friendship

Books for Younger Readers

I’m constantly blown away by the quality of books for younger readers, otherwise known as newly independent readers. This, of course, is how it should be. It’s a crucial time to create that love of reading for pleasure. If they actively want to spend time reading at this age and it becomes habit, then their transition to reading longer texts will follow. Here is my round-up of recent texts for newly independents – about age 6-7 years onwards (although each child reads at their own pace and shouldn’t be rushed).

Sam Wu
Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts by Katie and Kevin Tsang illustrated by Nathan Reed
Sam Wu is afraid of many things, but no one likes to admit being a scaredy-cat. After an incident during a school trip to the science museum, everyone, especially the school bully, figures out that Sam Wu is quite scared. To prove his bravery, Sam opts to keep a pet snake. The only problem is that he’s scared of snakes.

This is a new series by husband and wife team and their compatibility obviously pays off in the writing. Never a dull moment, and packed full of laughs, this is an endearing look at different cultures, friendships, and how to be brave. There are particular stellar characters, including a grandmother and a little sister, who delightfully is not stereotypically annoying, but actually a great help to Sam. There’s a fun layout with large typeface, capital letters to emphasise embarrassing and scary moments, and lots of fantastic illustrations from Nathan Reed. A great introduction to chapter books. You can buy it here.

great telephone mix up
The Great Telephone Mix-Up by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey
An absolutely charming tale about the importance of community, helping your neighbours and reaping the surprising benefits. When the phone wires in a sleepy little village get mixed up, the neighbours start to discover things about each other as they receive the wrong phone calls, and then have to pass on the messages.

It turns out that meeting each other face to face not only brings new friendships, but brings awareness of who in the town is struggling, needs help or may need to find love. Nicholls carefully gets over the problem of mobile phones by explaining there is no signal in the town (a message not entirely lost on rural communities), and so everyone relies on their home phone.

The story is simple, the text well-spaced, and illustrations by Sheena Dempsey positively charming. Each character is well delineated and there’s a diverse mix. A lovely addition to the Little Gems selection. You can buy it here.

noah scape
Noah Scape Can’t Stop Repeating Himself by Guy Bass, illustrated by Steve May
An altogether more nightmarish story from Guy Bass, in which the protagonist can’t get what he wants. Noah decides that if everyone in the world were like him, then that would solve the problem- after all the majority rules, right? It starts, as all school problems do, in the school canteen when Noah is served meat pie instead of spaghetti with tomato sauce.

When Noah wakes the next morning and goes to school, he finds himself already sitting in his seat – there are two of him. And each day the number of Noahs double until finally they get what they want. They also share the same opinions like a modern day echo chamber.

Or do they?

When the original Noah is outvoted by his 63 copies, Noah realises he still isn’t getting his own way. This is a brilliant examination of how to get along with others, as well as a great representation of coping in school when a child is having to manage a mental health issue such as OCD, which dictates that routine is of paramount importance to the day. Of course, there’s the numerical element too. Bass hasn’t quite tied up all the loose ends of the story either, so there’s plenty of room for speculation after reading. A fun, and also highly accessible read. You can buy it here.

happyville high
Happyville High: Geek Tragedy by Tom McLaughlin
One of the most hilarious young fiction titles I have read in a long time, I couldn’t stop sniggering, which of course made all the children near me want to read this too. Tyler is too smart for school and has been homeschooled for much of her life. But when she and her Dad move to Happyville, he enrols her in the local school.

This is no ordinary school though, and Tyler realises there’s something inherently wrong, especially when she reads the motto: “The more popular you are, the happier you become!” Being a bit of a nerd means that Tyler definitely isn’t popular, but she does make two friends in the library, who are equally ‘geeky’. Tyler is enthralled when she discovers that one of them has developed an algorithm to decipher which candy bar is best, with the results laid out on a spreadsheet. (Tyler’s excitement at being invited over to see this knows no limits.)

When the popular kids are struck with an affliction – their right arms elongate to enable them to take better selfies – the three new friends have to use their brains to rid the town of this vain disorder. There is much slapstick and silly humour but also a biting satirical look at the way our society ranks people and behaves. Fabulously funny in many ways and incredibly readable. For slightly older readers than the other books on this blog. Self-illustrated too. You can buy it here.

magical kingdom of birds
Magical Kingdom of Birds: The Sleepy Hummingbirds by Anne Booth, illustrated by Rosie Butcher
A gentler start to a series in this book about magical escapism – something we all might need from the world of selfie-sticks and cool school heroes. When Maya colours in the pages of her colouring book, she is whisked into a magical kingdom filled with the most enchanting colourful birds and their small fairy friends.

But, as with all idylls, trouble is brewing, and the evil Lord Astor has a plan to capture the tiniest, most vulnerable residents and put them into cages. Maya has the privilege and great responsibility of being Keeper of the Book, and she must protect the kingdom and its birds at all costs.

An early introduction to the beauty of the natural world, with each book in the series showcasing a different species, this is a wonderful start to early reading. The pages are exquisitely illustrated in black and white by Rosie Butcher, the text in many cases framed by a leafy border, encapsulating the words and the story in this natural landscape. Beautiful descriptions bring the birds and their habitat to life, and Booth hasn’t been afraid to introduce more difficult vocabulary, explaining words such as torpor, tubular and prophesy. You can buy it here.

unicorn academymuddle the magical puppythe spiderwick chroniclesA quick mention to three other series. Unicorn Academy by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Lucy Truman has hitchhiked perfectly onto the current zeitgeist for all things unicorn. With its sparkly covers and more grown-up illustrations, these reminded me of my adoration and loyalty to all things My Little Pony when I was a child. The Unicorn Academy adventures are school stories in which the girls each have their own unicorn, and each book introduces themes such as friendship, loyalty, and independence. The first in the series, Sophia and the Rainbow, introduces ten-year-old Sophia who finds out that each unicorn has its own special powers. The stories are simple, chapters short, but the series has the magical potential to turn reading into a habit. Likewise with Muddle the Magic Puppy and Cuddle the Magic Kitten series by Hayley Daze. Cute illustrations adorn the front and continue inside, with big eyes as a feature. In Muddle the Magic Puppy: The Magic Carpet, Muddle goes on a flying carpet adventure in Arabia. A long-established children’s writer has penned these, and the story is straightforward. Large typography and short chapters make comprehension easy. Lastly, for more advanced readers, the publisher Simon and Schuster have republished The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black in beautifully illustrated hardback editions. This gothic fantasy series is a great choice for fluent readers who want to expand their literary landscape – with a richly imagined world of dark fairies. The Grace children move into the Spiderwick Estate and through secret passageways and hidden doors, they discover that they are not alone in the new house. First published in 2003, with a 2008 movie, the series is well-worth revisiting for a new young audience.

 

 

Fabulous Fashion

fabulous hat
When I was a little I was obsessed with a small picture book called The Fabulous Hat by Joan Hickson. It’s out of print now of course and sells second-hand for about £20, but then it was a small 32 page pint-glass sized book illustrated with the most luscious psychedelic drawings. (It was published in 1970).

My fascination was not only with the dazzling bright pinks and oranges, but also with the fact that the main character, a small girl called Louisa, goes shopping with her cool older sister in an array of wonderful clothes shops but everything she tries on is too big, whilst her sister looks fabulous in everything and buys it all. Louisa gets fed up but finally finds a hat, which is indeed fabulous.

And of course to my eyes now, the hat is far from ‘fabulous’ – it looks like a shower cap.

polka dot shopFashion, and retro fashion, or vintage, is near the top of the agenda in Laurel Remington’s new book The Polka Dot Shop. But Remington brings it right up to date in this very modern tale about a girl living with her single, depressed mother, and trying to make the right choices – in friendships, fashion and finally business.

Andy’s mother runs a kooky boutique selling vintage clothes, but unfortunately it’s not doing very well. Meanwhile, her school decides to revert to a non-uniform policy, and what everyone wears to school becomes super important. (And every mother’s worst nightmare I should imagine). Andy’s wardrobe is full of her mum’s shop cast-offs – pre-owned clothes and accessories, and none of it passes the fashion police test. She longs to buy brand new high street clothes.

Then Andy finds a bag of designer goodies in the shop, and everything changes – just not quite in the way she expects.

Not only is this a heart-warming tale of friendship and first romance, written in an easy-going contemporary style, but if the reader digs deep, they’ll find a story that resonates deeply with modern life. The throwaway culture of our modern clothes obsession – buying cheap and disposable clothing, the disintegration of neighbourly awareness and community that goes hand-in-hand with the demise of our local high streets, and a creeping proliferation of mental ill-health.

That’s not to say this is a depressing novel – not in the slightest. In fact, the text and content is bouncy and full of warmth; with zest for life and hope for the future. Remington shows that the relationship between the generations is key for future prosperity – (not monetary) but finding fulfillment. When Andy and her friends reach out and learn from the histories of the older generation – particularly the man who runs the fish and chips shop next door – and when Andy reaches out to understand her own mother, then things fall into place, and Andy and her friends can hatch a plan for the future that benefits all.

What’s also magical is that Andy makes plenty of mistakes. She learns to fail and by failing, learns to succeed. It’s good to find this message in a book for this age group.

By connecting to the past and learning from it, Andy finds a new future for herself and her mother. And it’s the cast of characters around her that helps too – Andy finds it hard to make friends, and when she does, they each have their own challenges but create a support network and camaraderie to help each other through. When Andy meets her ‘boy next-door’, and they communicate properly, they are able to finish the project they started in winning style.

This is a fabulous book that doesn’t need psychedelic illustrations to bring it to life. It’s bursting with life and energy already, and would look good on any catwalk. I have a signed copy of this book to giveaway. Just find me on twitter @minervamoan and RT my tweet about the book. Or you can buy it here.

octopantsSticking with clothes, but for younger readers is Octopants by Suzy Senior, illustrated by Claire Powell. This cheeky little picture book is published on 12th July, and in rhyming verse encompasses all my woes of looking for the perfect pair of jeans.

Octopus is looking for the perfect pair of pants. He’s laughed out of town by the shop sellers who explain that he has too many legs, and has no luck surfing the net either. Then the octopus discovers the Undersea Emporium, staffed by a seahorse, and filled with clothes (even with pockets) for all types of sea creatures. They still don’t stock octopants, but a little twist in the tale means that the octopus goes away happy.

Cartoon fish are probably every illustrator’s dream, in that there are so many colours, shapes and sizes to play with. Here, Powell has had great fun playing on words such as ‘surfing the net’ with her underwater scenes. All the illustrations are bright and endearing and bursting with colour and movement, and she’s managed to bestow a full range of emotions on the sea creatures, at which younger children will delight.

It’s often the small touches that turn a picture book from something ordinary into the extraordinarily popular, and the team behind this one have put in all sorts of fun jokes for both adults and children. Look out for the sign outside the changing room, the queues, even the title of the undersea newspaper. Just as Aliens in Underpants and The Queen’s Knickers remain firm favourites in the library and at home, I have a feeling that Octopants is going to continue the underwear success. It’s anything but pants. You can buy your own pair of octopants here.

 

Candy by Lavie Tidhar

candySometimes when you have a lot of something, it can begin to feel a bit samey. I read lots of children’s books, and there are moments when themes that are topical or zeitgeisty occur a little too often and the topic begins to feel a bit staid. It’s probably like eating a lot of chocolate. If it’s readily available and you eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it can taste a bit mundane. But if you live under a strict regime in which chocolate is more or less forbidden, just one taste can be electrifying.

When I opened Candy and started reading it, it was like eating chocolate again after a 12 week hiatus; it was a breath of sweet fresh air.

The press release announces that this book is Bugsy Malone crossed with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I like to think it’s a conversation between Raymond Chandler and Willy Wonka. Or Jessica Rabbit set in Cadbury World. Lavie Tidhar has written a detective story in film noir style based around the prohibition of candy. And it’s superb.

Nellie Faulkner is a child detective, living in a city in which sweets have been forbidden under the new mayor and his Prohibition Act. Roaming the unsweetened mean streets are gangs of candy bootleggers, all smuggling in sweet treats, eating their booty and making money. When gangster Eddie de Menthe’s teddy bear goes missing, Nellie has a case to solve. But when the teddy shows up and Eddie himself disappears, things turn serious.

Tidhar has gone in guns blazing on both film noir style and candy mode in the novel. Every description compares the world to candy in some way, so that the clouds are either candy floss or meringues and people are compared to sweets:

“She was the sort of person to hold on to a grudge like chewing gum stuck to a shoe.”

“He looked as trustworthy as an ice-cream seller in winter.”

But what makes the book zing is Tidhar’s talent in sustaining his Chandler-esque child-friendly film noir style throughout. Think Goodfellas, think The Godfather. For kids. There’s the bootlegger boss who throws a tantrum in his mansion:

“’Can we get some cake, boss?’ Gordon said. His friend nudged him in the ribs nervously. Waffles’s hand came crashing down on the folding table before him, sending plate and spoon and crumbs flying in all directions.
‘Nobody gets cake!’ he screamed. His face was red, his eyes bulging’”

There’s a mean girl gang led by Sweetcakes, a black car that slides in and out of view that Nellie may or may not see, and scene setting straight out of the film noir genre in which electric fans move hot air slowly round a room, for example. Tidhar’s ability to write with tongue firmly in cheek means that the style is both consistent and hilarious:

“In the morning, the sun shone through the window and the new day smelled of cut grass and fried eggs. The cut grass was outside. The eggs were in the kitchen, and they were for me.”

The book is funny, but also zings along with a great cast of characters and an excellent plot. Of course, with any book about sweets there are bound to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory allusions and there is great fun to be had spotting them, and even more fun as the adult reader spots the film noir allusions too.

But in the end, despite all this fun, this is a children’s book with heart. The book explores doing the right thing, and overcoming bullies, and is engaging, warm and topical. A mayor whose slogan is ‘Eat Your Greens’ with supporters throwing celery sticks in the air, is of our times.

The publisher has employed Mark Beech to supply illustrations throughout, and happily they are quirky, and slightly zany, beautifully matching the text style.

Candy may be Tidhar’s first novel for children, but it’s easy to tell it comes from an accomplished award-winning author (for his adult titles). Let’s hope there’s more to come for children – they’ll crave it more than chocolate (well….maybe). If you’re an adult, and want a sample of Tidhar’s bizarre film noir mind, go read his Winnie the Pooh thread on his twitter timeline. You’ll never see 100 Acre Wood the same way again.

And buy your own copy of Candy here – it’s a golden ticket of children’s books.

Mirror Magic: A Guest Post from Claire Fayers

mirror magicClaire Fayers may be known for her Accidental Pirates series, which was named a Beano.com best book of the year, but she has excelled with her latest book, Mirror Magic; a move from pirates into the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution.

Twelve-year-old Ava returns with her brother to the town of Wyse, on the border between England and Wales, after the death of her parents. But the town is famous for being the only place left in England in which magic happens. Mirrors are portals to UnWyse, where the Fair Folk live, and enchantments are commanded from them and sold in tourist shops. Ava’s arrival provokes stares and suspicions – and it’s not long before she works out why. When she travels through a mirror into UnWyse and meets Howell of the Fair Folk, the pair are quickly drawn into solving the mystery of why the magic is ending, and why Ava’s presence is stirring up suspicion. 

Refreshingly, as a break from so much angst in contemporary children’s fiction, this stands out as a fantastic old-fashioned adventure story with wit, ingenuity and charm. Any modern children’s book about magic will inevitably draw allusions to Harry Potter: here there are villains who aren’t completely whole human beings; the use of mirrors as magic entities; spells and transfigurations, but then Harry Potter wasn’t original in many of these ideas either. The wonder of magic, of course, is that you can make anything happen anywhere. What makes it work within a novel is a basis in reality and familiarity, and the ability to exploit its comic as well as dark potential. Fayers successfully does all this.

By chronicling the gradual demise and failure of the magic mirrors, and the rise of invention through the Industrial Revolution, Fayers establishes a firm link between fantasy and reality, cleverly suggesting that magic is no longer needed if science takes over. At the start of each chapter, there are excerpts from ‘the book’; a fairly unknown entity until about halfway through the novel, when it becomes apparent that the book can tell the future. Through its writing, the reader learns dates of important inventions of the Victorian era, such as the telephone and the electric oven, which lends some informative fun to the novel, and helps the narrative prose settle firmly in a rich Victorian era. As well as establishing her timeframe and setting, Fayers has a knack at moving her characters through the story with urgency, and the book becomes ever more compulsive and enjoyable. It’s a wonderful fantasy romp. 

Here, Fayers imagines some historical newspaper articles that may have chronicled the end of the era of magic:

Mirror Magic imagines a world exactly like our own but with one big difference – magic exists. Fairy mirrors connect us to the Unworld where the Fair Folk have promised to provide magical goods and services to anyone who asks.

The story starts in 1842, when most mirrors have stopped working and only one small town on the border of Wales and England still has access to the Unworld. The Wyse Weekly Mirror (expertly designed by Jess at Macmillan Children’s Books) gives an insight into daily happenings in the last town of magic.

But what of other time periods?

The first newspaper, the Oxford Gazette appeared in 1665 and newspapers were well-established by the Industrial Revolution, but what would those times have looked like with a bit of magic?

Real Garments Don’t Fade

Are you tired of your fairy gowns disintegrating around you? Are you suffering rashes and skin complaints from cloth made of dead leaves?

Wilkinson of York is a new textile manufacturer. Using the latest machinery and real human labour, we produce good-quality clothing at reasonable prices – and guaranteed not to fall apart at midnight!

Made by people for people.

Unworld Allergy to Iron ‘a Myth’

Sir Clement Clark, formerly of the Council of Conjurors, has proved that the fairy allergy to iron does not exist.

It was long thought that the rise of the iron industry may be responsible for the failure of certain magic mirrors, but Sir Clement, whose own magic mirror stopped working two years ago, has made a thorough study, including locking fairies into iron boxes to see if they suffered any ill effects from the metal. He reports that they do not, although some have emerged from the boxes looking faint from hunger.

Steam-Powered Mirrors? Fantasy or Reality?

With the failure of magic mirrors, efforts, some conjurors are spending vast fortunes on finding new ways to power their access to the Unworld. Now, steam power is seen as the new saviour of magic.

Experiments are underway, connecting steam engines to magic mirrors. These steam engines are currently coal-fuelled, but if this method proves successful, the engines could be powered with fuel brought through the mirrors from the Unworld. Thus, in effect, the engines would be self-powering.

Magic Not Needed Says Isambard Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel has caused further controversy by saying the rise of engineering proves once and for all that magic is no longer relevant to modern life.

Brunel, himself the great-nephew of a conjuror, has released designs for a suspension bridge to be constructed in Bristol. This bridge will be constructed entirely without the assistance of Unworld workers and enchantments.

Magic has been in decline for decades with mirrors ceasing to work across the country. Early research into steam-powered mirrors was abandoned after it proved ineffective. Wales and the west of England now has the highest concentration of conjurors.

With thanks to Claire for her blogpost. You can buy a copy of Mirror Magic here. For age 8+ years.

Claire’s bio:

Claire Fayers was born and brought up in South Wales, an area of the country sadly deficient in dragons. Having studied English at University of Kent, Canterbury, she built a successful career writing short stories for women’s magazines until the lure of magic became too much and she wrote The Accidental Pirates: Voyage to Magical North. It was selected for Waterstones Book of the Month and shortlisted for the FCBG Children’s Book Award 2016, and its sequel, The Accidental Pirates: Journey to Dragon Island, was published in 2017. When she’s not writing, you’ll find Claire at her allotment. Mirror Magic is her third book with Macmillan Children’s Books.

Claire’s links:

Twitter: @ClaireFayers

Facebook: /clairefayersauthor

 

 

 

The Boy Who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

boy who grew dragonsSo, this is not the first book about a young boy with a dragon pet. I bet you can think of a few yourself. Which begs the question, what makes this book standout from the crowd, what makes it so unique, good and worthy of the book of the week spot?

Tomas helps his grandfather with his unwieldy garden, and one day stumbles upon a strange tree growing the most peculiar looking fruit. He takes one of the fruits home, and later that evening is immensely surprised to discover a dragon hatching from it. What follows is the trials and tribulations experienced when hatching your own baby dragon.

But for me, Shepherd’s unique selling point is not her plot, although it moves with pace, but her ability to mix humour and fun with an intense pathos and understanding of human emotion. It is Tomas’ interaction with the other human characters that really pulls on the reader’s emotions – although there is plenty of fun to be had with the dragon too.

Tomas has a little sister Lolli, who although too young to talk, communicates and spars with Tomas brilliantly in her capacity as co-conspirator in hiding the dragon. Their alliance also demonstrates the uniqueness of sibling relationships – the bond that stretches from affectionate love and sharing of secrets and a helpful camaraderie at one end, to being able to blame the other for something they didn’t do at the other extreme.

The sympathetic grandparent relationship within the story also rings true, and draws the most pathos. Tomas loves spending time with his grandfather, but is torn with guilt between how much time he spends with him versus time with his friends, and Tom also shows an acute awareness, in a wondrous childlike fashion, of how delicate the relationship is as his grandfather gets older and more fragile. The feeling of not wanting to disappoint and yet also wanting to live his own best life compete beautifully within the plot structure.

This gamut of human emotion also stretches to Tomas’ new pet dragon. Feelings of responsibility compete with curiosity and awe, the knowledge of having something different and special and being the envy of one’s peers, and yet knowing that the dragon is precious and special and not merely for showing off – in fact it’s a live being with feelings of its own.

There are some lovely touches here – the timidity of the dragon at first, the portrayal of its physicality as it learns to trust Tomas, and Tomas’ inventive efforts to control the poos and treat his dragon correctly.

But none of this overshadows the sheer fun and vivacity of the novel. Shepherd brings out every flourish of her imagination in Tomas’s discovery – from the tree itself with glowing fruit, to the different types of dragons, their combustible poos, and how difficult dragons are to capture and hide.

Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations here do what they did for the characters in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series, and she brings to life the tree, the dragons and characters with limitless expression. These are warm, animated, engaging illustrations that almost seem to move across the page.

This is a sumptuous start to a new series, bursting with energy and humour, yet tinged with the darker side of life too. There’s a grumpy neighbour, aware but preoccupied parents, an eclectic group of friends, a strange gardening guide, nomenclature of dragon pets – so many facets all covered and explored. A perfect example of domesticity interrupted with a touch of magic. Dragon fruit will never look the same again! Happily for 7+ years; you can buy it here.

Lucky Break: Rob Stevens Soars High

lucky breakI picked up Lucky Break by Rob Stevens whilst attending an event with Andersen Press, and my little testers loved it so much they said I must feature it. 

Leon is grieving for his twin brother, who died in a car accident. Since that fateful day, his mother has been ridiculously over-protective of him, and his family seem to have somewhat fragmented. When a new boy, Arnold, pitches up at school, Leon and he strike up a friendship.

But Arnold isn’t like anyone Leon’s met before. He’s honest, takes everything completely literally, and yet manages to get to the heart of everything and everyone. Over the course of one weekend, Arnold and Leon get into madcap capers and scrapes, playing sports and taking part in adventures that his mother would shudder at: busting the configuration of the slot machines and running away with their winnings, breaking windows, mistakenly robbing a bank, and yet they come out trumps in the end – Arnold helping Leon and his family to come to terms with their grief, and Leon helping Arnold finally make a friend. It’s a bittersweet comedy, written with pathos and insight, and in a smooth, easily readable style.

But after reading, I made a discovery. Rob Stevens, like so many children’s authors, doesn’t write full time. In fact, he’s a pilot, and one of my not-so-little testers dreams of aeroplanes, has aeroplane posters on the wall, and goes plane spotting. Perhaps he’s waved at Rob in the sky. So, with the assistance of Andersen Press, and to please my not-so-little tester, I asked Rob to provide me with his five best things about being a pilot:

My new novel, Lucky Break, published this month but writing isn’t my full-time job. I am a British Airways Captain, flying the A380 all over the world. Here are the five best things about being a pilot.

  • The A380 is a double-decker superjumbo – the largest passenger plane in the world. Being at the controls of an aircraft like that is simply a boyhood dream come true!
  • After a long flight I usually get about 48 hours off to relax and unwind before flying home. This is the perfect opportunity for me to forget about the rules and regulations of flying a passenger jet and let my imagination go free. Most of my books are written in hotel rooms and cafes around the world and I find writing the perfect counterbalance to life in the cockpit.
  • No two days at work are ever the same for me. Whether I’m avoiding thunderstorms over the equator or coping with heavy snow in Washington, I never quite know what the day ahead has in store.
  • I meet all sorts of interesting people in my job – passengers and crew. I get a lot of ideas for characters in my books from the people I meet at work. Often a single expression or a turn of phrase can be the catalyst for a whole new book.
  • I love all sorts of active sports and my job allows me to pursue them in some of the most exotic locations. Just this year I have been skiing in California, kitesurfing in Indonesia and walking the Dragon’s Back in Hong Kong. No wonder my sons say I don’t go to work, I go on holiday!

Thanks to Rob Stevens. I highly recommend his book, for ages 9+ years, which published on 3rd May and is available to buy here

A Taste of Home: A Guest Post from Victoria Williamson

fox girl and the white gazelleVictoria Williamson’s debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, is the compelling story of two frightened girls who are dealing with traumatic circumstances within their own families, and yet through their unlikely friendship, manage to overcome and even banish some of their fears.

When the two girls discover an injured fox and her cubs hiding on their estate, they realise that a friendship between them will help the foxes. Slowly, they discover that they have much more in common than just saving foxes, and soon it is Reema (a Syrian refugee) showing Caylin (a native Scot) how to fit in and belong in their local Scottish community. The power of their friendship gives a stability and a hopefulness to both girls.

Caylin is troubled – the reader first sees her in the role of bully, taking birthday money from a school girl, but the reader is soon aware that although Caylin’s actions can’t be excused, there are reasons behind her behaviour. Williamson draws Caylin with breathtaking empathy.

In alternating chapters the reader meets Reema, a refugee fleeing her wartorn country, and coming to terms with the damage the war has inflicted upon her family and the realities of facing life in a completely different country and immersing herself within its culture:
“Here even the trees speak a different language.”

Caylin is a wonderfully drawn character – distrustful of adults around her due to past circumstances, predisposed to show a lack of effort at school, and yet remarkably likeable, and completely misunderstood. And Reema too, is shown bravely straddling her old and new lives, embracing her new culture whilst trying not to eschew the old. But it’s Williamson’s own grasp of the two cultures that makes for such an effective read.

Here, she explores how she used the sensation of taste and the meaning of food to explore the characters within her novel:

Harissa cake, mint lemonade, tangerines, pears, plums, beans, soup, fish and chips, battered sausages, tea, lamb stew, peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, corned beef, porridge, pizza, chewing gum, toast and jam, tabouleh salad, chicken shawarma, baqlawa pastries, ma’amoul cookies, bubblegum, coffee, meatballs, yoghurt, ice cream, custard, sweet and sour pork, crisps, flatbread, chicken casserole, pancakes with whipped cream and chocolate, black pudding, haggis, Irn Bru and deep-fried Mars Bars.

This is just some of the food mentioned in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle.  It wasn’t until I was editing my novel that I realised just how many times food and drink was discussed, and how important it was to my characters. For Caylin, chips from the local chip shop are not just a necessity as her mother’s expensive alcohol habit uses up their benefits money, but a treat to be looked forward to at the end of a hard school day. In chapter three she says:

“I stuff the plastic bag with the wrapped chips down my jacket as soon as I get outside, hugging them to my chest and soaking up the warmth and delicious smell. Then I run home, the secret stash of chips protecting me from the wind and the rain like a magic charm.”

For Reema on the other hand, the chips in the school canteen are a greasy reminder that she’s in a foreign country very far from her beloved Syria. Even something as simple as a cup of tea that doesn’t taste the same makes her homesick, as she describes in chapter four:

Mama makes the tea that our neighbour has brought instead of using the packet of tea leaves the mosque gave us along with a big box of food supplies. She is afraid the old lady will not like our strong Syrian tea, and she wants our guest to feel welcome. I try not to make a face as I sip the weak brew. It tastes soft and sad, just like the Scottish rain. I long for a cup of strong black tea and the lashing rain of home.

Victoria in Cameroon

It got me thinking about the time I spent working as a teacher in Africa, particularly my two years in Cameroon. The food was so different from anything I’d eaten before – boiled fufu corn and Njama njama (a kind of fried huckleberry leaf), rice and bean stew, ‘foot cow’ pepper soup, and egusi pudding (ground seed paste with dried crayfish).

And then of course, there was achu.

I thought I would never, ever get used to the taste of achu and yellow soup. It looks about as appetising as it sounds: a grey, volcano-shaped mound of pounded coco yam with a play-doh like consistency, and thick yellow soup with a crushed limestone base. The first time I ate it the only way I could swallow it down was to take a big gulp of water with each bite, fake-smiling at the teacher who’d spent hours preparing it for me and hoping I wasn’t going to look like an ungrateful guest by throwing it up on the table. Try as I might to avoid it over the next two years, it turned up regularly at the end of each long school meeting, prepared by some of the female staff. We’d share a drink and a laugh together over our meal, and eventually I learned to tolerate and then grow strangely fond of the grey goo that I’d struggled to swallow at first.

Towards the end of my time there, I found my mind wandering in class when lunchtime approached, but it wasn’t the rice and beans I enjoyed so much at the local chop house I was thinking about. I couldn’t get the thought of my mother’s shepherd’s pie and cherry scones out of my head. There were times I’d even think longingly of the oxtail soup she used to make for lunch when my brothers and I would come running home from primary school, which was odd, as I didn’t even like oxtail soup!

This is where Reema’s homesick voice comes from, when she asks her little sister in chapter twelve:

“Remember the food Aunt Amira used to make? The tabouleh salads and chicken shawarma and baqlawa pastries? And the Eid al-Fitr feast when we would invite all our family and friends to eat Mama’s famous ma’amoul cookies?”

My mouth is watering at the very thought of my favourite dishes, but Sara is frowning at me as though I am speaking a foreign language.

In the months after I returned to the UK, I got to eat all of the food I’d missed – my mother’s homemade cooking, spaghetti Bolognese, moussaka, chille con carne and chocolate cake. But one day as I finished teaching a maths class just before lunch, I realised a strange thing. Instead of fantasising about the pasta and pizza, fish and chips or baked potatoes in the canteen, all I could think about was a big plate of achu and yellow soup. Two years of trying to avoid the stuff, and there I was missing it like a long lost friend. That was when I finally understood. It wasn’t about the food at all. It was about the people I’d shared the food with that made the memories of it so powerful.

That’s why Caylin loves her chips so much despite eating them every day until her unwashed uniform starts to smell of grease. They remind her of happy times and make her feel safe. In chapter five she describes sharing a meal from the chip shop with her mother:

I snuggle up next to her on the couch and rest my head against her fluffy dressing gown. She puts her arm round me and holds me tight as we laugh at the stupid film and the rubbish acting. This is my favourite time of day – just before bed, when Mum’s slept off the doctor’s tablets to help with her depression, and before she reaches for a bottle to help her through the night. This is when I can pretend we’re a proper family again and the accident that ruined it all didn’t ever happen.

No matter where we are in the world, our thoughts, opinions and memories of the food we eat will be shaped by the people we share it with. Even if at first we struggle with the flavour, texture or smell of a new dish, ultimately whether we come to love and miss it will depend on our willingness to connect to the people who sit with us round the table. Despite missing home so much it hurts, Reema comes to discover a fondness for Scottish food when she makes friends with Caylin and starts to feel more at home in her adopted country. Caylin describes this in chapter twenty-nine:

On the way home we stopped at Michael’s Superchippy. We had a great party eating Syrian food with the Haddads  a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to share something from Scotland with Reema and Sara. I asked Brian to get them a black pudding or haggis supper, but he said they weren’t allowed to eat meat that wasn’t halal, from their own Muslim butchers.  I was disappointed, but Brian winked at me and asked the guy serving us for a deep-fried Mars Bar each for pudding.

Now we’re sitting on our sofa, eating chips and deep-fried chocolate bars, and I can’t stop laughing at Reema’s impression of a Glaswegian accent when she says “pure dead brilliant!” and takes a swig of Irn Bru from her can.

“Does this mean I’m Scottish now?” Sara asks, licking the chocolate off her fingers. “Am I properly Scottish?”

Brian can see that Reema doesn’t like her saying that, so he says quickly, “You’re Syrian-Scottish, Sara. You get to be two things at once, which is extra special as most of us only get to be from one place, and that’s boring.” Brian’s good that way.  He knows how to say the right thing and make people feel more relaxed. I was totally wrong about him. He isn’t a bit like Mum’s old boyfriends.

“Syrian-Scottish? Yes, I like that,” Reema smiles and clinks her Irn Bru can against mine like it’s champagne we’re drinking.

So next time you’re far from home and faced with a strange dish you’re not sure you’ll like, take a look at the people you’re eating with. If you’re willing to let your guard down and make new friends despite language and cultural differences, then chances are you’ll come to miss that food just as much as the friendly faces round the dinner table when you leave.

With thanks to Victoria Williamson for writing with such passion about her novel. You can buy your own copy here

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

how to beeRecently, I’m seeing a great deal of science fiction that’s set in the very near future (mainly in adult fiction, but also in some children’s novels), as if we’re nearing our own dystopian landscape. But generally, this genre works well. It enables the author to envision a future not that different from the present, but tweaking elements to make a specific point. For the reader, it coaxes belief in this imagined world, in that there is a startling familiarity with specific things, despite the larger world being a little different.

In How to Bee, Bren MacDibble goes with the premise that due to widespread use of pesticides, the bees have died out, and to continue growing produce and farming, pollination must be done by children (leaping from tree to tree with special pollinating wands). Based on real practises in Chinese provinces, where humans do actually hand-pollinate pear blossom, and her real-life experience of growing up on a farm, the book feels authentic and disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful.

What shines most from this dazzlingly yellow book is MacDibble’s use of ‘voice’ to tell Peony’s story. Peony is nine years old, a worker on the farm, although not yet a Bee, because to be a Bee a child must be ten and awfully quick. She’s working towards it, but not quite there yet. Her voice, as she tells her story, feels new, fresh, lively, irrepressible but mainly fast, as if she’s scrabbling over the words as she would scrabble across the trees. The voice feels unschooled, unrestrictive, and matches her immense physicality. The play on words of the title sum up Peony’s whole existence. This is a girl bursting with life. She wants to be as much as she wants to bee.

Of course, like all good novelists, MacDibble must throw obstacles in Peony’s way, and this is where things become dark and difficult. Peony is removed to the city, away from her beloved grandfather and little sister and farm, to work with her mother in one of the big city houses. The episode of her removal from the farm is fairly traumatic, and the two worlds – city and country – could not be more disparate.

In fact MacDibble’s vision of the future is fairly bleak. Human rights are eroded – the children of the farm are broadcast ‘lessons’ on loudspeakers in the morning while they work – there is no universal right to education. Once in the city, Peony is a servant rather than merely staff – workers’ rights too seem to have been eroded. What’s more, there is unpoliced domestic abuse and cruelty to children. Poverty is widespread and there is no welfare system net in place.

But for many children, they will not read into the bleakness of this. Peony’s move to the city is an adventure, and she swiftly makes friends with the girl of the house – Peony’s kind nature and selflessness shining through. And there is an uplifting ending with Peony’s love for family and nature winning the day. Mainly because Peony’s voice is so lively and uplifting, and her shining adoration for the farm, her immediate family and nature triumphs against everything dark and evil.

The book is well paced – short sharp chapters, with quick forward movement like the bee pollinators themselves, the reader is propelled forwards on Peony’s adventure. The reader feels an enormous amount of empathy for this small child in a frightening world – having a more all-seeing terrain of her story than Peony does herself.

For all its shortness, MacDibble breathes plenty of life into the book. There are complex dynamics between characters – particularly the mother/child bond, and also an unabashed look at inequalities in society.

MacDibble writes with confidence and ease – the book feels different, atypical, which makes it shine brightly in the field of current children’s fiction. It turns out being is a complicated business, but with books such as this, children will buzz with excitement about their ability to influence their own futures. You can buy your copy here. I would suggest as 9+ years, but beware some of the darker episodes. Young teens who are reluctant readers will love the story’s depth whilst appreciating the brevity of the text.

Positively Teenage by Nicola Morgan

positively teenageI often find that nonfiction books about the teenage years are coated in a light film of negativity. From titles such as ‘What’s Happening to My Body?’ as if maybe an alien force has invaded and implanted, or ‘Survival Guides to the Teenage Years’ as if it’s a time of nuclear holocaust. There’s no doubt that one of my favourite things as a teen was to read the ‘problem pages’ in the magazines, but it’s good to finally realise that we shouldn’t be dealing with teenagers as ‘problematic’, but addressing these years with positivity.

Nicola Morgan has been writing about teens for a long time, winning the School Library Association Information Book Award in 2015 for The Teenage Guide to Stress.

But for many parents, especially those parents who have children just approaching the teenage years, they want a book that doesn’t scream ‘stress, bullies, or problems’ on their cover in reference to teens. It would be better to have something that promotes the empowerment that comes from becoming a teenager – the uplifting moments, the maturation, the joyfulness. That’s not to say there aren’t issues – but they can be dealt with in a calm manner, and Nicola Morgan has acknowledged this in her knowledgeable guide, Positively Teenage, which contains some excellent ideas, as well as an assortment of easy-to-comprehend scientific facts and data thrown in – aimed at the kids themselves, but useful for adults to dip into too.

Morgan has based the premise of the book around the principles in the word FLOURISH – Food, Liquid, Oxygen, Use, Relaxation, Interest, Sleep and Happiness. The only slightly ambiguous word here is ‘use’, by which she means using all areas of the brain for a wealth of activities.

The book guides the reader gently through each area, with the book divided into sections such as Positively You, A Positive Attitude, A Positive Mood etc. The headings encompass large ideas, but actually the text itself is broken down well and is easily digestible. In each section there are paragraphs of text, with emboldened headings, some bullet points etc, but also quizzes to answer questions about yourself (you know, the type of thing they used to have in teen magazines, which were always such fun), a host of weblinks and further research, but also lots of good neuroscience explained pitch perfectly.

Morgan traverses the terrain between general things that are applicable to every generation, such as recognising character strengths including gratitude, honesty, forgiveness and so on, with an acute awareness of modern concerns, such as doctored internet pictures, controlling screen use, mindfulness and what neuroscientists have recently discovered about the difference between the teen brain and the adult brain, in terms of need for sleep, taking risks, temptations, emotions and more.

There are sections on building a growth mindset, developing resilience, eating correctly, sleeping well, exercise, and developing interests and hobbies, as well as cultivating a decent personality – in terms of being grateful for what you have, understanding and tolerating others’ differences and opportunities, helping others, trust and friendship. There’s even a section on reading for pleasure!

One of the aspects I like best is how Morgan suggests the many areas over which teens have control, and suggests taking responsibility for them, (which helps to reduce stress and conflict). We’d all do well to take the advice.

The only slight negatives I could find are that the diet suggestions feel very Western in content, and there’s always a worry that web links printed in books go out of date – whereas lots of the text advice doesn’t date. Morgan also suggests visiting a library to find out about community classes etc, but sadly, many teens will now find a library hard to access.

There are no swishy graphics here – which the book doesn’t need. It’s a handy paperback size for slipping into a large pocket or small bag, and the information feels compact, and yet full.

This is generally a really positive book that I’m happy to push into the hand of any pre-teen in expectation for the great years that they have ahead of them. As Morgan herself says: “The more we know of how we work, the better we can make ourselves work.” With this book, teens will have the knowledge and tools to be the best person they can be. You can pre-order it here. The book publishes on 24 May 2018.

A Child’s Best Friend

It is reasonable to assume that a certain number of children’s books will feature a dog. Not so much a man’s best friend, as a child’s best friend, dogs have been found to be perfect listeners to books, and cheering companions on adventures. My first dog was Timmy from The Famous Five, but since then they’ve cropped up in all sorts of literature. In this, the Year of the Dog, it seems fitting to bring some new books to your attention in which dogs are more than just a sidekick, they are integral to the story.

a different dogA Different Dog by Paul Jennings, illustrated by Geoff Kelly
This is a quietly compelling, and with afterthought, immensely powerful tale of a selectively mute boy and his guilt over the dog he forsook. But with a redemptive ending for both himself and a new equally-traumatised dog he stumbles across, as both discover a renewed zest for life.

Using extreme economy of words, and writing with intensity and simplicity, Jennings showcases how effective literature can be in few words and without flourish. This is an accomplished text, which draws in reluctant readers and gets across a plethora of not just emotions, but moral dilemmas and extraordinary situations.

On a dark day, a nameless boy, poverty-stricken and picked-upon by his peers, aims to complete and win a race up a mountain to win a substantial amount of money for his mother. But when an accident leaves a driver dead, and the driver’s dog alone, the boy finds friendship with the dog, and a solace in the bravery and courage it takes to survive lost on the mountain, and finally, in the denouement, to face up to those who marginalise and bully him.

Jennings’s background as a speech pathologist shines through in his dealing with the boy’s selective mutism – he only speaks when alone. But also Jenning’s experience in writing projects itself strongly through the sophisticated text. The reader sympathises immediately with the boy, there is a direct empathy with him, despite and even because of the incident which rendered him temporarily mute, and because the reader is a party to his deepest thoughts and his conversation with the new dog.

The economy of writing lends itself to the reluctant readership, but more than that it reflects the character, so that the minimalism feels fully justified and necessary.

It’s an intriguing study, in that throughout the challenges facing the boy, and there are many, the reader also feels a slight discomfort – not at the challenges, but about the decisions the boy makes. There is a questioning, a fear of what his mother must be thinking, a moral dilemma at every turn. It comes to the fore in a particularly disturbing scene towards the end of the book, but the consequences bear out what the book is all about – belonging, speaking up for what’s right, finding peace in friendships, and how sometimes the strongest communication is that without words.

There’s a resounding line in the book about relationships: “You’re heavy, not a burden” his mother says to the son, and he repeats this to the new dog, but there is much more to think about here: love, guilt, courage, resilience, persistence, bullying, treatment of animals.

For a reluctant teen audience, yet accessible for 10+ years, this is a story that is muted in tone, quiet but astonishingly powerful. I read a proof copy, but the illustrations so far are deliciously obscure too – wooded areas, dark shadows, heavy lines. They emphasise the point – the woods may be deep and dark, but there’s a path out, and the experience may effect wondrous changes in thought and deeds. You can buy it here.

elise and the second-hand dogElise and the Second-hand Dog by Bjarne Reuter, translated from the Danish by Sian Mackie, illustrated by Kirsten Raagaard
Much lighter fare in this quirky story for middle grade readers, which suggested a sort of European Ramona the Brave. Elise lives in Copenhagen, but her mother is away building bridges in the Amazon, and her father plays the violin outside the local department store. Elise misses her mother terribly and finally persuades her father to buy her a dog (although it has to be second-hand for they don’t have much money). The dog she ends up with is not a cute and fluffy pet, but rotund with bowlegged limbs and a whiffy smell.

However, she soon realises that her dog can talk. Together, then go on a series of adventures, from building their own suspense bridge across the Amazon in her bedroom to hunting vampires in Elise’s grandma’s old mill.

The dog, of course, only makes his talent known to Elise, and he’s as quirky as she, explaining that he’s from Tobermory in Scotland, speaking Danish with a Scottish accent and proving knowledgeable about whiskey.

But the book is more than a sum of its parts – what makes it so special is the community that surrounds Elise and her dog. Each character has something to add to the story, and enhances the warmth that surrounds Elise like a loving hug. The cast is diverse and different, each with their own foibles and quirks, but all with good intentions.

The interest also lies in the surroundings being removed from the familiar – not in that the book is Danish as such, but that Reuter doesn’t hold back from mentioning names of lesser well-known composers, as well as exploring life’s adult complexities – alcohol and its effects, the concept of possibly dangerous strangers walking round the town after dark. Elise is innocent, but far less mollycoddled than some in English children’s literature, and she’s all the better for it.

There’s a sense of humour that pervades the whole, and a certainty that there’s nothing more important than having imagination. The book has oodles of it, and is charming, witty and smart. Just like Elise’s talking dog, it speaks to children everywhere. You can buy it here.

Thinker, My Puppy Poet and Me by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Ehsan Abdollahi
This wonderfully illustrated, full colour poetry book is amazingly a first outing for Eloise Greenfield in the UK, despite her having published 47 books for children and having won awards for some of them in her native USA. Thinker, My Puppy Poet and Me is a collection of poems for young children, taking the premise that Thinker, the dog, is a poet, along with his owner, Jace, and together they explore the world around them using free verse.

From the magical illustration on the endpapers, in which Abdollahi portrays Thinker as a carefree happy puppy enveloped by floating flowers, and seemingly following the scent of an exquisite colourful bird, the book explores the wonders and mysteries of the world. The first poem describes Thinker’s arrival in Jace’s house, and his feeling of love and belonging. Before long they are exploring the magic of language, the learning they still have to do (Jace is only seven, after all), and the conundrums of school, all in a gentle cohesive narrative.

The text and illustrations are populated by a truly special group of people, from siblings and neighbours to friends and even a stranger in the park, but there’s a feeling of community that builds throughout. This is a wonderful introduction to poetry, including some haiku, free verse, rap and rhyme, and each poem pulsates with the rhythm of language and life. The poems can be read for pure enjoyment, or to study the shape, repetition, language and rhythm. You can buy your own copy here.

raymondRaymond by Yann and Gwendal Le Bec
A tongue-in-cheek book that toys frantically with doggie word play. Raymond is an ordinary dog until the day he has a big thought about the place of a dog within a family. Before long, he has completely anthropomorphised, and becomes a journalist, or a ‘rover’ing’ reporter at Dogue magazine.

Along with the other dogs in town, he sees things differently on two legs. He enjoys cappuccinos and the cinema; at work he sniffs out deadlines. But a chance encounter with a ball makes him see that things aren’t always that great for humans. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘working himself to the bone’, and sets out to explore that a dog’s life is a great life after all.

In bold bright colours, the detailed illustrations provide a great take on modern life, and promote the message that working too hard without seeing the pleasures of the everyday is a bad thing. Children and adults will chuckle at the two-legged life of all these urban dogs, despite the message being less than subtle. The cartoon-digital feel of the book lends itself well to the glamorous lifestyle of a glossy magazine. A fun book to spark debate about having it all, and all-too-fast modern living. Lead your doggy life here.