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CBA: The Storm Keeper’s Island, A Q&A with Catherine Doyle

It came as no surprise to me that children shortlisted The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle as one of their top three books for older children this year in the Children’s Book Awards. One of the most beautifully written children’s books in recent times, Doyle mixes the magic of everyday children’s lives with the ancient magical legends of the island of Arranmore (off Ireland) in a gripping, dark, bold and imaginative story that is about hope and courage, family love, and memories. Most importantly, there is a wonderful humour blended within the text, striated throughout like the swirls in candle wax, and storytelling as strong as the wildest storm.

It tells the story of 11-year-old Fionn Boyle, worrying about his ill mother, his deceased father and his annoying older sister, and transported for the summer onto his grandfather’s island. All is not as it seems, and there is magic within. Doyle is a master at describing bickering siblings, the taste of a summer ice cream, and modern sensibilities, whilst also contrasting with a setting that comes alive with an ancient magic.

I’m delighted that Catherine has taken the time to answer my questions.

The book is set on the island of Arranmore, a real island, which you’ve imbued with magic. The island feels very real the way you’ve described it – particularly as Fionn approaches it on the ferry. Does familiarity help you write a setting? Did you write the book while on Arranmore?

Arranmore Island is the place where my grandparents were born, grew up and fell in love. It holds the beginning of their story, as well as those of my many sea-faring ancestors, so it has always occupied a very special place in my heart. Arranmore has been such a huge character in my own life, I’m not surprised that it naturally assumed a similar position in Fionn’s story.

I began writing The Storm Keeper’s Island after spending a week on Arranmore. I explored the sheer cliffs and hidden lakes, the secret Sea Caves and the towering cliff steps as well as the houses where my grandparents were born and the beaches where they played as children. That week was the closest to real magic I have ever come.  I was so inspired by the rugged landscape and the wild Atlantic Ocean, as well as the enchanting experience of walking in my ancestor’s footsteps, that I immediately began writing about it when I got home. When I started, I couldn’t stop!

One of the most delightful and humorous aspects of the book is the sibling relationship between Fionn and his older sister Tara. Did you draw this from your own experiences?

This dynamic was very much inspired by my relationship with my brothers when we were younger. In fact, when my younger brother Conor read the book last year, he called me to say how delighted he was that I had based the main character Fionn on him. He had come to this conclusion because of what he described as the ‘striking similarities’ between Tara’s attitude and my own attitude at 13 years old! I like to think that when it comes to sibling relationships, some days you’re the Fionn and some days you’re the Tara.

Early on in the novel, there’s a wonderful scene of the children eating ice-creams – one of the best descriptions of devouring a Twister, Magnum and Calippo. Did you try them all out as research? And seriously, how much research did you need to do into the Irish legends in The Storm Keeper’s Island?

I took this scene very seriously, because going to the corner shop to buy an ice-cream was a very important ritual of my childhood. I picked the ones that my brothers and I used to choose every Sunday after mass. I haven’t eaten a Twister in years, but I can still vividly remember what it tastes like!

Growing up in Ireland, my childhood was steeped in Irish myths, so I started out with a pretty solid level of knowledge about all things Dagda and beyond. From there, it was just about choosing the legends that I loved the most, researching them properly, and then finding a way to weave them into Fionn’s tale.

The device for revisiting the past in Arranmore is candle wax – a clever idea as it is transient, and the swirling of the coloured wax is like the memories themselves, slippery and abstract. Where did this idea come from?

I moved to Dublin from the West of Ireland for a stint a few years ago, and I remember really struggling to write in my new surroundings. I missed being near the sea, and felt claustrophobic being cooped up in a much busier, city area. As a way to help with this, my mom bought me a candle called ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’, and told me to burn it whenever I wanted to write. This idea was met with great scepticism on my part, but to my surprise (and delight), when I finally did light the candle, it filled my bedroom with the unmistakeable scent of sea air. Immediately, I was transported back to the Salthill promenade in Galway, and my creativity kicked straight into gear. There was a kind of magic in it, so I tucked the idea away. When I started writing The Storm Keeper’s Island, I knew I had the right story for that particular device.

The use of memory is key in the book, as the grandfather is beginning to lose his. How important is it for you to portray grandparent/grandchild relationships in children’s literature?

I think the grandparent/grandchild relationship can be one of the most formative and important relationships in a child’s life. There’s just something so special about it. Having enjoyed a wonderful bond with my grandfather growing up, I felt it was important to explore it in The Storm Keeper’s Island. I have also experienced the sadness and confusion that comes with the onset of dementia in a grandparent. I wanted to explore this aspect in Fionn’s story, but not in a melancholic way. It was important for me to write about a grandfather who lives with memory loss but is not defined by it, a man who is still the sum of his experiences despite his inability to sometimes recall them. I wanted to write about hope, instead of despair, and portray the love between a grandfather and grandchild as one that will always anchor you no matter the changing tides of memory.

Another element in the novel is the island breathing. It inhales as Fionn time travels. How do you write the magical elements – do they occur to you mid-stream or do you pre-plan these markers for the reader?

The island’s actions occur organically mid-stream. It sounds peculiar to say, but I wasn’t even expecting the first exhale until it came out on the page. Up until that point, I wasn’t intending to make the island its own character, but as I was writing, it just felt entirely natural.

You’ve previously written a YA mafia romance trilogy. Was writing this very different?

Writing The Storm Keeper’s Island was a truly magical experience. It poured out of me, in a way that I’ve never quite experienced before with any book. There was something so freeing about being able to write magic that was big and grand and rippling with adventure. My YA books were darker and more serious, and had to be handled with a slightly different level of care. The process of including humour and emotional development was quite a similar experience, despite the different genres, however, and one I always thoroughly enjoy as an author.

How do you feel about being shortlisted for the FCBG Children’s Book Award, voted for entirely by children?

I squealed with delight when I found out! It is an incredibly special feeling to know that The Storm Keeper’s Island has been embraced by children. That not only are they enjoying it, but they’re voting for it. There really is no other word for it – it really is a dream come true.

Lastly, is there a second Arranmore book coming?

The sequel, The Lost Tide Warriors, will be out on July 11th, and I cannot wait to share it with everyone!


Good luck to Catherine Doyle for the Children’s Book Award. You can add your voice to the mix by voting here. The winners’ ceremony is on 8th June in London and the CBA are giving away a pair of tickets to the ceremony to one lucky voter and their carer. 

The New Boy: True Love

the new boyWas it the marketing description of ‘Black Mirror-esque’ that made me pick up this YA thriller, or its supposed preoccupation with social media, free will and privacy? A few YA titles have been dropping through the post that are bouncing around this theme – social media, privacy and truth are hot topics right now. However, it’s also Rawsthorne’s gripping writing and her previous books that made me pick up The New Boy.

When Jack starts at Zoe’s school, everyone seemingly adores him. What’s not to like? He’s charming, handsome, outgoing, popular – as good with parents as he is with peers. So Zoe’s amazed, but flattered, when Jack chooses to date her. But as they become more involved, things feel slightly out of kilter. Is it her, or him? Can someone be that perfect?

This is an intriguing novel that dissects personality as well as technology. Which behaviours are helpful and which controlling, when is a person being manipulated? The book explores tension between using tech wisely as a force for good, and letting oneself be guided by it. It’s about control of ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Rawsthorne also explores social groups, peer pressure and relationships. In fact, it’s Zoe’s initial strength – her confidence with her individual image, her unwillingness to follow a crowd on social media that makes her stand out as a great protagonist, someone we want to identify with, and someone who is suspicious of anything out of the ordinary. But everyone has their weakness, and when Zoe’s is exploited, her boundaries and relationships begin to crumble. This is a thoroughly enjoyable, yet also thought-provoking look at how we can stay truthful to ourselves, but also fit in with society. I’m delighted to host Paula Rawsthorne dissecting true love:

Falling in love can be dangerous when you don’t know who’s pulling the strings.

The New Boy is a twisting psychological thriller and that makes it very hard to talk about the themes of the story as they only become clear once the reader has finished the book and discovered what it was really about.

However, I think it’s safe to say that one of the themes is about different understandings of romantic love.  We may all think we know what it is, but if you ask a group of people you’d be surprised at the array of answers – it often seems that one person’s idea of romantic love would make another person run for the hills.

So, let me ask you, what does it take to fall in love with someone?

Does there have to be a chemistry between you?  Do they have to be charming, thoughtful, full of romantic gestures?  Do you want their undivided attention and adoration? Are shared interests and passions important? Should it be a meeting of minds as well as a physical attraction?

I’m sure that you could add your own ‘must-have’ factors to the above, including that ‘je ne sais quoi’ – that alluring, intangible element that seals the deal.

In The New Boy, everyone at Hinton Dale Sixth Form College is enamoured with the handsome, charming and clever, Jack Cartwright.  However, romantically, Jack only has eyes for Zoe Littlewood.

Jack seems to provide Zoe with all of the essential factors for falling in love.  He’s drop-dead gorgeous and full of romantic gestures.  They have interests and passions in common, he’s generous, thoughtful, kind and even heroic.  He’d go to any lengths to make her happy.  He bolsters Zoe’s confidence and helps her with her studies.  He even takes her to one of the most romantic locations in English Literature.

Anyone in Zoe’s shoes would be head-over-heels with Jack but, despite his perfection, it takes some time for his charms to work on Zoe as there’s something about Jack that unsettles her.

Maybe a contributing factor that bothers Zoe is Jack’s belief that the ultimate romantic lovers are Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights.

“He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”  Catherine Earnshaw in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Whilst Jack considers Heathcliff and Catherine to be soul-mates who embody passionate, eternal love, Zoe sees a toxic, revengeful relationship that destroys the lives of the couple and others around them.

Zoe is also a fan of the Bronte sisters’ novels but, for her, it’s the relationship between Jane Eyre and Rochester that represents a healthier, stronger ‘romantic love’.

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you –and full as much heart!  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Sure, Rochester is far from perfect (SPOILER ALERT – even if he thought he was protecting his wife from an inhumane asylum, he did have her locked in the attic and was prepared to let Jane marry him in ignorance).  But Zoe admires Jane’s strength of character and individualism (something that Zoe also possesses, not least for her decision to come off social media).  Zoe considers Jane Eyre’s relationship with Rochester as, ultimately, a rather beautiful meeting of minds, bodies and souls and not the twisted love displayed in Wuthering Heights.

However, Jack seems to have a particular understanding of what constitutes true love and once he sets his sights on Zoe she soon realises just how hard it is to resist The New Boy.

………………………………………………

With thanks to Paula for her intriguing post. You’ll have to read The New Boy to find out the twists and turns in this fast-paced, not always romantic, novel. You can buy a copy here.

Be My Valentine

I’ve taken the liberty of focussing on love in general for my picture books on Valentine’s Day. That’s not to say I eschew romance – not at all! But working as a primary school librarian, Valentines are more likely passed from friend to friend or child to family member or even to pet, and this is what these three picture books celebrate.

the kissThe Kiss by Linda Sunderland, illustrated by Jessica Courtney-Tickle

In the so-called current trend for uplit (literature that’s uplifting for the soul), this picture book fits lovingly into the zeitgeist. Edwyn blows a kiss to his grandma, shown on the cover as a gold foil sprinkle of stars, like dandelion seeds released into the wind. Edwyn’s grandma shares her received kiss, almost as an act of kindness, bestowing it upon those who need it most, such as a sad old man and a cross mother. But then darkness descends in the shape of a man who steals it and wants to keep the kiss for himself, all locked up as an artefact in a cage. But this has devastating consequences for the kiss, for him, and also for the outside world. Luckily, he not only sees the error of his ways, but is granted swift forgiveness by the kind grandma, and all is resolved.

Courtney-Tickle illustrates the story with an emphasis on nature and the outdoors. Most of her large double page illustrations are populated with wildflowers, colourful leaves, animals and outdoor activities with a clear focus on weather – all emphasised by the choice of dancing leaves on the book’s endpapers. The colour is magical, reminiscent of David Litchfield, with an old-fashioned fairy tale quality, exemplified by marching bands, an abundance of Snow-White-esque wildlife, cold dark towers, a simplicity in the characters’ timeless outfits. And yet a modernity creeps in too – a wooden bin at the park, mobile phones, an abundance of balloons.

The book is about love shared, kindnesses spread, and the empathy needed to understand others. You can buy it here. 

mirabel's missing valentinesMirabel’s Missing Valentines by Janet Lawler, illustrated by Olivia Chin Mueller

More love shared in this whimsical picture book from the States, which really is about Valentine’s Day.

Mirabel, our shy and anxiety-ridden mouse, complete with large eyes, long whiskers and a penchant for hats, sets out for school to deliver her Valentine’s cards.

The reader is entreated to rhyming text to tell Mirabel’s story – the joy at creating the cards and the angst about delivering them – but it is only through ‘reading’ the pictures that we see the cards spill from her bag on her way to school. The recipients of the spilled cards (all strangers in the town) return them with smiles, touched by their heartfelt sincerity and the fleeting opportunity to see them, which makes them smile and gives them joy. The happiness she has inadvertently spread gives Mirabel the confidence to take them to school.

The illustrations are old-worldly, a cast of anthropomorphic animals fill the book, the buildings look as if they come from a playmobil playset. But if you’re after a picturebook about overcoming anxiety and shyness, and how kindness can spread, this may be one for you. Endearing. You can buy it here. 

rosie is my best friendRosie is My Best Friend by Ali Pye

A much more modern outlook in this fresh and zippy tale of friendship that relies heavily upon the reader’s visual understanding as well as narrative absorption. Rosie explores how she spends her day with her best friend – helping the adults around them, playing games, learning new tricks. There’s a delightful contradiction between the helpfulness Rosie and her friend think they are giving, and the actual consequence of some of their actions, and the illustrations not only reveal the truth but burst with friendliness, vibrancy and warmth themselves, from the stroll in the park with balloon seller, boating and games, to the make-believe play at home.

There is familiarity in this tale of an ‘everyday’, a comfort from the openness of the characters and the intense cuteness of both girl and dog. The twist at the end is both writerly and masterful – suggesting the reader thinks about point of view and perspective. Clever, witty, and completely adorable. Give it to your Valentine for Valentine’s here. 

 

Joy by Corrinne Averiss, illustrated by Isabelle Follath

joy
What makes us happy? Is it our genetic makeup, our life circumstances, our achievements? We constantly strive to be happy, but happiness can really only be a fleeting sensation, for without experiencing some low points in between, we wouldn’t know what happiness is.

The little girl called Fern in the picture book Joy also strives to find what happiness is, and to catch it. She is a lively active girl, with a hearteningly good relationship with her grandmother, who bakes butterfly cakes, and smiles. But one day, her grandmother – Nanna – seems down. The colour has ebbed from her page, her paintings hang skewwhiff, there are cobwebs on the mantelpiece, and a wheelchair where once there were cakes.

Fern asks her mother, who tells her that the joy has gone out of Nanna’s life, and so Fern endeavours to capture some to take to her. This brings on a beautiful few pages that try to capture where Fern finds joy – getting the giggles, or dancing with her father. In the end, the feeling is summed up with a ‘whooosh’.

Unfortunately, Fern can’t package this whooosh of joy for her Nanna – it won’t fit in her cardboard box, or stay in her butterfly net. And yet, when she goes to Nanna and spends time telling her about her joyful exploits, the joy comes back into the room in a phantasmagoria of colours. And once more there are butterfly cakes.

The illustrations are both fresh and traditional. Nanna is pictured as a stereotypical older woman – white hair in a bun, glasses on a string, and in an old-fashioned armchair. And yet the butterflies rise from a cake in a stunningly fresh kaleidoscope cascade. Fern plays with old-fashioned toys, and yet the people in the park are a diverse mix – some seem from today, others even from Edwardian times. Perhaps because ultimate happiness doesn’t change over time.

In fact there are numerous devices here to bring happiness to the reader. The contentment on Fern’s face, the use of the word ‘whooosh!’ to express how Fern feels about happiness or joy, the beautiful colour wheels used to express the bounce of a puppy, the chuckle of a baby, and the repetition of the happy words.

Follath’s exploration of colour, using mainly ink, pencils and watercolour is exceptionally stunning here, quite literally bringing joy to the reader. The careful delineation of the park and all its various elements, the exquisite ability to capture innocent expression in Fern’s face as she gathers her catching materials, and of course the abstract spreading of colourful ‘joy’ throughout.

Some negative comments on the book have pointed to how easily it offers a way out of Nanna’s depression, and doesn’t give the illness the gravitas it deserves. I’d disagree. Moments of sadness don’t always equate to depression. In fact Nanna is shown with all the colour seeped from her world, but so is Fern too at one point – when she finds she can’t capture joy in a bag. She isn’t suffering from depression – it’s a momentary sadness, just as happiness and joy can be momentary too. Nanna’s does seem prolonged, and some readers have suggested, more serious – but there’s little harm in showing young readers that there are good days to be found even with periods of persistent sadness.

There is no reason given for Nanna’s sadness, although I speculate it’s more about ageing than it is about depression, but the essence of the book is not to explore this. It’s to explore happiness – and that it’s not equated with ‘taking’ behaviour, in terms of what we have or possess. Joy isn’t in our possessions in the same way that it isn’t something that can be physically possessed. Instead, happiness is about ‘giving’ behaviour – about giving of ourselves to others, and by that making them and us feel good. Fern’s time with Nanna gives the greatest joy to them both.

And within the book it’s this inter-generational behaviour that stands out for me. The book shows what joy it can be for different generations to connect and develop an ongoing interdependent relationship. And how emotion is transient. You can buy it here.

if all the world wereAnother book that deserves a mention and seeks to explore this relationship is If All the World Were by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys. This picturebook is about exploring the death of a grandparent, but deals with it sensitively. What it does have in common with Joy is to explore the quality of the time that the grandfather and his granddaughter spend together -through the different seasons and engaged in different activities. And they have created a vast bank of memories for the girl to hold onto.

Coelho is a poet and it shows in the lyrical text, which is both touching and filled with analogies and metaphor. There are also hints of cultural inheritance, as the grandfather imparts his own childhood stories to his granddaughter. Of course the book is laden with loss, but the intimacy and warmth of the colourful illustrations lessen the load, and what remains is the inherent tenderness of this intergenerational relationship. You can buy it here.

The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy


I’m a big fan of the television programme The Leftovers. Initially based on the Tom Perotta novel, it addresses the issue of what happens to those left behind when two per cent of the population simply disappears. Perotta apparently came up with the idea as a reaction to 9/11, ie the exploration of our emotions when people we love simply vanish. One day they’re there, and the next day they’re gone. Bain Murphy’s book doesn’t disappear people; even more startling in a way, is that abstract things disappear, and no one knows what’s going to be next. At first it’s sense of smell, then reflections, then colours and so on.

In The Disappearances, the absences are limited to a few towns, and only occur every seven years. When Aila and her younger brother, Miles, return to live in one of these towns after the death of their mother, they must come to terms with the absences, but also seek to discover their mother’s possible involvement with them, and a series of clues she inadvertently left behind.

There’s another story within the whole, that of a diary written by a separate character, as yet unknown to the reader, which crops up every few chapters. It’s another mystery for the reader to attempt to solve, and is written with a spooky turn of phrase. This mystery is perpetuated for a long way into the novel, and all the time the reader is still grappling with the clues Aila keeps dropping about her own mystery. Add to that a sort of fantastical historical setting – rural Connecticut in 1942, a love story, and am intriguing set up of teen friends and jealousies, and this is one dense novel.

Aila’s main key to solving the mystery is a collection of Shakespeare plays, annotated by her mother, from which she draws links to the ongoing disappearances. Herein, sadly, lies the flaw in the story, for although she does pull out quotations that somewhat link to the mystery, generally the quotations are tenuous, and one can’t help thinking that there must be a Shakespeare quote to fit almost any situation. What’s more intriguing are the references to different bird behaviours dropped into the text by the mystery diarist, which add another element to the whole.

Bain Murphy also feeds into the story a current trend among many young teens, that of creating ‘potions’, in this case ‘variants’, which add an extra level of curiosity, and she is adept at her ‘other world’ creation of introducing certain traditions and small character ticks, such as inscribing skin with quotations or illustrations, taking part in moonlit dreamlike competitions and so forth. All of which adds to the general romance of the text, and gives it extra layers of character and place.

So despite the slight tenuousness of the mishmash of clues and hints, this is a gripping and highly enjoyable novel with believable characters and flowing prose. In fact, the reader goes along with the clues happily because the plot and pace are so intense and riveting. Aila is flawed but believable, as is the family with whom she stays, and the other characters who punctuate this small-town America. The disappearances are well-developed and described, and there’s a great balance of reality/fantasy. Thoroughly memorable, and highly original, although marketed as ‘teen’, this could be read happily from 12+ years. You might even pick up the odd Shakespeare quote. It’s certainly one of the most inventive and lovingly crafted novels I’ve read recently. You can buy it here.

Growing teens’ romances

It’s slightly stretching my usual coverage of children’s books for primary school children, but somebody with teenage children told me that it was really hard to differentiate between age appropriateness in books once their children got to the point of browsing the ‘YA’ shelf. I agreed. It’s so hard to know which books are aimed at the lower teen market, and which for the young adult. Also, as with all these things at all ages, each child is different. One shy hesitant prudish 16 year old may want to read very different things to an outgoing knowing tween.

Interestingly, the younger age is more often defined as ‘teen’ (gentler content), the older books more as ‘YA’, (may include swearing, frank descriptions of sex, more challenging issues).

Three gorgeous romances came through the letterbox this year – all for different ages. Here are my thoughts.

My first teen, tween romance is One Silver Summer by Rachel Hickman. Suggested for 11+ years, this is a gentle story about a burgeoning friendship between a boy and a girl, and the feelings they start to have for each other.

Fifteen year old Sass, grieving for her mother after her sudden death, has moved from America to live with her uncle in Cornwall. She falls for an old grey horse that she stumbles upon in a meadow, and before long also falls for its owner – a young boy bunking from his privileged boarding school after hearing of his parents’ divorce.

Both children are hiding secrets, and both seek consolation in the feeling they get from riding horses against the backdrop of a windswept Cornwall beach and the vast sky over the sea.

Before long it becomes apparent that the boy, Alex, is heir to the throne, and there follows a tumult of trouble that threatens to wrench Alex and Sass apart – from the jealousy of one of Alex’s school friends, to the media attention that follows Alex’s school absence and his parents’ divorce.

The writing is ever evocative of the ranging Cornwall scenery – the coastline, the gossamer-white seeds of a dandelion, the mist off the sea, and even at times falls into poetry as Sass struggles to articulate what Alex means to her.

Hickman navigates the different voices of the characters by dipping in and out of a full cast, but the narrative is weighted so heavily onto Sass and Alex, that it might have been better and more effective to have stuck to a two person point-of-view. However, the whole piece comes across as sweet and endearing, despite the trauma that Sass has suffered, and the high beauty of the landscape eclipses any faults in characterisation. This is a horsey, dreamy, feel-good summery read – great for a first romance.

Please note I read a very early proof copy. Win your own proof copy and chocolate by finding me on twitter. Or pre-order your own copy here.

And Then We Ran by Katy Cannon. Suggested for 12+ years by the publisher.

Despite being about two 17-year-olds, the plot spinning on an elopement, and mentioning losing virginity in the first sentence, this is overall a tame teen contemporary read, which is why it sits comfortably in my 13+ age range.

This gorgeous, lovable narrative tells the story of Megan and Elliot, and takes the format of alternate first person point of view chapters, which works well – Cannon capturing the different voices with distinction, so that the reader can tell who is narrating even without the labels at the beginning of each chapter.

What’s also well-conceived is the entire plot. Elliot wants to study archaeology at University in London, but funding is an issue, especially since his father is serving time for fraud. Megan’s parents, reeling from the recent death of Megan’s older sister, are pushing for her to go to university, but Megan is set on doing a photography course.

When Megan discovers that she will inherit a London flat upon turning 21 or getting married, she hits upon the latter as a way to serve a purpose for both herself and Elliot (even though they’re not even dating!).

The book veers off into a road trip to Gretna Green, with much self-discovery along the way.

The characterisation in the book is what makes it. The reader gets a real feel for the anxieties of these two teens, both on the cusp of adulthood. Their heightened emotions (both of them impacted by the recent traumatic changes in their lives), feel authentic and honest. It’s studded throughout with great humour as well, and the secondary characters – Elliot’s brother, and Megan’s best friend, are both rounded and convincing characters.

Cannon also deals with a theme not much touched upon in YA that I’ve read, of the idea of university and which path to take into adulthood.

But themes and genres aside, this was just a compelling, well-written, and touching story, with fantastic characters and a genuine warmth to the story. Highly recommend. Run away with your copy here.

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

A confession – I veered away from this book to start with, believing it was pitched at just too high an age group for my blog, but then a very highly-thought of children’s books expert told me to read it, and I devoured it in one sitting. Suggested also for the 12+ age group according to the publisher, this book does contain many more references to sex, and the issues are altogether darker.

Petula blames herself for her young sister’s death, and because her anxiety is out of control, she attends an art therapy group with a mishmash of other teenagers who are also experiencing issues with family, sexuality, addictive substances etc. It is here that she meets Jacob, an amputee, who likes to tell stories to cover the real reason for his injury. When the truth comes out about what really happened, Petula is already too far into her relationship with Jacob, and the truth threatens to destroy them.

Nielsen’s deft writing skill is apparent in abundance here. Not only is it a gripping read, but the characters, no matter how minor their part, come across as authentic teens, with agonies and anxieties, which Nielsen portrays with sympathy and sensitivity as well as a clear sense of humour (teen cynicism and sarcasm). She zips around the themes with ease, especially Petula’s anxieties about everything around her, and manages to incorporate a sense of the consequences of the tragedy on Petula’s parents too. Despite the tough subject matter, there is no overdramatisation here – it’s a carefully sewn tapestry of teen angst.

But what the book does that’s really sparkling for a teen audience, is give the reader the courage to face down adversity – showing that other people’s problems may not be apparent but may be larger than one’s own, and that each person can find courage somewhere to overcome obstacles – especially if they speak up and speak out. It’s about trust, and friendship and guilt and grief. I’m optimistic you’ll buy your own copy here.

 

 

 

Family Love

Under the Love Umbrella by Davina Bell, illustrated by Allison Colpoys
I’m not one for sentimental stuff, as those who know me will verify. And I’m not won over by simplistic declarations of love – usually in my fiction I like a little darkness too. But this is a captivating picture book, which supplies the darkness in the illustrations – by contrasting it with the effervescent light, as seen on the cover.

In short, the book is about being loved. When you’re lost in the world, the narrator speaks as if they’re the person who will be there – holding your hand, the other end of the phone, supplying your forgotten PE Kit. But that’s not what makes this book special. Firstly, although there are different characters shown within, and the idea is abstract rather than specific – the children are given names in an illustration at the start of the book – so we’re familiar with them before any story begins.

Then the use of colour – the vivid neons of the illustrations, often set against extremely pale and muted or dark and menacing backgrounds – so that the lightness of love and the kindness in the world is shown in bright brilliant colour. And the ideas within are tangible, real. The bad things in life are clearly delineated: a dog barking too loudly, an argument with a friend, feeling left out, or simply scared of the dark, against the good comforting things: a mother tucking in a child at bedtime, flying a kite, being comforted with a story, being together as a family.

The characters are a diverse mix – all cultures, all ages. Even the text comforts – the gentle rhythm, like swaying in a breeze, and the gentle rhyming – the expected falling into place. For nights when you need a hug – this is it – in a book. You can buy it here.

We Are Family by Patricia Hegarty, illustrated by Ryan Wheatcroft
Another exploration of the love that can be found in families. This book aims to show – through a series of mini illustrations on each page – the different families that exist and the comfort they can give. Again, a mix of peoples, ages and races can be found in the illustrations here – two Dads, large families, single mothers, ethnically diverse.

There’s a theme here though – each family is shown on each page in a small vignette – with a different activity, spelled out in the text. So in the first spread, the families are seen in different weathers – from playing in a paddling pool to braving the storm. The next page is the families eating – be it in front of the television, or flipping a pancake together, or sitting round a dining table.

Other pages lay out modes of travel, feeling ill, leisure pursuits, and – the page in which things go wrong: One family suffers a flood, another a lost dog, another a broken arm. It’s both slightly humorous and rather compelling. Of course the message is that together we are stronger – in our family units we can overcome.

If you can get over the rather saccharine text, this is a touching little book, and the many many illustrations will entertain for a long time, and provide first steps in visual literacy – spotting narrative and spotting differences between what each family does. You can purchase it here.

The State of Grace by Rachael Lucas

This past week has been Autism Awareness Week. So I step slightly out of my usual territory to review a teen book, one that explores what it’s like to have Asperger’s, but one that is also a sumptuous read. Books are a great pathway to developing empathy, and The State of Grace really opens up readers’ minds to autism.

Grace, 15, has Asperger’s, but she doesn’t let that define her. She has a phenomenal best friend, Anna, and a potential teen romance with newcomer Gabe, as well as well-defined passions, including horse riding and Dr Who. But there’s an undercurrent of tension at home: her father is working away from home as a wildlife photographer, and her mother is not only trying to cope on her own, but is ever aware of her own changing role as her children grow up.

Grace’s mother invites an old friend into their lives, who exerts a certain amount of influence over her – not always for the good of the family – serving to superficially inflate Grace’s mother’s self-confidence whilst denting Grace’s own. Grace fears the changes being wrought on her family, at the same time that she is unwittingly seeking to change her own with a teen romance.

The book is told from Grace’s point of view – she explains her thoughts to the reader as if she’s talking directly to them, explaining what her experiences are like. There’s her everyday reality of living with Asperger’s – when she feels tired from socialising she reaches the point in which:

“the noises in the house have separated and I can hear each one individually. And at the same time I can hear them all together – it’s hard to explain. It’s like I’m trying to process what’s going on and I can’t filter anything and I can’t think at all.”

But there’s also the distinctive moments in life – emergencies, first kisses, fallen horses. What becomes startlingly obvious is that Grace, of course, is just like any teenager: the first kiss, the first date is nerve-wracking. She is constantly preoccupied that her friends will tire of her. She worries about her relationship with her mother, as well as having moments of taking out her anger and stress on her little sister.

Of course this book will be cheered for bringing a girl with Asperger’s to the front of the action – she’s our protagonist and she’s portrayed brutally honestly. Lucas gives her a romance, shows that she can be both good at communicating like any teen, and also clumsy in her romance like any teen:

“And I wonder if dates are supposed to be like a rollercoaster of amazing bits and uncomfortable silences and kissing and not knowing what to say.”

Grace has no ‘special’ quirk with her autism, as is sometimes portrayed in literature, such as an ability to process maths sums quickly. What she does fear most though, is change. Familiarity is key to her stability, so when changes seem to lurk on the horizon, her world comes crashing down.

The book poses lots of questions – about fitting in and standing out, about the lovely awkwardness of a first tender romance, and a teen’s dawning recognition of her parents’ fallibility.

The secondary characters in the book are particularly effective – from the little sister – also struggling through teen hood in her own way – an understanding and sympathetic grandma, and an undaunted ever-loyal best friend.  Wouldn’t we all love an Anna in our lives?

The book feels current and fresh in its references. But what I particularly enjoyed is how readable and relatable the text is, and how well Lucas voices Grace’s feelings – bluntly: extrapolating exactly how she feels, particularly her tiredness after social interactions, and her attempts to force her face out of her ‘resting bitch face’ into something more compassionate to show that she’s listening to the conversation. Lucas should be pleased – her readers will certainly listen.

A sensitive and charming novel. For 12+ years. You can buy it here.

Emotional Literacy: Books about feelings

Young children may find it difficult to identify and express their feelings, and quite often it can come out as difficult or disruptive behaviour. In others, feelings may be locked away and expressed only in silence. Key strategies for helping children to express their feelings include learning how to identify what they are feeling – naming feelings and giving them labels is vastly helpful. As is learning to identify them in others – by facial expressions for example. After naming the feelings, it helps to talk about them. And books are excellent ways to trigger an emotional response:

feelings

Feelings by Richard Jones and Libby Walden
Sometimes with children, one way to ask them to express how they are feeling about something is to ask them to draw a picture. A yellow sunshine or a black sky can give a clear indication of emotion. Richard Jones explores this with his debut picture book, Feelings. With the same boy on each spread (die-cut so that he remains the same while all around him changes), emotions are evoked throughout the book by a series of images on each page.

The illustrations cleverly surround the child – changing mood with colour, texture, shapes and illustrations, all of which convey the emotion expressed in the rhyming couplet text.

Each double page is a different emotion. Brave is expressed with a beautiful orange sky at sunrise or sunset, and acres of land below, as the boy stands atop a mountain:

“The journey might be hard and the path may not be straight,
but if you’re bold and carry on, the view below looks great!”

Angry is red, the boy halfway up an erupting volcano, whereas Happy sees him surrounded by smaller images in a variety of bright colours – mainly depicting nature, from flowers to dancing dogs, symbols of love, music, and a string of coloured lights. Jealous shows the boy atop a mountain again, but this time set in a green land, watching a girl on pink hills riding a bike with a flock of red and pink birds rising behind her.

“Your vision blurs, your mind is fixed on things you do not own
and as green steam begins to rise, you give an envious moan.”

Other emotions include Alone, Embarrassed, Excited, Afraid and even Calm – and there’s a strong call to empathy at the end of the book as other children join our boy in a beautiful orange and blue palette of child-friendly images, from swinging on a tree branch to walking a dog, and breathing in the air from a calm sunny winter’s day. A host of smaller illustrations at the bottom of the page give different scenes, and each one could be discussed by the reader – how does each picture make you feel?

This is a clever book – enabling emotions to be discussed frankly against a background of an appealing, calming and emotive collection of landscapes and illustrations. Showing that emotional literacy and visual literacy are meshed together. You can buy it here.

a-book-of-feelings

A Book of Feelings by Amanda McCardie, illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino
A more overt and explicit show of emotions is discussed in this new book from McCardie and Rubbino. Rather than filled with abstract landscapes and vignettes, this book goes to the heart of the family. Rubbino portrays two children, Sam and Kate, with their mum and dad and Fuzzy Bean, their dog. Then by illustrating everyday actions and situations, Rubbino and McCardie draw attention to the different emotions felt, and give them names.

They start with happy (a very good place to start), and Kate and Sam look directly at the reader. This is a brilliant way to invite the child reader to bond with the characters – their facial expressions and body language invite the reader right inside the book, and therefore into the emotions of Sam and Kate.

Throughout the book, the family are seen doing everyday things. Things that make them happy, such as saving a goal, reading, drawing etc. And, in a gorgeous full double page spread, showing that they are loved. In bed with their parents, sharing breakfast, amidst the clutter of their home. It feels intimate, and safe and comfortable, and again, makes the reader feel included.

But, of course, it explains over the next few pages, that everyone experiences different emotions, and although they are still loved, sometimes Mum gets cross, and Dad might get sad or angry. A raft of emotional feelings is explored and explained, including grumpiness, nervousness, feeling shy, feeling embarrassed, feeling scared and sad. What’s clever here is that not only does the author explain that sometimes saying sorry or thank you can be difficult when you’re not feeling happy and gracious, but also that sometimes you can feel mixed emotions, and that people express their emotions differently. An easy one to explain is that Mum cries when she is happy and sometimes sad people don’t cry. I particularly loved:

“Sam cries when he’s had a bad fall, or can’t explain something, or he’s tired.
Kate cries when she can’t think what she feels, or she’s downright cross.”

The author stretches the family a little to include a friend whose parents are separating. A myriad of emotions come out here, as well as a clear explanation of what she needs from Kate and Sam’s family to help her.

Death too is dealt with – the death of a pet, and even the dog’s emotions. Jealousy is first explained with Fuzzy Bean, and then goes back in time to when Kate was born, and Sam’s jealousy of his new sibling.

Bullying too is explored, as well as one of the reasons behind it.

This is a fabulously thought out book. Both entertaining, with delightful illustrations that make the reader feel part of the family, and which contain a great deal of detail of the family home, so that each picture needs intense scrutiny, as well as deciphering (very easily) which emotion is being explored. Mostly though, there is an overriding sense of understanding for each member of the family, and love, so that by the end, a young child will be able to see that emotions are in flux all the time, but as long as there’s a basic grounding of love and understanding, they will be fine. A great addition to any bookshelf. You can buy it here.

meh

Meh by Deborah Malcolm
Of course sometimes it’s a little more complicated than that. Meh is a wordless picture book that explores depression. A young boy is shown happy – he draws pictures, runs across a rainbow. But then an abstract shape of darkness appears and pulls him inside, and then he appears trapped in page after page of darkness.

Finally, he sees a way out and follows a trail to overcome the darkness. Cleverly, Malcolm has illustrated this with enormous dexterity, so that not only does the way out look glowing and illuminated, but also it looks incredibly difficult for the boy to climb out from the darkness.

There’s quite a limited pool of resources explaining depression to children. In fact, it’s a fairly difficult thing to explain to adults too. This wordless picture book shows that depression can happen to children too – and is a great starting point to talk about it – to explain that it’s something that happens and can happen to anyone and importantly, is not something that can just be shaken off by a kick about in the park etc.

The boy seems fairly age-less in the story, which is good as the book can appeal to a wider audience. His way out of the depression is through a vague, illuminated white cat, which could be a symbol for a variety of things that pull someone out of depression, and because the story is left wordless and fairly vague, the emotional literacy is left to the reader to decipher and interpret in a way that resonates with them.

Meh has questions at the end of the book for further discussion, although I feel that the illustrations themselves pose enough questions to talk through as the book is read. But it is an excellent tool for dealing with this complicated issue, and quite unique in its marketplace. You can find it here.

 

All three books were sent to me by the publishers for review. 

 

When MG Becomes YA

So I’ve been thinking about age. Not just because this year holds a milestone birthday for me, and for many of my friends, but also in terms of storytelling. I don’t think age matters too much in deciding what we choose to read – I am equally happy to read about Julian Barnes or Philip Roth’s older men as I am to read books with child protagonists; Life of Pi, Room, My Name is Leon etc. It’s more to do with our interests and personalities. However, stories do appeal because they resonate, so I think my father, for example, would more happily read Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett than Not Working by Lisa Owens (two great books I devoured this summer).

With children though, it’s more contentious. There are those that say we shouldn’t ‘gate keep’, and that we should let children read anything – if they don’t understand it, it doesn’t matter because the content will go over their heads. The same people say that censorship by age is nonsense – who are we to know the emotional intelligence or sensitivity of a child? Each one is an individual.

However, several things occurred to me recently. Firstly, I’m running an INSET this week about school library use and helping children to choose books. I’m sure there are some books the Headteacher vetoes (and rightly so, deeming them too old for the primary school library). Secondly, I read two books this summer aimed at the younger end of YA, but which for me, contained too much disturbing detail for me to suggest for that readership. Thirdly I read a review in The Times newspaper of Mal Peet’s newest novel, posthumously finished by Meg Rosoff, in which the reviewer stated that it contained details of rape, and therefore was suitable for 14 years plus – thus putting a direct age censorship on one particular issue.

Michael Morpurgo stated recently that hugely disturbing images come flooding at our children all the time – mainly because of their access to multimedia and because of the media’s access to what’s happening in the world as never before: Earthquakes, floods, war, terrorism. But how much do we protect children from this, or explain it? I have the headlines rolling into my kitchen every breakfast time, but I distinctly remember turning down the volume when, for a while, all the headlines were about Operation Yewtree, and I didn’t want my children (all aged under ten at the time) to hear details of that.

Some may think it’s good that MG (middle grade) and YA (young adult) books deal with difficult issues. I certainly agree that no literature for children should ‘dumb things down’. Children and teens are intelligent and should be presented with books that are well written, clever and ‘good’ literature, and which confront topics that they don’t necessarily, and wouldn’t want to, experience personally – in fact, sometimes with issues that don’t ‘resonate’ personally but which they want to read about happening to others to explore the emotional empathy it provokes. But, as in all art, there’s a reason that a TV watershed was introduced, that some music is labelled ‘explicit’. It’s to point out what’s contained within.

When I started my website, and my reading consultancy, I gave myself a remit. I would suggest books for children up to about age 14. This covered primary school, and those children who are advanced readers and emotionally astute – thus pushing the boundary slightly above their 11 year old selves, because, as above, I believe in each child being an individual.

And then this summer I read two books from publishers who thought that they fitted my remit. Possibly because they have young protagonists. And yet, although they’re both good reads, and in fact one is stunning, I couldn’t just review them on my site as books of the week without this mitigating introduction. Because the subject matter, well – it’s up to you as your child’s book buyer, hand-holder, confidant, judge of their own emotional intelligence – to decide if it’s appropriate for your young teen.

stars at oktober

The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard

Told in immensely lyrical, poetic, and emotional prose, Alice tells her story. She is 15, but trapped as a pre-teen from her acquired brain injury, a result of a horrific assault (with an implied, although not blatantly stated, rape.) Her speech is slow. Her words, however, fly out on paper, and she writes poems to express herself, leaving them adrift throughout the small town, Oktober Bend, in which she lives. No one takes much notice, until Manny appears in town. A former child soldier, adopted in Australia from his native war-torn Sierra Leone, Manny runs round town to overcome his past, and finds Alice’s poetry. Manny’s story is told from his point of view, in chapters with a different typeface and a starkly different tone and prose style – far more matter-of-fact, much starker. (Personally I felt that Manny’s story was too buried beneath the starkness, but two woeful emotional tales may have been an overload).

In essence, then, this is a love story between the two – but readers will fall in love with the setting, the characters surrounding the protagonists, but most of all with Alice’s voice.

Not only is Alice’s voice poetic – but it is written with a lack of capital letters, and punctuation in unexpected places – some of the prose weaves into poetry. This lifts the voice from the page, so that the reader is fully immersed inside Alice’s head; creating an intimacy as if Alice is speaking aloud to the reader in a way that she cannot speak in her own world. Perhaps, also because of her isolation from the rest of her town – defined by her slow slurred speech and the townspeople inability to understand her/fear of her – the inner monologue creates an intense intimacy with the reader. Some of Millard’s phrases – as seen through Alice’s eyes, are startling in their poetry:

“in seconds we were racing along the damp dirt track beside the river. tiger-striped with sunlight and shadow.”

And yet all the time giving Alice an acerbic and humorous teen perspective on things:

“at day centre they showed us how to make things like paper, aprons and library bags, then they sold them to people who could have made anything they wanted, but didn’t because they went to school and university and got jobs and then there was no time left over for making anything.”

The love story is not just between Manny and Alice though, (as they come through their painful pasts to accept a hopeful future), but also the distinct and clearly written characters of Alice’s grandmother and brother – both Alice’s protectors. As Joey, Alice’s brother, grows older himself, so their relationship twists and changes, and this is one of the most special aspects of the book – an increasing awareness of the bond between the two siblings stretching and changing as they both find love outside the family unit. So too, as Alice’s grandmother grows older and more frail, does the relationship between the two of them change – one protecting the other and then flipping, as relationships do. It feels real, and heartbreaking and is written with expert emotional intelligence.

The setting too adds to the whimsical poetry of the book; a sleepy closed-off town, on a river – which is key to the story – both the place where Alice was attacked, and the denouement where the characters learn about revenge and forgiveness.

This is a book filled with soul, and beautifully written. Compelling and emotive, it’s recommended as a read for ages 13-17 by the publisher. To fully understand the implied issues, I feel that the book warrants a deeper maturity on behalf of the reader, so would recommend for older YA readers (and adults). A great, stunning read. You can buy it here.

what sunny saw

What Sunny Saw in the Flames by NNedi Okorafor

This is a scintillating read, written in matter-of-fact prose from the point of view of twelve year old Sunny. She lives in Nigeria, but was born in America, and struggles to fit into either country. What makes it harder for her is that although her features are African, she is albino. It’s hard enough entering the teenage years, without feeling like a misfit already.

But when she discovers that she has a magical gift – she is one of the Leopard people, imbued with an ability to see into the future with magical power, she is sucked into a fantasy world. Together with her new friends, she visits the city of Leopard Knocks and learns that her destiny is to destroy Black Hat Otokoto, a monstrous serial killer who also happens to be a witch.

By traversing the fantasy with reality, Okorafor poses Sunny in both familiar territory as a skilled soccer player yet one who cannot easily be in the sun, and the difficulties that she faces as albino in Nigeria, along with placing her firmly inside a tightly built fantasy world that draws inevitable comparisons with Diagon Alley and the team pursuits in Harry Potter.

The writing feels childlike – told from Sunny’s point of view, it dances around with exuberance – a running train of thought with observations that are both childlike and yet expose quite brilliantly the difference between the two cultures, which Sunny experiences – even down to the gritty detail of the differences between mosquitoes in Nigeria from those in America. The imagery is quite stunning – from her burning anger to the flames and the sunshine of her name – but also mixing the exotic and the familiar – the imagery of Africa with the more familiar territory of America and her American friend – to the fantasy world of the Leopard people.

Yet, for me, despite it being marketed as being for 10-14 years, Sunny’s battle against the serial killer contains frightening imagery. A killer who focuses only on children, and who maims them in the process – a five year old child found dead in the bush with no eyes or nose, for example.

Of course there’s a difference between fantasy darkness, such as Voldemort, and a darkness that intrudes upon everyday reality. And although there is darkness in Okorafor’s fantasy landscape, it pervades Sunny’s reality too, a familiar world to the readers, and so for me, was too frightening to recommend for the pre-teen market.

However, this is a novel of startling strengths – not least in the mix of the exotic and the familiar, and the ease with which Okorafor shifts between her landscapes. An absorbing book, although with a protagonist who could do with being slightly more dynamic – she is far too reliant on her friends making decisions for her. You can buy it here.

It could be argued that this age-group (Year 7, and so 12 years +) are recommended to read The Diary of Anne Frank for example, and not much is more horrific than the reality of the Holocaust, but somehow I felt that the topics of rape and maiming in the above titles could wait to be confronted. A fictional landscape of such horrors can be dealt with when readers reach a more mature age – it’s not as if there’s a lack of material available to read for ages 10-14.

Disagree? Catch me on twitter @minervamoan