history

Back to School September 2019

language of the universeSurprises abound in nonfiction, and my first subject of the day is Maths, but not as you know it. The Language of the Universe by Colin Stuart and Ximo Abadia is subtitled ‘a visual exploration of maths’, and I wish my maths had been this visual at school.

Bursting with colour, from the stunning peacock and gold foil on the cover, the book explores maths in four sections – the contents page colour-panelled for visual ease – maths in the natural world; physics, chemistry and engineering; space; and technology.

Chapters and topics include ‘Finding Fibonacci’ with its huge whirly flowers; to understanding prime numbers through cicadas; to ‘Getting to Grips with Geometry’ with the white-spotted pufferfish, and the book cleverly links everyday school maths to real world visuals, thus helping the brain to remember the concepts.

Levers, Pythagoras, floating, circuits, and more are covered in the Physics section, but things get really interesting in the final section on Technology, where cryptography and data are extrapolated so that the reader can draw a line from maths in the classroom to technology in today’s world. Maths is in everything and everywhere. This is for both the keen inquisitor, and the reluctant maths scholar – it definitely shows you maths in a whole new light, and colour! You can buy it here. For 8+

so you want to be a viking so you want to be a roman soldier?
I always loved History, and these handy guides will show the reader how to navigate their way into the past through a non-fiction narrative. So You Want to Be a Roman Soldier? By Philip Matyszak, And So You Want to Be a Viking? By John Haywood, are repackaged texts from prior books but now updated in a new format with wacky illustrations by cartoonist Takayo Akiyama. Of course any books like this are bound to be compared to Horrible Histories, and there is an element of that humour, but this is written as a guide rather than a history.

There are interactive quizzes, tips, destination suggestions, shopping lists for kits, and so forth, all zanily illustrated in two-tone colours. ‘Climbing the Ranks’ section in the Roman soldier book, and being the ‘Top Boss’ are particularly good pages. There is lots of modern slang mixed in with Roman jargon, and I felt more Caesar-like as the book progressed. Books include maps and glossaries. You can buy them here. For 7+ years.

why we became humans
Stepping back in time further, and reading up on Natural History, you might want to look at When We Became Humans by Michael Bright, illustrated by Hannah Bailey. This information-heavy book moves from apes through first tools, shelters, and migration to hunting, trading and cities, covering a variety of monumental firsts, including cave paintings, buildings, right through to the printing press and population boom – of huge topical discussion at the moment.

The illustrations are intelligently rendered, to sit nicely alongside the text, which doesn’t plod with data, but rather stimulates discovery and thought. There is great analysis in here, the text explaining how writing created history, among other wise words. With maps and charts, anatomy, geography and more, this is a fascinating exploration of human evolution for 8+ years. You can buy it here.

animals at night
Are you studying rainforests or habitats in Geography? Animals at Night by Katy Flint, illustrated by Cornelia Li is a follow-up to Glow-in-the-dark Voyage Through Space, but this time comes a bit closer to home. With spreads on Woodland, Rainforest, the City, Desert, and more, it thoroughly covers the different biomes at night. Colourful paragraphs caption the exquisite landscape illustrations, which themselves are created with digital technology using hand-painted textures. The porcupine’s prickles feel 3D, the rattlesnake stretches back into the desert behind it. A tear-out poster glows in the dark illuminating creatures of the deep sea. Awe-inspiring and aesthetically attractive, you’ll learn something too. You can buy it here. Age 6+.

why do we wear clothes?
Creative arts/textile management more your thing? This book sadly arrived after my blog on fashion books, but is a worthy addition to this ‘back to school’ list, particularly for those primary schools focusing on the ‘All Dressed Up’ topic from the International Primary Curriculum.

Why Do We Wear Clothes? By Helen Hancocks, in association with the V&A Museum is a treasure trove of colourful fashions with a bit of philosophy tacked on top. This isn’t a comprehensive tome on fashion, but rather a primary-school-age book of wacky facts, and an opportunity to glimpse different cultures and fashions.

Crinoline cages, whites at Wimbledon, the bicorne, icons of fashion, umbrellas and colours – it’s all within and summed up in a sentence or two. A good straightforward glossary and guide to fashion ‘people’ at the back rounds off a fascinating book. Some quirks abound – the text asks questions of the reader, and there’s a tiny print credits section, exploring items in the V&A that inspired the text.

Overall, this is a bright and vivacious book with a fun mishmash of information. For age 6+. You can buy it here.

Fly Me to the Moon

July 20th 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Along with a myriad of events to celebrate, including an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, podcasts and programmes, children’s publishers have gone to town (or rather the moon and back) with a plethora of books.

field trip to the moon

Field Trip to the Moon by John Hare and Jeanne Willis manages to achieve a little of everything in one small picture book, tackling gender discrimination, aligning creativity and science, showing exploration and integration, all using wit as the primary force.

On a class trip to the moon, one student is inadvertently separated from the rest of her group, but she doesn’t panic, she takes out her crayons and draws.

However, this rhyming tale isn’t narrated by her, but by the unseen aliens watching this party of space-suited school children. And it is the alien narrators who are shocked, and then delighted when she spies them and shares her crayons.

The wit is everywhere, in text and pictures, skillfully done as the reader doesn’t see any human facial expressions until the end (being underneath the space helmet) – the illustrations bear out mood and feelings in body language alone. The text is playful and clever, the aliens learning about this visiting species through observation, and the landscape is spectacularly evoked in cinematic style, the crayons and space bus providing the colour against the grey moon. Interestingly published in the States as a wordless picture book, here Jeanne Willis’s text gives more colour and texture to the book.

A lesson in grit and resilience, in learning new skills, and in not desecrating a special place.

astro girl

More girls on the moon in Astro Girl by Ken Wilson-Max, which tells the story of Astrid, a girl who wishes to be an astronaut, and has a passion for stars and space. This lovely early-years picture book explores Astrid’s passion within a domestic sphere as she explores the every day with her father, thinking about how what they are doing relates to outer space – eating meals, discussing gravity, science experiments and more. There’s a neat twist at the end – the mum comes home from her job as an astronaut. Black-outlined colourful illustrations set this book firmly within preschool territory, with a lovely timeline of women in space at the back.

the darkest dark

The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion, illustrated by the Fan Brothers shows a young boy playing at being an astronaut, complete with cardboard box and companion dog. The illustrations are reminiscent of Whatever Next by Jill Murphy, but this boy’s adventures stop when it gets dark and he’s scared, so wants his parents. The illustrations gradually make the reader realise that this book delves into history – the small boy lives in the 1960’s and he goes next door to watch the moon landings on television. He discovers that the dark is powerful and magical and transformative, and when he grows up, his dreams of being a spaceman come true. This longer picture book exquisitely juxtaposes the highly detailed landscape of Chris’s childhood years in the domestic sphere, before opening out into a faintly glowing lunar landscape of his adulthood. Accessible and aspirational.

counting on katherine

For more about people on the moon, an excellent child’s title is Counting on Katherine by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk, exploring how Katherine Johnson (profiled in the film Hidden Figures) put astronauts on the moon with her phenomenal maths skills. Another inspirational title, this is about working hard, nurturing passion and believing in yourself. Telling Katherine’s life story, the book highlights the racial prejudice she suffered, and also gender discrimination, yet explores how she battled both, putting the mathematics ahead of all else. The book also explains some of the maths Katherine used, and why it was so important in relation to the moon landings. An important and attractive STEM title.

trailblazers neil armstrong

A longer read, Stripes Publishers new Trailblazers series aims to make biographies accessible and engaging for younger readers, and succeeds. Trailblazers: Neil Armstrong by Alex Woolf, illustrated by Luisa Uribe, George Ermos and Nina Jones starts with a wide-ranging introduction to explain the build-up to the moonlandings and the space race, and then goes back to Armstrong’s childhood, highlighting his love for reading and then his part in the Korean War, before turning to his training with NASA. Although the text is slightly plodding, and it brushes over the prejudice experienced by those such as Katherine Johnson, for avid fans this will be a fascinating extension of their knowledge of Armstrong. Black and white illustrations throughout.

what is the moon

For extremely young readers, What is the Moon? Usborne Lift-the-flap Very First Questions and Answers by Katie Daynes, illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens should tick the boxes. Creative, informative and unbearably addictive, this hardy book addresses some quite tricky concepts in an intriguing way. The changing shapes of the moon, (and why it seems to change shape), how it moves and what makes it shine are all worthy questions and answered neatly and deftly. A considerable diverse cast makes this a stand out book for quick facts and fun reading.

how to be an astronaut

If you still really want to be an astronaut at eight years old though, How to Be An Astronaut and other space jobs by Dr Sheila Kanani and Sol Linero is phenomenally informative, colourful and child-friendly. I have a penchant for books that ask ‘why’, as well as what and how, and this book aims to gently explore why we want to research outer space and even visit it. Illustrating the history of space exploration with a timeline, showing the ISS with captions, and exploring not only astronaut training, but what it feels like to go into space. Paragraphs are spaced out among full page illustrations, the topics of ‘mission control’ and ‘space scientists’ are given detailed explanations, which verges into beginners’ physics, and yet the information is simply elucidated. A key space title. The paperback version includes a press-out-and-make rocket, stickers and fold-out space scenes.

balloon to the moon

Balloon to the Moon by G Arbuthnott and C Nielsen takes a different tack, tracking the era of space exploration back to ancient dreams of flight through the invention of kites in China and the hot air balloon in France. Before long, the book hits its stride with rockets, and plunges into supersonics, animals in space through to astronauts and the lunar landings, and continues beyond with the future of space exploration. With a mix of timelines, narrative, deconstructed rocket illustrations and even comics, this retro-feeling title, with its screen print illustration certainly answers the whys as well as the hows. The vintage feel with chapter heads as retro-style posters makes this an immersive as well as authoritative read.

usborne book of the moon

The Usborne Book of the Moon by Laura Cowan, illustrated by Diana Toledano shows how many different ways there are to present moon information to children. This title presents common questions – Is the moon made of cheese, does a man live on the moon – and gives answers, based first on what ancient peoples believed and the importance of the moon to different cultures, before documenting the thoughts of historical figures, such as Plutarch and Harriot, and the photographs of Daguerre, until finally landing on the space race and flights to the moon. Colourful and well-presented.

moonstruck

If you’re feeling largely inspired, then Moonstruck! Poems About Our Moon, edited by Roger Stevens, illustrated by Ed Boxall may help to fuel those dreams. From classic to contemporary, the poems address the disinterest of a young child forced to watch the moon landings to Rachel Rooney’s use of the different types of moon – Harvest, Snow, Milk – to Yeats’ exploration of the relationship between night-time cat and moon. Illustrations throughout add shape to the texture of the poems; playing with shape and light to mirror the effects of the moon.

Fashion Fun

With the Christian Dior and Mary Quant exhibitions at the V&A in London, and an increasing awareness of the dangers of disposable fashion, plus an appreciation of the ability of fashion to define an era, an identity, a personality, it feels timely to introduce the study of fashion and clothing to children. I have encouraged my children to learn to sew (something I never mastered), in the hope that they will mend and re-use, rather than succumb to the fashion pitfalls of wearing something only once. For those who prefer to indulge their fashion sense with reading, here are some stunning options – all beautifully produced as one would expect from a fashion book.

planet fashionPlanet Fashion: 100 Years of Fashion History by Natasha Slee and Cynthia Kittler is a large square book bursting with an exuberance and vitality that static pictures often can’t convey.

Here, the illustrations walk the clothes.

There are 25 scenes of fashion history from around the world, capturing the time and place of that moment, in chronological order throughout the book from 1890 to 2012.

The first scene shows a waltz in a ballroom in 1890 in the UK. The captions give a perfect flavour of the era, but also show how carefully the illustrations have been chosen and annotated – there is intense attention to detail within the book, including pointing out how the corset made a ‘pigeon breast’ shape, and how wide necklines accentuated the curve of the shoulder.

Just as every stitch counts in a dress, so every word has been carefully placed here. There is more too, from the hairstyles to the accessories, highlighting both men and women’s fashions.

The 1930s moves to Shanghai where the clothes tended to be figure-hugging with upright Mandarin collars. The scene highlights the street, a bustling metropolis featuring expats as well as residents, modes of transport, and even points to culture and politics in explaining about the movie stars in China, and the rise of the feminist movement.

Further in, readers can compare Bollywood with Hollywood, understand the effects of wartime on fashion, and begin to understand how fashion became a statement.

And at the back, there are some brilliant timelines, featuring moments of political, social and cultural significance as well as timelines dedicated to silhouettes, shoes and bags.

This book is a riot of colour, charm and clothes. A classy reference book for age 8+. You can buy it here.

wonderful world of clothesA younger, more straightforward look at clothes and their uses is The Wonderful World of Clothes by Emma Damon. Ordered completely differently, this is not a historical look at clothes, but a celebration of global fashion, showing cultural diversity, the future of technology in clothes, and the bits and bobs that may seem like trivia, but actually make an outfit.

Damon looks around the world to see what people wear in different climates and why. She then explores the clothes people wear to do different things – whether it’s uniform, sports clothes, equipment for a job, or for religious and celebratory purposes. This is fascinating, stemming from an underwater photographer to a Sikh wedding ceremony.

For me, the real fun came with Damon’s small vignettes about accessories, exploring different types of shoes (tiger slippers and brogues, for example) to jewellery and buttons (the satsuma button stood out, as did her clever instructions on how to wear a kimono and sari).

With bright personable illustrations, and an eclectic gathering of information, this is a unique and quirky book. Highly recommended for children aged 6+ years. You can buy it here.

midnight at moonstoneWhere better to go for clothes information than to Lara Flecker, who worked for 15 years as a Senior Textile Conservation Display Specialist at the aforementioned Victoria and Albert museum in London.

Midnight at Moonstone by Lara Flecker, illustrated by Trisha Krauss is an adventure novel for children aged eight and over, and takes the reader on a journey with Kit, who has gone to stay with her grandfather at Moonstone Manor, a costume museum threatened with closure.

Creative Kit decides she must save the museum, particularly after realising that the costumed mannequins come alive at night, and by persuading them to help under cover of darkness, and encouraging her grandfather that it is worth saving, Kit manages to pull off a feat of some imagination and skill.

With nods to the meaning of teamwork, family, and above all the wonder and usefulness of creativity, this is a marvellous novel.

Moreover, to fully celebrate the costumes, the book is illustrated throughout with modern scenes of Kit, but also the most exquisite capturing of the mannequins donning their costumes, from 18th century silks to Chinese dragon robes, 19th century bustle dresses and more.

Designed with French flaps, and patterned borders around the text, as much love has gone into the production of the book as the writing of it. This is a treasure to look at and read, so much so that I had to buy a finished copy after seeing just a few pages of the proof.

A wonderful paean to the inspiration of costume design and small museums everywhere. You can buy it here.

Anna at War by Helen Peters

Anna at war‘There aren’t too many of us left, and it would be a shame if our stories died with us.’

There is an abundance of adult’s and children’s books set during the Second World War. It’s a period of great interest to many people, and just about remains an era in living memory. However, as the last soldiers reach a very old age, and the last Holocaust survivors too, the valuable resource of living witnesses on whom we have so long relied for testament and truth, is whittling away. And it becomes even more important to cherish their memories, to hear survivors talk, to share their stories.

As someone who has worked on Holocaust books, I always approach those for children with trepidation. Will it warp the truth and tread dangerous ground, will it remain true to events, and will it represent what happened in a palatable way for children to comprehend? With true stories of shattering horror, this is always a difficult topic. But Helen Peters, with her extensive research, and able storytelling, has managed a book that both has a light touch and yet deals with a dark truth.

Apparently Peters came to write this  story about a Jewish girl on the Kindertransport by being inspired from a re-reading of Anne Frank, two survivors getting in touch with her husband, and also that she saw similarities in the plight of today’s refugees.

It’s always a puzzle why certain stories percolate in the mind of authors. Peters has no direct connection with any of the Kindertransport children, she isn’t Jewish herself, and after the controversy that still haunts (quite rightly) The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, a certain wariness might creep into novelists’ desire to tell the stories of others. In fact, Catherine Bruton, author of No Ballet Shoes in Syria, highlighted just this in a recent blogpost for Booktrust.

I have no fear of others telling the stories of the Kindertransport. Many survivors have now died of old age, and many are not able or willing to write down their stories in a way in which children can relate to them or understand them. So, instead of ‘appropriating’ the stories, I would suggest that Peters is giving voice to them for us – using her skill and aptitude for writing children’s books to bring one such story to life.

A story within a story, Anna at War begins in modern day Year 6, in which Daniel is learning about World War II in school, and decides to ask his granny about it, knowing that she came over from Germany before the war. Bringing the story to current children’s contemporary landscape is a clever pathway in.

The grandmother’s story, Anna’s, starts in Germany in November 1938 on Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass, in which the Nazis attacked Jewish people and properties in a night of violence. Fearing for her safety, Anna’s parents secure her a ticket on the Kindertransport, an organised rescue effort that took about 10,000 Jewish children to the UK and placed them in foster homes. Quite often, entire families the children left behind in Germany perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Peters doesn’t hold back with her description of Kristallnacht. Told from Anna’s point of view, the night is terrifying; a child’s fear for her teddy abandoned on the bed in front of a Nazi Stormtrooper, a mother’s unearthly scream, the silent disappearance of family members. And then the terrifying decision, taken by Anna’s parents, to send her away, not knowing what will happen to any of them. The descriptions of the parting, and Anna’s journey to the unknown is authentic, heart-rending and gripping – told from a child’s perspective there is fear, but, with parents removed, the children on the train step up to the responsibility of caring for each other – a kind of team spirit and camaraderie. And also, of course, the descriptions of food – so important to every child.

Once in England, Peters not only describes the newness of the English countryside to Anna (she is taken in by farmers), but also brilliantly takes on home life during the war with all its detail – mixing the humdrum of every day with war time changes. Describing the Home Front, Peters tackles not only food shortages, but the wariness of foreign spies, the feelings about German refugees, the fear of invasion when the Nazis get close – for even reading this with hindsight – the reader gets the impression of the Nazis invading country after country and coming nearer and nearer. Although this may seem horrifying, the text is just gentle enough that it remains a children’s adventure story – the everyday juxtaposed with the war, so that it is both removed and yet very close.

And here, Peters lets rip with Anna’s adventure story – working in conjunction with British intelligence. Within the darkest depths of her story – her sad plight, her desperation for her parents to join her, her bullying at school for being German – comes a hopefulness and light as Anna begins to work in secret for the British.

At all times, Anna is presented as a sympathetic and very real character, with layers of resilience and yet a fearsome compassion. The storytelling is deft – the reader always feels in the hands of a supremely confident writer. And the ending, when it comes, is both good and bad. There isn’t perfect happiness – there were few happy endings for Jewish children at the end of the war, but in this novel there is a hope for the future, an insight into the effect of an enormous global event on the individual, a humanising of the victims. A message of remembering with sadness, but letting the memory forge a better future.

Helen Peters has clearly done meticulous research to write this magnificent historical fiction, and every step feels real and immersive, even Anna’s grand adventure in England, which makes the novel zip along at some pace with its spy adventure. The parts that deal with the Jewish experience and the Kindertransport are sensitively and delicately handled, taken from real life experiences, and it is the voices of the actual Kindertransport who sound loudly throughout.

This is a highly readable, engrossing adventure story. For anyone approaching World War Two for children, this is a fresh modern take on a classic genre, and a book that should have longevity and win prizes.

You can buy it here. With thanks to Nosy Crow publishers for my advance proof copy. Recommended age 10+

The Garden of Lost Secrets by AM Howell

garden of lost secretsThere’s a noticeable rediscovering of nature in current children’s books. It’s the theme of the moment, maybe inspired by the fact that today’s children spend less time outside, and certainly less time being wild than they used to, or perhaps because they have less awareness of where their food comes from, yet at the same time a creeping alarm over climate change and how nature can wreak havoc if not nurtured.

The Garden of Lost Secrets from debut author AM Howell takes the reader back to 1916, when World War I is wreaking havoc on the human population, and urban children were sent away from the cities after Zeppelin airships flew overhead. Twelve-year-old Clara is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Suffolk, not as a result of air raids, but rather because her father is convalescing after being gassed in the war.

Clara’s aunt and uncle are housekeeper and head gardener of an estate, living in a small cottage on the edge of the grounds. But rather than welcoming her kindly, her aunt in particular is austere and formidable, showing none of the kindness of her previous visits. What’s more, there’s a strange boy in the grounds at night-time, and an unopened letter from the War Office that Clara has intercepted in London and brought all the way with her.

As each day passes, more and more mysteries are presented, from the stealing of fruit from the gardens, to the appearance of mandarins in peculiar places, and a locked room in the house in which Clara is staying. Clara tries her best to be good, but the idea of solving the mysteries is too great a temptation to ignore, and before long her adventures are getting more than just herself into trouble.

This is a nostalgic, wonderfully atmospheric novel, taking the reader into a world in which, despite the war, children roam free, unhindered by parents and school, and everyday delights are simply the exploration of a large manor house’s grounds and greenhouses. Inspired by the real diaries from a 100 years ago of a gardener at Ickworth House in Suffolk, AM Howell has created a detailed, authentic imaginary tale.

The characterisation is spot on – from her pinafore to her small disobediences, Clara feels wholly from 1916; her head is consumed with worry for her family, but her heart is set on making everyone happy, and the reader is plunged inside her head, privy to all her thoughts. The secondary characters are equally well-drawn, with the layers of society firmly in place, the staff and their duties, the soldiers exercising in the woods nearby, and the ever-present over-arching fear about the war that consumes everyone, from the distance noise of gunfire to the threat of Zeppelins.

An abundance of period detail, including the cultivation of exotic fruits (pineapples) in hothouses, the damp coal cellars, and the features of the town, all transport the reader firmly to 1916, and open up a world of England on the home front, seen from a child’s perspective. There’s both knowledge, and yet still a profound innocence.

There is definitely a classic feel to this book, bringing to mind such greats as Tom’s Midnight Garden, although The Garden of Lost Secrets has a modern bent with its themes of the natural world, child sleuthing, and bravery. It is far pacier than The Secret Garden and other Edwardian literature, layering questions and mysteries in each short chapter, and only revealing the depths of the secrets near the end. With fresh modern writing, a sublime use of simile where needed, and extolling the virtues of the power of true friendship, this is an excellent new children’s novel, which is both gripping and fun.

For children aged 8+ years. You can buy it here. With thanks to Usborne for the review copy.

Stand With Anne

anne frankOne of the most frequently asked questions of me is ‘what age should my child be to read The Diary of Anne Frank’? To which there is no correct answer because every child develops at their own rate, in terms of reading level, emotional intelligence, and contextual awareness. There is no age too early to introduce the idea of a girl called Anne who is set apart because she is different – this is something children may encounter as young as nursery age. (Early years schoolchildren do not tend to notice race or religion, but prejudices can take hold, and children may feel set apart or left out and viewed as different simply because they have a snotty nose or a different colour skin). However even adults can find it hard to understand the Holocaust.

As adult ‘gatekeepers’ it is worth bearing in mind that primary school children may find the actual diaries of Anne Frank hard going. They are intimate in the extreme, they tell the innermost thoughts of a teenager, and they don’t hold back – Anne had little to distract her within the confines of her hiding place – and so her written thoughts were her comfort. It’s worth bearing in mind that initially Anne wrote free form, but after a while she edited and amended the entries, hoping that it would be published.

Tomorrow, June 12th, 2019, Anne Frank would have been 90 years old had she survived. Her memory lives on though, and to celebrate her contribution to literature, education, social history and of course to make sure that the Holocaust is never forgotten, I want to share with you a book that you can give to a younger child in order for them to understand who Anne Frank was. Little Guides to Great Lives is a well-established series now, but this past April they published: Anne Frank by Isabel Thomas, illustrations by Paola Escobar.

The book explains with good simplicity and brevity the context of the world in which Anne lived before delving into the details, and it is this simplicity that helps to situate Anne within a framework that younger children can understand. For most of them, comprehending that Anne Frank died as one of six million Jews put to death by the Nazis is hard, because at primary school they are still figuring out place value – and how can you reconcile such a large figure when even 1000’s are hard to deal with, let alone the concept of death, and murder.

The text doesn’t shy away from the bare facts – it explains that the Nazis were trying to ‘wipe out all Jews living in Europe,’ among others, and so Anne had to go into hiding.

But to help the younger child try to understand Anne and to feel akin with her, there are some poignant and lovely touches in the book. We get to know her as a child first: she looks after her cat, eats ice cream, plans her next birthday – and in a speech bubble the illustration shows Anne riding her bike, and saying ‘Just like you, I was excited about the future.’ This is not about something far away, confined to history, in another world. This is relatable to the here and now. Once we understand Anne the person, we can begin to understand the immensity of what happened to her, the persecution around her, and how if it affected just one person in this way, maybe we can zoom out from the intimacy and try to understand the enormity of what happened to all those millions of people.

When Anne’s family is forced into hiding, the book highlights Anne’s frustration, showing a cutaway diagram of the cramped space, and the number of people sharing it, as well as pointing out Anne’s daily routine and all the times she had to be quiet so as not to be discovered. Looking at 13 year old girls around me, this is hard to imagine.

The book is fairly long at 64 pages, but is good at showing Anne’s extensive creativity, her intelligence, and the tension within the hiding place, as well as explaining all the context of Nazi rule outside the apartment. It also doesn’t hide the truth of what happened in the end, not just to Anne but to her family, and to all the people on that same train to Auschwitz – half of whom were immediately put to death on arrival.

This is one of the more insightful books for younger readers on the Holocaust. It deals with the reality of the topic with straightforward simple prose, and clever, interesting illustrations that help to illuminate the very difficult topic that this is. It even gives a simple background as to why the German people believed Nazi propaganda about the Jewish people, and explores the transition of prisons to concentration camps to places of execution.

With parental guidance, this is a good book to disseminate the background to Anne’s life, the reason for the diary, and most importantly the motivation as to why we all need to keep reading it and reminding ourselves of what Anne went through:

“Anne’s diary has helped generations of people to understand the impact of war on human beings. It reminds us that the things we have in common are far more important than what makes us different. Read Anne’s diary and let her inspire you to make the world a better place!”

Perhaps by remembering Anne, we can practise tolerance of those who have a different culture, race, or religion, and not use them as scapegoats.

With a timeline and glossary, this is both an excellent companion to the diary itself, and a good precursor. Illustrated throughout in two-tone. #NeverForget

You can buy a copy here.

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

good thievesFairy tales were often told as warnings or instructions on how to behave. Don’t play with the forbidden spinning wheel, don’t wander alone through the dangerous woods (even if you’re wearing a bright red cape), don’t break into someone else’s house and eat their porridge… Today’s tales are different. Children can do naughty, even bad things, if they are fighting evil or battling for the greater good. In essence, they can be good thieves – not good at thieving (although that too), but both good and a thief.

Set during the Prohibition in New York, during the 1920s, Vita (meaning life itself), has come over from England with her mother in order to set her grandfather’s affairs in order so that he can return home with them. It turns out, he has been cheated out of the ancestral home by an unscrupulous villain, Victor Sorrotore. Whereas her mother is all for signing paperwork and leaving swiftly, Vita is determined to win the house back for her grandfather, and recruits a pickpocket, and two apprentice circus performers to help her.

Set in a time well before house alarms and mobile phones, when picking locks is an asset for any thief, and children are left to their own devices, Rundell cleverly weaves period detail into her heist novel. Bootleggers and speakeasies, beautiful brownstone buildings and the intricacies of Carnegie Hall, as well as the specific grid system of New York, all provide a compelling and different backdrop for her children’s novel. And gender and race attitudes of the time are dropped into the story with deft awareness.

But it is the characters who win over the reader. They are bold and brave and keen to make their mark upon the world, always active, strong and memorable, but above all passionate about something, whether it be finding an emerald long since hidden in the ancestral house, or pursuing their vision of their future circus act, or simply surviving the mean streets of 1920s New York. They are fierce in their love for those they care about, and inspire a fierce loyalty from the reader.

Vita is slowed in movement by an episode of polio when younger, (a limp), and this hampers her throughout, although Rundell is keen to show the other children’s compassion, yet not pity for her. Vita is also a determined child with distinct attributes, which Rundell brings to life with little touches – Vita has ‘six kinds of smile, and five of them were real’, and she owns a supremely active way of thinking about things – Vita wears ‘a skirt you can kick in’.

Vita’s accomplices are well-drawn too, most particularly the circus apprentices, and this is where the story picks up zest and flair. Flying through the air, being an escape artist, understanding animals or throwing knives are all prized skills in both the ring and in life itself, and Rundell imbues her descriptions with colour and artistry, bringing the acts and performers to life.

As always, Rundell’s writing is swift and breathless, propelling the reader through the text like a glider through air, swooping and diving in and out of the plot, with short paragraphs and snippy dialogue. She uses simile and metaphor with the precision of a knife thrower. She cuts through excess, landing each word with specificity and wisdom. It is this apparent confident knowledge of the world, of higher truths, such as that ‘sometimes it was sensible not to be sensible,’ which gives her text its gravitas in the middle of scintillating storytelling.

With themes of loyalty and friendship, righting wrongs and clever thinking, this is a smart, pacey heist novel, with an inherent sense of wit throughout. Reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives in its wise way of children working together and outwitting evil adults, yet with the Rundell idiosyncrasies that mark her stories as being a cut above the rest. A must read. For 8+ years.

The Good Thieves publishes on Thursday 13th June, and you can pre-order it here. With special thanks to Jade at Bloomsbury Publishing for my review copy.

The Golden Butterfly by Sharon Gosling

the golden butterflyWhat is it about the Victorian era that makes reading about it quite so appealing? Is it because it was the age of massive advances in science and technology, changing the world of communication, transportation and work? Perhaps it was the changing ideas about the treatment of women, or the recognition and shifting ideas of class and social mobility, industrialisation, the expansion of empire….

Amazingly, and with some skill, Sharon Gosling covers a lot of this ground in her novel, The Golden Butterfly, set in 1897, although most of the themes are subtly lurking behind the scenes.

Luciana’s grandfather was the Magnificent Marko, a leading magician of his time, who performed the most astonishing, spectacular trick called ‘The Golden Butterfly’. Since he dramatically departed the stage, no one has come close to performing a trick quite as extraordinary. After his death, the leader of the Grand Society of Magicians comes searching Luciana’s house for secrets of the trick, setting Luciana on a treasure hunt of her own. Before long, she’s embroiled in magic herself, ready to protect her grandfather’s legacy, and set to show the world that women have just as much right to perform magic as men.

Luciana is a strong female character – as are many protagonists in today’s current crop of middle grade (8+ years) fiction, but she has more to prove in her era, striving against being cast as ‘other’ or a ‘witch’ in order to practise a trade that has been embraced by theatre audiences, but only when performed by a man.

But all people are not who they seem. In fact, it is this very idea – the art of appearances and illusions – that stalks the novel, magic being about deflection and distraction. Luciana comes to discover that it is the person behind the façade that counts.

Where better than to set her cast of characters then, than in a theatre, with the fluidity of appearance and reality, front of stage and backstage. Throughout her novel, Gosling plays with the idea of the mask people show to the world, and what’s really underneath, as well as how distraction aids magic and can lead people in the wrong direction in real life too, and lastly, the power play involved with rivalry and ambition.

Luciana adventures with a trust sidekick, the loveable Charley, son of a housekeeper and thus of a different social class from Luciana. Warned off him by her grandmother, Luciana learns that it is not only the gender she is born into but the social class that enables or disables her. Gosling builds a wonderful friendship between the pair, despite their differences, showing that loyalty and shared history counts more than social status, but she also draws them into a world of polarisation – the sumptuous houses of the wealthy with their butlers and warm beds juxtaposed with the ragamuffin children lurking by the railway stations and the workers in public houses.

With a clever treasure trail set in motion from the beginning, Luciana moves through Victorian England encountering all these people, using different modes of transport, and learning to look behind the curtains.

She’s also an orphan – raised by grandparents, and part of her quest revolves around finding out who her parents might have been. This is visually evocative in that she has a recurring fear of fire, stemming from something in her childhood. Linking this to the secret use of lighting magnesium during a magic act to create a distraction (a bright white light like the original photographers used in their ‘flash’), and the science of the era is brought to life.

With her confident prose, Gosling is adept at describing the magic tricks, not only the strange contraption puzzles that Luciana’s grandfather leaves behind to solve (reminiscent of modern rubik’s cubes), but also in her description of the golden butterfly act itself and its behind the scenes mechanism. Her word precision, her specificity, is inherent on every page, so that the Victorian theatre world seems very real to today’s audience, each word as carefully placed as the cards in a magic trick.

Although the plot was guessable (by me at least), it does not spoil enjoyment of the novel. Like seeing a magic trick, it is the enigma of how it is done. Gosling imbues her world with colour and vibrancy, fully embracing the appearance and reality of her plot and using the built-in drama of anticipation and excitement of a theatre’s magic show to give her book its dramatic arc. The fun is in seeing how Gosling is going to reveal the truth – how the final trick is going to be played.

The cover design is divine, the chapters are short and sharp, the villains shady, the final reveal heart-warming, cheerful and looking to the future. A great novel, showing that although we’ve come a long way since the Victorian era, there’s still a way to go, and that as Houdini said, ‘my brain is the key that sets my mind free.’ Books, like magic, dazzle and make you think. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Stripes books for the review copy. Cover art by Pip Johnson.

The Secret Starling by Judith Eagle, illustrations by Kim Geyer

the secret starlingSetting is of great importance in most literature, and at first I read The Secret Starling with confusion, then with compulsion and ultimately joy.

The story begins with Clara, being raised with a strict routine under the watchful eyes of a series of governesses hired by her generally neglectful and uncaring uncle, in Braithwaite Manor, a place seemingly disintegrating before her eyes. Artefacts disappear, the grounds are unkempt, and food seems scarce – Cook making do with basic ingredients.

Braithwaite Manor seems extraordinarily reminiscent of Misslethwaite Manor from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which Eagle even refers to within the text, explaining how it is Clara’s favourite book, although there is no secret garden at Braithwaite. Indeed, the metaphor of Misslethwaite Manor is extended here too. There is no potential for growth at Braithwaite (indicated by the lack of secret garden), but both houses are gloomy, shut up, disused, representative of repression or stifled creativity, and the moors in both represent wild freedom.

However, Clara’s uncle grants her this freedom early on, depositing her in the nearby village, and abandoning her to her own devices. It was at this point that I realised the book wasn’t set in some Edwardian era, as The Secret Garden, but is in fact, set in the 1970s, clues being Clara’s shiny fifty pence piece gifted by Cook, the general modernity of the village, and the Queen on the throne.

Clara is joined by Peter, who feels far more up-to-date, a modern child raised in London who is street-savvy and wordly-wise. He is visiting from London, where he lives with his adoptive grandmother in a tower block. Together, Clara and Peter at first make the most of having a manor house to play in without adults, before realising that there is a mystery in the heart of their story – and they set off to London to discover why Clara’s uncle is selling the house, why he’s abandoned her, and what the whole story has to do with Clara’s mother and a ballet shoe.

Before long, this intertextualised novel turns into the most exciting chase to undercover a deeper mystery, involving searching a library for old newspapers, riding the underground, meeting Nureyev, the famous ballet dancer, and outwitting and escaping from the most dastardly villains – good old-fashioned types with no scruples and definitely people who care nothing for child welfare!

The conclusion is satisfyingly old-school too – identities uncovered, new relationships formed, and a definite nod to Noel Streatfield and the canon of children’s literature. However, as well as these nods to those that have gone before her, Judith Eagle brings a lovely modern sensibility to her fiction. Peter, in particular, is independent and resilient, although his knowledge and freedom of getting round London on his own does perhaps speak more to the 1970’s London child than today’s.

The objects and places that root this book in the 1970s will feel terribly old-fashioned to today’s young reader, although of course quite familiar to the older reader reviewer! What at first seemed like an Edwardian children’s book to me, then transpired to be from the 1970s, shows that perhaps society has changed exponentially from the 1970s to now, and that the 1970s feel closer to 1910 than they do to 2019.

In Eagle’s fictional world, nothing and nobody is as they seem to Clara, and she has to learn whom to trust, and delve into her own knowledge and past to discover who she really is. In the end though, no matter what era the children are living through, the same attributes hold inherent value: truth, love and loyalty.

This is a cracking pacey novel, written with assurance and with a distinct nod to classic children’s literature. Suggest for age 9+. You can buy it here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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