gender

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

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.

 

Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll

Sprung from The Big Idea Competition, and Neal Jackson’s story idea ‘The First Aeronauts’, Emma Carroll’s latest historical fiction sees her entering the world of France in 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers launched the first hot air balloon flight over Versailles. Carroll has woven their story seamlessly with a wonderful adventure narrative that manages to be fresh and modern, incorporating ideas of gender politics, science, identity and social class. Although Sky Chasers is fiction, Carroll writes with an acute sense of history, with huge attention to detail and period.

Carroll’s novels are all well put together, but this one in particular is as brilliantly executed as the guillotine. The protagonist is Magpie, an orphan girl, who pickpockets and thieves to make her way in the world. The book uses the Magpie nursery rhyme: One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, to delineate the sections of the book, and not only does usage of this version of the rhyme fit the gender play of the story ‘three for a girl, four for a boy’, it wonderfully ties into the theme of birds, because the first living beings to fly in a basket hitched to a hot air balloon were a duck, a rooster and a sheep:

Magpie can’t believe her eyes when she sees a boy dancing in the sky. When she realises that he’s ‘flying’, hanging onto a rope from the prototype balloon, she knows she wants a part in it. Of course, it’s not that simple for an orphan girl, especially when the boy is the son of Joseph Montgolfier, and she’s already been inside their house – thieving!

Integrated in the plot of how Magpie, her rooster, the boy Pierre, and his duck end up in the first balloon flight over Versailles are all sorts of elements, including pistols at dawn, suspicion of English spies, and mistaken identity. Carroll has great fun bringing in period details and playing with historical character – the reader first meets Marie Antoinette eating cake at Versailles.

There is also the wonder of science and invention. The Montgolfier brothers have made headway by the time Magpie arrives, but Carroll plays with Magpie’s powers of observation allowing her to spot details they might have missed. She has the idea for lift from undergarments drying in the kitchen for example. These ‘accidental’ details feed into the invention of balloon flight, and bring science down to a basic, and yet exciting level. Invention, quite often, comes about by accident.

A baddie lurks in the background of the novel too, underpinning the suspense – difficult sometimes to conjure in historical fiction where the outcome is already known. But here, the baddie is not all as she seems – indeed there are many cases of mistaken identity within the novel, both good to bad, boy to girl, which makes the reader think carefully about each character’s motivation, intention and ambition. Carroll has also pinned down the Montgolfier brothers quite spectacularly despite her brevity, as in this story they are but secondary characters to the children.

Add to that a profound sense of alienation and belonging, be it nationhood, social class or family, and the reader sees that this is an adventure novel with multiple layers. Carroll is a master of historical fiction, painting a vivid picture of the time with colour and period detail, but also bringing in themes, such as belonging, that still resonate today.

But above all, it is the wonder of flight that pulls in the reader. In fact, reading the fantastic description of flight, one can see how this melds into the view an author might have of their novel – as Magpie sees the gardens of Versailles and fields beyond laid out beneath her like toys, so the landscape of a book enables the author and reader to garner a larger world view, an encompassing picture of who they are compared to history.

The power of possibility is held aloft in this soaring novel. As it is sent wind borne into bookshops, you can catch your own here.

Girls Who Code by Reshma Saujani and Sarah Hutt, illustrated by Andrea Tsurumi

I’ve been trying to think about which book would suit my last book of the week for the year 2017. What trends have there been, what news, what good coming out of the year? There’s a lot of doom and gloom with Brexit, Trump, and plastic in the environment, but I wanted to focus on the good things.

One good thing, and slightly closer to home, is the surge of awareness of gender equality. Of society beginning to see women and girls as equal to men and boys and fighting harder for a lack of discrimination, harassment and stereotyping. There have been hugely successful children’s books covered by mainstream media, such as Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, but how do we teach our girls to not only look up to pioneers who went before them, but also to change the world for the better? Technology is a huge part of our modern world – a massive chunk of our children’s waking lives. So, rather than just getting them to use the technology, let’s teach them to understand how it works. You can’t beat an algorithm if you don’t understand it.

Recently, various girls in my school have been learning to code. And one pioneer of this revolution is Reshma Saujani. You can see her TED talk here, which explains why we should be teaching girls bravery rather than perfection – a key message in her book too.

Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World is proving to be helpful in many ways.

It is not just a manual for learning to code – in fact it’s not for beginners learning to code, but a resource to explain coding, and to promote confidence in doing so. The book doesn’t teach a specific coding language – as say Usborne Coding for Beginners Using Python, which is a step-by-step guide and a very useful one at that. Rather, Girls Who Code tries to indicate the logic and theory behind programming, often using cartoons in real-life applications to extricate the meaning of making the code. Although it might sound complex at first, with a little concentration my pre-tween tester completely understood the premise.

There’s also coding history and interviews with women working in programming, all of which give the message that STEM is great for girls, but that also failing and retrying are essential. Wrapped up in these is Saujani’s key message that perfection is not what girls should be striving for, but aiming instead to learn from mistakes. After all, penicillin was discovered by mistake; the first pacemaker was invented by mistake too. As was Coca-Cola – and look how successful that became.

Of course, the fun bit of coding is included in the book too – fun projects with apps, games and art etc. Throughout the book are illustrations in one-tone teal, which show a diverse cast of girls learning to code, with speech bubbles, diagrams and comics – these break up the text and are hugely informative.

In the end, the idea is that as well as understanding what coding is, and how to go about it, girls will understand how useful it is, how accessible computer science is. With a knowledge of programming, girls can go on to solve problems, take control, and in essence, change the world. An admirable book to look forward to a new year. You can buy it here.

Finding Black Beauty by Lou Kuenzler

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It was with some trepidation that I started reading Finding Black Beauty by Lou Kuenzler. It’s always hard to emulate a classic at the same time as rewriting it – you’re bound to deviate from the original in some way, change something that was inherently attractive about the original. But I was more than pleasantly surprised reading. The clue is in the title – rather than stick to the original point of view (Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty from the horse’s point of view), Kuenzler has taken the vantage point of Josie, an aspiring groom, who takes a spirited black colt under her wing. It’s a bold and daring retelling – retaining the original plot but highlighting a minor-ish character and plunging him/her into the role of protagonist.

Yes, him/her was deliberate. Kuenzler purposely plays with gender in her re-telling, giving Josie a rather interesting Shakespearean-esque role, dressing as a boy to disguise her womanhood, because she has run away from home. This also lets Kuenzler bring in some excellent nuances into the story, such as dealing beautifully gently with Josie’s approaching puberty, (even though set in its original historical world, Kuenzler’s contemporary writing style and ability to write about such issues lends it modernity).

The only deviation from the original plot is when Josie becomes separated from Black Beauty. At this point it’s hard for Kuenzler to stick to the original, as she has to imagine what would have happened to Josie in the interim, and fill in Black Beauty’s progress in the story in less detail.

But overall, Kuenzler remains true to the original by keeping the focus firmly on horses, with details about horse care and riding, and most importantly by affording the reader empathy with the horses – this book is still very much about treatment of animals (and treatment of those less fortunate in society, or lower down on the class rungs, as well as gender equality). The reader still comes away with a deep love and affection for Black Beauty, and with tears in the eyes. A great retelling. I’m lucky enough to be able to gift you an extract – the first two chapters are below. If you like, then you can purchase the book here. Look out for the wonderfully presented hardback with silver foiling – a perfect gift.

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Women and Science and Achievement

There’s an enduring reality that women are underrepresented in fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) globally. For example, just 28 per cent of science researchers are women.

According to the Wise Campaign, the number of girls doing STEM subjects at GCSE is approaching an equal number to boys, but drops off at A Level, although those that do, tend to achieve higher grades, and the numbers are rising. In the professions though, there is still work to do – only one in ten STEM managers were female in 2014, and women only make up approx. 13 per cent of STEM occupations in the UK.

There’s positive news though – women are choosing to go into STEM at a higher rate than men. It’s something we can work on from the beginning of primary education though – with titles such as these:

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Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
Rosie Revere Engineer has been a staple in the primary school library since publication in 2013, with charming Rosie, a quiet girl who turns into a brilliant inventor, and dreams of engineering. Ada Twist, Scientist capitalises on Rosie’s success, (we girls working together!) but Ada is a winning tale in its own right. The character ‘Ada Marie Twist’ is named after Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, explains Andrea Beaty, and demonstrates the same glee as Rosie in asking the question ‘why’, and setting out to discover the answer.

As in Rosie Revere Engineer, the text has a bouncing upbeat rhythm and rhyming couplets, making it both easy to read aloud and easy to absorb. After observing life for three years, Ada’s questions begin, and then grow and grow:

“She started with Why? and then What? How? And When?
By bedtime she came back to Why? once again.”

The questions are so many that they fly off into the illustrations, which become more and more complex and intricate, mirroring Ada’s mind – which is clearly filled with the clutter of questions…and yet there is a preciseness in the detail – from the machines that Ada gathers to investigate, to the equipment that she uses for her experiments.

Ada fixes on solving the problem of a particular smell, and her curiosity leads her parents to despair. By the end though, they too, and her classmates, are helping her investigations.

Of course, the less than subtle message, for both Ada’s parents and the reader, is that curiosity fuels science, and that anyone can be a scientist if they are curious about the world around them – from the smallest smell to the biggest Why. Questions inevitably lead to questions.

There are some lovely touches. Andrea Beaty plays with the modern parenting ‘punishment’ of the Thinking Chair – exploring the idea that thinking is a great thing to sit and do. Roberts’ illustrations also add zing to the book – from the incredible detail of each drawing to the parents’ use of books for investigations, the diversity of Ada and her family and also of her classmates, Ada’s mother’s incredible sense of fashion style, and the ageing of Ada both in the illustrative depiction of her, but also in her questions. It’s fun, informative, inspirational and a beautiful companion to Rosie. Age six years and over. You can buy it here.

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Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst
Too often biographies tend to serve older children. This marvellous piece of non-fiction is astoundingly brilliant for many reasons. It is accessible, bright, colourful, informative and quirky – making it interesting fodder for all readers. Not just focussing on science here, this is a book that explores women who have made a difference through their startling achievements in all fields.

Written and illustrated by Kate Pankhurst – yes, Emmeline’s descendant, who features in the book, Kate also features some lesser known female pioneers, including Marie Chilver, a secret agent during World War Two, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and Channel swimmer Gertrude Ederle, as well as curriculum staples such as Mary Anning, Marie Curie, Mary Seacole and Rosa Parks.

However, this is far from a dry documentation of their achievements. Each woman is attributed a double page spread, in which Pankhurst illuminates not only who they are and what they achieved, but also quirky facts and attitudes towards them at the time. Text is in small bite size paragraphs in designs that suit the person, such as in small smoke and speech bubbles for Marie Curie, in fossil shell shapes for Mary Anning, and in clouds for Amelia Earhart.

There are also bright bold cartoon-like illustrations, again suiting each illustration to the character Pankhurst is describing – loops and swirls for Coco Chanel’s patterns, to cartoon interpretations of Kahlo’s paintings. It’s fun, immensely readable and completely enjoyable.

It’s an eclectic mix, but interesting that the selection is not only global but pulls the women from completely different backgrounds and upbringings, as well as timescales.

A must-have for all school libraries, but an equally inspirational and aspirational book to have at home for all girls and boys! Age six years and over. You can buy it here.

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Women in Science, written and illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky

For slightly older children, this beautifully written and put together book features a whole host of scientists (50), most of whom the readership won’t have heard of, but all of whom are inspirational women through the ages from Hypatia (in approx 350 CE) to Maryam Mirzakhani (born in 1977) who have contributed in some way to the world of science.

As in Kate Pankhurst’s book, they come from all walks of life, all echelons of society and from all over the world. Each profile is a double page spread, with one page given over to a two-tone illustration of the woman, complete with annotations and a decorated background (on black paper). The other page features a considerable chunk of text, but has illustrated borders with extra quirky facts. The text is easy to read – fascinating and concise biographies that explain motivations and emotions as well as the hard facts of the individual woman’s achievement.

The illustrations are striking and distinct – their personalities well-encapsulated from the focussed and rather severe looking Marie Curie to a compassionate and thoughtful Mamie Phipps Clark (psychologist and civil rights activist). None of these women held themselves back – all pushed through barriers to get to where they wanted. There are some incredible stories in here. Rita Levi-Montalcini (neurologist and Italian senator) who was forbidden by the Nazis from practising medicine because of her Jewish faith, so built her own laboratory in her bedroom. Her research led her to win the Nobel Prize in 1986, and she worked until she died aged 103. Patricia Bath, the first African American woman to complete a residency in ophthalmology and obtain a medical patent, who helped restore sight to blind people and invented the Laserphaco Probe. Her mother bought Patricia her first chemistry set.

One of the loveliest features of this book is how many biographies there are – and even some more smaller ones squashed in the back – as if saying – there are loads of women scientists out there if you just look. A glossary for scientific terms, and some research sources complete the book.

The motivation for the book is clear – to inspire a future generation to aspire. The fact that it is also aesthetically pleasing means that it will be a lasting treasure on any bookshelf. For ages 8+. Definitely buy one here.