friendship

When I Grow Up: A Guest Blog from Steve Antony

A few years ago, I and my daughter were lucky enough to go and see the show Matilda. Ever since, a popular song in our house has been ‘When I Grow Up’, both for the visual stimuli it recalls upon hearing it (thanks to the wonderful vivacity of the show), but also because of the sentiments expressed. Children can access its dreams of the future – its playfulness with projected children’s ideas of adulthood – being free of restrictions yet also not shackled by responsibility, and for adults there is a glint of nostalgia for the children they once were, as well as the reminder that we do have certain freedoms.

So, it was with great glee that I saw the lyrics being published as a children’s picture book, When I Grow Up by Tim Minchin, illustrated with the clever, observant and witty illustrations of Steve Antony. Not only does Antony express the vibrancy of the show, the emotion of the words, and the dream-like quality of the implications while keeping it real, but he also displays his trademark incidental inclusion – not just of children of all different backgrounds and abilities, but also subtle cultural allusions too. Look closely to find the Statue of Liberty holding aloft an ice cream, Mr Panda’s doughnuts, a sketch of Roald Dahl and more. Below, Steve Antony explains how the book came about, and the pressures of illustrating such an iconic song.

It’s 4AM. I am sat cross-legged on the my office floor surrounded by pencil shavings, staring at a blank piece of paper. I can recall that moment vividly.

I can recall another moment, too. The email via my literary agent Elizabeth Roy was totally out of the blue. A complete and utter surprise. I read it again and again. Tim Minchin would like to know if you might be interested in illustrating a picture book adaptation of WHEN I GROW UP from the hit musical Matilda.

The hard-to-explain thing is that I’d been waiting years for something like this without knowing exactly what ‘this thing I was waiting for’ was. A dream collaboration in every sense. WHEN I GROW UP would become my first illustrator-only picture book, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

I listened to the song over and over and over again. The more I listened to the song, the more I tried to draw how it made me feel. Wistful. Nostalgic. A bit sad. A bit happy. Exhilarated. Joyous. Hopeful. So many emotions. How can I convey all these emotions in one visual narrative?

I read and reread the song’s text several times over, without the piano, and tried imagining what ‘watching cartoons until your eyes go square’ or ‘eating sweets every day on the way to work’ or ‘fighting the monsters under your bed’ might look like. How will I take all these separate moments and seamlessly string them all together?

I also considered how I might incorporate the Matilda we all know and love into the book. Matilda, one of the most loved children’s books of all time. Can I even do that, and would that really be the best approach?

When I Grow Up is an incredibly popular song. It’s arguably the best, most iconic song from the musical Matilda and practically every child seems to know it off by heart, probably because it’s sang in schools up and down the country. How will I possibly do the song justice?

Slowly but surely, I began to realise just how challenging this would be. The challenge wasn’t illustrating Tim’s words. The challenge was adapting his words into a visual story while also capturing the essence of the song. Colours was another issue, in part because of my red-green colour blindness, but I’ll save that for another blog.

I tried using animal characters, but that didn’t work. I tried using adults, but that didn’t work either. I tried a drawing a dream sequence; that kind of worked but not quite. I tried drawing a dual narrative: an adult’s perspective and a child’s perspective. Too complicated. The one thing I didn’t do was draw ‘Matilda‘. There’s no way I can copy Quentin’s and it just didn’t feel right to draw a ‘new version’.

So many questions. So many options. Time was ticking away. I was surrounded by crumpled paper. Pencil shavings everywhere. Imposter syndrome began to creep in.

The problem was this. I was trying too hard. I wasn’t having fun. So I changed my approach. I began imagining how the child version of me would illustrate Tim’s song. In doing so I remembered how I used to fantasise about growing up: being able to stay up late, go on shopping sprees in Toys R Us, eat and drink whatever I want, whenever I want.

For me, When I Grow Up became about remembering that eagerness, that sense of ‘anything-is-possible’ hope and imagination we all once had as a child before getting bogged down with all our grown-up responsibilities. I would most definitely eat treats every day, climb the tallest trees and stay up late every night.

Speaking of which, it’s midnight. The book is now published. I couldn’t be happier with it. Tomorrow I’ll be onstage at Leicester Square theatre alongside Tim Minchin. Twitter’s gone a bit mental and I’m ‘liking’ and retweeting when really I should really be sleeping. Tim’s obviously noticed this because he just tweeted me: “Oi. Get to bed. Big weekend ahead.” He’s right. I’m off to bed. Goodnight.

With huge thanks to Steve Antony for making time in his schedule to write this for me. And you can buy your own copy of the book here.

The Snow Angel by Lauren St John, illustrated by Catherine Hyde


Writers love to inflict great harm on their characters – the more dramatic their downfall, the more a novel can pack a punch. And Lauren St John’s latest novel certainly puts her main character to the test. Sadly, it was the all-too-real plight of orphaned and abandoned children in Zimbabwe (those who have lost parents, become war children or refugees), which inspired St John to pen The Snow Angel. However, like all good children’s literature, it not only reflects the world but strives to find a positive note, an optimistic resolution, showing the goodness that can be found too.

Eleven-year-old Makena lives happily in Nairobi with her mother and father, and like her father (who is a mountain guide), she adores the mountains, and she hopes that one day, with his help, she will climb Mount Kenya. But, as can sometimes happen in life, one day everything she knows turns upside down, and she is orphaned and alone, and St John shows the reader just how far children can fall in a flash.

Although Makena is taken in by a family member, she is treated abhorrently, and runs away, managing (just) to carve a life for herself in the Nairobi slums. Here, surprisingly, St John changes perspective briefly to a third person adult point of view, an unusual proposition in a children’s book, to explore the narrative from a rescuer’s viewpoint. Makena, seemingly, is in too much danger and too weak to view what happens next. The introduction of an adult’s perspective here (Helen, a woman rescuing children from the slums) gives the reader a new insight and, then, once switched back to Makena, shows how redemption can come, although slowly, and happy endings abound.

The issues within this book are many and layered, and yet the reader never once feels as if they are reading an ‘issue’ book. The book touches upon ebola, famine, child soldiers and the like, explaining the reason for the multitude of children living alone in the slums, but far stronger than the issues is St John’s evocation of the setting – the beauty of the African mountains, the colour of the fruits and scents of food at roadside vendors, the wonder of flowers and plants, and the overriding sense of the healing power of nature.

Lauren St John keeps eking out pockets of hope even in the midst of Makena’s deeply despairing situation. From the friendships she forges around her, to the talk of inspirational people, to the optimism she encounters that shows her a way forward. This is mainly down to a character called Snow, another child all alone, who teaches Makena how to find the good in things – how to have ambition and believe in a future, and to see the magic in everything.

There is, in fact, not a blatant magic in the book, but a subtle undercurrent of coincidence, folklore, superstition and in the end, an animal that seems to be able to show Makena the right path, physically and spiritually. As with real life, there is wonder in the world if you look for it. This is brought to life not only by the story, but by Catherine Hyde’s subtle interspersed black and white illustrations, which increase the idea of magic, nature and this sense of wonder.

But overall, and what drives the narrative, is not just the goodness and kindness pointed out by St John, but the vivacity of the characters. Each child, in their struggle to survive, shows believable tenacity and courage, and each adult is rounded and real – not completely selfless, not completely faultless, and when it comes to the ‘baddies’, not completely evil. The characters are as diverse and vibrant as the settings.

Not every book is written for a reason, other than that there’s a great story to tell – but beneath the story the reader can tell that St John is attempting to influence her readers – getting them to see changes that can be made for a better future. The hardback copy comes complete with a ribbon bookmark, and you’d do well to bookmark the acknowledgements too, in which St John mentions a few ways in which children too could try to have a positive impact on the world, even if they don’t write their own novels. It’s an inspiring list, which I think Makena would try hard to complete. A great story, easy to read, and swiftly devoured. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Please note that I carried out some paid work for the publisher on the above title, but this is no way influenced my review of the book.

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell


There’s so much chatter about ‘gender’ at the moment, so it’s liberating to see another children’s book with dual protagonists – a boy and a girl, both on a mission to overcome perceived ideas of who they should be and how they should turn out.

Set in a sort of long-ago Iron Age, in which iron defeats magic, and before the British nation has any sort of identity, this is tribal warfare in deep dark forests, in which warriors are pitted against wizards, and witches are a third tribe, perhaps extinct, but definitely most evil.

Prince Xar is a princely Wizard, whose magic hasn’t ‘come in’ yet, and is desperate to join his peers and brother in that attribute. Wish is a Warrior, determined to express both her independence and worth to her mother, the Warrior Queen. When tweens Xar and Wish meet by happenchance in the woods, both rebelling against their parents, it sets forth a rollercoaster of events and opportunities for both of them to prove themselves. Before long, it becomes apparent that the two tribes may need to come together in order to defeat a third.

Cressida Cowell is an accomplished storyteller, having risen to fame with her prior series, How To Train Your Dragon. Not dissimilar, this is a world teeming with engaging characters, effervescent humour, and hugely wondrous world-building. Cowell has a particular ability to pit deep questions alongside silliness and humour, so that readers are absorbing both with great delight. Cowell poses terrific questions such as, ‘what if what you had been taught to believe was wrong?’, and shows the reader how to see beyond someone else’s differences, as well as challenging perceived notions of upbringing and parents’ perceived perfection.

There is plenty to love. Both characters, being royal subjects, are surrounded by entourages – Xar’s is particularly large, and includes a bird with a screaming sense of when things are rebellious or wrong (reminiscent of The Lion King’s Zazu). Wish’s entourage includes a bodyguard who faints at the first sign of danger, and an enchanted spoon.

This kind of wackiness is enhanced by the purposefully haphazard illustrations (drawn by Cowell herself) that sit alongside the text, from the map of the lands at the beginning, to the various facial expressions of the spoon. The illustrations are scribbly and sketchy and give the impression of being spontaneous and highly creative, as energetic as the prose itself.

The pace is fleet of foot and unrelenting, and this new world is populated with a realm of enchanting and peculiar creatures, from slow but philosophical giants to sprites, fairies, and ogres, all with their own individual personalities – be it cute and small, or large and menacing.

But most of all, two things stand out. Firstly, Cowell’s voice, which is confident and unswerving, appealing to her young readers without didacticism or being patronising, but making them think. It also carries a humour and slight quirkiness, even posing the question to her readership of who this omniscient narrator might be within the story. And secondly, the emotional intelligence with which she writes her young characters – they are authentic in their selfishness and desires as well as their relationships with their parents and siblings, and yet courageous and resilient, adaptable to the changes happening around them.

If you buy a hardback copy, do look under the dust jacket for a rather shimmery surprise. Unfortunately though, the only fault lies also in the production. In my copy, the blackness of the background on many pages rubbed off on my fingers, leaving an inky residue, which meant that the book not only touched my heart, but certainly left its mark. For the younger end of the middle grade category – this is suitable from 8+ years. You can buy your own signed exclusive edition from Waterstones here.

Worry Angels

I’m delighted to host the launch video for Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari, illustrated by Jane Ray. This super-readable book deals with issues around family breakup, anxiety and refugees, using the healing powers of art and friendship to overcome worries. Despite being a shorter read, it’s beautifully soul-searching and handles complex emotions in an age-appropriate way, providing much space for thought and contemplation. I highly recommend. Below, Sita Brahmachari introduces the video and video artist:

I first met the artist Grace Emily Manning when I walked into a cafe and she had an exhibition of her beautiful Kites flying above my head. I had just been asked by Pop Up Festival to create an exhibition around my novel ‘Kite Spirit’ and so I thought our connection was ‘meant to be’. I contacted her and found that she was studying for her final year at Central St Martins and asked if she would like to create an installation so that people would have the experience of physically walking inside my book! Grace worked with textile artists from The Royal Opera House and created the most beautiful landscape of owls, moss, heather​ and sculptures for readers to explore the themes of the story. Since then Grace and I have worked together on many projects. She has created a magical patchwork storytelling quilt for me to take around to schools for creative writing inspiration (a film of this has been made for Pop Up Festival.) She created an animated for my novel ‘Red Leaves’ and now this beautiful animation for ‘Worry Angels’.

TRAILER: Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari from Barrington Stoke on Vimeo.

It’s by no coincidence that the name of the artist-teacher who runs the Sandcastle Support Centre is also called Grace! The ‘Worry Angels’ book trailer gives a visual insight into some of the symbolic elements of my story and captures deep feelings children and young people have about how we can communicate our worries and anxieties even when everything in life feels like its changing and built on shifting sands. 

Worry Angels is published today by Barrington Stoke, and is available to buy here.

Grace Emily Manning’s website can be found here

 

 

Shapes, Colours, Music and Mystery

One of the wonders of reading is being able to sew threads through the most unlikely of book pairings, and knit them together. Intertextuality is the relationship between texts: common links and themes, references and allusions, and working out how these make the books stand together or apart.


The Cranky Caterpillar is a new picture book from artist Richard Graham and ostensibly shows a young child, Ezra, trying to cheer up a cranky caterpillar who is stuck inside a piano. Graham utilises a great deal of humour and pathos in his tale, as Ezra tries everything from introducing fresh air to concocting beautiful meals, and buying a new hat. Graham’s artistry comes to the fore here in his depiction of a little girl employing all the schemes to cheer up the caterpillar that she would enjoy herself, and this shows on her sympathetically expressive face. But there are also clues as to where the depths of the story lie in her design – her legs, for example, are shaped like musical notes, which becomes more obvious as the book continues, and there is a growing abundance of tranquility in her face when she hears music.

Because although on one level the book is about learning to articulate emotion, showing kindness to another who is unhappy, and the importance of friendship, on another level the book introduces the world of synaesthesia – how one sensory stimulation leads to automatic secondary stimulation, such as the colour of music, or the music of colour. Here, Graham takes inspiration from Kandinsky, who believed that he could hear music when he saw colours – and the illustrations halfway through the book are a paean to Kandinsky’s abstract phase. Kandinsky, who believed that colour itself is an art form, that it isn’t always necessary to show the recognisable shape of something. The Cranky Caterpillar does have a recognisable story shape of course, with a happy ending, as with most caterpillars in storybooks – but there’s a wondrous depth and craft to this picture book too – making it work on many levels. Graham’s use of colours in geometric shapes sings through the pages of the book, at the point when Ezra gathers a band to play joyful music to the caterpillar, in a moving anticipation of his eventual flight of happiness.

In the same way in which graphic shapes work as a key component to uncovering the mystery in Robin Steven’s The Guggenheim Mystery. This new middle grade novel has, at its heart, the mystery of the theft of the Kandinsky painting, ‘In the Black Square’.

The Guggenheim Mystery tells the story of Ted, a boy with a form of autism, who is visiting his aunt and cousin in New York, when a painting mysteriously disappears from the Guggenheim art gallery, of which his aunt is the curator. When the spotlight falls firmly on her as culprit, Ted and his cousins set off on an adventure to clear her name, and by doing so learn about the value of art. (Wonderfully, the author has borrowed from an episode in her own mother’s past for this – her mother worked at the Ashmolean in Oxford when a Cezanne painting was stolen.)

The book’s sense of place is vital, as Ted and his cousins move through the subway, Times Square, Brooklyn and Central Park to follow up leads to their detective work. Having been to NY many times, and most recently last month, I can attest to the accuracy and authenticity of the settings – as well as confirm that the painting is firmly in place in the museum (and there’s a wonderful children’s audio commentary which is well worth the visit!). But reading the book, whether you have been to New York or not, certainly calls to mind the excitement and uniqueness of this incredible city.

What’s more, one gets the feeling that Steven’s protagonist, Ted, sees the world more like Kandinsky than the rest of us:

“I noticed that the tilt of the Earth and the position of the sun meant that its light was passing through more air to reach ground level in New York. Each air molecule it bumped against made it scatter more and more, so that by the time it reached our eyes it was red and yellow instead of blue.”

Of course, his autism makes his senses more acute – accentuating sounds, colours, shapes. In fact, it’s Ted’s difference in seeing things that enables him to see things that others miss, and thereby solve the mystery. He wants to find patterns and logic in what he sees, which contrasts beautifully with his absorption of the chaos and noise of New York. But it also brings into play Kandinsky and the Guggenheim itself. He transforms the chaos into a theory and finally solves the jigsaw, with much help from the shapes and patterns of the Guggenheim itself – the whorls of the ramps, the triangles of the stairs, the curvature of the exterior.

This too links back to the Kandinsky painting, which shows the order and clean shapes of the weather, as well as depicting an expressiveness of the abstract.

The power of the book is in the very fact that Stevens distils this all into logical simplicity for Ted and for the reader – each chapter fastidiously traipses through the facts of the case, eliminating the impossibles. It’s easy to follow, but intriguing to read – I didn’t guess the culprit. It also follows on from Ted and his cousins’ appearance in The London Eye Mystery, and, cleverly maintains their distinctive personalities and relationships (despite having been written by a different author, the late Siobhan Dowd).

Both The Cranky Caterpillar and The Guggenheim Mystery are stellar examples of artistic endeavours coming to fruition. Richard Graham is an upcycling artist, and took his inspiration from not only Kandinsky, but from the hammers inside a cast-off piano. Look carefully at the detail in the illustrations and you’ll see how the caterpillar is crafted, as well as the most carefully crafted illustrations – taking inspiration from great artists, but also from the visuality of music. Stevens was asked to write the mystery as a sequel to late author Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, having been left with just the title to go on. With both books there is a pattern to their work, a pattern through shapes and colours and imagination. Perfect books for exploring children’s own creative endeavours.

You can buy The Cranky Caterpillar by Richard Graham here and The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens and Siobhan Dowd here.

 

Kevin by Rob Biddulph

Reading is so satisfying because it’s one of the closest ways we have of getting inside someone else’s brain – and I don’t mean just inside the characters’ thoughts, but also the author’s. It’s fascinating to see how someone else’s mind works, how they deal with a particular situation, or even simply the fluffy rainbows and unicorns that bounce about in their head.

One of the most striking ways some children have of utilising their imagination is in the creation of an imaginary friend. I’ve looked at this a little bit here to explore the whys of this phenomena – and trust me I think it’s something that can pervade adulthood too, especially for writers – I know my characters certainly live with me in one way or another.

Rob Biddulph’s latest picture book character explores this phenomena with a very clear motive. Sid Gibbons invents his imaginary friend as a scapegoat – someone to blame when Sid himself messes up. His mother, wisely, demands evidence of this guilty persona, and Sid draws Kevin (his imaginary friend) in quite acute detail, and his mother, wisely again, doesn’t ‘disbelieve’ in the friend – only in the premise that Kevin, not Sid, is to blame.

By the end of the story, empathy with Kevin shows Sid the error of his ways, (through a delightful little twist in the middle of the story), and before long Sid not only starts behaving, but enjoying his time with Kevin – and Biddulph sneakily lets the reader into the secret that Sid’s not the only child to have invented an imaginary friend.

Biddulph brings his distinctive rhyming style to this picture book, but has expanded upon it, so the sentences are longer, but still retain the rhythm and bounce of his previous books. The illustrations though, are exquisite. Freed from the animals of Penguin Blue, Biddulph not only portrays his humans with style and personality – from Sid’s trapper hat to his mother’s slippers – but also crafts the most appealing make-believe world, complete with a vast array of colourful flowers, spotty rainbows, and daft made-up beastie creatures. Shot through with a wide colour palate, they are nostalgic for adults used to 1970’s fashions, and vibrant for young children. Biddulph has a certain talent for images that appear simple, but are layered with detail. It’s fun to try to copy them – many children do (and for those with adults on twitter, you can follow his work on #drawwithRob).

What’s more the moral messages throughout – not blaming others, saying sorry, understanding others, cherishing friendship – aren’t spelled out in a pompous saccharine way, but carefully dripped through the story so that they are gently absorbed.

My only quibble is the portrayal of the Dad behind a newspaper and the mother with takeaway coffee and ugg boots, although in Biddulph’s defence perhaps it is just an accurate reflection of UK middle-class suburbia. Full marks though for the diversity of the children on the last pages – there’ll be much fun for children in spotting the different children, different beasties and familiar playground equipment. Watch out too for allusions to prior Biddulph picture books, and the final image, which suggests that sometimes Biddulph too escapes to his own imaginary world. You can buy your own copy here.

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell, illustrated by Hannah Horn

Katherine Rundell publishes her children’s books with an effortless breathlessness; they are dizzying in their sumptuous prose and expert storytelling, put children in the most challenging environments – from the rooftops of Paris in Rooftoppers to the snowy tundra of Russia in The Wolf Wilder, not to mention the African savannah and then harsh boarding school of The Girl Savage, and yet the books also manage to speak to the reader with a simple sublime truth. Rundell’s latest, The Explorer, takes the child protagonists to an even greater extreme, crash-landing them in the Amazon jungle.

Fred, Con, Lila and Max are alone with no food and no shelter. They must learn to navigate the unknown territory in which they find themselves, as well as find a route back to civilisation. At first, they look only for food and water, but then by accident, stumble across a map marked with an X – a sign that they are not alone, as they had envisaged. With growing courage, and a desire to survive, the children handcraft a raft which should take them to the X. But X marks the spot of someone else’s home, and they are not entirely welcome.

Rundell’s ability to handle the very different characteristics of the four children is apparent from the beginning, each personality drawing conflict with the others, and yet each being endearing and frustrating in their own way. The interaction between them, in very difficult circumstances, is as dramatic as any theatre production – the children forge through the jungle, all the while perpetuating the conflict between them, and quite often the struggle within themselves. Fred is loveable as a clear leader, but one obsessed with his perception of his father – as a parent who only sees his son’s shortcomings. Con struggles terrifically with the gendered role she has been assigned at home. Lila, with her younger brother Max, is perhaps the most sympathetic and nurturing of the four – she even adopts a sloth – but she too is nuanced – there are no cardboard cutout characters here.

The book immerses the reader in the Amazon. Rundell brings alive the sights and smells of the jungle, the pervasive problem of what to eat, and not only the wildlife, but the children’s relationship with it. Her sense of place is extraordinary, and it is no great surprise to learn that it is taken from first-hand experience. And the added element of Hannah Horn’s illustrations imbue the book with a sense of the wonder and beauty of the Amazon.

But tied up beneath the surface story of children surviving in this jungle environment are intricate questions of belonging, and the spaces we carve out for ourselves in society and culture, the expectations upon us, and also the balance of exploration and exploitation of other cultures.

The reader excuses the ease with which the children stumble upon the map and ‘the explorer’, because the enthusiasm and exuberance with which Rundell brings each new element of the story to light is utterly compelling. The power of flight, the joyfulness of discovery and escape, and the flourish with which Rundell furnishes her novels with truisms and wisdom:

“You don’t have to be in a jungle to be an explorer…Exploring is nothing more than the paying of attention…If you pay ferocious attention to the world, you will be as safe as it is possible to be.”

There’s an extra swiftness to this latest Rundell story, which in part lends it to an even younger readership than that of Rooftoppers and The Wolf Wilder, and although the prose is equally beautiful, the descriptions too are faster. With four child characters there is more dialogue, more action than before.

One can’t help feel that Rundell very much takes her own advice. Her stories bear out that she pays enormous attention to what’s going on around her, as well as plucking the richest bits for her prose. The Explorer bursts with ferocious energy, and each character carries an undercurrent of fierce passion. It’s a book that can’t help but inspire children with their own passion for life. You can buy it here.

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

The Ethan I was Before by Ali Standish and Truth or Dare by Non Pratt

It’s funny how books bucket together. In the past two months I’ve read three books with ‘dares’ as their theme – I Dare You by Reece Wykes, a picture book for the young at heart with a wry sense of humour, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt, a most excellent YA novel with some hard truths at heart, and The Ethan I was Before, a middle grade novel with a dare at its core.

In The Ethan I Was Before, twelve-year-old Ethan is moved with his family to live with his grandfather in Georgia, a far cry from the Boston he is used to. Allegedly the move is to help his grandfather, although it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather is an independent soul, and the move is to remove Ethan from an uncomfortable incident in his past.

Ethan’s relationship with his angry older brother, his new relationship with Coralee (an enigmatic girl he meets at school), and the exploration of his new town make up the bulk of the novel, but all the time the reader is aware of a past secret that Ethan is hiding.

Standish’s prose pulls in the reader from the beginning. There are some key phrases that show flashes of great writing, her similies are excellent and create an authentic sense of place: she describes the air at one point with “humidity like a wet fleece blanket”. Her characterisations too are neat and winning, from her portrayal of forthright and keenly intelligent Mack, who runs the local store, to Ethan’s Mum, who tends to burn food because she forgets having put it in the oven in an endearingly absentminded preoccupation. Standish also has a handle on the unsophisticated twelve-year-old way of trying to describe in words the complex emotions of guilt and anxiety. She also focuses on what Ethan’s therapist has told him to do, extrapolating the way Ethan is feeling without laying it too bare for the readership:

“It’s almost funny, that everything that would make a normal person happy is what makes me feel the most sad.”

And yet, it’s the not laying it bare that holds this book back from being as good as it should be. The ‘secret’ in the past is too often alluded to by Ethan’s family, and himself, and yet doesn’t feel real. Because they are all holding back so much, the constant nudges that there is something else going on, or something big that happened in the past, feel too contrived. Although in real life, we all do keep back parts of ourselves, even in some cases from ourselves, one feels that Ethan’s family would talk more frankly – particularly his brother – or that Ethan, who narrates the story in first person, would be slightly more honest with himself and with the readership. It doesn’t sit well that he hides the past from himself, because it doesn’t fit with his character.

On the whole this was a really enjoyable book; I just felt that it could have been bigger. With slightly more depth and more subtlety, the past could have been explored in more detail and led to a weightier novel. So the denouement, when it comes, feels half-hearted, and I wanted the ‘dare’ to be more dramatic. But for glimpses of what Standish can do, and with the possibility that there is better to come, this is an intriguing debut. It will fit the bill nicely for a summertime coming-of-age novel, and gives a great sense of small town America. You can buy it here.

For meatiness I’d go to the YA coming-of-age title, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt. Although the production at first seems gimmicky, in that the first part is narrated by main character Claire Casey, leaving the story on a cliffhanger, with the second part physically flipped over so that the reader has to turn the book upside down and start from the other end to read the other main character, Sef’s narration continuing the plot, the story itself is far from contrived. In fact, it becomes swiftly apparent reading part two that this consecutive narration adds depth and substance.

Kam Malik suffers a life-changing injury after a stupid stunt goes wrong. Claire, shy and unobtrusive, volunteers at his rehabilitation clinic. When she gets to know Kam’s brother, Sef, together they come up with a scheme to raise much-needed funds to maintain his rehabilitation. It’s a Truth or Dare YouTube campaign, but before long their truths collide and their dares take things too far.

Non Pratt has a magnificent turn of phrase that enables description without the reader feeling they’re reading any. The plot is deft and agile – the book skips along punctuated with accurate and authentic dialogue, and a look into the innermost thoughts of her narrators, which is, at times, devastating.

What shines through is the depth of characterisation, as at first the reader, through Claire’s eyes, really likes Sef Malik, but what soon becomes apparent through his point of view in part two, is that no one shows their true self to everyone, and that people aren’t kind or unkind throughout. Everyone has their motivations, demons, and selfishness. Pratt wheels through a host of issues including prejudice, fame, guilt, and love without once making this an issue novel. It’s a gripping read, as tumultuous as Claire’s relationship with Sef, and deeply satisfying. You can buy it here.

 

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Crazily enough, this children’s novel is the second I have read in the last two months that is rooted in an historical leprosy colony, and explores the effects on families and society. The other novel is Lauren Volk’s Beyond the Bright Sea.

Millwood Hargrave’s second novel, The Island at the End of Everything, is set in Culion in the Philippines, which in 1902 was established by US forces as a leper colony. Ami’s ‘touched mother’ gives birth to her on the island, and they live fairly simple lives until Ami’s thirteenth year, when US forces take over the island and decree that it is to be home for the ‘touched’ only, and they ship in many more lepers, segregating them from the untouched. The new governor then strips the island of the disease-free children and ships them to an orphanage on another island, so Ami takes it upon herself to find her way back home.

The story is told in Millwood Hargrave’s lyrical style, with her zing of brevity that wings the reader through the book. She has a poet’s eye for relaying a scene swiftly without flowery embellishment, managing to write vivid descriptions that all strive for the specific. The Philippines lend themselves to this prosaic style, and their lush landscapes are brought sharply into focus – the scent of oranges and colour of butterflies remain long after the book is finished.

The prose is startlingly different from Lauren Wolk’s book. There are no truisms spoken here, although they do exist – they are more subtly buried in an undercurrent of the adventure. But Hargrave’s characters are equally impetuous – particularly Ami herself and her friend Mari – they do not stop to think or listen to the grown ups around them, but take matters very much into their own hands. This plays with a general theme in current children’s fiction in which children often try to please their parents, not realising that they have misunderstood the essence of what will make their parents happy.

Millwood Hargrave also brings in her now characteristic element of writing strong female protagonists, and managing to instill a slight feminist agenda –  in that she shows her protagonists’ ability to act equally to the boys around them, despite them often being belittled by older boys or men.

But above the layers of all this, is a page-turning adventure story, packed with verdant scenery, and a demonstration of characters’ defiance against hatred and judgement, and their defence of love and friendship. There’s a sort of ‘no man left behind’ feel to the adventure, which is populated by good people, especially children, who are all overcoming adversity and striving to do well.

I actually preferred its simplicity and pace to the Millwood Hargrave’s debut, The Girl of Ink and Stars, for which she won the overall Waterstone’s Book Prize. Island feels more effortless, as if it flowed from the pen more easily, and is a kind of flawless adventure that definitely fulfills the author’s aim in showing children how to wonder at the wonders around us. I can’t wait to see what she does next. You can buy a copy of Island here.