London

New Detective Fiction

I’m sure there weren’t as many detective novels for children when I was young. For me, my most memorable encounter with the genre was one summer, on our annual trip to Cornwall. We were staying in a hotel with its own giftshop – the height of luxury, I thought. To my dismay, halfway through the trip, I ran out of reading material (despite probably having taken about 10 books for a two week stay). In those days, gift shops rarely stocked books, and certainly not children’s books. But I was in luck. The books they did stock were a collection of Agatha Christie novels, and so, aged about ten, I embarked on a journey on the Orient Express, found a cat amongst the pigeons, and journeyed along the Nile.

Today, the mystery/detective/crime novels for children drop onto the doormat almost daily. Here are three new novels that are everything one could ask for in the genre – gripping, tightly plotted, with excellent characterisation, and all superbly written.

lori and max

Lori and Max by Catherine O’Flynn
With a good eye for giving her characters backstory, introducing first Lori, wannabe child detective with deceased parents living with her grandma, and then Max, new girl in school with too-small clothes, a depressed Mum and gambling Dad, O’Flynn deploys enough wit to stop the book descending full flow into misery.

These girls have gumption and spark, the steel and resolve to see their detecting through difficult areas. When a stack of charity money goes missing from school, and Max is accused of the crime, Lori sets out to prove that her new friend is innocent.

Although contemporary, the characters rely on skilful sleuthing and walkie talkies rather than the Internet or mobile phones, and with lashings of descriptions of food, the understanding of real friendship, and a writer’s keen eye for observation and nuance, this is a well-told, brilliantly executed detective story. One of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t miss it. Buy it here.

trouble in new york

Trouble in New York by Sylvia Bishop
It seems Sylvia Bishop can do no wrong – I’ve loved every single one of her books. In her latest, she turns to an analysis of news and fake news in her crime caper set in 1960’s New York.

Jamie Creeden delivers papers but he wants to be a reporter. When he stumbles into the mystery of a missing actress, he realises he’s stuck fast in the middle of a network of corruption and criminality. Assuming the role of investigative journalist, he sets out to discover the truth, and whether that truth is always what’s printed in the papers.

Bishop writes with an assured confidence, imbuing her characters and her insights with warmth. She has a style that brings the essence of a children’s world into a larger view of right and wrong, so that the reader feels secure in the familiarity of the adventure, whilst at the same time having their horizons broadened. My favourite insight comes early on: in the building of the Yorker, the newspaper featured, there is a statue of a woman in the entrance, to symbolise the motto of the paper – ‘Always punctual, often accurate’. Bishop goes on to say:

“In one hand the woman held a lantern for Truth; and in the other, a Rolex watch, for Punctuality. (She used to hold an hourglass, but the Rolex company paid the Yorker a great deal of money to change it.).”

It’s simple, but effective, bringing our real world capitalism to a child readership, and lightly placing clues for them to question what they see and what they hear.

There’s more of course: two plucky female sidekicks to the protagonist, a tight plot, and an pervasive enthusiasm for the plucky innocence and perseverance of children, the truth, and the beauty in both. Effortless and yet brilliant. Another triumph. Buy it here.

agatha oddly

Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key by Lena Jones
From New York to a detective story set firmly in London, complete with secret comms in the London Eye, and a girl who resides in the groundsman’s cottage of Hyde Park.

Thirteen-year-old Agatha Oddly, named for Agatha Christie, adores detecting, and so when a motorbike knocks over an old lady in the middle of Hyde Park, Agatha is straight on the case. But the lady isn’t whom she first appears, and when London’s water pipes are filled with a toxic red algae, Agatha has to join the dots in a relentless adventure around London in order to come up with the culprits behind a dastardly plan to change the way Londoners drink water for ever.

There is so much to love here, from the hidden network of super spies in London’s midst, to the secret tunnels and gatekeepers of London, to the everyday reality of Agatha in school, and dealing with who and who isn’t her friend. Smartly plotted, and hugely enjoyable, this is a fast easy read that zings with character and energy.

Although slightly predictable for those of us with some reading experience, Agatha’s quirks and indomitable spirit lead the way here. It’s fitting that the series bears her name, and for readers age 9+ approaching the book, they’ll find something to love in her slightly obtuse and subversive nature. The plot is key, of course, but it is in her friendships – battling with the popular kids, understanding the needs of her best friend, and coming to see that people aren’t always as they present in one scenario, that this book wins big. Plenty of dialogue, an understanding of when mobile phones can assist the plot and when not, and carefully laid red herrings all make for a perfect crime caper. Highly recommended. The second in the series, Murder at the Museum, has been published too. You can buy Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key here.

With thanks to Firefly Press, Scholastic and HarperCollins for the review copies.

Reading Brexit for Kids: Outwalkers

outwalkersAt the end of last week, someone wrote on twitter about how unproductive she’d been. As with many of us, she had been consumed with checking the news every few minutes for the latest in the Brexit debacle, although at the same time rueing the fact that it was so all-consuming, when really there were so many more important issues on which to concentrate the mind.

So it was with full fervour that I threw myself into the latest read from David Fickling Books after being promised by their publicity agent that it was a post-Brexit novel for children. Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw is indeed a post-Brexit novel, dystopian and political, with a warning that makes you realise we are only a few steps from our own dystopia. Or are we living it already?

Outwalkers imagines a time long after Brexit in which England has closed its borders, following the mass murder of the ‘Faith Bombings’, and imposed a wall between itself and Scotland (now an entirely independent country). What’s more, individuals are chipped to enable government tracking and citizen identification, and there are clear distinctions in the way different classes are treated – those whose microchips enable them to enter John Lewis, as opposed to entering the foodbanks, for example. On the good side, citizens are looked after and protected, the propaganda says.

In this mix, the reader is introduced to twelve-year-old Jake, currently in a state-sponsored Home Academy after his parents die in a car accident. He escapes this prison-like institution to find his dog, Jet, and plans to flee England (it is illegal to leave the country) to join his grandparents in Scotland. Before long, he meets a group calling themselves Outwalkers, also bound for the border for various reasons, and all self-de-chipped. But as their journey progresses, they become more and more important for the government to find, and more entrenched in danger.

Shaw has created a thrilling read, essentially a chase novel through England – and it’s her details that bring it to life both politically and visually. The scenes in John Lewis and in the London Underground, particularly the visit to the postal museum in Kings Cross, are superbly rendered, as is the use of the Angel of the North as a rather battered landmark. More than this, she delves into the future with old posters for ‘Brexit the Musical’, and endless Star Wars sequels, as well as the constant news streaming, and of course citizen tracking.

The message behind the book is definitely anti-Brexit: that closing the borders is short-sighted, insular and ultimately devastating for the people inside, but it really pushes its message about the loss of democracy. Although England is ruled by the ‘Coalition’ in government, a seemingly harmless and democratic-sounding compromise government, they actually work more like a dictatorship, duping their people and ruling behind a veil of secrecy. There’s commentary on ‘group’ rule too – or perhaps on our current government cabinet and the whip:

“But when it’s something that’s really wrong, really terrible: then I don’t think there’s any excuse. Doesn’t matter if someone else orders you. Doesn’t matter if your team all agree.”

The group of Outwalkers are well-delineated and strikingly different from each other. At the beginning they induct Jake into the group by asking him for his contributing skill, but it soon becomes apparent that they have different hidden skills too – not just the obvious of navigation, climbing, cooking etc. Some are empathetic, some nurturing of the little ones, some motivational, others optimistic. All are brave and savvy, and it is this courageousness and loyalty to each other that sees them through. In a society in which people are encouraged to spy and report on each other, this ancient attribute of loyalty and love is particularly poignant, and these attributes grow with the novel so that by the end the reader is fully invested in both the chase but also the fate of each individual.

Shaw also delves hard into the idea of class – something so inherently British – and, in the novel, so divisive. There are the forgotten people – lowlifers – who dwell mostly underground, away from prying government eyes – and there is a futility in their existence, and yet heartrending humanity. Implicit in the novel is a clear message of how we treat others dependent on who they are – something as simple as the sound of a ‘posh’ voice has different consequences from those without that accent, and the amount of money people have and their standard of living makes a huge difference to their societal choices. The privileged work high up in the government, and remain privileged.

So, yes, Outwalkers feels very much of its time – a Brexit novel for children. But as with the government in the novel, this is a skewed view. And this view veers massively towards Remain. There is little nuance, and far too much unexplained at the end of the novel. There’s no examination of right or wrong – the morality is very straightforward.

Some critics have complained that the harshness of the dystopian society Shaw has created feels out of kilter with the normality and sanity of the people depicted, but judging by past oppressive regimes, what’s happening in China at the moment, or even judging by our own political madness, who knows how far and how quickly things can spiral out of control – despite the seeming normality of the everyday?

This is a sharp critique of people’s acceptance of what they are told, what they are fed by the news or government and what they believe, and in the end saviour comes in the form of a member of a religion in a seemingly faithless landscape (interesting in itself). But also the real saviours are the children themselves – bringing about a resolution of their own stories but also a resolution for the dystopian England they grew up in – and perhaps this is where Shaw is most accurate in her portrayal of our politics. The real change is going to come from our youth – striving for the government to listen to them about climate change, when all around them politicians and leaders are ensconced in this political hiccup in time called Brexit. You can buy Outwalkers here.

Unstoppable by Dan Freedman

unstoppableI sometimes look at the lives of the children around me and marvel how they fit so much into each week. Whether it’s keeping up with friends, schoolwork, celebrity gossip, world news, or the myriad of hobbies, sports and activities they all seem to undertake. As well as copious hours on Insta of course (and reading!).

But it’s not just physical time and energy these activities consume, it’s also copious amounts of mental space. And with this busyness comes pressure.

Dan Freedman (author of the Jamie Johnson football novels) has tapped into this busyness, and also into the zeitgeist, by writing a pertinent YA novel for our times about pressure on teens, and linked to this, about the causes and motivations behind the rise in knife crime. Combining his knowledge of sports, and real-time information gathered from conversations with children during his school visits, Freedman has penned a gripping novel about how life for these children can seem unstoppable, how pressures build up and can lead to the difficult choices that may set them on the right or wrong path in life.

Covering a range of hugely contemporary issues, from alcoholism, first love, knife crime, gang warfare, poverty, parental and school pressure and the meaning of sports, Freedman keeps his novel fresh and spikey.

Fourteen-year-old twins, Roxy and Kaine, used to be close. But recently, their pathways have diverged – both are excellent sports players, Roxy training to be a tennis champion, Kaine good enough at football to be scouted for the Premier League.

But the path to success isn’t easy. As well as the hard work that needs to be put in, the teenagers face a daunting series of barriers – from their father’s joblessness and alcoholism, parental pressure to succeed, poverty, and, seeing as they live in London, the ongoing gang recruitment on their doorstep. It’s only a matter of time before knives are involved.

Highly readable, and with as much pace as a professional tennis serve, Freedman’s prose is in the ilk of genre writing – concise and tight, going for the simplest words but still managing to convey a depth to both setting and character. The writing is particularly astute on the sports field, and it is here that Freedman excels, making the reader believe that they are learning about two future sports stars.

There’s also the continuing issue of the teens’ mental health. Written in third person, but alternating between the points of view of Roxy and Kaine, this is a close up view of the pressure both children are under, but in different ways. What the book does, very cleverly, is point to the issues that are occupying today’s children and try to disseminate them within the narrative arc.

Supplementing the main prose are diary entries, flashbacks, old-fashioned notes!, and also text messages – with plot points turning on photos that come up on people’s social media feed. It might sound overwhelming to the reader, but is actually straightforwardly packaged, so that the reader is empathetic to Roxy and Kaine, (despite their differences), without feeling the pressure him/herself.

It’s interesting that there is equal emphasis on the internal and external for the twins. Their own determination and grit to succeed, their interior struggle with mental wellbeing, but also the sphere of their family and its wellbeing, and finally the exterior of peers and the dangers of the community in which they live.

A tribute to Freedman must go to his understanding that it is through individual acts of kindness (one person seeing employment potential in Roxy and Kaine’s Dad), and trusted adults (a teacher consistently rooting for Kaine; the memory of an unfaltering grandparent relationship) that the youngsters come good.

Despite the many issues, this is in essence about sibling rivalry and sport, and the story zings through the teens’ potential to their ultimate triumph, despite the hurdles in their way. For a rattling good read, and a dissection of how we live today, even unbookish sporty readers will be tuning in. And with an equal balance in having both gender protagonists, the book looks set to be Unstoppable. You can buy it here. 

Spring 2018 Picture Books

Picture books is a genre that groups books together because of their format rather than their content. The books reviewed below are all strikingly different – some we may think of as traditional picture books in that they’re aimed for younger readers and impart a funny story using animals as characters, and often deliver a message while doing so. But I’ve also covered some books for the slightly older reader in my ten picture books picks of this season, in no particular order:

a bear is a bear
A Bear is a Bear (except when he’s not) by Karl Newson and Anuska Allepuz
A wonderfully simpatico book about a tired bear who forgets who and what he is until a good sleep sees him wake up refreshed and knowledgeable. He tries to be all kinds of animals, from a bird to a fox, but the other animals’ habitats, behaviours and eating habits do not suit his skills and sensibility. After hibernating, he rediscovers the truth and finds his appetite. This is a warm and humorous book with rhyming text, a delightful exploration of the seasons through illustration, and the introduction of woodland creatures, including a moose. The text is written in an invitingly read-aloud style, as if the reader is a narrator talking to the bear. Endearing, friendly and colourful. You can buy it here.

i do not like books anymore
I Do Not Like Books Anymore! by Daisy Hirst
Another one for the fairly young, this will also be a favourite among teachers trying to encourage first time readers to push through. Characters Natalie and Alphonse first appeared in Alphonse, That is Not Okay To Do, primarily about sibling relationships, but this story takes these two little monsters through the course of learning to read. Although they adore books and stories, Natalie starts to struggle to learn to read and in the process, becomes disillusioned about books. With some help from her little brother, Alphonse, Natalie comes up with a strategy to rebuild her confidence, and before long stories and books are favourites again. A fantastic tale about perseverance that is close to home for many readers. Hirst is particularly clever in portraying a familiar domestic environment, with the monsters in typical childlike poses – be it on a swing or reading with legs in the air, sitting on a bus or playing in the bathroom. Look out for the wider cast of characters – a simple but effective way of drawing our modern world. You can buy it here.

almost anything
Almost Anything by Sophy Henn
On a similar theme, although not so specifically on reading, this is Henn’s message that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it. George is a rabbit with somewhat downcast ears. Everyone else in the woods is busy (birds who play chess, a squirrel who reads, a mouse who knits), but George doesn’t feel confident doing anything, and so does nothing. It is only when Bear comes up with a simple yet cunning plan that George finds the confidence to attempt everything and stop at nothing. Despite Bear’s scruffy looking appearance, she comes up trumps with wisdom, ensuring and inspiring self-belief in others. With Henn’s gentle colour palette, and deceptively simple plot and illustrations, this is a clever, inspirational little picture book that captures the essence of finding confidence, having a go, and importantly, enjoying oneself too (as well as, may I suggest, respecting the wisdom of elders). You can buy it here.

dinosaur juniors
Dinosaur Juniors Happy Hatchday by Rob Biddulph
Long a fan of Biddulph’s simple, almost monosyllabic, rhymes, it seems this author/illustrator can do no wrong. With this first of a brand new series, he has now turned his attention to that perennial love of pre-schoolers – dinosaurs. The illustrations are trademark Biddulph – simple shapes with almost three-dimensional texture, and a bold colour palette – dominated by green in this tree-filled landscape of our green protagonist dinosaur. Biddulph brings a range of topics to this ostensibly simple text about a group of dinosaurs hatching – from counting, to fitting in, to naming dinosaurs, to friendship. Greg is the last to hatch, but is shown to be equally loved and appreciated by the end of the book. Biddulph’s bright colours and stylish illustrations will delight a whole truckload of wannabe palaeontologists. You can buy it here.

nimesh
Nimesh the Adventurer by Ranjit Singh and Mehrdokht Amini
Taking a more complicated route with illustration is this dynamic and interesting new picture book about imagination. Nimesh is an Indian boy in London who uses his imagination to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, from crossing the road to walking through the park on his way home from school. His school corridor is fairly nondescript: a range of notices upon the wall, a few cupboards and chairs, and a wall display of a hammerhead shark as part of shark week. But the following page leads the reader into Nimesh’s imagination, as he sees the corridor as an underwater labyrinth, a school door sprouting from the sea bed, sharks, plants and fish layered upon the school floor with the staircase and fire exit in the distance. The illustrations are collage – a remarkable letting loose of the illustrator to use their imagination as they envisage what Nimesh sees in his vivid mind. The entire book is related in dialogue too – as if the voice of reason is in conversation with the voice of imagination. Children will delight in finding the clue in each ‘ordinary’ picture of the ‘extraordinary’ to come. London becomes magical in this richly layered, diverse and fascinating tale. Extraordinarily different. You can buy it here.

little mole
Little Mole is a Whirlwind by Anna Llenas
Another story revealed in collage illustrations is this interestingly busy book about a little mole with ADHD. Mole can’t stop – the book is full of distraction and interaction as Mole moves through his school day at pace, fidgeting, forgetting, and playing the fool. Unfortunately, his peers find him irritating rather than funny, and his mole parents try to find a way of helping their whirlwind son. Serena the bunny gives Mole the space to experiment and explore, to talk and to listen, and finally Mole and his classmates accept who he is. This may be an unsubtle way of dealing with an issue – Mole at one point is illustrated with luggage labels ‘labelling’ him, but the overall premise is dealt with wonderfully in the busy collage style – pencil and cardboard drawings cut out and layered on top of each other. It creates a busy landscape and shows Mole’s world well. Frenzied but enjoyable. You can buy it here.

forever or a day
Forever or a Day by Sarah Jacoby
In complete contrast, this magically calm picture book for older readers tries to explore the concept of time. Taking subtlety to an extreme, the book reads as a poetic meditation, alluding to the subject matter rather than addressing it directly. Both picture and text combine to explore the elasticity of time – the calm pictures of seaside days contrast with the rushing for a train. There is musing on ageing and how time stretches back and seems far away, as well as added humour in the time spent waiting for a bus. There is the mindfulness of being in the present and appreciating the time now. With a mixture of striking landscapes from afar and up close domestic scenes, this is a thoughtful and somewhat wistful look at how we live and what we lose as we move through life. Clever parallel images appear throughout the book, letting the reader make connections between things and people, between time when young, and time when old. A sandcastle washes away to nothing, a train recedes into the distance, days turn to night. This is a complex, powerful book about one day, and how in memory a day may last forever. You can buy it here.

red bottomed robber
The Case of the Red-Bottomed Robber by Richard Byrne
Master of the playful picture book, Byrne returns with this old-school tale about chalk who love to draw but get upset when their drawings are erased while they are out at play. In true mystery style, they investigate the ‘theft’ of their drawings, weighing up the evidence, which is chalk dust, and rounding up suspicious characters, including the scissors, glue and ruler. When they finally catch the robber red-handed, or rather ‘bottomed’, he feels unjustly accused – after all rubbing out is his raison d’etre. A funny tale, well told on black backgrounds representative of the chalkboard, children will delight in the ‘bottom’ tale, as well as the use of chalk with expressive personalities. Not too far removed from The Day the Crayons Quit, this picture book is shorter, and perfect for exploring a first mystery case, or just enjoying the colourful mess chalks can make. You can buy it here.

glassmakers daughter
The Glassmaker’s Daughter by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray
Far more long-lasting than chalk is coloured glass, in this exquisitely beautiful fairy tale of Daniela, the daughter of a 16th century Venetian glassmaker. Daniela is miserable, and her father offers a glass palace to the first person to make her smile. In true fairy tale trope, many try, including jugglers, mask makers and trumpet players, but only the last glassmaker manages, by making Daniela a mirror in which she can laugh at the sad miserable face she shows to the world. Although it feels like a classic princess tale, there is no ‘happy marriage’ at the end, and indeed those of both genders who try to make her smile are not motivated by thoughts of a wedding. This is about finding happiness within oneself rather than with another person – and how laughter is catching. But more than this, the picture book gives historical detail about glassmaking in Venice, and shows originality and immense detail in the exquisite illustrations – and a sparkle of glass when it shatters in the middle. An intriguing, historical, luxurious picture book that explores European culture. You can buy it here.

out out away from here
Out, Out, Away From Here by Rachel Woodworth and Sang Miao
A completely different illustrative style, but also in a book lavishly produced, is Woodworth’s tale of exploring emotion and escape. The red-haired narrator of this book acknowledges in very few words that sometimes she feels happy, but sometimes mad and sad, and sometimes all at once. When things are particularly overwhelming, she seeks escape in her imagination, a wild place populated by nature, with faces in the shapes, and strange creatures, with domestic objects inserted in wild landscapes, where the domestic merges with the wild. But at the end, she always comes back to her fully domestic family scene. Miao has had fun with the scant text, letting her own imagination create crazy landscapes within the mind. The fusing of the familiar with the strange and the dreamlike colours are particularly effective – from orange skies to flying fish, vivid blue seas and unidentifiable shapes in greys and greens. The domesticity is well executed too, from the yellow mac on rainy days to the zoomed in picture of the girl with her hands in her hair as she listens to the baby scream. This is another well thought out book of emotion and intensity, with just the right balance of darkness and depth to create a wonderful narrative to promote discussion of our emotions and how we respond to them. Excellent. You can buy it here.

 

 

What Lexie Did by Emma Shevah

what lexie didEmma Shevah’s previous novels, Dara Palmer’s Major Drama and Dream On, Amber have been hugely popular in the library, so it was no surprise to hear that my first tester readers of Shevah’s newest book, What Lexie Did, had been queuing to read it after me. Answering my question, what did you like about it, they were thrilled to tell me: “there are absolutely no boring bits at all”. High praise indeed from Year Six pupils.

Lexie is part of a large Greek-Cypriot family living in London. She has a very close relationship with her first cousin, Eleni, until a new friend arrives, Anastasia, and simmering jealousy rises to the surface at a family picnic. Lexie’s subsequent brush with telling the truth and being labelled a snitch makes her re-evaluate her loyalties, and also when to tell the truth and when not, so the next time an opportunity arrives to lie, she knows just what to do…

Shevah’s prose is immensely easy to read. What Lexie Did is written in first person from Lexie’s point of view, and accompanied by extensive doodles framing the text on every page, as if it were a pre-teen diary. (Ilustrations by Helen Crawford-White). This establishes an intimacy with the reader, so that although the reader sees the narrative unfold from Lexie’s point of view, they can understand where she’s going wrong, and see further than Lexie herself.

It’s a clever strategy, and neatly evokes a strong camaraderie between the reader and the protagonist, helped hugely by the fact that Lexie’s narrative is bouncy and vivacious, just like the character herself. She is quirky, interesting, and completely honest with the reader, and so the reader feels immediately immersed within the story.

Although ostensibly a story about a loss in the family and a subsequent argument, the plot unfolds to address two very current issues – the fracturing of society through loss of a sense of community and family, and our ability to know when to tell the truth and when to lie, and how we know what is fake and what is real.

Lexie is part of a large Greek-Cypriot community that spreads beyond her immediate family to encompass cousins and grandparents, but also friends and neighbours. When her grandmother dies, it affects more than just her immediate family. Shevah portrays the positive aspects of the feelings of belonging the community promotes. There’s food of course – delicious descriptions of the sensuous nature of food and the memories and emotions it arouses. There’s also a vast support network, shared passions and behaviours, and the strong moral ground the community gives. The argument fractures this community temporarily, and through its absence Shevah explores the power it had when it was in place.

The portrayal of a Greek-Cypriot community also affords Shevah the space to explore the special memories of childhood that it is giving Lexie – the days out, family gatherings, routines, Sunday school, and intimacy and love. Shevah isn’t Greek-Cypriot herself, but this doesn’t matter. Her extensive research gives form and passion to the community she describes.

The other aspect – the truth telling – is integral to the plot. Lexie’s lie leads to a heap of trouble for herself and her family, but also provides her with the opportunity to grow as a person. Shevah explores how a warm and loving childhood provides us with the space to make mistakes and learn from them. And it is more than just one large lie. Lexie looks at the confusing nuances of truth-telling – when it is right to lie and when not, when secrets are justified and when not. And funnily enough, her grandfather’s resolution creates confusion of its own, satisfying the issue the family has, but masking the original version.

Lexie also learns the value of friendship and loyalty, in a novel that reaches for honesty, identity and integrity. Shevah has succeeded in all three – this is a warm and accessible novel, and leaves the reader desperate to make their own cinnamon cake and galaktoboureka (recipes at the back), to experience a smidgen of the life Lexie leads. You can buy it here.

Back to School

The autumn always sees a mega haul of children’s nonfiction – the back to school collections, lists for National Non Fiction November, and of course the Christmas gift treasure troves. This year, unlike the wet harvest, has yielded a bumper crop.

We start the day with maths. Always a slog after the long summer holidays, this book aims to reverse that groan with a rather wonderful premise – from the front cover, the reader is a genius: This Book Thinks You’re a Maths Genius, by Dr Mike Goldsmith, illustrated by Harriet Russell. It aims to prove that if the reader likes patterns, colouring and puzzles, then actually they’re good at maths. Taking basic mathematical concepts, such as geometry, measurements, statistics, and number patterns, it gives the reader activities and games to enhance their knowledge. Most pages have a ‘Where’s the Math’s box’ at the bottom to explain the ‘science’ behind the activity. It feels more heavily weighted towards shapes and patterns than basic numbers, but it was certainly fun to fill in.

Geography next, with two books to explore. The first, Animazes, illustrated by Melissa Castrillon also combines the territory of activity book with non-fiction, as readers can trace the mazes on each page to learn about the migration patterns of different animals. There’s a vibrancy and exuberance to this book – set by the vivid colour palate, which lifts the knowledge from the page. Christmas Island red crabs, wildebeest of the Serengeti, Monarch butterflies, Mali elephants…There’s a wealth of phenomenal facts about these wonderful animals – for general use or project use. Maze answers are given at the back of the book.

For those wanting a more straightforward factual book, Starters: Rainforests by Nick Pierce and illustrated by Jean Claude ticks the box for little ones. Basic layouts and colourful simple illustrations lend this a modern textbook look, and it reads plainly, but overall gives information in a neat concise visual way, with glossary, and index. Great for Key Stage One, and will bring a dazzling intensity of colour to the topic.

After break, it’s biology, using Bugs by Simon Tyler for budding entomologists. With the first 32 pages devoted to dissecting insect life – from anatomy to taxonomy, life cycle to senses, and the rest given to large colourful illustrations of individual species with accompanying small details about size and habitat, this is a comprehensive look at the subject. However, it stands apart with its impressive use of blank space on the page, clean lines, and coloured backgrounds, which all give the book both a vivacity and a clinical feel. Rarely have insects looked quite so engaging, it could almost double as a coffee-table splendour. Inspirational for children, a minibeast triumph.

You can’t beat a good historical narrative for history lessons. Philip Ardagh’s new series sets out to dominate the market here with his ‘faction’ books, illustrated by Jamie Littler. The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge explores the life of a medieval knight with as much tongue-in-cheek humour as sword-in-hand fighting. Written in day-by-day diary form, with footnotes giving factual information or terminology, the next in the series is The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny, Victorian Housemaid.

The Histronauts series aims to mash activity, story and non-fiction in its first two titles, An Egyptian Adventure and A Roman Adventure by Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke. A group of children dive back in time, and through the means of a comic strip, they illuminate facets of historical life. There are activities alongside the narrative, such as learning Roman numerals and how to play merellus, as well as mazes, recipes and a host of other factual information. Packed with detail, these are fun and educational.

For a more visual look, try Unfolding Journeys: Secrets of the Nile by Stewart Ross and Vanina Starkoff. More cross-curricula than anything, this geography/history hybrid aims to explore this part of the world with a fold-out, vividly yellow map of the Nile (not to scale), highly captioned with number points, which are then extrapolated on the reverse of the fold-out. A mixture of ancient and modern facts and points of information make this a tricky landscape for a child to navigate – a few more dates might have helped, (and I’m unsure about the James Bond reference inside) but it’s certainly an intriguing way to look at a place of interest.

After lunch, younger primary school children will be delighted to get their hands on Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System by Dr Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman. A new title in this series, but firmly aimed at a younger age group, this is another gem from publishers Flying Eye. Fantastic, familiar cartoons, accompanied by Professor Astro Cat’s chatty and informative dialogue, this would be my go-to book for teaching KS1 children about space for the first time.

With our first day at school completed, we look forward to a trip out. The National Gallery have two phenomenal companion books to touring – Get Colouring with Katie by James Mayhew, and Picture This! By Paul Thurlby. The Katie books by James Mayhew have long been favourites for introducing the youngest children to art, and this is a great companion title that picks out paintings within the gallery and gives children space on the page to colour a detail in their own way. Katie gives hints and explanations along the way. Paul Thurlby’s spiral bound book explores more of the paintings by featuring a picture of them, and then a small explanation, with occasional questions to the readers. The paintings are grouped in different ways – both historical, but also those featuring children, times of day, fashions etc. It might be frustrating without a knowledge of which room each painting is in (which the book doesn’t give). But the questions it poses are pertinent and thoughtful. You can buy all these books from good local bookshops, or click the Waterstones link on the top left of the page.

 

Q&A with Catherine Barter, author of Troublemakers


I had the recent good fortune to not only review Catherine’s debut novel, Troublemakers, but also to chair a panel conversation between Catherine and Keren David, author of The Liar’s Handbook, among others. For those of you unable to attend, I also sneaked in a cheeky Q&A with Catherine so that I could share it with you here. Troublemakers is an unusual YA novel – it’s contemporary, about politics, and very apt in the current political climate. Set in London, it’s a coming-of-age novel that speaks of activism, terrorism, and family relationships.

I understand that you worked for an organisation campaigning for the rights of garment workers. Have you always been involved in political activism of some kind?

That’s right, I used to work for a brilliant organisation called Labour Behind the Label. I mostly did office admin – answering emails, stuffing envelopes, that kind of thing. I’m much too shy to be any good at direct action or street protest, so where I’ve been involved in activism it’s mainly been doing boring, behind-the-scenes things.

I’ve always been quite political, and my family talked politics a lot, but I think I got particularly switched on to it in my teens. When I was about sixteen I had that Naomi Klein book, No Logo, which a lot of people were reading at the time, and I got quite caught up in the idea of fighting back against global capitalism. Not that I exactly knew what that meant (I’m not sure I actually got to the end of No Logo), but I could tell it was important!

And then the Iraq War began the year that I started university, and I went on one of the marches against it, as did a lot of young people that year. So that was my first introduction to that kind of mass movement activism. You care very passionately about things when you’re a teenager, so I think it’s a good time to get interested in politics and activism.

You co-manage a radical bookshop (Housmans). What’s the most rewarding part of the job?

I love when young people come in to the shop looking for copies of old radical classics, things like bell hooks’ Ain’t I A Woman or Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. You get the feeling they’re just getting started on their political journeys and they’re putting in the groundwork by reading all these big, difficult, important books. And they’re really excited about it. I love seeing that.

Did the attacks on Housmans in the past in some way inspire what happens to Nick’s coffee shop in Troublemakers?

Hmm! I actually never thought about that link, but maybe on some level it was inspired by that. There’s definitely a bit of Housmans in Nick’s coffee shop, and working in the shop has made me aware that any business which has its politics up-front makes itself vulnerable to some extent. We do still get far-right people coming in to shout at us sometimes, and I can imagine Nick’s coffee shop with all its activist posters in the window would get the same.

When did you start writing Troublemakers?

I can be very specific! It was March 2011, when I took a six-week course at Writers’ Centre Norwich. I was feeling very liberated after finishing a PhD and wanted to start doing something completely different from academic writing.

Did you always want to write YA?

No. I didn’t know a lot about YA until I started writing Troublemakers. Then I sort of fell in love with writing from the perspective of a teenager and realised that YA was the right home for the kind of story I wanted to tell. Which was really exciting.

How did you feel to be shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award?

I was so happy. I can remember that whole day really vividly. It was gratifying because after I was longlisted, and before I submitted the full manuscript for the next stage, I’d worked really hard to fix all the problems that I knew the book had. I was still rewriting until the last possible moment, because I knew I could make it better. So I was thrilled when all that work paid off.

This is your debut novel. Tell me your route to publication.

After the shortlist was announced, the organiser of the Bath Novel Award, Caroline Ambrose, contacted literary agents to let them know about the books and authors on the list. As a result of that, a few agents requested to see my complete manuscript. Two of those offered to represent me–but one of them wanted me to write a different book, and one of them wanted to work on Troublemakers. So that was an easy decision! I did quite a lot of editing with my agent, who then sent the book out into the world, where it found a home with Andersen Press.

You wrote a PhD on Sherman Alexie. What attracted you to him?

I’d never heard of Sherman Alexie until I read one of his short story collections for a class on ‘multi-ethnic American literatures’. Then I got completely hooked. His writing is very funny and very sad, very immediate and sometimes flawed and all the more alive and interesting because of that. It’s very layered and political, too, and writing about his fiction was also a way to write and think about American history and politics and storytelling traditions. So all of that was very appealing. And he’s also written one of my favourite YA novels ever, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

What are you working on next?

It’s still in a bit of a fragile, embryonic stage, but I’m working on a story about four friends in a desolate Norfolk seaside town in winter. So it’s a completely different setting from Troublemakers, which has been fun to write.

Thank you so much to Catherine for agreeing to answer yet more questions. I encourage you all to read Troublemakers, it’s one of the best YA published this year. You can purchase it here.  

 

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.