friendship

Quick Gift Guide: Books

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

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

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

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

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

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

absolutely everything

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

Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway

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

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

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

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

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

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

Younger Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zebras and Lollipops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lifters by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Aaron Renier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn 2018 Picture Book Round-Up 2

a house for mouse
A House for Mouse by Gabby Dawnay and Alex Barrow
There’s a wonderful satisfaction in spotting literary allusions in texts, as if the author has winked at you, and you looked up to catch it. Sometimes they’re very well hidden – but for children it’s important that the literary allusions are accessible. A House for Mouse plays upon the enticing estate agent theme of looking into other people’s houses, and also the literary allusions game.

Mouse is searching for a new house, but they all seem to have negatives – clear building regulation failures (The Three Little Pigs), architectural issues (Gingerbread house), inaccessibility (Rapunzel’s tower), overcrowding (There was an Old Woman) and so on. He settles on Sleeping Beauty’s castle but realises that in the end, home is where his heart is, of course.

With humour galore, a fairy tale map at the beginning and soft pencil illustrations delineating the different landscapes, this is a comforting and appealing story book that is more about friendship than location. See if the book suits you here.

theres room for everyone
There’s Room for Everyone by Anahita Teymorian
Mouse was wise to share his castle with his friends – Teymorian uses her picture book to point out that although the library has enough space for all the books (she’s clearly never been in my house), and there’s enough room for all the stars in the sky, human beings constantly fight over space – be it on the train or in a larger context of land and war. The message is simple – that with kindness and love there’s enough room for everyone. What might come across as a little sanctimonious and simple becomes more thoughtful if the reader studies the illustrations used to make Teymorian’s point – the clever use of the boundaries of the page, the distorted long-limbed humans, the neat use of lines to create patterns and textures. A warmth oozes from the pages. There’s room for you here.

the dam
The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold
Immediately bringing to mind the beginning of Haweswater by Sarah Hall, a novel tracking the lives of dispossessed people after the flooding of a valley, this may feel like a strange topic for a picture book. Walker, pushing the boundaries, allows Almond to tell the story, based on truth, of a dam building in Northumberland, which led to the flooding of a valley and the village within it. Here, Almond and Pinfold retell the story of the musicians who played music in this lost place before the flooding.

With themes of loss, dispossession, rebirth and the power of creativity, Almond blesses his lyrical text with a deep simplicity, much repetition, and a clear placing of words within their white background. However, it is Pinfold’s brown and dreamy illustrations that provide the atmosphere and haunting quality to the text, showing both the before and after effects with deep pathos, understanding and clever use of soft muted, almost sepia colour. Pinfold brings a clarity to his study of water and structure, rendering the narrative with a distinct sense of place. And the light – the light pours through the book like water into a flooded valley. You can buy it here.

mary and frankenstein
Mary and Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Julia Sarda
Another atmospheric interpretation in this celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Bailey approaches her topic by investigating how the events of Mary’s life brought her to the moment of creativity, exploring how the story of Frankenstein festered and developed within Mary’s mind. From the death of her mother, to the animosity of her stepmother, the mood swings of her father and her travels and influences, Bailey creates a full image of Mary’s young years with just a few carefully chosen words.

Sarda’s illustrations use darkness, shadows and an almost Picasso-like angularity to illuminate Bailey’s words, creating an unforgettable aura in the people she draws and the landscapes she illustrates. The richness of the colour palette – vivid reds, oranges and browns elucidates the richness of the culture within which Mary was subsumed, but it is the clever rendering of the skies, storms, and imagination at work in dark greys that really sets the tone. Many details to look at, including the houses of the era, the interior décor, as well as gravestones and horses and carriage provide an extra thrill for readers. Like Frankenstein itself, an unforgettable book. Inspirational. (The book is titled Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein in the United States). Explore the life of Mary Shelley here.

on a magical do nothing day
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna, translated by Jill Davis
Illustrations of a completely different order in this modern award-winning text about finding creativity and adventure out of boredom, now published in paperback. A purposefully gender ambiguous protagonist is told by the mother to put down the computer game and find something to do. The child leaves the house with the computer console in order to be out of sight, yet gradually becomes sucked into the natural environment.

At first miserable and bored, the child soon finds joy and creativity in solitude; the neon orange coat at first marking the child as separate from nature, but then seamlessly blending into the myriad of mushrooms and toadstools, and before long there is wonder to be found in the sensuous delights around – jelly snails, the aroma of fungi, the sifting of earth through fingers. The weather plays its part too, and at the end mother and child bond over quiet contemplation and hot chocolate.

This is a phenomenal book of everyday discoveries, with illustrations that make the reader draw breath. The change in perspective, the clever use of light, tone and vignettes gives the book an excitement, and yet also tender empathy. I’m longing for a Do-nothing Day of my own. You can buy the paperback here.

travels with my granny
Travels With My Granny by Juliet Rix and Christopher Corr
On the surface a vibrant picture book about destinations throughout the world, told by an adventurous Grandmother, this is actually a book about dementia, and explaining to children how to try to understand what people with dementia are going through. The grandmother believes she is really travelling, and the other adults explain that she doesn’t know where she is, but for the child, (again an ambiguous gender) he/she is happy to explore the grandmother’s mind, even if it seems confused.

The illustrations are bright and garish, depicting New York on a bright yellow background with multi-coloured skyscrapers and entertainments – as brash and brassy as Times Square. London is blue, Jerusalem orange, Rome a tender mauve. A few facts punctuate each city – in Delhi the tricycle taxis are rickshaws for example. The information at the back explains about dementia. An important, interesting addition. Buy it here.

The Afterwards by AF Harrold, illustrated by Emily Gravett

the afterwardsWhen I was at school I studied the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in a couple of different forms – French playwright Jean Anouilh’s version and Ovid’s telling. It’s a love story of the highest order, in which Eurydice tragically dies and Orpheus attempts to bring her back from the Underworld. Even in the versions in which a narrator has tried to imbue the story with some kind of uplifting ending – such as Orpheus’s songs enchanting everyone forever – the tale is still incredibly melancholy. Thinking back, I wonder if my teachers were mad to give such material to fourteen-year-old girls.

And yet modern children’s literature is constantly eking out the darker corners of our lives – the shadowy parts. In the past year I’ve come across many picture books, young fiction and young adult fiction that all show children harsh realities – the horrific plight of refugees, bullies at school, death of close family members. Almost all of them end on a hopeful note in an attempt to show children resilience, forbearance perhaps, and that they are not alone in their tragedy.

When AF Harrold writes ‘serious’, he tends to reach into those dark corners, having dealt with loss in The Imaginary and bullying in The Song of Somewhere Else, amongst other things. He has described The Afterwards as the last of this triumvirate of books (not a trilogy – these are stand-alone titles) but they all link, in their collective other worldly, serious, atmospheric way. For it is the atmosphere they evoke almost more than the plot itself, which disturbs the soul.

The Afterwards is perhaps his darkest yet, melancholy in feel and quietly devastating. Ember and Ness are best friends – Ember lives with her father after her mother left a long time ago, and Ness lives next door. But then Ness dies (rather horrifically by falling off a swing and hitting her head – this is not a book for the faint-hearted child). Ember is left feeling lost and empty.

When Ember finds a way into the Afterworld, she decides she must bring Ness back with her. But the Afterworld is not going to let go of Ness so easily, and Ember finds that the demands made upon her will change how she thinks about things forever.

Any book dealing with the large topics of death, loss, memory and what happens after death is bound to address the darker side, but Harrold’s writing, even in its comic sphere, is full of atmosphere – and here it is dark indeed. The colours of the world are stripped away in the Afterworld – a metaphor used oft before – but here it really packs a punch. For not only has the colour been stripped away but also Ness’s energy, sapping slowly from her to leave her in a frightening, apathetic state – half the person she was, lacking her zest and charisma. An even more haunting premise is the other person that Ember comes across in the Afterworld – a frightening prospect that comes at the climax of the book, leaving Ember with an unbearable choice and the lingering feeling of sadness at mothers who die without seeing their children grow up. What’s more, there is a character in Ember’s real world who is willing to do something so dreadful that you wonder at Harrold’s daring at placing it at the heart of this novel.

This is a powerful book – written so matter-of-factly (and yet with the poise of a poet) that the magical realism of the Afterworld seems palpable and plausible; the characters so neatly drawn that they feel as if they are just around our own corner. But what haunts particularly is the unbearable feeling of loss and grief that permeates all the shadows of this book – even the grief over an animal.

Brief moments of comedic insight come in a wry style in dialogue between Ember and her father, but for the most part this is a deeply disturbing read. That’s not to say it isn’t troublingly good. It is. The story is always compelling, pushing the reader on in a relentless thrust of impatience to make everything right again, to make Ember happy again. And in the end, with a talking cat and the uplift of happy memories, things are, sort of, okay. But any children’s book that ends with a funeral needs to be read with an enormous amount of sensitivity.

This is a story about memory and loss and the power of love, the latter of which exudes with the illustrations drawn by Emily Gravett. At this point I must confess to only having seen an early proof with limited illustrations, but so far for me, they have provided the uplift – the handsome colour of real life – snapshots of Ember’s ordinary life, which both warms and chills once the reader realises what’s going to happen. The image of Ember’s Dad untying her shoelaces, the family photographs around the house, the wonder of friendship giggles over holiday stories, and the sure-fire shared look of best friends across a room. The couple of illustrations provided nearer the middle of the book are of course, darker, but there is a wonderful intimacy to them still – a poignancy and power that goes hand in hand with the text.

This is an extraordinary book, one that will stay in the memory, and one that should be widely read – but with caution. Its haunting quality may be contagious. You can buy it here.

The Plight of the Refugee

the day war cameThe Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
This is a powerful book that works because it touches the ordinary in each of us. Cobb is an illustrator in the ilk of Judith Kerr and Shirley Hughes – she draws her characters and situations with a crayon childlike warmth, summoning a familiar feeling of domesticity, with her children’s faces expressing the wonder and hope so redolent of innocent childhood. Yet, as in her best work, including Paper Dolls and The Something, she manages to create the darkness and uncertainty that can befall a child, whether it be the bittersweet passing of time in Paper Dolls, or the fears that lurk within the depths of imagination in The Something, or indeed war in The Day War Came.

She complements Nicola Davies’ text wonderfully, which itself tells this story with an acute simplicity, stirring the heart because it bears inside it the pang of extreme suffering. There is a superior energy and force behind the text and illustrations’ understatement:

“I drew a picture of a bird.

Then, just after lunch, war came.”

The war itself feels brutal, as does the journey to flee it. The girl is shown in distress, and there are symbols throughout – of domesticity altered, destroyed and damaged – red shoes adrift on the tide, orange flowers echoing the orange flames leaping from the buildings, children’s drawings strewn in a blast.

the day war came
But even more haunting are the images and words afterwards – the internal war that follows the child in the doors shut in her face, the turning away of people. The image of hope comes in the end with an empty chair borne by a welcoming boy.

The picture book came out of a campaign called #3000chairs, after 3000 child refugees were refused entry to the country in 2016. Nicola Davies’ poem started the ball rolling, and artists contributed drawings of chairs. You can read more about this campaign here, but the picture book will have an effect for years to come – changing minds and moving hearts about the plight of children caught up in war. You can buy a copy here, £1 from every copy sold goes to the charity Help Refugees.

boy at back of classThe Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf, illustrations by Pippa Curnick
An empty chair starts this book too, but it is soon filled with a Syrian refugee. The narrator (who remains anonymous in name and gender until fairly near the end of the book) is empathetic towards him, and soon envelopes him within the friendship group. What begins as a mundane look at an outsider fitting into a new school, complete with language barriers, a bullying problem, and sympathetic teachers, turns into an interesting political commentary on the UK’s treatment of refugees, all told within the neat confines of a children’s adventure story.

The narrator and his/her friends pick up on attitudes and information from the grown-ups and news broadcasts around them, and their naivety and misunderstanding leads the group of friends to find a rather far-fetched solution to reuniting Ahmet with his parents (whom it is presumed are waiting to cross the border into the UK to be with their son again).

The differing views on refugees and acceptance dominate the book, and cleverly, by keeping the narrator anonymous, the reader will find their own views challenged in the presumptions they have made about the protagonist, which comes to a head at the climactic point of the novel.

Above all though, this is a neat, well-told story that explores the power of small actions to initiate change – that calls upon the role of the individual in society, and the impact that kindness can have.

There are nods to other children’s books, but what the author has done most wisely is perfect the innocence and openness of the narrator’s voice in encapsulating the simplicity of school life as seen through a nine year old’s eyes, alongside the complexity of issues in wider society. Suitable for 8+ years, and you can buy this novel here.

tomorrowTomorrow by Nadine Kaadan
Another child who has had his domestic routine disrupted is Yazan, a Syrian boy, in this wordy picture book by Nadine Kaadan, herself from Damascus. At first the war curtails his activities and routines, confining him to the house and subjecting him to boredom. Then, it intrudes his confined space – coming into his house in dark poignant watercolour abstract shapes leaking from the loud noise of the TV news. When Yazan escapes outside in the hope of riding his bicycle to the park he sees only emptiness, and buildings that seem to tower over him, confining him in a different way.

There is much to explore in the imagery here, with anxiety and fear portrayed within a deconstructed urban landscape – buildings are blood red and crooked, or grey and strewn with cracks – even Yazan’s parents are drawn with buildings as their clothes as if the destruction outside is eating them up, the war-torn streets projected inside their circle of domesticity.

As Rebecca Cobb, Kaadan looks to the everyday domestic images – a child’s paper aeroplane, the excitement of a red bike and its bell to express an affinity with this ‘everychild’. Kaadan reaches for a hopeful ending, pictured in the illustrations of happy colourful days and the limitless freedoms of nature and the park in the imaginations of mother and child.

A fascinating exploration of how an illustrator can take one symbol of war and use it throughout a book, whilst also showing her characters with sympathy, humanity and depth. You can buy a copy here.

World Mental Health Day

It is World Mental Health Day today, and research from University College London shows that the number of children and young people with long-standing mental health issues is soaring, rising six fold from 1995 to 2014. Whether it’s pressure from school, social media, or the pace of our world, it’s clear that all agencies are interested in building resilience and promoting emotional and mental wellbeing in our children. There’s only so much schools can do (despite the govt promising training for teachers in dealing with mental health issues in the classroom), so much of it is left to parents.

I’ve been listening to Ester Perel’s psychology podcast, and although she’s known for her books on grown up relationships and fidelity, this particular podcast was on parenting. Her advice is stellar; insightful and sympathetic whilst being wise and objective. How do we make sure our children grow up to be happy and confident, yet also thoughtful and good citizens? How do we make sure that they come and talk when they are scared or sad and how do we listen so that we don’t show a matching fear or sadness or disappointment? I think whenever I need help with anything I turn to those closest to me, but I also receive much wisdom from books.

70 Ways to Boost Your Self Esteem70 Ways to Boost Your Self-Esteem by Jenny Alexander
I’ve started with this excellent book for two reasons. Firstly, having good self-esteem is essential to mental well-being. If you love and feel proud of yourself, you will recognise your own value and importance and consequently you will take good care of yourself, make good decisions and have a positive outlook. Don’t we all want that for our children? Secondly, self-help books can be rather worthy enterprises – for author and reader. We read the book and think, hmm that sounds good, but we never actually put it into practice. Especially when it’s an abstract concept. It’s one thing following a recipe in a diet book, quite another thing to improve one’s self esteem. But this book not only explores what self-esteem is, and why it’s good, but sets tasks at the end of each chapter to achieve good self-esteem. And the tasks are fun.

It splits the steps to gaining self-esteem into seven parts – each with its own designated chapter, example, and tasks. For example: being the hero of your own story; getting life goals; recognising weakness; and celebrating oneself. There’s also a chapter about awareness of others and respect for other people, because although this is about the individual, it’s important that each individual can operate within the real world and work in collaboration with others.

What’s more the tone is friendly – certainly not patronising, with a quirky personality shining through, so that you feel as if the author is a real person talking to you. With some quizzes, diagrams and funny cartoons, the book is set out with plenty of breaks in the information flow so that the reader doesn’t feel overwhelmed. There’s good advice on setting goals and addressing failure, but most importantly clarity and perspective on being one’s own person and getting to know oneself. Having listened extensively to Yuval Noah Harari on our changing world, one of the most important qualities a person will need is self-knowledge and awareness. Why not start them young? For 7+ years (I would add, with parental guidance too). You can buy it here or visit Jenny Alexander’s website and buy it there.

the book of no worriesThe Book of No Worries by Lizzie Cox and Tanja Stevanovic
Speaking of Yuval Noah Harari (whose adult books are excellent btw), this book starts with a section on mindfulness. If you have a child who lies awake at night worrying, or who frets like AA Milne’s old sailor: “There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew, Who had so many things which he wanted to do That, whenever he thought it was time to begin, He couldn’t because of the state he was in,” then this book might help.

With full-colour throughout and bite-size chunks of information, Q and A’s and lists, this is an interesting book that aims to dip in and cover lots of subjects with the intent of calming worries. There are so many topics though, that the advice can feel a bit fleeting, the issues skimmed. However, for short attention spans, this might serve well.

Of course the thing about worries is that they can multiply like bacteria – so honing worries is hard. The book addresses surface worries about school, stress, friends, appearance, puberty, family and love. The advice is slim, but picks out the key points – particularly on social media, by explaining that likes don’t measure worth, and when to stop looking at the phone.

I think what I like best about the book is that in almost all scenarios, one of the key pieces of advice is to talk to someone. For a snapshot of dealing with life’s worries for those approaching and going through puberty, this is a good dip-in guide. You can buy it here.

sign hereSign Here by Gabrielle Djanogly, illustrated by Adele Mildred
This intriguing new activity book is what I’d call a self-help book by stealth. Appparently inspired by playing with mini post offices when little, Djanogly has created a book of forms to fill in that encourages a child to express their emotions, albeit surreptitiously through play. Djanogly imagines a new world of bureaucracy, including The Department of Regret, Remorse and Reconciliation, the Union of Childhood Revenue, the Ministry of Dreams and so on, although this is not some Orwellian nightmare of red tape and officialdom, but a neat way for a child to express emotions and thoughts that may not be so easy to articulate. Thus, saying sorry or thank you, and even filling out the form titled ‘Declaration of Sad’ may better hone a child’s feelings and enable them to decipher where they are coming from and even what’s causing them. There is a tick box for ‘I don’t know, I just feel sad’ as well.

There are plenty of forms for happy occasions too, including the Birthday Party form issued by the Board of Celebration, which my youngest has no problem putting into words, but I’m sure she’d delight in this ‘official form’ to hand over requesting which cake etc. All the forms have authenticity stamped all over them, with logos, frames, tick boxes, signatures, a variety of fonts and so on, and each is neatly printed on good quality paper that is easily detached from the book via its perforated edging. The publisher even recommends photocopying the forms so that they can be re-used.

As well as declarations of sadness, fear and happiness, there are also forms to say sorry, to say thank you, to request a raise in pocket money, a contract with a babysitter, a Christmas present request form, a lost property form, a pet request form and a tell me a story form, as well as many more. Because the deeper emotions are sat alongside the everyday requests, it normalises the emotions and helps to make them everyday things to be shared. There are also ideas for making things better – the Acknowledgement of Anger Form includes tick boxes for requesting a hug or stomping around. Both can be ticked! Lots of asterisks in places allows the author to interject with warmth and comfort:

“**sometimes needing a hug is tricky to admit. If you want a hug, make a BIG tick in the box so that it can be spotted quickly.”

A fun way to express oneself. Apply for your forms here.