friendship

Be My Valentine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dyslexia and Writing: Amber Lee Dodd

lightning chase me home

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

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

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

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

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

amber lee dodd
Amber Lee Dodd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paper Avalanche by Lisa Williamson

paper avalancheThis is a book with a mental health issue at its heart, and although like No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsin, Williamson has clearly taken a ‘theme’ or ‘problem’ she wants to address and written a story on it, the novel in no way feels like an ‘issue’ book. The characters are so well drawn, so likeable and sympathetic and written in such an understanding way, that they could be real, and so it feels more like a character exploration than a focus on ‘issue’. 

Year 9 student Ro Snow spends much of her time at school trying hard to be invisible. She’s one of those children at school who wanders the corridor alone, keeps her head down in lessons, and doesn’t shine in any after school clubs or at any talent because she wants to be un-noticed. She’s a ‘behind the scenes’ kind of person. The reader first meets her at an after-show drama club party where she is shying away from the teenage boy who clearly has noticed her and taken an interest. It feels authentic, and squirmy and also deeply moving.

Ro’s mother is a hoarder, and their house, to Ro, is both highly embarrassing from the outside and an absolute shocker from the inside. Piles of dishes litter the sink, piles of paper line the corridors. Ro can’t see her carpet anymore, and she has to shuffle sideways to make it through her hallway. Her room though, with a lock on the door to keep her mother out, is spotless, clean, minimal. However, she can’t make friends, in case they expect an invite home, so she keeps herself to herself.

Ro feels that her mother’s mental health issue defines her whole life. Until that is, things start to change, as life invariably does. A new family with teenage boy move in next door. And a girl called Tanvi starts at her school who takes an unlikely punt as who’s to be her new best friend – picking Ro. When Tanvi forces Ro into joining the school choir, and Ro discovers how talented she really is, it becomes harder and harder to hide from the spotlight. But with a light shone on her circumstances, things could go drastically wrong…By the end Ro comes to understand that she isn’t defined by her mother or her hoarding, nor limited by it, and it’s through the kindness and caring of people around her that this becomes apparent. 

Williamson is masterful in drawing out the usual trials and tribulations of the teen years into a captivating read, in which the reader feels every emotion with the characters. Her writing is unobtrusive, leading the reader flawlessly from one scene to the next, never breaking the spell of imagination, but managing to show the profound effects of loneliness and shame.

Included in the narrative is Ro’s ever more absent father, who has found a new wife and daughter, and some of the scenes with him are excruciatingly real. With her embarrassment of her home life, her feelings of rejection around her father, and her worries about everyday practicalities, Williamson shows a teenager under huge pressure and anxiety, but still incorporates enough humour, wisdom and kindness from friends and outsiders to make the reader feel that resolutions will come. And they do, but like life, not in all areas, and sometimes they’re still a bit messy.

I particularly enjoyed how Williamson very slowly incorporated into the text Ro’s first experience of having a boyfriend, only at the end revealing how many parallels there are between the pair.

This is a great book from one of the best YA authors around.  Whether it’s showing how secrets are best shared, the small intimate details between mother and daughter, a teen’s frustration at fighting to be in control and yet still wanting a responsible parent, first love that’s not too complicated or angst ridden, or just the emotional pull of engaging characters, this is a book not to be missed.

Paper Avalanche strikes deep, yet remains phenomenally readable. Age 12+ years. You can buy it here.

Quick Gift Guide: Books

Are you still stuck for Christmas gifts? Perhaps it’s not for Christmas, but a seasonal present. I’m always pleased to receive a book – and trust me I already have a few! Here are some eclectic titles that have nothing to do with Christmas, which various family members might like:

the boy and the bear
For the very young:
The Boy and the Bear by Tracey Corderoy and Sarah Massini
There’s a wintry feel with this delightful picture book about unlikely friendship, and patience. With glowing silver snowflakes on the cover, and a boy in a woolly hat holding hands with an adorable bear, the book gives a warm fuzzy feeling from the start. The story has an old-fashioned timeless feel, the boy running in the countryside flying a paper aeroplane with satchel swinging from his hip. There is not a screen in sight. Nor a friend either. But there is a shy bear. Although seemingly incompatible (in the most adorable ways), the pair strike a friendship, which has to take a hiatus for hibernation. The matching of text to illustration strikes perfection here. There is humour, pathos, a conveyance of the passing of time, and so much emotion. I suggested this for the very young, but if you’re young at heart, you’ll love this too. An absolute gem of a picturebook. You can buy it here.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

For the unicorn-obsessed (and others)
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson (7+)
This glittery pink full length comic strip novel tells a cute story in simple sharp lines, with jokes a-plenty, and will enthral youngsters with its tale of Phoebe and her vain mythical animal companion. Phoebe skips a rock across a pond and accidentally hits a unicorn in the face. The unicorn, until then completely absorbed in its own reflection, is thankful for the distraction and grants Phoebe a wish. She wishes for the unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, to be her obligatory best friend. And thus the adventures begin. As you’ve noticed from the name of the unicorn, there’s more than a hint of mischief here, but the book also bears a special message about overcoming loneliness and finding one’s own strengths and virtues. This is a lot of fun, and because the comic strip maintains focus on the key characters rather than deviating too much into the landscape, and the strips are self-contained, the story is easy to follow for reluctant readers. The newest full length comic strip title is Phoebe and Her Unicorn in Unicorn Theater. Sweet and sugary, and reminiscent of My Little Pony with a bit of attitude, this is a US title now available here.

the ink house
For the appreciative art fan:
The Ink House by Rory Dobner (8+)
This isn’t a usual picture book. More a unique curiosity through the artist’s mind as he seeks to explore the insides of The Ink House, an intricately designed mansion built on a pool of ink, in which a party of animals is due to take place, after the human resident takes off in a hot air balloon to search for further knickknacks to add to his treasured collection.

The illustrations, in ink of course, are amazingly detailed and stunningly imagined. There’s a darkness, a gothic tendency in the drawings, and the feeling is that each stroke is penned as delicately as if he were crafting a poem. The story isn’t really a story – just a menagerie of animals within a setting, and the scenes in which Dobner showcases the house in most detail work best. The mouse on the desk with piles of books, clocks, candle, quill pen; the ape in armchair with guitar, old-fashioned tea set, and gramophone showcases the neat juxtaposition between old and new, distorting one’s expectations and reality; the horses in the tiled hallway complete with pillars and a view onto the gardens. The artwork is disturbing, disjointed and wonderful, justifying the purchase even if the text is a little clunky. My advice – add your own words to the pictures, and tell the story in your head. You can buy it here.

absolutely everything

For everyone:
Absolutely Everything by Christopher Lloyd, illustrated by Andy Forshaw
The author of this conversational tome is nothing if not ambitious. The contents of this nonfiction narrative span from the Big Bang through dinosaurs, homo sapiens, ancient civilisations, the classical empires to the medieval, age of exploration, revolutions, wars and onwards. Everything in fact. The tone is avuncular, as if you’ve asked a favourite relative to let loose – tell me about the ancient Greeks, Chris…In this chapter, Lloyd starts with an anecdote about an olive, which merges into why olive oil was so precious, then onto slaves, democracy and war…you can see how the narrative flows from one idea to another, incorporating facts, events and stories. Each section is colour-coded for easy reference and there are colour visuals throughout, from illustrations adorning the text to photos, maps, timelines etc. There’s a nice linear progression to the book, an understanding of how one thing in history leads to another (although this is definitely Western civilisation’s history), and an over-riding infectious enthusiasm to explore how societies linked up, how the world became global. Engrossing and all-encompassing. Give as a gift, and keep a copy for yourself. The sort of book to stop you getting bored in the holidays. You can buy it here.

Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway

unicorn girlThere is a Year 1 girl in my library club who is obsessed with unicorns. She can recall every book in my library that features a unicorn (and not just on the cover). So, in a few years’ time, she’ll delight in reading Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway.

Not many children’s books start with a funeral, but when Ariella’s grandma dies she not only leaves her with a sense of sadness, but also a unicorn charm. Days later, Ariella spies a real unicorn in the empty field at the back of the house. The unicorn proves useful in helping Ariella with her feelings of grief, as well as with her worries about her baby brother who is born with a hole in his heart, and settling in at her new school – which is proving more difficult than she thought, especially when one of the girls, Belinda, starts picking on her for her size (Ariella is small for her age).

Wouldn’t it be helpful if we all had a unicorn to deal with our anxieties? This novel from the award-winning author of Butterfly Summer captures its readership with its authenticity – despite the book venturing into magical realism with the appearance of a unicorn. Conway works as a drama teacher, and her knowledge of schools and how they operate today is plainly apparent and lends the book a huge dose of realism. The lessons, the teachers, and the pupils feel more real than many depictions in the children’s books I read – even down to the minute details of topics learned, the impact of a good teaching assistant on children who are struggling, and the ability of children to perform actions unseen by staff, no matter how diligent the teachers.

Many of today’s children are consumed with worries, observing the stresses of their parents, absorbing the changing attitude of older teen siblings, and struggling to navigate through the landscape of friendships. Conway piles worries on Ariella, but the book never feels too sad – there are shimmers of hope in kind supportive adults, and also of course in the introduction of the unicorn and its magic. Conway is clever here too, giving the unicorn its own backstory, and applying scruffy characteristics to it, so that by the reveal at the end, it becomes very clear to the reader what’s going on. The unicorn brings not only a sense of wonder and possibility, but also a calm space in which Ariella can breathe and contemplate.

Conway’s prose is absorbing and readable, and she touches on difficult themes with a sensitive and emotionally intelligent eye, observing not only the realism of schools, but also a keen understanding of a family under stress, and the dynamics of how each member of the family deals with the emotional upheaval, before finally coming together.

What’s particularly heart-warming is the way in which the book has been published. Anne-Marie Conway had finished her draft of the book, in which Ariella finds incredible solace in a particular unicorn book she finds in a hospital library, when she was approached to raise some money to build a new school library at her child’s school.  Now,  profits from Conway’s published book are being donated to building that new school library for her local school. You can click on the link here to see the fundraising project, and here to buy a copy of the book.

Younger Fiction

There have been some beautiful stories for younger children recently – books for newly independent readers (those comfortable enough to tackle chapter books by themselves).

legend of kevinThe Legend of Kevin by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Reeve and McIntyre, of Cakes in Space fame, bring their zany storytelling to this new magical tale about a rotund flying pony, blown from the outermost West to a tower block in Bumbleford. The over-riding theme is friendship but there’s a pervasive feeling of community throughout, and an understanding of providing solutions for problems, no matter how peculiar the problem (mermaid hair styling), and how outlandish the solution. There’s acceptance of difference, and an emphasis on ordinary heroes.

The success of this author/illustrator pairing, and there are those who wait ravenously for each new book, is that the text and pictures work perfectly in harmony. Gaps in the text are filled by the pictures, humour in the pictures is enhanced by the text. The pair know exactly how to pace the book, when to digress and when to pull back to the plot. With their trademark mermaids and naughty sea monkeys, this is a delight (for slightly younger audiences than their previous books), and marks a determined shift towards reality, as the Outermost West comes to a city not unlike the reader’s, complete with mundane shops, headmasters and mayors. You can buy it here.

sherlock and baker street curseSherlock and the Baker Street Curse by Sam Hearn

Super sleuthing comes to the younger fiction department in this glorious play on the trope of Sherlock Holmes. Transported into a school, the Baker Street Academy, Sherlock is just a school boy solving mysteries. But it’s the use of media that works so well here. The plot is relayed through a series of different text formats – Watson’s diary, comic strip illustrations, notice boards, webchats, emails etc. There’s a mystery to solve of course – and the reader can solve alongside Holmes, Watson and Hudson, as long as they don’t get misguided by a red herring.

In this book in the series, Sherlock and his friends have to solve a ghost mystery, dating back to when the school building was a family home. There is a great warmth that exudes from the text, and the dialogue feels authentic and friendly. A slick introduction to mysteries. You can buy it here.

ivy and beanIvy and Bean: One Big Happy Family by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I had my favourite American characters when I was little – Ramona Quimby and Amelia Bedelia spring to mind instantly. I don’t know if it was their spunky characters or their derring-do adventures, or perhaps the setting – in a school grade system I didn’t understand, with towns boasting large white houses with sweeping driveways, and vibrant lawns with tyre swings hanging from trees. For the next generation, and slightly more down-to-earth, is Ivy and Bean. This delightful friendship between quiet Ivy and rambunctious Bean, two seven-year-olds who live in the same street, is a celebration of old-fashioned values and community America. But mainly it’s just a fun chronicle of two girls and their neighbourhood adventures. What appeals most is the amount of free time the girls have to indulge their passions and make their own fun – rather like The Secret Seven did.

Barrows seems to have an understanding of the limitless possibilities offered by the best childhoods, and she includes all the fabulous childhood obsessions from glitter, to being made to tidy up, to sharing. This eleventh book in the series celebrates being an only child, or rather not being spoiled. You can buy it here.

first prize for worst witchFirst Prize for the Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Another series that should be celebrated for its longevity is The Worst Witch. Not only bearing my favourite character names, Mildred Hubble’s and enemy Ethel Hallow’s images are burned onto my brain – those illustrious illustrations of schoolgirl witches hanging on broomsticks with plaits flailing behind them, dangling untied shoelaces, and the haughty thinness of Miss Hardbroom. The utter enjoyment of seeing Mildred learning from her mistakes continues to this day, with Mildred battling to be chosen as Head Girl, against all the odds. Although the first in the series was published in 1974, this latest (and reportedly last) lives up to the high standard set by the first, and is an utter nostalgic joy for the adult reader, and an excellent gentle introduction to chapter books for new readers – it’s humorous, accessible and still relevant. You can buy it here.

nelly and monster sitterNelly the Monster Sitter: the Grerks at No. 55 by Kes Gray, illustrated by Chris Jevons

Repackaged in August with new illustrations, although the original text was first published in 2005, these hilarious books sit comfortably between Horrid Henry and The Bolds as accessible, funny, highly illustrated chapter books just right for newly independent readers. Nelly likes monsters, and happily takes care of the little monsters in the neighbourhood after school whilst the parent monsters take some time off. She’s in high demand, but has no idea of the type of monster she’ll encounter before she arrives. Each adventure showcases Nelly’s wit and quick-thinking – she’s a brave, down-to-earth and likeable protagonist, and as one would expect from Kes Gray, there is plenty of word play, great visual description (enhanced by the illustrations), and a lively exuberance that permeates the text. The winning formula here is that the monsters’ lives are so mundane. You can buy it here.

oscar and catastropheOscar and the CATastrophe by Alan MacDonald, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Another skilled writer for this age group is the indomitable Alan MacDonald, author of the Dirty Bertie and Superhero School series, among others. His straightforward easy to understand style is great for flourishing readers, and enables them to zip through his books at speed, promoting confidence and fluency. Oscar and the CATastrophe is the third in this series about Oscar the talking dog and his owner Sam. In this latest adventure, Oscar has been shocked to silence by the appearance of a neighbourhood cat and Sam is worried about the jewel thief in town. Gentle humour and basic plotting, but perfect for growing readers. You can buy it here.

Zebras and Lollipops

On route to take my younger children to school, we have to cross four roads. Two are minor, and two are main roads, neither of which two years ago had a zebra crossing. I decided to use my campaigning skills to petition the council and Transport for London to install one on the school’s road. And to my delight, a year later, they did. Now I use it about four times a day, and it serves the local park too.

phantom lollipop manAnother school that has a zebra crossing outside, is Izzy’s school in the Pamela Butchart book, The Phantom Lollipop Man, illustrated by Thomas Flintham. This seventh book in the ‘Baby Aliens’ series continues the exploits of Izzy and her friends and their school. In this title the friends are shocked to discover that their lollipop man has disappeared. Instead, they feel an unsettling coldness even when wearing tights, and start to see wispy clouds in the playground. Could he have died and now be haunting the school? So Izzy and her friends determine to find out.

On the surface, this is another exuberant adventure from brilliant comedy writer Pamela Butchart. The text flows with Izzy’s characteristic breathlessness, driving the reader through the plot and as always staying true to the brilliant friendship group, each member clearly distinguished by their character traits.

But what makes the book so endearing, other than the CAPITAL LETTERS, illustrations and energetic use of dialogue, is Butchart’s complete comprehension of schools. From her understanding about the importance of blu tack through to school office workers’ signs and the attitude of lunch supervisors, this is imperative as young readers feel a sense of familiarity with the world being created.

And although the books are hilarious – this one in particular had me laughing out loud every few pages and is definitely the funniest so far – there is an insightful compassion for the community of a school – the way that each component is dependent on another, and some real truths about what we value in society.

Izzy and her friends point to the lack of value we place upon certain people – lollipop workers included (but also perhaps, the school officer workers, the librarians, careworkers etc) and how important their roles are, and how they should be recognised. It’s a subtle message underlying the hugely comedic text, but a vital one. And Butchart also points out the loneliness that can be experienced in old age – when juxtaposed with the intense intimacy of Izzy and her friends, it becomes even more apparent.

This is a superb book that deals with community, values and society, and rounds off nicely with good use of the library and empathy for other people. A riotous, happy, storming success. A really top series for newly independent readers. I hope they keep coming. You can buy it here.

zebra crossing soul songOn a similar theme, but for teen readers is Zebra Crossing Soul Song by Sita Brahmachari. This is a book published by dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke, and is suitable for a reading age of 8, even though its subject matter is for teens. But it’s an enjoyable read for all.

Lenny has spent most of his eighteen years crossing the nearby zebra crossing, aided by the singing ‘zebra man’ Otis. But when Otis isn’t there anymore, Lenny, who is himself struggling as he sits his psychology A-level, looks back on his memories of them together, through music, and finds a way to move forwards.

Cleverly, the fixed point of the zebra crossing gives a clear focus for Lenny to look back on his school years from nursery to A-Level as he reaches a crossroads in his life. And the shared passion of music gives Lenny and Otis a clear bond, and also a vehicle for Brahmachari to use music as a distinguishing feature in her novel, as the story is written in music memory tracks – music as a recall mechanism, but also as a form of writing in its own right – like a poem.

When Otis disappears, Lenny uses his knowledge of psychology and memory, as well as music to find out what happened in Otis’s past to affect his future, and discovers that not only does music hold a bond with the past, but a vital component of Lenny’s life going forwards.

This is a cleverly woven piece, with a sympathetic bond between two people, and, as in Butchart’s light-hearted book, an awareness that although some people aren’t highly valued by society, they are highly valuable as individuals and in the role they play. Lollipop men and women are there to save lives – and sometimes literally do, and they play a positive role in shaping the community they serve. Sometimes it’s the quiet people who make the difference. You can buy it here.

 

 

Skycircus by Peter Bunzl (Book Three of the Cogheart Series)

skycircusWhen I was reading Skycircus, I couldn’t help but think of The Greatest Showman. The success of that film wasn’t down to critics, who panned the movie on its opening weekend, and I went to see it (somewhat reluctantly and with low expectations) with the children, and now own both the DVD and the soundtrack and secretly play them when the children are at school. Is it the music, or is it perhaps the emotions that circuses inspire that proved it such a great success?

The Greatest Showman is based very loosely upon PT Barnum, remembered for his travelling circus. Ironically the film sets out to show acceptance of difference, despite Barnum being known for his exploitation and sometime racism.

Circuses have long been a source of inspiration and imagination for novelists. Many children’s book characters visit the circus at least once in their series – Pippi Longstocking, Madeline, Doctor Doolittle, Claude, Paddington Bear all went to the circus, and some of my favourite stand-alone literature is set in the circus – The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll, Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfield.

The circus arena is a great site for storytelling. As with theatre there’s the theme of appearance and reality, what’s hidden behind masks and costumes, but the circus also brings a daredevil nature to the stage – acts that seem impossible, daring and courage, excitement and danger. And an inherent subversive nature. Whether it’s the people behind the circus – seen for such a long time as ‘other’ – or the arguments over mistreatment of animals in the arena, the dichotomy of both providing entertainment but also making money, and the long history and argument of exploitative acts versus acts celebrating freedoms.

Peter Bunzl had already incorporated elements of this into his Victoriana steampunk series that  begins with Cogheart, an adventure story that subverts history and science, featuring mechanimals, penny dreadfuls, clocks and cogs, the author supposing that mechanicals were more advanced than they really were – that humans had reached a scientific equivalent to robots and AI but without computing leading the way – instead using mechanical parts.

Skycircus, the third in Bunzl’s Cogheart series, transports the characters from Cogheart – Lily, her mechanimal fox Malkin and her human friend Robert into a circus adventure. With the energy and tone of the prior books, it adds to the atmosphere a circus in which the people are treated more as prisoners, and circus acts that fuse the mechanical with the derring-do of trapeze acts and escape artists.

On Lily’s fourteenth birthday, she receives a cryptic poem inviting her to a travelling skycircus, arrived in the locale. Not being able to resist the clues, she sets off to watch the acts, little failing to realise that it’s a trap and that before long she’ll no longer be the observer in the audience, but the headline act herself.

With references to the past books, and Lily’s own past creeping forwards to haunt her, the book works both as a stand-alone read but also a continuation of the series. Never shy with words, the book is meaty and dense – an imagined world full of science and steampunk and its accompanying vocabulary.

With a keen nod to today’s preoccupations of gender stereotyping (a plot twist for which I fell cog, sprocket and gear), and liberally littered with allusions to Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the leading thinkers of the time in which it’s set, this is a layered book with much to extrapolate. Of course, there’s much about exploitation, and of animals too, but mainly about how we see others who may seem different from us; whether it’s a seen physical manifestation (perhaps race or a disability), or whether its just about seeing things from another’s point of view. Whom do you trust and how far can science take us?

Despite all this, at its heart this is a thrilling, danger-filled adventure story. I particularly enjoy Bunzl’s small touches of humour and detail that imbue each story with depth of character and charm. The clown who speaks in spoonerisms in Skycircus, the magnificent understanding of the rolling out of the circus, and the allusions to ancient myths and the power of storytelling itself.

This is a grand book with a plot as tense as tiptoeing the tightrope, and bold narration that shouts as loudly as the red and white stripes of the circus tent. You can run away to your own circus here.

The Lifters by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Aaron Renier

the liftersMany of my test readers adore short chapters in their children’s fiction. It might be because they are reluctant readers and getting through the chapters feels like an achievable accomplishment. Or perhaps because they enjoy the cliff edges in the chapter cliffhanger endings, or simply because they can easily find a place to stop at lights out.

The Lifters by Dave Eggers has one hundred and thirteen chapters – not because it’s War and Peace for kids, but rather because most of the chapters are only a couple of pages long. Brief they may be, but they certainly contain a depth of metaphor.

Like many books for children this age, the main character’s story begins when his family move house to a new town. However, unlike anyone else, this boy is called Granite Flowerpetal, which he shortens to Gran as he starts his life afresh in the town called Carousel.

Life isn’t everything he and his parents had hoped in the new town. Gran is not teased at school, more ignored than anything, and his father fails to find the work he hoped would materialise in the new town. Instead, he travels miles away, leaving Gran, his sister and their wheelchair-bound mother.

Not long after they arrive, houses and buildings in Carousel start disappearing into massive sink-holes, and it turns out to be no coincidence when Gran follows a girl into a series of hidden underground tunnels, in which children called Lifters prop up the foundations of their towns.

The metaphor is blatant, but cleverly written. The town, particularly this kind of traditional manufacturing town, is literally sinking or collapsing because of the depth of misery and disheartened thinking, and it’s only the hope for the future (represented by the children) than can help to lift it again.

Granite, named for strength, turns out to be stronger than he thought, and Catalina, the girl who at first had questioned his moniker: “Don’t you realise Gran sounds like you’re a grandmother?” turns out to appreciate his company, especially after he proves his worth in the tunnels.

Although this was written before Trump became President, Eggers skilfully picks up on the US rust belt towns’ feeling of hopelessness: Carousel is a fictional town that was famous for making carousels, but has fallen victim to the new thrill seekers who prefer rollercoasters.

This is no rollercoaster of a novel – it’s more an extended metaphor with plenty of critique of the times in which we live. Adults come across quite badly – they cannot cope with conflict and tend to avoid trying to see another’s point of view at all. When part of the school falls in, the teachers act as if the sinkhole is inevitable and offer counselling to the children by way of individual cubicles and a psychology examination by an automaton on screen.

But although the responsibility for healing the community falls squarely onto the children’s shoulders, there is enough humour to lift the reader’s spirits, and plenty of great writing that keeps the reader turning the page, especially the little universal truths interjected by the writer. Away from the despondency and overplayed metaphor, I really rather enjoyed it. A good choice for older primary school readers looking for meaning behind a story. You can buy it here.