friendship

From Ant to Eagle by Alex Lyttle

Warning, this review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

When I was twelve years old a new English teacher started at my school. She was young and glamorous, and I wanted very much to impress her, especially as she taught my favourite subject. Then, one day she handed out our homework assignment on the text we were studying – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She wanted us to depict a scene in a comic strip. I was devastated. Drawing wasn’t literature, I thought. My level of drawing barely matched Wimpy Kid levels, my love for my teacher plummeted as swiftly as Sir Toby descends into revelry. The effort I put in matched my grade. Low.

But it remains one of the Shakespeare plays I best remember. The cross-garters (easy to depict visually), the gender disguises, the triumphant reuniting of the twins. And perhaps that was to do with having to try to make a visual representation.

One of the ways in which the children in my library club best engage with the books I’m reading to them is if we use the books as inspiration to discuss and draw the contents. We may do craft, or create our own story, or redesign covers, or simply draw our feelings.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth is a series of comics presented in paperback book format. In fact, the publisher very kindly sent me the first three, which I devoured with glee, chortling nonstop. Hilo comes crashing down from the sky, clad only in silver underpants, and has no idea where he comes from, or what he’s doing on Earth.

DJ, a normal kid from an overachieving family, and his friend Gina, try to figure out where Hilo comes from, and by the end of the book, how to fight robots in order to save the world!

The comic is fast-paced – action leaps from frame to frame, but the book goes much deeper than that. DJ has pretty low self-esteem, believing that he lacks the skillsets he sees in his siblings. With the friendship of Hilo and Gina, he grows in confidence, and finds out what it takes to be a real hero.

Winick evokes great humour in his portrayal of Hilo, who has no idea what food and clothing are for, and yet absorbs new information at a startling rate. He introduces catchphrases for the friends, and references other comics and movies.

The books are bright and bold – the colour screams from the page, and the characters are wonderfully empathetic and emotive in their depictions.

There’s long been, and still is, a snobbery about comics, and yet by using them for readers who don’t want to be confronted with a large chunk of text, comics can easily imbue children with great storytelling skills.

One of the great things about comics is that they explore the angle of a scene – like assessing the point of view. The reader can explore each individual picture to see why the illustrator has drawn it in that way – what is shown in this scene, what is not – where is the ‘camera’ looking from, is it a close-up? The language has been carefully selected – after all there’s only so much the author can fit into each square – why did he chose those particular words? And more than that, what is the narrative stream between the different frames? – the connectivity of panels relates to the connectivity of sentences in a narrative text.

With a diverse cast, a cliffhanger ending, and a message of friendship, loyalty and bravery, this is a great new series. For 8+ years. Discover it here.

Dragons to Light Your Fire

Dragons have generally been tarnished with the evil/badass brush for most of their mythological lives. Western mythology certainly paints dragons as evil beings designed to be fought by brave knights. But in the East, dragons are favourable creatures. They can bring good luck – and can even be helpful. Three excellent dragon books flew into MinervaReads recently…and although they did not battle, they certainly set MinervaReads on fire.

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
This silky smooth, deliciously alluring middle grade novel, about a young dragon who gets turned into a human with a penchant for chocolate (making, crafting, and eating), was devoured like a smooth cup of hot chocolate in the middle of a harsh winter.

I’m generally not that keen on fantasy stories, but this brilliantly-told adventure tale navigates the fantasy realm and yet also manages to stay rooted firmly in the friendship/adventure book stable, completely twisting up that ‘new girl moves into school/village’ premise.

Aventurine the dragon decides to prove to her family (including her ridiculously talented older siblings) how fierce and tough a dragon she is, by leaving the safe mountain cave, and venturing out to capture prey all by herself. However, the first human she meets tricks her into eating enchanted chocolate (who could resist the aroma?), and she is turned into a human.

The bulk of the novel follows Aventurine as she moves into a human town and tries to make something of herself – most particularly as a chocolate maker’s apprentice, for she cannot resist the allure of chocolate.

There are some stand-out qualities to this novel that take it from the realm of the fairly mundane fairy tale about transformations and dragons, into a really excellent novel.

The characters are all wonderfully drawn, with just a hint of mystery behind them. Silke, Aventurine’s ally and friend, is as feisty as a dragon herself, yet also wily, loyal, and brimming with emotional intelligence. As is the owner and chef at the chocolate shop who employs Aventurine (notice how they’re all female). Each character comes across as startlingly real and three-dimensional – they lose their tempers and metaphorically breathe out fire occasionally, but they are also graceful in their presentation, and fierce in their passions.

There is, of course, much love for chocolate. It’s hard to read the book and not want to eat some, which shows how well the descriptions work, but also there’s some interesting detail on cocoa nibs etc.

But I think my favourite quality is the excellent use of observation. Aventurine comes into the human world without having a clue about it, and it’s her witty ignorance that fills the book with humour – from the hair on people’s faces, to the clothes they wear, the things they value, and the similarities in family structures between her dragon family and human families. Much is made of class, greed and hierarchy in the book, and it works well, and can easily lead to further discussion. Patronage, corruption, bureaucracy and blame are addressed too.

Of course the overall message is not to judge by appearance. Aventurine has the same personality whether she wears a dragon skin, or inhabits a human skin. There’s also a great message about fear of failure – how failure can destroy confidence, and yet above all what’s needed is grit and determination. Hard work pays off. Loyalty is rewarded.

For a contemporary audience, I loved how the images of chocolate fit with today’s taste for spicing up chocolate with flavours, such as chilli chocolate etc. It’s a sweet and flavoursome book, which you’ll devour like a dragon. For ages 9+ years. You can taste the book here.

Build the Dragon by Dugald Steer, illustrated by Jonathan Woodward and Douglas Carrel
Part activity, part book, this is great for all dragon enthusiasts.

A comprehensive guide to dragons frames this Build the Dragon kit, which includes 46 pieces that are easily slotted together to make your own 3-D model. The dragon comes with moving parts – a jaw that opens and shuts with a lever, and a windup motor that makes the dragon’s wings flap. Once the model was built (taking an eleven year old child just over an hour on their own, with only a slight struggle with the motorised wings), we set to exploring the accompanying text.

my dragon (which went down a treat in the school library)

This is a 32 page large full-colour exploration of everything dragon, from a definition, to legends, habitats, anatomy, diet and reproduction. The author has split the world of dragons into Western and Eastern, highlighting the extreme differences between the two, and then used tales of dragons from mythology to highlight their various characteristics as if they were real.

Each paragraph of information is accompanied by an illustration or diagram, some captioned, and the text is neatly written – easy to understand and containing a dense amount of information in bite-size chunks.

There is much to learn here – from the Guardians of Flaming Pearls to the Venom Spitter, a dragon that didn’t breathe fire, but was referenced in a London pamphlet in 1614, which explained that the dragon had used its violent poison to kill both men and cattle. Other highlights include the map of the world showing global myths, and the dragon scales chart.

The book ends with a sumptuous colourful dragon guide, highlighting earliest representations of dragons, which vary from written references in AD 680, to depictions on Egyptian bowls in BC 4000.

It is excellent and thoughtful of the publishers to provide duplicates of the delicate wings in case they tear, because the motorised wings were fiddly to build and we didn’t think would hold up to much play once built, but the rest of the model is constructed from robust cardboard. I also would have loved to know the authors’ key sources for their information.

Invest in your dragon model here.

The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook by Katie Haworth, illustrated by Monica Armino
Another comprehensive tome that takes the premise that dragons are real. This is fiction masquerading as non-fiction, a guide to looking after dragons – almost like a ‘bringing up baby manual’ – with fabulous full-colour illustrations that both give information and lend a comedic element to the book.

The opening letter of the text talks to the reader as if they have succeeded in applying to look after the dragon, and this book is the starter guide – at this point I began to have palpitations in much the same way as I do opening Ikea furniture instructions.

However, the instructions here are much better written, more informative, and massively more fun. There is a wonderful sense of humour pulsating throughout the book from the suggested equipment at the beginning – such as oven gloves for handling anything the dragon has set fire to – to the advice on where learn to fly the dragon – several hundred miles from human habitation.

As well as the fun in the text, the book is hugely interactive. Spinning wheels, flaps to lift, pop up flying dragons, books within the book, and the ultimately hilarious happy/fierce face flip dragon towards the end.

There is a huge amount of information taken from dragon-lore, such as famous paintings that portray dragons, popular stories, and the different types of dragon from around the world. Brilliantly, it would perfectly complement the Build the Dragon book reviewed above, if your child (or you) have a particular penchant for dragons.

This is a book to make you smile and give much pleasure. By the end I felt competent to look after and even attempt to fly my own dragon. Get yourself a similar skillset here.

The State of Grace by Rachael Lucas

This past week has been Autism Awareness Week. So I step slightly out of my usual territory to review a teen book, one that explores what it’s like to have Asperger’s, but one that is also a sumptuous read. Books are a great pathway to developing empathy, and The State of Grace really opens up readers’ minds to autism.

Grace, 15, has Asperger’s, but she doesn’t let that define her. She has a phenomenal best friend, Anna, and a potential teen romance with newcomer Gabe, as well as well-defined passions, including horse riding and Dr Who. But there’s an undercurrent of tension at home: her father is working away from home as a wildlife photographer, and her mother is not only trying to cope on her own, but is ever aware of her own changing role as her children grow up.

Grace’s mother invites an old friend into their lives, who exerts a certain amount of influence over her – not always for the good of the family – serving to superficially inflate Grace’s mother’s self-confidence whilst denting Grace’s own. Grace fears the changes being wrought on her family, at the same time that she is unwittingly seeking to change her own with a teen romance.

The book is told from Grace’s point of view – she explains her thoughts to the reader as if she’s talking directly to them, explaining what her experiences are like. There’s her everyday reality of living with Asperger’s – when she feels tired from socialising she reaches the point in which:

“the noises in the house have separated and I can hear each one individually. And at the same time I can hear them all together – it’s hard to explain. It’s like I’m trying to process what’s going on and I can’t filter anything and I can’t think at all.”

But there’s also the distinctive moments in life – emergencies, first kisses, fallen horses. What becomes startlingly obvious is that Grace, of course, is just like any teenager: the first kiss, the first date is nerve-wracking. She is constantly preoccupied that her friends will tire of her. She worries about her relationship with her mother, as well as having moments of taking out her anger and stress on her little sister.

Of course this book will be cheered for bringing a girl with Asperger’s to the front of the action – she’s our protagonist and she’s portrayed brutally honestly. Lucas gives her a romance, shows that she can be both good at communicating like any teen, and also clumsy in her romance like any teen:

“And I wonder if dates are supposed to be like a rollercoaster of amazing bits and uncomfortable silences and kissing and not knowing what to say.”

Grace has no ‘special’ quirk with her autism, as is sometimes portrayed in literature, such as an ability to process maths sums quickly. What she does fear most though, is change. Familiarity is key to her stability, so when changes seem to lurk on the horizon, her world comes crashing down.

The book poses lots of questions – about fitting in and standing out, about the lovely awkwardness of a first tender romance, and a teen’s dawning recognition of her parents’ fallibility.

The secondary characters in the book are particularly effective – from the little sister – also struggling through teen hood in her own way – an understanding and sympathetic grandma, and an undaunted ever-loyal best friend.  Wouldn’t we all love an Anna in our lives?

The book feels current and fresh in its references. But what I particularly enjoyed is how readable and relatable the text is, and how well Lucas voices Grace’s feelings – bluntly: extrapolating exactly how she feels, particularly her tiredness after social interactions, and her attempts to force her face out of her ‘resting bitch face’ into something more compassionate to show that she’s listening to the conversation. Lucas should be pleased – her readers will certainly listen.

A sensitive and charming novel. For 12+ years. You can buy it here.

The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

This book came out in 2016 and rather slipped under the radar, but despite that, has continued to haunt me since I read it – in the same way that the song from somewhere else haunts our protagonist.

Frankie (Francesca) is out distributing leaflets to try to find her lost cat. But when she is hemmed in by bullies in the park, she is rescued by school outcast Nick Underbridge (the name is a carefully chosen clue to the later events in the story). Nick is ostracised in school, and smells slightly, but Frankie finds herself accompanying him home out of a sense of duty and thanks.

At his house, Frankie is drawn by a haunting and beautiful song, but she can’t locate where it comes from. She starts to spend more time with Nick, despite the worry that she too will be cast out at school because of the friends she keeps.

Gradually, the song exerts more and more influence and pull on her, and the story dovetails into part fairytale/part fantasy other world, as it becomes clear that the song originates from the dimension of another world – a kind of fairy tale world. With fairy tales comes danger and darkness, and Frankie’s friendship with Nick is tested to extreme limits when the two worlds collide.

The duality of the story is what makes it so special. The book is set in a time in which kids get on their bikes and ride to freedom, of lego and drawing, but also the internet and mobile phones, yet Harrold makes it feel sort of timeless. The effect of the everyday objects is to ground Frankie deeply in reality, within a contemporary story about friends and bullying, yet there are clear shadows of another world that seep into this – a fairy tale dimension that echoes the heightened emotions of our main story. There are both intensely dark and frightening emotions, and yet also visionary and pure and light overtones to this ‘magical’ dimension of the story. In this way, Harrold uses the duality of his fairy tale to mirror reality and his contemporary story – we all have the darkness and purity inside us.

Pinfold echoes this in his black and white illustrations – they are realistic in what they depict – the estate, a cat at night, Frankie on a bench, Nick’s Dad opening the front door. And yet, because of the shadows cast, the point of view from which the picture is drawn, the intensity of the pencil lines, and yes, more by what is hidden than what is shown – they are deeply dark and disturbing – mysterious and haunting. They feel slippery and ethereal.

The text too – telling a compelling story of friendship in a lyrical way – there is comedy and poetry mixed with darkness. Its evocative and ghostly. Each word is carefully chosen – it’s minimal, and pure.

But most of all, all this combines to make a text that is easy to read, and scattered with illustrations. In fact, the reader devours the book – identifying with the choices Frankie makes about friendship, and her conflicts within herself – especially when she is drawn to a song but can’t quite work out what it is or what it represents. It implies a feeling of loss and absence throughout, and leaves the reader with a sense of bittersweet sadness, as well as uplifting lightness.

This is a great book for deciphering and picking apart friendships – understanding not only who we choose to be friends with, but also how we demonstrate our loyalty to our friends, and how we come to understand them. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been picked up by award lists…this is a hidden gem – perhaps it needs to come out of its own shadows.

Suitable for 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Fish Boy by Chloe Daykin

There aren’t many TV programmes that pull the whole family together for family viewing time any more. Maybe X-Factor or BGT. But one that still has resonance and meaning, and is guaranteed to pull a family crowd, is a documentary from Sir David Attenborough. So when I heard that Fish Boy by debut author Chloe Daykin was about a boy who channelled the voice of Sir David in his head as part of the narration, I was more than intrigued. I was super excited.

For any of you out there who know a boy who is tentative about reading, but gripped by facts of nature or animals, and loves the environment – this is an intriguing premise. However, it’s not quite as I thought, less about channeling the facts of nature, although there is plenty of that, but more an invocation of Sir David’s soothing tones, his lilting voice, his reassurance, and this, above all is what gives Fish Boy its ultimate charm.

Billy is picked on at school, feels and acts like a bit of a loner, and added to that his Mum is sick – an undiagnosed dragging sickness. Living by the sea proves to be his perfect escape, especially as one day a sense of magic seems to come alive under the water, (more than a sense of magic – almost a dreamlike second dimension). Then a new boy starts at school, and changes everything – the way Billy thinks, his time at school, and most importantly how he views his family.

There is an element of surrealism about the book – a large element, in that every time Billy goes swimming he becomes ‘one’ with the fish, swimming with them, communicating with them. For some children, this might be offputting, although if like me, you like a bit of quirkiness chucked in with the realism (think David Almond in particular), then this is the book for you. What could venture into the bizarre and zany, rests beautifully in Daykin’s hands, as her prose is sparkling, unique and captures Sir David Attenborough’s calming and soft overtones. It lulls the reader, and soothes them, so that the overall effect is rather like being underwater.

There’s no satisfying explanation for the adventures under water with the fish, which perversely serves to make the book more satisfying. Some things in life are just unexplained, just mystical, and that’s fine. What is resolved is the friendships and family conundrums.

Most particularly, the resolution between Billy and his mother is poignant, as towards the end she is diagnosed – but more than just having an answer, Billy comes to an acceptance of what’s happening with his family. It’s uplifting and hopeful.

With swirls of humour, as well as some fairly frightening undercurrents, this is a refreshing read – quite unlike anything else I’ve read recently. And what pulled mainly for me was not so much the story, as the fact that Daykin’s prose matches her story – typical modern boy/parent dialogue pared with short sharp pithy prose when swimming – almost as if it’s mimicking the short flap of a gill as a fish breathes – but also all massively imbued with the character of Billy. Clever. Watch out for her second, it’s sure to swim freestyle too. You can buy it here.

Can I Join Your Club? A guest post from John Kelly

I run a club twice a week – it’s a library club, in which we read, and do a million book related activities. So, when I read Can I Join Your Club? by John Kelly and illustrated by Steph Laberis, it resonated in so many ways. This is a brilliant picturebook about inclusivity, making friends, and being part of a group. It’s also wonderfully humorous. Bold, positive and topical – this is definitely a book I’ll be using in my club. Author John Kelly has very kindly written his thoughts on the book for MinervaReads.

We puny human beings are sociable animals. We want to like and to be liked. And don’t we just LOVE IT if someone likes the same things we do?

This means we are terribly keen on creating clubs. We have clubs for EVERYTHING! Stamp collecting, sky-diving, and even octopus appreciation (yes, I checked). Now while stamps do need collecting, skies need diving out of, and octopuses do need appreciating, when you form a club with people in it, someone else therefore isn’t. Those are the people who – shock horror – aren’t like you!

Imagine that!

Can I Join Your Club? tries to show children (and any adult who is paying attention) that your friends don’t have to look like you, do what you do, or even like the things you do.

This shouldn’t really need saying. But it’s not at all unusual to hear grown-ups who are completely unable to connect with each other because of their differences. Examples include, support of football team, fashion sense, income, political or religious views, and even something as ludicrously trivial as phone operating system! (IOS and Android fans – you know who you are.)

We puny humans have a tendency to trust those who are just like us (i.e. they’re jolly keen on stamps, jumping out of planes or cephalopods), and mistrust those who are not. In everyday language this translates into: ‘You can’t be my friend because you don’t like EXACTLY the same music as I do!’

There aren’t many advantages to being old and wizened (like me). But one of the few is in realising that your motley collection of best friends are completely unlike you in almost every respect. They don’t share your tastes in food, music, politics, religion, or octopus appreciation. Often they are the very opposite of you. But you love them, and they love you all the same – and are always there for you.

They like you, not the things you like.

The secret to real friendship is in wanting to like others and be liked by them in return. The best clubs are always those full of people who aren’t anything like you at all.

So if you’re a child (or an adult) and looking for someone to be in ‘your club’, then find someone you don’t agree with about something really important. Spend some time getting to know them, and they may just surprise you by becoming your best friend.

With thanks to John Kelly. Can I Join Your Club? is out now. Duck wants to join a club. But he can’t join Lion Club unless he can roar, or Elephant Club unless he can trumpet, and Duck can only quack. In the end, duck sets up a new club, one in which everyone can join. And you can join the club here.

Lyn Gardner: An Interview

 

Although my first thought when hearing the name Lyn Gardner is that of Lyn’s role as theatre critic of The Guardian, the children in my library (and home) all know of her as a writer of children’s books, who tells brilliantly dashing adventure/mystery stories linked to the theatre. Firstly, with the hugely popular Olivia series, and now with her Rose Campion Victorian era novels. So, after featuring Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone as my book of the week, I was delighted to be afforded the chance to ask Lyn some questions.

The Rose Campion series marries love for theatre with the Victorian era. Can you explain why you picked this historical period?

It was the golden age of music hall, a period that produced stars such as Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Dan Leno, Little Tich, people who at the height of their fame would be performing at a network of halls and theatres across the country. Every city, and even big town, had its music halls. London was stuffed with them. The stars were the celebrities of their day and the most successful among them were huge earners. At the height of her fame, Marie Lloyd could command almost £1,000 a week, which was a fortune.

The music hall was a way out of poverty for many. Vesta Tilly was just one who made her family’s fortune by performing as a child. In Rose Campion and the Stolen Secret, the first book in the series, when Campion’s is in desperate straits and failing to attract an audience, Thomas Campion employs Aurora, otherwise known as the Infant Phenomenon. Such child performers were hugely popular.

The story packs so much into one book: foundlings, thievery, Holloway prison, and of course magicians and the bullet trick. What research did you do in order to write the novel?

I’m not a historian, and this is a work of fiction not fact. I’ve taken some liberties, particularly around the justice system and the way it operated. But I did want to write a novel that genuinely gives a sense of the sights and smells of Victorian London, and what it would be like to live there. Also what it would be like to be a working child during that period.

Of course I did some research and read books about the period, but I reckon that it’s easy to get bogged down in research and forget that you are trying to write a really rollicking good mystery story. So I tend to write and then check afterwards. I was fascinated by the bullet trick as a child, and when I was writing Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone I was determined to incorporate it into the action.

A main theme running through the Curse of the Doomstone is what’s seen and unseen – trickery of magicians and thieves, and being observant. Is this something you’ve picked up from years of watching theatre productions as The Guardian’s theatre critic?

I don’t think I am a particularly observant person. What happens in theatre a lot of the time is exactly what happens in a magic show: the audience is directed to look at one thing that is happening so they don’t see something else that is also taking place.

It’s all part of the suspension of disbelief that makes us fall through theatre’s rabbit hole into a new world, even though we know that it is only actors on a stage playing a role. Of course if you go to the theatre as much as I do, you start noticing the way a show works, and its mechanics, but even when you do know, I’m interested in the way you still succumb to the magic.

The theme also allows for lots of exploration of identity and the way people present themselves to the world: how they appear and how they really are, those everyday deceptions that we all practise to some degree.

In Curse of the Doomstone these become magnified as people pretend to be something they are not or—like Rose—are trying to find out who they are. Or in the case of Aurora, trying to adjust to the fact that she is not the person she thought that she was, and if she is going to be happy she needs to learn how to straddle two very different worlds.

The book highlights the class divide that separates theatre goers into different theatres/areas of London. Do you think a class divide still exists in theatre?

Theatre certainly has a problem with diversity. It is easier to become a theatre-maker today if you come from a background where there was enough money for theatre trips, and if you have parents who help you get a good education and can support you in the early stages of your career. So yes, I do think that class is an issue in theatre not just in terms of theatre-goers, but also around who makes theatre.

One of the things that spurred me to set the story in a music hall was that while the late Victorian era was one of rigid class divides, the music hall was a place where rich and poor rubbed shoulders together. That was true for the performers as well as the audience, which lends itself to fluid social situations and some very vivid characters.

I was interested in writing a novel set in a music hall in the late Victorian period because I wanted to write a book that was full of the joy of performance, but which doesn’t shirk the realities of Victorian life. From the pea-soupers, to the fact that the streets were full of horse dung, that thousands of children lived on the streets, that landlords took advantage and charged high rents for appalling housing, and life could be short and brutal for those at the bottom of the pile. In fact very much like life is today in the UK (one of the richest nations in the world), if you are one of the 3.7 million children living in poverty.

But I hope that it’s also a book full of warmth and laughter that reminds us how much the Victorian music hall has influenced popular entertainment today. The annual pantomime in your local theatre, and TV shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, are the direct descendants of the music hall. So while the period I’m writing about may seem very long ago, there may be more connections and parallels than immediately meet the eye.

And more generally, is there a play that you would say is essential viewing for children?

There is so much brilliant work out there from big musicals such as The Lion King or Matilda, to small scale shows made for the very young, including babies. Reading fires the imagination and so does theatre.

What is your favourite children’s book?

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It’s so psychologically accurate. Whenever I read it, it takes me straight back to the feelings of rage and impotence I had as a small child when I was thwarted by my parents or had behaved badly, and I imagined ways of exerting power. Such a brilliant, brilliant book.

There have been some brilliant stories adapted recently for the London stage – Lord of the Flies, Running Wild, Treasure Island. Is there any children’s book in particular that you would like to see adapted for the stage?

There are so many great books out there. But what I would really be interested in seeing is more original plays for children and young people, rather than page to stage adaptations.

What is your favourite play? Or best production you’ve ever seen?

That changes all the time.

With huge thanks to Lyn Gardner for taking the time to answer my questions. You can buy the latest Rose Campion novel here

Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone by Lyn Gardner

This is one of those inherently pleasing children’s books, which, through carefully planted attention to historical detail, whisks the reader into another world. The series is set in the Victorian music halls and theatres of London, and is rather like a mashup of Noel Streatfield and Murder Most UnLadylike, with a lick of Dickens.

Rose Campion (named by the author rather wonderfully, after a hardy plant with magenta flowers) is a foundling – left romantically on the steps of Campion’s music hall. Her world is one of taking theatre trips, performing an act on the music hall stage herself, and consorting with her two steadfast friends, Effie and Aurora.

This second book in the series opens with the appearance of a new act at Campion’s Music Hall, the magician Gandini. He performs magical tricks with appearing doves and disappearing watches, and most magnificently attempts the bullet trick (for any of those who recently watched David Blaine, you’ll know all about it). However, as with any trickery and sleight of hand, all is not as it seems.

When Lydia, actress and new doyenne of society, comes to watch Gandini, wearing the famous blue doomstone diamond, and it is stolen from her neck in the middle of Gandini’s act, Rose and her friends must race to work out who is the culprit before more blood is spilled.

Gardner’s prose is dense but vivid, detailed and transportative. From incidental details such as the delight of penny ices or the murkiness of the Thames, she also describes the opulence of the West End theatres and juxtaposes it with the dinginess of backstreet Victorian London.

In fact, this is one of the highlights of the text – the acute differences between the classes in Victorian society – those thrown into Holloway prison and the arguments for reform – and those in high class society attending the theatre, to be seen rather than to see the play.

Much is made of the similarities between the sleight of hand used by magicians and theatrical performers, and that used by thieves and pickpockets, as well as how important it is to pay attention rather than be distracted. Throughout, the reader follows the clever, but sometimes misguided, observations of the protagonist, Rose, and like her, the reader will try to decipher the twists and turns, red herrings and clues. The reader is very much in thrall to the mystery up until the end.

Despite being a foundling, irrepressible Rose finds a substitute family in the theatre and her friends around her – this is a female-dominated tale with feisty, quick-witted women and girls, who aren’t all always on the side of good.

Mainly because of Gandini, this book reminded me of The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll – another absolute winner for this age group. Fabulously, Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone belongs to a whole series – so there’ll be more to come. Bravo!

For confident readers aged 9 and over. You can buy a copy here.

So Good They Did It Again

Don’t we just love a good series? Box sets are all the rage. And children are no different. They love a series that gives an extra helping of the characters and adventures they liked the first time round. It makes a new book choice easier, perpetuates that reading experience, and develops character even further. Last year I highlighted four great new books, and this year each has a sequel out. And they’re just as good, if not better than the first.

Rabbit and Bear: The Pest in the Nest by Julian Gough and Jim Field

The first Rabbit and Bear book was an inspired mix of great bedtime story with subtle educational facts, dominated by wit and humour. This second in the series is no different.

Bear has woken from winter hibernation, and Rabbit is spring cleaning his burrow. But then various elements in the woods disturb Rabbit’s peace, and it is up to Bear to use his wisdom to educate Rabbit about not getting quite so het up about things, and seeing the disturbances from a different point of view. I could learn a thing or two!

Vastly reminiscent of the character of Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh for this Rabbit’s general grumpiness, but also reminiscent of the Pooh books more generally, in the ability of the characters to demonstrate the finer qualities of friendship – loyalty, kindness and gently educating each other, this is a warm story for newly developing readers.

The writing excels here. Gough has a way with words – which he transposes to Bear, of pointing things out in the most straightforward way possible. Rabbit has issues with things that are both too noisy and too quiet – Bear explains that the only thing in common with these irritations is Rabbit himself.

In this clever way, Gough gently points the reader towards learning about tolerance, and seeing things from a different perspective, but all the time through the gentle humour of Bear and the funny grumpiness of Rabbit, and with a plot that develops at pace.

There are other elements introduced, such as the usefulness of practising something, overcoming fear, and finding happiness.

The illustrations help to exemplify both the gentle message and the humour – different perspectives of the forest and the animals, but also the characters’ brilliantly expressive faces. There’s so much packed into this small book – and wonderfully the publishers have produced it to a high quality – with thick pages and hardback cover, knowing that children will want to revisit it many times. Ages 6+. You can buy it here.

King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong by Andy Riley

This series about a nine-year-old king and his hilarious adventures is suitable for the whole family and has strands that are reminiscent of The Simpsons (mimicking the stupidity of Homer and the mischievousness of Bart), but also the all-out craziness of rulers, and I’d expect nothing less from one of the writers of Veep.

When a huge monster called the Gizimoth stalks a nearby land, King Edwin (Flashypants) decides that in order to prove his kingliness he must go and fight it, but evil Emperor Nurbison has plans of his own, and they include squishing King Flashypants and his kingdom.

The book is packed with illustrations, which always convey wit, and either gently nudge on the story or give an extra emotional depth to the characters. The characters remain consistent from book one, with Nurbison’s evil laugh, Edwin’s penchant for sweet foods, and Jill’s sensibleness, but each develops further with this second book.

There’s the usual amount of silliness – things being too small, or oversized, words being overused, vomit and poo etc., but there’s also a clever wit behind it all, and twists on modern everyday references that children will recognise – such as portions of fruit and vegetables, and talking about what they’ve learned after the adventure (circle time).

In fact, the book is incredibly cartoon-like – from characters falling off cliffs, to breaking their weapons, to my absolute favourite – the illustration of the evil Emperor’s sidekick Globulus on his knees, wailing “Emperooor” as his beloved Nurbison is….(no spoilers here!)

Riley is clever – there is a joke on almost every page, either tucked into plot or character, or poking the reader right between the eyes. It’s almost as if the humour is infectious – you can tell the author must have had a huge amount of fun writing it.

All in all, a preposterous story, but utterly brilliant. Packed with great character, subtle heart, charm, and nods to the history of storytelling and modern culture. King Flashypants and the Dolls of Doom is due in the autumn. Ages 6+. You can buy King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong here.

Dave Pigeon (Nuggets!) by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Whereas in the first Dave Pigeon book humans were friends – keepers of jam biscuits and distributors of bread, in Dave Pigeon (Nuggets!) the new human is most definitely the enemy.

With their normal human and her Mean Cat away on holiday, Dave Pigeon and his friend Skipper need to find another source of food. When they stumble upon Reginald Grimster beckoning them with crumbs, they think they’ve found another patron, but would a man with mini-umbrellas on his shoulders, who keeps other pigeons in cages, really be friendly towards birds, or is he looking to make some nuggets?

This is another fabulously funny tale about Dave, our pigeon with a complete lack of self-awareness, or in fact general awareness, other than for food. Luckily he has a great friend in Skipper, who is a tad more worldly, and manages to keep them both from fatal danger.

The laughs in this story come from either Dave’s lack of self-awareness, or from the fact that all the pigeons featured are so uncompromisingly human in their thoughts and actions, such as putting up one feather in front of their beaks to keep each other quiet.

Also much of the humour comes out of misunderstandings and slapstick – a pigeon called Fienne, pronounced fine, whom none of the others realise is saying his name rather than his state of being, some nervously pooing pigeons, and a pigeon spy agency… Of course the whole premise and plot are so ridiculous that this is what makes it funny, particularly when the enemy this time is a man with a chip on his shoulder about pigeon poo.

As before, the story is punctuated with little speech bubbles from the pigeons arguing with each other about the book they are writing or talking directly to the reader, and these are all funny as well as providing interesting interludes. And because the pigeons are purporting to write the books themselves, there is an added element of self-reference in the writing too.

The illustrations are glorious – particularly as there is a fair cast of pigeons in this book as opposed to the few in the first book, and some particularly enthralling scenes in a supermarket. Never have pigeons seemed quite so appealing. Ages 6+. Buy it here.

Waiting for Callback Take Two by Perdita and Honor Cargill

Picking up more or less where the first book left off, this witty contemporary YA (although suitable for tweens) second book, Waiting for Callback Take Two, tells the tale of Elektra, a young teen wannabe actress. It can be read as a stand-alone though, as book two joins Elektra about to embark on her first film role in a dystopian thriller with some A-list stars. The book follows the trials and tribulations of filming – the delays, the stars, the arguments and the rewrites. At the same time, Elektra is just a normal teen living at home, and the reader sees her juggle her normal life of summer holidays, friendships, studying and boyfriends along with her new career.

As with the last novel, Elektra is a wonderful protagonist. Witty, somewhat self-deprecating, a little prone to peer pressure and manipulation, she is a character with whom to identify. Her supporting cast works well too – a loyal best friend, an ongoing boyfriend (will they/won’t they communicate properly?), an eccentric and loveable grandmother, and of course a home life with an over-wrought mother who struggles to make peace with her daughter’s new found passion for acting. If anything the character of the mother in this second book is slightly overdone compared to the first – less subtly witty and more full-on anxious, but she also becomes more of a minor character here.

The book feels warm and friendly throughout – mainly down to the main character, and has pace and a good evolving plot. There are interspersed gossip columns reporting on showbiz, as well as letters from Elektra’s agent, and the most winning bit for me were the text messages between Elektra and various people, but most particularly her boyfriend. Archie is a phenomenal character – a great teen boy trying to navigate his way in the world, and with women.

It’s a book that hooks the reader right from the beginning, with great dialogue, realistic inner consciousness, and oodles of heart and humour. Age 11+. Take a look here.