history

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.

Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer

armistice runnerTom Palmer has been writing books about sport for some time, and combining history and sport to bring each of those subjects to children who wouldn’t necessarily access the other. Armistice Runner is Palmer’s latest book, published in conjunction with Barrington Stoke, and placed perfectly in commemoration of the centenary. But publishing something at an opportune time doesn’t make it a success – it takes a whole host of other factors. Factors that Palmer demonstrates in abundance in his latest book – a gripping story that parallels and contrasts historical and modern, pointing to the individual to bring out the whole, and dazzling the reader with its historical research, compelling descriptions, and mostly, its massively empathetic characters.

Lily is struggling to compete in her fell-running races, often losing to a rival competitor named Abbie. Maybe it’s because Lily has other things on her mind. Her grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and her father is increasingly upset by the disease’s development. When they go to visit, Lily’s running reminds her grandmother of her own grandfather – a fell runner himself, who also served at the Front during the First World War. When Lily discovers her great-great-grandfather’s (Ernest’s) diaries, they help her to make connections with her grandmother, as well as give her the confidence and inspiration to keep attacking her own runs.

The book splits off into dual narratives – the reader exploring the historical diaries alongside Lily, and thus as invested emotionally as Lily herself. When she stops reading because of an incident with her family, the reader feels Lily’s frustration at being unable to dive back into the diaries and carry on, and yet the reader also wants to hear more about Lily’s story. It’s a well-concocted balance of voices.

The parts of the book in Ernest’s voice are evocative of the Front (he was a runner messenger on the front lines) and yet not so gruesome or devastating as to put off young readers – a feat hard to capture. Again, the balance is just right. Descriptions of rotting flesh feel very real, as do Ernest’s emotions and friendships, and it becomes apparent how delicate the communications were during the war at the Front, particularly in the days and hours preceding the Armistice.

This is a good view of the effect of war on the individual, and Palmer draws clever comparisons between the two time periods – Lily’s and Ernest’s – in terms of them both dealing with loss, loyalty, friendship and seeing things from others’ points of view.

Palmer deals particularly sensitively with Lily’s grandmother. It can be confusing for a pre-teen, at a time in which they’re dealing with defining their own identity, to have a close relative mis-remember who they are. And Palmer explores Lily’s emotions in dealing with her little brother and her father with regards to their relationships with the grandmother, and her debilitating disease. It can be upsetting to see one’s parents in pain, at the same time as discovering that they’re fallible creatures themselves who don’t have all the answers. And Lily tries to have the right answers for her little brother.

Ernest’s grief is also portrayed – his struggle with the loss of his brother, and seeing his own parents suffer – but Palmer brings in here the emotional release of physical exercise. Fell running is distinctive in the effort needed to run uphill and the strength of character involved, but also the freefall sensation of running downhill in fell running – the battle against one’s own instincts to hold back and retain control.

The story of Lily’s great-great grandfather’s past and the lessons he learns about reaching across barriers, and loyalty to others, helps strengthen Lily’s confidence in dealing with her own rivalries, and her family issues, showing that the past really can inform the future.

And I can’t help but mention how accessible the text is – both in that it has been written for publisher Barrington Stoke, (specialists in producing books for struggling readers), but also in that Palmer has two genders telling the story, and a female dominating, in the type of story (sport and World War I) usually dominated by men.

If the book stimulates discussion and further study, you’d do well to look at Tom Palmer’s own website with its brilliant range of accompanying resources. And you can buy the book here.

Books of Wonder: Information and Knowledge

When I was growing up there was a television series called The Wonder Years, and very often I hear adults talking about a child’s sense of wonder at the world around them. I don’t know who first attributed the wonder quality to childhood, but if a child is less jaded, more open to being amazed or dazzled by the world than adults, then they’ll be even more entranced with this selection of books than I am.

atlas of adventures wonders of the worldatlas of adventures wonders
Atlas of Adventures: Wonders of the World, illustrated by Lucy Letherland, written by Ben Handicott

I first came across Lucy Letherland’s Atlas of Adventures in a school hall in 2014, reviewed it as one of my first books of the week, and since then my blog, and Letherland’s series has gone from strength to strength. The Wonders of the World title, however, is truly awesome, or should I say wonderful. Veering off the path of the traditional wonders of the world, Ben Handicott has picked his own; choosing 30 destinations from as far apart as Death Valley to The Forbidden City.

Introducing his wonders, Ben makes the point of explaining that wonder can be found in the simplicity of a flower blooming in your backyard as much as in the intricacies of the Sagrada Familia, but explains that some wonders are worth travelling for.

Letherland’s full page illustrations of each wonder, drawn from different and intriguing perspectives, and following on from maps of each geographical area, are truly magnificent; each populated with a raft of tourists, indigenous peoples and animals in an imaginative out-of-this-world harmony. And Handicott’s text not only introduces the site with a couple of paragraphs and snapshot information, but illuminates single sentence facts around the illustrations. His annotations on the illustration of Neuschwanstein Castle, thought to be an inspiration for Walt Disney’s fairy tale castle, highlight the modern fixtures and fittings within.

This is a bold book, in the choice of wonders and also in the guilty irreverence of some of the illustrations, (Merlin at Stonehenge, for example), but all provoke fascination in the reader. Maps fix the natural and man-made wonders firmly in their geographical position. Watch for the tourists posing at the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the bears in Yosemite. I found a marathon runner on the Great Wall of China. Can you? Find your wonder here.

welcome to our world
Welcome to Our World: A Celebration of Children Everywhere by Moira Butterfield and Harriet Lynas
With illustrations and theme reminiscent of Disneyworld’s It’s a Small World ride, this is a colourful look at childhood around the world, highlighting differences but above all sending the message of what humans have in common. The first page highlights flags, then the author looks at various ways of saying hello in different languages (with a phonetic spelling for pronunciation), as well as showcasing types of names, foods, homes, pets, and transport in different countries. For any child wanting to see how others live, this is a great introduction. There are quirks, as well as that which is familiar and relevant to children, such as school uniform, musical instruments etc. The quirks include cures for hiccups, phrases, manners and playground games. With their saucer faces and big black button eyes, the illustrations are doll-like and immensely colourful, reminding me of the collection of native dress dolls that I had as a child. Appealing and eclectic, this is a great fact-finder for the very young – kids will enjoy the celebration cakes from around the world. There’s a list of countries featured at the end of the book, and great production values throughout. Age 4+. Welcome to your world here.

one day so many ways
One Day So Many Ways by Laura Hall, illustrated by Loris Lora

Not so dissimilar is this large-size illustrated guide to 40 children from around the world, also looking at a 24 hour period, in which it compares lifestyles and habits, including houses, meals, transport to school, playtime and so on. The illustrations of the children here are slightly less doll-like, but also stylised to look similar despite their differences – almond eyes, simple bodies – they reminded me of Topsy and Tim in that last-century-retro-way. Features that differentiate from the book above include a spread called Quiet Time, which features prayer, reading time and meditation amongst other pursuits, and asks the reader to contemplate their own life features. Weekend jobs, family time, helping out and reading are also explored, as well as the more mundane foods, bedtime, friends and homework. The Highlights page showcases the highlights of some of the children’s days, and it’s clear that weather can play a large part in how children live their lives. There’s a list of countries at the back with flags and facts, and this will be a good addition in showing children the different cultures and ways of life around the world, despite the inherent similarities of childhood. You can buy it here.

wonders of the world
Wonders of the World by Isabel Otter and Margaux Carpentier
Where best to find wonder than in the traditionally designated ‘seven wonders of the world’? This book is much smaller and squarer than Lucy Letherland’s Atlas of Adventures: Wonders of the World and is aimed at younger children, highlighting the Ancient Wonders and Modern Wonders, exploring all 14 in a colourful lift-the-flap informative book. Each wonder receives a full page, with introductory text, and some supplementary information in small paragraphs, such as exploring that the Colossus of Rhodes was the inspiration behind the modern Statue of Liberty.

An interactive wheel displays the plants of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, as well as the features of the Lantern Room on the Lighthouse of Alexandria. This is a colourful dip into the beautiful buildings that defined their eras, and the colour palate matches well with the romance behind each – pink and patterned egg blue for the Taj Mahal, deep orange and yellow for the Great Pyramid of Giza. This cardboard novelty book has a page at the end detailing some natural wonders too. Age 7+. Find a wonder here.

treasure hunt house
Treasure Hunt House by Kate Davies and Becca Stadtlander
Not all wonders are to be found in distant places and time. This book is both a game, in that it’s a literal treasure hunt – readers must lift the flaps to solve the clues – but also a treasure trove in that it gives fascinating facts about the wonders to be found in a domestic realm. Two children go to visit their Great Aunt Martha in her house – this is not an ordinary house though, containing a music room, conservatory, library and hall of inventions. More like a stately home, although many of the items are to be found in every domestic environment, and the book gives the history behind the telephone, fridge, toilet and bath as well as stepping into the more eclectic, such as exploring a Chinese lacquered mirror, platform shoes, Renoir painting and more.

This is exploration and history and activity all in one book. The illustrations themselves are like a treasure hunt – detailed, fascinating and rather intricate – they immerse the reader in the book. The readership is hard to define here – it’s probably something that could span a host of ages – the clues are very easy to solve, but the text in some places feels older. Age 7+. Find your treasure here.

curiositree
The Curiositree: Human World: A Visual Compendium of Wonders from Human History by Amanda Wood and Mike Jolley
A second in this series – the first Curiositree explored the natural world – now we are into human history. Divided into sections – with three colour-matching ribbons to bookmark a reader’s place – each spread is labelled as a ‘chart’. This is down to the fact that the book is remarkably visual. There is a glut of information on each topic, and although the typeface is minuscule, each ‘chart’ is different from the one before and includes many illustrations, infographics and diagrams to showcase the topic.

The three colours of the ribbons, like the colour-coding inside, represent the three strands of discovery in the book: human history, art and culture, science, trade and technology. I expected more page cross-referencing across the topics, but was nicely surprised by the depth of knowledge on individual items, such as the history of metal usage, breakthrough thinking ie in maths, and the over-riding themes of the history of farming and music.
curiositree writing
It’s difficult to showcase thousands of years of human development in a 112 page book for children and the authors do an admirable job. Of course there’s much missing, and I had rather hoped for a little more information on religion and philosophical thought before launching into Stonehenge, ancient temples and tombs, but on the whole this is a great resource, and I suppose why it is a compendium rather than an encyclopedia.

Towards the end there is information on printing and world exploration – because the book travels up to the early 1600s only. Although this is clearly aimed at much older children, in that it introduces complex themes, has a complicated layout (for dipping and researching), and articulates in a non-patronising but technically more sophisticated manner, younger readers will enjoy the detailed and colourful illustrations throughout. Aimed at 8+ years and older. Stimulate your curiosity here.

transport and travelfoods of the world
Transport and Travel Mini Hardback by Sandra Lawrence, illustrated by Jem Maybank and Foods of the World: Mini Hardback by Libby Walden and Jocelyn Kao.
For those who prefer their factual information to be more bitesize and topic-based, these two excellent little companions will be useful for curious children wondering about the world, and useful as classroom resources. Rather than holding an encyclopaedic knowledge of the topic, these dip in with illustrations dominating each page, and a couple of sentences at the top to give background.

The transport book divides nicely into wheels, rail, air and water and picks out where transport has become rather famous – the San Francisco tram, the Shinkansen railway network in Japan. There’s also a nice mix of history – the Viking longboats, and future – the jet pack. Foods of the World is even more random in its choice of information. There are customs and traditions, celebratory food and a strange section called ‘playing with food’, with quirky facts such as competitive eating, food fights and the accidental creation of bubble gum. More fun than fodder for thought, this is a good title to have in the KS1 classroom. Age 5+ years. You can buy them here and here.

Writing for Teens: A Conversation with Jon Walter

nevertheless she persistedJon Walter’s latest novel strikes the gong for women everywhere in this 100th anniversary year since some women were afforded the vote. Nevertheless She Persisted is the story of two sisters in 1913 and their struggle to achieve and succeed in a world dominated by men. Clara and Nancy work in Holloway Prison in a time in which the prison population includes a number of imprisoned suffragettes, some suffering force feeding as a result of their hunger strikes. Seeing their own struggles for independence mirrored in these fighting women, Nancy and Clara must make the decision as to which side to be on.

Walter’s novel gets to the very heart of the suffragettes’ struggle; looking not only at the importance of the role of imprisonment in the suffragette movement, and the Cat and Mouse Act, but also at the political motives and arguments surrounding women at a time in which their roles in life were still dependent upon men.

He doesn’t hold back. There is a graphic description of force feeding, an account of the sisters’ escape from their home, in which it becomes apparent that their father is guilty of incest. So, this isn’t really a book I’d normally recommend on a blog primarily designed to showcase children’s titles. In fact, it’s being published as part of David Fickling Books’ new foray into adult titles, which began with Pullman’s book of essays, Daemon Voices, last year. However, Walter claims that he writes YA fiction, (his previous novel Close to the Wind is suitable for those aged 10+ years, whilst My Name is Not Friday was longlisted for The Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize 2015), and his publisher claims that stories are for all:

Fickling says: Ideally I would really like to publish books that are not strictly for kids or only for adults, but with wide appeal. We’re not trying to muddle things – we’ll always keep story at our heart.”

But this is marketed as for adults, and so I feel that Walter could have pushed even more on the corporeal or visceral feelings that these women suffered – he holds back on the physical and emotional descriptions of childbirth and its after effects and the physical and emotional constrictions that women must have felt at that time, but to his credit he pushes the boundaries on the political instead.

Nancy and Clara are scarcely out of childhood themselves, and indeed at the time many women were made to feel that their childhood continued into adulthood because their independence was so curtailed. However, they occupy an adult world and step into roles of responsibility within the prison system, all the while trying to create their own new world, to forge a new path of a new generation – a world in which women aren’t tied by the patriarchy, and in which they can wear trousers or ride a bicycle and fight for their own freedoms and earn their own money. In this regard, Nevertheless does read like a YA title. Jon Walter believes that all his books are for a YA audience:

Jon WalterChildren’s literature can be a great place for dealing with big questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we belong? How should we live? I write for children because I want to address those questions. And I also write for children because they occupy a place of transition, particularly teens, who inhabit the borderlands between childhood and adulthood. This is extremely fertile territory for fiction writers because it is unformed and unstable. It has friction and is ripe for conflict as the new threatens to sweep aside the old. Basically, I’m more interested in the world young people will create than the world we adults have left them.”

I wonder if the reasons that DFB have cast this as an adult title are twofold. Firstly, the issue of incest – generally one of the last taboos. Walter isn’t sure: “There are no rules that can’t be broken in fiction but there is definitely safe ground and risky ground. With YA it’s certainly not content. Authors such as Robert Cormier, Melvin Burgess, Margot Lanagan, Louise O’Neill, M T Anderson have all put that idea to rest. I think it’s more about the chosen subject matter. YA tends to find itself in the territory where the adult and children’s world collide. Dystopian fiction would be a good example of the convergence, which is probably why so many teenagers walk around with copies of George Orwell or Margaret Atwood. It’s also about the tone of the book and the primacy of plot, though these are not defining features. Is Stephen King YA? Are thrillers or crime fiction?  I could give you a whole long list of books that are relevant and suitable for teenagers but published as adult fiction.”

Indeed, the teenagers I meet definitely read novels that are in the general fiction area of the bookshop – from 1984 to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to Catch 22 (the latter not a novel I’d recommend for adults; it’s best read as a teen when you’re sucked in by the sheer lunacy). In which case, is YA a patronising term? Why does it exist at all? Jon thinks we might be imposing unnecessary age limits on our readers:

There’s a belief in children’s fiction that readers tend to read two years above their actual age. This is because, while they want to see themselves in a book, they also want to see what might be happening to them very soon. They want to do what the older kids do!

But there’s also something that happens to children aged 14 and upwards. They’re looking at the adult world and seeing how they are going to fit. This isn’t just about sex and drugs and rock and roll. It’s about politics, how the world is structured; the who gets what and why. It might even be about the world of work; what will they do to employ their time and will it pay them enough to live independently? These are very adult questions so it’s not surprising that teenagers often prefer to visit the general fiction section of a shop rather than the children’s section.

If you put these two things together, then the age range of YA  narrows considerably. Instead of a wide 13-18, it might more practically be seen as 12-15? And if so, are we failing to market properly to children and adults in the 15 -22 age range? And rather than pulling older readers in, does the notion of a young adult genre patronise them? My children are 19 & 22, one at university, one doing care work and deciding whether he will make a career of it. Like most people their age, both have a tenuous relationship to adulthood. Why are there so few books aimed at ‘kids’ of this age? It’s almost as though they don’t exist!”

And perhaps this is the second reason why Nevertheless She Persisted is classed as an adult title – the protagonists aren’t children, they’re in their twenties:

One of the problems with Nevertheless was that the suffragettes had an age limit (at least for official suffragette activity) of 21. The age limit for prison wardens was 24. I could have circumvented these with a younger character who witnessed the actions of others but I didn’t want to do that because a reader of fifteen upwards doesn’t necessarily need a protagonist their own age. I think the issues that Nancy and Clara deal with are resonant with the lives and decisions of today’s teenagers, despite the protagonists and setting being adult.”

All in all then, we tend to agree. The genres and age levels imposed upon novels are fairly arbitrary – after all how many novels are there that traverse across the genres rather than tidily fitting into one particular category. Is Jane Austen romance? Classic? Literary fiction? Perhaps in the end, it’s really just about marketing:

I think it is but that’s hugely significant. Successful marketing is about putting books into the right people’s hands – it can be the difference between a book being read or passed over.” Walter’s latest novel might be marketed as adult, but it’s an appealing read for any teen looking to discover the women’s suffrage struggle, or to understand the relationship between sisters, or to read social historical fiction that contains those small nuggets of detail that are so fascinating. It’s written with clarity and pathos and as one would expect from a Jon Walter novel, carries the reader at pace with style and poise. Walter appears happy with DFB’s new direction: “DFB are taking a risk with this but it might just be that their new adult list appeals more to teenagers than the books might as YA. If the list also succeeds in attracting adult readers who aren’t engaged with the children’s book world, then that’s even better!”

I’m looking forward to reading whatever might be next – perhaps Jon Walter might try his hand at a picture book next? And those, as we know, are for all ages.

You can buy a copy of Nevertheless She Persisted here.

 

 

A History of Pictures for Children by David Hockney and Martin Gayford, illustrated by Rose Blake

history of pictures for childrenThe children of today don’t seem to have the same vested need for non-fiction books as generations ago – more often than not they turn to Wiki, or use the school-provided web links to research facts for their homework.

Whatever you think of this, publishers are increasingly turning to more enticing, influential, enduring ways to present their non-fiction. And seeing as children are so tuned in to YouTube for information and entertainment, sometimes looking to a vlogger who talks directly at them about a subject, what better way to present a book than as a conversation.

The adult version of A History of Pictures published in 2016, but now there is a children’s version, A History of Pictures for Children by David Hockney and Martin Gayford, with similar text and the same reproductions, but adapted for children in a skilful and intelligent way.

This book is a conversation between artist David Hockney and art critic Martin Gayford as they attempt to explore and explain the history of art, and yet also the creation of art. Told paragraph by paragraph as dialogue between the men, reading the book is like listening to two teenagers deconstruct a game of Fortnite. There is knowledge and depth encompassed within a pacey conversation that conveys the intimacy of friends. Their lightness of tone brings amusement along with understanding.

Set into clear chapters, from ‘making marks’ to ‘light and shadows’, ‘mirrors and reflections’ and more, the abundance of full and half page reproductions of paintings lend their discussion a tone of absolute authority. For what better way to teach than by example.

But rather than a straightforward look at the picture and then an explanation, as in an art gallery with plaque beside painting, this is a definite discussion in accessible yet non-condescending language. Not only is there the explanation of a painting or style from Gayford, but also interlocutions by Hockney that attempt to explore the spark of creativity behind the art. And comparisons that really illuminate the conversation, for example the similarities in use of depth of shadow in the Mona Lisa to photographs of early Hollywood stars. There is plenty for the modern child too – the last two chapters deal with moving images, and computer images respectively – not only in their creation but an analysis of where pictures will lead us – the veracity of them, their uses and potential dangers. By posing questions to each other, and answering their own, the two experts inspire the reader to really think.

history of pictures

Each chapter focusses the reader fully on the topic in hand – I loved the pages on looking at pictures as narratives, especially Hopper’s Nighthawks, as well as the artist’s use of particular objects within a painting – Hockney’s own Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy, as well as Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, and the lasting influence of the objects within the painting as well as the paintings themselves.

The book is titled ‘A History’ for a reason, and Hockney and Gayford skillfully talk through the changes and trends that happen within an art form – whether it be the reintroduction of the brushstroke with Manet, and the example of Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets as opposed to Bouguereau’s Mignon, or the connection of art across time and place.

This is a fantastic and fascinating book, illustrated throughout by Rose Blake, whose friendly and warm cartoons add fun and understanding to the text. Owners of the adult version will be jealous, I presume, at the updated content here, including a new chapter complete with new examples, but for children this is a fresh and excellent deconstruction of the subject (with a timeline and glossary), but more importantly, a winning conveyance of excitement and enthusiasm for the topic. You can buy it here.