friendship

The Ice Garden by Guy Jones

ice gardenHasn’t everyone at some point imagined that they could escape into another world? Whether it be into Narnia through the wardrobe, or cutting a hole in the air with a Subtle Knife, or even discovering a new place within our own world that holds such a different atmosphere, such an exciting contrasting place with our own reality (perhaps through a doorway into a Secret Garden), that new possibilities arise.

Guy Jones provides this opportunity for his protagonist, Jess. A girl who needs new possibilities more than most. Jess is allergic to the sun. She lives a confined life, in the rooms of her own house, or behind the tinted windows of her car, and also within the sterile walls of the local hospital. So when she moves through the trees at night and discovers an ice garden beyond the local playground, in which her skin never burns, she feels as if a whole new world of adventures is opening for her.

But someone else has left footprints in the snow, and a garden made of ice has its own fragilities.

This is a slight novel in terms of pages, but a novel brimming with a richness in words, plot and character. Enticingly written, in that the words are both lyrical and yet gripping, the reader is swept along with Jess, feeling for her in her contemporary world in which going outside means donning ‘Full Hat’ to avoid exposure, and yet also breathless with excitement for her when she enters the Ice Garden, and just as enchanted with all it contains.

Jones has a magical way of describing the real world. Jess’s relationship with her mother feels authentic and heart-breaking, as her mother and Jess are consistently torn between wanting freedom for Jess and a lack of constriction, and yet a protectiveness – Jess of her own skin, and her mother of her own child.

Yet Jones also manages to conjure a quite incredible fantasy landscape too – letting loose his imagination with new creatures, but also playing with features of this garden to make them into a playground for Jess (something she has so wanted). There’s a maze, a groove that acts as a slide, and endless ice features, as well as elements of fear and danger. He also gives a nod to other ‘portal’ adventures, expressing Jess’s disappointment that time in the real world doesn’t stand still while she’s in this ‘otherworld’ but continues as normal. What the ice garden does do though, is make her see her ‘normal’ world as quite remarkable.

This is mainly due to the friend she makes within the ice garden – another asset the garden gives Jess which she had most desired. And it’s the friendship that opens up her eyes to the meaning of loneliness and solitude, which allows her to fully explore the meaning of her illness, the saving capabilities of storytelling, and the tenderness that can exist between people.

The other theme that runs through the book is that of nomenclature. When Jess encounters new things within the ice garden, she gives them names, hence attaching her own emotional significance to them, giving the unknown an indication of the characteristic she sees it possesses – and therefore how she should interact with it.

“But in the ice garden nothing had a name until she gave it one. ‘Elephant Mouse,’ she said. ‘I hereby name your species the Elephant Mouse.’ The animal gave a little squeak, as if agreeing, and Jess giggled with excitement.”

Jess’s naming of the species gives her delight and when she encounters it again later, she refers to it as her own elephant mouse. This ownership and tendency towards colonialism fades as Jess realises that there is another within the garden, and also makes her think – to whom does the garden belong – for gardens are made, they are not freeform landscapes.

When, in the end, Jess’s two worlds collide, she comes to discover that she can make friends in her own world – in fact she already has – and that she can live without her illness defining her.

Jones writes with a sophisticated tenderness, and a confidence in his story that satisfies the reader and leads to deeper thought. An accomplished book that should live long after the ice melts. You can buy it here.

Nine New Picture Books Begging to be Read

little red reading hood
Little Red Reading Hood by Lucy Rowland and Ben Mantle
‘Why didn’t I think of that play on words?’, is the first thing I thought upon reading the title, but when I perused the insides, I realised I couldn’t have done it better myself. This is a captivating and entrancing picture book – the sort a child treasures and rereads. Little Red Reading Hood loves books and in a twist, doesn’t visit her grandma, but rather, the library. When Little Red Reading Hood and the tenacious librarian impress the wolf with their literary knowledge and analysis, the wolf turns to stories instead of eating people.

The twist here, is that instead of straying from the physical path through the woods, it’s better to stray from the all-too-predictable ending of a story, and instead, reinvent it.

The story is told in rhyme, with pitch perfect rhythm, but it’s also the little touches that enhance this picture book so wonderfully. From the endpapers with Little Red Reading and the wolf having fun mixing up fairy stories, to the beautiful ethereal golden-hued illustrated imagination that soars through the book, to the nature depicted in the woods. This is a fabulous new picture book and my top choice. You can buy it here.

pirates of scurvy sands
The Pirates of Scurvy Sands by Jonny Duddle
The Pirates Next Door is an immensely popular read, and this sequel keeps equal pace and humour with the original. In fact, just one reading of it inspired my little tester to find and read ALL of Duddle’s back catalogue. This time round, Matilda is going on holiday with her pirate friends, the Jolly-Rogers. Their destination – Scurvy Sands – like a sort of Butlins for pirates. The only trouble is that Matilda, with her squeaky clean demeanour, doesn’t quite fit in.

This is a totally luscious affair for pirate fans. Also told in rhyme, it’s simply packed with swashbuckling vocabulary and pirate allusions, with a busy backdrop on every page – telescopes, pirate paraphernalia, characters and more. Duddle has gone to town (or sea) and had lots of fun in the process. There’s even a treasure map on the reverse of the book jacket. Gold coins all round. You can buy it here.

cat and dog
Cat and Dog by Helen Oswald and Zoe Waring
For younger children comes this exquisitely illustrated lesson on getting on with others. A nocturnal cat and a diurnal dog love to scrap, but when they fail to see eye to eye on their different routines, and Dog insults Cat, it looks like a beautiful friendship is over. By the end, of course, they learn to say sorry and accept each other’s differences.

It’s the illustrations in this simple story that bring it to life, two hugely endearing and familiar animals, drawn so that they look good enough to stroke. The crayon-led illustrations add to the familiarity of the chosen pets, and the last page of their ‘scrapping’ together is a clever childish mess. Too cute to miss, this is a lovely publication from new publisher on the block, Willow Tree Books. You can buy it here.


I Say Ooh You Say Ahh by John Kane
One for reading out loud to a willing audience, this reminded me of those old-time party entertainers, but here, the silliness is executed with modern panache and an element of complete childhood joy.

This is a traditional call and response book – the author asks the reader to say or do something every time they read or see something. The result has an hilarious effect, leading to the children shouting underpants quite often. The reader has also to remember which action goes with which command, so it’s stimulating too. Great for classroom fun, and the colours are bold, bright and all-encompassing. The author used to work in advertising – and it shows in the block colours – easy to look at, easy to understand. You can buy it here.


Ten Fat Sausages by Michelle Robinson and Tor Freeman
It’s often remarked how translated fiction can go further and push more boundaries than our home-grown picture books, but here’s one that takes the ten protagonists and really gives them a raw (cooked) deal.

A play on the song, Ten Fat Sausages Sizzling in a Pan, here Michelle Robinson shows what happens when they try to save themselves. Unfortunately, sausages don’t appear to be very clever. Whether it’s leaping from the pan into the blender, or even into a ceiling fan, it seems that no sausage is safe.

The illustrations from Tor Freeman match the madness of the concept – from blueberries with their eyes covered, to weeping sausages, hoola hooping onion rings, and an almost retro comic feel to the lot – this is a crazy sausage adventure. Sure to bring out the giggles in little ones. You can buy it here.


The Strongest Mum by Nicola Kent
Being a mum, and having a great mum myself, I’m always touched by the portrayal of fabulous mothers in picture books – be it giving Sophie a fabulous tea when the tiger arrives, or returning to the Owl Babies at the end of the night. The mum in this delightfully sweet picture book amasses belongings and carries them all as if she were weightlifting for England.

Dealing with a familiar issue (carrying everything!) – and why giving up the buggy too early and having to schlep all the shopping by hand can be a mistake – this is a wonderfully exaggerated portrayal of a super mum. From carrying some treasure found in the garden at the beginning, Little Bear’s Mum ends up carrying everything including Zebra’s shopping, Lion’s laundry, and then…a piano. It all comes crashing down though, and Little Bear realises he has to help.

The illustrations are undeniably child-friendly, in a multitude of jewel colours, with an aerial view of Mum’s bag, each item labelled! With oodles of white space, the book doesn’t feel slight because every illustration is packed with texture, pattern and colour, despite a slight transparency to it all. An intriguing new style and a good pick for Mother’s Day. You can buy it here.


Lionel and the Lion’s Share by Lou Peacock and Lisa Sheehan
Another for a slightly younger readership, giving a moral story, this encourages children to share. Lionel the Lion is bigger than most of his friends, and good at snatching. So whenever they see something they want, Lionel always gets there first. When Lionel goes a bit too far at Chloe the Cat’s birthday party, he realises that he’s angry and sad, and needs friends most. Sharing is best.

Drawn with tender pencil strokes, Lionel himself is phenomenally vibrant, with a large orange and brown mane, and his animal friends are equally detailed. They are vastly anthropomorphised with clothes as well as human behaviours, but it is the colourfulness and fun of the backgrounds that enhance this picture book. A detailed musical instrument shop, a hat shop, and the village green – this storybook world looks timeless and appealing. You can buy it here.


Robinson by Peter Sis
A bit of a love letter to Robinson Crusoe, this picture book takes a look at the meaning of being bullied for liking something different, and also a whimsical approach to solitariness. It also shows what happens when a child or adult finds inspiration, solace and adventure in a storybook and use it within their own lives.

In fact, author Peter Sis researched the flora and fauna of Martinique, the inspirational island behind Defoe’s novel, and used his knowledge to illustrate the book. Sis’s fine art background gives some insight into the illustrations in these structured and intriguing pictures. He plays with point of view and light and shadow to create an utterly unique look to the book. The colour palette tells the plot just as much as the narrative itself.

Typeset in uppercase letters, the whole book feels like a stream of consciousness, a message in a bottle, as the colours blossom and bloom with the boy’s discovery of his own island in the imagination.

The book aims to deliver a paean to the act of adventuring and exploration, even that which happens in the mind rather than in actuality. A great discovery. You can buy it here.


My Worst Book Ever by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman
Last, but definitely not least, if you’re wondering how all those authors and illustrators featured so far produced their books, then you’d best read My Worst Book Ever. Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman are no strangers to the picture book trade, and here they’ve created a humorous look at what can go wrong when writing a book.

A classic book within a book scenario, as Ahlberg explores how he is writing a picture book about crocodiles, the text of which is hinted at within this book, but then things start to go wrong – the illustrator has different ideas, as does the publisher, and then a naughty girl at the printers messes it up even further. Added to this are all the various procrastinations that writers bow to – distractions out the window, family interruptions etc.

For children this is a fun and humorous look at the publishing trade. For writers, it’s a mirror. Illustrated cheerfully, this will bring a wry smile to many a face. You can buy it here.

 

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

Eye of the NorthA timeless, icy, steampunk adventure, this is a really interesting and intriguing debut novel.

Arresting from the first sentence, O’Hart tells the story of Emmeline, a girl constantly on her guard, taking ‘always be prepared’ to the next level. So when she is kidnapped, and stolen away on a ship to the far north to be used as a bargaining chip to get her scientist parents to awaken a giant mysterious creature (the Kraken) buried deep beneath the ice, she must use her wits and her anxiety to whittle herself free.

The book is dense, and surprisingly gripping, and positively teems with ideas. Emmeline meets a stowaway on her first sea voyage, a nippy little figure named Thing, as well as an organisation trying to prevent the evil kidnapper from taking further control of the world – this organisation is named The Order of the White Flower (with headquarters in Paris). With tentative allusions to underground opposition groups in World War Two, such as The White Rose, the complexity of O’Hart’s plot begins to show itself here.

The reader learns that this underground organisation has many members who have been working against Dr Bauer (the kidnapper) for a long time, but little detail is given, although the group sound intriguing and each member fascinating; O’Hart keeps the reader completely in the dark (to the end). One member has built an intensely complex flying machine, which Thing endeavours to fly to rescue Emmeline. As with everything within this detailed and wondrous book, my issue is that the contraption sounds so terrific, so fantastical, that it is difficult to envisage in one’s mind’s eye. The same happens numerous times – with the denouement, in which Dr Bauer constructs an engineering contraption to extract the Kraken from beneath the ice, using mirrors  – the idea is so highfalutin, that it is difficult for the reader to picture.

As Emmeline moves through her adventure, so O’Hart throws more and more at the reader. We learn that the world has been submerged in much water (presumably the effects of global warming), and so Paris is much nearer the sea than it is in the real world. As with the characters of The Order of the White Flower, this idea isn’t completely developed though, which is a pity.

At every stage in the adventure, from Emmeline meeting an almost mythological horse, (which sounds as if inspired by the old Guinness advert in which the horses morph into waves – powerful like the gods), to Emmeline meeting the Northwitch, who splinters into ice shards and then re-forms with a spellbindingly cold evil chill, the inventiveness is powerful and spellbinding, and O’Hart smashes the imagery out of the park. The only issue is that the images are so extreme that the fantastical is hard to pin down in one’s imagination.

There are some wonderful touches – the tribal people living on the ice, with their sledges and their fear of outsiders, although again, this is underdeveloped as a concept, which is a shame.

The Eye of the North is a sensational story, but this book alone could probably have been developed into about three volumes – so that each part could be extrapolated more.

It touches on humans’ environmental impact on the world, scientific explorations and contraptions, evil beneath the ice, mythical horses, an evil ice queen, good versus evil organisations, greed and power, as well as anxiety and bravery.

It fits beautifully into the zeitgeist of the moment, with a wintry landscape, a future blighted by our environmental impact on the world, and a protagonist with parent scientists who have high stakes in the action. Blending a timelessness with technology and environment, and featuring children who perpetuate their scientist parents’ ideas by attempting to prevent harmful agents, but taking the best part of the science and seeing it through.

The two children are intensely likeable. They are feisty and free-thinkers. Emmeline’s character is strong at the beginning; she is determined, holds onto her comforts, remains quick-thinking and suspicious, but I wanted even more character development from her. Likewise with Thing, who has issues with his haunting past, yet has a strong determination to hold onto a person with whom he’s made a connection. Because their characters ring so true, the reader wants to stay with them.

This is a storming adventure story for the age group, ambitious and hugely entertaining, and there’s no denying this is a powerful book. I just think it could have been about three. You can buy it here.

The Eye of the North: A Guest blog by Sinead O’Hart

the eye of the north

Sinead O’Hart’s debut novel tells the story of Emmeline Widget, a girl who has never left her house. Until the day comes when her scientist parents disappear, and she is packed off to a safe house in Paris by boat. But before the ship arrives, she is kidnapped by the evil Dr Bauer, and  it becomes apparent that she is headed in the same direction as her parents – to the far north and the deep ice, within which a legendary monster dwells. But why does Dr Bauer want to unleash the monster? Who is the Northwitch? And why will Thing help her under any circumstances? 

This dazzling, icy fantasy is magnificent in scale, hugely ambitious, and magical at the same time. Here, Sinead O’Hart, who can read Middle English with perfect fluency, explores her inspirational childhood books (they’re all in modern English).

The Five Books that Made Me:

I read Alan Garner’s Elidor when I was eight, and it changed my life. It’s a book about family, about love, and about the threat of all you treasure being lost; it’s a book about another world seeping into the ‘real’ world, and how unsettling that can be. It features magic, mythology, sacrifice, and absolute bravery in the face of terrible odds – and it’s a book I still read at least once a year, because I always learn something new from it every time I read it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince is another book which I adore. Partly a fable, partly a story about the frightening reality of being trapped in a desert without hope of rescue, and mostly a story about love that transcends space and time, it’s a classic that everyone should read.

Orla Melling’s The Singing Stone is a book I read as a young teenager, and it meant a huge amount to me both then and now. It is a children’s book, but there aren’t any children in it; all the characters are teenagers or young adults. Somehow, that didn’t matter to me at all. A young woman travels from Canada to Ireland to find out who she is and where she comes from; a story which links her to the Tuatha de Danaan, the old gods of Ireland, ensues. It’s a magical, dreamlike tale which fed into my love of mythology and folklore.

Pat O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Morrigan is a book I first read when I was eleven, and I can read it with as much joy now as I did then. It’s about Pidge, his sister Brigit, and a ragtaggle cast of characters who seek to save Ireland, and the world, from the terrible power of Morrigan, the Great Queen, the three-faced Battle Goddess of Irish mythology. It’s brilliant. It’s hilarious. It’s also genuinely nail-bitingly scary in places. It’s one of the most important stories in the world to me.

And Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time is a book that captivated me when I was nine or ten. It sweeps from our universe to another; it takes in complicated ideas from science and astrophysics and somehow makes them seem perfectly simple; it has a very clever girl at its heart. It’s also about the power of love, and how that’s the most important force in existence.

With thanks to Sinead for her thoughts. To buy a copy of Sinead O’Hart’s debut book, click here

Tin by Padraig Kenny

Tin by Padraig Kenny“Without a knowledge of history to give him [a student] a context for present events, he is at the mercy of every social misdiagnosis handed to him.” So said Hilary Mantel about history. And whilst Tin isn’t a historical novel, it is set in a distorted past, providing an opportunity to open the reader’s mind to thoughts about an alternative future. For this is a book about Artificial Intelligence, cleverly disguised as a Pinocchio style adventure.

Christopher works for an engineer, making ‘mechanicals’: children-shaped metallic figures with magical glyphs, like computer code, which empower them to act like humans. These mechanicals become some of his closest friends and family. But a devastating accident reveals a secret about Christopher’s past, and leads him down a path of self-discovery, and also a glimpse of what mechanicals could really do.

Not only is this an extraordinarily clever novel, but it is also a gripping children’s read, and a social commentary at the same time. The mechanicals are wonderfully written – Kenny showcases them with varying degrees of intelligence, knowledge and sentience – not unlike humans it must be said, but manages to portray each with its own particular personality, as well as consistently showing them to be not quite human. There’s Rob, simple, naïve, excessively loyal and caring. Manda, the small girl with her teddy bear, Gripper – the oversize muscle robot. Each has its own role, and part in the plot, but Kenny cleverly writes them ‘reading’ human interaction by studying humans’ body language and imitating it, not unlike how babies’ read their parents, but this is more stated, more blatant. The mechanicals also spell out how they are deciphering the meaning of words – especially when a word has more than one meaning. In this way, the mechanicals seem slightly less nuanced, simpler in their emotional intelligence, more childlike. And yet, they pulsate with emotion and the reader has endless empathy for them. It’s a clever manipulation of the reader, and by doing this Kenny is also showing how artificial intelligence could indeed manipulate humans.

In fact, Kenny’s point throughout this is to provoke the reader into thinking about what makes us human. With allusions to Pinocchio, who wanted to be a real boy, and was introduced to the concepts of responsibility and shunning frivolity and temptation in order to become real, and also The Wizard of Oz, in which Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man all want various human assets in order to be real, Kenny probes the essence of humanity:

“Rob turned to look in the direction of the sound. If he had a heart it would have skipped a beat -”

But in Tin, the mechanicals discover things about themselves through their interactions with others – both fellow mechanicals and humans. They realise that what makes somebody human is familial ties – the ability to love and mourn. The mechanicals experience loss, and then love to a certain degree, but they are still not completely human – they remain mechanical because they don’t have a soul, some essence of something that can’t be defined. They remain simple without ‘real’ memories.

They also remain mechanical because they can’t experience ‘malice’ or aggression. This is where Kenny steps up the pace of his book, as he explores the idea of mechanicals ensouled in order to work as soldiers. Here, Kenny nods towards The Terminator, and explores the idea of artificial intelligence used for mal-intent. What makes us human, he implies, is not just the ability to love deeply, but the ability to harm deeply too. Humans are all about power. And, most apt, in these times, a human’s ability to distinguish between lies and truth.

By setting the novel in a distorted past (a revised 1930s), in which the Great War has happened with appalling loss of life, and cars are on the increase, although there are still horses and carts, Kenny has inserted mechanicals/robots in a small way – they are chauffeurs and work in retail – although they haven’t completely dominated the landscape – there isn’t an implication of robots taking on all elements of industrialisation, yet.

But what the robots have done, in a roundabout way, is to crush the women’s movement. In Tin, females are vastly absent. There is only Estelle, who works for the engineer Absolom, albeit in an illegal way, as women are forbidden from being engineers/craftsmen. In this way, the reader can assume that if robots are working at certain tasks, the number of jobs available to humans is diminished.

Despite some horrors within the story, this is a positive book, with much humour and many more allusions to other great works. Toy Story yes, but also Willy Wonka – who ran a factory of Oompa Loompas, and was revered as the greatest chocolate maker, just as Cormier in Tin is revered as the greatest mechanical creator:

“He’s in there, behind that gate,” said Sam, pointing in the opposite direction. “No one ever comes out, and no one ever goes in.”

The outcome of the book is vastly upbeat. This is a children’s book after all, and they tend to end in a more uplifting way. But what the reader takes away is a thoughtfulness about humanity – who we are, how we treat others, and what the future may hold. As well as how humans can be better people, how we can overcome malice and aggression and the seeking of power, and look instead to focusing on love and family and connections:

“You don’t have a soul. You don’t need one. You’re not proper. You’re better than proper.” You can buy it here.

 

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

Elphinstone’s stories whisk away the reader into a fantasy landscape with more than a hint of magic, where nature beguiles the reader and becomes more than a setting, nestling as a fundamental character inside the story.

Her first trilogy, The Dreamsnatcher, told of Moll and her quest against evil. Sky Song also pitches a fiery youngster against evil, but here, Elphinstone has woven elements of the current political and social climate into her book, and borrowed from time old fairy stories and folk tales to excavate a new kind of modern story.

Eska, held captive for her voice by the Ice Queen, breaks free from her musical box prison, but remembers nothing of herself or her past. When she learns her destiny: to journey to the Never Cliffs and sing the powerful song to win back the lands of Erkenwald from the Ice Queen, restoring them to the rightful tribes, she learns that she is also is in a race against time and the Ice Queen, who is desperate to steal back Eska’s voice. But once freed from the music box of the Winterfang Palace, Eska finds it hard to make friends and allies. The tribes are mistrustful of her. She must prove that she too wants to be rid of the Ice Queen forever, and that although she does not have a tribe of people around her, she has a different tribe, filled by creatures of nature, which may be just as powerful.

The power of the voice, (it will give the Ice Queen immortality), and the stealing of it, works powerfully in Elphinstone’s book. Of course there are the inevitable allusions to Philomela, whose tongue was cut out in Ovid’s Metamorphosis to prevent her from denouncing her male attacker, and who was eventually turned into a bird who sings. There are allusions to The Little Mermaid – another feisty young girl who sold her voice for humanity (or so she thought). The book revisits Telemachus’s proclamation to Penelope that ‘speech will be the business of men’ and challenges it wholeheartedly. For the power of a young woman’s voice is still relevant in 2018, a year in which this resonates more than most – being the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. Following the power of Anne Frank’s voice, of Malala’s voice, of #metoo – the rise of the woman’s cry, even against another woman, speaks to the power of speaking up for yourself, for believing in what’s right and fighting for it.

The book is first and foremost an icy adventure, with a journey through shiveringly cold frightening landscapes, magicked by the sorcery of the Ice Queen, where avalanches tumble, and lakes hide monstrous depths. But it is also the story of friendship and bravery, as Eska and her friend Flint, along with his sister Blu, traverse mountains together and use teamwork to overcome adversity, and triumph against the Ice Queen.

Most of all, Elphinstone has shown the reader that belief is important. Belief in oneself and one’s own voice, but also in one’s own talents even if they are scorned by others (Flint is a master of invention – in this case using magic rather than pure science). Although there is no overt religion discussed here, as perhaps the reader saw in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman for example, there is an overarching belief in spirituality – that there is something greater to strive for than one’s own selfish desire. Elphinstone has divided the peoples of her book into tribes, Fur, Feather and Tusk, and initially the society is shown as having lost its belief system, because being cowed by one evil being (the Ice Queen) has made each tribe more inward-looking. Even more than that, The Ice Queen has caused ripples of fear, and so the tribes have turned not only inwards, but against each other, and harbour an intense fear of strangers and outsiders, lest they be spies or intruders.

By the end of the book the message is clearly that tribalism may not work, that strangers do not necessarily have evil intent, and by working together, evil can be overcome.

As well as the large messages within, this book showcases a writer coming into her own. The descriptions are lush and appealing – the flump of snow flopping from a branch, and crack and pop of the river melting – a feeling of Narnia-eque bursting into spring. The Ice Queen brings memories from The Snow Queen, and the fairy tale language of the voice-over prologue lends itself well to the feeling of timelessness and gives an all-encompassing setting to Erkenwald and its various tribes (although less confident readers may wish to get straight into the story of Eska).

There are numerous child-friendly touches within the story – the protagonists are children of course, but there are hideouts and dens lovingly described, and a constant flow of energy and vivacity sending their tendrils through the story. Eska’s oneness with nature is brilliantly evoked – she uses nature to feed and clothe herself – sewing with sinews, learning to hunt without her shadow giving her away. There is also the touching character of Blu, shown with a mild intellectual disability, but it is noticeable that the older children and adults are those least forgiving of this; Blu is easily accepted by Eska, Flint, and those with kind, open hearts.

This is a fantastic story of friendship, nature, overcoming adversity, but most of all acceptance and belonging. Always enthralling and daring, it speaks to our darkest fears and our intrinsic faults, and yet to an ongoing belief in the strength of humanity and empathy to pull us through. You can buy it here.

The Light Jar by Lisa Thompson

the light jarLisa Thompson excels at illuminating the darker, scary and more painful side of life, even when it penetrates children’s lives, and then shining a positive light on the situation and making the world glow brighter with hope.

Her first novel, The Goldfish Boy, shed some light on OCD, its effects, misunderstandings about it by peers, and the wretched humiliation it can cause (and yet all neatly tied up in a children’s mystery book). This latest, The Light Jar, enlightens the reader about even darker issues, including the effects of psychological abuse, the terror of being abandoned, and fears about darkness, but again does so in a clever and warm way, so that it never feels as if the issues highlighted overshadow the story or are so dark that they are inappropriate for the readership.

Nate and his mother run away to a tumbledown cottage, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. On the second day, Nate’s mother leaves to buy provisions, but never returns. But it turns out, he’s not completely alone, for comfort shines at him in the way of friendship from a mysterious girl called Kitty, solving a treasure hunt nearby, as well as the surprising appearance of a friend from the past.

Thompson intersperses Nate’s fear of being left alone, and worry for his missing mother, with humour in the way of a stray chicken and Nate’s Magic 8 ball, and a simply marvellous book that Nate carries round called ‘Freaky Things to Freak You Out’, a type of non-fiction mystery book. The book inspires Nate to solve Kitty’s treasure hunt, and provides humorous elements to the story. Indeed, although Nate doesn’t forget his fearful situation, Kitty’s treasure hunt propels the plot with an engrossing mystery to solve, and actively involves the reader by including rhyming clues within the text.

But with light, comes darkness too, and here Thompson crafts it in the way of Nate’s memories, which gradually show that Nate and his mother are escaping an abusive relationship with his mother’s new boyfriend. No physical violence is explored, but instead a creeping psychological abuse that’s threatening and horrifying to live through. Thompson deals with this gently, and with enormous understanding. The most interesting memory is that of Nate bringing home a friend for tea, and how the boyfriend deals with the situation. The manipulation of the play date is well handled, and the author here cleverly invokes both incredible sympathy for Nate, as well as empathy with the friend, who although he doesn’t realise what is going on, and isn’t friendly afterwards, would enable the reader to think twice in such situations before dismissing a friend so easily – there may be much going on behind closed doors, and awareness and understanding are key.

There’s no technology in the book (mobile phones/wifi etc) – characters must do away with traceable technology when they’re on the run, and the lack of it adds an extra dimension to the story, as well as intriguingly letting the plot remain highly contemporary and realistic. At first, the book reminded me of The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn by Tania Unsworth, another novel in which a child is seemingly abandoned by her mother and left within a crumbling house. And although there are similar fears and imaginings, The Light Jar soon veered off into different territory.

What both have in common though, is an expert handling of suspense, and text that flows effortlessly, engaging and enthralling the reader. Although The Light Jar has an horrific topic in the shadows, it feels both clever and warm and points to the wonder and light of friendship and hope.

There’s much light in Thompson’s writing; you’d be mad to keep it in the dark. You can purchase your copy here.

 

A Light-Hearted Start to the New Year

Sometimes we just want a good laugh. In fact, a 2015 Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report found that 63% of children aged 6-17 wanted a book that made them laugh more than any other criteria. But humour doesn’t work on its own in a story – that would just be a series of jokes – a joke book in fact. Recently, the adults in my household have been watching The Marvelous Mrs Maisel on television about a woman who turns comedienne. What’s clear from the start, is that although there are many laughs and jokes, the story has to have pathos too, and character, and plot, because if you aren’t invested in the person, you aren’t invested in the laughs either.

I Swapped My Brother on the Internet
I Swapped My Brother on the Internet by Jo Simmons
Who hasn’t wanted to swap their brother at some point in their lives? (I really hope my brother isn’t reading this blog). When Jonny finds a website called SiblingSwap.com he thinks he’s found the perfect solution to his irritating obnoxious older brother issues. But he pays little attention to the form he’s asked to submit for ‘swaps’, and the company send him a replacement that’s even less human than his real brother. Before long he’s returning and exchanging, but none seem quite right.

Along with the obvious hilarity from the premise, there is zaniness and wackiness aplenty in this tale of sibling replacements who happen to include the ghost of Henry the Eighth. But below the surface is more than a touch of what it means to be a sibling – the loyalty, the tenderness, the protectiveness, the responsibility. And what’s more, there’s a lesson about false advertising on the Internet, and being careful what you wish for.

Jonny is a likeable main character with his own quirks, but real enough, with his friendships, and penchants for Xbox, doughnuts and pasta. Add in a girl geek to the mix (everyone needs a good coder in their lives) and an extremely absent-minded carefree mother, and the comedy is set. This is a good laugh, with happily comedic illustrations, and a great ending. You can buy it here.

Stand By Me
Stand by Me by Judi Curtin
Not a ‘comedy’ as such, but with oodles of humour and light-hearted fun, this is a book that squeezes many different emotions into a story and features inter-generational relationships, and a look back at personal histories.

A sequel to Time After Time, although it can be read as a stand-alone, Stand By Me follows the adventures of friends Molly and Beth, who have found a way to time travel. These best friends are slightly different though, in that they live together – their two families joined together, and although there was some tension at first, by this book the two are firm friends.

Molly and Beth travel back to the 1960’s to discover what happened to an old friend of their favourite uncle, and to try to exonerate their uncle from a misdemeanour that he feels he committed long ago. Once back in the 1960’s, the author shows what fun can be had writing ‘historical fiction’. Everything seems different and unusual to the modern girls, from the hair styles to the phone boxes, to pre-decimalisation and the lack of technology (mobile phones), and Curtin cleverly interweaves all these things into the plot – as well as showing changing attitudes to disabilities over time. It’s good to see the not-so-distant past represented in this way for modern children – an eye opener to the world of their grandparents.

Rather than out and out ‘historical fiction’, the idea is to explore the recent past: the time of parents (1980’s in Time after Time), and grandparents (1960’s in Stand By Me).

The book delves into feelings of guilt and blame, but is mainly about friendship – how we deal with adversities with friends, and how friendships last or break up, but overwhelmingly the feel of the book is light-hearted, with much fun, humour and liveliness.

Music is prevalent too, not only in the book titles, which are taken from song titles, but in scenes in the book, and the illustrations throughout. It’s interesting how quickly we define eras by the music created during the time. A fun look at friendship and fixing the past. You can purchase it here.

 

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally WonThe sequel to the award-winning The War that Saved My Life, published in 2015, this extraordinary book manages to encapsulate a feeling of extreme hope and love despite the many traumatic aspects of the protagonist’s life (and those around her).

It’s easy to understand the background of the novel without having read the first title, although it is so good that I’d encourage readers new to Kimberly Brubaker Bradley to go back and read the first before this one.

The War I Finally Won is set during the aftermath of 11-year-old Ada’s recovery from corrective surgery for her clubfoot. She has been rescued from her abusive birth mother (mainly by the fact that an air raid bomb has killed her mother), and is now living in the countryside with her younger brother Jamie, and her new guardian, Susan. As well as dealing with the fallout of a childhood of abuse, and therefore a distinct lack of ability to trust, Ada has to deal with a world at war.

Brubaker Bradley encapsulates wartime rural life with aplomb; exploring details of the class structure, love for animals, the dangers of disease, anguish for those sent abroad to face combat, and the everyday struggles for survival with rations, blackouts and dispersed families. When a young Jewish German refugee comes to stay, what happened to German Jews during the war is explored gently and sensitively, and there are references to Bletchley too.

Grief is touched upon, with references to both Susan’s loss, and a grief that comes later on in the book, and it is delicately nuanced and sympathetic. With so many conflicted and damaged characters gathered in one place, there is bound to be drama, but Brubaker Bradley never stoops to melodrama to eke out her story.

This is an empathetic, realistic and in the end, joyful story of a young girl coming of age in the most difficult circumstances. However, her courage and empathy pull her through and readers will get lost in the landscape and characters portrayed. A most readable and enthralling story for this age group, this is a thoughtful and wise book, well worth adding to the canon of World War II fiction for middle grade readers. You can buy it here.

Christmas Books Roundup 2017

““Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo” (Little Women), but for me, presents means books. So, if you’re looking to treat your children to some rectangular shapes in their stockings and under the tree, here are my highlights…

Picture Books


Oliver Elephant by Lou Peacock and Helen Stephens (Nosy Crow)
My top pick for the season is definitely this heartwarming Christmassy through-and-through tale about a Christmas present shopping trip, in which mummy has a long list, a pram to manoeuvre, her children Noah and Evie-May, and Noah’s toy elephant. With sparkling rhythmic rhyming, and huge attention to detail in the department store colourwash illustrations, this will make every reader feel that magical Christmas time aura. There’s much to love in the familiar tale of a temporarily lost toy in a large store, but Peacock and Stephens manage to inject their own personality onto the book, with lots of love, expression and minute detail. I love the mittens on strings, the busyness of the store, the flushed faces of the customers, the diversity of the cast, and the wonderful emotion on the face of the mother (tired yet happy), and Noah (small in a world of big things). His playfulness with the elephant, and the frustrated sympathy of his mother is pitch perfect. And of course, there’s a happy Christmas ending. You can buy it here.


The Princess and the Christmas Rescue by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton (Nosy Crow)
This hilarious picture book for Christmas manages to combine fairy tale allusions (it is about a princess after all), feminism (girl engineers), and an ironic Amazon-like present-picking machine all in a neat sing-song rhyme. But mainly, this is an adorable rhyming picture book about finding friends. Princess Eliza loves to make things, but her parents are worried at her lack of friends. When the Christmas elves run into trouble in the busy lead-up to Christmas, Eliza steps in to help, and finds that as well as being a super duper inventor, there’s fun in friendship too. Exquisite illustrations in bright colours that mix the essence of Christmas (ribbons, elves, cosy armchairs by the fire) with ‘Wallace and Gromit’ type inventions. Christmas bliss. You can buy it here.


All I Want for Christmas by Rachel Bright (Orchard Books)
Rachel Bright is superb at wrapping moral lessons in her books, and this Christmas treat is no different. It’s not an illustrated version of Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit, but it does carry the same message – as well as cookies and trees, and presents and roast dinners, what this Big Penguin really wants is love. Yes, this is about penguins, not humans. Shown first in a snowglobe on a mantelpiece, the story opens up to explore the penguins’ world in the lead up to Christmas. Cute illustrations, and a fabulous spread in the middle that shows miniature vignettes of Big Penguin and Little Penguin busy doing the ‘hundred things’ to get ready, this is an adorable read. You can purchase it here.


Last Stop on the Reindeer Express by Maudie Powell-Tuck and Karl James Mountford (Little Tiger Press)
The next title also features a family with a missing adult, but here they are human, and there is a more pronounced emphasis on families who can’t be together at Christmas time. Mia’s dad can’t come home for Christmas, but luckily for her, she stumbles across a magical postbox with a door to The Reindeer Express, which manages to convey her to her father for a Christmas hug, and still be back with her mother for Christmas.

Karl James Mountford’s illustrations feel globally Christmassy, with muted earthy tones, in particular a profusion of rusty red, as he conveys a timelessness to the images – from the dress of the people, which feels old-fashioned, to the takeaway cups of mulled wine, which feel up-to-the-minute. With maps and explorers’ articles, and a globe-trotting reindeer, the book feels as if it’s digging into a magical time of exploration and discovery, as well as showcasing a homely setting with snow outside the window. Our heroine wears glasses and is an eager and curious child. But what sets this book apart is its production. With thick pages, peek-throughs and cut-outs, and the most tactile cut-away cover, this truly feels like a gift. Romantic and yet curiously real. You can purchase it here.


A Christmas Carol: Search and Find by Louise Pigott and Studio Press
Another beautifully produced book, with silver foil on the cover, this classic Christmas story is retold with search and find scenes – both the characters and setting are illustrated at the outset, with a brief summary of author and text, and then the story is told through double page illustration scenes, alongside an illustration key, which asks the reader to find certain people and objects (such as five red robins, a wistful scrooge, and the ghost of Christmas yet to come).

Through minimal text but large illustrations, both the characters and their narratives are revealed. It’s clever, and wonderfully appealing, in that it’s a book that could be shared, and certainly pored over, as each scene is so wonderfully detailed. Answers, are of course, at the back. You can purchase it here.

Chapter Books:
Three chapter books for you, each from an established series, but this time with their ‘Christmas theme’ stamped all over the cover and narrative. My testers (little kiddies) adore all three series, and couldn’t wait to read them – so they won’t be under my tree!


Polly and the Puffin: The Happy Christmas by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty (Hachette)
I have the distinct feeling that the children and I like this book for very different reasons, but that’s the joyous element of this book, which is written to be shared by being read aloud (with references to hugs, and an authorial voice).

Polly and Neil (her real puffin) are all ready for Christmas, but it’s only November, and such a long time to wait. And then things start to go wrong. Will it ever be Christmas? Will the puffling hatch? Will Wrong Puffin find his way home? There is a huge infusion of wit and personality here – from Polly’s moods, and her quirks (from calling the toy puffin Wrong Puffin, to her grumpiness with her real puffin, Neil) to the illustrator’s humour (see the contented yet oblivious cat lying on the sofa, the wine bottle from Christmas Eve and bleary parents at Christmas Day morning). The narrative voice is warm and comforting, just right for Christmas Eve. There are loads of extras at the back too – recipes, activities and jokes. Buy it here.


Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Jingle Bells by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton (Nosy Crow)
This pair of cake-baking, crime-solving dogs are never far from mischief, and the delight of these little books is that they each contain three stories in one book – good for short attention spans and first readers. Only the first story is Christmas-themed, with the delightful Santa Paws, but the other two tales are equally strong and eventful: Sea-Monster Ahoy! and Lucky Cat. With plentiful illustrations in two-tone colour, lots of lively language, and fast plots, these are lovely little bursts of entertainment. You can purchase it here.


There’s a Dragon in My Stocking by Tom Nicoll, illustrated by Sarah Horne (Stripes)
Lastly, and for slightly older readers, this Christmassy addition to the fabulous ‘There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!’ series continues the adventures of Eric, who was first introduced when he discovered a mini dragon (Pan) in his takeaway dinner. In this funny sequel, Pan’s parents arrive down the chimney. Looking after one dragon and stopping fires was bad enough, but now Eric has three on his hands, and his parents are entertaining on Christmas day. When disaster hits their lunch plans, it might just be that three little dragons come in useful. As well as being huge fun, Nicoll captures the family personalities beautifully, especially annoying Toby from next door, and his Mum (complete with mobile phone!). You can buy it here.

Happy Christmas shopping.