history

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.

 

Football Fever

Friday saw the start of the EURO2016 tournament. Cue great excitement in certain households, particularly those that are fed up with talking about the ‘other’ European issue. Although I hate to be gender divisive when talking about books, it does seem to follow that boys who are reluctant readers and prefer to play football can be enticed with a football book. Those of you who follow me weekly will be tired of my anecdote that my son learned to read from the Sky Sports News tickertape – but it’s true. I personally adore football (season ticket holder from the age of 13yrs until it was nabbed by my son), so as a girl into football and children’s books – these newly published titles won me over.

callum new team

Scotland Stars FC: Calum’s New Team by Danny Scott, illustrated by Alice A Morentorn

For a slightly more integrationist blog, this is a book about football set in Scotland – but completely suitable and enjoyable for England fans too (or anyone). This first in the series tells the story of Calum, newly moved to the area and struggling for a place on the school football team. It doesn’t help that another child’s parent runs the team (somewhat unfairly), and that Calum doesn’t have astroturf boots – but these things are soon remedied and it becomes all about the skill.

Written by Danny Scott, who works for the Scottish Book Trust, and is a huge football fan – the love for the game and for literacy shines through the text. It’s easy to read, with a manageable vocabulary and a plot that moves along quickly and realistically.

Interspersed with zazzy illustrations from Alice A Morentorn and complete with trading cards inside, this is a young football fan’s dream story. It touched a nerve here – the things mentioned in the book absolutely happen – which makes it completely relatable. The characters are sympathetically drawn – even Calum’s busy parents. Of course there’s the usual happiness at the end – so many fictional football teams win trophies and beat rivals (in the end) – in real life if you’re a Spurs fan the wait can be a little longer than the time it takes to read a book….

For age 6+ years. A cracking addition to the team. Purchase your copy here. Three titles have been published, and there are more to follow in August.

over the line

Over the Line by Tom Palmer, illustrated by Ollie Cuthbertson

Another brilliant story from Tom Palmer that integrates love for football with historical fiction. Over the Line tells a fictional story about the professional footballers who fought in the First World War. With astute attention to detail and historical research, the story maintains an integrity throughout as it pushes to tell the story of the brave men who fought in the war, but at the same time exploits the passion and drama of the beautiful game.

Jack makes his debut as a professional footballer, but unfortunately for him the year is 1914, and there is huge pressure on the fit young men to sign up for the war effort. Jack bravely does so and shows the same courage and team spirit on the fields in France as on the football pitch. All the time, dreaming of when he can return home to London and play football.

The youth of the boys fighting, the horrors of the front line and the confrontation with death and killing are all embedded within Tom Palmer’s text, but with pathos and tenderness. Jack is a warm and loveable protagonist, and although the reader knows the odds must be stacked against him, the tension is dissipated by the belief in his ability to survive and go on to triumph.

What was particularly compelling was the inner thoughts of Jack, pervading each scene, and giving the reader a good insight into the sights and sounds of war, as well as the feelings behind being picked for a team – even as a professional.

From the team at Barrington Stoke, so it is highly readable and not too long, but also ties in beautifully with Euro 2016 and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. See resources here. Age 8+ years. You can buy the book here.

booked

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Ever since the publication of Crossover, readers have been begging me for a similar title, but about football rather than US-focussed basketball. Kwame Alexander delivers again with this novel in free verse for the teen market, this time with the focus on football rather than basketball.

Twelve year old Nick is the star of the football team, but he struggles to keep his head in the game when things at home start to break down. Add to the mix a school bully and a potential girlfriend, and Nick begins to see that although football may be everything, sometimes it has to take the back foot.

Kwame Alexander’s word play is always fresh and exciting, and this novel doesn’t let the team down – it continues in brilliant free verse, using text messages, dialogue and even t-shirt slogans to move the plot along. There’s a wide-ranging vocabulary, all explained in footnotes, and a mixed relationship with words, as Nick’s Dad insists on him reading a dictionary to better himself, whereas Nick would rather live in the world of texting and football, until the girl he likes explains how wonderful books and words can be.

Alexander’s characters are all well-rounded, even from such sparse poetry – with background stories for them all, and a wonderfully quirky school librarian who plays an integral part in Nick’s story, and a brilliantly depicted best friend.

The emotion is raw, emphasised by the use of poetry, and the blank spaces between the words. Nick’s pain comes across strongly; the poem on page 59 is particularly poignant.

The homage to the poet Langston Hughes is noticeable here in the different strands of poetry; the ‘jazz poetry’ that portrays the physicality of sports in particular. Alexander also integrates the titles of each poem into the poetry itself and utilises the white space on the page, all great examples of how much can be said in the implication rather than the spoken word.

There’s not as much football in here as there was basketball in Crossover, and the love for the game doesn’t come across quite as strongly – the sporty poems don’t have quite the same bounce as in the previous book, but the backstory is so emotive and the characters so real that football fan readers will still appreciate the story, and reluctant readers will soak it up. Age 9+ years. You can buy a copy here.

Young football fans might also like to catch CBBC’s adaptation of the Jamie Johnson football books by Dan Freedman. Starting tomorrow, Monday 13 June, at 5pm.

Under Earth, Under Water by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski

under earth under water

As a children’s book reviewer, it’s difficult to balance non-fiction and fiction reviews. With a swift glance at my in-box, I think only about two per cent of the books I am sent are non-fiction titles, and many of those are requested, when actually non-fiction sales make up about 12 % of the market (excluding text books/study guides). At the moment there is reported growth in non-fiction across children’s publishing. For example, Penguin reported growth of 38% in their children’s non-fiction publishing in 2014.

It’s hard to work out what percentage of non-fiction sales are licensed titles, such as Minecraft and activity books, which also fall under non-fiction, and how many are actual fact books. However, luckily for me (and you) the non-fiction that does reach me tends to be of extremely high quality.

The latest is Under Earth, Under Water from the authors of Maps, and it is quirky, random, factual, and absurdly moreish.

It endeavours to portray segments of the Earth stretching down from the burrowing animals near the surface, through pipes, tunnels, caves, and mines, to the Earth’s core – and then, turning the book over – goes down again through the water’s surface – lakes down through the oceans, oil harvesting, human sea exploration and its history, and ending up just past the Mariana trench.

The Mizielinkskis have a distinct style of illustration and annotation (info bubbles, arrows and numbers) and have used it well here, depicting the narration with representatives of what they are trying to show rather than attempting illustrative likenesses. For example, the illustration of Sima Humboldt explains what a cool phenomenon it is, but motivates the reader to look up photographic evidence of it too.

In fact the entire book is inspirational non-fiction rather than pure factual telling. This may be one reason why the book doesn’t have a glossary – it’s a book for dipping into – finding out new discoveries, and then researching more if inspired.

The graphics work well in trying to explain scientific or geological happenings – especially sink holes, and buoyancy, both of which I stumbled across while ‘dipping’, because they aren’t chapter headings and I found them at random. Step by step illustrations explain both processes, and the accompanying text is simple and effective. For a non-scientist or growing child, the explanations are fascinating.

The authors/illustrators use of colours is fabulous too – the cover’s striking red and blue (one side earth, one side water), indicative of what’s inside. The coral reef is fairly vibrant, but colour is used most effectively in some of the diagrams – for example in explaining water systems below the earth, the authors use different tones for rain water, sewage, industrial waste, suspension and eventually clean water to explain how they all diverge and intersect.

under earth under water 2

Some spreads are general in topic, whilst others, seemingly randomly, pick out specific examples. For example tunnels is general, then the authors describe specific metro systems. Similarly, mines are described in general, then the Mponeng mine is shown (with map) to illustrate the deepest mine. However, not all specific examples have maps, not all terms are explained in graphics.

All in all the cleverness of the duality of the book, the random selection of facts and information, the compulsion to revisit and find out more beguiled me. This is great family reference for inspiring knowledge; love of learning for its own sake, and inspiring future generations. This is not the answer to a specific google search, it’s an oversize exquisitely packaged bundle of information.

For age 6+ years, and you can buy it here.

The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill

wolves of currumpaw

For all the massively regurgitated history that our children devour at school – Henry VIII and his six wives, the first and second world wars, the Romans, there are billions of little historical stories that deserve to be given the insanely wonderful treatment that William Grill affords his books. Grill’s first book was Shackleton’s Journey – not an unknown story in itself – but one that Grill illustrated with distinction and flair.

Grill’s latest book is an all-round immersion into the little known story of 1892 New Mexico and the British naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton who is employed to hunt down a roaming wolf pack led by legendary pack leader, King Lobo.

This is a sumptuous absorption into the Wild West, with a map at the beginning placing the reader, and a wonderfully depicted opening, ‘The Old West’, with a full page illustration of the vista, in tones of red – smudged trees stretching in zigzags to give the perspective of depth and distance, with a mountain range and a red sky background. In the foreground, a small, almost ant-like pack of wolves roam the landscape. And the reader is transported.

There’s a warmth that emanates from the page because of the earthy tones used, but also from the love that has gone into the storytelling.

The story branches off using Grill’s now distinctive style of telling the narrative with both huge sweeping images, and also sets of tiny illustrations, almost like film stills in crayon, at first with sparse text, and then with image after image after image.

Grill’s brilliance comes from the fact that even by looking at one of his postage stamp illustrations, the reader can tell the character of the man they are reading about – we can see how the European settlers treated the indigenous peoples and animals, and the conflicts they faced. This is especially crucial for children who can visually read ideas and sense emotions that they might not be able to put into words: colonialism, survival, warfare, etc.

Small details abound – the train chugging into the distance, weaponry, deals being made.

As the story grows, so does the text, but the illustrations still bear that same attention to detail and attitude – the pack of wolves is illustrated – each wolf different from the last. The people too. Browns and blues are introduced into the colour palate, especially as the story heads to Seton in New York and gives the man’s background.

By the time Seton arrives in Clayton, the reader understands the type of man he is, the landscape he is entering, and the equipment he uses – all spread out neatly and illustrated item by item on the page – reminiscent of course of Shackleton’s Journey. This is different though in that it is clear to a modern reader that Shackleton was a hero, but here the reader is torn between rooting for our protagonist, but also for the wolf. In fact, Grill’s excellence is in making the reader feel empathy for both the hunted and the hunter.

In the end, of course, the book isn’t about violence, but about love. Just looking at Grill’s full page illustration of a sunrise evokes a deep pull at the reader’s inner emotions. The book quotes Seton and explains the inspiration he wields over such ecologists and writers as Sir David Attenborough and Aldo Leopold:

“Ever since Lobo, my sincerest wish has been to impress upon people that each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children” – Ernest Thompson Seton.

He would certainly be proud of this retelling. Grill has clearly researched impeccably, and succeeds in retelling history for a young generation in both highly illustrative detail and highly edited text. Includes also a glossary and wonderful endpapers.

Reading a Grill book is like immersing yourself in an experience. From the beautifully textured cover to the crayon renderings within, which a reader can’t help but rub their fingers over, as if the feelings and sentiments inside could be drawn up into the bloodstream. This is how history comes alive.

With thanks to Flying Eye Books for my copy. To buy your own click here.

History Meets Sports

Two skilled sports’ writers this week who have brought together their favourite sports and combined them with history. This is not revolutionary – merely apt. All sports enthusiasts tend to have a good idea of their club’s or sport’s history – whether it’s when their club last won the league, statistics from last season, or world records. These two stories incorporate ghosts and heritage – because aren’t all sportsmen haunted in some way by the legends who came before them?

wings flyboy

Wings: Flyboy by Tom Palmer, illustrated by David Shephard
The author of Football Academy, among many other titles, Tom Palmer excels at bringing football and reading together. His latest series is called Wings, and cleverly incorporates RAF planes (he wrote the books whilst being the RAF Museum’s Writer in Residence) into his scintillating football stories.

Four children attend a football summer camp near an old airfield, and mysteriously get sucked into the past. Part time-travel, part war-story, part football story, this slim book combines all these elements in a fast-paced action packed adventure.

Jatinder is a great footballer, but a bit lax about taking risks on the field – he prefers to play it safe. But when he starts to read a book about World War I pilot Hardit Singh Malik, he gets sucked back in time and finds himself transported into a cockpit – flying Hardit’s fighter plane in enemy airspace.

Tom Palmer writes with breath-taking ease – pulling the reader right into the action so that the sights and dangers of the situation seem real. With great historical detail, yet modern language and thought, Jatinder is a believable character who learns from this time travelling adventure, and carries his new sense of possibility to the football pitch.

Hugely exciting, and a clever entwining of genres, Tom Palmer’s new series is one to watch. It’s also particularly suitable for struggling or dyslexic readers, and comes with a model aeroplane. Assume those wings and fly into reading here.

rugby flyer

Rugby Flyer by Gerard Siggins
There aren’t many books for children about rugby – and yet, outside of North America, rugby is the world’s second most popular game, behind football (soccer). The 2015 Rugby World cup attracted TV coverage in 207 territories.

And so many sports books fall into the fairy story trap of just delineating an underdog triumphing. Siggins, a former sports journalist, has approached this series with a difference – incorporating Irish heritage, the supernatural and, in this particular book in the series, sportsmanship and rivalry – incredibly good topics to deal with.

The series starts with Eoin at a new school, learning rugby as a new sport. By this title, Rugby Flyer, the fourth in the series, Eoin has been chosen for a special rugby summer camp and is looking to make the team heading for Twickenham, London.

Supernatural elements continue in this book, as Eoin tries to solve the mystery of a Russian ghost figure and his connections to Ireland and rugby.

But the lessons learned during the rugby scenes are particularly poignant – Siggins incorporates the tactics of the game, handling rivalry as Eoin and his friend play on opposing teams, following the progress of Eoin’s character as he learns when winning really counts, and when to be aware of sportsmanship and how you play, but all within an exciting and developing storyline, so the reader doesn’t notice the teaching. The scenes are vivid and fast moving, and yet also woven into the book are subplots and peripheral characters – all very real, and all adding to the general action.

Siggins adds a warmth to his characters, and manages to convey a special relationship between grandson and grandfather. It’s also particularly enjoyable to read the scenes of the teammates off pitch as well – their ability to get along, or not, and in particular, the scene where the squad go bowling adds to the dynamics of competitiveness, rivalry, friendship, loyalty and integral values.

An intriguing series, aged 9+ years. You can try it here.

 

Shakespeare 400

As you will know by now, 2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare died. It’s quite difficult to review Shakespeare books for children, as most adults come to the plays with at least a gist of the plot line, and also with a preconceived notion of who Shakespeare was and the influence he wields over our inherited culture, whereas children are approaching him afresh. As someone who studied Shakespeare at university, it’s hard to separate existing knowledge from the presentation of Shakespeare in children’s stories, but seeing as it is a big Shakespeare year, I thought I’d reach out to children’s publishers and see what they are producing for the commemoration. And this is what I found.

to wee or not

To Wee or Not to Wee! By Pamela Butchart and Thomas Flintham

Pamela Butchart is a favourite children’s comic author, and she has tackled Shakespeare with aplomb. After taking part in the BBC School Radio Shakespeare Retold project, she has tried her hand at retelling four of the best known Shakespeare plays in this little collection: Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet.

Each story starts by introducing the role call of characters, as one would at the start of a play, but then each story reverts to prose. The stories are told by a contemporary child, Izzy, who is something of an expert on the stories, and likes to show off how things that happen in her life can be related to Shakespeare plays.

For example, her friend Zach is totally indecisive, and she compares this to Hamlet – and proceeds to tell her friends the story. Likewise, a feud between her mother and her friend’s mother over invitations to a party is relatable to the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. Sort of.

It’s completely tongue in cheek, and made me snort out loud, not only in the tenuous connections between Izzy’s life and Shakespeare, but also in her retellings. For example Ophelia is fed up that Hamlet doesn’t want to marry her, not only because he’s mean to her, but also because her wedding dress is non-refundable.

Izzy explains how the Capulets and Montagues fell out over a hoover. Izzy thinks Macbeth should have de-stressed a little by doing a Sudoku instead of burning Macduff’s house down to the ground and killing all his family. Butchart brilliantly conveys the excitement, madcapness, blood, gore and love twists in her stories, but also adds a brilliantly modern childlike prose style to capture emotions.

Some fabulous illustrations accompany the text – as well as much of the text being in huge capitals or squiggles to convey when people are POISONED, or MURDERED or IN LOVE.

They are funny, thrilling and funny again. Never before has the retelling of Hamlet made me laugh so much. And of course there’s always Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has a man called Bottom in it. Perfect for children of all ages – even the grown up kind. Highly recommend. You can buy it here.

boy and globe

The Boy and the Globe by Tony Bradman, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones

With precision and acute attention to detail, master storyteller Tony Bradman illuminates the time of Shakespeare with a brilliant little story about Toby, a young orphan on the streets of London during the time of Shakespeare.

Sent by a Fagin type ringmaster called Moll Cut-Purse, Toby tries his criminal luck pickpocketing at the Globe. But he stumbles across a certain famous playwright, who needs Toby’s help in more ways than one. Before long, Toby is staking out rival players at the Rose theatre, helping Will with sticky plot points, and even acting in a play himself.

The story whizzes along in a jaunty and happy style. The young Toby is peppy and interesting and perks up the character of Shakespeare, who is portrayed as slightly jaded and in need of some youthful spark. Bradman has set his story towards the end of Shakespeare’s London playwriting career, so that his reputation already preceded him.

The story is fun in itself, but the huge amount of historical detail simply dropped into the story means that the reader comes away with a good picture of how life was in Shakespeare’s time. Added to this, are the production touches given to the book itself – from the endpapers (covered in Yorick skulls) to the fake splodges of ink on the pages, which lend themselves to the idea of the book being written by quill, and the contents – laid out like the beginning of Shakespeare plays, complete with the cast, the time and the place. Tom Morgan-Jones has inked his own unique illustrations, beautifully illuminating scenes and emotions.

The story manages to explain the idea behind The Tempest, the role of the players, the rival theatres, and Shakespeare himself, all in short chapters and encapsulated within a ‘ducking and diving’ action story.

The activities at the end of the book add further colour, with street scenes and Shakespearean insults. And it’s dyslexia-friendly too. Read this and you certainly won’t have “a February face, So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.” You can purchase it here.

wills words

Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk by Jane Sutcliffe and John Shelley

A phenomenal book, with wise words and witty illustrations, drawing attention to which words Shakespeare created and brought into common usage – so much of our language today. It cleverly describes, in a few well-chosen words, what it was like in Shakespeare’s time – from the streets of London to inside the Globe, and backstage. Each double page spread shows a hugely colourful illustration packed with people and historical detail – almost a Shakespeare Where’s Wally.

Jane Sutcliffe summarises what’s happening in the scene, using words and phrases that are now in general usage thanks to Shakespeare – either words he invented himself, or words that he simply brought into common usage. A box-off at the side explains the phrases, any changes in meaning, and which play they come from.

It’s an ingenious concept, superbly executed – I could have read pages more. The illustrations are worth poring over. The packed London scenes include the stocks, pickpockets, sedan chairs, and different classes of people in the hustle and bustle of an ordinary day. John Shelley shows us old-school bridges with houses and buildings stretching across the Thames, as well as the first printers – churning out leaflets to advertise Shakespeare’s new plays.

The scenes in the Globe portray different plays, as well as a cross-section of backstage, which is brilliantly done – a trapdoor, a costume room etc. The audience too is amazingly detailed – you can see whether the audience is shocked by the tragedy, roused by the history, and amused by the comedy. There’s even a fascinating explanation of the theatrical phrase ‘box office’.

The text is easy to read, and well-written – and hugely enjoyable, as is the postscript from Jane at the end, which winningly describes the relevance of Shakespeare. He made his audiences feel – and this book too makes the reader feel – it’s inspirational and makes you want to delve further into Shakespeare. Standing ovation all round (except of course, most of them were already standing at The Globe!) Get this one here.

romeo short sharp

Short Sharp Shakespeare Stories: Romeo and Juliet retold by Anna Claybourne, illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones

It’d be remiss of me not to include a series of Shakespeare books that retell each play singly, so that readers getting to grips with Shakespeare can pick and choose which play they want to learn about. These Short Sharp Shakespeare books really break down each play, and as above, they are illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones, who manages to inject each illustration with wit, and personality.

After introducing the gist of the story and the who’s who with a strangely complicated graphic, the story is told in prosaic chapters with contemporary language, although with the authentic elements left in, such as duels, swords, candles and silver platters. Every so often an illustration features a speech bubble with the original language, and this is extrapolated at the bottom of the page to explain difficult words and phrases.

The text reads with enough wit and pace and fun to grip the reader:

“…he suddenly saw the most enchanting, heart-stoppingly pretty girl he had ever laid eyes on. It was not Rosaline. Rosaline was forgotten at once.”

The pages at the back provide extra tidbits for project work, including explanations of the difference between prose, dialogue and stage directions – writing as a play as opposed to a novel, breaks down the play into acts, gives some context to Shakespeare and the stage, as well as introducing the main themes within the play. A really perfect guide for readers being introduced to the plays, either before studying the original, or before viewing on stage. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

shakespeare sticker

Usborne Shakespeare Sticker Book, illustrated by Paul Nicholls and written by Rob Lloyd Jones

This is a completely different way to approach Shakespeare of course, but leads with factual elements, overseen by an expert from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, so is reliable information. The first few pages set the scene by describing the idea of ‘players’ to perform plays, and go on to discuss life in London at the time, and the Globe playhouse – bringing history to life with intricate details. Each spread has a small amount of text and a large backdrop and then it’s up to the reader to drop in the stickers where they like.

This is where the fun begins. The stickers are light-hearted and hilarious – from the overly dramatic expressions of the players to the spectator who is clearly bored and asleep. There is a lovely selection of rats to place in the scenes of London life, and some brilliant sword-fighting stickers for the scenes at The Globe. The last few spreads are dedicated to a few select plays, including The Tempest, Midsummer, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Illustrator Paul Nicholls has gone to town on the witches for Macbeth, the fish in The Tempest, and fairy wings for Midsummer. Hilarious and captivating. I can’t wait to start sticking. Especially the numerous angry Romans with blood-dripping daggers in Julius Caesar. Try it here.

It’s Shakespeare Saturday this weekend, 23 April. See here for participating bookshops, and grab a Shakespeare Saturday tote bag as part of Books Are My Bag campaign.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

Hell and High Water

Opening with a filmic scene of main character Caleb and his father staging a Punch and Judy show, this scintillating excellently-written historical novel never lets up momentum. Caleb’s father is shortly thereafter accused of theft and transported to the Colonies. But Caleb knows his father is not guilty, and so he sets off on a journey to both find his only other living family – an estranged aunt, and to prove his father’s innocence.

When a body washes up on the beach near where his aunt lives, Caleb is swept into a world of smuggling and intrigue, mystery and lies, which leads him and his new-found family into terrifying danger.

Landman captures the eighteenth century brilliantly – from the clothes and transport, to the marketplace and food, not to mention the hardships and hierarchies that penetrated society.

In fact, for all that the plot is fast-paced and exciting, Landman also deals deftly with perceptions of race, gender and wealth, and their accompanying inequalities. Caleb has dark skin, and is treated like a leper in places, and mistaken for a slave boy. Meanwhile his aunt’s stepdaughter is given a lovely gender ‘twist’, as although a girl, she takes on all the boy’s roles – rowing the boat, hefting heavy items, even adopting the role of puppeteer, despite the negativity associated with female performers. Tanya plays beautifully with perceptions here – putting a historical setting to good use in exploring how our world has progressed (or in some cases not) in how we view race and gender.

The other inequality that Landman manipulates is wealth distribution – describing the hierarchy of society, and delving into questions of morality and generosity, or the lack thereof. Her descriptions are wry and satisfying:

“Both bonnet and gown seemed designed more to scream aloud their vast cost than to show her face or figure to their best advantage.”

Her key plot hinges on the different types of thievery – the starving petty thief’s need for sustenance versus the morally corrupt landowners who claim tax and insurance in illegal circumstances.

The historical references are rife and intriguing. Set specifically in 1752, Landman has fun playing with the Act of Parliament that lost the country 12 days so as to set the country in time with the rest of Europe. She also explains in the ‘author’s note’ at the end that her tale is inspired by true events of a villainous smuggling landowner and the sinking of his ship, the Nightingale in 1752.

The sea too is a huge inspiration for Landman – her descriptions of the landscape are atmospheric and dark, using tidal rivers to great effect from the sweep of the water, to the mud flats, and water penetrating the land. With many allusions to other literature, exploration of the role of parents and family, as well as themes of loyalty, bravery, and being morally upstanding – this is a work of beauty.

It is so well-written, the words stay even when the story is concluded:

“When Letty moved, she moved quietly, but sound behaves differently in the dark. Each creak of floorboard, each rustle of cloth is magnified. A breath becomes a shout, a footfall akin to the blast of a cannon.”

With descriptions of dead bodies, and an exhumation, moral corruption, and a growing love story, this is for the upper end of my age scale – recommended for 12+ years. You can buy it here.

 

With thanks to Walker Books for sending me a requested review copy.

FCBG National Non-Fiction November: Celebrating Maps

The first time a child sees a map may well be in a children’s book. My first was 100 Aker Wood – who could resist the lure of the ‘Sandy Pit Where Roo Plays’, or feel for Eeyore immediately, stuck in his ‘Gloomy Place’. Before the story even begins, the narrative starts in the map – with setting, character, and potential story.

Non-fiction maps also tell stories. Not all non-fiction maps need to be drawn to scale, to accurately represent their size and place in the world – sometimes they can be drawn in such a way that they are just telling their own story – which is the case with my featured book today.

50 States

The 50 States by Gabrielle Balkan, illustrated by Sol Linero
One of our favourite games as youngsters was to try to name all fifty states of the USA. It’s not easy – some invariably get left out. No longer though, after reading this weighty, comprehensive, unique book on the states of America.

The endpapers open with a map of America, easily divided by colourful sections into the fifty states, each with page numbers – a pictorial contents page. The states are not to scale – it’s not an atlas, but a book that aims to divulge the character of each state.

50 states contents

Each page highlights a different state in similar ways – showing influential and inspiring people connected with the state, key facts, history, capitals, places of interest, size, bordering states and much more.

For example, Pennsylvania features famous people such as Andy Warhol and Taylor Swift – depicted in cute little illustrative framed portraits – it also features famous landmarks such as the State Capitol and the world’s oldest operating wooden roller coaster, and key moments from the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg to Hershey breaking ground in 1903 for his new chocolate factory. It’s an eclectic mix but tells a good story.

The introductory text on each page is simple, informative, and explains the importance of each state – Pennsylvania is the ‘keystone state’ and the book explains why. The language is not dry though – Penn is described as being “something of a spiritual home for history lovers” and the author explains how a visitor can travel back in time to experience some of the highlights. It’s friendly and fun, reflected too in the choice of typeface.

The page on Mississippi explains the meaning behind the name, as well as revealing that “the river is as much a hero of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as Huck and Jim”. It contrasts hugely with Idaho, in which forty per cent of the land is covered by forest. Describing Maryland as big in personality, this state, purported to be “America in miniature” was home to the first American passenger railroad.

And each state is shown by its shape on the double page spread – with its borders – the angles and twists and turns of geography laid bare.

There are key facts on each state boxed off and labelled so that a quick flick can give the reader the all-important quiz facts such as each state’s capital, state bird, motto, tree, time zone and much more.

There’s also a comprehensive index, mini illustrated framed portraits of each American president up to Obama, and a table of the state flags.

The tone is excellent – pitched perfectly at a curious mind, not too fact heavy, not too light either. It invites you into each state and gives you a flavour of what you can find. I’m set on visiting all 50 – each has so much to offer.

With this book the reader gains a comprehensive insight into America – the history from the native Americans to the battles fought, signing of the Constitution to civil rights, the discovery of oil to the current president. The geography, from the acres of farmland, forests, length of rivers, mountains and plains. Culture – from Bob Dylan to Frank Sinatra, from Tennessee Williams to EB White, even weather from Maine’s Ice Storm to Louisiana’s Hurricane Katrina, as well as a sense of place from Missouri’s Gateway Arch to New Jersey’s Atlantic City boardwalk, sports too, and quirky eccentricities.

A reader can compare and contrast the difference and similarities between states, the sheer amount of space and history. There is so much to pore over on each page – it’s lucky the book’s dimensions are so big. This is one to savour – for every geographic nerd, non-fiction aficionado, and for anyone who’s ever tried to rattle off all 50 states and not quite managed it.

For 8+ years. You can buy a copy here, or see the sidebar. With thanks to Wide Eyed Publishers for sending a review copy.