gender

The Golden Butterfly by Sharon Gosling

the golden butterflyWhat is it about the Victorian era that makes reading about it quite so appealing? Is it because it was the age of massive advances in science and technology, changing the world of communication, transportation and work? Perhaps it was the changing ideas about the treatment of women, or the recognition and shifting ideas of class and social mobility, industrialisation, the expansion of empire….

Amazingly, and with some skill, Sharon Gosling covers a lot of this ground in her novel, The Golden Butterfly, set in 1897, although most of the themes are subtly lurking behind the scenes.

Luciana’s grandfather was the Magnificent Marko, a leading magician of his time, who performed the most astonishing, spectacular trick called ‘The Golden Butterfly’. Since he dramatically departed the stage, no one has come close to performing a trick quite as extraordinary. After his death, the leader of the Grand Society of Magicians comes searching Luciana’s house for secrets of the trick, setting Luciana on a treasure hunt of her own. Before long, she’s embroiled in magic herself, ready to protect her grandfather’s legacy, and set to show the world that women have just as much right to perform magic as men.

Luciana is a strong female character – as are many protagonists in today’s current crop of middle grade (8+ years) fiction, but she has more to prove in her era, striving against being cast as ‘other’ or a ‘witch’ in order to practise a trade that has been embraced by theatre audiences, but only when performed by a man.

But all people are not who they seem. In fact, it is this very idea – the art of appearances and illusions – that stalks the novel, magic being about deflection and distraction. Luciana comes to discover that it is the person behind the façade that counts.

Where better than to set her cast of characters then, than in a theatre, with the fluidity of appearance and reality, front of stage and backstage. Throughout her novel, Gosling plays with the idea of the mask people show to the world, and what’s really underneath, as well as how distraction aids magic and can lead people in the wrong direction in real life too, and lastly, the power play involved with rivalry and ambition.

Luciana adventures with a trust sidekick, the loveable Charley, son of a housekeeper and thus of a different social class from Luciana. Warned off him by her grandmother, Luciana learns that it is not only the gender she is born into but the social class that enables or disables her. Gosling builds a wonderful friendship between the pair, despite their differences, showing that loyalty and shared history counts more than social status, but she also draws them into a world of polarisation – the sumptuous houses of the wealthy with their butlers and warm beds juxtaposed with the ragamuffin children lurking by the railway stations and the workers in public houses.

With a clever treasure trail set in motion from the beginning, Luciana moves through Victorian England encountering all these people, using different modes of transport, and learning to look behind the curtains.

She’s also an orphan – raised by grandparents, and part of her quest revolves around finding out who her parents might have been. This is visually evocative in that she has a recurring fear of fire, stemming from something in her childhood. Linking this to the secret use of lighting magnesium during a magic act to create a distraction (a bright white light like the original photographers used in their ‘flash’), and the science of the era is brought to life.

With her confident prose, Gosling is adept at describing the magic tricks, not only the strange contraption puzzles that Luciana’s grandfather leaves behind to solve (reminiscent of modern rubik’s cubes), but also in her description of the golden butterfly act itself and its behind the scenes mechanism. Her word precision, her specificity, is inherent on every page, so that the Victorian theatre world seems very real to today’s audience, each word as carefully placed as the cards in a magic trick.

Although the plot was guessable (by me at least), it does not spoil enjoyment of the novel. Like seeing a magic trick, it is the enigma of how it is done. Gosling imbues her world with colour and vibrancy, fully embracing the appearance and reality of her plot and using the built-in drama of anticipation and excitement of a theatre’s magic show to give her book its dramatic arc. The fun is in seeing how Gosling is going to reveal the truth – how the final trick is going to be played.

The cover design is divine, the chapters are short and sharp, the villains shady, the final reveal heart-warming, cheerful and looking to the future. A great novel, showing that although we’ve come a long way since the Victorian era, there’s still a way to go, and that as Houdini said, ‘my brain is the key that sets my mind free.’ Books, like magic, dazzle and make you think. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Stripes books for the review copy. Cover art by Pip Johnson.

International Women’s Day 2019

I’m a keen viewer of University Challenge on the BBC, a quiz show for students. Recently, I’ve noticed more and more questions creep in that refer to women in history, previously unnoticed women composers and artists, those whom the layperson in the street definitely couldn’t identify. I admit, I don’t know enough about women in history either, and my shouting ‘Beethoven’ in answer to most questions just doesn’t cut it! Luckily, on this International Women’s Day, children’s publishers are waking up to these lesser-known important historical figures too. And so today’s collection is a definite celebration of women – from famous sisters in history, to lesser-known scientists and pioneers, to modern celebrity women pushing boundaries.

the bluest of bluesThe Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs by Fiona Robinson
This extraordinarily exquisite picture book is a biography of British botanist and photographer, Anna Atkins, who lived 1799 to 1871, and used the newly-invented technology of cyanotype photography to record her catalogue of plant specimens.

What could be quite a dry biography is manipulated into an aesthetically intimate and touching portrayal of Anna, her enthusiasm and love for her craft – and a meshing of science and art, creativity hand-in-hand with discovery.

The book is cast in an illustrative shade of blue, mimicking the cyanotype’s blue and white tones – with Robinson cleverly incorporating the odd splash of red or yellow to emphasise inspiration – the first poppy Atkins examines, the roses in her marriage bouquet, the red ribbon round the gift of her first camera.

The book explores her life and works, and also the support from those around her, particularly her father, who educated his daughter in science, despite it being unusual at that time. This is good narrative non-fiction, delineating the scientific concepts of photography and botany, whilst remaining true to telling Atkins’ life. You can buy it here. 

the brontesThe Brontes by Anna Doherty
Another picture book that frames the world of important women in a single hue, this time a turquoise minty green. Of course, these sisters are well-known to many, but may be accessed for the first time by readers of this picture book, as it is squarely aimed at a young audience. Illustrations dominate the pages, as Doherty documents the girls’ life story from their childhood through to publication, illness and death.

A family tree starts the book, and individual profiles of the sisters and Branwell come near the end. The story is inflected with the author’s own perspective, clearly infused with feminist undertones as she explains how the sisters first published under male pseydonyms. The text is simplistic but clear, and the author takes the opportunity at the end of the book to articulate further social history, exploring why the Brontes were so fantastically feminist.

The book is marvellously attractive, speaking not only to the power of women, but to the power of imagination and story. An inspirational book that makes the world of the Brontes feel intimate, and fascinating. First in a series. Other titles include Ada Lovelace and Michelle Obama. You can buy it here. 

grace hopperGrace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu
With a rhyming poem on the endpapers introducing the scope of this lively picture book for youngsters, ‘Software tester. Workplace jester. Order seeker. Well-known speaker…’ the reader is immediately engrossed in this enthusiastic exploration of how Grace Hopper discovered computer code and became a trailblazing STEM advocate. What’s intriguing about this book is that it highlights that women’s involvement in computers and tech isn’t a recent phenomena  – Hopper was engaged from the beginning – she was a pioneer.

Hopper developed a ground-breaking way of writing computer code, as much from her understanding of how things work, numbers and logic, as from her intuition and creativity. The book carries that perpetually important message of determination and perseverance, especially in the face of adversity, and ends on a high hopeful note.

The full-colour, almost cartoonish illustrations provide an insight into the zest and energy that powered Hopper, from showing her as a frustrated but determined and curious little girl, to a hardworking, brave and intrepid Navy employee. Her insatiable curiosity and her ability to step away from code to find the answers in life as well, show her as a fully rounded, identifiable human. This is an informative and aspirational picture book – you’d do very well to show this to your sons and daughters. You can buy it here. 

one shotOne Shot by Tanya Landman
Ever since my parents took me to see Annie Get Your Gun in the West End as a child, I’ve had a thing about Annie Oakley. With numbers like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, and ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’, who wouldn’t be inspired by this trailblazing feminist? Landman’s novella on Annie Oakley’s childhood, One Shot, (which is completely fictionalised) is just as powerful and poignant, although in a very different way. Set in the later part of the 19th century, this sometimes disturbing, haunting book imagines Annie’s harsh upbringing – the death of her beloved father, her rejection by her mother, and her abusive treatment by adoptive parents (there are references to rape).

But mainly this is a compelling historical visualisation of the social normalities that Annie had to fight in order to prove her worth as a sharpshooter, to rebel against the constrictions imposed on her because of her gender. Powerfully dressing herself younger so her rebellion looked more excusable to outsiders, and her constant seeking of parental approval, are both markers of the nuance and depth of Annie’s character that Landman has imagined in her novella. Written for a reading age of nine, but with teen content, this is another example of a strong inspirational woman fighting for survival and recognition, and beautifully conjures the landscape and political reality of America at that time. Landman cleverly incorporates Annie’s bravery into her fight to do what feels natural, even though it is classed as unladylike, and also showing her courage in admitting her abuse to her future husband. The chapter in which she steps into the shooting competition with Frank Wilkes made me want to sing again. I’m hoping Landman will bring her own targeted eye to writing the next part of Annie’s life. You can buy it here. 

ariane grandeUltimate Superstars: Ariana Grande by Liz Gogerly
Hot on the footsteps of the wildly successful Ultimate Football Heroes, comes this new series on ‘superstars’, a loose concept, but so far comprising Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. It doesn’t matter how famous a person is for these biographies, it’s the journey to get there or the quirkier achievements that make for a decent life story.

The focus for Ariana Grande is, of course, the bombing at her Manchester Arena concert in 2017, and this is where this life story starts and ends, and is dealt with sensitively, making much of the fans, and also her shock at the time and sympathetic nature afterwards. Grande’s life story has been one of success after success from early days as part of the cast of 13, a ground-breaking all-teenage production on the Broadway stage, to Victorious on Nickelodeon, and then onward to her music career, including performing in front of President Obama at the age of 21.

Success may have heralded success, but the book documents Grande’s tough skin, her hard work and determination, her efforts and affinity with fans through social media, and her supportive family, including her much-loved grandfather. For fans, a must. For others, I’m generally of the opinion that a subject needs to be slightly older to have a truly interesting biography. Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez publications follow in May. You can buy it here. 

gloria's voiceGloria’s Voice by Aura Lewis
A good premise to showcase the influence and achievements of feminist Gloria Steinmen needs more explanation in this picture book for a young audience. Illustrated in throw-back 1970’s oranges and pinks, the text is simplistic and yet in some places rather cryptic – simplistic in the language used that explains how Gloria dreams of being famous, yet cryptic in that it fails to explain the name or influence of her magazine ‘Ms’. However, it does explore the aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and it does draw attention to global inequalities that Steinmen witnessed then, and that persist now. So this is an interesting biographical text that may stimulate further curiosity. Watercolour illustrations range from the fantastical to the strange in showing Steinmen playing unhappily with a dolls’ house, representing her care-taking role in her mother’s illness, to a rather strange portrait of Steinmen flying ‘a la Wonder Woman’ above a suburban neighbourhood. Extra information at the end gives some context, but really the text needs more explanation from the beginning so that young readers understand why Gloria was so influential. You can buy it here. 

Vote for Effie by Laura Wood

vote for effieWhen I was at school I was voted most likely to be prime minister when I grew up. Looking at the haggard face of Mrs May I’m very glad I’m not, but I have pursued my own little political activism agenda. When the council demolished my local playground for fears it was unsafe, I lobbied them to build another. They told me if I wanted one, I needed to do it, so I secured a lottery grant and did so. When I wanted my local primary school to build a library, they said if I wanted one, I should do it, so I did.

And I was ready to paint black and white lines on the road outside the school, until the council said that installing a zebra crossing was actually something they’d do themselves. I’ve even tried lobbying my son to play less Fifa and do more homework, but it turns out he’s more stubborn than the council, and that’s saying something.

Anyway, to local acts of political activism in fiction and Vote for Effie by Laura Wood is a welcome addition to the canon. Effie joins a new school and instead of quietly observing how she could fit in, sees an injustice on day one, jumps straight in and fights to become Student Council President.

Effie is an exuberant, outgoing and forthright character, who speaks from the heart and wins the reader’s vote straight away, although it takes a bit longer for her to convince her peer cohort.

Wood’s breezy prose – the story is told in a wonderful first person narrative that is purposefully and woefully unself-aware – lends passion and conviction to Effie, who wants to change perceived ideas of sports and gender, bring awareness to student body about the benefits of recycling and libraries, and shake up the status quo.

There are wonderful moments of comedy throughout the novel, (pasting her face onto the body of Emmeline Pankhurst on a campaign poster, for example) but serious undertones too, not only in the issues that Effie addresses within her school, but also the gentle sidebars to her story – the loneliness of the elderly as exemplified by her interested next-door neighbour, the benefits of immigrants to society.

The text veers off prose too – interspersing the story with newspaper articles, notes, and minutes from the school council meetings to further the plot and beautifully twist points of view. Wood has a deft touch in children’s comic writing – she understands fully that the most important element of school life is not academics, or team sports or even gender equality, but FOOD.

In all seriousness, this is a great novel showcasing women’s leadership, youth political engagement, and the hope that springs from children that they can make a difference, that they can make the world a kinder and better place – and don’t we need that at the moment! 

You can read Laura Wood’s thoughts on writing the novel here and buy the book here.

Laura Wood: A Q&A about Vote for Effie

laura woodLaura Wood has certainly made her mark in the world of children’s literature. From the Poppy Pym series to last year’s triumphant YA title, A Sky Painted Gold, Wood can plot an adventure, create a dreamy 1920s landscape, and make the reader laugh. Vote for Effie (review coming tomorrow on MinervaReads.com) is a laugh out loud look at school council elections, with a bold exploration of female leadership. Here, Laura explores what made her turn from 1920’s Gatsby parties to present day school room drama:

What inspired you to write VOTE FOR EFFIE?

There were a few things that inspired me to write Vote for Effie. In my job I’m so lucky that I get to go into different schools and meet loads of brilliant students, and something I was noticing was how incredibly politically engaged and switched on these young people were. I think that when I was eight years old I would have struggled to tell you who the Prime Minister was, and yet even the youngest children I work with know so much about what’s going on in the wider world – about Brexit, and Trump and the refugee crisis. And not only do they know, they CARE. This was really crystalised for me when the first Women’s March took place in 2017. Seeing so many young people taking part, hearing the stories of young activists, made me feel hopeful during a dark time. I wanted to write a book that was about that, about a character who is an optimistic force of nature, one who sees things that need changing and does something about it.

vote for effieWere you like Effie when you were at school?

There are definitely bits of my personality in Effie, and we share a love of musicals, Disney films and glitter glue, but I think Effie is a lot braver than me. We didn’t have student council, but I don’t think I could have handled the high-stakes rollercoaster of an election campaign… I’m much more of a behind-the-scenes person!

If you could join Effie’s campaign team, what role would you want?

I’d love Angelika’s job as campaign manager. Running the campaign, organising things, and owning lots of colour coordinated post-it notes and shiny ring binders would be ideal!

Do you have any tips for young people who want to make a difference at their school?

I think the first thing is to make a manifesto, to think about the things that you want to change and why. Once you have a practical, manageable list of issues you want to tackle then it’s much easier to start taking action. At first Effie finds it difficult to narrow down her list of issues, but talking things over with her friends always helps her to make sense of things.

With thanks to Laura Wood, and publishers Scholastic. To buy a copy of Vote for Effie, click here, and to read my review, come back tomorrow! 

The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton, illustrated by Angela Barrett

the restless girls

It’s not hard in today’s modern society to view the Grimm fairy tales as patriarchal in their outlook, some verging on misogynistic, and although I firmly believe that they should be read within the context of their time, it’s easy to see how modern authors might want to write their own versions to realign some of the prejudices expressed within the original tales. Grimm’s original The Twelve Dancing Princesses, published in 1812, bears many of the hallmark tropes of patriarchal fairy tale narratives – the girls are locked up at night by their father, they keep their night-time activities secret, and they are nothing but the prize for the male who solves the mystery of where they go (he may choose whomever of them he wants for his wife). Thus, a father who cannot accept the girls’ transition to maturity (the wearing out of their shoes), girls who act in a duplicitous manner, and princesses who are passive entities and must submit to their fate.

However, the original tale does hold some morals that may be of use today – the idea that parents need to give their adolescents some freedom (otherwise they sneak out in secrecy to who knows where!); and conversely a lesson to young readers that duplicity is always outed in the end. And there are numerous variations on the Grimm’s version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, each pulling out morals according to their era.

Luckily for us, Jessie Burton has re-crafted the story for our times, retaining the key narrative but twisting it just enough to add modern flavour and feminism, as well as her own philosophy and musings on life’s lessons. Enhanced by Angela Barrett’s dazzlingly diverse illustrations (of what I’ve seen so far in early proofs), this finally is a story for the 21st century.

Queen Laurelia’s tragic death in a motor car accident results in the King’s over-protectiveness of his daughters: instead of letting them pursue their passions and talents (everything from astronomy to painting, comedy to botany), he denies them their lessons and belongings and locks them up in a dormitory. The girls turn from despair to hope when they discover a secret passageway behind their mother’s portrait, and take night-time excursions across a lake and through a magical, wondrous silver forest before dancing the night away at a palace filled with talking animals, where a constant party, with feasting and merriment, is in sway. Dance, here, is very much an expression of freedom and happiness rather than an overtly feminine activity.

Burton doesn’t just update the story with modern nuance by including motor cars and telephones; she litters it with her musings on life, philosophies that determine our own age but also future times, and asks the reader to think hard too, whether it be about the role of imagination in our lives, where story meets memory in remembering someone lost, and when darkness can sometimes be kind.

This is a feminist re-telling, so Burton twists the story, overtly judging their neglectful father who encourages strange men to spy upon the princesses, and wryly exploring the teamwork of the 12 sisters, although she also showcases their individuality by naming each, and by having each sister use their different strengths to overcome adversity. In the end, their supreme wit and intelligence reigns as they turn the King’s own words against himself, and seize their future with ferocity. In our time in which girls self-harm, Burton shows how girls can save themselves, forge a sisterhood, look out for each other, and use wisdom to seek positive futures. At the same time, it doesn’t feel ‘anti-men’, because the advisers surrounding the King embrace the future too.

Within the writing itself are sumptuous descriptions – one would be hard pushed to read about the food offered at the palace without salivating – and although richly English, with its hot buttered toast and sausages and mash, there are spices from around the world, and indeed the book feels global in its telling.

This is not just a feminist tale – Burton beguiles the reader with the magic of fairy tales by retaining initial features such as a secret door to a secret world, the lights and twinkling forest treats that the girls find, lush descriptions of food and parties, and she also subverts all political assumptions by populating the night-time party with mysteriously flamboyant anthropomorphised animals.

the restless girls illustrationInitial illustrations (having only seen an early proof) depict the girls as individuals, busy at their own tasks, yet with a collaborative spirit, and indeed their spirit is apparent in the movement and strength demonstrated by Frida, the eldest daughter, shown early on flinging back curtains to let light illuminate the King’s advisers – an illustrative metaphor.

This is a book of freedom and independence; dare I say girl power. Written like a waltz, it dances the reader through the pages with pace and movement, and celebrates laughter and love in swirling pirouettes of plot. You can buy your own copy here.

But A Mermaid Has No Tears…

girl who thought her mother was a mermaidThe Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was a Mermaid by Tania Unsworth, illustrated by Helen Crawford-White
Not out until 12th July, but well worth waiting for, this middle grade (junior fiction age 9+) mermaid book is another triumph from the dark pen of Tania Unsworth. A master at combining reality with tinges of dark fantasy, and beguiling the reader with intrigues of what is real and what is make believe, Unsworth’s new novel picks up beautifully on the current zeitgeist for mermaid stories.

Stella is terrified of water, yet has a penchant for the ocean and the huge picture of the sea that hangs in the back of her house. Her mother died when she was eight, and left Stella a necklace called ‘the word of the sea’, but no one seems to be able to give her more information on it. When her grandmother, suffering from a form of dementia, gives Stella a hint that her mother may have been a mermaid, Stella follows a series of clues that leads her to a place called Crystal Cove and a mermaid show, where things aren’t always as they seem.

Good, sparse yet engaging text leads the reader, with Stella, into a labyrinth of truths and untruths, as she investigates whether her mother was a mermaid. The book also investigates the nature of friendship – Stella finds this difficult but has made a friend in the flamboyant Cam. There is also a look at the reliance children place upon adults to keep them safe and reveal the truth to them, but in typical Unsworth style, there is a sharp twist, and a fearsome and chillingly real villain.

The book is great at its description of the real world, especially the seaside town to which Stella runs away, but it also has a wonderful handle on depicting Stella’s inner thoughts, fears and motivations. By adding her spin on magical realism in the way of mermaids, Unsworth allows Stella and the reader to ask the bigger questions in life too.

A hugely compulsive novel, with superb characterisation. You can pre-order it here.

the surface breaksThe Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill
Almost all the current books about mermaids are influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, whose protagonist sacrifices her world, tail, and voice for love, but none are quite as sharply or devastatingly reimagined as this feminist retelling. Bringing her trademark biting satirical agenda and fight for gender equality to the tale, O’Neill has written a gripping, terribly dark fairy tale for our times.

Gaia’s world is dominated by men, none more so than her powerful and controlling father. When she spies a human boy on a boat, she falls for him and decides to sacrifice her world, and mutilate her body, in order to be with him. Unfortunately, she has gambled on his looks alone, and the reader becomes more swiftly aware than Gaia how reckless this is. The reader’s awareness of the palpable horror of her situation, a description of her ever-shredding feet that is almost too painful to read, and a mounting frustration at the treatment of women throughout, and Gaia’s hopes in particular which are so much pinned on frivolity and appearance, make this an engaging but demanding read.

O’Neill goes to great lengths here to subvert the original fairy tale so that she can pose an exploration of women as more than just a stereotype – more than just erotic objects, or manipulative shrews, but as multi-layered beings – fallible, abused, powerful, exotic, all at once. The Sea Witch is shown as feisty and motivated, not just a Disney character of pure evil revelling in her own wickedness, but in fact a believable and sumptuous character who is the most free of all the women, by vaunt of being most comfortable with who she is.

In fact, in some places it brings to mind what was really embedded in Christian Andersen’s text, which has been lost to the images in our minds of red-headed Ariel with her big blue eyes. It’s astonishing that so much of the misogynistic cruelty and darkness resides in the original story, and to find that O’Neill hasn’t deviated as much as we might think.

The book also gives a beautiful twist to women above the sea’s surface. They are not as free as Gaia imagines, and the prince is preoccupied and ungrateful – not the fairy tale beau of generosity and unparalleled power. Layers of lust and love, sibling rivalry and power dynamics ebb and flow throughout the book. It doesn’t smash the patriarchy so much as stimulate young women to think about who they are and their position in life. Clever, thoughtful and raging – this is not a soothing or subtle tale. For YA readership. Take a dip here.

bad mermaids on the rocksBad Mermaids: On the Rocks by Sibeal Pounder, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft.
For much younger readers – those aged about seven and up, Sibeal Pounder is an absolute joy to read. Her Witch Wars series is wacky and zany and never fails to raise a smile, and the Bad Mermaids series elicits the same response. On the Rocks is the second in the series about three mermaids accompanied by a talking seahorse.

Pounder’s ultimate strength is her exquisite world-building, in this case, the undersea kingdoms of the mer people. The vocabulary is broad ranging, with many plays on words and satirical digs at our normal world, (Pounder is inventive with transport and fashion) and conjures a playful fun underwater plot that keeps the reader absorbed and extremely entertained. She makes fun of the world as she writes and makes subtle winks to a feminist agenda – mermaids happily burp bubbles, which turns upside down the idea that mermaids are just aesthetic beauties, and give each other plenty of sass in their dialogue. Each mermaid has her own particular and distinctive character traits and it makes for a diverse and fascinating story.

In On the Rocks, the three mermaid heroines from book one are stuck aboard a spooky ship, but a human, Paris Silkensocks, discovers a plot to destroy the mermaid world. Paris must find the mermaids in time and avert a crabtastrophe. Fun and frolicks. With scattered black and white illustrations from Jason Cockcroft. Swim with mermaids here.

LoraliLorali by Laura Dockrill
From zany to zanier, Dockrill’s writing style can be a bit of an acquired taste – veering towards the wacky and unpredictable, so tackling mermaids and the fantastical seems like a good fit. Dockrill has two books published in her mermaid series, the first of which, Lorali, was published in 2015.

Rory finds a naked girl washed up under Hastings pier during a storm on his sixteenth birthday. But even more surprising is where she comes from. Lorali has to get used to some strange things in the ‘walking’ world, but it’s Rory’s gradual awakening to Lorali’s world and why she’s running from the sea that becomes the centrepiece of this intriguing novel.

Dockrill deals cleverly with her convoluted plot, telling the story from three points of view: Rory, Lorali, and the sea – the last of which provides the reader with the background to the world of the mermaids.

But it’s Dockrill’s handling of the teen world that is where she is most adept. The mermaid’s newness to the world is not unlike that of a teenager, exploring themselves and their surroundings for the first time as realisation dawns of the sort of adult they might turn into, and the choices they make.

There is a raw darkness to the book too, jumping from the realism of a seaside town to a world in which strange weather and pirates rule. Dockrill’s words tumble over like the crashing of the waves, and her nod away from fairy tale and to modernity lies in the way in which she addresses feminism and misogyny, but not always in the way in which the reader expects. For a YA audience. You can buy it here.

There are a few adult novels published in the past year or so that also feature mermaids, creatures that speak to our times. Mermaids are regarded as freaks, albeit beautiful ones, and in today’s society, when we are constantly alert to ‘otherness’ and ‘diversity’, the concept of mer-people on land or humans at sea is all about how we fit in, and the similarities and differences between us. Happy swimming.

 

Rose’s Dress of Dreams

roses dress of dreamsThere may be plenty of books featuring biographies of amazing women jostling for space on the shelves at the moment, but for children looking for a short contained fiction that does the same job, accompanied by sensational illustrations, they’d do well to pick up Rose’s Dress of Dreams by Katherine Woodfine, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst. Based on the life of Rose Bertin, the woman credited with creating haute-couture, this is a divinely illustrated historical fiction of determination and dreams.

Woodfine expertly weaves the story of Rose’s passion and abundant energy as she transforms herself from a young apprentice into a budding businesswoman. In the face of rejection, Rose triumphs through her own hard work, and changes people’s negative mindsets as she does so. In the face of doubt and drudgery, Rose still dreams of fabrics and ideas of style and by the end is dressing royalty.

There’s some imaginative wordplay that sweeps the reader along, with Woodfine drawing on all the senses as she describes the sensuous business of dressmaking. But there’s also plenty of spark and personality as the reader learns that clothes can bring confidence to the wearer, and that friendship and manners play their part too.

Pankhurst’s illustrations do far more than just complement the text. Known already for her portraits of famous women in children’s books, and also for her flair for historical detail, here she draws the furniture and chandeliers of the time, matching them with Parisian architecture, and of course fashions. Together, Woodfine and Pankhurst have created a truly shining gem of a book. What’s more it’s a Little Gem by Barrington Stoke, so perfect for even the most reluctant of readers (this is short fiction with bite-size paragraphs and tinted pages).

I’m delighted to showcase a Kate Pankhurst illustration from the book – this one is from page 16, beginning Chapter 3: The Streets of Paris.

Tempted? See Katherine reading the matching chapter of the book here:

And you can buy your own copy here.

 

International Women’s Day 2018

Tomorrow, Thursday 8th March, 2018, is International Women’s Day.

As we celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage in the UK in 2018, it’s essential to show the younger generation the importance of their political history, so that they appreciate what’s gone before them, but also so that they can be inspired and harness that energy to forge their path in the future.

The publishing industry has been pushing certain children’s books for a while as a call to gender equality (Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is one such book, although I abhor the title). Seeing the young faces in the library each week, I know that they are interested in women in the past who have fought for equality, but the younger generation also need to continue the fight so that equal pay and equal opportunities become global achievements. You can read past blogs about some inspirational books here, and here, but below are a set of just published books celebrating amazing women in history, and contemporary struggles:

Make More Noise (anthology, published by Nosy Crow)
This is a sumptuous selection of short stories by top children’s authors, which all aim to inspire readers and whet their appetite to learn more about important figures in the past, and the meaning of the women’s movement. There are historical stories, contemporary, fantasy; each playing to the strength of its author, so that Emma Carroll and Katherine Woodfine have written delectable historical stories, whereas K Millwood Hargrave goes for fantasy, and MG Leonard sticks to bugs in the present.

For me, the defining story is the tale of an ordinary housemaid by Woodfine, as it probes into the essence of what the Votes for Women campaign meant. The idea was more than obtaining the right to put a simple cross on the ballot paper, but rather a different way of seeing women – a chance to provide further opportunities for education and learning, for social mobility, for basic human rights.

Emma Carroll’s story takes in the Land Girls, Jeanne Willis profiles the first woman to cycle around the globe in a year, and Patrice Lawrence writes a wonderful tale of the Spitalfields slums inspired by the campaigner, Olive Christian Malvery. Catherine Johnson writes a particularly engaging tale about the fairly unknown 43 Group, ex-servicemen who fought against anti-Semitic activists in Britain, and Sally Nicholls writes a jolly hockey sticks adventure about census night 1911, with a clear political message.

It’s all very well preaching history and political correctness, but luckily for its readership, this is a collection that is witty and wise, engaging and accessible, which mixes in themes of friendship, belonging and even the supernatural, whilst still staying true to women’s voices. An absolute joy for the soul – both men’s and women’s, and stunningly written, as one would expect from such a talented bunch of writers. You can buy it here.

herstoryHerStory: 50 Women and Girls Who Shook the World by Katherine Halligan, illustrated by Sarah Walsh

This large biography book takes a double page for each subject and tells the story of the woman it’s featuring. The author breaks the text into chunky paragraphs with subheadings, and each profile features illustrations, and where possible, photographs. The text reads straightforwardly but deals with complexities – as well as highlighting the life of the woman and her achievements, it also poses questions to the reader: What genius might Emily Bronte have produced had she lived beyond 30 years?

The text also extrapolates what was good about these women’s actions – the book features anti-Nazi resistance leader Sophia Scholl, and Halligan has quoted Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The author then goes on to highlight how one person can have the power to change, to speak up for what’s right.

This is a powerful book that highlights the women’s importance but also depicts when in history these women were not recognised – when Mary Anning was not properly credited in museums, how Mary Seacole was never thanked officially by the military for her work. It then goes on to explain why and how these women are now worthy of our studies, of our knowledge, or their place in our ‘history’ or ‘herstory’.

Featuring such diverse women as Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, Wangari Maathai, Anne Sullivan and more, this is a powerful and attractive collection of histories. Subjects are arranged thematically, so that Elizabeth Blackwell sits alongside Eva Peron in ‘Help and Heal’. If you’re wondering about Eva Peron, Halligan also points out where people may have found fault in things these women did too – no one is a saint.

This is crucial in our analysis of history, and being able to think critically about figures in the past. This objective insight also serves us well: if we portray all women as complete saints, we will find it hard to emulate them. Most importantly, the book highlights how all these women had to fight and work hard to get what they wanted – whether it be publishing at first under a man’s name, acting on stage with a prosthetic leg after traumatic amputation, or dying impoverished – each persevered, and have now been found to have made a huge difference to our lives today. An excellent non-fiction title for International Women’s Day and beyond. You can buy it here.

little leaders bold women in black historyLittle Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
Although there is a little more recognition of BAME and diverse voices in history now, and a little more recognition that all people need to be represented in publishing, there is still a gap in the market for such titles. This beautiful little book aims to plug one gap. Born from a project started during Black History Month, Harrison wants to celebrate those who have been marginalised in the past; some of Harrison’s subjects were not even aware that their steps were forging a path for the future. Of course, there is Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, but also less well-known women such as Alma Woodsey Thomas, a teacher and painter.

Arranged in chronological order from date of birth, there is a large focus on modern women, with only 13 featured from pre-20th century, but this is to be expected with our patriarchal global narrative that has cast women as inferior for much of history. There is also quite a large American slant, although others are featured too.

Each woman is afforded a page of text, and Harrison runs through their lives and achievements succinctly, and without much commentary, and it certainly all reads very positively. Opposite the text is a full page illustration (which is how the project started). The illustrations are very similar – all feature the woman in subject looking doll-like with downcast eyes – and here is the rub. Unfortunately for a book about leaders, it seems a shame to have called them ‘little’ in the title, and illustrated them with their eyes down, looking somewhat demure and docile.

Women featured include Augusta Savage, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Julie Dash, Oprah Winfrey, Dr Mae Jemison, and Diane Abbot. At the back, Harrison lists a few more, but her bibliography is lacking. You can buy it here.

anthology of amazing womenAnthology of Amazing Women: Trailblazers Who Dared to be Different by Sandra Lawrence, illustrated by Nathan Collins

There’s a pattern emerging here! Another biographies book that features 50 women from various walks of life who have made significant contributions to society or ground-breaking achievements. Again arranged thematically, and again featuring a full page of text and an accompanying full page full-colour illustration for each person (somewhat stylised and looking a little like the Women in Science series). Sneakily, the author also shoves in another few women for the chapter openers – obviously whittling the list down to fifty proved difficult.

I would query how it’s possible to have a paragraph on Anne Frank without mentioning the word ‘Jewish’, and would query the need to feature this overflow from the 50, seeing as there isn’t the space to highlight their achievements and who they were in enough detail. For the fifty profiled though, the text is factual and unobtrusive without opinion and questioning.

A failing here is that there are no dates at the beginning of each profile, so it’s hard to immediately place the woman in history, but the upside is that generally this is quite a different cast of women, and this itself has the possibility to make the reader think.

Profiles include: Beyonce, Sheryl Sandberg, Tove Jansson, Yani Tseng, Nettie Stevens, Simone de Beauvoir, Hatshepsut, and Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as the reliable Emmeline Pankhurst, Mary Anning, Mary Wollstonecraft and Frida Kahlo.

It is especially delightful to see the inclusion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer who has not only written some wonderful novels, but also continues to inspire with her TED talks. And Fanny Mendelssohn, whose husband encouraged her to compose and publish her work. Although cast aside by many because she was a woman, with the foresight of a feminist husband, she was enabled to gain some recognition for her music.

amazing womenAmazing Women: 101 Lives to Inspire You by Lucy Beevor, illustrated by Sarah Green

Doubling the stakes here, with 101 women featured, this is a more British take on inspirational women, and one of the best. Submitted to me with a press release, it was the only one to express the publisher’s difficulty in navigating history – in that people who were a power for good may also have caused some harm. It mentions replacing Aung San Suu Kyi in future reprints, but has rightly included Margaret Thatcher in spite of many people’s attitudes towards her. Indeed despite less text on each profile (a larger book but sometimes only half a page attributed to each woman), the text manages to deal with controversies, even if mentioned only very lightly, as in the profile of Benazir Bhutto.

This book is definitely one to whet the appetite for further research, rather than comprehensive bibliographies, but happily does give the dates of each woman. Arranged thematically again, but with slightly more ambiguity as subtitles include: pioneer, virtuoso, creator, campaigner, inspiration. It certainly feels more modern than the others, featuring mainly 20th century women, with the exception made for Edith Cavell, Marie Curie and Emmeline Pankhurst.

The illustrations are full colour, engaging and lively – these women look expressive and as if they are facing the reader, many with querying eye contact.

Like all the books featured, this one too promotes hard work and dedication, commitment and standing up for what’s right. The women featured might be lucky to have been picked for inclusion in the books, but there was not much luck in how these women got where they did – that was down to grit. You can buy it here.

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy

brightstormThe great era of exploration is over. Much of our world has been seen and documented, but humans haven’t lost their drive to be the first, to make their mark, and certainly haven’t let go of the idea of heroism. But so often the marks humans make, the braveries people display, are small acts of heroism in a known world. So, we turn to fiction to replicate that experience of exploring the unknown, of seeking out a new world and experiencing new adventure within it.

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy is doubly exciting, because it is not just the reader who is doing the exploring, but the protagonists too.

Twelve-year-old twins, Maudie and Arthur Brightstorm hear that their explorer father has died in an attempt to reach South Polaris – the very southernmost point in their world. Not only that, but he broke the moral code of explorers, stealing fuel from his competitors on his way. The daring twins are intent upon not only clearing their father’s name, believing he would never do such a thing, but also exploring the region for themselves – after all they are Brightstorms.

What could be a run-of-the-mill adventure story, Hardy turns into a fresh, insightful and clever novel of exploration with her clear-eyed writing, and her host of memorable characters.

Maudie possesses exemplary engineering skills, using her analytical mind to solve problems and provide technical solutions. She may be sited in a fantasy landscape, but she approaches technical tasks with a modern outlook – pragmatic and able – there is no gender discrimination here. She forges a prosthetic iron arm for her brother, but has the foresight to see that when they are lost, with the addition of a pool of water, it could act as a compass.

Indeed, Arthur is almost the only male in this female dominated cast, and it is he who shows his sensitive side – painfully aware of the feelings of others, sensing shifts in body language, danger in the air. But he too is an explorer – brave and intrepid.

Maudie and Arthur join Harriet Culpepper’s expedition to track back to South Polaris, on her ingenious sky-ship that uses water as fuel in a new environmentally friendly development, much to the admiration and envy of her peer explorers. What’s more, her ship has a canny disguise, to avoid saboteurs, and even I was envious of this quirk.

The environment is touched upon further with mentions of whale huntings, and humans’ domination of the landscape, all cleverly woven into the story without being preachy or self-congratulatory.

But as well as being aware of our modern leanings towards gender equality, saving the environment and STEM solutions, Hardy also shows us a mirror of our own world in the inequalities of hers. There are the slums of Lontown, the drudgery and hard work. There is the indignation of those of the Third Continent, who do not like to be called by such a derogatory name. And there is also, of course, a villainous explorer who will stop at nothing to sate her ambition.

But among the cogs and compasses, there is humour too: the cook Felicity and her penchant for endless cups of tea, Harriet and her dashing ways of pushing through the darkest moments.

Small flickers of other inspirational books light the path for readers too – I sensed a glimmer of Pullman in the ‘sapient’ animals of the Brightstorm world, who are less present than the daemons of Northern Lights, but also crucial to the plot, as well as the helpfulness of wolves from Piers Torday’s The Last Wild, and many more besides.

But mainly, Brightstorm feels fresh and modern – because although Hardy has veered into fantasy by creating her own world for the Brightstorm twins, she shows us its beauty through its simplicity. None of the landscapes are hard to envisage, none of the ships’ whirrings hard to grasp. This is a beautifully written children’s novel, matched by exquisite production with foil on the cover and a map on the gatefold.

It is testament to the accessibility of Hardy’s novel that it makes the reader think at the end, in the same way that the talking wolves ask the question to the twins – why is it that humans have the need to explore? When it is not for food or shelter – is it to seek the truth? Or to discover the beauty and complexity of the world? Like fiction, it is both and more. To discover a bit of ourselves, and a taste of the possibilities that are out there. Brightstorm is a triumph – it’s time to take the adventure. You can buy it here.

Tin by Padraig Kenny

Tin by Padraig Kenny“Without a knowledge of history to give him [a student] a context for present events, he is at the mercy of every social misdiagnosis handed to him.” So said Hilary Mantel about history. And whilst Tin isn’t a historical novel, it is set in a distorted past, providing an opportunity to open the reader’s mind to thoughts about an alternative future. For this is a book about Artificial Intelligence, cleverly disguised as a Pinocchio style adventure.

Christopher works for an engineer, making ‘mechanicals’: children-shaped metallic figures with magical glyphs, like computer code, which empower them to act like humans. These mechanicals become some of his closest friends and family. But a devastating accident reveals a secret about Christopher’s past, and leads him down a path of self-discovery, and also a glimpse of what mechanicals could really do.

Not only is this an extraordinarily clever novel, but it is also a gripping children’s read, and a social commentary at the same time. The mechanicals are wonderfully written – Kenny showcases them with varying degrees of intelligence, knowledge and sentience – not unlike humans it must be said, but manages to portray each with its own particular personality, as well as consistently showing them to be not quite human. There’s Rob, simple, naïve, excessively loyal and caring. Manda, the small girl with her teddy bear, Gripper – the oversize muscle robot. Each has its own role, and part in the plot, but Kenny cleverly writes them ‘reading’ human interaction by studying humans’ body language and imitating it, not unlike how babies’ read their parents, but this is more stated, more blatant. The mechanicals also spell out how they are deciphering the meaning of words – especially when a word has more than one meaning. In this way, the mechanicals seem slightly less nuanced, simpler in their emotional intelligence, more childlike. And yet, they pulsate with emotion and the reader has endless empathy for them. It’s a clever manipulation of the reader, and by doing this Kenny is also showing how artificial intelligence could indeed manipulate humans.

In fact, Kenny’s point throughout this is to provoke the reader into thinking about what makes us human. With allusions to Pinocchio, who wanted to be a real boy, and was introduced to the concepts of responsibility and shunning frivolity and temptation in order to become real, and also The Wizard of Oz, in which Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man all want various human assets in order to be real, Kenny probes the essence of humanity:

“Rob turned to look in the direction of the sound. If he had a heart it would have skipped a beat -”

But in Tin, the mechanicals discover things about themselves through their interactions with others – both fellow mechanicals and humans. They realise that what makes somebody human is familial ties – the ability to love and mourn. The mechanicals experience loss, and then love to a certain degree, but they are still not completely human – they remain mechanical because they don’t have a soul, some essence of something that can’t be defined. They remain simple without ‘real’ memories.

They also remain mechanical because they can’t experience ‘malice’ or aggression. This is where Kenny steps up the pace of his book, as he explores the idea of mechanicals ensouled in order to work as soldiers. Here, Kenny nods towards The Terminator, and explores the idea of artificial intelligence used for mal-intent. What makes us human, he implies, is not just the ability to love deeply, but the ability to harm deeply too. Humans are all about power. And, most apt, in these times, a human’s ability to distinguish between lies and truth.

By setting the novel in a distorted past (a revised 1930s), in which the Great War has happened with appalling loss of life, and cars are on the increase, although there are still horses and carts, Kenny has inserted mechanicals/robots in a small way – they are chauffeurs and work in retail – although they haven’t completely dominated the landscape – there isn’t an implication of robots taking on all elements of industrialisation, yet.

But what the robots have done, in a roundabout way, is to crush the women’s movement. In Tin, females are vastly absent. There is only Estelle, who works for the engineer Absolom, albeit in an illegal way, as women are forbidden from being engineers/craftsmen. In this way, the reader can assume that if robots are working at certain tasks, the number of jobs available to humans is diminished.

Despite some horrors within the story, this is a positive book, with much humour and many more allusions to other great works. Toy Story yes, but also Willy Wonka – who ran a factory of Oompa Loompas, and was revered as the greatest chocolate maker, just as Cormier in Tin is revered as the greatest mechanical creator:

“He’s in there, behind that gate,” said Sam, pointing in the opposite direction. “No one ever comes out, and no one ever goes in.”

The outcome of the book is vastly upbeat. This is a children’s book after all, and they tend to end in a more uplifting way. But what the reader takes away is a thoughtfulness about humanity – who we are, how we treat others, and what the future may hold. As well as how humans can be better people, how we can overcome malice and aggression and the seeking of power, and look instead to focusing on love and family and connections:

“You don’t have a soul. You don’t need one. You’re not proper. You’re better than proper.” You can buy it here.