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Spring 2017 Picture Book Round-up

Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory by Elys Dolan

The author of Weasels and Nuts in Space has come up trumps with her new book, which at first glance, looks simply like an Easter holiday novelty title. However, it’s much much more than that, and for me, one of the top books of the season.

The chickens in Mr Bunny’s chocolate factory are force fed chocolate, so that they can squeeze out chocolate eggs. But when holidays and breaks are cancelled to increase production, the worker chickens revolt, calling a strike. Mr Bunny thinks he can survive without them, but comes to realise in the end that having a happy workforce means a thriving business. (By the end, the workplace has turned into a start-up firm’s dream, complete with a table tennis area, salad bar and café.)

With a quality control unicorn, health and safety, conveyor belts, a call centre and an ‘image change’, this is a sumptuous indictment of greed in manufacture, and a wonderful lesson about workers’ rights and factories, and the art of persuasion and negotiation.

The plot is told through a combination of narrative, speech bubbles and illustration, at times combining to form a comic strip, and Dolan has imbued her book with subplot and much personality.

A brilliant book, with humour throughout, and a message that lasts long after you’ve consumed the final chocolate egg. Hunt it down here.

Edie by Sophy Henn

Another gem, in a completely different style. Henn’s style is distinctive (she illustrates PomPom books, and previously shone with Where Bear?) and it’s clear to see the similarity here, although this time our protagonist is a girl. The message behind Edie is both simple and complicated. In essence it’s about the dissonance between what a toddler thinks is helpful and how an adult wants toddlers to behave.

For grownups they may recognise their own impatience and frustration, and children will delight at Edie’s antics – knowing that they are usually deemed naughty. However, with a bit of philosophical distance, we can see that Edie is learning through play – and perhaps we impose too many restrictions on children’s freedom. Where’s the line between experimentation and good behaviour? A thought-provoking yet lovely little charmer in beautifully muted pastel shades. You can buy Edie here.

I Can Only Draw Worms by Will Mabbitt

An impeccably silly title, which teaches counting and numbers to the very youngest audience, whilst also showing children that simplicity is often best. Will Mabbitt may not be the best illustrator, but he can certainly use his imagination and make the reader laugh. With its neon colours – bright yellow background cover with a pink neon worm, and bold blank spaces, this is a startling book – in that it takes minimalism to a new degree.

If you want a book to make your little one laugh, then this is it. Just worms, a dreadful accident (I think you can imagine what) and some more worms. Tongue-in-cheek to the nth degree. Draw your worms here.

The Lost Kitten by Lee, illustrated by Komoko Sakai, translated by Cathy Hirano

In contrast, here is someone who can really draw. The illustrations in this book are old-fashioned, and impeccably lifelike. The Lost Kitten tells a simple story about the possibility of loss after finding something you love.

Hina and her mother find a scrawny kitten in their doorway. While they are busy, the mother showing how to take responsibility for a kitten and how to care for it, the kitten is lost. There is, ultimately, a happy ending.

The rough edge to the pencil and paint illustration gives the impression of furriness for the cat, and a slight mist to the humans, so that they feel storylike and whimsical. I was particularly taken by the view of the back of Hina in the wind, with the branches shaking, as she calls for her lost kitten. A desperation rendered from the back is quite something.

It’s these different perspectives that give the story pathos and magic – a distant view of a crowded pavement, a close up of the found kitten next to a boot, the startling shining of the cat’s blue eyes cradled in the arms of the girl (her own face looking down so that eyelashes are more prominent). Find your kitten here.

Other titles to admire include Tasso by William Papas, a re-publication of a 1966 book, but which seems ever more relevant with its fable about tradition versus change, machines taking the place of humans. Set in a Greek fishing village and illustrated with dazzling watercolours, Tasso’s music playing is no longer needed when the café buys a juke box. With deft touches of humour in the illustrations, this is a throwback to the era, and all the more wonderful for it. In the end, of course, authentic music making prevails. Pre-order Tasso here.

Another re-publication, this time a bindup of three favourite Winnie and Wilbur tales. Winnie and Wilbur: Gadgets Galore by Valerie Thomas, illustrated by Korky Paul also plays to the moment with its tales of Winnie ordering a computer, outwitting a robot and zooming to space. Trademark spiky and colourful illustrations, children never tire of witches and the magic that goes wrong. Get your copy here.

And lastly, but by no means least, a wonderful hybrid of fact and fiction in The Curious Case of the Missing Mammoth by Ellie Hattie, illustrated by Karl James Mountford. So many parents lament that their children stick to non-fiction – nothing wrong with this – but here is a book that might fit. Timothy needs to find the missing mammoth and return him to his rightful place within the museum – on the way, trekking through the various rooms, and lifting the flaps, Timothy and the reader learn an assortment of facts, including history, art, aviation, and dinosaurs.

A hodgepodge of goodies, in scintillating contrast and colour, so that the pages are busy without blaring, intriguing without intruding. An excellent introduction to the world of museums. Be inspired here.

Lyn Gardner: An Interview

 

Although my first thought when hearing the name Lyn Gardner is that of Lyn’s role as theatre critic of The Guardian, the children in my library (and home) all know of her as a writer of children’s books, who tells brilliantly dashing adventure/mystery stories linked to the theatre. Firstly, with the hugely popular Olivia series, and now with her Rose Campion Victorian era novels. So, after featuring Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone as my book of the week, I was delighted to be afforded the chance to ask Lyn some questions.

The Rose Campion series marries love for theatre with the Victorian era. Can you explain why you picked this historical period?

It was the golden age of music hall, a period that produced stars such as Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Dan Leno, Little Tich, people who at the height of their fame would be performing at a network of halls and theatres across the country. Every city, and even big town, had its music halls. London was stuffed with them. The stars were the celebrities of their day and the most successful among them were huge earners. At the height of her fame, Marie Lloyd could command almost £1,000 a week, which was a fortune.

The music hall was a way out of poverty for many. Vesta Tilly was just one who made her family’s fortune by performing as a child. In Rose Campion and the Stolen Secret, the first book in the series, when Campion’s is in desperate straits and failing to attract an audience, Thomas Campion employs Aurora, otherwise known as the Infant Phenomenon. Such child performers were hugely popular.

The story packs so much into one book: foundlings, thievery, Holloway prison, and of course magicians and the bullet trick. What research did you do in order to write the novel?

I’m not a historian, and this is a work of fiction not fact. I’ve taken some liberties, particularly around the justice system and the way it operated. But I did want to write a novel that genuinely gives a sense of the sights and smells of Victorian London, and what it would be like to live there. Also what it would be like to be a working child during that period.

Of course I did some research and read books about the period, but I reckon that it’s easy to get bogged down in research and forget that you are trying to write a really rollicking good mystery story. So I tend to write and then check afterwards. I was fascinated by the bullet trick as a child, and when I was writing Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone I was determined to incorporate it into the action.

A main theme running through the Curse of the Doomstone is what’s seen and unseen – trickery of magicians and thieves, and being observant. Is this something you’ve picked up from years of watching theatre productions as The Guardian’s theatre critic?

I don’t think I am a particularly observant person. What happens in theatre a lot of the time is exactly what happens in a magic show: the audience is directed to look at one thing that is happening so they don’t see something else that is also taking place.

It’s all part of the suspension of disbelief that makes us fall through theatre’s rabbit hole into a new world, even though we know that it is only actors on a stage playing a role. Of course if you go to the theatre as much as I do, you start noticing the way a show works, and its mechanics, but even when you do know, I’m interested in the way you still succumb to the magic.

The theme also allows for lots of exploration of identity and the way people present themselves to the world: how they appear and how they really are, those everyday deceptions that we all practise to some degree.

In Curse of the Doomstone these become magnified as people pretend to be something they are not or—like Rose—are trying to find out who they are. Or in the case of Aurora, trying to adjust to the fact that she is not the person she thought that she was, and if she is going to be happy she needs to learn how to straddle two very different worlds.

The book highlights the class divide that separates theatre goers into different theatres/areas of London. Do you think a class divide still exists in theatre?

Theatre certainly has a problem with diversity. It is easier to become a theatre-maker today if you come from a background where there was enough money for theatre trips, and if you have parents who help you get a good education and can support you in the early stages of your career. So yes, I do think that class is an issue in theatre not just in terms of theatre-goers, but also around who makes theatre.

One of the things that spurred me to set the story in a music hall was that while the late Victorian era was one of rigid class divides, the music hall was a place where rich and poor rubbed shoulders together. That was true for the performers as well as the audience, which lends itself to fluid social situations and some very vivid characters.

I was interested in writing a novel set in a music hall in the late Victorian period because I wanted to write a book that was full of the joy of performance, but which doesn’t shirk the realities of Victorian life. From the pea-soupers, to the fact that the streets were full of horse dung, that thousands of children lived on the streets, that landlords took advantage and charged high rents for appalling housing, and life could be short and brutal for those at the bottom of the pile. In fact very much like life is today in the UK (one of the richest nations in the world), if you are one of the 3.7 million children living in poverty.

But I hope that it’s also a book full of warmth and laughter that reminds us how much the Victorian music hall has influenced popular entertainment today. The annual pantomime in your local theatre, and TV shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, are the direct descendants of the music hall. So while the period I’m writing about may seem very long ago, there may be more connections and parallels than immediately meet the eye.

And more generally, is there a play that you would say is essential viewing for children?

There is so much brilliant work out there from big musicals such as The Lion King or Matilda, to small scale shows made for the very young, including babies. Reading fires the imagination and so does theatre.

What is your favourite children’s book?

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It’s so psychologically accurate. Whenever I read it, it takes me straight back to the feelings of rage and impotence I had as a small child when I was thwarted by my parents or had behaved badly, and I imagined ways of exerting power. Such a brilliant, brilliant book.

There have been some brilliant stories adapted recently for the London stage – Lord of the Flies, Running Wild, Treasure Island. Is there any children’s book in particular that you would like to see adapted for the stage?

There are so many great books out there. But what I would really be interested in seeing is more original plays for children and young people, rather than page to stage adaptations.

What is your favourite play? Or best production you’ve ever seen?

That changes all the time.

With huge thanks to Lyn Gardner for taking the time to answer my questions. You can buy the latest Rose Campion novel here

Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone by Lyn Gardner

This is one of those inherently pleasing children’s books, which, through carefully planted attention to historical detail, whisks the reader into another world. The series is set in the Victorian music halls and theatres of London, and is rather like a mashup of Noel Streatfield and Murder Most UnLadylike, with a lick of Dickens.

Rose Campion (named by the author rather wonderfully, after a hardy plant with magenta flowers) is a foundling – left romantically on the steps of Campion’s music hall. Her world is one of taking theatre trips, performing an act on the music hall stage herself, and consorting with her two steadfast friends, Effie and Aurora.

This second book in the series opens with the appearance of a new act at Campion’s Music Hall, the magician Gandini. He performs magical tricks with appearing doves and disappearing watches, and most magnificently attempts the bullet trick (for any of those who recently watched David Blaine, you’ll know all about it). However, as with any trickery and sleight of hand, all is not as it seems.

When Lydia, actress and new doyenne of society, comes to watch Gandini, wearing the famous blue doomstone diamond, and it is stolen from her neck in the middle of Gandini’s act, Rose and her friends must race to work out who is the culprit before more blood is spilled.

Gardner’s prose is dense but vivid, detailed and transportative. From incidental details such as the delight of penny ices or the murkiness of the Thames, she also describes the opulence of the West End theatres and juxtaposes it with the dinginess of backstreet Victorian London.

In fact, this is one of the highlights of the text – the acute differences between the classes in Victorian society – those thrown into Holloway prison and the arguments for reform – and those in high class society attending the theatre, to be seen rather than to see the play.

Much is made of the similarities between the sleight of hand used by magicians and theatrical performers, and that used by thieves and pickpockets, as well as how important it is to pay attention rather than be distracted. Throughout, the reader follows the clever, but sometimes misguided, observations of the protagonist, Rose, and like her, the reader will try to decipher the twists and turns, red herrings and clues. The reader is very much in thrall to the mystery up until the end.

Despite being a foundling, irrepressible Rose finds a substitute family in the theatre and her friends around her – this is a female-dominated tale with feisty, quick-witted women and girls, who aren’t all always on the side of good.

Mainly because of Gandini, this book reminded me of The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll – another absolute winner for this age group. Fabulously, Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone belongs to a whole series – so there’ll be more to come. Bravo!

For confident readers aged 9 and over. You can buy a copy here.

The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

secret-of-nightingale-wood

A short story published in 1892 called The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman has long held a grip on my consciousness. It describes the treatment of a woman who is accused of suffering from ‘hysterical tendency’.

Lucy Strange, in her children’s book debut, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, has drawn together some huge issues and themes, including the treatment of ‘hysteria’ in women, the after-effects of the First World War (the book is set in 1919), the loss of sons, and the emotional desperation to hold onto a baby, as well as the equating of women and children as inferior and invisible beings compared with men.

Strange tells the story of the protagonist’s mother, who is undergoing treatment for her near ‘hysterical grief’ and mental disturbance following the death of her son, incorporating an over-zealous doctor who is intent on moving the mother into an asylum and experimenting on her mind with electric shock treatment.

All this may seem far too adult and overreaching for a children’s book, but actually the themes sit well against a magical realism backdrop of a mysterious wood, ghostly apparitions, an empty attic room, a hidden staircase, and a child intent on overhearing the adult conversations around her, using her bravery to steer through the madness of the adult world, and pull her family back from the brink.

Henry (short for Henrietta, but tellingly using a boy’s name), moves to Hope House in the countryside, with her baby sister Piglet, and her parents and nanny. But soon after their arrival, the father leaves for abroad, and other sinister adults interfere more and more with her family set up. Henry escapes into the woods, where she finds Moth, a witch-like woman, who through her wisdom and own experience, guides Henry and helps her to claim back her family from those with sinister intentions.

This book is, at times, as frightening as it might seem, with such intense themes as the loss of a child and the ensuing grief, and a mother blind to the other children in her lives, but it is overwhelmingly the powerlessness that Henry feels that really shakes up the reader. When other adults usurp parental roles, and yet a child knows that these new adults don’t have the children’s best interests at heart, the world can seem a very dark place.

But Henry’s bravery and passion stride a hopeful path throughout the text. In fact, despite all this, Lucy Strange has told a simple children’s historical novel, with all the major tropes one might expect. A sick parent, and one absent, leaving Henry time and space to roam free, eavesdropping on adult conversations she doesn’t understand, discovering a hidden staircase leading to an abandoned attic, a madwoman in the woods, and stimulating enough gumption to seek out her own happy ending.

The writing is lyrical, and yet incredibly light, so that the reader storms a path through the tangled woods and never trips. There’s a limping man who scuttles like a spider, a dark forest like a thundercloud fallen from the sky. The scenes are tangible and vivid. You can feel the wind, smell the food, and hear the voices. It’s a triumph of a book, partly with a classical feel, and partly with an entirely modern perspective on an era in which the female gender was held to be inferior.

Above all it’s about bravery, and finding the courage to change your own life for the better. The plot is pacey, breath-taking at times, and despite harrowing moments – I cried buckets – it’s eminently uplifting. There are lots of references to other classic children’s books, and even if the reader doesn’t pick up on them all, it lends the book the feeling of belonging in a children’s canon – a long succession of sparky, intelligent child protagonists who can change the world for the better. There’s a good reason it was a Waterstone’s Book of the Month. One of a few titles I was recommended by a child, rather than a publisher! Don’t miss out, buy one here.

Children’s Books Gifts Round Up Part One

Are you looking for a gifts for the holiday season? Here is my round up of non-Christmassy books, which I’d choose to have in my stocking. Click on the titles to buy the book. Next week, look out for my list of children’s books with a Christmas theme.

odd-dog-outwe-found-a-hatoi-dog

There have been so many good picture books this year, that I had a really hard time narrowing down which to feature. I didn’t want to repeat any I’ve featured so far, so here is my new selection for you. Starting with Odd Dog Out by Rob Biddulph. This author/illustrator can do no wrong – each of his books is equally delightful, although in a different way, and I think this latest is my favourite. A female dog who comes to recognise that one doesn’t have to follow the pack, but that it’s good to recognise and be pleased with your own individuality. Like Steve Antony, Biddulph stuffs his picture books with details so that young children can find rewards in the tiniest things, such as characters from previous books, and hidden motifs. Fun, imaginative, and downright adorable.

Another supremely talented illustrator is Jon Klassen. He concludes his hat trilogy with this spectacular book, We Found a Hat about a pair of tortoises in the same landscape as the previous books, but with a new dilemma. The hat isn’t missing, but there’s only one hat, and two tortoises. With the same devotion to visual literacy as his other books, the reader must pay as much attention to the pictures as to the text to glean the plot. A brilliant, humorous, empathetic book. I can’t get enough of these.

Another sequel, and another talent, Oi Dog by Kes and Claire Gray and illustrated by Jim Field continues the raucous fun of Oi Frog. One of the best picture books around for reading out loud (conversation between the animals) and extending play with rhymes, this is joyous fun. Not only are the rhymes brilliant and unpredictable at times, but the illustrations (see the bears eating porridge) rather wonderful. In Oi Frog the pumas sat on satsumas. Here the cheetahs sit on fajitas. I just love it. The end twist is punchy and hilarious.

super-stanthe-liszts

Matt Robertson is an illustrator who’s been creeping under the radar for a while, but should be more widely celebrated. His latest picture book Super Stan is one he’s written as well as illustrated, and it’s fabulous. More about siblings than it is about superpowers, this tracks our everyday jealousy of our siblings, but then ends up showing us the love that lies underneath the rivalry. Bright, colourful, funny, good pacing and a stand-out lesson, this is a perfect family read.

For a more discerning picture book reader, there is The Liszts by Kyo Maclear and Julia Sarda. A play on words, this isn’t about music but about the futility of making lists rather than taking action. Quirky in its artwork, offbeat in its characterisation, this is a book with texture, depth and detail, and a brilliant moral about spontaneity. The family make lists every day except Sundays, “which were listless.” Strange but rather wonderful.

The picks for newly independent and intermediate readers are no less fruitful.

grace-ellabilly-buttonjar-of-pickles

Witches aren’t just for Halloween, and this sterling start to a new series is one to treasure for fans of The Worst Witch, Bella Broomstick and suchlike. Grace-Ella Spells for Beginners by Sharon Marie Jones, illustrated by Adriana J Puglisi is set firmly in Wales (watch out for those tricky town names), but is a charming tale about a witch who doesn’t need a boarding school to learn her trade; she learns at home with the help of a black cat. Happiness shines out of this book – it is wonderful escapism with terrific characters and a truly delightful protagonist.

Old-fashioned tales abound in both Billy Button by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey and A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy. The former is a Little Gem book, dyslexia friendly, and is an endearing tale for first readers about the old telegram system. Part love story, part Postman-Pat-esque, this is exquisite storytelling from an experienced author. Endless nostalgia for the old-school post office, and love for a bicycle, it definitely hit the spot with this reader and her little testers. The stories from India in A Jar of Pickles are denser, but each tells a little riddle of justice and rewards with a simple solution. Dealing with jealousy, crooks and a miscreant ruler, these tales are great for discussion, great for broadening horizons, and firming up that moral compass. The tone has a whiff of humour and the pace is zingy.

piglet-called-trufflestally-and-squill

Two more for this newly independent readers group are A Piglet Called Truffle by Helen Peters, illustrated by Ellie Snowdon, a delightfully gentle rural story about a girl who rescues a runt piglet and raises her on her own farm. Tones of Charlotte’s Web with pig similarities, and a subtle ‘Some Christmas Tree’ allusion, but the magic in this is the steady drip of animal care and farm information that Peters sprinkles along the narrative tale. Very cute, with cosy illustrations and a wonderful family Christmas ending.

And Tally and Squill In a Sticky Situation by Abie Longstaff, illustrated by James Brown for book-obsessed little ones. With its magical library, a poor orphaned girl and her companion animal, this contains just the right mix of fairy tale, magic and mystery adventure. With nuggets of non-fiction tucked into the text, and riddles to solve throughout, this is a brilliant read, with more in the series to come. It reminded me of Elspeth Hart with its sense of adventure, and yet also Horrid Henry in some of the typified characterisation. A great start to a new series.

robyn-silvershapeshifterblack-powder

New series for older readers include Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes by Paula Harrison about ten year old Robyn who can see creepy monsters where no one else can. Action-packed, loads of humour, monsters to rival Rowling’s Magical Beasts, and a chaotic background family – this series is  set to be a big success. A newly repackaged series is the Shapeshifter Series by Ali Sparkes, an exciting series from a writer who knows how to spin a scintillating plot. Dax Jones discovers an ability to morph into a fox, and is then whisked away by the government to be with a group of children with amazing supernatural powers (Children of Limitless Ability, COLA). There’s plenty of emotional depth to each character, brilliantly realistic portrayals of the animal instincts and behaviours yet mixed with typical teen reactions – ‘what’s for lunch?’ etc, so that the whole fantastical arrangement comes to life. There’s fast-paced action, great dialogue, and good tension. A cracking read – and a whole series already to devour on Boxing Day.

For a stand-alone piece of historical fiction, grab a copy of Black Powder by Ally Sherrick. England, 1605, and twelve-year old Tom must save his father from being hanged, and yet with Catholics despised and someone playing with gunpowder, things could end up being far more explosive than he could imagine. Bravery, quick-thinking, and massive attention to historical detail make this a sharp, thrilling read.

a-world-of-informationny-is-for-new-yorkfashion-mash-up

And lastly three brilliant non-fiction gifts that didn’t quite make it to my doorstep early enough for National Non-Fiction November. A World of Information by James Brown and Richard Platt is an oversize book with a magically eclectic mix of material, each topic given a double page spread, and each explained in just the right level of detail. One child wanted it for the phases of the moon, another for the organs of the body. A third for the intricately captioned diagram of a bicycle. All the information you could ever need to survive (ropes) and answer questions on University Challenge (periodic table and layout of an orchestra). Beautifully presented too. Knowledge at its most appealing.

NY is for New York by Paul Thurlby will be even more coveted. This A-Z stylised picture book feels luxurious, and is the perfect book to leave out on your coffee table so that your guests know you have style. Each page shows a graphic of a city highlight, and gives a sentence of information – a tidbit that you could hurl at a stranger, such as that G for Grand Central Station has 67 train tracks. If you’ve ever dreamed of taking the kids travelling, this is a great place to start.

Lastly, a mash-up. The V&A museum have teamed with Penguin books to create the V&A Fashion Mash-Up book with styling tips and illustrations by Daisy de Villeneuve. Inspirational quotes from Alexander McQueen, Oscar Wilde, and others intersperse the cunningly presented pages. With photographs from the museum collections, and cut out models and fashions, the idea is to mix and match the illustrations and models with clothes from the V&A, creating an activity where the reader sees the fashion history but can make their own unique ensembles. With gold foil stickers, accessories, and shoes shoes shoes!, and backdrops in which to place your models, this was all the Christmas fun I could want in one book. I have purchased for more than one lucky recipient. Next week, Christmas books about Christmas!

Vincent’s Starry Night and other Stories: A Children’s History of Art by Michael Bird, illustrated by Kate Evans

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Large books can be daunting for some children, and this one, at a hefty 336 pages, is certainly a doorstopper. Even the cover looks fairly adult, with its Van Gogh styled image, reflecting both the artist himself and the starry night he is painting. But every page in this volume has earned its place, and every page is worth reading, whether it is in chronological order, or simply sampled at will.

Like those huge narrative histories – A Little History of the World by Ernst Gombrich or Our Island Story by H E Marshall, this will no doubt become a history of art classic read for children.

At a time when exam boards are ditching A Level History of Art, the book is even more important for those who believe that the study and knowledge of classics in the full sense of the word is a vital component of history and an essential lesson for modern times. Classical works of art inform our ideas of history, thread storytelling through the ages, and can give one a sense of cultural identity. They are an integral part of politics (think Elgin marbles at a very base level), and a stalwart part of our current culture, which is starkly visual.

So, to the book. This is essentially a narrative guide through art history from prehistoric to modern day, comprising 68 illustrated short stories that take either an individual artist, or a particular style of painting, or architecture, and explain not only the images and artistry, but the entire background of culture or religion, using a story structure of a person or peoples.

Each story incorporates what was going on in history at the time the artist was painting, as well as the thoughts and spaces created by that artist. For example, the chapter on Giotto explains, through Bird imagining Giotto’s thoughts to himself, how he reintroduced the technique of drawing as close to nature as possible – or in Bird’s attributed thoughts to Giotto:

‘I want to tell stories in paintings, so that people will think “That’s how it would have looked if I’d been there.”.’

This imagined speech, and chapter, not only explores Giotto’s approach to painting, but also his thought process and the effect his paintings had. It also explains fresco painting, and the link between his paintings and the ancient Greek and Roman artists, as well as immortality through fame. What’s brilliant though, is that the chapter is written in such easy, modern conversational prose that it makes Giotto and his era feel relevant and real.

Bird flits between first person, third person, past tense and present tense, depending on what’s happening in the chapter and what he’s trying to explain. This is great as he has picked well – and each chapter feels fresh and illuminates in a different way.

The chapter on Vermeer even mixes the tenses to explore a revelation in Vermeer’s career, and to explain how he uses it, what he had painted before, and what he will do in the future. It explores his discovery of a new magnifying glass and the way it makes things look. He sees the laundry sheet more clearly “whiteness like sunlight on a snowy mountain,” although Bird points out that this is his imagination. “Vermeer has never seen a real mountain. All around Delft the flat Dutch countryside stretches to the horizon.”

Vermeer goes from painting historical scenes to painting domestic subjects – the life around him, which gives modern readers a sense of the artist himself but also a glimpse of social history of that time. Bird also parallels the death of Rembrandt in this chapter, giving context of the art world, as well as exploring Vermeer’s use of colour, and makes the reader think about how to look at a painting.

Of course, this is a book about the visual arts, and so equally important to the text are the illustrations. There is a mix here of reproductions, such as Vermeer’s The Love Letter, and fresh illustrations and interpretations by Kate Evans, including artists at their easels, scenes from their windows and so on.

It’s going to be a difficult selection, narrowing down the whole of the history of art – even to 336 pages, and there is definitely a focus on Western art here, but there is also broad scope beyond the lives of famous artists. From cave paintings, ceramics, stained glass, the architects of Angkor Wat to city art maps, such as Florence and New York, to the African art and thoughts of El Anatsui and his use of adinkra.

There is also a wonderful glossary and list of artworks. A really good, thought-provoking and illuminating read. You can buy it here.

 

The Great Fire of London by Emma Adams and James Weston Lewis

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Today is the 350th anniversary of the start of the Great Fire of London. As well as some fabulous comic book stamps that have been released by the post office to commemorate the occasion, those children who are studying the event, or interested in history can now read about the fire in a wonderfully illuminating book published earlier this summer.

The Great Fire of London: 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of 1666 by Emma Adams and illustrated by James Weston Lewis is a beautiful retelling of the events that took place over the few days that London was lit up by a massive conflagration from a small smouldering coal from a baker’s oven.

The illustrations are striking, from the front cover onwards, as if the book itself has been set alight – the cover is rose-gold foiled – a gold orange glow that reflects the shop lighting, but it is the inside that really sets the reader alight.

From the endpapers – huge magnificent flames sweeping across the page, to the cleverly illustrated interior, where the orange and yellow colour lights up the dark night sky, this book truly brings the event to life. The illustrator has ingeniously limited his palette to blues for everything that isn’t consumed by fire – the boats, the buildings, the night sky, the river – all carefully shown in silhouette almost, so that the oranges, yellows and reds of the fire glare out from the page.

What’s more however, is that the fairly minimal text and huge illustrations give an enormous amount of information; telling the history of the fire as a story narrative, day by day – following in the tradition of Pepys, of course, but in simple language, explaining as the reader moves along why the houses were built so close together, why fire was used for warmth and light and so on.

The amount of detail in the illustrations is fabulous too – as the reader can see the people in their houses; the expression on their faces as they see what is taking hold. It fully imagines and explains the events. There are quotes from Pepys’ diary too, as well as a summation of what happened after the fire had been put out.

In William Grill style, Weston Lewis explores the changes to firefighting as a result of the fire, with a detailed drawing out of the number of firefighters, engines and fire stations that made up the first London Fire Brigade.

At the end not only does the author draw attention to the monument, designed as a memorial to the fire, but also explains key people of the time, key buildings of the time, and shows a delightful map of just how much of the city the fire of London engulfed.

This is the best representation and history of the Great Fire of London for children that I have seen. It makes the event dramatic and compelling, and contains all the relevant information. Buy a copy here.

Check out the Museum of London’s website about the Great Fire of London here.

Strange Star by Emma Carroll and Thicker than Water by Anne Cassidy

straange star

Following on from Monday’s guest post by Emma Carroll, I review two recent children’s novels that draw on classic literature. Firstly, Carroll’s own novel, Strange Star, inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A modern day Frankenstein draws together so many elements – from the inspiration of classic literature on today’s contemporary writers, to the teaching and love of science for young people, and in particular, girls (STEM reaching out its tendrils to young females) and also our modern obsession with the treatment of ‘other’, which is something that, believe it or not, has existed since the dawn of time: whether what is different is perceived as monstrous simply by the fact of it being ‘other’.

Strange Star begins in June 1816 with a group of friends gathered at a villa on the banks of Lake Geneva, telling each other ghost stories. It was where Frankenstein was reputed to have been imagined by Mary Shelley as she listened to stories from Byron and Percy Shelley. Carroll uses the scene to build tension and atmospheric chill, when a thudding at the front door reveals a strange, half dead child who, on awakening, proceeds to tell her tale.

She is Lizzie Appleby, a village girl from England who speaks of strange happenings, lightning strikes, the disappearance of animals, and the strange goings-on at Eden Court near her house, where a scientist is experimenting with lightning. By the end of the book, the connection is revealed, but there are spooks and thrills along the way, and some canny plot weaving.

As in Frankenstein, Carroll repeats the narrative within a narrative framework for her tale, but she goes further than simply using the inspiration of ghost stories and internal narratives. She has cleverly played on so many of the themes buried within the original text, from the use of fire, not only in a final denouement, but also in the lightning strikes, to themes of sight and light – light providing opportunity and yet also danger, and a lack of sight providing the most insight.

Carroll’s characters are vividly imagined, and although our first narrator is a boy, the bulk of the novel is Lizzie’s narrative, and she tells of the women who surround her. Throughout the story, the strength of women shines through, despite the historical context and the struggle they must surmount to prove themselves. From women and their relationship to motherhood, to women who are prepared to work hard and sacrifice themselves in the process, to the women of science who need to prove they are as good as their male counterparts. All in some way sympathetic characters – even those, who like Dr Frankenstein, push themselves too far in blind ambition and forget to think of what or who they may be hurting along the way.

The other point of view in Strange Star (in third person) is that of Felix, Lord Byron’s servant, who is also richly portrayed, and intensely simpatico, despite his own difficulties in the face of his ‘otherness’. Carroll draws together the historical implications of all these people with their differences – be it gender or race or disability – and shows how strength of spirit and tolerance can forge through.

The writing flows as with all Carroll’s novels; the descriptions are visceral and explore all the senses, but more importantly the plot is meaty and intense. This is storytelling at its very best, and with a deliciously haunting feel to it that readers will savour long into the night. Age 12+. You can buy it here.

thicker than water

Anne Cassidy attempts to get even closer to her original text, this time Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, by recrafting her take on the story in Thicker Than Water.

George wants to run a record shop, with just enough money to get by. But he has Lennie to look after too, and despite his size, something about Lennie is not quite right and he certainly doesn’t recognise his own strength. So it’s inevitable that before long Lennie will lead them both into trouble, and with the sort of people they’re working for – the trouble will be deep and dangerous.

Of course the problem with tackling such a meaty book by an author such as Steinbeck and condensing the word count so significantly is that there isn’t time for a slow wallowing immersion into the complexity of the characters and their relationships to each other.

Steinbeck spends a large portion of his novel focussing on male relationships; a brotherly connection of protection and idealised friendship. This is what makes his tragic ending so poignant and heartfelt. Although Anne Cassidy’s also feels emotional, I think it’s a stretch to achieve quite such a wrench in a condensed novel.

There’s a languorous world-weariness in the original text, a reality come to bare that the American dream is all but an impossibility. In Thicker Than Water, George also seems to realise that his dream is probably unattainable, but the philosophical life-learning lessons to reach this realisation – anguished over in Steinbeck, is harder to pull off when reducing the age of the protagonists to teens, as Cassidy does in hers.

Although some of the moral ambiguity is stripped out, Cassidy has interpreted Steinbeck’s original thoughts on the economic turmoil and societal breakdown in America beautifully by positioning her own English characters within a pub, where a host of figures explore the lack of opportunities afforded them, and instead wallow in crime and social exclusion. This is clever and effective.

Cassidy also draws out the central premise of loyalty, and maintains some of the original themes, such as the natural world, the premise of loneliness, and the dogs.

This is a good standalone novel, or a companion piece to Of Mice and Men. There’s a quality to the text that’s dramatic, filmic even, and I could happily watch a stage adaptation of Cassidy’s too. Age 12+. You can buy it here.

Whether the reader approaches the books in ignorance of the original sparks of inspiration, or reads them as complementary novels, these are both well written, memorable novels. For me, it bumped the originals back onto the To Be Read Pile. But I’m glad I read the classics while young, for “the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain.” Thanks, Mary Shelley.

 

 

With thanks to Simon Lister for his valuable insight on OMAM.

My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter

my names not friday
This book was published last year to loud acclaim, but this week it came out in paperback. It’s a densely packed book; it is historical fiction reminiscent of such great literature as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn, and yet a book that feels contemporary in writing style. My Name’s Not Friday transports the reader to a different time and place; is immersive and evocative, rich and powerful.

Thirteen-year-old Samuel is being educated by a priest in an orphanage for “coloured” boys. When he takes the blame for something he didn’t do, his punishment is to be sold into slavery on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, and he must fight to save his name, his identity, his faith in humanity and his faith in God.

The reader is immersed straight into Samuel’s story – striving with him to understand why he can’t see anything, but can only feel his way through the darkness, believing that he has been taken by God. As Samuel holds onto his faith despite the turmoil through which he lives, all the way through to the end scenes in the dawning of a new age at the end of the American civil war, the reader remains captivated by Samuel’s voice.

Walter writes as if he was divinely inspired himself – the story is narrated in the first person and Samuel is utterly convincing from the first line, utterly compelling, and one of the most memorable and likeable characters in contemporary children’s fiction. He displays infallible courage, yet continually questions himself in the eyes of God; is he acting morally? Is he fulfilling his duty? Samuel’s goal is to be reunited with his younger brother, Joshua, who has been left behind at the orphanage, but first Samuel must make his way as a slave.

The community of characters with whom he lives and works are sketched with uncompromising and loving detail by Walter, from the plantation owner and her son, Gerald, with whom Samuel has a testing relationship, to the other slaves whose trust, friendship and love he gains. It’s something to remember characters in such detail and hold them with such fond regard months after finishing the book – even peripheral characters.

Despite not setting out to write a historical novel – Walter explains in the acknowledgements that he wrote the first passages as a creative writing exercise about not having the sense of sight – the backdrop of the American civil war and the plantations at that time are sensually depicted, so that it’s hard to look up from the book and realise you are still in London, England. From the feel of the cotton plant to the sound of the Mississippi – it all feels real.

The novel flows like a river with its fluid action, and yet there are deeper meanings and messages borne out too. The parallels with Defoe’s Crusoe are a clear intent – Walter mentions the book in his text – Crusoe’s naming of the man Friday and his subsequent quest to teach him Christianity are a key influence, but there are many other facets that surface. Samuel’s dislike of his attributed slave name – Friday – recalls the struggle with identity and what a name means to a man, as so clearly described by Arthur Miller in The Crucible; and yet here the extra emphasis that goes along with identity is that of ownership. How much a man owns another one – how that relationship can be civil or friendly and the consequences of such loyalty and respect, or lack thereof, and the pride and self-worth of a person? The scene of Lizzie and her chickens will haunt many a reader. This all ties in to race and equality – and it’s interesting to look upon this with historical perspective – how each generation writes about slavery within the context of its own time too – Walter uses the ‘n’ word significantly less than Huck Finn for example.

Religion plays a large part in the story, as Samuel has enormous faith – in fact the book opens with him believing that he has been taken from the orphanage by God rather than a slave trader. His relationship with God influences and inspires him in different ways – sometimes he uses it as an excuse for his actions, and it is interesting to see how Walter lets this play out.

There is also an interesting view on gender – again seen historically, and yet so contemporary. The male plantation owner is away fighting in the war, so the master of the house is actually the mistress. Despite her cruelty towards her slaves at times, she is seen as a woman of strength, and also of extreme pride – most often mistreating her slaves to make a point to the men of the district. And Samuel, rather than seeking a mother figure to look after him, constantly seeks out male role models. The son of the plantation owner, Gerald, is equally fascinated with how he will appear to his father, and this dictates so many of his own decisions.

Lastly, and a trope that reappears in so much contemporary children’s literature is the seed authors sow in showing the benefits and freedoms that reading can give. Literacy, it appears, can be as freeing as unlocking a chain.

This is a thought-provoking, gripping story. Multi-layered and yet on the surface a simple story of a boy trying to get home to his brother. It was worth the hardback price – it’s a steal in paperback. Reader, I bought it twice. Age 12+. Buy your copy here.

Mystery Stories

We start solving mysteries from early on. Most toddlers play with some kind of shape sorting – working out that the square block fits through the square hole. Perhaps then moving onto jigsaw puzzles – at first the large ones with sticking up handles, and then finally the traditional puzzles, creating pictures of Disney heroines or maps of the world. All this goes towards child development in developing the gross and fine motor skills of course, but solving puzzles enables a child to hone memory, use logic and refine observation skills, and to sort the red herrings from the real clues.

Then eventually, putting pen to paper, children may tackle a spot the difference, a wordsearch, a crossword, a su doku.

What’s satisfying about these tasks is that by solving the problem, a child is restoring order at the end – bringing closure to the problem, much in the same way that authors end children’s books – with uplifting closure.

And the same applies to reading a detective or mystery story. Enid Blyton used to be the doyenne of such spiels – her Secret Seven and Famous Five solving mystery after mystery. Scooby Doo followed on TV, and we became a nation of child detective experts. Mysteries force the reader or viewer to hold information in their head, whilst following the story and working out critically where the story is headed – analysing characters for motive and honesty.

In contemporary children’s literature the depth and breadth of mystery stories is quite astounding; more and more of these land on my desk every day.

detective dog

Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
In picture books, the most recent is Julia Donaldson’s The Detective Dog. Not her strongest, but this time she’s paired with illustrator Sara Ogilvie, whose illustrations are bright, comic and refreshing. The Detective Dog’s mission is to see where all the books from the school have disappeared to. Despite some rather tenuous plotting, the book celebrates love of libraries (if only I knew of a real library that looked like the illustration in here – every booklover’s dream), but the story is sweet and the illustrations exquisite. There’s no doubt Donaldson is our queen of picture book rhyme:

“Thousands of books, from the floor to the ceiling.
The books gave the thief the most heavenly feeling.
He gazed in amazement. “Where am I?” he said,
And Peter replied, “In the library, Ted.”

You can buy it here.

dotty detective

Dotty Detective by Clara Vulliamy
For newly independent readers, Clara Vulliamy’s offering, Dotty Detective, fits the bill beautifully. Filled to the brim with illustrations, capital letters, italics, and written in a clearly paced diary format, this is the story of Dot, a little girl with more personality than doodles in the book. The text reads breathlessly – Dot talking to the diary – and soon she forms a detective agency with her school friend and faithful dog. There are some lovely ideas tucked in here, from the pink wafer code to homemade periscopes – lots of references to what’s important to this age group – sparkly red lucky shoes and yummy dinners, and enough dropped clues that the young reader can solve the mystery ahead of Dot. This is a perfect step up from picture books – the number of maps, illustrations, fake photographs, notes and even word searches mean that this is a story that lends itself as much to visual literacy as to textual. Seek the first in the series here.

nancy parker

Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection by Julia Lee
Another diary format, and more mysteries in this historical book from Julia Lee. It is the 1920s and Nancy Parker has been employed as a housemaid for her first job. She has a penchant for reading six-penny thrillers, and wants to be a detective, so she seeks our mystery where she can. And luckily for her, there does seem to be some strange activity from her new employer – she has lavish parties, a murky past and a cook with a secret. Add to that a spate of local burglaries, and Nancy’s detective skills are put to use.

There’s a lovely rounded cast here, from the boy next door – Quentin Ives who wishes he was a dashing undercover spy called John Horsefield, but is really rather a nincompoop, and Ella, the brave and daring daughter of a local archaeologist. The three children are thrown together in solving the mystery, and although reluctant at first, realise that they are stronger together.

This book is full of wry comic fun, and great characters. Each child is so well painted, so thoroughly flawed and yet likeable that the reader will never tire of reading of their adventures (albeit there is no massive mystery to solve in the end). Partly written as Nancy’s diary in stunning handwritingish typeface, and partly in third person prose from the different children’s points of view, this was a really enjoyable read with great historical detail. Highly recommend. For 9+ years. Buy it here.

alice jones

Alice Jones by Sarah Rubin
Far more contemporary, Alice Jones is presented as a bit of a whizz kid. She excels at maths, and has a reputation for solving mysteries before the story begins. When a famous scientist goes missing after reputedly inventing an invisibility suit, Alice has to work out how to find him, at the same time as protecting her friends.

Alice is a great character, not merely a Nancy Drew who only solves mysteries, but someone with a life outside, including school, friends and family. She is clever but displays dry humour, and develops well during the novel, realising that classroom troublemaker Kevin Jordan may work as a good ally in problem solving. She also has to deal with her home life – a family that needs some problem-solving too.

The story is set in Philadelphia and there are definite Americanisms throughout, but the hardest task was solving the mystery – readers will need to be steered thoroughly by Alice – there is none of the blatant clue-dropping as in the titles above, where the reader learns more than the protagonist. However, it’s great to see a heroine deciphering clues with her intelligence rather than random flashes of intuition, and it makes for a gripping read. Age 10+ years. Buy it here.

There are so many more mystery stories for this 9+ age group, that it’s hard to cover them all, but here are some of my favourites:

mmu

The Wells and Wong Mysteries, starting with Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens is one of my favourite series. Set in the 1930s, it mashes Agatha Christie mysteries with Enid Blyton boarding schools. In the first in the series, Daisy and Hazel set up a detective agency in their school to look for missing ties and suchlike, but then stumble across the body of the science mistress lying dead in the gym. Suddenly they have a real mystery to solve. A brilliant story, complete with boarding school rules and regulations, but also the twist of a murder to solve. Great gentle fun; if you haven’t discovered them yet, you’re in for a treat. Seek it here.

marsh road mysteries

The Marsh Road Mysteries, starting with Diamonds and Daggers by Elen Caldecott. This series, all set in the same street with the gang of children who live there is reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives simply because the setting is almost as much a part of the story as the mystery itself. Caldecott is a very skilful writer, and hops from head to head in the narrative, so that each child’s viewpoint is seen. The first book in the series tells the story of a missing diamond necklace – a famous actress comes to the local theatre, but when her necklace goes missing, the prime suspect is one of the local children’s dads. Piotr has to fight to find out who really did it to avoid being sent ‘home’ to Poland with his security guard Dad. Each character is well defined; and the readership will adore the familiar territory of friendships and loyalties as the series progresses. Compelling and really vibrant – a modern day Famous Five (but better!). Buy it here.

cover

Mystery and Mayhem anthology
This is one I have featured before here, when Helen Moss kindly guest-posted. This is a sumptuous book of mini-mysteries from many of the authors featured today, so the reader can have a sample of small mysteries (which are easy to solve by the reader) and find out which author’s style they like. My favourite, The Mystery of the Green Room by Clementine Beauvais.

Try also Helen Moss, The Adventure Island and Secrets of the Tombs series, Lauren St John, The Laura Marlin Mysteries, and Katherine Woodfine, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow.