fiction

In the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido

in the key of codeDid you catch the GQ picture storm in June of this year? The magazine published a photo of about 20 top Silicon Valley executives, including the founder of LinkedIn, on a trip to Italy. Then, someone spotted that the only two women in the picture had been Photoshopped in. Without them it would have been an all-male photo. As it happens, those two women did actually attend the trip, but the story has been taken as a metaphor for the tech industry as a whole.

The world still seems to be failing in its attempts to attract women into STEM jobs. (Let’s not discuss yet the myriad of ways in which the world is failing women in other areas). Apparently, girls tend to lose interest in future tech jobs at about age 11, and the reasons stem from lack of adult support, to peer pressure about girls’ roles, and an impression that tech careers are lacking in creativity.

Does Aimee Lucido know this? A software engineer as well as author, she’s produced a wonderful free verse novel, In the Key of Code, for age 10+ that meshes music, poetry, and coding to tell the story of twelve-year old Emmy, starting a new school in San Francisco, but feeling isolated and invisible. When she starts computer science classes, she begins to see patterns between her musical background and coding, and inspired by her new teacher, Mrs Delaney, and a burgeoning friendship, she comes to accept her new home, and find a new passion.

Lucido cleverly interlaces her themes both through her text and also in the way she writes her text. The novel is written in free verse – each chapter a piece of poetry with a firm rhythm. In first person narrator voice, Emmy writes her story in fairly typical teen book free verse (see Kwame Alexander books, for example), explaining her move to a new city, her parents’ love for music, and her feeling that she just doesn’t quite fit.

Even in these first poems though, there is a thread of musical tuning running through them; metaphors and similes in the text, rhythms and rhymes stylistically. When Emmy starts to learn to code at school, Java programming language starts weaving its way into the verse, and before long computer code, poetry, and music are all fusing together to create startlingly emotive free verse poems, which create tension and anticipation in the writing:

“The semicolon is the period at the end of a line-
of code.

It’s the space between one perfect moment;”

and on the next page:

“whatever comes next.”

Lucido’s book doesn’t break out into unreadable Java code, even though terminology is gradually introduced. A novice can easily read it, and learn, and through the rhythms and timbre of each poem, and the collective accumulation of them, they form into an entire narrative structure with a dramatic arc and a great storyline.

The characters zing off the page – there’s Emmy, shy and struggling to find her voice, and her new friend Abigail, also struggling to find her voice, despite seemingly being popular with the ‘in-crowd’ of kids.

Most inspirational to Emmy and Abigail, is the character of the computer science teacher, Mrs Delaney, who manages not only to inspire and impart knowledge, but to embed herself in their hearts.

By writing code-poetry, Lucido mixes science and creativity – producing something that’s exactly what tech companies need – that crucial fusing of imagination and know-how in order to spark innovation. The arts play a key role in our advancement of technology.

And Lucido produces Java script full of humanity. The book is inherently about finding out one’s real self and about friendship – human connections being the driving force in learning, attainment, creativity and tech.

Readers can be music or code novices, and still see a beauty in the poetry, with lots of emotion to keep them gripped, and intelligence to steer them through. The use of white space within and between the poems is as much a pause to breathe and absorb as it is to express and articulate and keep to rhythm. And there is a huge differentiation between the poems, depending on plot, and mood of narrator.

This is a great read – showing the importance of collaboration in life and in tech, the power of inspirational teachers, the purpose of friendship, and searching for one’s own true voice. It brings humanity into tech, and tech into humanity. A rich, absorbing read, and a lovely story to boot.

With thanks to Walker Books for the early review copy. In the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido publishes on 3rd October in the UK. You can buy yours here.

A Q&A with Jon Agee

Jon Agee has published more than 30 picture books, but may have come to MinervaReads readers’ attention with his picture book The Wall in the Middle of the Book. This October, he comes to England from the States, and is appearing at The Children’s Bookshow, following the publication of his latest picture book, Life on Mars, on August 1st.

life on marsLife on Mars follows a young astronaut in pursuit of evidence that there is life on planet Mars. As he explores the red planet, beautifully illustrated in stark black outlines, unbeknown to him, a large simpatico alien follows behind. Rather sweetly, the astronaut does discover life on Mars, but doesn’t quite make the discovery the reader has. Agee has pictured this planet’s landscape as rather hostile; large empty surfaces, dangerous craters and looming mountains, but this contrasts so well with the warmth of life itself that the reader is drawn into the book, both in terms of cheering on the astronaut and the alien life form. With wit in illustration and text, this is a mission accomplished.   

Before his performance at The Children’s Bookshow, I’ve been lucky enough to ask Jon some questions.

You’ve published more than 30 picture books.  Do you find it gets easier with each book?

Yes, probably, though every book seems to have its own evolution, from original idea to final execution.  The text for My Rhinoceros was written, almost word-for-word, in a notebook in one afternoon.  The Wall in the Middle of the Book began as a simple notion; treating the book’s middle (or gutter, as we call it) as if it was a solid barrier.  But it took many months for a story to materialize.  Little Santa had a promising, offbeat premise, but  – as so often happens – I couldn’t figure out where to go next, and I tossed the dummy in a file.  Months later, looking at it again with fresh eyes, the rest of the story came quickly.

So, a concept doesn’t always come to you fully formed? For example, with Life on Mars, did you start with an astronaut seeking life, or the box of chocolate cupcakes (the astronaut has taken cupcakes as a gift for the life form he hopes he’ll find)?

Book concepts begin as wisps of an idea: a doodle of people chatting, a phrase or sketch that has an unusual juxtaposition.  If it amuses me, I pursue it.  With Life on Mars, I made drawings of a little astronaut walking around a remote planet, communicating with the folks back on Earth.  “Do you see anything?” they ask.  “Nothing yet,” he responds. His matter-of-fact conversation, juxtaposed with the ominous alien creatures watching him was the spark for the story.  The chocolate cupcakes came later.

What comes first, the illustrations or the text?

Doodles (loose drawings) of people and other living creatures, followed by text or talk balloons.

the wall in the middle of the bookThe illustrations in Life on Mars have very strong defined shapes with clear thick black outlines. Whereas in The Wall you went without the outlines. How do you decide what sort of illustration will suit the subject matter?

Every book seems to require its own palette, or motif.  For Life on Mars, the sky was a flat black.  As a counterpoint, I gave the planet texture, with crayon, colored pencil and wash.  The landscape was made up of simple shapes (craters and rocks), so a thick black outline worked well.

The Wall has a two-dimensional look, like a compressed stage set, where the reader follows the action from the front row of the theater.  Since the artwork was mostly large, strongly defined shapes against the white page, I didn’t think an outline was necessary.

And the faces are drawn very simply and yet are still full of expression – the reader can work out what’s going on without the text. How do you imbue a character with expression?

Since I draw simply, I use everything available: the face, body (posture), gesture, gait, scale, juxtaposition, lighting.  In Life on Mars, the little astronaut has about ten distinct emotional episodes.  When he steps out of his spaceship he surveys the Martian vista from up on a rock.  This suggests confidence.  When he walks, he stands upright, and his footprints follow a direct route.  Again, confidence.  As he becomes doubtful, his footprints start to zigzag.  Then there’s a close-up of his face.  He looks concerned.  Further on, his posture slumps.  He abandons his box of cupcakes.  All these elements are used to convey the way the character is feeling.

Much of your text is very honed down, very sparse. Does it take a while to get to the state in which not a superfluous word is used?

The editing process doesn’t seem to stop until we’ve sent the book to the printers.  With a picture book, you’re revising both pictures and text, and how they relate to each other.  As pictures are revised, the text usually needs to be whittled down.  It’s inevitable that you fall in love with a word, line or phrase, and sometimes, only late in the process, you realize that it has to go.

In fact, many of your books play with words. Does this come fairly naturally? 

I think so.  In Nothing, a wealthy eccentric states that she has everything, but she’s never had nothing.  So she sets out to buy nothing.  In Terrific, a grump named Eugene proves – with sarcasm – how a word like “terrific” can mean two different things depending on how you express it.  Another double meaning appears at the end of The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau.  The text reads that Mr. Clousseau “returned to his painting” and the picture shows that he has – believe it or not! – walked into a painting.  In Life on Mars, the word “life” suggests a Martian creature, but it ends up meaning something completely different.

I should add that, along with my picture books, I have created a fair number of books of wordplay: anagrams, oxymorons, spoonerisms, tongue twisters, and four volumes of palindromes, beginning with Go Hang a Salami!  I’m a Lasagna Hog!  (Forwards and backwards it says the same thing).

Your books are also full of humour – how important is this in a picture book?

True, my books are often funny.  Humour is useful when writing about serious or complicated subjects (see many books by Dr. Seuss).  That said, humour is not essential.  One of my most favorite picture books, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, is not a very funny book.

What advice would you give a child who wants to be an author/illustrator?

Keep a notebook: write in it, draw in it.  Read all kinds of things: books, articles, old letters, fortune cookies.  Look around: at artwork, movies, theatre, dance, nature, animals, and people at work and play.

Two recent books, Life on Mars and The Wall, both refer in some way to topical events – Life on Mars to the essence of our being and space exploration (the anniversary of the lunar landing), – and The Wall to the divisions in our society. Is this on purpose – do you try to write topically, or are the topics just in your head?

The Wall was inspired simply by the architecture of a book; thinking about the opposing rectangular pages as unique places, separated by the binding in the middle.  Many months later, a story emerged from this.  The concept of a protective wall seemed ripe for parody, so I turned it on its head.  It was simply coincidence that the book was published at a time when a controversial wall was being discussed here in the States.

Life on Mars came about from doodles of a young astronaut wandering a barren planet, watched, unwittingly, by curious alien creatures.  There was something amusing about the juxtaposition of us knowing – and his not knowing – what was going on just behind him.  What does it mean?  The truth is, when I’m working on a book, I don’t think about what it means.  I know there’s a message or a moral, but I leave that for the readers to figure out.

With thanks to Jon Agee for answering my questions so comprehensively. To purchase tickets for The Children’s Bookshow, click here, and to purchase Life on Mars, click here. With thanks to Scallywag Press for the review copies.

Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue by Paula Harrison, illustrated by Jenny Lovlie

kitty and the moonlight rescueAll children, except one, want to grow up fast. I think about this (totally adapted) first line from Peter Pan every day in the school library, as readers from Foundation Stage and Key Stage One (children aged between 5 and 8), eschew picture books and red-spine-stamped early readers for ‘real books’. ‘Can we read these?’ they say, holding up a tome. They can barely stagger under the weight of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (636 pages long), or the encyclopedia they’ve dragged down from a shelf above their heads, collapsing beneath it. Of course, a librarian never says no, but rather nudges towards something more appropriate.

So it is with relief and joy that I stumble across new books such as Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue, the first in a series of six. (Number two, Kitty and the Tiger Treasure, is also published this September, with a view to getting impatient children hooked). The series follows in the tradition of Isadora Moon, Claude, Marge in Charge, Amelia Fang, Daisy and more.

Kitty wants to be like her superhero Mum, but she’s scared of the dark and doesn’t feel so brave. She dons a costume and pretends to be a superhero within the safe confines of her house. But when a desperate cat pitches up needing superhero Mum, and yet Mum is already out on a mission, Kitty must fill her shoes. Will she find her inner strength, and also her cat-inspired super powers, including feline hearing and eyesight, in order to solve the mystery of the strange noise coming from the clocktower?

This is a great example of pithy fiction for younger readers. Illustrated throughout in two-tone colour, there are enough illustrations to keep children interested, but also a bulk of text on each page to make them feel like grown-up readers. This is the age at which you want children to make reading a habit and also a passion, and so the plot needs to be pacey, the characters loveable, and the ideas sparkling.

This ticks those boxes, with add-ons. There are themes of friendship and loyalty, but there is also the building of confidence and self-worth. The parents aren’t absent – Mum, although on a mission, is the ultimate feminist superhero – out saving lives and yet also present with her children. Dad too is portrayed well. He isn’t a superhero, but also isn’t inept or bumbling. He takes care of the children, shown more in illustration than in text, but completes a great family picture, with incidental details thrown in, such as that he is the maker of Kitty’s costume.

Having a superhero with animal features is both interesting and knowledge-imparting. Kitty’s Mum can see in the dark, climb walls and balance on rooftops, and Kitty begins to inherit the same skillset. At the back of the book, the author has neatly described some super facts about cats that inspired her imagined superhero – such as their powerful sense of smell and their fast reflexes.

There’s humour too, an important feature to keep children reading, and the illustrations are fully imagined – small details abound from loose shoelaces to Kitty’s incredible bed with bookcase beneath. Which mother wouldn’t want to be depicted as a slinky catwoman in the way that Lovlie illustrates Kitty’s mother! The domestic scenes contrast well with the superhero moments – Kitty’s landing on the rooftop is expressive and daring.

With just enough adventure to offset the cosy domesticity, and more cats than one could wish for, this is a gentle, well-informed text for the age group. Purrfectly plotted. You can buy it here.

Taxi Ride with Victor: A Guest Post from Sara Trofa

taxi ride with victorImagine a character who has always wanted a certain job, but when he gets it, he can’t quite master it. No, I’m not talking about Boris Johnson, but rather Victor, the main character in Taxi Ride with Victor by Sara Trofa and illustrated by Elsa Klever. This title, shortlisted for the World Illustration Awards in 2018, beautifully pairs crazily outlandish illustrations with the simple tale of a taxi driver who always gets lost, but always brings happiness, as his passengers find unexpected, but fun adventures at their surprising destinations.  

The book is as zany as Victor himself, a taxi driver navigating outer space, and holds a raft of characters with numerous eyes or limbs, and a cloud come to life. Even the narrator is a three-eyed gray blob of a creature. This is a bright and unique picture book about finding friendship and embracing activities and places one might not expect to encounter, as well as making the reader think about their own value and contribution to society.

Below, author Sara Trofa explains her inspiration for the text.

When I write, most of the time I start from a character rather than from a topic. I note their personality, how they look and behave, what they want and what their problems are. Also, I give them a name. It might sound silly, but I can’t continue if I don’t give them a name (baby name books and websites are great for that)! Of course the name might change or not even appear in the final text, depending on the narrator’s voice and other aspects, but  in my head they need to have a specific name. It’s like part of their personality. Victor has had several other names before in my story process. “Victor” was also my grandma’s oldest brother’s name.

So Victor came to me like that: a taxi driver who doesn’t take you where you ask.

Then the most exciting part comes: considering all the possibilities for the character and their behaviour. Slowly the plot takes a specific direction and I start seeing the actual meaning of what I’m creating.

Victor’s mistakes are a great opportunity to discuss relationships, not only with other people, but also with ourselves. Why do we make mistakes? Why is it so difficult for us to accept them? What are the consequences and how can we deal with them?

Our society tends to value a person for their contributions and for their “usefulness”. What could the social value of a taxi driver be if he doesn’t take you where you ask to go? If he doesn’t provide the service that he is supposed to?

Starting from there, I wanted the other characters not just to accept Victor but to actually be able to see his true value and to enjoy the unexpected outcomes of his “mistakes”.

Also, sometimes we think that we are what we do, specifically what we do as a job. But Victor is much more than a taxi driver. He gives a bigger gift to his passengers and that is possible only because the passengers are open to the possibilities of the final destinations to which he brings them.

How sad it would be if they just let themselves be mad at Victor? Or if Victor gave up after the first “failures”?

So I wanted all of them, Victor included, to be able to be surprised and to welcome the unexpected.

The readers’ point of view is also something unexpected and marvellous. Isn’t it exciting when somebody reads your story in a new way, different from what you’ve planned while writing it?! Of course the readers are re-tellers of the story, they get to create their own version of the story and that’s such a generous gift for the author.

I wrote a story about mistakes, acceptance, being together, helping each other, not giving up. Victor’s readers will tell me what else this book is about and I can’t wait for that!

For other new picture books on friendship and unexpected journeys, visit MinervaReads in October for an autumn picture book roundup. In the meantime you can purchase Taxi Ride with Victor here, and find Sara on twitter @SaraTrofa. With thanks to Prestel for the review copy, and Sara for her guest post.

The Night’s Realm by Nick Ward

nights realmWe are such stuff as nightmares are made on. And this is a nightmarish novel. Not in the way it’s written or illustrated, which is pure delight, but rather the spooky story, and the frightening concept.

Like many children, Billy is scared of the dark. But it isn’t something he wants to admit. So when his best friend invites him for a sleepover, he has to think of a reason to back out, even though he’d love to attend. Then his fear of the dark becomes all-encompassing, and he gets transported into the ‘Night’s Realm’, an evil domain in which an evil magician rules, a magician whose very essence is kept alive by feeding off children’s fears. And things get very very dark.

Although printed with fairly large font size, and heavily illustrated throughout, what might seem like a read for a youngish child has many scary elements. Which supposedly, is what happens when the writer transplants all his child characters to a world in which their worst nightmares become real. So there are threatening jackdaws, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Hitchcock film, crawlers (little men with jagged teeth who crawl on all fours), witches and warlocks, Shadowmen (gigantic men made from dust), and more. Add to this the sophisticated vocabulary – words such as cacophonous and cadaverous leapt off the page – this is a novel for readers with sophisticated taste, those with a penchant for spooky stories, or for older yet reluctant readers who want to be brave in the face of some horror.

Above all, it is the ideas behind the story that haunt. When Billy is captured, the daytime turns to perpetual night, and although his town looks familiar, it is empty of adults and devoid of all life, other than the night creatures. Doors are locked, shops closed, factories stopped. And over it all rules a cruel magician who manipulates children with magic, and wants them to be as scared as possible.

The most potent moment is when Billy is taken to his cell in the fortress, which appears to be exactly like his bedroom at home, with sunlight behind the curtains. Of course, it’s all fake and the momentary comfort is swept away.

The illustrations add to the dystopian feel of the novel. In fact, at times, it seems as visually authentic as a high-end computer game – the fortress as detailed as a multi-room escape game. The children’s eyes are large – not cute as Disney eyes – but hollowed out and haunting; each illustration adding a wonder and depth to the story being told.

There are some captivating moments – the children’s attraction to light like that of moths fluttering around an electric light bulb, the unspoken fears even among peers, the loss of identity the more subservient to the magician they become. Multiple allusions to other novels abound – from the tempting Turkish delight, to the room of birds in cages, which doesn’t feel like a huge leap from the Harry Potter series. Plays on words too, most particularly the title, for it is a sword in a stone that Billy needs to find in order to execute his victory. There is also a clever use of childhood itself, as Billy ingeniously uses everyday items to aid his run for freedom – a coat hanger, chewing gum etc.

Overall though, the novel’s overriding message is that nothing wondrous comes from staying in comfort zones. Billy has a defence against the darkness, a resilience against the magician, manifest in a physical object at first, but one that serves as an extended metaphor as to what makes each individual tick. At the denouement, the reader becomes aware that everyone is afraid of something, but that facing one’s fears is the first step to overcoming them – and that fears can be overcome.

By stating the fear, and with the support of others, Billy’s confidence grows until in the end he doesn’t even need a physical object to overcome the magician – self-confidence wins the day from the night.

And all for the sake of attending a friend’s sleepover! For age 8+, although if you’re reading it to your child at bedtime, you might need to leave a night light on…

You can buy it here. With thanks to David Fickling for the advance copy.

The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan, illustrated by Ben Mantle

the land of roarNarnia lives on the in public imagination, almost 70 years after the publication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis. According to a poll conducted in August by eBay UK, the book tops the list of the most popular books among adults in the UK. But it’s not just among adult readers that this tale of an icy land where it’s winter but never Christmas, lives on. In fact, it lives on with adult writers too and penetrates our children’s literary inheritance.

For those of you who were away in August, Waterstones book of the month was The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan. In this astoundingly bright, bold and fearsome novel, protagonist Arthur and his sister Rose enter the Land of Roar not through a wardrobe but through a Z-bed.

Staying with their grandfather over the summer, eleven-year-old twins Arthur and Rose start to clear out his attic, throwing away their childhood mementos and old toys. Arthur is reminded of the make-believe land they once played, the Land of Roar, in which they had both things they loved (mermaids, ninjas and so forth), and yet also was filled with their fears. But Rose is more sophisticated now – hanging with her friends, fiddling with her phone, shunning her childhood imaginings.

When their grandfather mucks about with the Z-bed, he is pulled into the portal and vanishes. Which means Arthur must follow to rescue him – except that Roar isn’t real – it only existed in their imaginations. Or did it? And how to convince Rose that she’s needed too?

The ingenuity of McLachlan’s writing lies not so much in her land of warmongering dragons, the Lost Girls, ninja wizards and frightening scarecrows, although her world-building is impressive, but her wit and intelligence lie in her use of time passing, nostalgia, childhood and old age. For this is a fantasy adventure that pulls on the essence of what it means to imagine, of what it means to grow up; and how our fears fade, and then manifest as other, different things in adolescence. In this way, it strongly conjures the literary landscape of Peter Pan.

Roar is representative of Arthur’s and Rose’s younger selves, from the ‘unsophisticated’ map, which labels areas such as ‘the bad side’ and doesn’t conform to geographical rules, to the props within, the relics of the fun they once had: the language ‘Obby Dobby’, which is just like a childhood language we all spoke (in which you insert extra letters into English words); the ninja wizard’s collection of left-behind toys from Arthur, such as his fidget spinner.

The ‘Bad Side’ of Roar reveals both the fears of their childhood, and also the youngsters’ growth. The enemy of the land is Crowky, a frightening scarecrow with Coraline-esque button eyes. And whereas once it was their fears that built him, their fear of the dark or of crows, frogs and heights; playing with those fears was a thrill, ‘like listening to a ghost story’. When the children re-enter Roar as adolescents, the fears feel more real, the scare feels deeper, there’s worry there too. The world feels more serious, even an imaginary one.

McLachlan has oodles of humour, and she liberally sprinkles this throughout the novel, firstly through the imaginary world, such as labelling a bit off the coast of Roar with small islands as ‘Archie Playgo’, and her naming of the rocking horse that comes to life as ‘Prosecco’, but she niftily handles the added bonus of bringing teenage sarcasm and sardonic humour to Arthur and Rose’s new entry into the land. Arthur apologises to Prosecco that Rose hasn’t come too, choosing to go to Claire’s Accessories instead.

Of course the darkness comes with the increased power of their childhood nightmare Crowky, whose power has grown since Rose and Arthur have neglected Roar. But their neglect has had other consequences too – the land is suffering from sink holes, and cracks appear; as the land leaks from the children’s memories and thoughts, so it literally disappears. This extended metaphor speaks to how we neglect those imaginings as we age – how things in childhood get pushed to the back of our minds, and yet to stop the ‘bad’ overcoming us all, we still need creativity and imagination as we grow older.

One of the things I most admired about the novel was the changing relationship between the siblings. The hints of how they used to play together as young children, the changes that occur as they grow, the frustrations with each other for growing too quickly or not maturing fast enough – mutual exasperation that their attitudes are no longer in tandem. But most of all the camaraderie, the need for one another, and the protective loyalty that exists – a sibling understanding of shared pasts and families, and the knowledge that they’re entwined, no matter what.

There’s also a fierce protectiveness of their grandfather – a key figure to them – wise by dint of his willingness to play and experiment, to break rules and embrace freedoms. He’s an embodiment of why creativity and memory are still important as we age. (Who wouldn’t love a grandad who encourages throwing things from the attic window into the garden as a way of clearing a room).

Although I saw an early proof of the book with artwork to come, the illustrations by Ben Mantle that were shown were rather spectacular. The finished version is a treat to behold – Mantle captures the dichotomy of Roar – the beauty of it and yet its profound danger.

This is an engrossing and vividly-imagined story, with messages that stretch from story to the real world; themes of imagination, but also feminism and adolescence – a growth in mindset as well as imagination. For children aged 8+ (and for adults too).

You can buy it here. With thanks to Egmont for an early review copy.

Summer 2019 Reading Recommendations

I always like to leave a list of great new children’s books on my main page at the end of July, because MinervaReads doesn’t blog in August. And, usually you’d find a small selection of picture books, nonfiction, novels etc. This year THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS. Narrowing down my summer reads for you has become increasingly difficult. So without further ado, I’ve tried to sum up each book in a concise way in order to feature as many as possible. Flick to the heading for the correct age group.

picture books

Picture books

Falling below the threshold of the age group for whom I normally review, but too adorable to ignore, is a new series of lift-the-flap board books called Treacle Street by Kate Hindley. From following Marcel Trunkmore delivering parcels in Marcel’s Parcels, to the star ballerina bunnies in Prima’s Missing Bunnies, the books are tightly plotted with intricately detailed illustrations for curious minds.

Stylistically arresting, Grandma Z by Daniel Gray-Barnett is a curiosity in itself. Coloured orange and blue, it not only explores the dynamism of a grandparent/grandchild relationship and the power of imagination, but adds retro dimensions and quirky elements to stand out from the crowd. Wild, exuberant, full of energy.

In the holiday spirit, Clem and Crab by Fiona Lumbers is cognitively dissonant as it feels both traditional and completely fresh. Clem explores the beach, and rescues a crab stuck in plastic. If ever a book made you wish you were at the seaside, this is it. And with an environmental message. Illustrations are expressive and wholesome – a whole story encapsulated in each vignette.

Also by the beach is The Tide by Clare Helen Welsh and Ashling Lindsay. Slightly more linear illustrations with harder colouring, this also captures the sensual nature of the seaside, but deals with dementia too. A heartwarming grandfather/grandchild relationship with clever analysis of memories and making memories.

For fun, The Big Stink by Lucy Freegard will capture hearts from the cover, just as mouse is captured by cat in this heist adventure. Nods to Mission Impossible, among other references, this mouse-led caper will have adults chuckling along with captivated children. Who could escape arrest with ears like that?

young fiction

Young Fiction (ages 7-9 years)

Newly independent readers are well served nowadays. Ariki and the Island of Wonders by Nicola Davies and Nicola Kinnear is pure summer adventure. Shipwrecked to a paradise island, Ariki and Ipo are initially struck by the wonder of nature they encounter, but then realise there is a darkness to paradise. With conservation overtones, and textured black and white illustrations, this is an immersive text that sparks a real sense of purpose and love for nature.

It’s not a new premise, but My Babysitter is a Robot by Dave Cousins, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri is neatly executed. A grandma inventor, twins, swimming pools, football and more, this is a fun and funny new series.

Fairy tales remain high on the list of starting points for stories, and Cinders and Sparks by Lindsey Kelk, illustrated by Pippa Curnick is another twist on the Cinderella story. A talking dog, an unreliable fairy godmother, and neighbours called Jack and Jill combine in a modern deviation and continuation of the traditional fairy tale. Fun, neat and magical.

middle grade

Middle Grade (Novels for 9+ years)

Abi Elphinstone’s new novel Rumblestar is possibly her best yet, and that’s saying something. She writes with a keen intelligence, a fiery spark, and a wisdom that infects the fantasy she writes, so that the reader feels there is an importance to the story being told. And she sweeps the reader away with engrossing, action-filled storytelling. In this first of the Unmapped Chronicles series, Casper accidentally stumbles into an unmapped kingdom in danger, and finds out that the peril is tied to his own world.

More peril in Peril En Pointe by Helen Lipscombe, described as Ballet Shoes meets Murder Most Unladylike. The novel has a relatable protagonist and a surprising reveal. A series to watch.

The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike delves deep into fantasy, as main character Rayne discovers more about the magic that keeps her village safe. A wholly original idea with a great mother/daughter dynamic, and a sense that magic and darkness pervade everything. Well crafted.

Ben Davis often makes me laugh, whether it’s a one line tweet or a whole novel. What’s That in Dog Years? is a tender book about losing a dog but gaining perspective. Part narrated by owner, part by dog, this is a heartfelt and touching book about friendships and families with a mystery at its heart, and a bucketful of humour. Makes the reader laugh and cry.

Stewart Foster’s Check Mates offers a surprising twist and marries ADHD, chess and the Stasi. It’s a longer, slower read, but merits rewards to those who stick the course with superbly drawn characters and a great reveal.

Halo Moon by Sharon Cohen is an easy read, but the short sharp chapters belie a degree of profundity in its message. Blending two disparate cultures – Ageze in Ethiopia and Halo in Yorkshire, Cohen uses the stars to navigate her protagonists towards each other and avert a disaster. Told with aplomb, this is a hope-filled, inspiring story.

Fleur Hitchcock’s The Boy Who Flew has an explosive opening and immerses the reader in Bath during the Georgian era. It’s dark and inventive, and leads the reader in a twisty mystery involving flying machines and shadowy villainy.

A much more down-to-earth mystery in A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths, also set in the past, this time the 1930s, in which the heroine is sent to boarding school, where crimes and misdeeds need investigating. From an experienced adult crime writer, this is a delight, with common room gossip, games in the rain, and a Christmas play, and although the ingredients feel old, the result is fresh and lively, and will be devoured in one day by competent readers.

Scavengers by Darren Simpson is for those looking for something completely different. It’s a coming-of-age that’s gritty, clever and brave. With a sort of wild abandon, this novel shows how far an imagination can go, and there’s a terrific undertone of tenderness and empathy.

I was blown away by Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm last year, and this year Wildspark: A Ghost Machine Adventure is another success. A sort of steampunk mechanical adventure, reminiscent of Tin by Padraig Kenny and Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart, this has a particular focus on dealing with grief, and the things that drive us. Hardy is most adept at creating new worlds and absorbing the reader with superb detail.

As climate change dominates the young generation’s thoughts, Sita Brahmachari’s timely Where The River Runs Gold explores a dystopian future of rations and compounds, in which children labour to pollinate the crops. But of course, there is hope amid the inequality and deprivation. Dense and thoughtful.

If you’re just after some short stories – the Return to Wonderland anthology brings some of the very best modern children’s writers together in a mission to re-imagine Alice and her Wonderland.

YA

YA (novels for 12+ years)

It’s rare for a book to catch the attention of both my older children – but William Sutcliffe’s The Gifted, the Talented and Me was whipped through by both, each stopping only to roar with laughter. Light and humorous, this satire of a modern middle-class family who go to live in Hampstead hits all the right spots.

Slightly darker but also an accessible read is Because of You by Eve Ainsworth, a dyslexia-friendly story about family dysfunction and learning to live with a parent’s new partner. Ainsworth excels at getting inside the head of a teen, particularly a victim of bullies, and this is an emotionally astute short novel.

Rose Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence is another tale that invokes social media, so important to today’s teens, but it explores it from a different angle, as Rose and brother Rudder have escaped from a religious sect and are coming at it anew. How do you navigate this new world where everything is so alien? A coming-of-age that uses a new approach to show us the perils of modern life, and how we work out who we really are.

Lastly, The Boxer by Nikesh Shukla is a brilliant exploration of the psyche. Told over the course of the rounds of a boxing fight, with flashbacks, this is a fantastic read about a seventeen-year-old who feels disengaged, but finds a community and a purpose. With themes of radicalisation, violence and belonging, this is an essential teen read.

non fiction

Nonfiction

Three completely different reads here. Be a Super Awesome Photographer by Henry Carroll gives 20 photo challenges for the budding photographer, with real photographs to illustrate and inspire, and ideas for tasks to make different and interesting photos. We’ll be using it on our summer holiday.

Incredible Journeys by Levison Wood, illustrated by Sam Brewster is an informative and inspirational large-size book about famous explorers. With illustrated maps and full page illustrations, this book travels from The Silk Road to Zheng He, and all the way to Nellie Bly and into space.

Watched too much Love Island? A modern and relevant book for teens is Body Brilliant by Nicola Morgan. It takes the reader through the steps to embracing a positive body image. Morgan provides data, encourages taking challenges to make her points and inspire confidence, and aims to change mindsets. Common sense goes hand-in-hand with examples and explanations.

glitchLastly, a graphic novel for you – the only one that dropped in my mailbox this summer, but anyway, Glitch by Sarah Graley would be a good choice. Ever since Aha’s Take On Me, we’ve dreamed of entering into our own comic. Here, 14-year-old Izzy, the protagonist, is depicted in a comic, but enters into her video game. But what happens when she gets Game Over? Great bright visuals, humorous too.

Well that should keep you busy reading over the summer! Come back in September for ballerinas in Russia, furious teens, prison camps, 1870’s opera houses, shadows in the woods and frosty hearts.

Girl. Boy. Sea. by Chris Vick

girl boy seaIn recent years, many a children’s author has been inspired to write a story influenced by the movement of refugees across the globe. The images of children traipsing their way across a dusty road, young boys hitching rides in dangerous places, girls shouldering too-heavy bundles across their backs. The plight of the refugee is one of survival against all odds; the issues of scarred pasts, horrors witnessed, uncertain futures, a sense of not belonging, an awakening of identity – all pose questions. To whom do we belong, to where? Who are we? And nowhere is the power of the individual more diminished than when faced with the might and terror of the sea.

Vick deploys these ideas with dexterity; deviating from them, twisting them, and showing their import against the backdrop of an ordinary, fairly privileged British boy who must also fight for survival.

Bill is sailing off the coast of Morocco with his peers when a storm hits, and he’s shipwrecked and abandoned in the ship’s small rowing boat. As the rations run low, a girl clinging to a barrel comes into sight across the waves. Together Bill and Aya, a Berber, navigate together, waiting for rescue, desperate for other humans. But mainly there is the water, and just their two minds. With the power of storytelling, and the inevitable human will to survive, this is a tense moving read about the growing bond between two desperate and vastly different people, and the lengths humans will go in order to live.

Told in the timeframe of the days and nights the two spend at the mercy of the sea, sunburnt, hungry, and scared, and on the precipice of life itself, Vick interweaves their days with Aya’s stories of Shahrazad and the Arabian Nights. The way the heroine prolonged her life at the hands of the king by playing on the king’s curiosity – his desire to know what happened next, night after night. In the same way that Bill and Aya persevere: Aya by telling stories and Bill by listening. Cleverly, Vick does the same with the reader – pulling us along on the journey, making us wait for the next piece of the survival story.

As Aya and Bill have to overcome their language and cultural differences, Vick shows the reader their compassion for each other – something that grows as their understanding of each other grows. This basic coming together mirrors the way their lives have been stripped down to the essentials – water, food, shelter. But also company. With each other, their purpose is stronger, their agency secure, their will to succeed strengthened.

Vick is clever in his storytelling. As with many tales of shipwreck and survival, the cast of characters can be thin, and stuck at sea the scenery the same for miles, and yet Vick draws out every nuance of their day to day, the shift of their bodies in the boat, the patterns of the ocean.

In fact, it is this last that really dazzles – the power of nature, both the strength of the sun and the changeable features of the sea. The author has a detailed knowledge of marine biology, and here it is put to excellent use in the scene with the whale, which is evocative and incredibly dramatic, but also used in Vick’s descriptions of the interminable endlessness of the ocean, and the emptiness when viewed just from a bobbing rowboat.

In a nuanced middle section, Vick also manages to weave in some moral ambiguity – a dangerous situation in which he enhances cultural differences and behaviours, the threats to women and minorities, the power of knowledge but also the power of making assumptions about a person because of their background.

By the end, some of the detail is graphic in the extreme, and yet unbelievably tender. Vick doesn’t shy away from the devastating rawness of the situation, but by leading the reader there, he also explores the deepest emotions. There is love as well as courage, hope matching despair.

Life is stripped to its essence – what do we know, how safe are we, can we find compassion to be the support system for someone who doesn’t even think in our language, who can’t begin to fathom how different our way of life is? And yet, each is simply human.

Vick easily places us in another’s shoes by transplanting Bill from his relatively safe and easy life into that experienced by a refugee, by making his protagonist embrace the grit it takes to survive, and doing it all with taut and distinct prose. This is a powerful, starkly told novel, which holds its tension to the end, and although simple in its essence, is as profound as the depths of the sea.

Age 10+. You can buy it here. With thanks to Zephyr for the review copy.

Earth Swarm: A Hal Strider Adventure by Tim Hall

earth swarmDrones over airports, artificial intelligence making human work obsolete, new kinds of warfare. Whatever it is that keeps you awake at night, bear in mind that Tim Hall probably suffers from the same insomnia. Although he’s put his to good use in a new book for children aged about 10+ years.

A Terminator-style battle of humans versus machines is the premise of this new novel, and yet it is distinctive for Hall’s canny take on the science-fiction/dystopian tech aspect.

Hal Strider’s father owns a biomimetics company, designing drones and other airborne machines. He works hard, and is often away from home, leaving Hal and his sister Jess alone. When drones start to attack London, and Hal’s father is nowhere to be found, Hal and Jess must battle to figure out what the drones have to do with their father, and in the end try to save their country.

The drones are cleverly designed to mimic certain features of insects – and the different types of drones are like different types of bugs. There are hornets – mean angry buzzing fliers; and burrowers working like ants with highly damaging proboscises. Others are beetle-like, their mandibles adapted with metal saws. There’s even a pheromone-copier, the insects leaving a green dust on their victims to better seek them out and destroy them. Hall neatly uses insect vocabulary throughout to enhance this – cocoons, scavengers, infestation. Of course, with added dangerous explosives, metal components, added artificial intelligence and computer technology, they can adapt and evolve to suit the environment and their new circumstances, and they can do this at pace.

Which the book is all about – the action unfolds at extraordinary pace, just like watching an action or disaster movie – the different perspectives feel like a camera (or drone-mounted camera) zooming in and out, unfolding before the eyes, so that the reader sees the action from the air, below ground, street level etc. Inspiration must stem from 9/11 or similar real-time disasters and news incidents played out on the television, because the scenes presented in the novel are frightening and dystopic, but not so much removed from our own reality – tower blocks in London fold in on themselves just as the twin towers did, others topple, tube stations implode, people swarm away from disaster zones; Hall is great at the visual immersion of destruction.

But to capture the reader’s emotions, the characters need to have dynamism just as much as the drones, and Hall throws in a frisson of attraction between Hal and Sky, a daughter of another engineer at the biomimetics company, as well as the genuine sibling loyalty and protectionism between Hal and Jess. The teens all speak in snappy, urgent dialogue, which is both disaster-movie filmic (all action and command), but also with some realism in their interactions.

Unfortunately, the adult villains are somewhat two-dimensional, ruthlessly motivated by money, but it is the drones who incite the tension and danger, and feel like the real enemy.

Occasionally Hall dips into the drones’ minds/databases too, a fascinating style that lends itself more to computer code than novel-writing, but works well here in short bursts.

The novel is tightly structured, the essence simple, but the execution gripping, dynamic and unbelievably visual. Want to draw your child away from the video game – chuck this book at them – they’ll never look at a drone or insect in the same way again.

You can buy the book here. With thanks to David Fickling for the review copy.

Jemima Small Versus the Universe by Tamsin Winter

jemima small versus the universeIs it Love Island that perpetuates the non-stop pre-occupation with looks, eating and fitness? Or the sense that Insta is feeding into our kids’ idea of their appearance and how they would want to change it? If feels as if children’s focus on body image is as strong as ever.

Neatly fitting into this zeitgeist is the latest offering from Tamsin Winter, author of Being Miss Nobody, (a top hit in my school library with the Year 6s, who adore its modern take on bullying and its consequences, and read it as a key text for transition into high school and Year 7). Winter’s new book, Jemima Small Versus the Universe, also takes the reader into secondary school, and deals with bullying, but with a different focus and a very different protagonist.

Jemima Small’s surname is a bit of a misnomer. She’s actually rather the opposite in terms of her brain – she’s super brainy and an expert at quiz questions and random facts, and her personality too is large and joyful – she has a wicked sense of humour and a zest for embracing life. But for most people, they see that the misnomer lies in her body size, something pointed out rather distinctly when her school forces her to join a healthy eating group at lunchtime.

The focus on Jemima’s weight ranges from the blatant bullying and name-calling at school and on the bus (not made any easier by the fact that she’s been asked to join the school’s fat club), but also from the not-so-subtle looks exchanged by strangers, the whispers by fellow customers in the pizza restaurant.

Winter pulls attention to it as well, showing Jemima’s discomfort at squeezing into a booth or a bus seat, her excessive sweating in the face of pressure, her embarrassment at trying on clothes (think swimming costumes), and her dread of the upcoming school camping trip. But perhaps the most excruciating moment in the novel is science teacher Mr Shaw’s bananometer, which is intended to demonstrate estimation – he wants to see how many bananas class 8N weighs, and therefore needs to weigh each child and convert the weight to bananas – writing each person’s on the board. When I read this scene, I thought it was fairly implausible, but then after talking to some pupils in Y7 and Y8, discovered that some teachers do the daftest, and sometimes most insensitive things. In the book, this scene is spectacularly cringy but superbly effective.

However, Winter doesn’t just concentrate on Jemima’s weight. In fact, much of the book is taken up with Jemima’s larger-than-life personality, and her intelligence and wit. But we see, as the book progresses, the ease with which someone’s confidence can be knocked. Jemima should be happy and outgoing, but gradually others’ bullying increases Jemima’s lack of confidence in her body, which leads to a lack of confidence in her whole self. She can’t be happy in herself. And when the school is asked to take part in a television show – the general knowledge quiz show Brainiacs – she should be an obvious candidate, but her worry about being on television because of her size dominates her thoughts.

Winter’s knack at drawing a complicated 13-year-old is evident throughout – Jemima’s sassiness is often crushed by bullies, and the reader feels every blow, every slight with her. Cleverly, it’s not just a black and white issue though – Jemima faces jibes from her older brother Jasper, but there’s a nuance therein, as Jasper is both supporter and tease – there’s a deep love and affection, even an admiration that comes across under the layers of mischief. Indeed, Jasper and Jemima share a bond in that their mother left them when they were young and when emotions about this come to the surface, they are definitely a team.

It is the support network behind Jemima that enables her to find her confidence, and feel happy in herself – her father, who also has a nuanced relationship with her weight, seeing his daughter’s positive sides and yet aware that maybe he needs to take some responsibility for his daughter’s fitness and eating habits, and also Gina, the ‘healthy body guru’ at school, who initially is viewed with suspicion, but carefully comes good with her positive energy. Jemima’s best friend Mika is a key supporter too – a good friend who consistently boosts Jemima’s confidence.

This isn’t a novel that preaches losing weight, but it subtly shows the benefits of a healthy mind and healthy body and that the two are neatly intertwined. It also cheers the celebration of intelligence and brains, and perseverance.

The book is obviously issue-based, but it is so much more than this. It celebrates being happy with who you are, with not being afraid to use your strengths, and seeing each individual shining brightly in their own field.

An accessible contemporary novel that feels both of the moment, and yet bigger than that too.

For ages 11+. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Usborne Publishers for the review copy.