friendship

Playing with Time and Nature

charlie noonI’ve long been an admirer of Christopher Edge’s novels. In his latest series of books, (connected by theme, but completely stand-alone stories), he takes a scientific concept and writes a children’s novel around it. It started with The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, which took Schrodinger’s Theory or the many worlds theory, and ran with it. The Jamie Drake Equation was about space travel, although for me it resonated most heartbreakingly with its depiction of an absent father. The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day was quite devastating, in that it investigated relativity, virtual reality and black holes, but mainly sibling relationships, and was both quite frightening and then impossibly sad. The magic of the stories is that although the reader subconsciously absorbs the big scientific ideas, they are also stung by the supreme emotion and fallibility of human relationships, as well as seeing hope for the future.

This time, in The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, Christopher Edge has taken his theme and created an impossible tale, a masterpiece of keeping the reader guessing and turning things upside down and inside out until at the end the reader realises that time has flown…

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is ostensibly about three children who get lost in the woods one evening after school. Edge wonderfully juxtaposes town and country here, as Charlie has moved from London to the country, and experiences the woods in a different way from the other children. There are lush descriptions of wildflowers, and in particular, the different sounds of the birds, and the trees and the lights and shadows that are cast in different areas of the wood.

There’s also a legend about Old Crony, a monster maybe, who lives in the heart of the woods, and who eats children. Charlie and two friends are looking to solve some cryptic puzzles that have been left in the wood, but when night falls they find themselves lost, or maybe trapped. Time plays tricks on them, as Edge explores the concept of time, and how we experience it. There are loops and hurdles for the reader as well as the children as we read a series of scenes that play with our sense of perception.

Edge again cleverly weaves together science and creative thought, nature and story, to stimulate further thought and discussion after reading, but also imparts a huge amount of knowledge. Charlie Noon is an immersive story with non-stop twists and turns, gives each child a real sense of character, and also provides a wonderful key to seeing not only the power of nature, but how stories can stimulate intellectual curiosity and thought.

Here, Christopher Edge explores the inspiration behind the novel, Brendon Chase by ‘BB’, about three boys who run away from home and live wild in the woods:

“When we are young all our impressions are much clearer and more vivid than when we are middle-aged.”

So reads the opening line of The Pegasus Book of the Countryside written by ‘B B’, the pseudonym used by the author, illustrator and naturalist Denys Watkins-Pitchford.

First published in 1964, B B goes on to bemoan how when children are at the most receptive age to enjoy the wonders to be found in the countryside, they are forced to stay indoor for lessons at school, showing that concerns about the lack of nature in children’s lives isn’t a wholly modern phenomenon.

However, in recent times, the role that nature plays in children lives has been brought into sharp focus through books such as The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, which have sought to rewild children’s vocabularies and reconnect them with the natural world, and also the work of the inspirational climate activist Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl whose protests highlight a younger generation’s deep concern for the environment, and how we need to act now to save nature.

Education is about understanding the world around us, so learning about the natural world should be at the heart of the school curriculum. From forest schools to fiction, through subjects like science, art, English and geography, we can rewild children’s education in a way that helps them to understand the fragile wonders that can be found in the natural world, and help give them the heart to defend these wild places.

Reading a novel changes your brain and I hope in the pages of The Longest Night of Charlie Noon young readers might find glimpses of the wild mysteries that fed my imagination, and find inspiration to explore the wild places around them and make their own adventures there.

To end this piece, I’ll borrow the closing words of The Pegasus Book of the Countryside, where B B writes of how reading about nature, ‘remains inside you and adds a richness to life which is with you until your life’s end.’ Let’s give our children the riches they all deserve.

With thanks to Christopher Edge. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is published by Nosy Crow on 6th June, and you can buy it here. With thanks to Nosy Crow for the review proof, and also the sublime finished copy, cover artwork by Matt Saunders. 

Has Your Memory Stored Your Old Tech?

bootWhen I was younger I had a Spectrum ZX. And I can’t imagine how many hours I spent playing a game called ‘Jet Set Willy’. The idea of the game was that the player was Willy, a figure who had to tidy up all the items in his house after a party – and he had a lot of rooms in this house, ranging from the cold store with dangling rope, to the wine cellar with its many black holes, to the forgotten abbey where moving platforms and skulls dominate the room.

I don’t play ‘Jet Set Willy’ any more, but I do spend a great many hours tidying up the items in my house (I don’t have a wine cellar, cold store or forgotten abbey),  not after a party, but after the children have gone to school.

I mention this because the publishers of Shane Hegarty’s latest book, Boot, suggested that I revisit a piece of technology that holds special memories for me, in order that I can tie it to the themes of memories, objects, and technology that permeate Hegarty’s novel.

Boot is about a toy robot, called Boot, who wakes up in a scrapyard, and finds his hard drive mainly wiped of memory, except for 2 and a half images and an idea that it was once loved by its owner, Beth. Boot is determined to find its way back to Beth, and with a group of other abandoned, half-working robots, it struggles across the city to find her. Except that, of course, discarded pieces of technology are usually thrust aside for a reason.

I think I abandoned ‘Jet Set Willy’ because of GCSEs (at least my parents would probably like to think so). However, it does hold a soft spot in my heart, and if you gave me a spectrum ZX with Jet Set Willy downloaded now, I’d while away a few hours exploring.

Children would do well to while away a few hours reading Boot. Although in the science fiction genre and with a robot protagonist, the book pulses with emotion. Hegarty executes this with ease because Boot is a toy robot – made specifically to be a child’s companion, and thus its ‘set’ emotions are written all over its face/screen. When sad, the orange smile on its face turns blue and upside down. Moreover, Boot has suffered some damage, so some of its ‘set’ feelings are slightly off, leaving Boot with rather more emotion than a robot usually has, and the weird consequence that not all its emotions inside show correctly on the outside. But more than this, Boot is programmed to decipher emotions in others – it sees that one adult is angry by way of ‘teeth clenching’ and ‘jabbing finger’. In this way, as in real artificial intelligence, robots are being programmed and learning just as toddlers do – from being fed experiences.

As well as using emotion, Hegarty manipulates his readers – making them feel profoundly for, what is, after all, an object. In fact, in a Toy Story reminiscent scene, Boot discovers it’s not unique – there are lots of robots identical to it. Just like Buzz Lightyear, it makes readers think about our own identity. What is it that makes each of us unique, why are we, and how can we use that as a positive, and recognise it as positive in others.

Because Boot befriends so many robots, all discarded or cast aside for some reason, the reader is constantly reminded that they are just machines in this fictional future landscape, and yet by bringing them to life with human characteristics, Hegarty asks the reader to think about them as ‘disposed’ objects. Should we dispose of things so quickly – can we not repair and mend, reuse and recycle? And should we?

In the end, Boot does find Beth, but the ending is more complicated than that. Hegarty builds on his theory of disposability, extending it to humans too. For this is a story about growing old, being discarded, and the value of memory.

Illustrated in black and white throughout by Ben Mantle, with a keen eye on the idea that the robots in the novel seem more friendly than many of the humans, this is a heartwarming, funny, neat little novel with some big ideas, an extending vocabulary and light modern prose, for children aged 6+ .

I don’t know what purpose my memories of ‘Jet Set Willy’ serve, but they definitely make me smile. And if memories make the person in the present happy, then that’s about the best reason of all.

To buy Boot, click here. With thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for the review copy and for sparking an idea for the blog.

The Summer of No Regrets by Kate Mallinder

the summer of no regretsHas the trend for up-lit died down? The zeitgeist that propelled Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine to the top of the bestseller charts and made it the bestselling novel of 2018? Judging by today’s lists, there’s still an appetite, even if we like murder more. But what about for today’s teens?  Recent discussions assumed that all YA books either slot into the fantasy genre or deal with issues such as eating disorders, bullying or depression. But what should parents and their offspring buy if they want to read something lighter? Some humour? Some clean teen fun? These books do exist, they just might not be face out on the bookseller’s shelves, and you’ll need to ask the bookseller. Start by requesting this one.

The Summer of No Regrets is clean teen uplit. After their exams, four sixteen-year-old friends are ready to embark on their summer together; long lie-ins and fun days out. But then Sasha is given an opportunity to go and stay with her estranged father in Geneva, and on the advice of Hetal’s Nani, they decide to opt for a summer of no regrets, (embracing adventure and new challenges), even if that means going their separate ways. Home-loving Hetal takes up a place at an exclusive science camp, Nell goes for a job she wants, out the way of her over-protective mother, and fostered Cam decides to look for her birth father. But will their summers work out the way they anticipate?

Each chapter is written from one of the four girls’ points of view, and Mallinder executes this skilfully, nicely imbuing each voice with its own idiosyncrasies and character. As with these types of novels, the reader may identify more with one girl than another, although they will possibly see characteristics of themselves, or their friends in all four. Each character is nicely flawed, and self-critiquing, sometimes overly as teens are prone to do – but they are rescued from too much introspection by Mallinder’s lightness of touch, and her use of the secondary characters around each girl.

But it is the four friends who dominate because the book is about friendship – a refreshing reminder that not all friendships degrade because of sniping about each other on social media or griping behind each other’s backs. Although some of the foursome are more in tune with each other than others – splitting into twos occasionally depending on circumstance and personality, all four have a wonderful support network of the other three behind them – even if they are geographically apart. Nowadays this is easy to portray with the use of mobile phones and Mallinder nicely portrays the girls’ messages to each other without it becoming overbearing or interrupting the flow of plot, but she also hints at a shared history, an ongoing bond between them that’s deeper than text messages.

The book is character-led, and each girl does have her own ‘issues’ within her story – whether it is a summer romance, an overly-competitive streak that gets them into trouble, or more serious issues such as post-traumatic stress, and feelings of abandonment and rejection. However, these issues never dominate – they are just a part of each girl’s life – a test they have to go through on their own, but which ultimately they can do because they have the strength of friendship behind them.

This is a story about real friendship – trusting, kind and generous; the sort of friends who pop by and see you while you’re at work, or answer your cries for help immediately. As the author William Sutcliffe pointed out a few weeks ago in The Times, it’s what makes the sitcom Friends so enduring – not just the humour, but the appealing essence of true friendship.

But this is about sixteen-year-olds rather than adults, and Mallinder captures well the liminal space they occupy between being children and stepping into their own independence – they still need guidance and still push boundaries.

As intimated by the glorious rainbow cover, this is a light, breezy summery read, which I read in one sitting, happily engrossed in the girls’ stories. A clean teen read, I’ll be heartily recommending it to every teen and pre-teen this summer. You can read your own copy for pleasure here – and pleasurable it will be. For ages 12+ years.

The Words That Fly Between Us by Sarah Carroll

the words that fly between usLanguage is important. Of course it is, it’s one of the ways in which we communicate, and as a reader and writer it’s my primary source of information, and of huge value. But one of the things new writers are taught is the importance of words that are left unsaid. In dialogue, what’s underneath the words, what lies in the silence, which emotions are left hanging in the air – the words that are never spoken but which fly away. Listen carefully to the next conversation you have – who isn’t saying what?

Carroll delves into the world of examining language, secrets, lies, manipulation and communication in her emotionally deep novel, The Words That Fly Between Us

Lucy lives in a large house with her parents, seemingly all privileged and happy. Yet, Lucy lives in a state of heightened awareness; attune to the words that aren’t being spoken, and the manner in which those words that are shared are spoken. Her father uses words to bully and manipulate, and although Lucy is a talented artist, her father’s words hinder even this form of expression. Her confidence is chipped away, her place of safety gone. What’s more, the abuse towards her mother is teetering from just verbal towards the physical.

Lucy takes consolation in the loft space above her room, but she discovers that it links to the attic space of all the other houses in her street, and before long Lucy’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she finds that other people have unspoken secrets in their houses too. But she comes to realise that knowing other people’s secrets can create even larger dilemmas.

In today’s world, the language we use seems to take on an even greater import because quite often it is not accompanied by body language or pitch. Many people today communicate more by written word than spoken word – in text, online comments, direct messages. Carroll touches on this too, with her depiction of Lucy’s friendship with Megan, who writes a blog, but starts to receive unwelcome and bullying comments online.

And incorporating a diary into the novel as part of the plot, means that the reader can start to understand the power of secrets, the power of the written word, and the lies we tell ourselves, or portray to the world. Communication is a powerful tool.

By weaving together these strands, as well as incorporating a homeless girl with a distinct message, a reclusive neighbour who isn’t all she seems, Carroll forms a multi-layered story that mirrors the multi-layers of her characters. Because the bullies in the stories aren’t simple two-dimensional fairytale villains – these are complex characters with deep flaws and insecurities that manifest themselves in harmful ways. By portraying them as humans too, Carroll portrays an ever greater emotional depth to her already heart-wrenching story.

In fact, it is the very appealing first person voice of Lucy that pulls the reader in. And just as Lucy sees the menace behind ordinary words, so the reader begins to see the depths behind the simplicity of the voice, and that although this is an easy read in terms of accessibility, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Carroll deftly imbues her main character with a talent for drawing – a way of expressing her feelings beyond words. And although the book isn’t illustrated, the author shows enormous talent at describing Lucy’s drawings, so that we can see them in our mind’s eye and extrapolate the emotion they are depicting.

This is a powerful book for a 10+ age audience. With compelling, confident writing, a clear understanding of relationships, and a good illustration of how language works and can be manipulated.

Carroll shows what it is for a child to feel safe, to find their voice, and then develop the confidence to use it. Again, what’s key is the kindness of strangers, true friendships and an empathetic heart. You can buy it here.

Recent Young Fiction Titles (Age 5+ years)

hotel flamingo
Hotel Flamingo by Alex Milway
Anna Dupont inherits the now dilapidated, once sunniest hotel in town, which has a rival up the road, and is only populated by sad employees T Bear the doorman, and Mr Lemmy on the front desk. With a lot of hard work, careful ‘human’ resources, (including hiring a giraffe for handyman jobs, and a cleaner with a dust allergy), much kindness, and an emphasis on pulling together, Anna oversees the renovation of her hotel to once again become an exciting establishment.

Bursting with enthusiasm, positivity, and magnificently warm illustrations, embracing the diversity of the guests, and adding much humour, this is a great place to stay for a while. First in a series, the second is published in June. You can buy it here.

two sides
Two Sides by Polly Ho-Yen and Binny Talib
Everybody falls out with a friend at some time or another. This delightful tale plays beautifully with the different perspectives of an argument. Lula and Lenka are best friends even though they are very different from one another. Until The Day Everything Goes Wrong. The book splits into dual narrative, each differentiated by a different typeface for extra emphasis, as each tells the story of their argument from their perspective. Insightful about the lonely consequences of arguing and not forgiving, and exploring the complementary attributes a friend might have. Thought-provoking and exploring how to look at something with another’s eyes – and it was all over a pencil case! If only Brexit were so easy to solve. Most magically though, the book is colour-illustrated throughout, bridging the gap between picture books and more sparsely illustrated black and white chapter books. You can buy it here.

wizard vs lizard
Wizard vs Lizard by Simon Philip, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

The author of two phenomenal picture books, I Really Want the Cake and You Must Bring a Hat, turns to wizardry for this chapter book outing. One of the more sparsely illustrated titles here, but still populated with a decent number of Dempsey’s expressive illustrations, this is the first in a series that looks set to be rather good. Fred is a Wizard, but sadly not a very good one – certainly not as good as his siblings or schoolmates. When his siblings, and his parents expect him to fail in everything, Fred decides to prove them all wrong and finally make them proud in a Wizard competition.

With great humour and an overload of the everyday – Fred the Wizard may have a wand, but also a bus pass and a library card (which come in rather handy), this is a loveable introduction to chapter books. With messages on bravery, determination, and how using quick-thinking and inspiration can  cast just as many spells as being a wizard. Oh, and never under-estimating yourself! Buy yours here.

veronica twitch
Veronica Twitch the Fabulous Witch in Double-bubble girl-band trouble by Erica-Jane Waters
More witchiness in this two-tone (purple and black) illustrated first chapter book. Veronica is a witch journalist, Editor-in-Chief at Twitch Magazine, and due to write a feature on the band Double-Bubble. But when the band is kidnapped, Veronica has to use her investigative skills to dig deeper. Could Belinda Bullfrog from rival magazine, Nosy Toad, be behind the band’s disappearance?

With Witch City full of fun place-names such as Grand Central Broom Station, and accessories including hand-cauldrons instead of handbags, and frosted bataccinos to drink, this is a fully imagined other world, with trendy and stylish characters (each given a page profile at the start). It’s fun and fast, and slick as a tube of lip gloss. Have a witchy time here.

captain cat and the treasure map
Captain Cat and the Treasure Map by Sue Mongredien, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst
An even lighter read in this splendid tale of what happens when the animals are in charge of the pirate ship. Patch the Cat, Monty the Monkey, and Cutlass the Parrot accompany Captain Halibut and his crew on their dastardly pirate adventures, but sometimes the animals steer the way as their pirate owners can be a little hapless. When a treasure map is found, the pirates look set to cash in, but the animals sense danger. Can they save their pirate crew?

Chaos and mayhem in the plot are cunningly drawn by Pankhurst, illustrations litter the text. A fast plot, lots of terribly punning, and a brilliant message that being the quiet one who no one listens to doesn’t mean that you don’t have the best ideas! Underappreciated Patch is a new favourite character. Yo ho ho, and you can buy one here.

pirate pug
Pirate Pug: The Dog Who Rocked the Boat by Laura James, illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans
More piracy in this newest adventure from an old pug on the block. This is the fourth Pug book from Laura James, which tells the tale of our role-playing pug and his friend Lady Miranda. With large text and lots of illustrations, Pug inadvertently becomes a pirate when he suffers an eye injury and has to wear a patch.

There’s more buried treasure here, a spot marked with an X, and unfortunately, a pug who can’t swim. Ceulemans has conjured a special world for Lady Miranda and Pug, an everyday familiarity laced with aristocracy, which makes for great fun in reading and looking at the books in detail. See a pirate here.

horrid henry up up
Where would any young fiction collection be without Horrid Henry? To celebrate 25 years of the cheeky chap, Francesca Simon has penned four more stories, nicely packaged in this red-foil-covered collection, called Horrid Henry Up, Up and Away, illustrated by Tony Ross. Taking cues from the likes of Pamela Butchart, the text is now punctuated with a mass of jazzed up fonts, big and small for emphasis, but the same old Henry is in there, with his delightful sibling Perfect Peter.

The themes are familiar to young readers too – all primary school age experiences including a plane ride, a theme park outing, and a school play. Illustrated by Tony Ross, with his trademark exuberance, this is a fine outing for Henry. As always, with those parents who say he’s horrid, I say it’s children letting Henry act out for them – the best way to experiment with the world is through a book. Watch out for Henry’s creativity for his Write and Sing a Song Badge:

“Henry is the Top
Henry is the Best
You Don’t Even Need
To Put it to the Test”

You can buy it here.

Cloud Boy by Marcia Williams

cloud boyWhat makes a children’s book good? In Edwardian times, critics might have been concerned with the imparting of morality within the text. These moral instructions can still be valid – does a book show the reader how to be socially conscious, perhaps about discrimination, difference or the environment? Or perhaps it’s about psychological improvement – teaching a child about empathy, imagination, making them happy? Helping that child to identify with someone different, or to see themselves mirrored within the story, to validate their identity and their difficulties, to reinforce the self.

But above all, it’s about believable character and good story.

Experienced author Marcia Williams imparts knowledge – this time about some little-known history – in Cloud Boy, and provokes psychological conscientiousness by showing children how to overcome deep adversity, but she has also created a thoroughly authentic main character within an accessible, gripping text.

The book is written in a child’s diary format, which gives the text an absolute simplicity and makes it easy to read. Angie keeps a diary about her life and her friendship with Harry, the boy who lives next door. Together, their fathers have built them a treehouse, which straddles the two children’s gardens, and serves a purpose for them both – a place for Angie to draw and write, and a place for Harry to watch the clouds – he’s an expert in identifying the different formations.

When Angie’s grandmother comes to stay, she shares with the children the letters she wrote as a prisoner of war during Japan’s occupation of Singapore. Drawing on a survivor’s tales of life in the Changi Prison during the Second World War, Williams blends the two stories – the modern children and the tragedy that strikes them, and the history of the Guides in the Changi Prison, and how they sewed quilts to pass the time and create a symbol of hope and endurance.

There is a poignant naivety to Angie’s writing, as she struggles to comprehend how sick Harry is becoming, whilst the reader is all too aware. The stabilising force of her grandmother, who has endured hardships unimaginable to our modern sensibility, enables Angie and Harry to find coping mechanisms to face their own adversity. Like other modern children’s books, the growing awareness of inter-generational relationships and their intense value is well documented here, as grandmothers in literature become more than silver-hair-bunned figures knitting in rocking chairs.

The children’s eagerness to hear their grandmother’s history speaks to the need within us all for a knowledge of our ancestry and identity, but also provides a framework for learning about resilience. All the while, the treehouse represents a place of calm and safety, of independence, as Angie has to learn to deal with her emotions. A treehouse also provides the ability to see things from a different perspective – gazing at the clouds or perhaps on the people below. The careful positioning of it in this novel gives the children a physical structure in which to cement their friendship.

But readers should beware – at times the cruel adversity written about seems much more advanced and harsher than the level implied by the simplicity of the vocabulary and ease of the text. The brevity may suit reluctant readers but there is immense depth in the emotion portrayed – and this is one of Williams’ strengths – she easily portrays Angie’s difficulty in dealing with her strong emotions, and shows incredible pathos in her depiction of Harry’s mother. This is not an easy read in terms of subject matter, but it is worth acknowledging that not all children’s books can be filled with happy endings – not everything does end happily. However, there are glimpses of hope and optimism, and the possibility of how life continues despite the adversity faced.

Williams has woven her own gem here, inspired by an exhibition at the V&A Museum in London, and a glimpse of a Changi quilt – a single object of love and endurance. It’s a fascinating piece of social history, and well worth exploring. You can buy a copy here.

Girl 38: Finding a Friend by Ewa Jozefkowicz

girl 38This is a clever novel. It’s no surprise, coming from an author shortlisted for the Waterstones Book Prize this year for her debut, The Mystery of the Colour Thief. Ewa Jozefkowicz’s new children’s novel, Girl 38, is written with the same lucid fluidity: accessible, readable, and highly immersive.

The book is set out as three distinct strands, but all come together in great storytelling fashion to illuminate the key themes of the book – friendship, courage, intergenerational relationships and the lessons learnt from history, and also, somewhat surprisingly for a novel, the power of visuals.

Twelve-year-old Kat loves to work on her comic-book heroine, Girl 38, who has traits she wishes she could emulate in real life. The comic is set in the future, as Girl 38 space-travels to new places with a calm and measured courage, even in the face of Vilks (humans with wolf-heads, yellow eyes and sharp fangs). But in her real life, Kat faces her own adversities. She feels lonely when her parents work long hours, and her best friend doesn’t always act as such – in fact, before long Kat begins to see that she’s trapped in a toxic friend relationship, and that if she could build up the courage, she might find truer, better friends.

Courage is contagious, and when Kat befriends her neighbour, Ania, an elderly Polish woman with a penchant for painting, Kat begins to hear Ania’s childhood stories, and before long, understands the meaning of true friendship – something she can put into practise in a relationship with the new boy at school, Julius.

What should feel complicated, actually reads simply and with a gentle truthful wisdom. Although we see Kat’s life through her eyes, the small distance and perspective afforded to the reader gives them the ability for objectiveness and readers can root for Kat to do the right thing, and not be consistently led astray by her mean best friend, Gem. There are particularly astute and wise signposts for the reader – Kat’s parents are busy, although not disinterested. They hover, but not like helicopter parents, so although they see the strain in the friendship, they don’t rush to interfere.

But where the reader really gets to think is in the stories of World War II that Ania tells. From jumping from a train, to deciphering which soldiers are friendly and which aren’t, to navigating through a war-torn Europe to save a dear friend who has been taken away to a ‘walled village’, persecuted simply for being different.

There’s a relevance to the book of course, in its attempt to show how empathy can teach us to be kind, how we need to look at history for its lessons. Jozefkowicz brings together the different strands to show the reader about belonging – Girl 38 finding a new planet on which to reside, people in Europe seeking safety, and even in Kat’s modern world – welcoming newcomers who may act and look different, but, of course, are human too.

The characters are painted with depth and understanding. Ania’s cultural heritage is strong in both the objects that surround her and the stories she tells. Kat and her friends are deeply ensconced in our modern world – the phone is used as a plot device – but it is the children’s modern relationships that are so well depicted. The sly toxicity that Gem promotes, whilst still remaining a rounded character with whom we have sympathy, the small differences that make Julius stand out.

But the overarching heart of the book is in the sharing of stories – of Ania’s painful memories of the friend she lost, of her attempting to express her sadness in a creative way, and the compassion and empathy it stirs in her listeners – in how the contemporary reader will see that courage begets courage, that history is so much more than dates and battles, and that comparative thinking – across generations, time periods, and methods of creative endeavour – can teach understanding and awareness.

This is strong and impactful writing packaged in a simple story with mirrored events and clever plot turns. It implores us to use our time thoughtfully. And what better way than to read this novel. You can buy it here.

Be My Valentine

I’ve taken the liberty of focussing on love in general for my picture books on Valentine’s Day. That’s not to say I eschew romance – not at all! But working as a primary school librarian, Valentines are more likely passed from friend to friend or child to family member or even to pet, and this is what these three picture books celebrate.

the kissThe Kiss by Linda Sunderland, illustrated by Jessica Courtney-Tickle

In the so-called current trend for uplit (literature that’s uplifting for the soul), this picture book fits lovingly into the zeitgeist. Edwyn blows a kiss to his grandma, shown on the cover as a gold foil sprinkle of stars, like dandelion seeds released into the wind. Edwyn’s grandma shares her received kiss, almost as an act of kindness, bestowing it upon those who need it most, such as a sad old man and a cross mother. But then darkness descends in the shape of a man who steals it and wants to keep the kiss for himself, all locked up as an artefact in a cage. But this has devastating consequences for the kiss, for him, and also for the outside world. Luckily, he not only sees the error of his ways, but is granted swift forgiveness by the kind grandma, and all is resolved.

Courtney-Tickle illustrates the story with an emphasis on nature and the outdoors. Most of her large double page illustrations are populated with wildflowers, colourful leaves, animals and outdoor activities with a clear focus on weather – all emphasised by the choice of dancing leaves on the book’s endpapers. The colour is magical, reminiscent of David Litchfield, with an old-fashioned fairy tale quality, exemplified by marching bands, an abundance of Snow-White-esque wildlife, cold dark towers, a simplicity in the characters’ timeless outfits. And yet a modernity creeps in too – a wooden bin at the park, mobile phones, an abundance of balloons.

The book is about love shared, kindnesses spread, and the empathy needed to understand others. You can buy it here. 

mirabel's missing valentinesMirabel’s Missing Valentines by Janet Lawler, illustrated by Olivia Chin Mueller

More love shared in this whimsical picture book from the States, which really is about Valentine’s Day.

Mirabel, our shy and anxiety-ridden mouse, complete with large eyes, long whiskers and a penchant for hats, sets out for school to deliver her Valentine’s cards.

The reader is entreated to rhyming text to tell Mirabel’s story – the joy at creating the cards and the angst about delivering them – but it is only through ‘reading’ the pictures that we see the cards spill from her bag on her way to school. The recipients of the spilled cards (all strangers in the town) return them with smiles, touched by their heartfelt sincerity and the fleeting opportunity to see them, which makes them smile and gives them joy. The happiness she has inadvertently spread gives Mirabel the confidence to take them to school.

The illustrations are old-worldly, a cast of anthropomorphic animals fill the book, the buildings look as if they come from a playmobil playset. But if you’re after a picturebook about overcoming anxiety and shyness, and how kindness can spread, this may be one for you. Endearing. You can buy it here. 

rosie is my best friendRosie is My Best Friend by Ali Pye

A much more modern outlook in this fresh and zippy tale of friendship that relies heavily upon the reader’s visual understanding as well as narrative absorption. Rosie explores how she spends her day with her best friend – helping the adults around them, playing games, learning new tricks. There’s a delightful contradiction between the helpfulness Rosie and her friend think they are giving, and the actual consequence of some of their actions, and the illustrations not only reveal the truth but burst with friendliness, vibrancy and warmth themselves, from the stroll in the park with balloon seller, boating and games, to the make-believe play at home.

There is familiarity in this tale of an ‘everyday’, a comfort from the openness of the characters and the intense cuteness of both girl and dog. The twist at the end is both writerly and masterful – suggesting the reader thinks about point of view and perspective. Clever, witty, and completely adorable. Give it to your Valentine for Valentine’s here. 

 

Charlie Changes Into a Chicken by Sam Copeland, illustrated by Sarah Horne

charlie changes into a chickenMassively hyped already, with marketing material yelling ‘for fans of David Walliams’, this first of a brand-new series actually does live up to the hype. 

Aimed at a young fiction readership, aged seven and up, Charlie Changes into a Chicken is a delight. A genuinely funny, pacey adventure story that has a healthy dollop of pathos and heart from a writer who obviously understands and spends time with young children.

Charlie McGuffin worries about everything. He worries about his brother, who is not very well in hospital, his parents, who are worried about his brother, and he’s worried about garnering any attention from the school bully. Then he finds another thing to worry about – when he worries, he turns into an animal. At first, he metamorphosises into a spider (and with far more anxiety about his situation than displayed by Kafka’s protagonist). Before long though, this change is happening more often, and at the most inopportune times. With the help of his three friends, Charlie must find a way to stop the transformations happening, and prevent the school bully from revealing his secret.

One of the best features of this young fiction title is Copeland’s approach to the writing. It reads as if Copeland is telling the story to the reader personally, and with this intimacy comes reassurance, which is exactly the effect wanted. This is not a new device – in fact it’s in part what made Dahl so successful in his novels.

Here, the intimacy inspires confidence in the writer as a storyteller but also as a warm, approachable understanding adult, so important when, deep down, this book is about overcoming and dealing with anxious thoughts.

On the surface though, the story’s a laugh a minute. From the footnotes in which Copeland gets to extrapolate silly facts or simply extend his jokes, to the plot structure itself which gets funnier and more enjoyable the greater variety of animals Charlie turns into and the places in which he does so. The pigeons in the playground incident is particularly amusing, as is Charlie turning into a rhinoceros in his somewhat small bedroom (and needing to go to the toilet). Indeed, there are toilet jokes a-plenty, but nicely packaged within the overwhelming anxiety Charlie feels, so that they are there for a purpose. There are nail-biting moments too – the incident in the Head’s office, for example.

But what many readers will find succour in, is the friendship group. Charlie summons the courage to share his strange ‘superpower’ with his diverse, hilarious friendship group with all their vastly different personalities. My favourite is Flora, who attempts to discover the reasons behind Charlie’s metamorphosis – her theories fail at first, but she perseveres. As well as teaching a valuable lesson, her attempts provide a raft of laughs.  

Even after the book has finished, Copeland continues to address the reader with a series of fake questions from readers and answers from himself, as well as a letter from the publishers. All induced an amused wry smile.

Copeland is certainly a writer with impeccable comic timing, but also one who understands plot structure. Coming from a literary agent (Copeland’s day job), this shouldn’t be a huge surprise, in that he understands how a book works, but what is refreshing is the intimacy formed with the reader, the light touches, and the insightful imagination. Charlie feels real, despite the ludicrousness of the plot, and his group of friends just like yours or mine.

Sarah Horne’s black and white illustrations feature throughout, and are injected with just the right amount of zaniness. Horne excels at quirky and her characters are differentiated, appealing and expressive: the step-by-step transformation into a pigeon particularly funny.

The book works thrice. Firstly, as a good read for the age group with lots of plot, a fun premise and laughs-a-plenty. Secondly, as an antidote to anxiety – it shows how problems are often entangled with embarrassment about sharing them – the fact that Charlie’s anxiety manifests as an embarrassing problem itself is the whole point – and Copeland shows that fiction can be a calming and positive way to highlight mental health issues. And thirdly, as a conversation with the author. Sometimes, under stress or needing escape, books can become friends themselves. And with such a calm and witty author hand-holding the reader’s way throughout the book, this is one novel that children will embrace again and again.

No wonder there’s hype. This is a cracking novel, brilliantly funny, warmly reassuring. You can buy it here

Dyslexia and Writing: Amber Lee Dodd

lightning chase me home

There’s a glut of new middle grade books arriving this January, and it’s intriguing for a reviewer to try to pick up on a ‘trend’ or theme running through them. What were the writers preoccupied with while they were writing, what did they want to say?

Amber Lee Dodd’s Lightning Chase Me Home feels personal from the beginning. Told in first person narration by Amelia Hester McLeod (named for two explorers: Amelia Earhart and Lady Hester Stanhope), this is a heart-wrenching tale of a girl embarking on a new adventure herself – starting a new school. Amelia is immediately endearing – and struggling – her mother is absent, Amelia suffers from dyslexia, and to make matters a little more complicated (and fictional), after she makes a wish on her eleventh birthday off her small Scottish island on the Serpent’s Tooth Rock – she finds herself magically disappearing and reappearing elsewhere. Will she work out why, and can she use it to find the courage to push through, and maybe, maybe could she use the strange power to find her mum?

Lightning Chase Me Home is one of those treasured novels for the 9+ audience, packing in a great plot, some magical realism, but also issues that dominate ‘primary school and beyond’ discussions – how to deal with an elderly grandfather who doesn’t always remember where he is, managing with the emotions invoked by an absent parent, the constant building of resilience and harnessing bravery, and the power of folklore and magic to explain our own small lives. Dodd has a gift for identifying the makeup of a person – be it the objects that help to define us and our relationships, the difficulties some children have in learning or making friends, and how schools and parents deal with this, and the understanding that not all people are what they first seem.

Amber Lee Dodd portrays her main character with an acute sensitivity, but manages to weave in magic, a sense of great explorers of the past, and an endearing friendship that feels as real as it is strong. Below, she reveals why Amelia is so close to her own heart.

As someone with dyslexia, I thought that writing and reading were impossible. Before secondary school, I had real struggles with reading. In fact I hated it! I hated reading, I hated writing and I hated books. I sat in my special needs classes reading Fuzz Buzz books. Books about a blue spiky ball with enormous legs who never did anything more exciting that remark on the weather. If this is what books are, I thought, there is no point in me learning to read.

amber lee dodd
Amber Lee Dodd

But even when my teachers gave up, saying I was hopeless, my parents refused to. They would make me read through my reading books again and again. I ended up memorising them from the pictures before I could make out the words. Slowly, painfully, I started to recognise words, memorise them and store them away. My word bank began to build, until one day, like magic, I realised I could read.

After spending so long struggling to read, when I finally could it felt like I had personally discovered books. At school, I would pour through Tintin and Asterix comics. I read every book on how to care for everything from puppies to pet spiders. Then I found even more books to fall in love with, The Worst Witch series, Jacqueline Wilson’s books and Malorie Blackman’s. Once, I spent a whole day on a kitchen chair with Double Act wishing desperately that I could be a twin.

The only thing better than reading turned out to be writing.For a long time it was the one and only thing at school I was good at. I found that I could invent stories from thin air and filled pages of my exercise books with big wobbly writing and dramatic inky pictures. I once even made my teacher cry with one of my stories. Writing stories became my super power.

And I want to share that power with everyone. So here are my top tips for dyslexic writers (and for non dyslexic writers too).

Firstly, don’t worry about your spelling. I still make massive spelling mistakes. My first book had a spelling mistake in the very first sentence and it still went on to be published. Plus writers get to work with magical people called copy editors and like teachers they can fix all your spelling mistakes. Being creative does not include being an expert at spelling!.

Secondly, read. And read lots. Don’t worry if you’re slow about it. It still takes me about a month to finish reading one book!  But I take a lot of that book in. And I still go back and reread things if they didn’t make sense to me first time or I jumped a few lines. It may be a slow process, but the advantage is you can learn more from it and start to unravel how the author put things together.

Thirdly, don’t worry if you’re doing it differently. My dyslexic brain makes me jump all around a story narrative and I often have to write quite a bit before I can sort out the plotting. Find a way to organise your thoughts and ideas that works for you. Some people make visual diagrams,or come up with places their characters visit and fit the plotting around that.I write lots of lists and notes and flow charts often on the back of used envelopes. There is no right way, only the way that works for you.

And lastly, for me the best way to start a story is just to start writing it. Write that first line. Make it intriguing, or scary, or funny. Make it the best first line you can think of. Then think of who that first line is about. How are they feeling? And what’s happening to them? Stories are all about questions and finding the answers to them is half the fun.

There’s much to extrapolate in Lee Dodd’s second novel, many issues and great characters, but in essence, Lightning Chase Me Home is a good adventure story. Amber Lee Dodd’s first novel, We Are Giants, is reviewed here, and you can purchase Lightning Chase Me Home here.