friendship

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.

All The Things That Could Go Wrong by Stewart Foster


There’s been much talk recently about how reading can improve a person’s empathy. But few writers can see inside people’s heads as well as Stewart Foster, author of The Bubble Boy for children, and We Used To Be Kings (for adult readers).

His latest novel for children, All The Things That Could Go Wrong, deals with the topic of bullying in a terrifically empathetic way, alternating chapters between the points of view of the bully and the bullied.

Alex is struggling in secondary school. He has a lot of worries and his OCD makes doing the most ordinary things, such as leaving the house to go to school, very difficult. This term Sophie and Dan are picking on him, which makes life even harder.

Dan is not doing so well at school either. He’s angry because things have been different since his brother went away, and it’s easier to take out that anger on someone weaker.

So it’s mortifying for the both of them when their mothers, naïve to the ins and outs of school gangs and friendships, arrange for them to meet up outside of school to finish building the raft that Dan started with his brother.

The inevitability of the changing nature of their relationship becomes obvious from the moment that Alex’s and Dan’s mothers force them into spending time together, but Foster manages to eke out every single moment of tension between them, as well as realistically delineating exactly how their relationship changes, why, and at an honest pace. It’s not like they’ll be friends overnight.

The dual narrative works well here in a perfect equilibrium. The reader loves both the voices, so that, unlike some books in which the reader races through one narrative to reach their favourite voice, here, the scales feel well-balanced. What’s more Foster doesn’t insinuate more sympathy to or empathy with either character – they are dealt with equally but differently. Each boy’s perspective pushes the plot along, as well as revealing their gradual realisation not only of their own outward projection of how they want to be seen, but also how they are perceived. In the end of course, they have an insight into who they actually are, and how they can be the best part of themselves.

Alex is a fascinating character in that Foster makes sure that his OCD is not what defines him. He has many other interests and talents, which are easy to identify – it’s just that his OCD gets in his own way. What’s more, Foster doesn’t make the OCD the reason that Alex is bullied – in fact the bullies hardly seem aware of it – other than the physical gloves he wears. For Alex it is the preoccupying factor in his life, but for the bullies, they just pick on him because he projects weakness. In fact, they are satisfied to move onto bullying another victim when the time is right.

Also punctuating the story are Alex’s lists of worries, which he is encouraged to write down by his therapist, and the lists are both highly irrational and yet highly understandable. Written in a different typeface, the lists add yet another insight into his mind.

And Dan too is distinctly likeable, despite his bullying of Alex. He exudes a loneliness, anger and frustration symptomatic of many twelve-year-old boys struggling to understand their place in society, as well as struggling to make sense of a significant change in their home lives – in this case the absence of Dan’s older brother. Foster portrays Dan’s lack of communication with those around him, and as an extra insight into his mind, shows the reader Dan’s letters to his brother. They are immensely poignant.

Because of course, part of what defines us as human beings is our relationships with others – how we handle those around us, and as children not just the friends we make at school, but the changing family dynamic. The worry of Dan’s mother, and the portrayal of Alex’s father in handling his son’s illness, are both treated with brevity and yet clear intelligence. Alex’s frustration in not being able to be the big brother he’d like to be to his sister is also heart-breaking.

But as well as the prodigious character crafting, Foster supplies a page-turning plot, a constant anxiety about what could go wrong for the boys, and an excellent breakdown of bullying. The chapters are short and pithy, the prose perspicuous.

It’s an utterly immersive novel about learning to be yourself, and like yourself. It’s a book that I’d like to shove at primary school teachers to share with their classes because of its brilliant exposition of bullying, but also the kind of book children will read by torchlight under the covers because they need to find out what happens next. When they say ‘not to be missed’, this is the kind of book they mean. You can buy a copy here.

Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth

Another new novel for children (aged approx nine years and over) that seeks to explore an immensely difficult political reality, but without making it too complicated for children to understand or too upsetting to read. Instead, it uses adventure and ongoing hope in the face of extreme adversity.

Tash lives in Tibet, where her father works for the resistance in an attempt to keep his supressed religion alive, and to get word out to the wider world about the oppression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese occupation. When a man sets fire to himself in the village as an act of protest, the Chinese soldiers step up their curfews and subjugation. Tash’s parents are taken away, so she sets off across the Himalayas to India in search of help from the exiled Dalai Lama. The majority of the book tells the account of her trek across the mountains with her friend Sam, and two yaks.

What makes the book work is that this is a depiction of an ordinary child in extraordinary circumstances. At the beginning of the novel she is shown attending school, and yet she can’t run home through the fields as she’d like because the patrolling soldiers don’t allow it. The emotions and thoughts are those of a child, with hurts, guilts and worries explored, but all the time there are small nuggets that lead the reader to believe that being small doesn’t mean that you can’t make a difference.

The prose is simple too. Short sharp sentences in short sharp chapters, with distinct character development as Tash moves across the mountains. This gives the character a clear sense of purpose, but also makes the book a swift quick read, as if the reader too is running from danger. It also lowers the age range accessibility – meaning that a young confident reader can tackle the book because the vocabulary and sentence structures are kept easy and tight. However, in its brevity, the book glosses over some of the implausibility of the journey, and the action feels a little lacking in overall cohesion – almost as if the journey dominates the overall purpose – but for children this could be read less as a flaw and more as simply a sign of a pacey read.

As with many novels for children, there is a very positive, yet dependent relationship between child and animal, (in place of family), and so the yaks become very much characters on whom the children are reliant, and so for whom the readers feel passion. There is also a huge emphasis on friendship, loyalty and courage.

And lastly, the production of the book is simply stunning. With a cover that sings of sunrise and adventure, and inside pages that hold intricate print designs and hidden yaks, this is a beautiful book to own. An eye-opening and somewhat different read. Buy yours here.

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.