imagination

You Choose in Space

Whenever I sneak a look at the top ten most borrowed books in the school library, there’s one book that always features. You Choose by Pippa Goodhart, illustrated by Nick Sharratt is that dream of a book: children can read it over and over again, huddled around its pages with their friends, changing the narrative each time, reinventing the story in multiple ways, daydreaming their future. After a while, there is even a comforting familiarity about the illustrations. Just this week, some Year 3 pupils were going through the book making choices based on how much money their character had! So, it was with open arms that I embraced the new title, You Choose in Space. Whether it’s which alien you would befriend, what mode of transport you would use, or which freaky food you’d eat for your space snacks, the book has everything for a fun-filled interactive space adventure. Just as the original, the pages are packed with vibrant, colourful, happy images, giving full boost to any child’s imagination. It’s amazing to think that the original premise was rejected by publishers – for many children, You Choose has been their introduction to books. So, to turn the world on its head, I didn’t ask readers what they would choose in space, I asked Pippa and Nick. Here, are their choices for You Choose in Space:

 

 

Pippa:

Nick and I are actually pictured in the space craft coming in to land on Planet Pick-and-Mix.  Search carefully, and you’ll spot us!

If I had all those choices to choose from when we came down to land, I think I’d mostly go for blue things.  Why?  Because blue is my favourite colour.  I’d pick the blue bobbed hair to wear.

Nick: I’d choose the blue and orange hair and the Saturn top.

Pippa: A blue iced donut to eat.

Nick: It has to be the rainbow jelly for me.

Pippa: I’d very much like to meet the smiley blue alien with knobs on her head who rides a scooter and makes blue sandcastles from soft blue sand. I think she would make a fun friend.

Nick: I think the tall alien with the spike on the top of his head looks like he’d be nice and friendly.

Pippa: I’d also like to try and spy a duckafly from all the strange animal things as I fly by in one of those big baskets with wings.

Nick: My favourite is the horse bird.

Pippa: I’d very much like to ride on a pink-powered orange space hopper.  Why?  Because space hoppers were a new toy here on Earth when I was about ten, and I got one for my birthday, and I hopped and hopped on it again and again.  If it had that added pink zoom power I could hop it higher into the sky, and maybe even fly into space and explore all those other planets.

Nick: I had a space hopper too! But I’m going for the rollercopter.

With huge thanks to Pippa and Nick for taking time out of their busy writing and illustrating schedules to read their book with me. What would you choose? Go into space and make your own choices here.

 

Kevin by Rob Biddulph

Reading is so satisfying because it’s one of the closest ways we have of getting inside someone else’s brain – and I don’t mean just inside the characters’ thoughts, but also the author’s. It’s fascinating to see how someone else’s mind works, how they deal with a particular situation, or even simply the fluffy rainbows and unicorns that bounce about in their head.

One of the most striking ways some children have of utilising their imagination is in the creation of an imaginary friend. I’ve looked at this a little bit here to explore the whys of this phenomena – and trust me I think it’s something that can pervade adulthood too, especially for writers – I know my characters certainly live with me in one way or another.

Rob Biddulph’s latest picture book character explores this phenomena with a very clear motive. Sid Gibbons invents his imaginary friend as a scapegoat – someone to blame when Sid himself messes up. His mother, wisely, demands evidence of this guilty persona, and Sid draws Kevin (his imaginary friend) in quite acute detail, and his mother, wisely again, doesn’t ‘disbelieve’ in the friend – only in the premise that Kevin, not Sid, is to blame.

By the end of the story, empathy with Kevin shows Sid the error of his ways, (through a delightful little twist in the middle of the story), and before long Sid not only starts behaving, but enjoying his time with Kevin – and Biddulph sneakily lets the reader into the secret that Sid’s not the only child to have invented an imaginary friend.

Biddulph brings his distinctive rhyming style to this picture book, but has expanded upon it, so the sentences are longer, but still retain the rhythm and bounce of his previous books. The illustrations though, are exquisite. Freed from the animals of Penguin Blue, Biddulph not only portrays his humans with style and personality – from Sid’s trapper hat to his mother’s slippers – but also crafts the most appealing make-believe world, complete with a vast array of colourful flowers, spotty rainbows, and daft made-up beastie creatures. Shot through with a wide colour palate, they are nostalgic for adults used to 1970’s fashions, and vibrant for young children. Biddulph has a certain talent for images that appear simple, but are layered with detail. It’s fun to try to copy them – many children do (and for those with adults on twitter, you can follow his work on #drawwithRob).

What’s more the moral messages throughout – not blaming others, saying sorry, understanding others, cherishing friendship – aren’t spelled out in a pompous saccharine way, but carefully dripped through the story so that they are gently absorbed.

My only quibble is the portrayal of the Dad behind a newspaper and the mother with takeaway coffee and ugg boots, although in Biddulph’s defence perhaps it is just an accurate reflection of UK middle-class suburbia. Full marks though for the diversity of the children on the last pages – there’ll be much fun for children in spotting the different children, different beasties and familiar playground equipment. Watch out too for allusions to prior Biddulph picture books, and the final image, which suggests that sometimes Biddulph too escapes to his own imaginary world. You can buy your own copy here.

Story

What do I mean when I say I’m a writer? Aren’t we all writers? Whether it’s composing a ‘to do’ list, thumbing a text, emailing a sick note, we all do a bit of writing in an average day. My writing tends to be a little more creative; as well as reviewing or writing opinion, I also spend a vast amount of my time ‘making stuff up’.

So, in a day, I’m likely to do various types of writing. Writing to communicate direct information with people, writing for publications, and lastly for an artistic purpose – which also has a personal aspect – it’s a way of trying to make sense of the world.

I’m lucky in my artistic pursuit. I don’t (at the moment) have a time or topic constraint, and my first draft can literally be whatever splurge I like. Then I can revise it with a view to shaping and developing my thoughts, and adding knowledge. At the same time I’m going to hone my language, perfecting my ability to express myself.

My children, however, are not so lucky. The majority of their writing happens in school, and at the moment they are constrained by the topic they are being taught, the grammar system they have to learn or put into their work, and time. More often than not, the stimulus for writing is external rather than internal – their piece of writing is a response to another piece of writing or a film clip.

In essence, there is little freedom in their writing. There is little opportunity to empty their heads, to write about what interests them individually. And most of those children do not want to go home and write. Some do – and all are able – but most will not write for pleasure. They are far more likely to read for pleasure – writing is seen as work, associated with school – even more so than reading.

In an ideal world, there would be time in school for both reading for pleasure – quiet reading time to read a book of their choice – and time for writing – to write something of their choice.

Of course with ultimate freedom, comes some panic. Stick me in front of a blank screen and I will succumb to ‘writer’s block’. The same with children. So a walk in the park, a listen to the birds, might do the trick. If you’re stuck inside though, a package from ‘Story’ might help.

Story is a new company that sent me something called a ‘Walk-in Book’. It’s not as fleshed out as a Choose Your Own Adventure Story, and in actual fact doesn’t look anything like a book. It comes in a bag, and contains inspiration for characters, settings, and quests.

It’s like the stimulus mentioned above, except far less restrictive. It’s a walk in the park in a bag. In fact, my young testers and I found the map far more helpful than the plot pointers. Printed out on what looks like square maths paper, the map winds and weaves round leaves, buildings and crude drawings of animals and gives the most delightful nameplaces within which to set your story. We loved ‘Whispering Walk’, Red Rabbit Run’, and ‘Gushing Gully’, and found that picking out a route around the town was a good way to build a plot from scratch.

The story cards were a little pedestrian in their themes, but we did notice that what they had in common was that they asked questions, so we did that to form our story too. What if this happens, why would our character behave this way, who is doing what, and of course where does that happen? The cards are separated into ‘beginning’ cards for those who find it hard to start, and ‘quest’ cards for those who need a little help on the way. A doll and mask are provided for character beginnings.

I think the doll may be intended to look fairly unisex, but we attributed a girl’s name for it, and couldn’t quite see it as a boy.

The package did make us think quite hard about writing our own story though, and I can imagine that it would work well in group environments – discussion pointers for children to then go off and write their own story. I intend to use it in school, and think it will go down well, particularly for those children who just don’t know where to start.

For me though, I find the best stories hit me when I’m not looking for them. I’ve given my own children blank pieces of paper and told them to write from scratch – just to splurge from their own heads. And inside, they found treasure troves.

It must be all that reading they do!

Story can be found online at https://www.wearestory.co.uk/

 

 

The Right To Fail

So recently, I was shown a TED talk all about how we (society) are letting down our girls by pressing on them the idea that they need to be perfect. We are enabling them to be scared of failure. We are not pushing our girls to take risks, to be brave. And we should be.

Then, two very different children’s books arrived on my desk, and yet they have something in common. They want children to be bold, to be brave, to experiment, to risk failure.

If Found Please Return to Elise Gravel by Elise Gravel
This amusing sketchbook shows the reader how to be an illustrator. In fact, Elise prefaces her book like this:

“I give myself the right to fail, to mess up, to create ugly drawings. I’m kind to myself.”

Pages and pages of full colour doodles and inspiration follow, as well as small snippets of stories, to provoke the reader’s imagination. There are some step-by-step guides, such as how to draw a hedgehog, but with a bit of perseverance, and a recognition that failure is an option, most of the illustrations are fairly easy to copy without a broken down guide.

But as well as recognisable hedgehogs, Elise also stimulates the imagination with her made-up creatures, from ‘floofs’ to the perfume-footed ‘woompus’. It’s a great example of how to start a character description, with some illustrations leading into textual explanations such as the ‘woompus’ being a “close cousin to the squirrel…he communicates with a little sharp cry that sounds like an angry baby.”

Each illustration is drawn and coloured with vibrant felt markers – so any child can copy, or take it as a starting gun for their own design. The idea is to stop the reader or young artist from worrying about whether what they’ve drawn is good or bad – it’s all about practising and drawing anything.

The joy of this book is that it looks and works like a journal – an organic entity, which aims to explore, humour, and tease the reader into keeping their own doodle pad – to experiment without risk of judgement, ridicule or failure. There are no blank pages within though – you have to buy your own blank sketcher for that.

With an attached elastic bookmark to keep place, this is a feel-good addition to any young artist’s stationery and book collection. Buy it here.

Rosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers by Andrea Beaty, illustrations by David Roberts
No child I know has failed to love Andrea Beaty’s cool STEM picture books: Rosie Revere Engineer, Iggy Peck Architect and Ada Twist Scientist – which manage to spin a cunning rhyme, promote women and diversity within science subjects, and tell a good story at the same time. This spin-off title takes the reader even further by offering interaction.

The activity book begins with a story – the background to Rosie Revere and the influences in her life. Most important is her Great Great Aunt Rose, who explains that success comes after a series of failures:

“Your brilliant first flop was a raging success.”

“Failing is just part of learning and the only true failure can come if you quit.”

The book then lists some treasure that the reader might want to collect over time to use in their own inventions, including nuts and bolts, pliers and yarn, and all sorts of bits from recycling or thrift markets.

As well as a myriad of activities throughout the book, such as directions on how to make a catapult, and making your own marble run, the book also explains that part of being an engineer is improving existing designs and models – challenging the reader to improve a bicycle for example, and also looking at world problems that need solving, such as lack of water.

The activities are interspersed with knowledge: information about real life engineers and scientists, the different types of engineering, as well as definitions of different simple machines.

There is plenty of space for creativity: the book poses questions, showcases inspirational people, promotes brainstorming etc. Being an engineer also involves using your imagination. And there’s a section on teamwork too.

The book is a great way to develop a child’s problem-solving skills, but most importantly it empowers a child to fail on their way to success. This is a brilliant book. You can buy it here.

 

 

Draw and Discover with Yasmeen Ismail

Mark making has long been an important part of early years education. As well as developing those all-important motor skills, (which strengthen the muscles in the hands to help children to write for significant periods of time when they are older), making drawings, scribbles and illustrations helps a child to explore their imagination. It develops hand-eye coordination, and also helps a child’s cognitive thinking – learning about the world, planning and experimenting. Confidence in drawing can lead to confidence in mathematical thinking too.

How often do we, even as adults, picture things visually? And for caregivers, marks can make a child’s thinking visible before the child can write.

So the new range of Draw and Discover books by Yasmeen Ismail are particularly appealing. The books help children to identify word meanings and express themselves. Each book is led by a different character – Rabbit, Duck and Bear – as they explore different concepts: big, small, empty, full, push, pull, inside outside, and also of course Happy, Sad, Feeling Glad, which provides space and ideas for children to learn about, give name to, and draw out their emotions.

I’m delighted to have a downloadable pdf for you today, from Happy, Sad, Feeling Glad so that you can have a taster of this marvellous new activity book. Just click here: Yasmeen Ismail Happy Sad Feeling Glad

With thanks to Yasmeen Ismail, pictured below with her real live cat! (thanks to Olivia Hemingway for the photo too).

Yasmeen Ismail in her Studio on 28.2.17

Illustrative Wonders

hello-mr-dodo

Hello, Mr Dodo by Nicholas John Frith
Frith’s second picture book arrived in September, just as he picked up the Klaus Flugge Prize for most promising newcomer to children’s picture book illustration for Hector and Hummingbird. With the same technique and a similar style, Hello Mr Dodo! also comes across as being thoroughly nostalgic in look and tone, as well as startlingly fresh and new.

Hello, Mr Dodo! uses a colour palate that looks decidedly retro, with its bright orange front cover contrasting with the blue line boundary, but also the vividly crayon-esque inside, which depicts a house and garden in bright yellow and orange. Already warmed by the illustrations, the reader is tickled by the text, which smiles from the first sentence:

“Martha was cuckoo about birds.”

Cleverly considered, this little girl’s retro name matches the illustrations, and the joke is tucked in for charm. Martha is lovable. She talks to the birds every morning, but then the author uses a typical story construct to add in the excitement – one morning she spies something new with her binoculars. It is the biggest bird Martha has ever seen.

She finds out more by looking in her books – which Frith illustrates in black and white for the reader to see – slotting in much non-fiction about the Dodo. Nestling behind the enlarged pages of the reference book though, is Martha in her bedroom. And this is where Frith shines too – for his attention to detail is exemplary. Martha has modern ‘bird-shaped’ slippers, but a retro trio of flying ducks on her wall. She has bird skeletons and anatomy drawings, but also arrows poking from her toybox, a kite and skipping rope too.

She keeps the Dodo secret, until one day, her secret slips out. The worry on Martha’s face as she scoots to find her Dodo is lusciously drawn, but readers shouldn’t worry too much – the ending not only illustrates Martha’s cleverness, but also gives hope to the Dodo’s future.

There is so much to love about this book, from the small incidental details, such as the squirrel camouflaged on the tree, by which Frith gives a good nod at nature, to the overarching plot, in which the pacing is superb. It feels good to read aloud – the rhythm of the text works brilliantly, and the illustrations fit seamlessly. Already a firm favourite in our house, this is a fantastic picture book with a simple story illustrated to award-winning perfection.

Filled with fun for children, including doughnuts for a Dodo, clues about friendship, bird watching and keeping secrets, I have no doubt this is one to slip into your shopping basket. You’ll love it as much as they do. You can buy it here.

midnight-at-the-zoo
Midnight at the Zoo by Faye Hanson
Another second book, this time from acclaimed illustrator Faye Hanson. Mia and Max are excited – they are going on a school trip to the zoo. But when they arrive, all the animals are asleep or hiding. Max and Mia dawdle in the hope of seeing something that no one else does, and they get left behind, and spend the night in the zoo. Luckily for them, this is when the zoo really comes alive.

This is another exquisite picture book – so different in style from Mr Dodo – this one is utterly contemporary, jam packed with detail and minute pencil and pen marks, giving everything a different texture so that each page looks like an artwork in its own right.

The plot is well handled. Hanson builds the expectation, and also slight trepidation of the young children going on a school trip. The excitement on arrival, followed by slight disappointment, and then she addresses a teacher’s worst nightmare – leaving children behind. Of course, this is where the fun starts here because Max and Mia have an amazingly surreal time at the midnight zoo.

There is a wonderful contrast in terms of colour and light between the zoo in day time and the zoo at night time. In the day, the pages are greens, yellows, reds. At night, the pages positively pulse with spots and flares of almost fluorescent colour – a muted dark purple turquoise background behind the colour injections of a host of colourful butterflies, the incandescent red  of the flamingos, and the shining lights and confetti of the following pages – making a carnival atmosphere. It’s a little like the Disney Electric Light Parade – a feast of light.

Hanson also plays with her language; using a plethora of similes to describe the children’s emotions before the visit – they trundle like elephants, cling like monkeys before scampering excitedly. At the midnight zoo, she uses alliterations; “flouncing flamingos and fabulous fountains,” “loud, laughing lemurs with lanterns alight”.

But for this reader, the most exciting part of the visit to the zoo, in daytime or night, is the attention to detail – the mimicking of the small child’s eyes, which often see the incidentals. Hanson has furnished her book with a wealth of illustrations, which convey depth of characterisation and make Hanson stand out, just as she did with her first book, The Wonder.

Max and Mia’s bedroom is a paean to zoos, with an animal mobile, a striped light switch, toy animals, wallpaper, animal print bed sheets and more. The small vignettes at the zoo need careful inspection to spot where the animals are hiding (look out for the meerkats holding hands). The other school children too – shown on the bus, in the zoo, and at the end when they find Max and Mia, are fabulous – each one with a different personality – each one identifiable throughout. Even the endpapers, one showing a map of the zoo by day, the other by night.

And there’s even a happy ending. Check it out here.

Use Your Imagination

story-path

We read and read and read in library club. Sometimes the children read to themselves, and I always read a story to them. But what we like to do most is guess what’s coming next in the story – and to do this we have to use our imaginations. Sometimes our guesses are wildly inaccurate, and sometimes they’re correct. But one book for which there is no correct answer, is Storypath by Madalena Matoso and Kate Baker.

Reminiscent of You Choose, or Just Imagine by Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt, Storypath guides the reader to make their own choices about the story they want to read.

Set out in bold illustrations with a vibrant colour palate, the reader chooses their first character from princess, vampire cat, five-legged octopus, space monkey or leopard, and is launched onto the story path. On each page there are things to choose, such as extra characters, settings, gifts, and further questions about the choices made, such as the noise the transport might make and its speed. Wrapped into the story are jokes and humour, such as funny hats and walking elephant teapots, but in essence, it’s still up to the reader to decide how funny they want their story to be. Suffice to say, my library club were rolling on the floor once they had chosen their space robot and his magical banana pencil case.

The book can assist in teaching basic sequences and scaffolding of stories – choosing characters, taking them along a path, meeting another character, facing a problem and resolving it, eventually going back home. It’s up the reader to add in the nuances of how the character might develop from their experiences, but for the youngest reader, this is a fun playtime with storybook princesses, monsters, vampire cats and aliens. The joy, of course, is that each reading is completely different. Reading this aloud to a group of children means that each chooses different twists and turns, and there can be much discussion about the choices they’ve made.

A joy for teachers, and much fun for parents and children, this is a stunning new interactive storybook. You can buy it here.

child-of-books

Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston have come at the idea of imagination in a different way in their new collaboration, using the inspiration of real classic children’s stories to simulate a new story in which the characters ride on the waves of the canon behind them.

A Child of Books tells the simple story of a girl leading a boy on an adventure, up a mountain, through a sea-filled cave and a wood, to escape a monster via a castle, up into space and home again. But each landscape is created by a sea of words. The mountain is illustrated purely by the lines of text from Peter Pan and Wendy, the cave by a mass of words jumbled together from Treasure Island, the trees in the wood are ingeniously portrayed as books standing tall, the monster a mess of words from, yes, Frankenstein. The last pages burst into colour as the girl explains that the world is made from stories, and here there are actual colour illustrations of items, such as a pink cat, a pirate ship, Red Riding Hood, a genie’s lamp, a black horse, a heart, an apple, a kite, and so on.

This is a homage to children’s literature. An attempt to show that each person is constituted in part from the stories or books they consumed as a child.

The boy and girl featured in the story are illustrated as ‘every child’, although the girl, in blue, is slightly ethereal, or ghostlike. It’s certainly a ‘gift’ purchase – the cover is gold-foiled, the overall appearance, that of a piece of treasure rather than the kind of picture book you’d see a toddler gnawing on. In fact, for older readers the artists have posed many questions – does the reader agree that our minds are constituted from stories, what does that mean and how does that affect what we read? What differences are there between those who have read from the canon and those who haven’t? And why have the artists chosen those particular colour images? This is a layered book of depth in meaning and thought, and so appealing to older readers, as well as to adults who like their nostalgic literature. This is a book that makes a large claim on the imagination, an aspirational tome. Buy it here.

are-we-there

In our urban world, one of the best places to use your imagination as a child, is whilst sitting in the backseat of the car. Dan Santat capitalises on this in his latest book, Are We There Yet? With a general concern that children aren’t being allowed to get ‘bored’ enough in today’s overstimulated society, car journeys without ipads are a perfect opportunity to let the mind wander, and Santat uses this oft repeated refrain to frame his picture book.

On a long journey to Grandma’s house for her birthday, a little boy gets bored. Santat even spells this out in the text accompanying the pictures, but then suggests the brain is almost a separate entity, and takes it (quite literally) on a whirl, by turning the pages upside down, and going backwards. The landscape falls back into history too, past the Wild West, a pirate ship, jousting knights, and even Ancient Egypt – the parents transported too (their incredulous expressions moving with the times).

Before long the book turns into a comic strip, and the images mesh together, the pages righting themselves, as Santat plays with the idea of how we experience time, (fast or slow) and moving forward into the distant future.

By the end, the brain’s exhausted from its travels, but the boy sprightly runs into his grandmother’s arms.

There’s much fun to be had with the time play, but also with the illustrations of the people within, from the parents in the car to the family gathering at grandma- as well as the gift given to her for her birthday.

There are many nice touches, from the speech bubbles of the characters to the second person narrative that pulls the reader into the story. But for me, it was the colour palate and illustrations that dominate – the car driving into a jousting ring, lighting it up with headlights, and the contrast of modernity and history. The dreamlike colour palate, the comic strip elements. If you can’t wait, buy it now in hardback, otherwise it’s out in the UK in paperback next spring. Let your imagination soar here.

Please note that the review of Are We There Yet? was based on a proof copy of the book, in which the text and illustrations may not have been final.

 

There May Be a Castle by Piers Torday

there-may-be-a-castle

Piers Torday shot into the limelight, deservedly so, for his first novel, The Last Wild, which started a trilogy that followed a young boy called Kester in his quest to save the last surviving animals on earth. It was an astounding book (and trilogy); Kester is in my top ten all-time children’s book characters.

There May be a Castle also follows the quest of a young boy, but it is a completely different journey from that of Kester’s.

Mouse, a fairly small eleven year old, is travelling with his mother and two sisters to his grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve. But the snow is falling fast, and visibility is bad, and the car goes off the road and crashes.

When Mouse wakes up he’s in a strange world, with a talking horse who resembles his toy, and an accompanying sheep named Bar. He knows that he has to find his way to the castle, if there is a castle, but he’s not sure why, or what will happen if he finds it.

Torday’s book is a paean to our amazing mind and to ceaseless imagination. Although on the surface this is a simple adventure story, appealing to children with its array of colourful and fantastical characters, from duelling knights out of Mouse’s computer games, to a somewhat sarcastic talking horse, a typically irritating singing minstrel and a brilliantly drawn size-changing dinosaur (reminiscent of Toy Story’s life-imbued toys), there are strong underlying themes, and an emotional poignancy and tension that’s more than gripping.

Even before the crash, Mouse’s character is all about his mind. He’s a thinker, a worrier even. His size may be small, but his imagination is huge – Torday plays up this juxtaposition on purpose – Mouse’s imagination is bigger than he is – Mouse is much more than his physical body. Moreover, Torday is saying that our minds are more powerful than we realise.

Mouse’s stamina – he is on a quest to seek help really – is propelled by the power of his imagination. He harnesses strength by projecting his real journey onto an imaginative quest. This is mirrored by his older sister, Violet. In the middle of Mouse’s imaginative landscape, the reader is drawn back to Violet – in intervening chapters – as she describes waking and seeing her mother and sister in the car, and using her physical prowess to detach herself from the seatbelt to attempt to keep her family physically safe (using the car heater, food, warm clothes). However, she too, uses imaginative play as power – she pretends to be a fierce historical lady pirate – a hero she has learnt about in school – and this make-believe gives her fortitude.

From the beginning of the book, Torday drops clues as to what’s going to happen – the snow carpets the land, “just another block of white in a land of white”, so that once the car crashes, the reader knows that the rescue teams won’t find the car easily. It is up to the two children, Violet and Mouse, to get help. This frightening scenario (all too real in today’s automobile society) is brave territory for a children’s writer. It will resonate with those readers who are drilled into road-crossing, seatbelt-wearing safety, and is truly a tale for our time.

But Torday makes it contemporary in other ways too – Mouse complains that his grandparents don’t have Sky or broadband. He and his siblings are transfixed by the ‘glowing screen’. At one point it almost seems as if authorial intrusion is making a point about modern technology:

“A spellbinding black mirror that floated in your hands and which, with one swipe, revealed to you the whole world. Pictures from underneath the ocean, videos of the planets from outer space. Every film ever made, every song ever recorded, every game ever designed, every book ever written. He could almost see Mr Stanmore’s point. Who needed to make anything up, when it was all here in your hands, just waiting for you?”

The children are part of a generation who navigate the world with technology. Mouse and Violet refer to TV, the ipad, Instagram, the sat nav, apps, both for their entertainment and their way of life, but it is no surprise that Torday’s message is that for all of modern technology’s strengths, this story is about the power of nature – the snow that overturns the car – the power of the basic human elements of survival – seeking warmth, shelter, and food. These basics trump the technology that fails Mouse and Violet in the end – the Ipad smashes, the mobile phone has no signal, the car heater only lasts a short while.

This book hits on many levels. It speaks to children in that it is a simple adventure story and it speaks to children, who like Mouse, don’t enjoy reading. Mouse prefers animation – the swipe of an Ipad to the stasis of a book, but then his daydreaming (his creative inner voice) takes over, and it is more real than any app. It’s the land a reader goes to in their head.

But even more striking is that for much of the book our protagonist doesn’t seem to be in control, despite the adventures coming out of his imagination, formed from experiences in his game-playing world. Which makes the reader question whether our imaginations are controllable. To what extent do we control our own dreams, our own subconscious?

This is daring territory for a children’s book. What’s more daring is its ending (which I won’t spoil) and its meditation on life and death. What is left behind when a person dies, where does the imagination go then?

Children will appreciate the good writing here, the quest within the narrative, and the white-knuckle tension of surviving a car crash and being rescued. But as with all good books there is much more to explore, there is much more to think about – because imagination will take you everywhere.

“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” GK Chesterton

You can buy a copy of the book here. For age 10+ years.

 

Please note this review was written after reading a proof copy of There May be a Castle and quotes may not be wholly reflective of the finished book.

The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison

the other alice

So many children’s books, especially for this age group, talk about a love for reading. They might feature a character whose nose is permanently in a book, a library that bestows secrets, a saviour from bullying whose emotional empathy has been garnered from reading. Preaching to the converted perhaps – a bullet-proof way to draw in the reader, a person who, by the very fact that they are reading the book, will immediately feel resonance with the mention of bookishness within the story.

This book is different though. This is clever. Michelle Harrison doesn’t just weave a love for reading into her book. This novel is very much all about the writing. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you read the book carefully, embedded within it is a story-writing manual.

Midge has an older sister Alice. One who writes stories. But one day Alice goes missing, and when Midge runs into a lookalike who is adamant she isn’t Alice, and then he runs into a talking cat, Midge realises that the characters in Alice’s most recent story have come to life. Midge needs to figure out why Alice is missing, why the characters are alive, and how to end the story Alice has left unfinished, without them all succumbing to the wickedness of the intensely dark and disturbed villain of the piece.

In essence this is a good old-fashioned classic adventure story. Midge must find his missing sister, and together with his new accomplices Gypsy and Piper, must solve riddles to find Alice, as well as avoiding the villain who wishes to get to Alice first. The reader can also have a stab at solving the riddles, which are italicised in the text. Like Dorothy in Oz, who navigates through a landscape where ‘characters’ such as the Tin Man come to life, or Pinocchio, the toy who comes to life, this is a familiar landscape. And yet Harrison lifts it to greater heights – this is a story for older readers with darkness and depth.

And hidden (in plain sight) in the story are markers that point to a more complex novel. The story Alice has been writing is planted in pieces within the general narrative, so that the backstory of the characters is highlighted, and also the vague intent that Alice had for them, illuminating everything for the reader, but not necessarily for the characters. The real author, Michelle Harrison, also leads the reader on a dance through fairy stories and allusions to other tales, not only in calling her character Alice, with Midge seeing her through a looking glass, but in the chapter headings – Gingerbread House, Trail of Breadcrumbs, Once Upon a Time, and in the names of her characters – Piper plays hypnotising music on his flute just like The Pied Piper. Harrison also drops in allusions within the text itself:

“Terror stuck in my throat like a poisoned apple.”

There are numerous extra storytelling tropes thrown into the mix – from an old lady sorcerer who captures a voice (The Little Mermaid) to a fire, mistaken identities, an errant father, a mother who conveniently takes herself away for the duration, and of course, as I mentioned, loving placements of libraries and bookshops.

However, this being Michelle Harrison, there is also a spooky, shivery feel to the book. From the opening scene at the start, Alice’s book within a book, to the name of the town in which Midge lives, Fiddler’s Hollow, to curses, as well as the annual ritual of the Summoning at Fiddler’s Hollow (with its tradition of making a doll likeness of someone and then burning them in a huge pyre), which sounds like something out of Salem. Watchers from shadows, and the creepiest villain with charred hands, gave this reader a haunting feeling, and will certainly do so for youngsters too.

But as aforementioned, it’s the guide to storytelling that’s well and truly threaded throughout the story. Chapter headings such as Writers’ Block are just one example. Midge often relates things his older sister has told him to the fictional characters whom he befriends:

“Alice says stories never start at the beginning. They start when something is about to happen.”

Midge also thinks he knows more about the characters because he can read their history in Alice’s notes, but in actuality, characters only come alive in any book when they are realistic. Characters have to have aims, goals, wants because that’s what real people have. We are all protagonists of our own stories, weaving our own webs of lies and fabrications, being true only to ourselves, and sometimes not even that. Sometimes our stories run away from us, in the same way that authors report their characters can run away from their control.

“Alice often says her characters take over when she’s writing. Doing their own thing. Like the story is writing itself and the characters take control.” Midge explains. This points to the crux of the story within the story here – how much influence is Alice going to have over her characters, or whether the characters are going to steer the story forwards without her. It’s clever and complex, and pushes the reader to think.

What’s real in our own lives, which stories have we fabricated? We’re all characters of our own imagining. Alice projects herself onto her main character Gypsy – the best parts of herself, a braver self with the ability to wear the clothes she wants to wear, to befriend a boy with striking similarity to a boy Alice fancies in real life (well, within Michelle Harrison’s story!).

“Her characters had always been real to her, but they were properly real now, and here. They spoke, they ate, they slept. If I cut them, they’d bleed.”

In the epilogue, Harrison explains how everything is a story – just told from a different point of view. She calls the epilogue ‘Ever After’.

Stepping back from the complexity of the story, there are messages about loyalty – about being true to yourself, and searching for a cohesion in life – be it your family network, or just the end of a story.

This is a masterful telling, which twists and turns and is beautiful in its scope. There’s also a talking cat who likes tea. The only caveat is the shapelessness of the young protagonist – our narrator Midge. He felt ill-defined to me, vague almost, and at times I forgot his gender (it’s told in the first person) – but maybe that too was a masterful stroke. Perhaps our own young selves are shaped by events that are happening to us, perhaps he’s not meant to be fully formed, but a vessel through which the story is told.

Either way, I felt that Michelle Harrison wrote a book in which “there was no option to stop reading, or to put the story down.” A cracking adventure story with added depth.

 

Please note that this review was written after reading a proof copy of the book. The publisher recommends this as a 9+ years read. Personally I would raise that to 11+. You can buy it here.

Harold’s Hungry Eyes Blog Tour

In literary agent Jonny Geller’s TED talk about what makes a bestselling book, he talks about five key components, one of which is resonance.

Resonance is exactly what it says on the tin – what resonates for you about a story? Of course we’re all wired differently – what resonates for me in a novel won’t be the same as for you. As a reader I bring my own experiences, memories and feelings to a book as I read it.

For children just starting out in the world, what resonates for them? One of my children has had the same weekly piece of homework all year:

‘Look out the window’.

What does a child see when they look out the window? What resonates for them? It will be different for each one, even those looking at the same view. So, to help with this today, and as part of the Harold’s Hungry Eyes blog tour, I have three books that take the world around us, and make different shapes from it – what do you see in the world around you that resonates for you?

Harolds Hungry Eyes 2d

Harold’s Hungry Eyes by Kevin Waldron

This adorable picture book follows a food-obsessed boston terrier called Harold as he searches New York for his missing favourite chair. Harold’s eye view of the city is very much his own. Although he sees a typical mail box, a yellow school bus, a clock on a building and a chained bicycle, to his eyes they are different. The mail box is an oven with roast chicken inside, the school bus a chunk of cheese, the clock a pie and the bicycle wheels two pretzels.

Kevin Waldron cleverly manages to combine an everyman’s depiction of the city as bustling, busy and daunting, with Harold’s viewpoint of seeing food everywhere. Waldron does this physically – denoting the city with black line drawings and colour block, and then collage-style layering the image with photographs of food. It’s effective and different.

Harold isn’t a cute dog, but he has the reader’s sympathy from the outset with his large black eyes making eye contact with the reader from page one, and he grabs the child’s empathy by seeing the traffic lights as ice creams on the title page. His innermost dreams are exposed to the reader from early on – choc ice vehicles, raspberry fire hydrants, and my absolute favourite – toaster buildings.

But New York is also a character here – the setting itself depicted in shadows and lines with its distinctive look and multitude of busy busy people, which combines to project a sense of loss and loneliness common to small beings in big cities.

Harold’s insatiable hunger is the driving force behind the plot and the narrative though, and children will delight in the wafer staircase and croissant couch at the uplifting ending.

I have one copy of Harold’s Hungry Eyes to give away (UK only). See @minervamoan on twitter for the giveaway. And click here to buy.

the cloudspotter

Even if you don’t see food in buildings, you have almost certainly played shapeshifters with clouds. The Cloudspotter by Tom McLaughlin is another tale of loneliness, although again the protagonist isn’t aware of it. Our small boy is a dreamer, seeing stories and emotions hidden with the clouds. When a dog comes to join in the fun, the boy is irritated at the intrusion but before long comes to understand that a cloud shared is happier than a story told to oneself only.

Tom McLaughlin also uses a special type of layering to create his illustrations here – the illusion of the clouds making stories – and the paint really does look like clouds – with a layer of greyed line illustration on top to show how the boy, and then the dog interact within the cloud story.

The clouds morph into everything – from castles in the sky to musical instruments, and even bones. Reminiscent of Oliver Jeffers’ Lost and Found – in which the boy (also in a stripy jumper) doesn’t realise that the animal is after friendship, The Cloudspotter depicts our hero with glasses, and boldly enjoying his solitude, which as Tom Hanks delightfully pointed out last week in Desert Island Discs, isn’t the same as loneliness.

Fabulous for leading children into the world of seeing shapes in the clouds, and using imagination to turn the view out of the window into an adventure. You can buy it here.

footpath flowers

One more, which like Harold’s Hungry Eyes, places the city as more than a setting – perhaps even a character in its own right – is Footpath Flowers by Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith. A girl (in red) whilst all else is in black and white – yes an oft-used device – gathers flowers while her distracted father walks her through the city. Incidences of colour pop up, the fruit at the grocer’s, the yellow cabs, and of course the flowers that the girl collects.

As they wend through the city, she gives out flowers too, and each gift is transformative in some way – showing the power of giving, and of small gestures, and joy in natural things.

Whilst the father is distracted, he lets the child stop and gather flowers, and holds her hand. He is a supportive parent, as seen by his careful smile on the cover.

The book is wordless – the pictures alone – graphic novel style – tell the story. It’s a modern story – the father is pictured on his phone, the people at the bus stop are a diverse mix, there are runners in the park. But what is truly exemplary about this book is the juxtaposition of the facelessness of the city with the stamp of the individual.

Each page can be devoured for its subtle depiction of individuals lives within a city as a whole – what are the people doing sitting in the back of the open truck? What do the birds see from their perch above the road? From different angles, with different elements of colour, this is an intriguing picture book – and one that carries a simple yet effective message.

My favourite moments, those which resonated for me, – the hug between mother and child – and the mother’s stance looking at her children in the garden – this last image fascinating for the fact that the illustrator has purposefully cut the picture so that the reader can’t see the mother’s eyes, nor the child in red as she is walking out the picture. Read it and draw your own conclusions; it certainly presents different viewpoints outside the window. You can buy it here.

Please note this title is called Sidewalk Flowers in the United States.

 

If you like Harold’s Hungry Eyes by Kevin Waldron, then you can download the screen saver here and activity here.