friendship

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.

 

King of the Sky by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Laura Carlin


An exquisitely moving picture book for an older age group that displays extraordinary depth in an ordinary tale of a boy moving to a new place and trying to make it feel like home.

Atmospheric from the start, the reader learns that the setting is a place in which the rain falls relentlessly, and the landscape is strange for the narrator – grey, and noisy:

“Little houses huddled on the humpbacked hills. Chimneys smoked and metal towers clanked.”

In fact it is Wales, and an Italian immigrant boy’s interpretation of his new surroundings.

This is a poetic reading, of a place our narrator feels is bleak. The text informs that he feels alone, and the accompanying evocative and dreamy illustrations tell the same story, with an emphasis on work and hollow spaces, faceless houses, and isolation. The boy remembers the contrast of the different smells and tones of the place he calls home – the Italian vanilla smells, yellow backgrounds, ice cream. The boy’s memory of home has been sparked by the sound of the Welsh pigeons cooing. In fact, his ensuing hope and salvation come not from new friends at school, but from a friendship with an elderly man and his hobby of pigeon racing.

This boy isn’t a toddler – again showing that this picture book isn’t for the very young, but for those who are able to fully utilise the given visuals to embellish in their own mind the narrative that is written on the page, and for those who can probe a little deeper into the emotion and meaning behind the text.

There are many layers to explore in the text, such as the boy’s ability to understand a different language through the soft speech of his new friend, the different foods he eats, and the growing friendship with the old man. But the illustrations bring out so much more, not just the contrast between the landscapes, but the change to the landscape as the boy settles; the intimacy between the man and boy that extrapolates the teaching and wisdom being imparted; the industrious town in which the boy has settled and all the different characters who populate it, from the farmer on his wagon to the mother hanging her washing; the memories of fighting in the war;  the different modes of transport and communication depicted; and finally the flight of the pigeons and the warmth that they exude.

This is an unusual story, timely indeed, although the pictures of war and the landscape make it seem historical. It is about memories of war and conflict, the settling of a newcomer in a town, as well as old age, and ultimately hope and friendship.

The depiction of the landscape’s industrialisation creates a nostalgia for a time past, as well as a nostalgia for the glowing images of Rome, as if the sun is just setting across the pages of the book with its orange and pink glow. But it ends with a look to the future, as the boy realises that home is where the heart is. You can buy it here.

The Real Defenders of the Realm: A Guestpost by Nick Ostler

For the first in my summer series of literary connections in London, Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler visited The Tower of London at night to attend the Ceremony of the Keys. I’m delighted they chose to share their account with us on my site, and explain the links to their fantastic middle grade series ‘Defender of the Realm‘. 

The Tower of London has been getting urgent phone calls all day. Journalists from major newspapers are enquiring after the health of its most famous residents: the ravens. Are they all alive? Are they still there? Have they flown off never to be seen again? Ever since King Charles II decided to move the Royal Observatory from the Tower to Greenwich, rather than displace the ravens that had been disturbing its work, legend has it that should the ravens ever leave, then the White Tower will fall and calamity for the entire kingdom will surely follow. The reason for the press’s sudden concern today is news of an emergency meeting of the entire royal household. Speculation is rife that something terrible has happened – perhaps even a death among the most senior members of the Royal Family. Later they will learn the reason for the hurried get together is in fact the decision that Prince Philip will cease engagements from the autumn, which will be greeted by an overwhelming chorus of “Fair enough, he is ninety-five.”

“Wait though, they literally called you up to ask if the ravens were still at the Tower?”

“Oh yes, I get lots of calls every time anything like this happens. They take it all very seriously.”

We are sitting in the bar of the Hung, Drawn & Quartered Pub, a few hundred yards as the raven flies from the high walls of the Tower of London. The man answering our questions is Chris Skaife, the Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster, who has for the last twelve years had the kingdom-saving responsibility of looking after the Tower’s ravens. Tonight he is off-duty and in civvies rather than his scarlet tunic and Yeoman’s bonnet (though his tweed jacket and bow-tie are almost as dapper) and in light of what we’ve just been told I am relieved to find that no ravens have vacated the Tower to accompany him. Although, as we are to learn later, they could if they wanted to.

We are to be the Ravenmaster’s guests at the Ceremony of the Keys, the nightly ritual that takes place after the tourists depart, in which the Tower is ceremonially locked up for the night – one of the many ancient traditions we recreate in our British fantasy book series, Defender of the Realm – and something not to be missed. But first there will be an informal tour, encounters with ghosts and gangsters and another rather pleasant pint of bitter. So we decide we’d better get a move on. On the way out of the pub, Chris points out that it should more correctly be called the Drawn, Hung & Quartered, because that is the order in which the gruesome disemboweling process is actually performed. I don’t think he is talking from personal experience, but a beefeater is the sort of person who should know these things, so I don’t argue.

As we cross the drawbridge and pass beneath the Byward Tower, it is easy to see why this place continues to cast a spell over otherwise rational thinking people. Myths and ghost stories that we might have dismissed as nonsense back in the cozy pub, suddenly seem all too plausible as we follow the Ravenmaster through the eerie, wide cobbled lanes of the fortress. This is a different place at night. Gone are the gaggles of tourists with their flapping maps and the unruly herds of schoolchildren demolishing packed lunches. What we are left with now is the arrow marks dug into the wall by a bored guard centuries before, the names – Traitor’s Gate, Bloody Tower – that hint at the gruesome fate of those who came here but never left, and the tales of apparitions that still have the capacity to send grown adults running in tears from the Beauchamp Tower. If Horrible Histories did a theme park, this would be it.

But there is much more to the Tower of London than torture and horror and death, fun as all that is. Because there is life here too and rather a surprising amount of it. The Ravenmaster is just regaling us with another tale of doom and imprisonment when he pauses to wave hello to a young woman wearing headphones as she ambles passed. “My daughter,” he explains. It seems odd to think that to some people this isn’t merely one of the world’s most famous historic places, it is also simply ‘home’. But around one hundred and fifty people, the Yeomen and their families, live within the confines of the Tower’s walls. It has always been a workplace and home as much as it has a fortress and prison. And no-one here works harder than the Ravenmaster. From replying to the queries he gets from all round the world about the ravens (which can take up to three hours a day), to conducting tours for visitors and VIPs (Game of Thrones author, George R. R. Martin particularly enjoyed meeting the ravens, no surprise there) – this is one busy beefeater. And that’s before the none-too-small matter of tending to the Tower’s seven ravens (six and a spare).

We could hear the gentle, throaty ‘gronking’ of Erin, Harris, Gripp, Rocky, Jubilee and Munin (Merlina, the only truly ‘tame’ raven, has her own digs elsewhere), long before we reach them. “They know I’m coming,” says Chris. Had they heard and recognized his voice in the distance? Or do they have some sort of primal sixth sense? As you might expect after years in their company, Chris has developed a deep understanding of the raven’s ways and crucially of how much there is still to learn about them. Ravens are said to have the same intelligence as a 3-4 year old child and the current Ravenmaster has dedicated himself to making their lives more natural and enjoyable, despite their celebrity status. For starters there are their plush new quarters, a row of large enclosures in the shadow of the central White Tower, where they can sit outside on their perches all night long, safe from foxes. Then there are their wings – Chris does not clip them nearly as much was the case in the past, so they can fly reasonably well. Well enough to reach the spire on top of the White Tower, as he found to his cost one day when a particularly adventurous bird refused to come down and he had to climb up to get her. But with intelligence comes a sense of humour, and the raven flew just before he reached her. He has even had to retrieve the occasional wanderer from outside the Tower walls, but the kingdom remains very much intact. Chris’ love for his birds is infectious as he recalls, with a glint in his eye, how one raven put an entire school party off their lunch by plucking a leg clean off an unfortunate pigeon right in front of them!

Before the main event, there is just time for a refreshing pint of ‘Beefeater Bitter’ in The Keys. Yes, the Tower even has its very own pub, for the sole use of the Yeoman Warders, their families and lucky guests like us. Tonight, as on many nights, the bar has been given over to a charity fundraiser, and we enjoy our drinks to the sound of announcements about the upcoming raffle results. It’s another example of how these days the Tower of London uses its unique position to quietly educate and inspire rather than to intimidate. And talking of intimidating, the Yeoman Warder who will be guiding us the short distance down the lane to watch the Ceremony of the Keys has an important announcement:

“If you have a camera, kindly place it carefully on the ground… and then stamp on it.”

Some rituals are too solemn, too important and well, too plain cool, to be interrupted by the flashes of camera phones. The Ceremony of the Keys has taken place every single night for the last seven hundred and forty years. The one night it was a few minutes late, the Officer of the Guard wrote a formal letter of apology to the king. The reason for the delay? The Luftwaffe had just dropped a bomb on the old Victorian guardroom. Tonight, as the Chief Yeoman Warder locks the mains gates and returns down Water Lane with his escort of four guards, we are treated to an ancient piece of military theatre. A young sentry steps out, points his rifle at them and barks out “Halt! Who comes there?” “The keys!” replies the Chief Warder. “Whose keys?” demands the sentry, who is clearly no pushover. “Queen Elizabeth’s keys,” the Chief Warder patiently replies, and that seems to do the trick. “Pass, Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. And all’s well,” concludes the sentry, and with that the escort makes its way to the Broadwalk Steps by Tower Green where the Tower Guard presents arms and the Chief Warder declares “God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” to which we all respond with a resounding “Amen!”. Precisely seven minutes after it began, the ceremony is brought to a close as the clock tower strikes ten and we listen to a rather chilly bugler squeak his way through the Last Post.

If you’ve read our first book in the ‘Defender of the Realm’ series, you’ll know that it is at this point that all hell breaks loose. The monstrous Black Lizard attacks in an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels and is fought off by the brave beefeaters and mysterious white knight superhero, the Defender. We are suitably relieved as this fails to happen in real life and instead return to The Keys for a farewell drink. Like all great British traditions, the Ceremony of the Keys is short, simple and rather moving. It has been a privilege to witness.

Afterwards, on the way back to Tower Hill tube station, we pass the Merchant Navy Memorial – the place that in ‘Defender of the Realm: Dark Age’, Hayley discovers a secret entrance to a ‘sally port’ tunnel leading under the road into the Keep beneath the Tower. It is a reminder that although our Defender stories put an affectionate, fantastical spin on British history and traditions, the people who live and work within the Tower of London’s walls are the real, living embodiments of the selfless duty that has served our nation for generations. It is a story they retell every night for seven minutes, starting at 9:53pm sharp.

Tickets to the Ceremony of the Keys are free of charge, but there is a long waiting list (unless you’re lucky enough to know a beefeater!).

Once again, thanks to Nick Ostler for this brilliant blog. ‘Defender of the Realm’ and ‘Defender of the Realm: Dark Age’ by Mark Huckerby & Nick Ostler are published by Scholastic and you can buy them by clicking on the titles. I heartily recommend that you do. For more information, go to www.ostlerandhuckerby.com

 

 

Enduring Friendships in Story: a guestpost by Melissa Savage

The publishers describe Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage in three words as ‘bittersweet’, ‘quirky’, and ‘adventure’. I wholeheartedly agree, and would add that this is a beautifully written tale, in which the voice of the protagonist, Lemonade, comes across strongly and perfectly – with just enough bite to ensure that her sweet winning personality has a lemony tang to it. It’s a tale set in California during the time of the Vietnam War, and describes how Lemonade fits into her new surroundings and makes new friends after she moves to live with her grandfather. With emotionally astute adults, a sensitivity to loss, and themes of identity and belonging, this is a fantastically enjoyable book, and I am delighted to host author Melissa Savage on the blog. 

I have had the great fortune of meeting many children as I have shared my new debut middle grade novel, Bigfoot, Tobin & Me (Lemons in the United States) and I’m often asked which part of the book I enjoyed writing most. My answer is always the same. Writing scenes between Lemonade and Tobin. I love their unconventional friendship. They are so different in so many ways and they must argue their points until they can come to some type of agreement on how to come to some sort of agreement. Although they are very different, there is so much about them that is also the same. And they soon learn they need one another. They may not know it at the start of the story, but they soon learn that their friendship will be one of endurance because of who they are, what they’ve been through together and what they now share. Doesn’t everyone want that very special friendship that endures regardless of our differences, foul moods and bad choices, and even change?

I remember while growing up, I loved to read about friendships that endure. Some of the most impactful stories that spoke deeply to me included Katherine Paterson’s Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia, Bette Greene’s Beth Lambert and Phillip Hall from Phillip Halls Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, and Judy Blume’s Sheila Tubman and Mouse Ellis from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. What these three duos have in common is their contrasting personalities and how these opposite traits are just the thing that binds them.

Jess and Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia are an unlikely pair and become friends after Leslie moves to town. Jess is a sad and lonely boy while Leslie is outgoing and imaginative. The two are soon inseparable and together form a secret kingdom, which Leslie names Terabithia. One of the lovely aspects to this friendship is that it sustains even in death, as Leslie is tragically killed in a drowning accident and Jess finds a way to accept the reality of her loss and honor her memory.

Beth and Phillip from Phillip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, have what one could describe as a boisterous relationship at times. Beth has a crush on Phillip and the two are in constant competition with one another for being the best in the class. Beth wonders if she is letting Phillip be number one because she thinks he is the cutest boy in school. However, at the end of the story when Beth finally does win a 4-H competition over Phillip, she realizes that even if she is number one occasionally, their friendship will sustain.

Sheila and Mouse from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great is a story I have read countless times growing up. Sheila meets Mouse when Sheila’s family spends the entire summer in upstate New York’s Tarrytown. Sheila is a fearful child, riddled with anxieties, however overcompensates for her fears with boastful inaccuracies to hide her self-perceived weaknesses from others. As she and Mouse become friends, Mouse begins to see through Sheila’s façade and finally lovingly confronts her about her falsehoods. And it is through this honest interaction that Sheila begins to shed her mask and learn to take chances she hadn’t done before, even if she’s scared.

What qualities do these friendships share? Honesty, sensitivity, empathy, and fun.

There are many themes present in Bigfoot, Tobin & Me, but enduring friendship is one very important one. The friendship between Lemonade and Tobin is one that is honest and loyal, and it soon becomes unconditional no matter how many times they disagree on Twinkies, steer, or where to keep the message pad, because of all that they have endured. Enduring friendship continues to be a desired theme in story in childhood and beyond. It is my hope that Lemonade and Tobin’s enduring friendship is one that speaks to kids around the world as the many enduring friendships in my most favorite books growing up have spoken to me.

With thanks to Melissa Savage. Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). It is filled with clever character descriptions, including wise Mrs Dickerson and her “bright pink lipstick that looks like it’s slipping off”, and expert perceptions of child preoccupations such as: “I surf wind waves with my hand out of the window and try to ignore him” on a car journey. The writing is immersive and a pleasure to read, and the tale, although far-fetched, draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. One of the best books for this age group that you’ll read this summer. You can buy it here and I heartily recommend that you do. Ages 8+ years. 

 

Male Animal Picture Books

Last month a video circulated on Facebook showing a mother and daughter removing books from a bookcase according to a set of gender questions. Does the book contain a female character? (several books removed), Does the female character speak (no, so more books removed) etc. The video didn’t display a random bookcase, it was purposefully set up to represent findings from studies into gender disparity, which showed that 25% of 5,000 children’s books had no female characters.

The world is changing, though. If I assess my own bookshelf (which is made up of many recent publications) I find that although there is a bias towards male gendered picture books on my shelves, it is slight, whereas my middle grade selection is pretty even in terms of protagonists, and I can reel off many female book characters very easily. It’s something I monitor when I review books, trying to provide an equal gender offering. However, my hope is very much that children want to read a good story and don’t care too much about the gender of the protagonist. I know that when I’m reading a book for grown-ups, the gender of the protagonist doesn’t sway my choice at all, and in fact, in my writing it’s a fifty/fifty split. This does seem to bear out with the children in my library clubs too. They just don’t comment on gender. And I find, more and more, that authors are providing the opposite gender ‘sidekick’ to the main protagonist – so there’s something for everyone! Although, we need to bear in mind subliminal influence of course.

However, the study into gender bias in children’s books did pull up one point with which I still agree. Janice McCabe’s study in 2011 showed that animal characters in particular showed gender bias – 23% male as compared to 7.5% female. When we talk about animals in books, our default is to address them as male.

It just so happened that four recently published ‘animal’ picture books arrived at MinervaReads – and all have male animal protagonists. (You’re skewing my balanced bookshelves, I wanted to shout). First and foremost, though, when I’m reviewing books, and when the children listen to the narrative, we all want a good story…and these four do provide that, as well as sending out positive messages about other issues. Next time I’m going to try hard to find you four animal picture books with female animals. Publishers – feel free to send them along…

There’s a Walrus in My Bed by Ciara Flood
Flynn is going to sleep in a big bed for the first time tonight, but when bedtime arrives, he can’t get in his bed, as he tells his parents, because there’s a walrus in it. Flynn stalls bedtime with snacks for the walrus, the need for extra blankets, milk, a toilet visit, and so on, each time blaming the walrus.

It’s a great little tale for those other children who like to stall bedtime, but what makes this book stand out from other ‘bedtime books’ is the skill shown in the illustrations. Parents will love the depiction of the parents – their evening, their growing exasperation, which becomes a growing exhaustion. Children will adore the illustrations of the walrus – sneezing on Flynn, causing the bed to sag, and cuddling Flynn’s rabbit toy.

There is a wonderful amount of detail to the house too – the downstairs rooms, the bedrooms, and even the endpapers. Greatly enjoyable, with distinctive characterisation. The book feels endowed with a richness in colour – which lends a warm bedtime feel to the book. You can buy it here.

The Bear Who Stared by Duncan Beedie
A cunningly illustrated book that explains the rudeness of staring, but also provides the explanation for it – a bear who is too shy to speak. Beginning – ‘There was once a bear who liked to stare’, the book then zooms in on the bear’s eyes to show him staring out at the reader.

Before long the bear is staring at the other creatures in the book, and they don’t like it at all. It takes an encounter with a staring frog to teach Bear that smiling is a much better way to greet others. It’s a simply told tale, but highly effective because of the clarity of the illustrations – the floating expressive eyebrows, the constant zooming in to the animals’ bodies, the lines indicating fur.

Rich in vocabulary – ‘gawked’, ‘trudged’, ‘strolled’, and with many mentions of natural curiosity, this is a quiet message about politeness with an adorable bear. You can buy it here.

Superbat by Matt Carr
Pat the Bat strives to be a superhero. He even sews his own outfit, complete with eye mask and cape. But when his friends quiz him on his superpowers, it appears that all bats have the same powers – super hearing, the ability to fly, and echolocation. But when he frees a family of mice from a nasty cat, they inform him that his superpower is courage.

The illustrations are bold and bright, comic in style with lurid red or yellow backgrounds. Words are picked out graphically in the fight scene: ‘swat’ and ‘wham’, and the city landscape alludes to Marvel superhero territory with its high-rises, rooftop pools and vertical parking signs.

Superb for small children who love a superhero, but also want humour, as well as rooting for a hero to discover his own self-belief. (There’s even a non-fiction element at the back to explain about bats). You can buy it here.

Lazy Cat by Julia Woolf
Captivating from the cover, which shows lazy cat taking a selfie with a selfie stick, this is a modern book for the modern child. Inside, the endpapers show the photographs – with great humour.

The book is about the friendship between Lazy Cat and Doodle Dog; one which seems rather one-sided as Doodle Dog spends a great deal of time running after Lazy Cat. When Lazy Cat falls asleep during a game of Hide-and-Seek, Doodle Dog decides to give him his comeuppance. It’s a well-illustrated title, with great expressiveness and humour, but the crux of the plot relies upon the movement of the television aerial to achieve good reception on the TV – something which sadly seems outdated for a modern child who would more likely know what a selfie-stick is.

If that’s explained, though, the brilliant expressions of when a friendship works and when it doesn’t makes this a fun title to read. You can buy it here.

To read more about the gender issues addressed in this article, please see here for fellow blogger ‘Read it Daddy’’s take on it.

Detective Stories

“If in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns,” said Raymond Chandler on writing detective stories. But in the business of children’s books, should we really be discussing dead bodies, hardened criminals, violent crime? If, like me, your kids (at a very young age) went through a stage of playing nothing but Cluedo, then you might beg to differ. If they can spend an afternoon arguing whether it was Col Mustard or Rev Green who hit someone over the head with a candlestick in the library, then you would assume that their own library could contain a little noir.

Pigeon P. I. by Meg McLaren is a tongue-in-cheek parody of classic detective fiction, which is why, although the publisher has it as for ages 0+ in their catalogue, I rather feel it is best suited to slightly older children. The plot however, is easy to pick up.

Pigeon PI, complete with detective hat, is resting when the Kid (a blonde chirpy little thing) turns up and asks for help finding her missing friends. Her persistent nagging leads Pigeon PI to take the case, and when the Kid herself goes missing, he knows he has a real case on his hands (especially when the birdbrain police won’t take it on – they are busy with doughnuts). The mystery is solved swiftly, but it’s the expressiveness of the birds, the brilliant use of colour, lighting and shadow, and the detective and noir references that make this book so enjoyable.

There are too many in-jokes and references to mention, but my favourites include the ‘Legal Eagles’, wing-clipping, the ‘heavies’, and a hilarious number of visual illustrative jokes too.

Each spread is busy, and different, using many clever devices and effects – from the comic book style of the first few pages to split pages and the use of a red filter.

The end papers themselves are incredibly funny too – from detective thinking poses to asking tough questions – it guides the reader through being a private investigator (as a pigeon). In fact, throughout this busily illustrated book, there are numerous clues and ideas about PIs. The title page shows the private ads of the newspaper, advertising the PI, and there are quite a few bill posters and rubbish detritus throughout, strewn across the pages, but showing images of missing birds, advertisements, articles etc.

The book conjures images of Philip Marlowe, or Eddie Valiant – the PI in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It’s a book that gives a wry spin on the American detective movie, with plenty of feathers. You’ll find yourself reading it out loud with an American twang. What’s not to like? Seek it out here.

Sky Private Eye and the Case of the Runaway Biscuit by Jane Clarke and Loretta Schauer

One clever way of navigating the world of fairy tales is to re-examine them with a detective, which is exactly what Jane Clarke is doing with her new series about Sky Private Eye.

When the Little Old Man and Little Old Lady report their gingerbread boy missing, Sky must use her wits in Fairytale Town to try to find him. Using clues, and conducting interviews, as well as eventually catching the culprit, the book puts a whole new spin on the classic fairytale. There’s also a good deal of baking and mentioning of cakes, as well as the introduction of the Fairytale Olympics – after all The Gingerbread Man is about running as fast as you can.

The illustrations are bright and appealing – leaving little white space – and provide plenty of visual literacy, being busy and full of items to peruse. The idea is very much for the reader to be his or her own detective, deciphering what is different from the original fairy tale, and predicting what might happen. The book was devoured by my testers here, who definitely wanted more. You can buy it here.

Detective Gordon: A Case in Any Case by Ulf Nilsson, illustrated by Gitte Spee

This is the final book about Detective Gordon in this Swedish writer’s trilogy, and is a gentle, illustrated (in full-colour) book that suits newly independent readers, or fills the gap of a softly written story for more confident readers.

Detective Gordon is on a break, perhaps even on the cusp of retirement, leaving assistant Buffy in sole charge of the police station as the new Police Chief. Buffy is a mouse, Gordon, a frog. But Gordon misses the police station and Buffy misses having a companion. When there are strange noises at the police station one night, Buffy asks Gordon for help – after all, being a lone police mouse is dangerous and scary work. Together, the two officers are braver and cleverer.

Again, the plot here is easy to decipher and simple to detect, but there is a much greater depth to these warm stories from Ulf Nilsson. Themes of companionship, and self-discovery, tales of friendship and teamwork. The text and illustrations combine to give this book a feeling of lightness and bounce, and a quiet steady contemplation permeates the entire book – something that’s often missing from children’s fiction – it’s both insightful and yet full of charm. A great introduction to detective fiction for the very youngest – with plenty of cakes and wholesome allusions. Watch out for the slight touches of melancholy interspersed with wry humour – a perfect pitch to capture the emotions. You can buy it here.

The Great Shelby Holmes Girl Detective by Elizabeth Eulberg, illustrated by Matt Robertson

It’s glaringly obvious where the allusions lie in this new book. When John Watson moves to New York from Maryland, he’s fairly stuck for friends. Until he meets neighbour Shelby Holmes. Despite being only nine years old, Shelby is the best detective in the neighbourhood – using her inflated confidence and acute skills of observation to discover everything about everybody.

Within days of John’s arrival, there is a dog-napping of a prize poodle, and Shelby jumps straight on the case, using John as her somewhat unwilling sidekick. It’s rather less menacing than The Hound of the Baskervilles, but very modern, fresh, sassy and cute. The plot skips along at a relentless pace, at the same time showing insights into friendship and sibling rivalry.

The characters are likeable – Shelby is slightly infuriating at times, but always full of words of wisdom, and friendly and abrupt at the same time. She has low tolerance for fools. The black and white humorous illustrations throughout serve to make our protagonist and sidekick rather endearing. Continuing nods to Eulberg’s inspiration add a lightness and many wry smiles.

What’s more the landscape is well-realised. Eulberg may have transplanted Baker Street to New York City, but she paints a realistic, fully-fleshed and diverse neighbourhood, which makes the read even more up-to-date and pertinent. The first of many we presume. Detect it here.

Rose Raventhorpe Investigates: Black Cats and Butlers by Janine Beacham

Okay, so there’s been a plethora of these types of books recently. Mysteries for the 9+ age group abound on the bookshelves at the moment. From the Scarlet and Ivy Series, Murder Most Unladylike, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection – the list goes on and on. This new series, set in Victorian London, is as immersive as any of those aforementioned, and also I would suggest, pitched for a less well able reader.

Rose Raventhorpe is born into the aristocracy and ought to behave as a Victorian young lady (already, the place of women in historical society is a hook), but when her butler is murdered – the third butler in Yorke to be found dead in a week – Rose feels compelled to investigate.

With sinister grave-robbers, underground tunnels and cats with strange powers, this is a dark and twisty little tale, yet highly readable with good pace, and also packs in a good supernatural element.

Rose is a fine protagonist – smart, curious, brave. She isn’t ‘fiesty’ necessarily, seems calmer than that, and is prone to making mistakes, but is always well-intentioned. But for me, the stand-out element is the amount of humour in the story – caricatures abound from the butlers and their gloves, to Emily, Rose’s friend in mourning. A historical giggle with darkness and magic. Investigate how to buy it here.

 

 

There’s a Werewolf in my Tent! by Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham

I’ve long been a fan of Pamela Butchart’s writing. Her narration spills off the page with bubbliness and enthusiasm and leaves the reader feeling joyful and always entertained.

She won the Children’s Book Award in 2016 and the Blue Peter Book Award in 2015, as well as being shortlisted for a Lollie (Laugh Out Loud Book Award), and I think this sums up her stable of texts – hugely popular with children and always packed with humour. If you haven’t come across her books yet, do start reading now.

There’s a Werewolf in my Tent is actually the sixth book about Izzy and her set of friends, but each book can happily be read as a standalone.

Izzy and her friends are going on a school camping trip, which is HUGELY exciting. Accompanying them are Miss Jones, their teacher, and also Miss Moon, the scary new PE teacher who is whoppingly tall, and a bit hairy too. Once they have pitched tents, things become a little nerve-wracking when there are howling sounds at night, missing sausages, and strange scratches. Could it have anything to do with Miss Moon and her increasingly hairy legs?

Butchart excels in the conversational writing style – the story is told by Izzy – in a type of breathless whizzy fashion – exactly how my daughter speaks when she has a story to tell me about her day at school. With capitals every so often for emphasis, and the hilarious black and white illustrations from Flintham, the book really is a laugh a minute. The reader will cringe as they see the truth behind the story, which Izzy and her friends fail to see. The delight is in spotting the absurdity of the friends’ assumptions, and revelling in the zaniness of the plot.

And yet, despite this craziness, there’s always a truth behind the story, a grounding in schoolfriends’ experiences, and real emotion – and this is what bears out the longevity and effectiveness of the books, because as well as the adventure and all the silliness, Butchart continually shows the friends’ kindnesses towards each other, their caring attitudes towards their friends. This school trip story deals with homesickness (lightly), the pros and cons of camping, and a full protein diet! Contemporary, indeed.

It’s one of my most recommended series for newly independent readers – teaching them plot, dropped clues, emphasis and most importantly a whole lot of fun. Reading doesn’t get much more pleasurable than this at the age of seven. You can buy it here.

Growing teens’ romances

It’s slightly stretching my usual coverage of children’s books for primary school children, but somebody with teenage children told me that it was really hard to differentiate between age appropriateness in books once their children got to the point of browsing the ‘YA’ shelf. I agreed. It’s so hard to know which books are aimed at the lower teen market, and which for the young adult. Also, as with all these things at all ages, each child is different. One shy hesitant prudish 16 year old may want to read very different things to an outgoing knowing tween.

Interestingly, the younger age is more often defined as ‘teen’ (gentler content), the older books more as ‘YA’, (may include swearing, frank descriptions of sex, more challenging issues).

Three gorgeous romances came through the letterbox this year – all for different ages. Here are my thoughts.

My first teen, tween romance is One Silver Summer by Rachel Hickman. Suggested for 11+ years, this is a gentle story about a burgeoning friendship between a boy and a girl, and the feelings they start to have for each other.

Fifteen year old Sass, grieving for her mother after her sudden death, has moved from America to live with her uncle in Cornwall. She falls for an old grey horse that she stumbles upon in a meadow, and before long also falls for its owner – a young boy bunking from his privileged boarding school after hearing of his parents’ divorce.

Both children are hiding secrets, and both seek consolation in the feeling they get from riding horses against the backdrop of a windswept Cornwall beach and the vast sky over the sea.

Before long it becomes apparent that the boy, Alex, is heir to the throne, and there follows a tumult of trouble that threatens to wrench Alex and Sass apart – from the jealousy of one of Alex’s school friends, to the media attention that follows Alex’s school absence and his parents’ divorce.

The writing is ever evocative of the ranging Cornwall scenery – the coastline, the gossamer-white seeds of a dandelion, the mist off the sea, and even at times falls into poetry as Sass struggles to articulate what Alex means to her.

Hickman navigates the different voices of the characters by dipping in and out of a full cast, but the narrative is weighted so heavily onto Sass and Alex, that it might have been better and more effective to have stuck to a two person point-of-view. However, the whole piece comes across as sweet and endearing, despite the trauma that Sass has suffered, and the high beauty of the landscape eclipses any faults in characterisation. This is a horsey, dreamy, feel-good summery read – great for a first romance.

Please note I read a very early proof copy. Win your own proof copy and chocolate by finding me on twitter. Or pre-order your own copy here.

And Then We Ran by Katy Cannon. Suggested for 12+ years by the publisher.

Despite being about two 17-year-olds, the plot spinning on an elopement, and mentioning losing virginity in the first sentence, this is overall a tame teen contemporary read, which is why it sits comfortably in my 13+ age range.

This gorgeous, lovable narrative tells the story of Megan and Elliot, and takes the format of alternate first person point of view chapters, which works well – Cannon capturing the different voices with distinction, so that the reader can tell who is narrating even without the labels at the beginning of each chapter.

What’s also well-conceived is the entire plot. Elliot wants to study archaeology at University in London, but funding is an issue, especially since his father is serving time for fraud. Megan’s parents, reeling from the recent death of Megan’s older sister, are pushing for her to go to university, but Megan is set on doing a photography course.

When Megan discovers that she will inherit a London flat upon turning 21 or getting married, she hits upon the latter as a way to serve a purpose for both herself and Elliot (even though they’re not even dating!).

The book veers off into a road trip to Gretna Green, with much self-discovery along the way.

The characterisation in the book is what makes it. The reader gets a real feel for the anxieties of these two teens, both on the cusp of adulthood. Their heightened emotions (both of them impacted by the recent traumatic changes in their lives), feel authentic and honest. It’s studded throughout with great humour as well, and the secondary characters – Elliot’s brother, and Megan’s best friend, are both rounded and convincing characters.

Cannon also deals with a theme not much touched upon in YA that I’ve read, of the idea of university and which path to take into adulthood.

But themes and genres aside, this was just a compelling, well-written, and touching story, with fantastic characters and a genuine warmth to the story. Highly recommend. Run away with your copy here.

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

A confession – I veered away from this book to start with, believing it was pitched at just too high an age group for my blog, but then a very highly-thought of children’s books expert told me to read it, and I devoured it in one sitting. Suggested also for the 12+ age group according to the publisher, this book does contain many more references to sex, and the issues are altogether darker.

Petula blames herself for her young sister’s death, and because her anxiety is out of control, she attends an art therapy group with a mishmash of other teenagers who are also experiencing issues with family, sexuality, addictive substances etc. It is here that she meets Jacob, an amputee, who likes to tell stories to cover the real reason for his injury. When the truth comes out about what really happened, Petula is already too far into her relationship with Jacob, and the truth threatens to destroy them.

Nielsen’s deft writing skill is apparent in abundance here. Not only is it a gripping read, but the characters, no matter how minor their part, come across as authentic teens, with agonies and anxieties, which Nielsen portrays with sympathy and sensitivity as well as a clear sense of humour (teen cynicism and sarcasm). She zips around the themes with ease, especially Petula’s anxieties about everything around her, and manages to incorporate a sense of the consequences of the tragedy on Petula’s parents too. Despite the tough subject matter, there is no overdramatisation here – it’s a carefully sewn tapestry of teen angst.

But what the book does that’s really sparkling for a teen audience, is give the reader the courage to face down adversity – showing that other people’s problems may not be apparent but may be larger than one’s own, and that each person can find courage somewhere to overcome obstacles – especially if they speak up and speak out. It’s about trust, and friendship and guilt and grief. I’m optimistic you’ll buy your own copy here.

 

 

 

The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods

The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods

I’ve written before about the importance of fairy tales, their cultural heritage and why they remain critical in today’s modern culture. But what about fables (stories with a moral message) or folk tales (stories stemming from an oral tradition, passed down by the ‘folk’ who told them), or legends (semi-true stories with important meaning for the culture in which they originate) or myths (stories that explain a history or occurrence)?

This novel isn’t any of the above, and yet reads like one. It borrows many of the familiar tropes from them – good versus evil, the magic of an animal (this time a bird), and the heroics of ordinary people. And throughout the story, the reader can trace glimpses of remembered tales, faint associations with stories of old. It’s a clever little book.

Alberto, the carpenter, lives in a special little town called Allora, where the fish fly out of the sea and the houses shine like brightly-coloured jewels on the hilltop. But he suffers great loss when a plague sweeps through the town, killing his entire family. He turns from making furniture to making coffins. When his food starts to go missing, he tries to discover who the food thief is, and before long befriends a boy, Tito, and a rather special bird. But there is danger ahead, and Alberto must risk everything to save the lonely boy from his brutal stepfather and the town’s rather greedy mayor.

The story unfolds in style like a long lost folk tale, both in the way it describes the town, and also in the unfolding of the plot. If you look closely, fragments will remind you of other stories. The stupidity and greed of the mayor with his desire for a huge jewel-studded coffin reminded me of the Emperor’s New Clothes; Alberto and Tito’s relationship reminded me of Geppetto and Pinocchio; Fia, the bird, reminded me of The Firebird:

“…a bright little bird flew high overhead. Each beat of its wings made a patch of stars flicker out, and another made them flicker back on.”

There is a mythical island of jewels, like the promised land of Oz, or Atlantis or the Ancient Egyptian Island of Flame; the two gossipy, mean-spirited sisters living next door to Alberto reminded me of those from Cinderella; and the near-impossible task of the mayor’s coffin reminded me of all those impossible tasks in myths – the Sisyphean Task; and of course there’s a story within the story…

But even if you strip all that away, what’s left is a beautiful everyman story of the enormity of grief being defeated by the discovery of new friendship and love, of bravery and hope in the face of evil and despair. The book flows beautifully, with enough suspense and adventure to keep the reader hooked, but also the lilting beauty of the text which matches perfectly the beauty of the setting – the small glistening town on the edge of the sea, and a cast of colourful characters.

What’s more, the book is highly illustrated – each page decorated with a raft of foliage and fish in a distinctive ink blue – the text itself also in blue. Full-page illustrations punctuate the story.

But why did I mention fairy tales and folk stories at the start? Why do the allusions in the story make it special? Of course you can read The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker without knowledge of a literary history. It may even be that sometimes a reader comes away from a novel with bells ringing about another story that the author hadn’t even picked up on themselves. But it’s precisely this reader interaction with a text that makes it so interesting. The allusions add a depth to the read.

Ancient myths, fairy tales and fables were told to make moral points, to guide the reader in life, in much the same way that so many modern stories are told to teach empathy and compassion in our diverse world. Our reading will be a much richer experience if we teach the next generation the storytelling tradition – strengthening the relationship between stories of different cultures and literary canons, giving the readers tools so that they can develop an analytical understanding of narrative, deeper connections between texts, seeing bonds and similarities.

I was approached recently by a teacher raised in an extremely religious orthodox environment, who knew none of the fairy tales that we and Disney so often take for granted. She was lamenting her ignorance, until I pointed out the wealth of stories she must have from her religious texts. And these too provided guidance and a way for her to draw parallels with the texts she is now reading with the children.

Crossing barriers, reaching over the divide. Stories do this. And what better way to do it than by creating new folk stories from the old. Borrowing, alluding, and comparing.

You can buy The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker here.

From Ant to Eagle by Alex Lyttle

Warning, this review contains spoilers.

They say write what you know. Canadian paediatric oncologist Alex Lyttle has certainly done that, but this novel is about much more than childhood cancer. It’s a tale of sibling love, and the healing power of friendship.

Eleven-year-old Calvin Sinclair is bored. It’s the summer before sixth grade, and his parents have moved from big city to a small town, leaving him with no local friends, and only his six-year-old brother Sammy to play with. To alleviate his boredom, and to express his sibling dominance, Cal comes up with a series of tests for his brother to pass in order to move up the various levels of a made-up chart – battling from lowly Ant through to the awesome Eagle Level, where Cal sits. The chart is meaningless, of course, and Cal hasn’t done anything to deserve Eagle Level, it’s just a simple display of power. The tests include everything from shooting hoops to disturbing a wasp nest.

Then Cal meets Aleta, a girl of his own age who is also new to the area, and the two of them go off on day long adventures, leaving Sammy at home. Cal gives Sammy a series of tasks to complete in his absence. As the summer progresses, so does Cal’s friendship with Aleta, but also Sammy’s number of sick days. From being unable to keep up with Cal and Aleta on a bike ride, suddenly Sammy is too ill to stray far from the house. When a collapse at school leads to a serious diagnosis, Cal has to re-evaluate whether he himself passes the test of decent big brother; does he himself even deserve the status of Eagle Level, or were the challenges he set Sammy essentially mean-spirited? For now, with a series of real tests in the hospital, Sammy has to show true bravery.

The text is beautifully readable, and the setting highly visual – from the countryside Cal and Aleta explore, to the contrasting confines of the hospital. But the main focus of the book is the sibling relationship – Cal’s feelings of annoyance at his little brother quickly turn into guilt when Sammy gets sick, but also love and protection…something that’s actually been there all along. As well as this, the reader sees how much Sammy looks up to Cal too – something that Cal comes to recognise through gradual self-awareness.

Cal’s voice is honest and direct, which at times of course, is brutal in its direct confrontation of a fatal illness, but also incredibly moving. And through this honesty, the book is admirably empathetic of all characters – doctor, parents, patients and siblings. There are some lovely touches – a fascination with the Goosebumps series of books, as well as the emotional understanding displayed by Cal in gaining the trust and friendship of new girl Aleta.

This book isn’t for everyone – with intensely adult themes, including the death of a six year old, this will be a hard book for some to swallow – yet it’s so honestly written, so tender, that for those willing to confront life’s darker side, it deserves a wide audience. For 11+ years. Please note that this book was initially published by Central Avenue Publishing in North America, and may not be as widely distributed (yet) in the UK. It is, of course, available on Amazon.