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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.

Girls Rule by Sarah Forbes (An Elspeth Hart books guest blog)

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In the past year, one trilogy has generated more excitement in my primary school library clubs than any other, and that’s the Elspeth Hart series. In 2015, for my summer reading list I suggested Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs, a tale of orphan Elspeth who works as a servant in the Pandora Pants School for Show-Offs, sweeping up mouse-droppings and dodging stuck up horrid students. Comic fun, school setting, feisty heroine. Sparkling with wit and personality. So I’m delighted to welcome author Sarah Forbes onto the blog with a guest post today. And after her post, you can read my review of the third and final book, Elspeth Hart and the Magnificent Rescue, publishing April 7 2016.

I wanted to talk a little bit today about how much I enjoyed writing the feisty female characters in the Elspeth Hart books. I truly didn’t set out to do this, but in the first novel, Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-offs, I ended up with a strong heroine (Elspeth) a very nasty pair of female cooks (Miss Crabb and Gladys Goulash) and then a clique of rather evil schoolgirls (Tatiana Firensky, Esmerelda Higginsbot and Octavia Ornamento). The male characters all turned out a bit less tough: Professor Bombast, the headmaster, is silly and easily led, and Rory, Elspeth’s best friend, is much more timid and anxious than Elspeth.

The theme continued in the sequel, Elspeth Hart and the Perilous Voyage, where we met gung-ho Cassie, who helped Elspeth and Rory defeat Crabb and Goulash while on a massive cruise ship travelling to New York. And in the third and final book, Elspeth Hart and the Magnificent Rescue, we head to Australia, where we meet Uma Gumboots, a fearsome woman who runs rings around Rory’s butler, Mr Tunnock. Uma is a big tough woman who runs a nature reserve, and she likes crocodiles more than people. She was so much fun to write, and the illustrations James Brown created made me laugh out loud. James and I also thought it would be funny to give fastidious Mr Tunnock a kind of jokey love interest, and at the end of Magnificent Rescue, we’re left wondering if Mr Tunnock will stay with Uma Gumboots in Australia. Could there be love on the horizon? We’ll never know…

Isn’t it fun to write (and read about) strong women, good ones and bad ones? I do think there’s a really long lineage of impressive female protagonists in children’s literature, but it is curious that I ended up with most of the main players in my books being women. Without planning to at all, I seem to have sidelined the blokes or made them a bit inept and bumbling (sorry, chaps!).

It feels strange saying goodbye to Elspeth Hart but the third book ties up her adventures (no spoilers, in case anyone reading this wants to read it!). It’s been a blast writing Elspeth over the last few years, and having the books illustrated by James Brown was a joy. I’ll be squeezing in as many school visits and readings as I can this summer, because meeting readers is one of the very best things about being an author.

And then, it’s time to think of new projects… which is always fun. At some point I will work on a book with a male protagonist who kicks ass… truly, I will!

But until then, I’m quite enjoying having girls rule the world.

With thanks to Sarah.

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MinervaReads review of Elspeth Hart and the Magnificent Rescue by Sarah Forbes, illustrated by James Brown

Our feisty heroine Elspeth is on her final quest to be reunited with her parents. The only problem is that her parents have themselves been duped into looking for her in the depths of the Australian rainforest. And the dastardly and despicable Miss Crabb and Gladys Goulash are on the trail too because they still want to steal Elspeth’s top-secret family recipe for sticky toffee sauce.

Elspeth has her trusty friend Rory to help her, and some other helpful friends she gathers along the way, but unfortunately for her, she gathers some enemies too. And in the setting of a wild rainforest with crocodiles and spiders, what could possibly go wrong?

It’s easy to see why this series captures children’s imaginations and why it’s so wildly popular. It’s a page turning adventure with a determined heroine, who shows quick-wittedness, gumption and grit, surrounded by other smart children and not so smart adults. There’s also a healthy dose of hilarious and eccentric villainy comparable with the best of Roald Dahl.

The adventures are slightly quirky, and yet not so wacky that there isn’t an intensity of emotion too. The reader positively roots for Elspeth all the way through, whilst admiring her sensitivity and quick-thinking. The story isn’t too long – and punctuated with powerful and detailed illustrations that capture the children’s emotions.

But above all the writing is fun, cheeky and punchy:

“We’re not eating anybody, you nincompoop!” Miss Crabb said. She did a little dance of rage.
“Enough of your stupid ideas. You’re only here to carry my stuff.”

With unexpected twists, lots of fun, and above all heart, this is a superb little series for 7+yrs. Buy the latest book here.

New Year Grit

It’s the New Year. A time for resolutions, and thoughts about what’s to come. For children it’s never too early to learn the key skills of steering your own life – personal responsibility, determination and grit.

In fact, ‘grit’ has been acknowledged recently as an important indicator of academic success. It’s a tricky one as it’s a fairly undefinable characteristic – but is associated with character traits such as resilience, and perseverance. Not hanging around for ‘good luck’ to happen, but focusing on personal growth and a drive to improve. This goes back to Albert Bandura’s definition of self-efficacy as one’s belief in the ability to succeed in a situation or to accomplish a task. The psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk has been fairly well touted as a definitive guide to grit. But for the young, who may not understand a full TED talk yet, there are numerous picture books that also espouse ‘grit’:

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The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
This is a wonderful picture book tale of grit. A young girl (a regular one, the author makes clear) sets out to make something, assisted by her dog. The reader isn’t sure what it will be, but the girl knows it will be something magnificent. From the cover page it’s clear that this is going to be an assemblage of junk yard items, but firstly the girl starts by drawing a plan of it.

The text is simple, playful and as everyday as possible. The reader sees that the ‘regular’ girl makes things all the time, and this will be “Easy peasy!” Hilarious illustrations accompany the text, adding an extra dimension – there is a lovely scene where the girl hires her dog as an assistant – she is posed looking over glasses at the paperwork. Then when she starts to work, her American city neighbourhood is shown in the background – the buildings in black line drawing, the characters at the front – colourful and as diverse as can be.

Then the book really springs into life with the girl’s work. The vocabulary is fabulous – she “tinkers, hammers, measures,” and later “smooths, wrenches and fiddles”. After numerous attempts it’s still nowhere near magnificent. Her face shows much grit, determination and perseverance. She re-examines, she “twists and tweaks, steadies, fixes”, and even draws a crowd. But it’s not right.

Then of course, as is natural, she loses it! She “smashes” and “jams” and “pummels” and the vocabulary becomes less and less constructive, and more and more destructive, as she fails to build what’s in her imagination. She ends up hurting herself and quits.

But after a long walk with her trusty assistant, she comes to the realisation that with careful and slow work, and no distractions, she could try again. There are some brilliant learning points here – her explosion is “not her finest moment”, her discarded inventions are found to be useful by others, the illustrations show that her imagination is piqued by what’s around her on the walk….

What she makes in the end is magnificent (even though it is not perfect, and the author is keen to point out it has taken all day) – the girl and her dog are not disappointed and nor will the reader be. This reviewer certainly found the book to be a magnificent thing.

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The Cow Who Climbed a Tree by Gemma Merino
More about doing what’s deemed impossible by others and following dreams than having grit, this picture book still aims to show that unless you attempt something you won’t achieve it. In magnificent watercolour, what stands out most in this picture book is the subtlety of the illustrations versus the unsubtlety of the premise.

Tina is a curious cow who reads books and comes up with ideas. Her sisters reject each of them. Then one day Tina disappears, and in order to find her, the cow sisters must follow her example and climb trees and see where she might have gone. In the end, they too believe that anything is possible – cows can climb trees, fly and even go to the moon.

The humour inherent in the illustrations is great. When Tina looks at a book, her three sisters are pictured leaning against a tree chewing the cud languorously, eyes disbelieving. When Tina explains to them about taking a rocket to the moon, the sisters are shown eating again – but this time around a kitchen table. A disinterested mouse strolls off the other side of the page. Likewise when she explains to them ridiculously incredulous stories of her meeting a vegetarian friendly dragon at the top of the tree she climbed, they are pictured dismissively strolling up the stairs to bed (mouse too).

These cows walk on two legs – the trees are pictured with round colourful watercolour leaves, almost like balloons, and when the sisters do follow Tina, they climb behind a pig on his way to flying lessons.

It’s a cute, yet beautifully composed picture book about attempting the previously thought impossible. Buy it here.

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Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss
I’m sticking a classic picture book in here. Not all book purchases need to be of new books – many of my favourites are from the back catalogues. This is a quintessential book about keeping going, because good and bad things will happen to you, but it’s all about persevering and pushing through. Written in second person – referring directly to the reader, and also in future tense as if the reader is just beginning on the journey of life:

“And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.”

What’s great is that despite all the realism within – you’ll face slumps, be left in the lurch, lose because you’re playing a game alone, you’ll spend time alone, and be confused and sometimes frightened and face problems – you’ll get through it all, and keep moving onwards – there is eternal hope and enthusiasm on each page:

“With banner flip-flapping,
once more you’ll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you’re that kind of guy!”

Classic Seuss illustrations from fantastical creatures to colourful flying balloons, weird contraptions, balancing houses, imaginative landscapes like the craziest crazy golf you ever played – it’s all here in wondrous colours. A poem to keep you going. You can buy it here.

Christmas with Little Women

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Christmas is a lovely time of year. Although sometimes our expectations of it can be too high, and it fails to live up to the hype. For those who are only looking in on Christmas, not celebrating it, Christmases exist first and foremost in storybooks and in the imagination. My idealised version is born from a lifetime of reading about great Christmases. Last Christmas I blogged about The Holly and the Ivy, my favourite Christmas story for younger readers.

But when I was slightly older, it was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women that clinched the deal, and persuaded me that, despite being a Londoner, real Christmas was in the snowy suburbia of Massachusetts.

Little Women’s first word is Christmas:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

And immediately the scene is set, and one of my favourite characters begins to take shape. That first Christmas in Little Women, with its “four young faces on which the firelight shone” paints a dampened Christmas, with ‘relative’ poverty, from which the girls start to learn valuable life lessons, such as sacrifice, generosity and charity. They are rewarded for their virtues by a neighbour with “distracting French bonbons” among other things.

But Christmas means more when it comes as a pause in working – and the work ethic theme runs throughout the novel. That the girls and their mother find meaning through labour, resonates with the Puritan teachings of New England where Alcott grew up. So the holiday of Christmas, when it comes, is even more joyful because of its juxtaposition with the rest of their year.

And Christmas means more than just a break from work in Little Women. The true meaning of Christmas is revealed in the girls’ thoughtfulness for others and most of all in ‘love’, in this case, their love for their family and in particular their mother, whom they surprise with gifts rather than having spent the money on themselves:

“There was a great deal of love done up in the few little bundles,” and

“There was a good deal of laughing, and kissing, and explaining, in the simple, loving fashion which makes these home-festivals so pleasant at the time, so sweet to remember long afterward, and then all fell to work.”

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But it’s the Christmas with which Part One ends that competes with all the cheery Christmas films on TV, with its excess of delights, and a homecoming to rival The Railway Children.

“Now and then, in this work-a-day world, things do happen in the delightful story-book fashion, and what a comfort that is.”

They do have a sumptuous Christmas meal that year, in stark contrast to the beginning of the book in which they sacrificed their breakfast pancakes and muffins for the poor family down the road.

“There never was such a Christmas dinner as they had that day. The fat turkey was a sight to behold, when Hannah sent him up, stuffed, browned and decorated. So was the plum-pudding, which quite melted in one’s mouth; likewise the jellies, in which Amy revelled like a fly in a honey-pot.”

But mainly Christmas is about family reunions, and Alcott pitches it perfectly when Mr March returns from the war just in time for Christmas:

“A sleigh-ride had been planned, but the girls would not leave their father; so the guests departed early, and, as twilight gathered, the happy family sat together round the fire.”

Little Women may be an old classic, but it pushes the boundaries with its challenge to gender stereotyping, and the values it espouses. Moreover, to make modern day authors feel perfectly sick, Alcott apparently only started writing Little Women in May 1868, and the book was published in September (just four months later).

You can buy it here. Have a lovely bookish Christmas.

Unexpected Delights: Picture Books With a Difference

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The Zoomers’ Handbook by Ana de Moraes, illustrated by Thiago de Moraes
A handbook not for zookeepers, nor for farmers, but for Zoomers – people who look after somewhat strange creatures. For example, the shicken, a creature who lays delicious eggs, but whose mouth rather resembles a shark, or the girafooster who wakes extra early and can spot the sun as soon as it begins to rise because of the girafooster’s height.

Each page in this extraordinary book features a different ‘creature’, and explains something about it. The endpapers of the book are field notes, so that the reader can identify the creatures’ feathers, poo, footprints etc.

The production of the book is not cheap – the thick paper makes it feel like a comprehensive guide rather than just a picture book, and the illustrations are hilarious in their ‘seriousness’ – no silly bright colours, but muted taupe, blues, beige, greys and yellows to fake authenticity.

A clever little picture book that inspires creative thinking, pushes the imagination, and is wonderfully playful in its presentation. As I said, something a bit different. You can purchase it here.

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Super Happy Magic Forest by Matty Long
Swinging completely in the opposite direction with its colour palate – dark glasses potentially needed – is Super Happy Magic Forest. Even from the title, the (adult) reader can sense that this is a children’s book on the curb of Teletubbies and Magic Roundabout territory – definitely for children, yet with a whiff of tongue-in-cheek adult mind-bending too.

The magic crystals of life keep the forest super, happy and magic. (Bear with me). When they are stolen, five creatures from the forest including a puddle-disliking gnome, a faun and a frolicking unicorn, undertake a dangerous journey to Goblin Tower to retrieve them, passing on their way an army of dangerous penguins, a super creepy haunted forest and dungeons reminiscent of a retro computer game.

The enemy isn’t quite as anticipated though, and through several puns and overwhelmingly bonkers scenes, the crystals are finally replaced, and much frolicking can be done.

Quite the most mind-altering picturebook I’ve seen in a while, find it just for the pessimistic rabbit, or the butterfly’s prolonged death scene. Simply hilarious – I read it on the sofa with wine without the kids. Buy it here.

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The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton
Sophisticated readers adore progressive modern princesses, and that’s exactly what Kate Beaton has depicted here. Pinecone is no ordinary princess, she’s a warrior princess. The only problem is that she keeps receiving cosy sweaters as presents, and she doesn’t think that’s very warriorish. For her birthday she asks specifically for a fine warrior horse, but her parents give her a cute small farting pony. However, the pony turns out to be something of an asset, and Pinecone works out what to do with all those cosy sweaters.

The story above may not sound revolutionary – but taken with the illustrations, it’s phenomenally unique and fantastic. Beaton’s extraordinary style conveys the strength of warriors, doting parents, a pony who is positively the opposite of warrior, and a young girl’s initial despair and final triumph.

The scene with the Viking warrior battle is startling – quite exceptional in  a picture book – with masks, hot dogs, a cannon, tortoise man, Viking hats, tennis rackets, disguises – everything has gone into this illustration. It’s a sight to behold.

Very different, very funny, and yet with enormous heart. Recommended for all warrior princesses (and their princes). You can purchase it here.

 

An Interview with children’s author, Jason Rohan

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For the YAshot bloggers tour, I’m delighted to interview Jason Rohan, author of The Kuromori Trilogy. (please click on the title to see my review). Having met Jason last April and had a deliciously bookish discussion in a Waterstones branch, Jason then kindly agreed to answer my questions for MinervaReads.com over the summer. Once again I must also thank Alexia Casale for all her work with YAshot. Please click the link to find out more about this event.

Hi Jason. You used to work for Marvel Comics. Who’s your favourite superhero and why?

My favourite super-hero has always been Iron Man and that goes back way before the movies. I like the fact that he’s a self-made hero. Tony Stark’s only powers are courage and intellect. He isn’t born with any special gifts; he isn’t an alien; nor is he the result of a freak accident. In the comics he used to carry the Iron Man armour around with him in a briefcase and, when trouble arrived, he’d run away to find somewhere to get changed, whereas everyone else thought he was a coward. There was a nice sense of humour and style that I admired. Also, his playboy lifestyle made for some James Bond-esque settings and witty repartee. But the best thing? Anyone could be Iron Man – all you needed was the suit.

Your trilogy, The Sword of Kuromori, is based on your time teaching in Japan. What is the biggest difference between Tokyo and London life?

How long have you got? Seriously, Japan is an incredible place but the differences are many and deep-rooted. When I first arrived, expecting to see temples and kimonos but instead encountering McDonald’s and KFC, I was disappointed, but over time I realised that those Western aspects were purely superficial and that traditional Japan was very much alive and present. If I had to single out one key difference, I’d say it’s the sense of conformity. People in Japan tend to go with the group for the sake of harmony, whereas in the West we tend to laud the individual who goes against the tide.

In that case, whilst setting the Kuromori trilogy in Japan, did you deliberately make your protagonist, Kenny, a Westerner to highlight the clash of cultural mindset? Or, is he a reflection of a younger you?

The idea with making Kenny a Westerner was a combination of things – the trope of the innocent abroad; the hero’s journey in an exotic land; the fish-out-of-water aspects; having an Everyman focus for the reader to follow as he comes to grips with a new culture – but you do highlight the two key points. One, that Kenny is a proxy for me and has some of the same reactions I had. Two, his special ability – the one thing which sets him apart from everyone around him, particularly his Japanese colleagues, is his unconventional thinking. It’s not intended as a critique of Japanese cultural norms – far from it, and there are many Japanese people who go against the tide – but I remember many times being told that I couldn’t do something because it just wasn’t the done thing. Of course, being a gaijin, they politely forgave me for not knowing better! Two quick illustrations of this come to mind: one, Japanese people will wait patiently for the lights to change before they cross the road, even on a deserted road with no cars coming; two, for what we call common sense, meaning ‘good judgement’, the Japanese equivalent is what we would call ‘received wisdom’. That’s a big difference. Common sense puts the onus on the individual to use their noggin to know if something is a bad idea; received wisdom draws on collective ideas of the norm.

So far in the trilogy, book one is about finding belief in yourself and book two explores the concept of duty. Which three qualities would you say are essential for the next generation?

As a father, teacher, manager and football coach, I am lucky enough to work with young people, and they get a bad rap in general. Many cranky older people seem to forget what they were like at the same age. But let’s face it, the next generation is going to inherit a messed-up world with a whole lot of challenges. If they’re going to start putting things right they’ll need resilience, courage and imagination. Resilience because the only guarantee is that it’s going to be tough and everyone will have to dig in and pull their weight. Courage because the solutions will not be pretty and the temptation will be to blame others, to be fearful and to duck the difficult choices. Imagination because, more than ever, there is going to be a need for new ways of thinking, of approaching issues, and of resolving seemingly intractable problems in order to enact a better future for all. When the old ways no longer work, you have to invent anew.

You infuse your work with an understanding of Japanese mythology. Is it important for you to impart knowledge as well as tell a good story?

Absolutely. I grew up reading the Willard Price Adventure series and I learned so much about the world from those books. As a reader, I’m always looking to learn something new, whether it be cutting-edge science from Michael Crichton or an insight into the human condition from William Golding. If I read a book and take nothing away, I feel slightly cheated. All the great stories teach something, whether they be parable, myth, play, poem or novel.

For me, a trait of modern children’s books is to feature dual protagonists – one male and one female. How important is it for you to portray gender balance when writing?

As a parent of both boys and girls, I see first-hand the damage that gender stereotyping can do, even from an early age, and I cringe at things like body-shaming. I’m a firm believer in equality of opportunity and I try to ensure that my own children aspire to achieve their ambitions, regardless of what society might say. That carries over into my writing and is why I refuse to write a simpering female character whose only purpose in a story is to cheer lead for the male hero or to be rescued by him. I’ve been surrounded by strong women all my life so for me it’s natural to portray female protagonists who can more than match their male counterparts and I think it’s important for girls, too, to see these role models in fiction as well as in real life.

YAshot celebrates libraries. In what way are libraries important to you?

Libraries are so much more than just places where you can borrow books. To me, they are the repositories of all human wisdom. Without delving too far into it, you could make the case that Europe entered the Dark Ages following the loss of classical learning and only emerged with the fall of Constantinople and the resulting dissemination of knowledge as scholars fled with salvaged texts. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, but the idea of libraries safeguarding the cultural and intellectual wealth of a nation isn’t far off the mark. I read a recent thought experiment in which people were asked whether erasing history and starting afresh would be a good thing, as we wouldn’t have our grievances and enmities. The conclusion was that people would end up finding new reasons to squabble and that history is there to prevent us making the same mistakes repeatedly. Libraries house knowledge; without them you dumb down the world.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m currently reading Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and The Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. Before that, I read Kingdom Come, a Superman graphic novel. I like to mix things up!

Do you have the next idea simmering for when the trilogy comes to an end? And can you share it with me?

Kuromori was the first book I sold but not the first one I wrote, so I have a couple of earlier, finished novels already, which I’m dusting down. One is a MG all-action adventure which I describe as Thunderbirds meets Die Hard. The other is a YA supernatural horror which draws on Milton’s Paradise Lost. I’m currently working on a MG scfi-fi novel which is about space exploration.

You can purchase Jason’s The Sword of Kuromori and The Shield of Kuromori from Waterstones by clicking on the titles for the link, or you can click on the Amazon sidebar (from a PC).

Pink or Blue

There’s been much talk of sexism this week, thanks mainly to Nobel scientist Sir Tim Hunt. Gender issues in children’s books are not a new topic though. Much has been written on this, campaigns have been fought, including Let Books be Books, and various lobbyists have asked publishers to refrain from branding books as being for one gender or the other, such as ‘Adventure Stories for Boys’. They have largely been successful – Usborne and Scholastic have stopped this practice, although someone needs to have a word with Ferrero about their Kinder eggs (currently packaged in either blue or pink).

But looking at the statistics of the type of books borrowed by boys and girls in school libraries, there is definitely a trend that cannot be ignored. Boys read books styled for boys, and girls read pretty much anything. What do I mean by that? Let’s have a look.

Archie Hates Pink

Packaging
This definitely influences children’s choice. I tried to find a book with a pink background cover without a girl’s name on the title, and without featuring a girl protagonist. I found just one! It’s a picture book and it’s all about a male cat who hates pink (although he changes his mind at the end). All the chapter books that had pink covers featured a female protagonist, usually with her name in the title – see the images.

wendy quill Princess Disgrace

These books are very rarely borrowed by boys in my library (if at all!).

Wilf the Mighty WarriorHamish and the Worldstoppers

Books which seem to imply from their colour scheme or image that they are for boys, see images above, have been borrowed by girls (but are favoured by boys). How about completely gender neutral covers – they get borrowed by both genders right? No! These other factors come into play too:

Pippi LongstockingSophie Hits Sixslime squad

Title
The boys wouldn’t choose Pippi Longstocking or the Dick King Smith Sophie books – because the title implied they were about girls. Likewise, The Worst Witch – the boys needed persuading. However, girls quite happily borrow Horrid Henry, Claude, and others. The title doesn’t matter to them. This is really the same as my next criteria, which is lead character. Boys tell me they prefer to read about a boy, whereas girls will read about either gender, although The World of Norm and Slime Squad are more typically borrowed by boys, as is any fiction containing dinosaurs! And the girls do tend to gravitate towards stories about schools, girl friendships, animals, and theatre. Fantasy tends to be a more mixed genre.
How about the gender of the author? I’ve mentioned before how JK Rowling was asked to be JK rather than Joanne for the dual appeal, even though her book is predominantly about a boy. Does it matter to library users? The children are very happy to receive author visits from men and women authors equally, and don’t seem to pay too much attention to the gender of the author. Of course, a separate issue is whether women authors write more female protagonists and male authors more male protagonists.
With non-fiction it is difficult to tell whether publishers package some non-fiction for girls as they perceive it to be a girly subject, or whether they did research on it, and so package the non-fiction girls tend to read with more girly covers. (Chicken and egg!) The girls lean towards non-fiction on gymnastics and horses. The boys: geography and football. This is not exclusive and there is far more overlap in non-fiction than fiction.

Pony Care

Exceptions to the rule. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. There are girls who only want to read Tom Palmer football books. There are boys who are obsessed with fairy tales, in which the protagonist is quite often a girl: Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, The Princess and the Pea, The Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, Goldilocks.

Does it matter?

It matters to me if gender choices preclude children from reading a really great book that they might enjoy. This is why many adults join book clubs – to be introduced to books that they wouldn’t otherwise choose themselves. And this is where school librarians come in – to enable the children’s choices, but also to widen their horizon to include books they otherwise might not have picked up. No matter the cover, title, author, or main character!
What I have noticed is the current trend in middle grade fiction (8-13years) for the main character to be accompanied by a strong sidekick of the opposite sex, so that often the protagonist becomes two or three people with different genders. Eg. Phoenix by SF Said (Lucky and Bixa), The Last Wild Trilogy by Piers Torday (Kester and Polly), The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn (Jinx and Tommy), Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty (Finn and Emmy), my book of the week: The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan (Kenny and Kiyomi), and Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (Sophie and Matteo). There are countless other examples.
Is this a shift from what’s gone before? In 2011 Professor McCabe of Florida State University conducted a study of children’s literature published between 1900 and 2000 and found that males are central characters in 57% of the books, compared with only 31% female. Male animals in 23%, and female animals the central star in 7.5%. What’s more they found that it’s the readers’ fault too – gender-neutral animal characters were frequently referred to as male by parents reading to their children. Since 2000 are authors changing who they write about? Are we becoming gradually more inclusive?
I have also found that the female protagonists or accompanying sidekicks portrayed are changing their dynamic to become bolder, braver, feistier, and more independent and often more worldly wise than the male protagonists. In my examples above, it is often the female characters who outshine the boys, even if they don’t start out as the main character. The question remains though – is it because our authors want boys to be equally enamoured by these feisty females as they are by the male leads, and read books that portray females, or is it because our girls are growing up more independent, gutsier and more capable, and our writers are simply reflecting that? I think, a bit of both!
If it matters to you, then one strategy for widening your child’s reading habits, is to probe exactly what it is about the book that they like. They may like The Worst Witch for the fact that it is about friendship, schools and magic, more than that it is about a girl. They may like Football Academy because it is about teams and friendship more than the fact that it is about a boy. More often than not, once they are halfway through the book, the cover itself doesn’t matter. Nor the title, nor the author. It’s about being immersed in the narrative. I recently saw a couple of ten year old boys devour Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, An Island of Our Own by Sally Nicholls, and The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff (all featuring female protagonists). The boys also loved Alice in Wonderland. It can be done – sometimes their choices just need a little guidance.

 

Brave Girls

rosie revere engineerzog  pearl power

I know many successful women. They work hard, are intelligent, interesting and skilled people. Yet, often a theme that resurfaces time and again is women’s lack of confidence. It often manifests itself in a barrier to then pushing forward and getting to where they want to be, or a crisis of confidence in appearance. Much has been written about this, one of my favourite articles being this one from May 2014.

One way to bust through this perpetual wobble is to instil a sense of confidence in our littlest readers from early on. Three books to help you do this, and which are in NO WAY just for girls, are:

rosie revere engineer

Rose Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
A picture book, but not for pre-schoolers. It’s one of those titles I point towards as lasting throughout primary school and even beyond as a learning tool, as well as an enjoyable read. I even use it as a pep talk for myself on low days. Rosie Revere dreams of being an engineer. But what I love most about this book is that it doesn’t contrast Rosie with ‘boys’ in order to make the point that girls can be engineers. In fact, for me, gender isn’t really the issue here at all – Rosie could be gender neutral – it’s about building confidence and persevering with something –for me it just suits my purpose in featuring a girl. Rosie is shy, but secretly likes to build and make models out of junk materials. The genius also lies in the fact that it mentions when she was smaller she didn’t have a lack of confidence but almost reveled in her fine inventions. As many toddlers grow into little girls, they do also start to lose that bravado. In the story, she makes her uncle, the zookeeper, a snake-deterrent hat, but sadly, he laughs at it, and by default, her.

“And when it was finished, young Rosie was proud,
But Fred slapped his knee and he chuckled out loud.
He laughed till he wheezed and his eyes filled with tears,
all to the horror of Rosie Revere,”

At this point, she decides to keep her dreams simply as dreams. Then her great, great Aunt Rose visits and inspires her to build a flying contraption. It also fails, and her aunt Rose has the same reaction as her uncle. This comes as a surprise to the reader, who is obviously expecting better from her aunt. Rosie thinks that she will never be an engineer, but her great, great Aunt explains to her:

“Your brilliant first flop was a raging success!
Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!….
….Life might have its failures, but this was not it.
The only true failure can come if you quit.”

Her great great Aunt teaches her perseverance and pursuing of dreams, and Rosie stands proud next to her inventions.

There are a couple of other things to point out here. In the last page, Rosie’s whole class are shown with their crazy inventions, boys and girls of all races, which is refreshing to see. On the final back page, barely noticeable, but there is a historical note, referencing the women who provided the workforce during the war effort – especially in the US represented by Rosie the Riveter, the fictional character whose slogan was ‘We can do it!’. I love that the author has referenced the time in which women really started to come to the forefront of the workforce – being indispensable and doing jobs that had previously been deemed suitable only for men.

The vocabulary throughout is enriching and bold – from words such as perplexed to dismayed, and swooping and lingered. The illustrations are detailed and wondrous – there is lots to look at and inspect on each page – from the different patterns worn by the children, to the mass of material Rosie uses for her inspiration in building. This is a page to linger on for quite some time. And the text rhymes! This is a gem of a book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. See the Amazon side bar or purchase from Waterstones here.

zog

Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
I don’t always like to recommend books by this pairing – not because I don’t love their books – I do, and could write a whole blog about them, but I often feel everyone already knows them, and some bookshops devote so much space to them, it can be hard to find all the other picture book gems hidden away at the back.

Zog tells the story of a school of dragons learning their different skills year on year, from flying to breathing fire to rescuing princesses. Zog is the biggest dragon, and the keenest to learn. However, although keen, he often fails and hurts himself, and happens to be ‘rescued’ and tended to by a small girl called Pearl. The subversive ending is that Pearl is a princess who wishes to be a doctor, and doesn’t want to be saved by a prince, the prince wants to train to be a doctor too, and Zog chooses to be part of the ‘flying doctors’ crew, which Madame Dragon, the school teacher, regards as an excellent career choice.

Zog stands out for me as a particularly interesting picture book. I love to use it when talking about girls and confidence for two reasons. Although Zog is the title of the story, there are two characters within who represent ‘girl power’ for me, and whom the children I read it with love more than Zog himself. Madame Dragon, who runs the dragon school, and Princess Pearl, who not only rescues Zog, and shrugs off her princess fripperies to be a doctor, but also in the end, hires the dragon as her transport, and trains the prince to be her junior doctor.

Of course, as with all Julia and Axel’s books – the rhyming is pitch perfect, the illustrations are familiar, funny, friendly and detailed, and children love them. You can buy from Waterstones here.

pearl power

Pearl Power by Mel Elliott
Another Pearl, but this one written with a clear agenda in mind. For this reason, I think it fails a little where the others succeed. It is not quite as polished – the rhymes don’t always scan perfectly. However, it is a useful and rather fun addition to this canon, particularly if like me, the advert Drive Like a Girl, tends to make you hit the steering wheel in frustration – no matter how they wish to spin it.

Pearl moves to a new school, in which there’s a particularly irritating little boy called Sebastian who keeps trying to insult Pearl by saying she does things “like a girl”. Pearl’s response is to take the intended insult as a compliment and prove that she is very skilful indeed. By the end she is hugging him ‘like a girl’. It’s a simple story, with simple illustrations, yet wins me over with the expressive Pearl and the stylised tonal colours. I particularly liked:

“The new school was huge and Pearl was afraid,
but she had to be tough, it was time to be brave.
Most of the kids were bigger than Pearl,
but she knew that she was a clever strong girl.”

This is one girl whose sense of self-confidence has already been instilled by her recently promoted Mum (the reason for Pearl’s moving and attending her new school).
With thanks to @pbooksblogger for the suggestion. You can purchase Pearl Power here or through the Amazon sidebar.

I’d also like to say, when choosing picture books look carefully at what’s being represented. You will want to aim for a subtle message for your children – they aren’t stupid! For instance, How to Hide a Lion by Helen Stephens, a book I’ve mentioned before, luckily isn’t promoted in any way as being ‘girl power’, and yet it features a brave little girl who embraces difference when no one else will. I wouldn’t promote buying a picture book specifically with a gender agenda in mind, but as well as looking at whether you like the pictures, the text, whether the rhymes works and the story is good – have a look to see if your protagonist is a boy or a girl, and whether the picture books you have portray a different mix of genders, races and religions. See if you can spot those brave girls lurking out there somewhere…