fiction

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

no ballet shoes in syriaOne of the most important skills reading teaches us, albeit subliminally most of the time, is that age-old question: ‘What must it feel like to be you?’, or ‘empathy’. The word empathy stems from the Ancient Greek, em – in, pathos – feeling. In fact, our usage of the word has increased, in particular from the 1950’s onwards. This is interesting, as most people might feel that in recent years our feelings of empathy have waned.

Because of course, as our world becomes more global, our acceptance of others seems to decline. Despite the fact that our high streets look the same, we drink the same brands, own the same clothes and do the same jobs, we keep recognising and highlighting our differences. Sometimes recognising difference is good, but when used against people, it is not. Identity politics has never seemed such a loaded term. Setting us straight, is this insightful and winning new novel from Catherine Bruton, No Ballet Shoes in Syria.

Eleven-year-old Aya could live anywhere. She has a father and mother, a little brother, and a huge passion for ballet, which she learns under the tutelage of Madame Belova in her dance studio near home. However, that’s Aya’s previous life. In Aleppo. Since the war, she has had to flee, and the reader meets her as she seeks asylum in Britain. When she stumbles across a ballet class in the community centre in which her family is seeking help with their asylum application, the instructor recognises her talent, and her situation. Before long, Aya is fighting for a ballet scholarship, a place in Britain, and contact with her lost father. Luckily for her, she has more than one empathetic English resident on her side.

This nuanced gentle portrayal of a young Syrian girl is a fantastic read and an eye-opening book. Bruton successfully shows her roundedness and that of the characters around her. Aya has had to take over and assume a great deal of adult responsibility in the wake of her mother’s traumatised state – the loss of Aya’s father and the journey has been too much. Aya takes great care of her baby brother Moosa, fights for their rights, and also tries to navigate the delicate balance of still being a child, and adapting to life in a foreign country.

The girls in the ballet class are also beautifully brought to life, but play a very distinct role within the novel. It is their attitudes (and changing attitudes) to Aya that inform the reader and will start to pose questions in the reader’s mind. Here, with their youth and naivety making them susceptible both to what they’ve been told by elders, but also making them more open to Aya, they come to discover the differences between refugees and asylum seekers, but also come to understand the cyclical role of history through their ballet teacher, Miss Helena.

Aya’s situation calls to mind Miss Helena’s own past – her own refugee status in the Second World War, as she fled Nazi Germany and found a home in England. Her experiences, although very different from Ava’s, show how time moves on, but the same wounds are inflicted. By that token though the same wrongs can be corrected – through kindness and empathy:

“Perhaps if history was always repeating itself – wars and families fleeing their homes; persecution, refugees – then other stories recurred too: stories of kindness, sacrifice, generosity.”

Through this very stark quote, Bruton also pulls the reader into the stories that have preceded No Ballet Shoes in Syria, and those to which she refers in her introduction – Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, the books of Lorna Hill and Pamela Brown and many more.

Alongside Aya’s gradual acceptance into the ballet class, Bruton flashbacks through Aya’s journey from Syria to Britain – interlaying the text with memories. This slow revealing of Aya’s past is like the slow learning of friendship – a gentle discovery of the other person, helping us to know and understand what they have been through, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

At the same time as the reader’s growing awareness of Aya’s past, Aya slowly learns about the country she’s come to – the accents, the food, the different ways the children live and behave, and also the similarities – in particular the global language of dance.

But perhaps my favourite element of the novel is the idea of community. It is not carelessness that sets the world of form-filling and yet also ballet classes within a community centre. Bruton cleverly shows the reader all the different forms of community that exist, and how useful they are for us as human beings to reach across the divide. The community of asylum seekers themselves, helping and looking out for each other, and slowly replacing the community they have lost in leaving home. The community of ballet dancers, all helping each other to improve and succeed. The community of global dance – the fact that Miss Helena recognises and knows about Aya’s dance teacher from Syria. And of course, the global community of human beings and how by recognising ourselves in each other, we can come together and accept and invite difference.

To assuage any fears about getting Aya’s voice wrong, Bruton took the opportunity to work with Bath welcomes Refugees and Bristol Refugee Rights in the writing of the book and her research sparkles throughout. She’s also the alter ego of Cate Shearwater, the author of Somersaults and Dreams, and her ability to see dance, creativity, and sport as outlets of expression and emotion are very apparent.

The book is published on 2nd May and you can pre-order and buy this story of hope here.

CBA: The Storm Keeper’s Island, A Q&A with Catherine Doyle

It came as no surprise to me that children shortlisted The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle as one of their top three books for older children this year in the Children’s Book Awards. One of the most beautifully written children’s books in recent times, Doyle mixes the magic of everyday children’s lives with the ancient magical legends of the island of Arranmore (off Ireland) in a gripping, dark, bold and imaginative story that is about hope and courage, family love, and memories. Most importantly, there is a wonderful humour blended within the text, striated throughout like the swirls in candle wax, and storytelling as strong as the wildest storm.

It tells the story of 11-year-old Fionn Boyle, worrying about his ill mother, his deceased father and his annoying older sister, and transported for the summer onto his grandfather’s island. All is not as it seems, and there is magic within. Doyle is a master at describing bickering siblings, the taste of a summer ice cream, and modern sensibilities, whilst also contrasting with a setting that comes alive with an ancient magic.

I’m delighted that Catherine has taken the time to answer my questions.

The book is set on the island of Arranmore, a real island, which you’ve imbued with magic. The island feels very real the way you’ve described it – particularly as Fionn approaches it on the ferry. Does familiarity help you write a setting? Did you write the book while on Arranmore?

Arranmore Island is the place where my grandparents were born, grew up and fell in love. It holds the beginning of their story, as well as those of my many sea-faring ancestors, so it has always occupied a very special place in my heart. Arranmore has been such a huge character in my own life, I’m not surprised that it naturally assumed a similar position in Fionn’s story.

I began writing The Storm Keeper’s Island after spending a week on Arranmore. I explored the sheer cliffs and hidden lakes, the secret Sea Caves and the towering cliff steps as well as the houses where my grandparents were born and the beaches where they played as children. That week was the closest to real magic I have ever come.  I was so inspired by the rugged landscape and the wild Atlantic Ocean, as well as the enchanting experience of walking in my ancestor’s footsteps, that I immediately began writing about it when I got home. When I started, I couldn’t stop!

One of the most delightful and humorous aspects of the book is the sibling relationship between Fionn and his older sister Tara. Did you draw this from your own experiences?

This dynamic was very much inspired by my relationship with my brothers when we were younger. In fact, when my younger brother Conor read the book last year, he called me to say how delighted he was that I had based the main character Fionn on him. He had come to this conclusion because of what he described as the ‘striking similarities’ between Tara’s attitude and my own attitude at 13 years old! I like to think that when it comes to sibling relationships, some days you’re the Fionn and some days you’re the Tara.

Early on in the novel, there’s a wonderful scene of the children eating ice-creams – one of the best descriptions of devouring a Twister, Magnum and Calippo. Did you try them all out as research? And seriously, how much research did you need to do into the Irish legends in The Storm Keeper’s Island?

I took this scene very seriously, because going to the corner shop to buy an ice-cream was a very important ritual of my childhood. I picked the ones that my brothers and I used to choose every Sunday after mass. I haven’t eaten a Twister in years, but I can still vividly remember what it tastes like!

Growing up in Ireland, my childhood was steeped in Irish myths, so I started out with a pretty solid level of knowledge about all things Dagda and beyond. From there, it was just about choosing the legends that I loved the most, researching them properly, and then finding a way to weave them into Fionn’s tale.

The device for revisiting the past in Arranmore is candle wax – a clever idea as it is transient, and the swirling of the coloured wax is like the memories themselves, slippery and abstract. Where did this idea come from?

I moved to Dublin from the West of Ireland for a stint a few years ago, and I remember really struggling to write in my new surroundings. I missed being near the sea, and felt claustrophobic being cooped up in a much busier, city area. As a way to help with this, my mom bought me a candle called ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’, and told me to burn it whenever I wanted to write. This idea was met with great scepticism on my part, but to my surprise (and delight), when I finally did light the candle, it filled my bedroom with the unmistakeable scent of sea air. Immediately, I was transported back to the Salthill promenade in Galway, and my creativity kicked straight into gear. There was a kind of magic in it, so I tucked the idea away. When I started writing The Storm Keeper’s Island, I knew I had the right story for that particular device.

The use of memory is key in the book, as the grandfather is beginning to lose his. How important is it for you to portray grandparent/grandchild relationships in children’s literature?

I think the grandparent/grandchild relationship can be one of the most formative and important relationships in a child’s life. There’s just something so special about it. Having enjoyed a wonderful bond with my grandfather growing up, I felt it was important to explore it in The Storm Keeper’s Island. I have also experienced the sadness and confusion that comes with the onset of dementia in a grandparent. I wanted to explore this aspect in Fionn’s story, but not in a melancholic way. It was important for me to write about a grandfather who lives with memory loss but is not defined by it, a man who is still the sum of his experiences despite his inability to sometimes recall them. I wanted to write about hope, instead of despair, and portray the love between a grandfather and grandchild as one that will always anchor you no matter the changing tides of memory.

Another element in the novel is the island breathing. It inhales as Fionn time travels. How do you write the magical elements – do they occur to you mid-stream or do you pre-plan these markers for the reader?

The island’s actions occur organically mid-stream. It sounds peculiar to say, but I wasn’t even expecting the first exhale until it came out on the page. Up until that point, I wasn’t intending to make the island its own character, but as I was writing, it just felt entirely natural.

You’ve previously written a YA mafia romance trilogy. Was writing this very different?

Writing The Storm Keeper’s Island was a truly magical experience. It poured out of me, in a way that I’ve never quite experienced before with any book. There was something so freeing about being able to write magic that was big and grand and rippling with adventure. My YA books were darker and more serious, and had to be handled with a slightly different level of care. The process of including humour and emotional development was quite a similar experience, despite the different genres, however, and one I always thoroughly enjoy as an author.

How do you feel about being shortlisted for the FCBG Children’s Book Award, voted for entirely by children?

I squealed with delight when I found out! It is an incredibly special feeling to know that The Storm Keeper’s Island has been embraced by children. That not only are they enjoying it, but they’re voting for it. There really is no other word for it – it really is a dream come true.

Lastly, is there a second Arranmore book coming?

The sequel, The Lost Tide Warriors, will be out on July 11th, and I cannot wait to share it with everyone!


Good luck to Catherine Doyle for the Children’s Book Award. You can add your voice to the mix by voting here. The winners’ ceremony is on 8th June in London and the CBA are giving away a pair of tickets to the ceremony to one lucky voter and their carer. 

The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet: A guest post from Martin Howard

cosmic atlas of alfie fleetCharlie Bucket (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl) was the first name that sprang to mind when I started reading this chucklesome new book from Martin Howard about an impoverished boy who follows up a newspaper advert to earn some quick cash doing odd jobs for an unbelievably eccentric man. But then The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet deviates from the world of Charlie Bucket into a world (or worlds) of its own, and I was both intrigued and highly amused by the comic writing, the inventive imagining, and the high adventures and cunning of its protagonist, Alfie.

The eccentric man I mentioned is Professor Bowell-Mouvemont, the president of the Unusual Cartography Club, who shows Alfie a series of worlds unknown to the majority of humans on Earth (too preoccupied with their ordinary lives to care). These worlds range from Brains-in-Jars world to planet Maureen and Outlandish. Together, the Professor and Alfie travel through these worlds as explorers. Quick to spot an opportunity, Alfie takes it upon himself to fend off danger by showing the inhabitants of these strange lands some of our own traditions, and marketing them as a way of progressing on his journey. He explains and sells advertising space in his travel guide, gives favourable reviews to inns and pubs, makes a mark on the map of the atlas he’s drawing to indicate good shops, hospitable peoples, and so on.

For the young reader, this is both highly amusing and yet also cunning – giving a serious nod to travel guides and atlases, as Wimpy Kid does for diaries. Illustrated by the award-winning Chris Mould, this is a great new series from an author with a clearly somewhat strange mind. So I asked him for his inspirations…

martin howardI first had the idea to write a travel guide to fantastical lands about fifteen years ago. I’m a huge, geeky fan of fantasy books and (like Alfie) I’ve always loved exploring the maps you find in them. A travel guide seemed like the obvious next step.

It bubbled away in the back of my mind for years before I came back to it. Stone circles, like Stonehenge, have always fascinated me. You find them in many places around the world – from Australia to Europe – and no one knows for sure why. I decided they were intergalactic portals first used by space tourists and, later, by a secret map-making society called the Unusual Cartography Club, which had a mission to explore other worlds. Having Alfie – the book’s protagonist – write a travel guide along his journey seemed perfect.

And that’s how The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet came about.

When I was young I was bullied all through my school years. In those days no one took bullying very seriously and one or two teachers even joined in. It was difficult to deal with and I found an escape from some pretty horrific verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse in books and comedy. I was lucky to be growing up at a time when some great comedians were making hilarious TV shows and on Thursday nights my parents would let me and my sister stay up late to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sketches like the Ministry of Silly Walks and Dead Parrot changed my life. If I was having a rough time at school all I had to do was say “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition” to myself in a silly voice and I’d be smiling. I can still quote many Python sketches word for word.

As I got older – I found other shows I loved: The Young Ones, Blackadder, French and Saunders, as well as older comedy movies such as The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I saw lots of brilliant comedians perform stand-up, too. Bill Bailey, Jo Brand, Omid Djalili and lots of others. All of those shows, movies and comedians helped shape my own sense of humour.

Comedy is really important to me. It gave me optimism during traumatic times and I don’t understand why some people think funny books aren’t important. Laughter is as much a part of being human as music or love, and just as essential to our happiness. With humour we can laugh at life’s problems; without it the world would be a pretty grim place.

I also grew up during a time when Terry Pratchett was writing. I loved any fantasy books, but because I was so into comedy his had an especially big impact on me. In fact, I went to both the same schools as Pratchett, though he was there years before me. I also shopped regularly in the second-hand bookshop in Penn, Buckinghamshire, on which he based the magical library of the Unseen University. I was lucky enough to meet him once, when he was doing a talk at the local library after his second Discworld book came out, and it’s easy to see in my own writing that he has been a major influence. He introduced humour into fantasy.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy casts a long shadow, too. Like Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams made sci-fi funny. Eagle-eyed readers of The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet might spot I’ve paid a tiny tribute to The Hitchhiker’s Guide! Any book that contains space themes and humour is always going to be compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide nowadays, and I’ve got the travel guide theme running through mine, too, so I was very aware that I was using a couple of the same ingredients as Douglas Adams. I hope I’ve used them to create a dish that has a very different flavour.

PG Wodehouse had a massive impact. I discovered the Jeeves and Wooster books when I was about twelve and his characters and his use of language to create humour are beyond incredible. In sci-fi and fantasy, I owe inspiration to Neil Gaiman, Tolkien, Ursula K. le Guin, Susan Cooper, as well as Joss Wheedon – I usually watch all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at least once a year! There are lesser well-known writers who have influenced me as well, like Jim Butcher whose pulp-fiction Dresden Files books about a detective wizard in Chicago are fantastic.

It’s impossible to write in isolation: all genres are built over time by writers who have made great contributions, and every writer will have favourites who have shaped the way they write, whether it’s Enid Blyton or Jane Austen. But it’s important that writers find their own voice and – I hope – in The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet I’ve written a book that recognises where it came from, but which is packed with fresh ideas and which could only have been written by me.

With thanks to Martin Howard. You can buy The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet written by Martin Howard, illustrated by Chris Mould here

Unstoppable by Dan Freedman

unstoppableI sometimes look at the lives of the children around me and marvel how they fit so much into each week. Whether it’s keeping up with friends, schoolwork, celebrity gossip, world news, or the myriad of hobbies, sports and activities they all seem to undertake. As well as copious hours on Insta of course (and reading!).

But it’s not just physical time and energy these activities consume, it’s also copious amounts of mental space. And with this busyness comes pressure.

Dan Freedman (author of the Jamie Johnson football novels) has tapped into this busyness, and also into the zeitgeist, by writing a pertinent YA novel for our times about pressure on teens, and linked to this, about the causes and motivations behind the rise in knife crime. Combining his knowledge of sports, and real-time information gathered from conversations with children during his school visits, Freedman has penned a gripping novel about how life for these children can seem unstoppable, how pressures build up and can lead to the difficult choices that may set them on the right or wrong path in life.

Covering a range of hugely contemporary issues, from alcoholism, first love, knife crime, gang warfare, poverty, parental and school pressure and the meaning of sports, Freedman keeps his novel fresh and spikey.

Fourteen-year-old twins, Roxy and Kaine, used to be close. But recently, their pathways have diverged – both are excellent sports players, Roxy training to be a tennis champion, Kaine good enough at football to be scouted for the Premier League.

But the path to success isn’t easy. As well as the hard work that needs to be put in, the teenagers face a daunting series of barriers – from their father’s joblessness and alcoholism, parental pressure to succeed, poverty, and, seeing as they live in London, the ongoing gang recruitment on their doorstep. It’s only a matter of time before knives are involved.

Highly readable, and with as much pace as a professional tennis serve, Freedman’s prose is in the ilk of genre writing – concise and tight, going for the simplest words but still managing to convey a depth to both setting and character. The writing is particularly astute on the sports field, and it is here that Freedman excels, making the reader believe that they are learning about two future sports stars.

There’s also the continuing issue of the teens’ mental health. Written in third person, but alternating between the points of view of Roxy and Kaine, this is a close up view of the pressure both children are under, but in different ways. What the book does, very cleverly, is point to the issues that are occupying today’s children and try to disseminate them within the narrative arc.

Supplementing the main prose are diary entries, flashbacks, old-fashioned notes!, and also text messages – with plot points turning on photos that come up on people’s social media feed. It might sound overwhelming to the reader, but is actually straightforwardly packaged, so that the reader is empathetic to Roxy and Kaine, (despite their differences), without feeling the pressure him/herself.

It’s interesting that there is equal emphasis on the internal and external for the twins. Their own determination and grit to succeed, their interior struggle with mental wellbeing, but also the sphere of their family and its wellbeing, and finally the exterior of peers and the dangers of the community in which they live.

A tribute to Freedman must go to his understanding that it is through individual acts of kindness (one person seeing employment potential in Roxy and Kaine’s Dad), and trusted adults (a teacher consistently rooting for Kaine; the memory of an unfaltering grandparent relationship) that the youngsters come good.

Despite the many issues, this is in essence about sibling rivalry and sport, and the story zings through the teens’ potential to their ultimate triumph, despite the hurdles in their way. For a rattling good read, and a dissection of how we live today, even unbookish sporty readers will be tuning in. And with an equal balance in having both gender protagonists, the book looks set to be Unstoppable. You can buy it here. 

The Year I Didn’t Eat by Samuel Pollen

the year i didnt eatI have a distinct memory of reading The Best Little Girl in the World by Steven Levenkron in middle school. It had an arresting cover of a painfully thin girl studying herself in a mirror, the colour washed out, almost all faded to grey. It was an influential work at the time, (published in 1978), being one of the few novels for children that addressed eating disorders. Historical perspective shows that the narrative was more about the psychologist’s view of anorexia, and the narrative bends rather too far towards the male psychologist as saviour of the little girl. It very much speaks to the 1970’s perspective of eating disorders.

In some ways, we have come a long way to understanding eating disorders since that 1970’s viewpoint, although not far enough, and with the growth of science comes the growth of technology, and social media has been shown (for some) to heighten the damage in this area.

Into this torrid landscape steps the refreshing and very modern The Year I didn’t Eat by Samuel Pollen. Part of publisher’s Zuntold new ‘Fiction as Therapy’ resource, this is a powerful, devastating, yet quietly hopeful novel written by someone who has drawn on his own experiences to tell his fictional narrative, and it very much doesn’t speak to the scourge of social media as being at fault. This book comes from a very different place.

Fourteen-year-old Max writes a diary to Ana, short for anorexia, his eating disorder. Privy to these epistles, as well as to the main first-person narrative recording a year in his life, the reader comes to understand the complicated and irrational emotions behind Max’s mental illness. Some days are okay and normal. Readers discover Max’s brilliant relationship with his older brother, Robin, and how Robin introduces him to geocaching, which turns out to be a factor in Max’s recovery; the reader also discovers Max’s friends, and new girl Evie, and see the very authentic everyday situations that arise at school, be it at lunchtime or during lessons, and there’s also, of course, Max’s parents, brilliantly portrayed and heartrendingly pictured from afar – only seen from Max’s point of view, we feel the quiet despair they must feel, but never get too close. This is clever writing.

Then there are the bad days. Pollen writes with excruciating detail and raw emotion about the complexity of anorexia – how it draws the sufferer away from those wonderful friend and family relationships, how it tricks the mind and yet also concentrates it. He explains misunderstood conceptions, without preaching – because this is all through Max’s eyes. He dissects the portrayal of anorexia in the media and online, the fallacy that food is off-putting to anorexics when really it is enticing and causes revulsion at the same time – even anorexics have their favourite foods.

In no way condescending, but written with a natural flair for easy prose, this is a compelling and genuinely fascinating story. Fed throughout with injections of humour – Max is a likeable and funny character – this is a really great YA novel, in the end uplifting and hopeful.

For those who worry that reading about teens with anorexia leads to teens having anorexia, I quite simply explain that in the same way that reading Horrid Henry doesn’t make young children horrid, reading about a mental illness doesn’t make one aspire to be ill. In fact, what the book gives the reader is empathy – in large doses. Whereas travel books might be aspirational, this is firmly off-putting in its portrayal of what anorexia does to body, mind and relationships.  Where it does show hope, is in facing down anorexia, confiding in others, sharing the pain and learning to recover. It’s not an easy journey – Max is a character the reader wills to good health, knowing all the time that he may not make it – and it’s a rewarding novel. And one that makes you thankful for every nourishing bite. You can buy it here.

Fiction Books with Birds

Ever since the dove made an appearance in the Bible as a symbol of peace, and ravens whispered news into the god Odin’s ears in Norse mythology, or since Ancient Greece where the goddess Athena had an owl as a symbol of wisdom, or in Ancient India where a peacock represented Mother Earth, birds have been used in religion, mythology and literature symbolically, as messengers or perhaps signs of hope, and particularly freedom. In some of my favourite novels, birds have been used in symbolic ways: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle…. Here are three children’s novels that synchronise with this theme.

larkLark by Anthony McGowan
McGowan returns for a final time to his beloved working class characters, Nicky and Kenny, in this novella for Barrington Stoke. Although the last of a quartet, Lark can be read as a standalone, a self-contained adventure. The teenage boys are escaping their everyday reality, in this case, a visit from their estranged mother, by taking a walk on the Yorkshire moors with their dog. With understated empathy, McGowan describes Kenny (who has cognitive disability), as needing to let out his pent-up energy – ‘he’d punch the cushions on the settee or shout out random stuff in the street’ – and so the brothers seek nature as a release – the perennial theme of this book quartet.

Narrated by Nicky in an authentic teen voice, which is both accessible and yet intensely profound in its own way, the prose starts in the middle of the action, backtracking a little but then ploughing on – not unlike the boys, who are suddenly caught in the middle of a blizzard on the moors.

Danger becomes all too apparent – the problems of home (hunger, cold, poverty) are magnified in the natural expanse of the moors, and yet also reduced to this particular day and this particular time. The boys get into deep trouble, pushing them to the brink of existence.

Nicky’s trademark humour never lets up, lending even more pathos to the situation in its own darkly rich way, and by the end a fair number of readers will be sniffing back the tears. What lingers is the bond between the boys, the exploration of teen masculinity – full of bravado and yet vulnerability – and yet also the ultimate draw of never-ending hope.

Suspenseful, written with immaculate style, and ultimately heart-warming, this is another triumph from McGowan. You can read the review of Rook, the third in the series here, when it looked likely to end as a trilogy. To buy Lark, click here

asha and the spirit birdAsha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
Another book reaching for the symbol of a bird as hope, and with a treacherous journey, is this spellbinding lush book from newcomer Jasbinder Bilan.

Asha lives with her mother in the foothills of the Himalayas, living a rural life and working on the farm, spending leisure time in the mango tree with her friend Jeevan. Her father works away in the city. But when he stops sending money and moneylenders come to collect her mother’s debt, Asha decides to find her way to the city herself and see what’s happened to her father.

As vibrant with the sights and sounds and colours of the landscape on the inside as the cover is bright on the outside, this is a stunning evocation of a completely different way of life, with a filmic quality to the descriptions of flowers and wildlife, food and landscape. The journey is treacherous, the children not only at risk of death from hunger and tiredness, but also in the face of wild animals. Here too, though, nature is a saving grace in the form of a magical spirit bird that guides Asha, giving hope and reassurance throughout.

The book takes an even darker turn with its exploration of poverty and exploitation in the city, but Asha never loses self-belief, and the book drives forward with an unrelenting optimism and moments of kindness, exploring too the role of faith and ancestry, ritual and tradition, in shaping personality and way of life.

But more than this, it’s an immersive experience in a different culture. A glossary gives Hindi and Punjabi words, but Bilan seamlessly blends them into her prose, so that with context it is easy to understand what they mean. The Indian way of life is portrayed with enthusiasm, empathy and energy, and the threads of friendship sew the plot neatly together. You can buy it here

call me alastairCall Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo
Something vastly different in this quirky novel told from three completely distinct points of view, the first of which is Alistair, an African grey parrot. Trapped in an American pet shop, Alistair dreams of freedom and blue skies, but unfortunately for him has two broken wings and a habit of plucking his own feathers out of anxiety. When he discovers eating paper, and delights in the taste of the different types of literature – poetry being his favourite – he soon starts to compose verse himself.

With this sense of the world giving him an extra taste for freedom, he is adopted by lonely widow, Albertina Plopky (Bertie), whom the reader meets through letters to her deceased husband. Add to this eclectic mix, the meticulous record-keeping of pet-shop helper 12-year-old Fritz, (musing also on the recent separation of his parents and the death of a grandparent) and suddenly the reader grasps how the three points of view and stories meet.

The book is about perspective and freedom, but also speaks to the idea of loneliness. We stifle our own freedom if we build cages around ourselves. Unique and idiosyncratic, this is not for everyone, but with a mix of poetry and prose, different narrative voices, and a quest for courage, this is a very unusual middle grade book. You can buy it here. 

 

 

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

ghostThe other day, I was having a conversation with a mixed cohort at our library lunch club. We were discussing sports books, you’ll know the type – those formulaic novels or reading scheme books about a team who overcome an obstacle to triumph by winning the cup or moving up a league. Whether they focus on a less talented player come good, or a star player overcoming his loss of confidence, or an injury-stricken player making it in the end, they do tend to be of a type. There’s a comfort in that – repetition and formulas are a comforting part of re-reading and fixing narrative arcs in the mind, as well as reinforcing good messages about teamwork and attitude.

But it is hugely refreshing when a book that’s ostensibly about ‘sport’ actually stands out from the crowd. On TV, Friday Night Lights did this spectacularly well. Compulsive, gripping and hugely sympatico. Now, Ghost does this for children in book format.

Ghost was published in the US in 2016 to huge acclaim, spending more than 21 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and finally makes its debut appearance here thanks to new publishers on the block, Knights Of.

Running is what Castle (Ghost) is good at. But he isn’t part of a squad or team; he doesn’t see it as a sport. The first time he had to run, it was away from his gun-wielding father. When he inadvertently ends up at an athletics team training session and beats the fastest kid there by running against him on the outside of the track, the coach sees his potential.

But Ghost’s raw energy needs to be harnessed and disciplined in order for him to succeed at life, let alone as part of a running team. And that’s not all that easy.

There are lots of themes running through this book that elevate it to much more than a sports novel. And most encouragingly, it doesn’t follow the formula in plot detail either. There is no grand competition at which Ghost must triumph, no injury to overcome. The focus is very much on Ghost himself, of committing to the training, of learning to get along with the rest of the team (they’re still a way off complete bonding). This is about personal development and circumstances, but all written in such a way that it will appeal to reluctant readers as well as proficient book-devourers.

The main strand here is the father/son dynamic and relationship that springs up between Ghost and Coach, as well as the parallel of Ghost’s troubled and complicated relationship with his absent father. There’s also the class divide Ghost sees around him – where people live, how they dress and the privileges afforded to them; his own single mother working hard, a school system struggling to work with all its pupils.

But perhaps the most endearing quality in this book is the fully rounded, witty, flawed, tempestuous and yet kind protagonist. Written in first person, and immediately identifiable, Ghost first introduces himself to the reader by explaining about his fascination with record-breaking facts, including the man who blows up balloons with his nose. Ghost is believable and fun, with unique traits – spitting sunflower seeds, watching from the bus stop as people bob up and down on the treadmills inside the gym opposite. He notices stuff, he has a great sense of himself, and a great sense of humour.

Of course Reynolds tracks Ghost’s development over the novel, using the model of race training and a no-nonsense coach to turn our hero into a somewhat hero (in the reader’s eyes maybe), delineating his flaws and exploring how the adults around him help him to overcome the obstacles he meets along the way. So there’s that trope of coach as mentor to troubled kid, but by using first person from Ghost’s point of view, Reynolds goes deep inside Ghost’s head – the vehement wish to own proper running shoes and where that takes him, the anger that bubbles inside, his outlet in running, and his need to be guided.

All narrated with easy prose, at times in Ghost’s youthful, naïve and vulnerable outlook, at others with a childlike profundity that bursts through from nowhere, but always spilling over with energy and zest.

Surrounded by a fully-realised team of secondary characters, both in his team track-mates, but also in the local shopkeeper and his long-suffering mother, this is an outstanding story about self-belief and hope. First in a series, you can buy it here.

The Sheep of Fate: Storm Hound by Claire Fayers

storm houndTowards the beginning of Storm Hound by Claire Fayers, the powerful(ish) protagonist, Storm of Odin, (a dog somewhat fallen from grace) is confronted by a flock of sheep, who rather hilariously, mock his seemingly inflated ego.

“If you’re a storm hound,” one says to him, “then I’m Aries, the Ram – get it?”
and they fall about laughing.

Sheep and cats and dogs play a large comic role in Fayer’s new humorous magical and mythological book about identity and companionship. This storming novel, for readers aged 8 and over, is about learning where we fit in, and how home can be anywhere, as long we’re rooted within ourselves.

Storm of Odin is the youngest hound of Odin’s Wild Hunt in the mythological skies. But on his first hunt, he gets lost, falling to earth from the Otherworld and ending up on the A40 about 5 miles from Abergavenny, near a flock of sheep. And in falling, he seems to have transformed from powerful horse-sized hunting dog to loveable cute little puppy. In time, he’s adopted by 12-year-old Jessica, a girl who also feels that her real home doesn’t lie in Abergavenny.

Together, facing a magical world that they don’t quite understand, they slowly learn who to trust, and they form a strong bond that enables them to overcome the fiercest of challenges.

Fayers throws a myriad of hilarious creatures into her novel, with cats and dogs and sheep given not only a voice but also comic interior monologues, incorporating extra depth to an ordinary Abergavenny day.

Here, Claire Fayers highlights the power of sheep in mythology, and why they’re such intriguing characters to insert into a novel:

Hey! Sheep! the stormhound shouted.
The sheep gazed blankly at him, chewing grass.
Eventually, one of them wandered closer. You talking to us?

Wales has a lot of sheep: just under 10 million at the last count, so it won’t surprise anyone that a book set in Wales is going to feature sheep. They form a woolly Greek chorus, standing about the hillsides, watching and commenting on the action, and occasionally leaping out of bushes at people, like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

Writing Storm Hound, I learned a few things about sheep that surprised me. (Disclaimer: these things may not necessarily be true). They have a really bad sense of humour, and make the most atrocious puns. Storm finds that out straight away. They always seem to know more about the world than they’re letting on, and they can give quite good advice sometimes if you know how to ask them.

One thing I had to cut from the book, however, was the secret link between sheep and fate. There wasn’t quite space to include it, and it’s a bit of a side-step out of Norse and Welsh mythology and into Greek.

According to Greek legend, Fate takes the form of three women: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropis. Clotho spins the thread of human fate, Lachesis measures it and Atropos cuts it.

Flemish tapestry c. 1520 Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Fates also appear in Roman myth, where they are called Nona, Decuma and Morta. They are often depicted as old women, inflexible and implacable. You cannot, after all negotiate with fate.

What has this got to do with sheep, I hear you ask.

Well, the Fates spin and measure and cut the thread of life, but what do you think that thread is made of?

My money is on wool. It’s as likely as anything else and, in fact, it makes a lot of sense. Sheep are raised all over the world. They stand about in fields and on hills, staring at anyone who happens by. Watching and waiting. Because life is interesting and someone has to pay attention to what’s going on.

Next time you see a field of sheep, don’t try to engage them in conversation. They’re not allowed to talk to humans, and if they did you’d get tangled up in woolly puns before you knew it. Just give them a wave and say hello. It always pays to be polite to Fate.

Some sheep facts

  1. Sheep have four stomachs. (One for starters, one for main course and two for puddings!)
  2. A sheep’s wool never stops growing.
  3. One pound of sheep’s wool can make up to 10 miles of yarn.
  4. Sheep have rectangular pupils and nearly 360 degree vision, meaning they can see behind without turning their heads. (Further proof that they are the watchers of the world.)
  5. Sheep can recognise up to 50 other sheep faces. AND they can recognise human faces.
  6. The world’s most expensive sheep sold for £231,000 at a sale in Lanark, Scotland.
  7. Sheep feel emotions and prefer smiling human faces to angry ones.
  8. If you put a sheep on its back, it won’t be able to get up again. (Do not do this!)
  9. It is estimated that there are over 1,000 different breeds of sheep worldwide.
  10. A lamb can walk within minutes of being born.

With thanks to Claire Fayers for this guest post about sheep! To buy Storm Hound, click here

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

on the come upIt’s hard producing a second piece of art when the first one has been so universally successful. People often talk of second book or second album pain. And after The Hate U Give, it’s no surprise that there was hype around Thomas’s second novel.

I try very hard to ignore hype – if possible I’d read every book without seeing the author’s name first, so that each one comes afresh rather than through Twitter or a publicist, but I live in the real world so obviously that’s not possible. Instead, I quite often try to see patterns in what I’m reading – how books sit together, how trends bear out, how what was written a few years ago and published today reflects on our society.

When I read On the Come Up, I was also reading The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (a book for adults), and I was pleasantly cheered to find parallels in the reading. Winton’s book is about a boy coming-of-age in the Australian outback, running away, and written in first person slang dialect. Thomas’s book is a coming-of-age by an up-and-coming rap artist set in the same fictional Garden Heights neighbourhood as Thomas’s first novel, The Hate U Give. The two books, Winton’s and Thomas’, are distinctively different and physically half a world away from each other, but both tell the story of invisible disadvantaged young people clamouring to be heard.

Bri lives with her mother, Jay, a recovering drug addict, and her older brother, and dreams of being a famous rapper like her father, long since shot dead in gang violence. Once again, Thomas revisits the injustices of growing up African American in the States, but the tone here pushes further than THUG, both in Bri’s first person voice and in plot. There’s much here to admire in Thomas’s characters and themes, but it’s the message behind the story that reaches furthest.

The book is firmly rooted in its background and neighbourhood – Bri and her family have to visit a food bank at Christmas after her mother is laid off (a result of riots in the neighbourhood causing lack of funds at her workplace), Bri attends a school where she’s frisked on the way in, her mother’s first thought on hearing a school emergency is that it’s a shooting, and Bri takes to colouring in her sneakers so that it’s not apparent that they aren’t the real deal. These are themes of poverty, violence and peer pressure that are universal in appeal – they apply equally to inner-city London kids as they do to black Americans, but there’s a sharp undercurrent of exploration of race that is most interesting to read and absorb.

One of the key strands is how Bri is seen by the world as opposed to who she is. An age-old trope in literature of appearance and reality, which becomes sharpened in Thomas’s insightful writing. Bri is labelled very much as the angry black woman (cf the Serena Williams trope) – when she pushes back against injustice she becomes labelled as aggressive, hoodlum, ghetto. Bri has the choice to own that label and act up to it – forging her career as a rapper by climbing into the label and delivering lyrics about guns, drugs and violence, playing to it and being the scary edgy black artist whose songs are downloaded for that reason, or whether she disowns the label and makes it by being who she really is inside, a more nuanced person than a mere label or type.

And by concentrating on Bri’s lyrics as a way for her to define herself, Thomas highlights the power of words. I’ve long argued that lyrics are yet another form of poetry – awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan may have been controversial, but shows I’m not alone in this thought – and Thomas goes the full way in equating the two – “Since hip-hop is poetry, your grades should never drop again.” Bri’s teacher lays on her.

Whether you go with this or not, it’s the power of language and words that sings through the page. From the slang Thomas uses (which again reminded me of Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut with its own very different but Australian words), to the cultural references, this is a book firmly rooted in its background that shows how powerful words can be – and how they can be twisted. Bri’s lyrics are listened to, used, and manipulated in ways she couldn’t have dreamed of when she composed them, but then she’s shown how words can be used for good too. This is about young people speaking out, about using their voices as a force for good, about unconventional poetry and the wonders it can work for freedom of the soul. It’s about labels and when we attribute them and how to lose them.

And above all, this is another reading eye-opener from Angie Thomas. There’s a touchingly instrumental sibling relationship, an interrogation of friendship and loyalty, and what lustful feelings can do to friendships and the bond of family.

This is an edgier read than THUG, it takes a harder line, and maybe for that reason it’s harder to fall in love with than THUG. But On the Come Up pulsates with passionate social commentary and poetry, and maybe Thomas feels that if the message isn’t totally getting through the first time, you have to shout a little louder the second. In a week in which children around the world are using their voices to push across a message, (YouthStrikeforClimate), this seems like apt reading material for them. Age 13+. You can buy it here.

It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

I don’t have a pet, which means we often play a hypothetical game: if you had to choose, which would you be – a dog family or a cat family?

the dog who saved the worldThe Dog Who Saved the World by Ross Welford
This is another cracking read from a premier storyteller of our time. Eleven-year-old Georgie befriends an eccentric scientist hiding beneath an old entertainment centre, and becomes a guinea pig in her virtual reality 3D future. But when a deadly disease threatens the life of all dogs, and Georgie’s own dog gets sick, it’s a race to find a cure – a cure which most probably lies in the future.

Welford’s writing is always clever and engaging, rattling through his plots with pace, humour and pathos, and it’s the kind of book you want to devour in one gulp. But to fully appreciate its modern sensibility and its heft as a meaty children’s book, it’s the little details that, when put together, make this an absolute belter of a book. Georgie’s friend is a refugee from ‘Nowhere-stan’ as he calls it himself, a country so decimated and of such  little interest to the people here. But he’s an upbeat boy, with a raft of funny lines, a fully developed character who’s a great friend.

The eccentric doctor is a social media billionaire technologist in hiding, who makes wonderful wisecracks about kids today;  even the bit-part owner of the corner shop is named Norman Twokids by the kids for his ‘no more than two children at a time’ policy. Add to this the moments of sweetness and empathy – the relationship between Georgie and her teen big brother, the small satisfaction that comes from a dog wagging its tail as it greets you – this is a slick, brilliant novel and even if dogs aren’t your thing, you’d be mad to miss it. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

collecting catsCollecting Cats by Lorna Scobie
When I was little I had to learn the poem Cats Sleep Anywhere by Eleanor Farjeon, and recite it in front of an audience. I still remember the first line, and it leads into a rhythmic romp through the places cats inhabit. I think if I had closed my eyes and imagined the illustrations, they would have looked like something out of Collecting Cats, a humorous riot of cat personalities. The anonymous narrator wants to collect cats, and starts with cheese. Cheese leads to mice, which leads to cats. And unfortunately for the narrator, then big cats. As well as a clowder of cats in a vast array of different colours and personalities, there is also a quirky collection of grabby mice. Scobie’s text is simple and logical with just the right amount of toned down humour, and her illustrations are flush with character, story and insight. For cat collectors, or picture book collectors, or simply readers. You can buy it here.

lulu gets a catLulu Gets a Cat by Anna McQuinn, illustrations by Rosalind Beardshaw
An exemplary first experience book in the Lulu series, which showcases the responsibility involved in owning a pet. Lulu’s appeal is not only that her adventures are embedded in the family core, but books about her also highlight those things that are important in small lives. The visit to a library to find out more, a tick list at home giving her life structure and order, a loving and caring relationship with her parents, and a grounding in real life. One or two simple sentences per page, with the main focus being on the colourful illustrations of familiar situations – sitting on a parent’s lap looking at a laptop together, everyday dressing up for the fun of it, helping with shopping, and feeling secure in one’s bedroom. This particular episode in Lulu’s life points up the preparation needed before getting a cat, and its slow integration into the family. Wonderful. You can buy it here.

danny and the dream dogDanny and the Dream Dog by Fiona Barker, illustrated by Howard Gray
Danny’s mother isn’t as easily persuaded as Lulu’s, and Danny’s only dog is a dream dog. That is, until a new neighbour moves in next door who needs help with walking her dog. This seems like a perfect solution until Danny starts walking Maximus and realises that it isn’t as wonderful as he thought it’d be. Especially when it rains, or Maximus pulls on the leash and wants to chase rabbits. Before long though, Danny comes to see that it’s the community he embraces whilst walking Maximus that makes it a dream job, and the cosy chats with his new elderly neighbour afterwards.

In essence, of course, this is a picture book about friendship, being community minded, and neighbourliness. The illustrations are warm and wholesome, creating whole immersive scenes on almost every spread – tea with the neighbour shows her life through a series of family photographs on the wall behind, scenes in the park demonstrate the diversity of the people there and the things they do. There are also many elements of humour wrapped into the book – squirrels threatened by the dogs, dog-shaped slippers. It’s a little dream of a picture book. You can buy it here. 

tiger walkTiger Walk by Dianne Hofmeyr and Jesse Hodgson
There are no domestic pets in this art-inspired picture book, but a tiger who oscillates between tame and wild in order to rid the young boy, Tom, of his fears. Tom visits an art gallery and sees the painting Surprised! by Rosseau. At home, he tries to copy the picture, and at night the tiger springs from the picture, and carrying Tom on its back, takes him on adventures through the jungle. It’s a neat conceit, in that every time the tiger suggests what to do next, Tom is scared – of swimming, of the cold, of the dark, of beasts. The tiger reassures him, and in the end Tom realises that of course he isn’t scared – he’s ridden a fearsome beast all through the night.

Brought to dramatic life by sumptuous illustrations that seem to have burst from the Rousseau painting, the colours are bold and expressive, not only traversing between fear and curiosity, wild and tame, but also real and dreamlike. This is a clever picture book with sumptuous text that bears out the artistry in the illustrations too – moonlight shines, icicles crackle, tigers have swishing tails and flashing eyes.  Aglow with natural beauty, this tiger comes close to winning a top spot in the heart, even if this one doesn’t come into the kitchen and devour all the tea. You can buy it here.