history

When the Stars Come out by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by Lucy Cartwright

when the stars come outWhenever there’s a new topic at school, there’s a scramble from teachers and some pupils to find the library books that fit, the book that’s pitched correctly for the age group and touches on all the themes that the teacher wants to explore during that term. And rarely does a book match exactly. Probably because then it would be a textbook, rather than a book for exploring, a book for further stimulus and enquiry. When the Stars Come Out by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by Lucy Cartwright, is a refreshing piece of nonfiction that not only ticks the boxes when exploring ‘Time and Place, Earth and Space’ for example, but it also neatly stretches the mind, and causes pause for thought, and elicits pleasure at the same time.

Not just a space book, as the title might imply, When the Stars Come Out intends to explore our whole universe at night-time from the sciencey bits, such as why night occurs and the different constellations in the sky, but also the geographical element – both physical and human – and it also reaches right from the outer echelons of the universe into our very heads; what happens when we sleep?

Diagrams and illustrations begin the story of how the night works, showing the rotation of the Earth in relation to the sun. Then, before the constellations are explored, there’s some history on stargazing, and some recognition of why some people are scared of the dark. The moon and stars are investigated, and then tangents of this, including auroras, moonbows and shooting stars.

Coming down to earth, Edwards explores different landscapes at night, from the city to the desert, rainforests, mountains and many more including the sea, extrapolating which changes happen at night in the darkness. Animals are looked at in more detail in the next chapter, looking at sleep, dreams, nocturnal animals, and of course, humans. This chapter is particularly interesting as it’s rarely dealt with in children’s non-fiction. I liked the pie chart of sleep cycles, our natural rhythms, and then a look at super sleepers and world records, including the man who stayed awake for 11 days. It’s dangerous of course, as explained in the text, but fascinating information.

Lastly, the book investigates extreme days and nights – near the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, as well as clever inventions such as glow in the dark cement and what scientists are working on in terms of night-time and day-time differences in plant growth, for example. The book ends with a glorious celebration of the night – from Diwali to Walpurgisnacht.

This is a joyous and fascinating book. The illustrations are detailed and immersive – both conveying the science in the lunar cycle, but also a sense of wonder and mystery in dreams and night visitors. My only caveat is the size of the text against darkish backgrounds – not good for sleepy eyes – but perhaps the text’s smallness will keep the mind focussed and prevent daydreaming!

The book is large in size but well designed to reflect the information inside. The mountains spread reads as portrait rather than landscape – mirroring mountains of course, but also giving the different levels of mountainous terrain – the birds, the climbers, the foothills. Other pages look like landscapes – the savannah for example, with its panel of night sky at the top, but then it’s land mass stretching towards the reader. The animals are illustrated in action – grazing or in motion, but the text is chunked nicely into individual paragraphs, many in their own colourful panels. The book is extremely visual – the colours subtle rather than garish, reflecting the muted light of night times.

An exciting non-fiction title that illuminates the mysteries of our night-time and stimulates curious minds across a broad spectrum of inter-linking subjects. You can buy it here.

Girl 38: Finding a Friend by Ewa Jozefkowicz

girl 38This is a clever novel. It’s no surprise, coming from an author shortlisted for the Waterstones Book Prize this year for her debut, The Mystery of the Colour Thief. Ewa Jozefkowicz’s new children’s novel, Girl 38, is written with the same lucid fluidity: accessible, readable, and highly immersive.

The book is set out as three distinct strands, but all come together in great storytelling fashion to illuminate the key themes of the book – friendship, courage, intergenerational relationships and the lessons learnt from history, and also, somewhat surprisingly for a novel, the power of visuals.

Twelve-year-old Kat loves to work on her comic-book heroine, Girl 38, who has traits she wishes she could emulate in real life. The comic is set in the future, as Girl 38 space-travels to new places with a calm and measured courage, even in the face of Vilks (humans with wolf-heads, yellow eyes and sharp fangs). But in her real life, Kat faces her own adversities. She feels lonely when her parents work long hours, and her best friend doesn’t always act as such – in fact, before long Kat begins to see that she’s trapped in a toxic friend relationship, and that if she could build up the courage, she might find truer, better friends.

Courage is contagious, and when Kat befriends her neighbour, Ania, an elderly Polish woman with a penchant for painting, Kat begins to hear Ania’s childhood stories, and before long, understands the meaning of true friendship – something she can put into practise in a relationship with the new boy at school, Julius.

What should feel complicated, actually reads simply and with a gentle truthful wisdom. Although we see Kat’s life through her eyes, the small distance and perspective afforded to the reader gives them the ability for objectiveness and readers can root for Kat to do the right thing, and not be consistently led astray by her mean best friend, Gem. There are particularly astute and wise signposts for the reader – Kat’s parents are busy, although not disinterested. They hover, but not like helicopter parents, so although they see the strain in the friendship, they don’t rush to interfere.

But where the reader really gets to think is in the stories of World War II that Ania tells. From jumping from a train, to deciphering which soldiers are friendly and which aren’t, to navigating through a war-torn Europe to save a dear friend who has been taken away to a ‘walled village’, persecuted simply for being different.

There’s a relevance to the book of course, in its attempt to show how empathy can teach us to be kind, how we need to look at history for its lessons. Jozefkowicz brings together the different strands to show the reader about belonging – Girl 38 finding a new planet on which to reside, people in Europe seeking safety, and even in Kat’s modern world – welcoming newcomers who may act and look different, but, of course, are human too.

The characters are painted with depth and understanding. Ania’s cultural heritage is strong in both the objects that surround her and the stories she tells. Kat and her friends are deeply ensconced in our modern world – the phone is used as a plot device – but it is the children’s modern relationships that are so well depicted. The sly toxicity that Gem promotes, whilst still remaining a rounded character with whom we have sympathy, the small differences that make Julius stand out.

But the overarching heart of the book is in the sharing of stories – of Ania’s painful memories of the friend she lost, of her attempting to express her sadness in a creative way, and the compassion and empathy it stirs in her listeners – in how the contemporary reader will see that courage begets courage, that history is so much more than dates and battles, and that comparative thinking – across generations, time periods, and methods of creative endeavour – can teach understanding and awareness.

This is strong and impactful writing packaged in a simple story with mirrored events and clever plot turns. It implores us to use our time thoughtfully. And what better way than to read this novel. You can buy it here.

Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall

There are some settings we associate with stories and literature more than others: deep dark forests with shadowy trees and dangerous creatures; choppy seas that tumble boats and threaten lives; castles with tall turrets and dragons soaring overhead; derelict houses with cracked brickwork and hidden dwellers.

And lighthouses. What is it about lighthouses that make them such fascinating fodder for children’s literature? Is it their loneliness, their proximity to the sea and potential danger and mishap, their ability to shine a light into the dark, or perhaps their history? Or all of these.

Sophie Blackall’s wonderfully astute picture book shines a light on all of these facets, but perhaps concentrates most on the history, drawing a picture of a particular fictional keeper of a specific made-up lighthouse.

Choosing a mix of Chinese ink and watercolour, Blackall imbues this picture book with a sense of timelessness as well as a clear sense of history, the mood fluctuating with the passing of time. This is, in essence about change.

Confronted first with illustrations that depict an old-fashioned black and white wedding photograph, a quill pen, a letter to a loved one, a needle and thread, the first pages feel like a log in themselves, a recording of what’s past. Then into the narrative, and Blackall starts with a bird’s eye view of the lighthouse – and an immense, colour-changing, highly patterned sea – looking part like a shoal of fish, part like a net, rendered in turquoises to pink, all surrounding the very stark red and white lighthouse on its small rocky island.

Each spread colours the sea differently – a deep blue with more traditional waves on one, a murkier green in a wind-swept double page, crashing waves with white foamy tops in another. The passing of time, the changing of seasons.

And within some spreads vignettes can be seen – smaller round circular pictures that show the life of our keeper, eating fish for his dinner, writing letters to loved ones, fishing out of the window. These circles are reminiscent of a boat’s portholes, or the face of a clock, or perhaps just the roundness of the rooms of the lighthouse.

But all hold a fascination – through them we see the cross-section of the lighthouse, but also the whole life of the keeper, from supplies being delivered, to a wife being delivered, to the wife herself delivering a baby, and then onto more dramatic scenarios including illness and rescues, until finally news comes that the lighthouse keeper himself is being replaced with a mechanism, and the family leaves for the mainland coast.

This most wonderful picture book tells both of the mundanity of the keeper’s life – the slow pace of the day, the importance of routine, the marking of time, but also the large changes around him too – the changes in weather from fog and storms to beautiful sunsets, the big changes that mark a life – weddings, births, and of course the leaps in mankind as science takes over.

The book is physically long and tall like a lighthouse, with red endpapers like the colour of a lighthouse top, and the illustrations as meticulous as the careful logbook of the keeper.

Cleverly, the text too matches the rhythm of the waves, the solitariness of the job. There is simplicity in the list of tasks, but also a poetry in the sound of the wind, the clanging of the bell for fog, the majesty of the wide sea.

A section at the end gives much more historical fact and detail, and explores the author’s inspiration. This is a mesmerising lyrical view of a lighthouse, and lighthouse life, which shines a beam of light into the children’s picture book section. Don’t crash on the rocks – find your lighthouse book here.

International Women’s Day 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Bird Flies by Karen McCombie

little bird fliesIt takes a certain amount of bravery, imagination, and sometimes desperation, to want to leave a remote island home that’s been base for a family for many years, and uproot from its rural idyll to the grimy urban streets of Glasgow, or for the new dawn of America – particularly in 1861. But that’s what the Little Bird of the title wishes in this new historical series from children’s books author Karen McCombie.

Bridie is a crofter’s daughter (her father occupies and works a small landholding known as a croft, rented from the landlord, or laird). She lives with her family on the little Scottish island of Tornish, an island that appears almost as a character itself within the novel.

With a wasted arm and leg, a deceased mother, two older sisters and a younger brother, life is hard, but also rewarding. Bridie very much sees the positives in life – not only her island idyll of rough seas and craggy landscapes, cherishing the views and wildlife – but also always working with the positive side of her disability. She doesn’t let it impede her, but rather uses it to her advantage where possible.

But things change in Tornish when the current laird dies suddenly, and a new family take over. Even then, Bridie sees positives in her new friendship with a ward of the new family, and a portrait painter drafted over to paint the new laird, but life gets harder for all the crofters and before long her dream to leave Tornish comes true – although perhaps not quite in the way she had envisaged. At this point the novel speeds up spectacularly – as though McCombie is in a hurry to leave it positioned for book two.

This is quite a unique book, documenting a particular way of life in a particular place, and written with a huge amount of understanding of the time and location, as well as with clear passion. This shines through in Bridie’s own pride in where she comes from.

The book is modern in its telling though – Bridie’s outlook is contemporary – she sees goodness in difference rather than shunning it, she’s up for adventure and exploration, and she feels almost feminist in outlook – the women in this story dominate and are strong risk-takers, working to do good and make their mark. There’s a feeling of class injustice with the portrayal of the privileged and careless wealthy gentry, who can be seen in a way as invaders – destroying the isolated island way of life – and forcing the residents to change how they live, or flee.

And so despite the strong traditions highlighted in the first part of the novel, McCombie portrays a world in flux. Changes come to old ways of life, people move on and move away.

With skill, McCombie presents this tear in the fabric of the crofters’ reality – the striving for modernity and adventure combined with the nostalgia for a simpler and more idyllic way of living. The history of the Scottish isles feels captivating – the landscape rugged and real, forging onwards even when the people themselves are long gone. And although the reader is thrust forwards into Little Bridie’s seagoing adventure, it’s the island that stays behind in the reader’s mind – a timeless sliver of land that feels just within reach. Particularly for little birds that fly, and McCombie gives the reader wings to do just that. You can buy it here.

Little Bird Flies: A Guest Post from author Karen McCombie

McCombie Little BirdWhat Do Sheep, Queen Victoria and Drunkenness All Have in Common?

Well, they all feature in Karen McCombie’s latest novel, stirring historical adventure Little Bird Flies, the story of a young girl coming of age on a remote Scottish island in the 1860’s. MinervaReads will review on Sunday (keep your eyes peeled). In the meantime, it’s well worth reading Karen’s explanation and Little Bird Flies‘ background detail below; she illuminates key features in a book that’s clearly close to her heart: 

  • Sheep?

Yes, sheep. Sheep are essentially one of the (unwitting) bad guys of my story. All Scottish schoolchildren learn about the Highland Clearances, a period of around a century when the lairds, ie landowners, in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland realised they could make a lot more money if they cleared the tenant farmers and communities off their lands and replaced them with sheep. Over that period, it’s estimated that over half-a-million Highlanders were made to leave – very often brutally forced off – the land their ancestors had farmed for generations. So where did they go? Some headed for the teeming streets of newly industrialised Glasgow, but many found themselves packed on sailing ships bound for countries like Nova Scotia, Canada and Australia. In Little Bird Flies, twelve-year-old Bridie’s family think their island has escaped the fate of so many other areas of the Highlands… till a new Laird arrives, heralding a time of huge change and danger at every turn.

  • Queen Victoria

On a visit to the Highlands with Prince Albert, Queen Victoria fell in love with the peace, the quiet and the beauty of the rugged landscapes. The royal couple bought a manor house, which they transformed into the grand, turreted Balmoral castle, and escaped there as often as they could with their growing family, enjoying a chance to break away from royal duties in London and the formal life they lived there. In doing so, Queen Victoria suddenly made Scotland, and the Highlands and Islands in particular, a tourist destination. I couldn’t resist featuring the Queen in Little Bird Flies, even if it is just a very, very small, barely there appearance.

Of course, Queen Victoria’s descendants carried on the tradition of escaping to Balmoral where they can live an almost ordinary life… a few years ago, I slowed to pass a Range Rover on a narrow country road near the Castle, and realised it was being driven by none other than Queen Elizabeth herself!

little bird flies

  • Drunkenness

When Bridie and her family make the move to the teeming streets of Glasgow, Bridie finds herself handing out leaflets for her sister’s employer, Mrs Lennox. Mrs Lennox is involved in the Temperance Movement – an anti-drunkenness initiative – which sprang up all over Britain in the Victorian era. In busy, industrialized Glasgow, the problem with alcohol was particularly bad, as whisky was being mass-produced, and pubs and drinking houses were popping up at an alarming rate. Lots of religious or just socially-minded men and women like Mrs Lennox were worried about the effects of drink – and the money spent on it – on poorer families, especially the children.

Apart from livestock, royalty and too much whisky, my novel is also full of drama, daydreamings and danger; friendship, family loyalties, and of course, flight…

Little Bird Flies by Karen McCombie is out now, from publishers Nosy Crow. Click back on Sunday for my review – this is possibly McCombie’s best book to date, full of passion and, as you can see, fascinating social history. You can buy it here

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

our castle by the seaI don’t know what the state of the world will be like this first Sunday of 2019, because I’m writing this review from the depths of Brexit mania in December 2018, but I do know that this historical fiction for readers age 9+ will still be relevant. Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange is set in a lighthouse overlooking the sea – looking out towards Europe from our tiny island – and the book, like the lighthouse, takes a wide perspective on our world – on conflict, family and belonging.

It is 1939 and Petra lives in a lighthouse that dominates a landscape of secret tunnels, sweeping beaches, and ancient legends. Stormy skies above are swiftly being overtaken with enemy planes. To complicate matters, Petra’s mother is German, and before long the police suspect that spying activity is going on within the lighthouse and ‘Mutti’ is interned for being a foreign enemy.

Strange’s attention to detail creates a filmic picture in the reader’s mind – in a visually notable scene the family have to paint the lighthouse green to camouflage it – and Strange also details the lighthouse’s workings and logbooks. There is another fabulously memorable scene in which Petra tries on a gas mask for the first time – the sensory feelings invoked feel authentic as if Strange has experienced it first-hand.

So the book works as an excellent study on the home front during the war – but it also excels in delivering on its themes, not only across the novel but also in small linguistic ways – using imagery of the sea and water in metaphor:

“like water freezing in the cracked surface of a stone, those secrets were growing colder, harder, starting to force us apart.”

Strange also ties ancient legend from the location into Petra’s situation: the nightmare of the legend of the Wyrm, the swirling treacherous waters that devour ships off the coast, comes to life in the danger that stalks ordinary people in wartime.

And yet there is also the extraordinary dichotomy of carrying on life as normal whilst things are clearly not normal in wartime. Strange explores this with her controlled plot and confident writing. There is a clear sense of a family trying to swim when all about are sinking and no one is willing to throw a lifeline.

Historical fiction works best when it gives an accurate portrayal of how people once lived and excavates the social fabric of their lives, and also when it manages to invoke thoughts in the reader about their current situation – and fundamental to Strange’s plot is working out where people’s allegiance lies – and where the finger of suspicion is pointed. Not all is as it seems in Petra’s life, people hide who they are and what they are doing, and as she uncovers the truth, so does the reader, triggering thoughts about the still common practice of attributing labels and stereotypes to people – framing them within a pre-conceived identity. Historical novels can be a great indicator of the present day.

Not unlike Letters to the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll, published for children last year, the landscape is fundamental to the plot, and it provokes thought on what we make of the structures and landscapes we inhabit.

Strange doesn’t hold back on her fiction just because it’s for children, and this is another powerful novel from a skillful writer. Absorbing and truthful, the characters are a far cry from the stony coldness or petrification that the name Petra implies. In fact, they show bravery, compassion and emotional strength – something we could learn from, entrenched as we are in our present political turmoil. You can buy yourself Our Castle by the Sea here, and be transported to its wild coastline and wartime experience.

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com and follow Lucy Strange on twitter @theLucyStrange

Quick Gift Guide: Books

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

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

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

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

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

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

absolutely everything

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

Timelines of Everything

timelines of everything

It seems fitting during National Non-Fiction November to feature a book that attempts to cover everything. As one would expect from Dorling Kindersley, this is a highly visual non-fiction title, over 300 pages long with an extraordinary number of images. The book explores the history of the world in a series of illustrated timelines on ‘everything’, including slavery in the US, the technology of writing, the industrial revolution, kingdoms of Southeast Asia, postcolonial Africa and much much more.

As well as general knowledge, dates, and small explanations of well-known events, there are tiny nuggets of trivia embedded in each page, so that the reader comes away having learnt that the Medieval period lasted from the 5th to the 15th centuries and followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and that the majority of the population in Medieval Europe was comprised of peasant farmers, but also lesser-known trivia during the period, including that the Vikings founded Dublin in 841. The timeline on this page traverses neatly between religious re-organisation and acts of battle and aggression, spanning from the East-West Schism in the church in 1054 to the Battle of Hastings, to the Hundred Years’ War, to the to the Gutenberg Bible printing in around 1439. Reading about the Hanseatic League and their trading alliance in 1241 felt relevant to today’s Brexit deals.


But it’s not the text information in the book that inspires, so much as the magnificence of the presentation. Each subject is afforded an apt graphic design. The Renaissance is laid out like a fresco between classical pillars. The Timeline of Exploration of the world features dates running up a ship’s mast, Spanish America is encapsulated within a series of silver coins, and Astronomy casts its own constellation across the page. The timelines are also broken up by pages in between – some full colour-paintings including that of the fall of Tenochtitlan, some that document a single day such as the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

The reader can read through in chronological order as set out in the book – traversing prehistory, the dinosaurs and the wheel, before entering the ancient World, Medieval, the Age of Exploration, Revolution and then the Modern World, or simply dip in and out depending on mood and interest. One great fun thing to do is to test fellow family members with the dates of when things happened, flicking through the book at random.

The text is accessible, concise, and clear. There are no opinions here, no injected humour, just straightforward precise information. Of course, the whole of human history can’t be condensed into one book, so there are omissions and much is touched on in scant detail, but it provides a context for what’s going on, and a springboard for further discovery. This way, history can be looked at with a wide lens, and then an intrigued child will be able to hone in on what piques their interest and opt for a more specialist look at the subject.

To settle arguments and answer quizzes, this is a winner. I liked the roll call of British royalty and American presidents at the end – yes, the book is skewed towards a Western audience for sure – and thoroughly enjoyed the quick romp through choice moments to explore the Story of Democracy. I learned much about the Rise of the Samurai and the horror of Plagues and Epidemics. For a spread-eagled timeline view of the world – this is a wonderful visual treat. You can buy it here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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