

The premise of the book is delightful for book lovers – to literally escape into the book, and James is brave here – writing words into Alice’s and Anne’s mouths, even writing a tea party scene from Wonderland, in which Tilly meets the Mad Hatter. James pulls this off with aplomb, capturing the essence of the classic characters in both their speech and their mannerisms. She also executes the rules of her bookwandering world with skill – adeptly laying out for the reader (and Tilly) when it’s possible to enter a book, how to exit, and how the whole system is managed.

Tilly discovers that bookwandering doesn’t just happen in her grandparents’ bookshop, Pages & Co, but in many others, and the management of bookwandering happens in the underbelly of The British Library, where she is eventually invited to learn the rules. (A really wonderful scene here, in which Tilly has to learn to bookwander by starting in an early reader, Peter and Jane book, in which nothing happens).

The book leaps into even more adventurous territory when Tilly discovers that bookwandering may explain her mother’s disappearance.

This is a wonderfully engaging and cosy book with adventure, magic and friendship, and may encourage children to venture towards the classics mentioned above (and also A Little Princess). Today, I’m delighted to welcome Anna James onto MinervaReads to tell you about the real places that inspired Pages & Co:

Anna JamesReal life inspired Pages & Co in several ways (and probably in many other subconscious ways I’m not even aware of). I’ve pulled from people, places, and feelings to try and make the world of the book feel as real as possible, despite the magic going on. There’s one place I literally just stole, but several others inspired some of the locations of the plotlines of the book; here are five that had the biggest impact.

  1. My grandparents house

Tilly’s grandparents are hugely important to her, and to the story. Tilly lives with them in their bookshop and they are essentially her parents. While all of the characters are fictional, Tilly’s grandparents are the most directly inspired by real people; my grandparents. Sadly they didn’t live in a bookshop, but they did live in a farmhouse that they converted themselves, in the Scottish Borders. It was a house with a real fire, with Grandad’s emerald velvet armchair in front of it, full of bookshelves, and the kitchen in Pages & Co is basically their kitchen with its pantry, big table and Grandma making gooseberry crumble

  1. Masons of Melrose

Linked to my grandparents house is Masons of Melrose, their local independent bookshop. When we visited we used to walk from their house down the River Tweed to Melrose where we’d visit the bookshop and then walk back to eat and read in front of the fire. This bookshop is also where my Grandad used to choose our Christmas books, and the booksellers there recommended me, via him, to read Northern Lights and Harry Potter when I was 10.

  1. The University of Birmingham

I studied Modern and Medieval History at the University of Birmingham and I specialised in the early modern period; the Reformation and Tudor History, especially the history of printing and the impact it had on the period. The university is a beautiful red brick campus and the Great Hall, where I graduated, was one of the buildings I used when I was creating the British Underlibrary. I also spent a lot of time in the library, which has since been updated and modernised, but the old red brick building that was at the centre of the campus is my library, and the one that influenced the Underlibrary (more on that later).

  1. North London

I’ve lived in north London for just over three years now and I love it. Hampstead Heath, Alexandra Palace, my local high street full of independent coffee shops – when I started writing Pages & Co the only place I could imagine it, was near where I live. It is entirely impossible it could be, with its four floors and architectural dubiousness, but it’s still where it is in my imagination. It’s also, crucially, near to Kings Cross St Pancras which leads me on to the last real place which inspired me.

  1. The British Library

I write mostly at my local coffee shop or at the British Library, whose airy quiet reading rooms are perfect to get you in the right mood for writing. When I needed a location for a secret community of bookwanderers, I knew straightaway that it needed to be concealed somehow at this beautiful library. In the centre of the atrium there is The King’s Library, a tower of very old books, which is not accessible to the public, and it seemed the perfect place to hide a magical, apparently out of order, lift…

With huge thanks to Anna James for mapping her inspirational geography for MinervaReads. You can buy a copy of Pages & Co here.

 

Magical Mythological Maps and Monsters

Why are myths still relevant to us, and why do we explore them so much in children’s literature?

One reason that we still buy stories of myths from long-ago cultures or faraway places is that they hold within them certain universal truths or explanations of our natural world and our human behaviours. Myths hold messages that stretch across barriers, which reach down through generations and connect people across time and geography.

But at the same time they can also teach us about different cultures, show us how people once lived, or how they live now in different societies. Japanese myths often refer to mythical creatures in the sea, which makes sense for an island nation. The Yoruba believe that before people and animals existed, there was the realm of the deities, and an empty realm filled with nothing but sky and marshy water – which makes sense when you realise that the Yoruba live in Western Africa under beautiful African skies.

In myths told as stories for children, the reader learns alongside the characters; they follow that journey with them, make decisions with them. They forge their own identity whilst learning of another’s. Children feel the pain of Icarus wanting to fly; they wonder if they too would have survived the twelve labours of Herakles.

Two books that bring myths to children in an exciting, spellbinding and aesthetically beautiful way are Myth Atlas and Myth Match.

myth atlasMyth Atlas by Thiago de Moraes is one of the most beautiful books for children I’ve seen this year. Each of the twelve cultures covered is illustrated and explained within a map that shows how that culture viewed the world. For example, The Greek world shows a flat Earth surrounded by a large sea, with the heavens above and Hades beneath. De Moraes idea of Hades is brilliant, kind of hanging upside down under a ridge of the main world, and populated of course by Cereberus and Charon, and showing Persephone and Orpheus there too – explained with simple text how their stories led them there. The Yanomani World is shown as four planes shaped like discs, stacked on top of one another – the upper sky, middle sky, earth and underworld. De Moraes excels in his depictions of people and creatures – both the people of the culture, and then creatures that exist in their mythical tellings, such as the Brooribe, the ghosts of dead Yanomani, and the Oineitib, the dwarves of the underworld.

This book will educate, elucidate, stimulate and inspire wonder all at the same time. I couldn’t stop looking through it. The illustrations are painstakingly detailed, and use colour in an intelligent and colourful way without being garish or overstated. And each has a very simple number key to show the reader the accompanying text, which is simply but well told. In between the maps of each culture, there are a few chosen stories highlighting particular myths. In the Slavic World there is the story of Vasilisa and the Magic Doll, in the Aztec World, the story of the Five Suns. Each is highly illustrated with full colour spreads, and with extra boxes of information about monuments or temples. Each ‘world’ is given their own introductory page explaining the culture, the map and where the people were originally, and each ‘world’ ends with details about creatures and artefacts. This is an all-encompassing enthralling journey, with a clever navigation guide at the beginning and a wonderful introduction explaining how this is just a taste of the mythical world, and can’t, of course, cover every culture and every myth.

But what a taste! It’s a gastronomic feast for the eyes and brain, and I’ll be sampling it again and again. You can buy your own copy here.

myth matchThe second book, Myth Match by Good Wives and Warriors, follows in the tradition of the hugely popular Mixed Up Fairy Tales books by Hilary Robinson and Nick Sharratt. Here, instead of Goldilocks falling into Red Riding Hood’s story, we have an information book of mythical creatures that turns into a clever mash up of blending one mythical creature with another.

The reader can read it straight by encountering some weird and wonderful creatures from around the world, each sumptuously illustrated with masses of detail and colour. The trick though is to flip the front half or back half and pair up different parts of the different mythical creatures, hence creating your own – after all, myths are all about imagination and evolution. What’s more, the accompanying descriptive text (just a few lines) matches up too, whichever parts you fit together, giving a whole new description for the new creature. For instance a unicorn and a phoenix could become a uninix or a phoecorn! Good production, unlikely to rip with frequent usage. Buy yours here.

The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

skylarks warQuoted in the bibliography as an influence, and reading almost like an homage to Testament of Youth, Hilary McKay’s latest novel The Skylarks’ War is a highly readable, beautifully imagined story of a girl coming of age during the devastation of World War I. Clarry and her older brother are largely ignored by their single parent father, but spend their summers in glorious freedom in Cornwall at their grandparents’, where wonderfully charismatic and free-spirited cousin Rupert rules the roost. But when war breaks out, family and friendships are wrenched apart, and the Skylark summers seem a thing of the distant past.

McKay has a remarkable gift for writing. Her characters are fully rounded, developed people who you want to stay with long after the last page is turned. Clarry reads like a warm hug, Rupert is exactly the heroic soldier one would fall for, and Clarry’s brother Peter is a complicated, sensitive sort – he heart-wrenchingly jumps from a moving train to avoid boarding school and damages his leg, with only the reader fully aware of the consequences of his actions, seeing as war will erupt a few years later.

Also lending heart and soul to the novel is Simon, Peter’s friend from boarding school, who gives the reader a glimpse of the social history of the piece from the knowing standpoint of a more enlightened future. Simon, as much as the reader, is patently in love with Rupert, but of course homosexuality was forbidden then.

As well as character, McKay writes with specificity, elegance and precision in her portrayal of the time, lavishing period detail, but more intelligently, rendering the emotions of the time so clearly – leaving the reader with a sense of the social history without in any way preaching. She shies away from anything too gruesome in her sparse prose about the Front, but there is enough tension and heartbreak to transport the reader to the desolation of that time and place.

McKay concentrates mostly on the home front, managing to include both the suspension of time for women left at home as they waited for news and letters, but also the occupying of that time and the growth of importance of women as they took up roles in society away from the domestic sphere, and become more visible. Above all, what marks the book is the amount of hope and courage portrayed, and the feeling that Clarry’s breathless determination and grit will prevail.

This sort of storytelling is reminiscent of those great classic novels – the gathering of the family around letters from Father in Little Women, the closeness in relationships in Noel Streatfield novels, the insight into women’s feelings in Testament of Youth.

Marking the centenary of the First World War, this is a most beautiful introduction to that time period for children, and an unforgettable classic read. One of the best children’s books this year – do not miss. For 9+ years. You can buy your copy here.

Writing for Teens: A Conversation with Jon Walter

nevertheless she persistedJon Walter’s latest novel strikes the gong for women everywhere in this 100th anniversary year since some women were afforded the vote. Nevertheless She Persisted is the story of two sisters in 1913 and their struggle to achieve and succeed in a world dominated by men. Clara and Nancy work in Holloway Prison in a time in which the prison population includes a number of imprisoned suffragettes, some suffering force feeding as a result of their hunger strikes. Seeing their own struggles for independence mirrored in these fighting women, Nancy and Clara must make the decision as to which side to be on.

Walter’s novel gets to the very heart of the suffragettes’ struggle; looking not only at the importance of the role of imprisonment in the suffragette movement, and the Cat and Mouse Act, but also at the political motives and arguments surrounding women at a time in which their roles in life were still dependent upon men.

He doesn’t hold back. There is a graphic description of force feeding, an account of the sisters’ escape from their home, in which it becomes apparent that their father is guilty of incest. So, this isn’t really a book I’d normally recommend on a blog primarily designed to showcase children’s titles. In fact, it’s being published as part of David Fickling Books’ new foray into adult titles, which began with Pullman’s book of essays, Daemon Voices, last year. However, Walter claims that he writes YA fiction, (his previous novel Close to the Wind is suitable for those aged 10+ years, whilst My Name is Not Friday was longlisted for The Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize 2015), and his publisher claims that stories are for all:

Fickling says: Ideally I would really like to publish books that are not strictly for kids or only for adults, but with wide appeal. We’re not trying to muddle things – we’ll always keep story at our heart.”

But this is marketed as for adults, and so I feel that Walter could have pushed even more on the corporeal or visceral feelings that these women suffered – he holds back on the physical and emotional descriptions of childbirth and its after effects and the physical and emotional constrictions that women must have felt at that time, but to his credit he pushes the boundaries on the political instead.

Nancy and Clara are scarcely out of childhood themselves, and indeed at the time many women were made to feel that their childhood continued into adulthood because their independence was so curtailed. However, they occupy an adult world and step into roles of responsibility within the prison system, all the while trying to create their own new world, to forge a new path of a new generation – a world in which women aren’t tied by the patriarchy, and in which they can wear trousers or ride a bicycle and fight for their own freedoms and earn their own money. In this regard, Nevertheless does read like a YA title. Jon Walter believes that all his books are for a YA audience:

Jon WalterChildren’s literature can be a great place for dealing with big questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we belong? How should we live? I write for children because I want to address those questions. And I also write for children because they occupy a place of transition, particularly teens, who inhabit the borderlands between childhood and adulthood. This is extremely fertile territory for fiction writers because it is unformed and unstable. It has friction and is ripe for conflict as the new threatens to sweep aside the old. Basically, I’m more interested in the world young people will create than the world we adults have left them.”

I wonder if the reasons that DFB have cast this as an adult title are twofold. Firstly, the issue of incest – generally one of the last taboos. Walter isn’t sure: “There are no rules that can’t be broken in fiction but there is definitely safe ground and risky ground. With YA it’s certainly not content. Authors such as Robert Cormier, Melvin Burgess, Margot Lanagan, Louise O’Neill, M T Anderson have all put that idea to rest. I think it’s more about the chosen subject matter. YA tends to find itself in the territory where the adult and children’s world collide. Dystopian fiction would be a good example of the convergence, which is probably why so many teenagers walk around with copies of George Orwell or Margaret Atwood. It’s also about the tone of the book and the primacy of plot, though these are not defining features. Is Stephen King YA? Are thrillers or crime fiction?  I could give you a whole long list of books that are relevant and suitable for teenagers but published as adult fiction.”

Indeed, the teenagers I meet definitely read novels that are in the general fiction area of the bookshop – from 1984 to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to Catch 22 (the latter not a novel I’d recommend for adults; it’s best read as a teen when you’re sucked in by the sheer lunacy). In which case, is YA a patronising term? Why does it exist at all? Jon thinks we might be imposing unnecessary age limits on our readers:

There’s a belief in children’s fiction that readers tend to read two years above their actual age. This is because, while they want to see themselves in a book, they also want to see what might be happening to them very soon. They want to do what the older kids do!

But there’s also something that happens to children aged 14 and upwards. They’re looking at the adult world and seeing how they are going to fit. This isn’t just about sex and drugs and rock and roll. It’s about politics, how the world is structured; the who gets what and why. It might even be about the world of work; what will they do to employ their time and will it pay them enough to live independently? These are very adult questions so it’s not surprising that teenagers often prefer to visit the general fiction section of a shop rather than the children’s section.

If you put these two things together, then the age range of YA  narrows considerably. Instead of a wide 13-18, it might more practically be seen as 12-15? And if so, are we failing to market properly to children and adults in the 15 -22 age range? And rather than pulling older readers in, does the notion of a young adult genre patronise them? My children are 19 & 22, one at university, one doing care work and deciding whether he will make a career of it. Like most people their age, both have a tenuous relationship to adulthood. Why are there so few books aimed at ‘kids’ of this age? It’s almost as though they don’t exist!”

And perhaps this is the second reason why Nevertheless She Persisted is classed as an adult title – the protagonists aren’t children, they’re in their twenties:

One of the problems with Nevertheless was that the suffragettes had an age limit (at least for official suffragette activity) of 21. The age limit for prison wardens was 24. I could have circumvented these with a younger character who witnessed the actions of others but I didn’t want to do that because a reader of fifteen upwards doesn’t necessarily need a protagonist their own age. I think the issues that Nancy and Clara deal with are resonant with the lives and decisions of today’s teenagers, despite the protagonists and setting being adult.”

All in all then, we tend to agree. The genres and age levels imposed upon novels are fairly arbitrary – after all how many novels are there that traverse across the genres rather than tidily fitting into one particular category. Is Jane Austen romance? Classic? Literary fiction? Perhaps in the end, it’s really just about marketing:

I think it is but that’s hugely significant. Successful marketing is about putting books into the right people’s hands – it can be the difference between a book being read or passed over.” Walter’s latest novel might be marketed as adult, but it’s an appealing read for any teen looking to discover the women’s suffrage struggle, or to understand the relationship between sisters, or to read social historical fiction that contains those small nuggets of detail that are so fascinating. It’s written with clarity and pathos and as one would expect from a Jon Walter novel, carries the reader at pace with style and poise. Walter appears happy with DFB’s new direction: “DFB are taking a risk with this but it might just be that their new adult list appeals more to teenagers than the books might as YA. If the list also succeeds in attracting adult readers who aren’t engaged with the children’s book world, then that’s even better!”

I’m looking forward to reading whatever might be next – perhaps Jon Walter might try his hand at a picture book next? And those, as we know, are for all ages.

You can buy a copy of Nevertheless She Persisted here.

 

 

Rituals and Community

Although on the surface it would appear that the following three books are vastly different – a historical novel set in the Philippines, the first in a new fantasy quartet, and a dystopian novel published in 1993, I notice that they all rely heavily upon a coming-of-age ritual for their plots. Today in modern society, we still have coming-of-age rituals be they religious such as a bar mitzvah, or secular such as the transition to high school (made into quite an ordeal with end of primary proms, new uniform shopping, perhaps the purchase of a new phone etc.)

Each culture focussed in the three books has their own coming-of-age ritual central to their community – it marks the turning of children into adults and in all three cases gives them their adult role in the community. Each ritual is incredibly different but they retain similarities in design and all are deemed important by the community – indeed these societies are each bound as a community to the rituals, rules and beliefs that they inherit. And questioning of the rituals, rules or beliefs threatens the community…

bone talkBone Talk by Candy Gourlay
Gourlay’s latest novel sees her attempt to give voice, with a first person narrative, to the native Filipino’s view of history as she describes a boy on the brink of manhood in a tribal village in 1899. Although she fictionalises her story, this is a rare view of history in this land, seen before only through the eyes of occupying forces or anthropologists. Samkad is about to undergo the ‘cut’, the ceremony that turns him from boy to man and lets him join the warriors of his tribe who are fighting the headhunting enemy.

Samkad’s innocence is apparent immediately. He has never met anyone from outside his tribe, or been beyond the marked territory of the village’s paddy fields, and he also enjoys his time with his friend Luki, a girl who is also desperate to be a warrior, although held back by the view of gendered roles within her tribe. However, his innocence is not seen as a negative, and Gourlay writes intelligently about how he thrives within his community, and the importance of the community’s ‘innocence’ – the fact that they are undisturbed.

However, it takes more than a cut to make a man, and when Samkad’s coming-of-age ceremony is derailed, and a pale-skinned man, an American, arrives, Samkad and the reader learn that experience, not necessarily ritual, is what changes a person.

Gourlay is terrific at describing the landscape of Samkad’s village, from the mountains of rice paddies to the trees that surround them, but mostly at the intricacies of the customs of the tribe, the hierarchical structure of their community, and the rituals, sacrifices and beliefs that bind them together. Soon, it’s clear that the existential threat to the tribe comes not from enemy headhunters or snakes, but from the Americans, who aren’t as friendly as they first appear when they come bearing sweets as well as guns.

The story is fast-paced and written with an immediacy and visceral quality that immerses the reader in Samkad’s way of life and his emotions. Gourlay tells the story with an immense sensitivity towards the way of life she is describing but also with heat and power. The Americans bring a different kind of knowledge to the tribe – some of which is good and useful, and some of which is highly dangerous. As well as exploring these ideas, Gourlay poses questions about the nature of land ownership and territory, about warfare, and community, about changes that come from within as well as what happens when new people arrive. The story is about culture, belief, loyalty and the meaning of community and is historical fiction at its finest, with a fresh and invigorating outlook. Age 10+. You can buy it here.

storm witchStorm Witch by Ellen Renner
Another child facing her rites of passage ritual is Storm in Storm Witch by Ellen Renner. Now 13, she must undertake the Choosing ceremony to see if she will be claimed by one of the Elementals: Air, Water, Earth or Fire, and this Choosing will determine her course in life – her vocation. This is a fantasy novel set in some distant land at an unspecified time, but it’s clear that inspiration has been taken from a rural life – Storm’s village community lives from the land – pots are fired, food is fished or hunted, and cloth is woven from natural product. This is a place and time in which technology hasn’t been harnessed.

In a highly unusual occurrence, Storm isn’t chosen by one Elemental, but three, turning her into a witch, and one whose powers are not understood even by the village Elders, headed here by a matriarch. When the village is under threat from the Drowned Ones, (a separate tribe who live at sea) will Storm be able to harness her powers to save her community and particularly those she loves?

Renner has built her world around the power of the elemental forces of nature, and throughout the novel Storm’s people either harness the power for their own use, or suffer its dangers. This works cleverly, so that fire is a dangerous element with the power to destroy, but also of course with the nurturing power to bring heat and light. Water too is dangerous if combined with wind, but is useful in providing a way of passage to trade, and also for its fish. The reader feels at one with nature too reading the book, as though the sound of the sea is a constant backdrop to village life.

The magical elements are woven naturally into the landscape and don’t feel too fantastical, more a way of life and part of the rituals and beliefs of the society Renner has created. But what stands out most is the authenticity of her characters. Storm is a great teenager – on the cusp of womanhood but still bound into childhood squabbles and fighting, split between the childhood of her younger cousin and yet wanting to be part of the adult conversations, and desperate for adult wisdom and knowledge. She is modern in her outlook – her haste and impatience showing through, but also her loyalty and love. The other characters are fully fleshed too, from Storm’s patient mother to her guide and Elder, Teanu.

This is another community set apart and cut off from others, and so strangers are unusual, and when one arrives he brings excitement and danger. This novel too is fast-paced and powerfully written – and although I am generally not a great fan of fantasy, I remained gripped and bound to Storm’s world. Age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

the giverThe Giver by Lois Lowry
This isn’t a new book or even a new edition, but rather was a summer read for our family, and intersected with these other two books so neatly that I couldn’t help but mention it. For those of you new to it, The Giver tells of another community – set in a dystopian future, cut off from the rest of society and indeed from history. It follows a boy called Jonas who is also approaching his ceremony of adulthood – when at 12 the children are assigned the jobs and roles they will play within the community for the rest of their lives. However, Jonas is given a rather different job than the rest of his cohort: he is to be the new Receiver.

This is an unsettling futuristic read about a ‘utopian’ world in which all aspects of pain and suffering have been removed, and fairness rules. Each matched couple is given two children, a boy and a girl, whose own adolescent stirrings are repressed with medication. None of the community has memories, and the elderly and those who don’t fit are ‘released’ with great celebration.

Lowry gradually builds up the reader’s awareness of the world as they progress through the book, so that the reader is more and more unsettled,  until the full scale of the ‘utopia’ becomes apparent. When Jonas receives his new job, and starts to be fed memories of what human society used to be like (in order that he can dispel advice and wisdom to the Elders), the reader realises what the community has sacrificed and the path they have chosen, most unwittingly, and the reader’s moral compass kicks in to question which elements make life worthwhile and valuable.

This is a fascinating allegorical book that stimulates questions about how we live, about difference and sameness, about memories and creativity, about beliefs, rituals and community. It’s dark but simply told so that the horrors creep up stealthily. Lowry’s skilfulness in writing is immediately apparent. The prose is disturbingly simple and information is only drip fed until the reader is so immersed with Jonas, so emotionally entangled and engaged that they could not possibly release him without reading to the end.

It’s a powerful and provocative novel and poses many more questions than it answers. Age 11+ years. You can buy it here.

 

The Lost Magician by Piers Torday

the lost magicianWhen I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a child I had no conception of the word ‘allegory’, and certainly hadn’t grasped the idea that I was reading a story that CS Lewis described as ‘supposal’: “Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there.

Piers Torday has taken Narnia to heart in his latest novel, The Lost Magician, writing it he says as an homage to Narnia. And although there is no Christian allegory, there is definitely much ‘supposing’, and a supposition of a world that mirrors our own in presenting conflict and argument and much darkness, except that, in Torday’s Folio (his version of Narnia), there are talking bears and a self-doubting unicorn.

It is 1945 and Simon, Patricia, Evie and Larry have survived the Blitz, despite the scars it has left on their memories. They arrive at Barfield Hall, a country house, where lives a female professor involved in experimentation revolved around imagination. Through a portal in a strange library in the attic they stumble across a world called Folio – an enchanted kingdom of bears and knights and other creatures found in stories, but also of futuristic fluid metallic robots. These two factions are at war, and the children’s learned horrors of their own war teaches them that they must stop this war, the key to which is finding the lost magician – the creator of the library who has been missing for centuries.

On the surface this novel is a good classic adventure story, with a cast of empathetic children who feel far more authentic than the Narnia quartet, with an intrusion of real world scars into their psyche. Simon, the eldest, has his perceived ideas of masculinity on display, wanting to show his prowess to emulate his war-hero father. Evie experienced trauma in the war, whereas for Larry, the youngest, shown still clutching his teddy and bumping him up the stairs (a la Christopher Robin and Pooh), the rubble of the Blitz was merely a grand landscape for exploration. With them all, their witness to the horror of war informs their decision making.

And the world of Folio that Torday has conjured feels as well-drawn as Wonderland. The reader can see the beauty of the green countryside of fairy-tale land – the house of the three bears, the trees, the fields, the wind buffeting the foliage. And yet also, all too clearly, the metallic glint of the oppositional city, with its enduring light glowing like a beacon of future possibility, and the metallic people, strong and upright.

So on one level this is, as Narnia, a simple trip into a new world through a portal in the old, told in gripping, pacey language with tension and pathos and humour, with Torday’s marvellous descriptive language carrying the reader through with a light touch of his magic pen. And yet, there is so much more when one looks beyond the surface enchantment.

Of course there are literary allusions within the text. Nuggets of Narnia are dripped like gold leaves into the novel, and any novel that uses a library as a portal is bound to make use of the literary canon of children’s literature, and a particular action sequence reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark….

But peel further, and the layers of the novel reveal much much more. Whereas Larry enters Folio through the shelves of ‘Read’ books – representing fiction, Evie enters through the UnReads – the books that represent the facts of the future, the non-fiction. And there is still another shelf in the library through which no-one enters, but which poses the greatest existential threat of all – the Never Reads. These represent ignorance.

When the children enter Folio, they discover that the Reads are at war with the UnReads – a clash of fiction and fact, of fairy tale characters and fact-based sci-fi robots. Larry chooses the Reads, as one would expect from the way he treats his teddy as a live being. Evie ‘betrays’ the other children by choosing the UnReads, wanting to believe in the bright shiny future of hard fact. Here, Torday is clever to draw some ambiguity over the ‘truths’ given by the Queen of the Unreads – a shady figure although physically illuminated in bright numbers, with a body that’s essentially fluid – much like her facts. She is mirrored of course on the White Witch.

By casting his war as story vs fact Torday is speaking to the very heart of what is happening in our society today. The battles in the book are ferocious, the sides pitted heavily against each other; a fractious world of polarised arguments in an angry climate. Here truth is twisted to lies, story is laid as propaganda, news is fake, and trust is misguided.

But this is a novel, and so Torday waves his wand to provide some clarity. The children discover that stories, even of one’s own past, are crucial in providing explanation for our world. That knowledge is valuable and true facts worth remembering, that imagination can provide a crutch when dealing with our own reality.

And yet all this is at risk from the fire and fury of the Never Reads – the ignorant. This last ‘shelf’ of books poses a threat to both the Reads and the UnReads. Whether the threat of the ignorant recalls the Nazi book burning, or Trump’s reported lack of reading will depend upon the reader – and this too is where Torday makes another point. This book is about the power of the reader, and particularly the child as reader – again a paean to those Victorian and Edwardian children’s authors, Carroll, Lear, Barrie, Milne, and CS Lewis who understood the deep influence of the literature people read when they were children, and the power of the child to see wonder in the world.

By the hopeful end (this is a children’s book), the reader understands their own power and also how to use it wisely in reaching across the gulf to understand another’s point of view, recognising that humans have more in common than that which divides them.

There is much more here too – the importance of libraries, a clever nod to the evil of numbers in WW2, building the new without destruction of the old, an understanding that not all children are avid readers – Simon in the novel is dyslexic in a time when dyslexia wasn’t recognised. But above all, there is the beauty of Torday’s writing in telling a good story.

The Lost Magician proves that Torday is on top of his game in spinning the storytelling magic – this magician is anything but lost and any reader who picks up the book will be well and truly found. You can buy it here.

A Chase in Time by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Brett Helquist

a chase in timeSally Nicholls, one of our most assured writers for children, has turned her attention to a new series of time-slip adventures for slightly younger readers (confident 7+ years), and the first novel, A Chase in Time, is a delight from start to finish.

Written in an accessible, abundantly clear and precise style, Nicholls wastes no time in diving straight into her plot, but also writes with one eye firmly on modernity, despite the bulk of the book being set in 1912.

Alex and his sister spend every summer at their aunt’s country house, which also doubles as a bed and breakfast. This summer is to be the last; Aunt Joanna is selling the house because money is short, and things are set to be different in more ways than one. Because this summer, when Alex looks in the golden-framed mirror that hangs in the hallway, he sees another boy in the mirror – and it’s not his reflection. Before long, Alex and his sister Ruby are sucked through the mirror back in time, to the same house in 1912. And the people who inhabit it desperately need their help.

Nicholls’ characters always tend to be strong-willed and confident, and Alex is no different. His voice rings wonderfully true, and he feels authentic and real because of his steadfastness and his quality of being incredibly grounded:

“Alex had never believed in those children in books who discovered secret passageways, or Magic Faraway Trees, or aliens at the bottom of the garden, and kept them a secret…What was the fun of a secret passage if you had no one to boast about it to?”

He and his sister constantly refer to their knowledge of time travel – garnered from books and movies; they are immediately self-aware that they are in this predicament to solve a problem, and once it’s been solved they’ll return to their proper time in history.

In fact, Nicholls is clever here. Not only do we really feel Alex’s character through his authentic voice, but she describes time travel with fresh eyes, all the while referencing those that have gone before her in the literary children’s canon. Once Alex realises where he is, he has expectations about the past – that perhaps the rooms would all look rather like a period piece from TV or The National Trust – but he finds that they are more real, more lived-in. He also describes the rooms and people matter-of-factly, but by pointing out the differences with modern day rather than just having a bland description. And when the children arrive back in their own time, reality dawns about what has happened to the people they met in 1912. This is all brilliantly executed by Nicholls and feels like a new way of dealing with time-slip historical fiction. It’s honest and interesting.

The adults whom Alex and Ruby meet are wonderfully eccentric, and the children they meet are as matter-of-fact as them – refusing to be impressed by the modern mobile phone, which of course isn’t that exciting without a signal in 1912. Equally, Ruby and Alex are impressed with some of the childhood freedoms of their 1912 hosts – the freedom to carry matches, for example.

The host of influences behind Nicholls floats in the background of her novel like benevolent shadows – Blyton and Streatfield in particular – with the plot zinging from a fire in the stables to a dangerous car chase (in a very old-fashioned car, wonderfully described with the fresh eyes of Alex), and some criminal catching.

Illustrated by Brett Helquist, best known for his work on A Series of Unfortunate Events, the text is punctuated with roman numerals clocks, ships in bottles, other artefacts, and pencil drawings of the characters – child readers will note the mobile phone held by Ruby and taken with her through the mirror, which she clasps even whilst dressed in Edwardian clothes. The illustrations help to break up the text, which is in rather large typeface: these elements all combining to make this a sumptuous, satisfying and accessible read.

All in all, it’s a modern classic of a book and my top choice for the summer because, in a most intelligent, perceptive and empathetic way, it portrays people who are generally accepting and kind. What a great introduction to reading for pleasure for new young readers. Published 2nd August, you can buy it here.

Summer 2018 Round-Up

It’s hard to believe we’re at another summer break for MinervaReads. The blog doesn’t operate in August, so at the end of July on the home page I leave a full list of summer reads and releases that you might find interesting. There was such a huge selection this year, I found it difficult to make my pick.

raj and the best day everpetratropical terry

Picture Books

If you’re looking for a picture book that sums up your summer with your pre-schooler, then you’d be hard pressed to find a more endearing, real and funny book than Raj and the Best Day Ever by Seb Brown. Raj and his Dad make a list of what they’re going to do on their day out. But when Dad leaves his wallet behind, they must improvise. With a celebration of a father/son relationship, wonderfully busy cartoon animal illustrations and a sense that fun can be had with a little imagination, this is a funny, up-lit picture book.

Further use of imagination in Petra by Marianna Coppo in this skilfully intelligent, minimalistic picture book. Petra is a pebble with a misguided sense of identity, although gradually she learns she has the potential to be many things thanks to her imagination and her literal journey. The understated-ness of the book lends to its charm, and readers will enjoy exploring Petra’s resilience in adapting to her new discoveries about who she is. Quirky and full of emotion. For a pebble, that’s saying something.

Issues of identity arise in Jarvis’s Tropical Terry too – a picture book fully exploiting the colours and shapes of the sea. Terry is a dull-looking fish, although it makes him excellent at hide-and-seek. But when he dresses up as a tropical fish, he gets more than he bargained for. Being happy with who you are and discovering your strengths, as well as valuing your real friends, is a great message.

the girlsswan lake

Others to look out for this summer include The Girls by Lauren Ace, illustrated by Jenny Lovlie, which celebrates friendship and inclusion between four little girls with joyful light and breezy illustrations, and Swan Lake by Anne Spudvilas, a dark and brooding visualisation of the ballet story that will haunt and delight in equal measure. The illustrations conjure up the movement of the dance; and the zoom into the chandelier and dresses is simply phenomenal. Sure to cast a spell.

hello horse

The summer is a great time to take up a new hobby. I swear my parents only took me riding for the first time in a freezing cold frosty mid-December to put me off the experience, but youngsters with an eye on the horses will be enthralled with Hello Horse by Vivian French, illustrated by Catherine Rayner. Charming, informative and with the most exquisite illustrations, this is a nature storybook that seeks to inform about aspects of horse care whilst telling a gentle story. The watercolours of the fields and wildflowers exude a sense of summer country days, and the texture of the horse is so appealing and nuanced that it will turn the reader’s head.

Young Fiction/Independent Readers

secret sevenknights and bikesbeano

For young fiction readers, Pamela Butchart has updated The Secret Seven series by Enid Blyton, and the first is published in July – Mystery of the Skull. Butchart brings her exuberance and fast-paced story-telling, and although it’s stuck with Barbara, Jane and co, and so lacks a modern diversity, the first adventure is jolly good fun, and just as addictive as the original Blyton tellings.

From new publisher Knights Of, comes Knights and Bikes by Gabrielle Kent, illustrated by Rex Crowle. As anticipated, this is a romping energetic adventure story on bikes that explores the wonders of friendship, with a quest to solve, and mentions of water balloons, frisbees and much more. A bit wacky, highly illustrated, and with a computer game to follow, this should be a well-thumbed mystery.

My own kids adore Saturdays, mainly for the postal delivery of the weekly Beano, so this summer will be fabulous when they discover Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief, as told by Nigel Auchterlounie. Full text interspersed with black and white cartoon illustrations, and a chatty interactive adventure in Beanotown. Perfect for a longer read.

Junior Fiction/Middle Grade/Fluent Readers

boy underwaterplanet staniguana boy

Junior fiction or middle grade readers may not want to read Boy Underwater by Adam Baron, illustrated by Benji Davies, next to the swimming pool, but it’s a compelling, sometimes sad read that will keep children hooked. Cymbeline Igloo has never been swimming, and his first foray into the pool alongside his classmates isn’t pretty. But it has longer-lasting effects upon his mother, and before long, old family secrets are exposed, and Cymbeline’s life will never be the same. Baron explores loss with pathos and empathy, but also adds brilliant touches of humour with his narrator’s wry voice, as well as a satirical look at privilege, and wise words about life in general. No wonder it was a Waterstone’s Book of the Month. Unmissable.

If you’re looking for funny, try Planet Stan by Elaine Wickson, illustrated by Chris Judge. A friendship adventure story packed with space facts and diagrams and charts, and yet also with hilarious survival tips. Or Iguana Boy Saves the World with a Triple Cheese Pizza by James Bishop, illustrated by Rikin Parekh about Dylan, whose superpower is being able to speak to iguanas. Perhaps not the best superpower to own. But if there were no other superheroes, it’d all be down to him. Funny, and with comic-strip illustrations.

the goose road

For a sensuous summer read, historical The Goose Road by Rowena House is set during World War I, and explores France through the eyes of Angelique, desperate to hold onto her farm until her brother can return home from the Front. Packed with detail, and charmingly poignant, this triumphs a girl with ultimate resilience in a desperate time.

YA/Teen

its a wrapthe lost witchmud

For YA, the choice this summer is really fantastic. For an accessible, funny, warm teen read you’ll want to devour the Waiting for Callback trilogy by Perdita and Honor Cargill. The third in the trilogy has just been published – It’s a Wrap. The characters are rounded, real and raw, the situations dramatic and often hilarious, and the prose so readable you’ll forget where you are.

The Daddy of YA is back in town – Melvin Burgess has a new novel out for teens called The Lost Witch. His novels have never been for the fainthearted and this is no different – stark imagery that fixes in the mind, an exploration of the power and manipulation in relationships through use of a well-crafted other world, and a prosaic dance with the natural world in looking to what is wild and tame within ourselves. A master of twists and turns, here Burgess has intertwined an adept hand at fantasy whilst still retaining the grittiness of real life. Exciting, dangerous – for older teens.

Other teens will prefer the more contemporary and reality-based Mud by Emily Thomas, with a teen voice that showcases sophistication. Set in 1979, it explores what happens when Lydia’s father announces he is selling their house and moving Lydia and her three older siblings to live on a barge with his new girlfriend and their family. Filled with complicated relationships, forgiveness and learning to make do, this is a fascinating read.

a boy called ocean
From river to ocean, A Boy Called Ocean by Chris Higgins tells the story of Kai from multiple points of view. Kai has always been best friends with Jen since he moved to Cornwall when he was small. But now Kai’s feelings have started to change, and then he makes a snap decision and finds himself stranded at sea. With Jen on land, and an ocean between them, this is a different kind of romance.

Activity Books

seashore watchercolossal city counthoakes island

If you’re looking for interactive activity-led books then Seashore Watcher by Maya Plass has a summery feel and handily comes in a ziplock bag for practical use. As well as information about identifying different coral and shells, there are activities, factfiles and more. The full-colour photographs are fascinating and wondrous. Colossal City Count by Andy Rowland is like a Where’s Wally with numbers and world cities. Practise identifying clues and counting villains to solve the crimes committed city by city. Have great fun spotting how many Victoria sponges there are in London!

Lastly, and the one we’ll be taking on holiday, is Hoakes Island by Helen and Ian Friel. This puzzle adventure book – a collection of diary entries, maps, notes, puzzles and all sorts, leads to the clue as to where Henry Hoakes has gone – the owner of the amusement park. There’s a red magnifying piece for assistance, a group of talking animals, and letters that aren’t in order. Maths, comprehension, observation skills are all needed to solve the puzzle – but there’s also an intriguing adventure story within. For ages 7-11. (The answers are at the back, but don’t peek. It’s worth the challenge).

Do come back in September. I have the best books of the year to recommend to you – they’re dropping thick and fast for the autumn. You’re in for a cracking reading time as the nights draw in, and the weather cools down!

Robin Hood for a New Generation: A Guest Blog by MA Griffin

paybackOver a week ago, I featured Payback as my book of the week. It’s sharp, political and a very modern take on Robin Hood. Here, MA Griffin describes the influences and ideas that formed the novel.

Every generation has their own version of Robin Hood.

Mine was a BBC adaptation starring first Michael Praed and then Jason Connery. Like all versions, it differentiated itself from its predecessors with a series of idiosyncrasies. This one had a moody Clannad soundtrack over shots of shadowy forests, and a weird stag-headed God called Herne the Hunter.

Two elements of the Robin Hood story have stayed with me ever since. One is the fascination with ensemble casts. The line that runs through Poison Boy, Lifers and now Payback is the assembly of a rag-tag crew of unlikely heroes who spend as much time battling each other as they do the forces of the antagonist. The other is the idea of the sympathetic outlaw – the character whose actions are morally dubious but whose intentions are good, and who finds themselves battling a hierarchical system built to favour those in power.

Payback had both of these elements even in the early stages of planning. When I met the Chicken House team to discuss the book, I had a paragraph of prose describing an organisation called – at the time – Takeback. My opening sentence was, “The richest 1% control half the world’s wealth. It’s time for a new Robin Hood; a company of trained thieves called Takeback.”

M. A. GriffinAs I planned and wrote Payback, I was thinking partly about the Amazon tax scandal of 2016, now being replicated blow-for-blow by Netflix. I was also thinking about an article I’d read about champagne in the House of Lords. As austerity bit, there was a plan to combine the catering services for the House of Commons and the Lords to save the taxpayer money. The Lords rejected it because it would have meant accepting a cheaper vintage of champagne. Their catering budget is £1.3m per annum. Parliament’s bar bill in 2016 was £1.8m. Combined, that’s £12.4m over the course of a four year term that we’re not spending on mental health services, housing, welfare, the NHS, education.

Payback is a masked gang of teenagers who are way too brave and enterprising to accept this sort of nonsense. They plan heists (‘grabs’) stealing money and valuables from corrupt lawyers, luxury goods companies and unscrupulous casinos then arrange ‘drops’, public events where the money is redistributed amongst those less fortunate. They have a YouTube channel of movies shot during their raids. They have fan-forums where supporters share potential targets. City centres bristle with pro-Payback graffiti; newspaper op-eds speculate about the identity of the gang’s masked members. When our protagonist Tom gets to join his idols, he’s thrust instantly into the limelight; famous overnight.

But Payback is struggling. Evading the law month after month is exhausting and one particularly relentless cop is closing in. Then it turns out they’ve made a terrible error. The victim of one of their heists turns out to be vengeful and unhinged; a man ready to do anything to protect his reputation.

What do you do when the law is closing in one side and malicious hoodlums stalk you on the other? Like the blurb says, “Robin Hood never had it this bad…”

Payback by M. A. Griffin is out now in paperback (£7.99, Chicken House), and you can read my review here, and purchase the book here. With thanks to M.A. Griffin, who you can follow on twitter @fletchermoss and find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com

Death by Detention by Ali Sparkes

death by detentionThe other week in my school library, I was assigned a year 6 pupil for a day whom I never normally see. He’s not that into books or reading and shies away from the library space unless his friends are hanging there on hot days when it’s the coolest room in the school. So when he was assigned to me, there was a fair amount of reluctance. And yet, by the end of the day, there was a glint of enthusiasm there, a realisation that books aren’t bad. He read to younger students, held a book treasure hunt, and even agreed he’d come back (and not just for the chocolates!) It’s all about changing someone’s mindset.

Prolific children’s author Ali Sparkes is attempting to do the same thing with her latest novel, Death by Detention. It’s aimed at slightly older children than her usual books, aimed at the young teen reluctant readers, and although I don’t quite fit that mould, I’m captivated by a great story well told, and this fits that bill too.

The protagonists aren’t bookish or scholarly; they aren’t misunderstood geniuses but regular, can’t be arsed, worldly teens. Their attention spans are fairly narrow and they’re just the type of troubled teens who sit in detention planning their next game of Fortnite rather than concentrating on the homework in front of them, and they definitely don’t read books.

This book begins with these two teens, Elliot and Shania, in detention. And the book doesn’t hesitate – before the end of the first chapter, Elliot and Shania witness their head teacher shot from an unknown marksman outside the window, and then watch in horror as a laser beam seeks out further targets. They have to use their wits to make their way out of their deserted school before the gunman or men, realise they are there. What’s more, their head teacher looks as if he might be coming back…as a zombie.

For this generation of teens, there will be inevitable comparisons with Alex Rider type novels, but Elliot and Shania have to rely on their quick-wittedness and resourcefulness rather than some James Bond type gadgets in order to survive. And this is where Sparkes (and the reader) have a lot of fun with the novel. By using the precise orientation of the school as the setting for the entire novel, Sparkes is able to explore all the fun hidden spaces within its site – stationery cupboards of course, but also the high windows of a school gym, the maintenance crawl space above the toilet ceilings, the tannoy from the head teacher’s office, reception, and of course the gym cupboard. And as everyone who has read a high school drama knows – there’s plenty of scope to be had in the school theatre space. This meshes nicely with computer games – each action sequence is in a different setting.

Sparkes also captures the extreme physicality of the teens’ situation – they are not just running away or confronting the gunmen, but they feel their cramped limbs from hiding, they vomit in fear and relief, their hearts palpitate and they go into cold shock.

What’s more, as the reader roots for them to succeed, Sparkes alternates between the two protagonists’ point of view – their headspace – seeing not only what’s in front of them, but also thoughts about who they are, how they came to be in this situation, and the resilience and skills they might draw upon to see them through. It’s the clever writer’s way of drip feeding information about the main characters and Sparkes works her magic here, as well as proving her knack of showing character through action – there is no lengthy exposition.

The beauty of the book is that it reads like a computer game – it’s fast, pacey, gripping, and yet in prosaic format – Sparkes has time to give us apt similes – “Normally she attracted cops like a dropped Cornetto attracts ants.” The chapters are super short, ending in gritty cliff-hangers, much like levels in computer games. Her descriptions don’t interfere with the action, but merely enhance it – there is a multitude of sensations giving the text a visceral feel. The reader sees what’s dark and light, where the shadows creep, the sounds of silence and of approach and of violence.

And this perhaps is where readers or gatekeepers may feel a jolt. Sparkes reportedly failed to attract a mainstream publisher for the title – there are so many fears about showing a gunman in schools in a novel for children after the number of real school shootings in the States.

But I would argue that if publishers shy away from novels that may offend, then much of publishing would fall away, and be worse for it. In the same way that computer games don’t shy away from it, in the same way that dystopian novels portray children battling to death, or incidents of terrorism, then this shouldn’t be out of bounds here – particularly when in actuality this story is positioned very far away from what we think of as ‘school shooting’ or ‘act of terrorism’.

In fact, there’s much humour. There are numerous wry asides – the headteacher is positively brilliant at releasing humour into scary situations and is as sharp as a pencil, and the teens fare well in this regard too.

This is a fabulous entry or re-entry into books for reluctant readers. Short, sharp, witty and great fun, the reader will understand that it’s not great to judge someone by the stereotype attributed to them, in the same way that they’ll understand that facing a gunman with a resistance band and a cricket ball from the gym cupboard probably isn’t the best solution.

This up-to-the-minute pacey novel is a match for the screen any day. I’ll take detention – if they’ll let me read stories like this during it. Suitable for 11+ years. You can buy yours here.