London

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.

 

Hetty Feather at the Foundling Museum

There are days when all my kids and I want to do is find a patch of green in the sunlight somewhere in London and read our books. But, living in such a great city gives us many opportunities to explore. And there’s nothing I like better than matching a day out with a book.

That’s exactly what they’ve done at The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square. Their exhibition, Picturing Hetty Feather, runs from now until September 3rd and explores not only the history of the Foundling Hospital, but also how Hetty Feather was brought to life by Jacqueline Wilson in a book, and then on stage, and screen.

The Hetty Feather exhibition is very hands-on. There are workshops being led throughout the summer, and you can see the list by clicking here, (including a talk from Jacqueline Wilson herself, traditional bookbinding and creative writing), but even in the main museum there are activities to do.

The exhibits range from the historical to props used in the modern TV show. I was particularly taken with Jacqueline Wilson’s original Hetty Feather manuscript, in the most beautiful leather notepad, as well as the original matron’s mallet, and an 18th century pew. There are the children’s coat pegs from the original hospital (now hanging with dress-up costumes), as well as film clips of the TV programme, a schoolroom, dinner plates, and more.

What’s great is how the museum brings history to life with compelling stories – the staircase in the museum is the original staircase from the boys’ wing, with a wide flat sturdy handrail that was ideal for the braver boys to slide down. In the 18th century, iron spikes were put there instead, due to an incident in which a boy had fallen to his death – a story to turn into a novel if ever I heard one. It’s not only the history that pulls, but also the empathetic tone of much of the narrative throughout the museum. Children are asked to imagine the lives of the children at the Foundling Hospital – what they ate, how they slept, how they felt when their names were changed, how and if they behaved according to the strict Victorian rules. Today’s visitors can dress up, fill out their own menus, and write letters home.

Upstairs, there are some inventive ideas too. Children can visit the governors’ meeting room (the Court Room), not something many of the foundlings did I’m sure, and hold a mirror up to examine more closely the highly decorated ceiling. There are also the original tokens the children had (given to them as identifiers in place of their names, which were changed to prevent difficulties for the mothers), and some beautiful yet evocative paintings by Emma Brownlow depicting various situations in the children’s lives.

With a café too, and green spaces outside in Brunswick Square Gardens, this is a lovely way to spend an hour or two. You can buy a copy of Hetty Feather here.

Troublemakers by Catherine Barter

Astute, intelligent, gripping, and thoroughly enjoyable, this is the best YA novel I’ve read this year.

Fifteen year old Alena has been happily brought up by her older brother, Danny, and his boyfriend, Nick, since her mother died when Alena was a baby. But nerves are now on edge as London is threatened with a bombing campaign. Danny starts work for a controversial politician who promises to protect London, at the same time that Alena discovers that her mother was a political activist, and that her history may not be all that it seems.

When she attends Danny’s place of work, and sees something not meant for her eyes, Alena faces a small dilemma, with seemingly huge consequences.

I can’t work out if I loved this book for the fact that it was like no other YA I’ve read, whether the depth of the characterisation is so perfect, or whether the book whips along with clear succinct prose at a lively pace, or possibly just all three.

Alena’s voice is likable, sympathetic, startlingly real and full of emotion without once resorting to melodrama, but it is the fully-fleshed out surrounding cast that blew me away. Danny and Nick are both lovable despite their flaws, both intriguing characters, written with understanding, depth and a clear view of their motivations and desires, so that although the reader only hears Alena’s voice telling the story, we fully understand everyone around her too. This takes some skill.

What’s more, published at the most relevant time – did Andersen Press know about the election before Theresa May? – this is a political novel for our times. It manages to capture a mood of a resilient yet frightened city, constantly threatened by terrorism, as well as delving into the world of politics and journalists – exploring theirs and our sense of morality, and finally looking into the world of activism – questioning the strength of ordinary people – what change can the public effect, what issues matter, and what can one person do about it?

Of course there are insightful touches about Danny and Nick’s relationship – seeing how a parenting partnership works from the teen’s point of view, as well as the prejudices Nick and Danny come across as gay men in contemporary London.

Added to this is Barter’s emotionally intelligent writing of Alena’s investigation into her past. The poignancy of her grief for her mother, and her questioning of whether you can miss something you didn’t have in the first place.

And what Barter does with aplomb is to develop the idea of a mass crumbling of everything that you’ve held dear from one tiny split-second decision. By having Alena’s dilemma buried right in the heart of the novel, the reader already has a bucketful of feelings about the characters, so not only does it explode the text, but also subtly makes the reader wonder what they would do if put into the same situation.

The book made me nod in agreement, sigh with exasperation at some of Alena’s actions, laugh, cry and desperately want the characters as my friends. We all need a Nick in our lives for sure. This is an excellent pertinent coming-of-age book for our times, written with masses of empathy and pathos and, to my delight, sprinkled with a few Bob Dylan references.

Buy it, read it, then give it to everyone you know. This is what reading is for. You can buy it here.

The Real Defenders of the Realm: A Guestpost by Nick Ostler

For the first in my summer series of literary connections in London, Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler visited The Tower of London at night to attend the Ceremony of the Keys. I’m delighted they chose to share their account with us on my site, and explain the links to their fantastic middle grade series ‘Defender of the Realm‘. 

The Tower of London has been getting urgent phone calls all day. Journalists from major newspapers are enquiring after the health of its most famous residents: the ravens. Are they all alive? Are they still there? Have they flown off never to be seen again? Ever since King Charles II decided to move the Royal Observatory from the Tower to Greenwich, rather than displace the ravens that had been disturbing its work, legend has it that should the ravens ever leave, then the White Tower will fall and calamity for the entire kingdom will surely follow. The reason for the press’s sudden concern today is news of an emergency meeting of the entire royal household. Speculation is rife that something terrible has happened – perhaps even a death among the most senior members of the Royal Family. Later they will learn the reason for the hurried get together is in fact the decision that Prince Philip will cease engagements from the autumn, which will be greeted by an overwhelming chorus of “Fair enough, he is ninety-five.”

“Wait though, they literally called you up to ask if the ravens were still at the Tower?”

“Oh yes, I get lots of calls every time anything like this happens. They take it all very seriously.”

We are sitting in the bar of the Hung, Drawn & Quartered Pub, a few hundred yards as the raven flies from the high walls of the Tower of London. The man answering our questions is Chris Skaife, the Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster, who has for the last twelve years had the kingdom-saving responsibility of looking after the Tower’s ravens. Tonight he is off-duty and in civvies rather than his scarlet tunic and Yeoman’s bonnet (though his tweed jacket and bow-tie are almost as dapper) and in light of what we’ve just been told I am relieved to find that no ravens have vacated the Tower to accompany him. Although, as we are to learn later, they could if they wanted to.

We are to be the Ravenmaster’s guests at the Ceremony of the Keys, the nightly ritual that takes place after the tourists depart, in which the Tower is ceremonially locked up for the night – one of the many ancient traditions we recreate in our British fantasy book series, Defender of the Realm – and something not to be missed. But first there will be an informal tour, encounters with ghosts and gangsters and another rather pleasant pint of bitter. So we decide we’d better get a move on. On the way out of the pub, Chris points out that it should more correctly be called the Drawn, Hung & Quartered, because that is the order in which the gruesome disemboweling process is actually performed. I don’t think he is talking from personal experience, but a beefeater is the sort of person who should know these things, so I don’t argue.

As we cross the drawbridge and pass beneath the Byward Tower, it is easy to see why this place continues to cast a spell over otherwise rational thinking people. Myths and ghost stories that we might have dismissed as nonsense back in the cozy pub, suddenly seem all too plausible as we follow the Ravenmaster through the eerie, wide cobbled lanes of the fortress. This is a different place at night. Gone are the gaggles of tourists with their flapping maps and the unruly herds of schoolchildren demolishing packed lunches. What we are left with now is the arrow marks dug into the wall by a bored guard centuries before, the names – Traitor’s Gate, Bloody Tower – that hint at the gruesome fate of those who came here but never left, and the tales of apparitions that still have the capacity to send grown adults running in tears from the Beauchamp Tower. If Horrible Histories did a theme park, this would be it.

But there is much more to the Tower of London than torture and horror and death, fun as all that is. Because there is life here too and rather a surprising amount of it. The Ravenmaster is just regaling us with another tale of doom and imprisonment when he pauses to wave hello to a young woman wearing headphones as she ambles passed. “My daughter,” he explains. It seems odd to think that to some people this isn’t merely one of the world’s most famous historic places, it is also simply ‘home’. But around one hundred and fifty people, the Yeomen and their families, live within the confines of the Tower’s walls. It has always been a workplace and home as much as it has a fortress and prison. And no-one here works harder than the Ravenmaster. From replying to the queries he gets from all round the world about the ravens (which can take up to three hours a day), to conducting tours for visitors and VIPs (Game of Thrones author, George R. R. Martin particularly enjoyed meeting the ravens, no surprise there) – this is one busy beefeater. And that’s before the none-too-small matter of tending to the Tower’s seven ravens (six and a spare).

We could hear the gentle, throaty ‘gronking’ of Erin, Harris, Gripp, Rocky, Jubilee and Munin (Merlina, the only truly ‘tame’ raven, has her own digs elsewhere), long before we reach them. “They know I’m coming,” says Chris. Had they heard and recognized his voice in the distance? Or do they have some sort of primal sixth sense? As you might expect after years in their company, Chris has developed a deep understanding of the raven’s ways and crucially of how much there is still to learn about them. Ravens are said to have the same intelligence as a 3-4 year old child and the current Ravenmaster has dedicated himself to making their lives more natural and enjoyable, despite their celebrity status. For starters there are their plush new quarters, a row of large enclosures in the shadow of the central White Tower, where they can sit outside on their perches all night long, safe from foxes. Then there are their wings – Chris does not clip them nearly as much was the case in the past, so they can fly reasonably well. Well enough to reach the spire on top of the White Tower, as he found to his cost one day when a particularly adventurous bird refused to come down and he had to climb up to get her. But with intelligence comes a sense of humour, and the raven flew just before he reached her. He has even had to retrieve the occasional wanderer from outside the Tower walls, but the kingdom remains very much intact. Chris’ love for his birds is infectious as he recalls, with a glint in his eye, how one raven put an entire school party off their lunch by plucking a leg clean off an unfortunate pigeon right in front of them!

Before the main event, there is just time for a refreshing pint of ‘Beefeater Bitter’ in The Keys. Yes, the Tower even has its very own pub, for the sole use of the Yeoman Warders, their families and lucky guests like us. Tonight, as on many nights, the bar has been given over to a charity fundraiser, and we enjoy our drinks to the sound of announcements about the upcoming raffle results. It’s another example of how these days the Tower of London uses its unique position to quietly educate and inspire rather than to intimidate. And talking of intimidating, the Yeoman Warder who will be guiding us the short distance down the lane to watch the Ceremony of the Keys has an important announcement:

“If you have a camera, kindly place it carefully on the ground… and then stamp on it.”

Some rituals are too solemn, too important and well, too plain cool, to be interrupted by the flashes of camera phones. The Ceremony of the Keys has taken place every single night for the last seven hundred and forty years. The one night it was a few minutes late, the Officer of the Guard wrote a formal letter of apology to the king. The reason for the delay? The Luftwaffe had just dropped a bomb on the old Victorian guardroom. Tonight, as the Chief Yeoman Warder locks the mains gates and returns down Water Lane with his escort of four guards, we are treated to an ancient piece of military theatre. A young sentry steps out, points his rifle at them and barks out “Halt! Who comes there?” “The keys!” replies the Chief Warder. “Whose keys?” demands the sentry, who is clearly no pushover. “Queen Elizabeth’s keys,” the Chief Warder patiently replies, and that seems to do the trick. “Pass, Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. And all’s well,” concludes the sentry, and with that the escort makes its way to the Broadwalk Steps by Tower Green where the Tower Guard presents arms and the Chief Warder declares “God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” to which we all respond with a resounding “Amen!”. Precisely seven minutes after it began, the ceremony is brought to a close as the clock tower strikes ten and we listen to a rather chilly bugler squeak his way through the Last Post.

If you’ve read our first book in the ‘Defender of the Realm’ series, you’ll know that it is at this point that all hell breaks loose. The monstrous Black Lizard attacks in an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels and is fought off by the brave beefeaters and mysterious white knight superhero, the Defender. We are suitably relieved as this fails to happen in real life and instead return to The Keys for a farewell drink. Like all great British traditions, the Ceremony of the Keys is short, simple and rather moving. It has been a privilege to witness.

Afterwards, on the way back to Tower Hill tube station, we pass the Merchant Navy Memorial – the place that in ‘Defender of the Realm: Dark Age’, Hayley discovers a secret entrance to a ‘sally port’ tunnel leading under the road into the Keep beneath the Tower. It is a reminder that although our Defender stories put an affectionate, fantastical spin on British history and traditions, the people who live and work within the Tower of London’s walls are the real, living embodiments of the selfless duty that has served our nation for generations. It is a story they retell every night for seven minutes, starting at 9:53pm sharp.

Tickets to the Ceremony of the Keys are free of charge, but there is a long waiting list (unless you’re lucky enough to know a beefeater!).

Once again, thanks to Nick Ostler for this brilliant blog. ‘Defender of the Realm’ and ‘Defender of the Realm: Dark Age’ by Mark Huckerby & Nick Ostler are published by Scholastic and you can buy them by clicking on the titles. I heartily recommend that you do. For more information, go to www.ostlerandhuckerby.com

 

 

Lyn Gardner: An Interview

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your favourite children’s book?

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

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

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

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

That changes all the time.

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

Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone by Lyn Gardner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rowan Oakwing and Children’s Literature in London: a guest post by EJ Clarke

Rowan Oakwing fluttered through my door during the summer. With the picture of the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament in the background, I knew this would be a book firmly rooted in a London setting. And I was not wrong. I always knew there was magic in London’s parks – those breaths of fresh air and greenery in the heart of a busy, bustling city, but EJ Clarke makes them come alive, as inside each park he has set the homes of tiny, winged creatures. When Rowan, an ordinary girl, cries herself to sleep in Hyde Park, she wakes up to find that she’s been transformed into a fairy. Her new size may be tiny, but Rowan is a fierce, feisty heroine and she takes on her quest to find her missing parent and rejoin the human world with strength and determination. This girl has grit! 

With a setting that’s tangible, a host of admirable characters facing the danger of roaming urban foxes and malicious fairies, as well as a dash of nature and magic, this is a tightly-plotted read. Reminiscent of the flying fairies of Peter Pan, and the ‘Wizard of Oz‘ feeling of wishing to go home, Rowan Oakwing brings fairies into contemporary London. EJ Clarke has kindly shared with us his own recommendations for a children’s literary London adventure.

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Every day I arrive at Kings Cross on my way to work and pass by ‘Platform 9¾’. No matter what time of day it is, there always seems to be a large queue of Harry Potter fans waiting to have their picture taken pushing their luggage trolley ‘through’ the wall.

This of course speaks to the enduring appeal of Potter, but also to one of the aspects of JK Rowling’s fabulous series that always grabbed me personally.

Namely that the world of Harry Potter is not a remote fantasy universe that has no connection with our own, but rather it exists in parallel, accessible from one of London’s busiest train stations, if you only know the right way in.

As Platform 9¾ shows, there’s nothing more delicious for a mind in thrall to a book than to be able to physically stand in the place where your hero has stood and project yourself into their story.

When I was writing my first children’s novel, Rowan Oakwing – a story where an ordinary girl becomes a fairy in Hyde Park and has to make a perilous journey across London – I knew I wanted all the locations that my heroine visits to be places you could go to in real life. Because whilst fantasy can transport you to whole other universes, it’s all the more exciting to know that magic could exist right beneath your feet if only you know where to look.

London itself provided me with inspiration, but so too have many wonderful children’s books that all lend a sense of the magical to our capital city. Here’s my top ten pieces of London-set children’s literature:

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  1. Peter Pan and Wendy by JM Barrie. In earlier incarnations, Peter Pan meets the fairies of Kensington Gardens (where a statue of him stands today), but this is the classic version of his story where Wendy Darling begins her adventure to Neverland from her family home in Bloomsbury.

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  1. Mary Poppins by PL Travers. Though 17 Cherry Tree Lane where Mr & Mrs Banks live is an entirely fictional address, the series of novels and iconic film that resulted again use London as a springboard into a magical imaginary world.

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  1. A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond. Before Platform 9¾ was even a twinkle in JK Rowling’s eye, a homeless talking bear was made synonymous with another of London’s grand railway stations.

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  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. Kings Cross provides the iconic portal into Rowling’s world of magic, but the Potter series effortlessly weave the extraordinary into the fabric of London. Not least my favourite, Diagon Alley, accessed through the ‘Leaky Cauldron’ pub on Charing Cross Road.

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  1. The Wombles by Elizabeth Beresford. So named because the author’s daughter mispronounced Wimbledon Common, all the eco aware creatures living secretly in a London park were inspired by members of Beresford’s own family.

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  1. The Borribles by Michael de Larrabeiti. A YA adventure that is the dark mirror to The Wombles, the elfin-eared Borribles live in Battersea Park and have to undertake a dangerous journey across London to defeat their enemies, the Rumbles.

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  1. The BFG by Roald Dahl. In which Sophie’s imaginative plan to defeat the BFG’s tormentors is to enlist the help of the Queen herself, by bringing the giant BFG to meet her at Buckingham Palace.

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  1. The Ruby in the Smoke by Phillip Pullman. Whilst the fabulous His Dark Materials trilogy contains scenes in London, it’s hard to claim the books for the capital when they are so steeped in all things Oxford. Not so The Ruby in the Smoke however, where another strong female protagonist goes on an adventure in Victorian London to search for clues to her father’s mysterious death.

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  1. The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit. Edwardian London this time, as five children living in Camden find a talking Phoenix in a magic carpet that takes them on many adventures, including one memorable scene where the Phoenix accidentally sets fire to the Garrick Theatre during a production of The Water Babies.

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  1. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield. The three adopted heroines live on the Cromwell Road in the Kensington of the 1930s, from where they often venture out to look at the dolls houses at the V&A. But this is not a book to put little girls in their place. Instead it’s very much an inspirational story about finding your vocation, which is exactly what the girls do at the ‘Children’s Academy’ near Russell Square.

With thanks to EJ Clarke for his enlightening and inspiring London post. Perhaps during half term you might partake in your own literary tour. In the meantime, you can buy Rowan Oakwing here

Time for Jas by Natasha Farrant

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The fourth and last in the Bluebell Gadsby series, and for anyone who has lived and loved the cavorting adventures of Bluebell and her clan of siblings and hangers-on, this read will be tinged with sadness. Like a slightly older Pea from the Pea books by Susie Day, and a younger and more modern Cazelet clan, the Gadsbys are one of those storybook messy families, with an abundance of siblings and extra add-on quirky characters who interact with the main family and help them to learn and to grow.

Bluebell Gadsby burst onto the scene in 2013 in After Iris, a tale that joined the family a few years after Bluebell’s twin, Iris, had died in an accident. Despite the graveness of the subject matter, it was, and still remains, a light and easy read – a constant flow of emotion and busyness that is the modern family.

So now to 2016, and the arrival of Time for Jas. As with the others in the series, Bluebell tells the continuation of her family dramas partly through normal narrative and partly using video transcript – Bluebell having a penchant and flair for filming and documenting things around her. This dual style adds a great deal to the drama – at moments, allowing the reader to step back and see the setting from a wider viewpoint. But it also gives Bluebell (our protagonist) the unique opportunity to see things from a slightly distilled viewpoint, distancing herself from the action of the story, and perhaps editing things to a perspective she prefers, or zooming in and seeing a particular episode in close-up detail. It’s a powerful and clever way to tell a story in a book for young people.

The title, Time for Jas, suggests that the action has moved to focus upon little sister Jas, the only sibling still at primary school. Actually although it does pinpoint Jas’s struggle to find friends and her experience of bullying, the Gadsby family are featured in full; highlighting Flora’s escape to drama school, Twig’s new found hobby of violent team sports, and Bluebell’s own discovery of an immensely talented, yet mysteriously anonymous, chalk artist on her doorstop.

The whirl of the family continues around Bluebell, but it is her voice that pulls in the reader. She is all at once child, protector, friend, sibling, and as with all children of that age, struggling to find her place in the world and make things right, all with a touch of sadness, humour, and teen zest:

“I have tried to help. I have tried to be brave and ambitious and come up with the sort of solution you would get in a film, where whole communities are saved by pulling together and putting aside their differences, and audiences come out feeling that anything is possible, but now I have run out of ideas and it is very very sad.”

Farrant is astute at weaving the various characters’ dramas in with each other, meshing the family as a whole, whilst still retaining everyone’s own private happenings and giving an insight into what they might be feeling. The seamless flitting around characters explores both the busyness of life and situations in which people intersect.

But most particularly, I loved the friendship between Bluebell and her best friend, Dodi. They have a strong history, which gives them a strong friendship, but also a realistic relationship because it doesn’t always run smoothly. Bluebell’s observation that people don’t really change, even after you’ve pointed out to them what isn’t working (in this case, bossiness) is a robust admission; a clear view of Bluebell’s character as well as Dodi’s.

The book is set in an identifiable part of London, with a contemporary style that features the texts and emails and all the essentials of a modern teen life and the complications that technology brings, so it feels grounded, with tangible references. Yet the story also occupies the space of large middle-class families in storybooks who are slightly eccentric – the parents are nicely tucked away, and yet there is family time in the evenings of sitting en famille around the piano, rather than watching television.

Farrant’s gift for storytelling is evident in her ability to weave themes in the books too; here art, identity, ambition. And of course the ever-present death in a family that casts a long shadow of grief across the entire landscape.

A great series, rivalling McKay’s Casson family for a place on the bookshelves, this is a wonderful series for tweens and young teens. And it has to be mentioned, the new covers and the coloured edges look rather stunning.

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You can buy the last Bluebell Gadsby diary here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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