love

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 name.

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

 

 

International Book Giving Day 2016

international book giving day

Do you have children? Do they own books? One, two, more? Did you know that one third of children in the UK do not own a book?

You can change that. It’s International Book Giving Day today, and the idea is very simple. Give a book. It’s a volunteer-led scheme which involves people getting books into the hands of children who don’t have access to them as easily as other children. You could leave a book in a waiting room, give a book to a child you know, or take a book to a hospital or shelter.

Literacy is key in giving children skills in many areas, including empathy and social awareness, as well as all those important language skills too – deciphering text, grammar, spelling etc. And access to books has been found to be a clear indicator in how much children read.

To help you Miles Kelly book publishers are giving away books every hour today on FB and Twitter to support the day. You can find them on either social media feed @MilesKellyPub #bookgivingday

mileskelly3 mileskelly2 Miles Kelly1

International Book Giving Day was chosen to share Valentine’s Day, because some of us, and hopefully a growing number, have a deep love for books. We’d also like to support non-profit book charities and organisations that work tirelessly all year round to provide books to children from disadvantaged areas and backgrounds.

Miles Kelly currently support The Book Bus, who run reading schemes in Zambia, Malawi and Ecuador, and Readathon, who give books and provide storyteller visits, as well as mobile bookcases packed with new exciting children’s books to children in hospitals.

Join in on the day by gifting a book – and try and win one for a child by checking out @MilesKellyPub or finding them at Miles Kelly Publishing on Facebook.

Big Themes for Pre-teens

orbiting jupiter

So I don’t tend to feature YA (young adult books) on my website, having stated my remit as being 5-13 years – I had to stop somewhere! However, a book fell onto my desk a while ago that made me think. It defies categorization, as does its protagonists. It deals with issues that many would consider YA – love, teenage pregnancy and grief. And yet, the narrator is 12, and the boy he writes about is just 14 years old.

Published by Andersen Press, Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D Schmidt is targeted (according to them) at the 12+ age group, so just sneaks into my website review criteria. Although I wouldn’t recommend it without mentioning the themes above. Consider yourself warned.

But, this is a phenomenal book. One of the best-crafted, most heartrending novels I’ve read this year (and I include all the adult fiction I’ve read in that too). It’s a one-sitting read; the prose is stark, impeccable, faultless. No word out of place, nothing superfluous. What’s more, although it features those themes outlined above, it does so from a distance, with subtlety. There is nothing graphic. Sex happened but is not mentioned, a baby has been born, grief is the undercurrent.

Jack and his parents take in a foster brother, a fourteen year old who almost killed a teacher and has a three month old daughter called Jupiter, whom he’s never seen. Joseph is so hurt that he doesn’t show his emotions and won’t be touched – but the pain is there in a tightly woven knot, which his new family struggle to untangle.

In essence, this is a story about fathers. Jack’s father is the ideal – he believes in structure and hard work and shows his love with tenderness and moral rectitude. Joseph is a father, who longs to own up to his responsibilities despite his age, and who feels a love inside despite being unable to project it. And Joseph’s biological father is the last – the antithesis of Jack’s – the villain of the piece.

It’s also about brothers, or friendship, as Jack and Joseph form a bond over working on Jack’s parent’s farm and navigating the sometimes terrifying territory of school together. Gary Schmidt manages to portray those in society who are often overlooked or dismissed, as well as tucking into this slight novel the importance of reading, a sympathetic teacher, and the impact of extreme weather (and how to care for cows).

It’s a magnificent novel, in that although Joseph’s opening up is portrayed as profoundly slow with many setbacks, the novel races from scene to scene with skill and an edgy compulsion.

Not everyone in life is given a second chance, and not everyone grabs it when they are, but this is a beautifully written novel about just that. I cried at the end, for the story itself and also for having finished it so quickly.

In the main, it’s quite easy to distinguish between books aimed at the pre-teen market and those ‘YA’ books that are definitely for fully-fledged teenagers – by the scope of the protagonist (their world view), the language, the content, and the length of the book even. But every so often a book comes along that smudges the lines.

Schmidt has spoken about how the seed for the idea sprung from a news item about a thirteen year old father. And so, because big themes do happen to small people, if authors write stories about them as beautifully, poignantly and sensitively as this, we’d be terrible ‘gatekeepers’ if we held our children back from them.

You can buy it here.

Friendships: Rabbits and Bears

Sometimes the strangest pairings work as a grand relationship. And no, I’m not talking about author and illustrator pairings. Here below are some rabbit and bear friendships for you –

Rabbits Bad Habits

Rabbit and Bear: Rabbit’s Bad Habits by Julian Gough and Jim Field
Continuing in the tradition of highly illustrated first chapter books, this is an absolute gem. It looks attractive, reads beautifully, and is downright hilarious – from the rabbit’s expression on the front cover onwards.

Bear is inadvertently woken from her winter hibernation by an intruder. She discovers all her food has been stolen, and that she has woken too early, because it is still snowing. However, she looks on the bright side of life and starts to build a snowman.

Before long her building disturbs Rabbit and in a Bugs Bunnyish pose, he emerges from his hole to remonstrate with her for blocking his sunlight.

Before long the two are gently sparring – the Rabbit in full grumpiness mode, the Bear in Pollyanna-ish optimism. The Rabbit tries to explain gravity to the Bear, calling her an ‘idiot’ with a most supercilious look, explaining that he doesn’t mean ‘friendship’ when he is talking about ‘the force of attraction.’

Of course, that’s the irony of the whole book, which is about the unlikely burgeoning friendship between the two. Before long, Bear witnesses Rabbit’s bad habit (no, not the stealing of food, although Rabbit is revealed as the culprit, but eating his own poo) and Rabbit’s grumpiness turns to embarrassment.

There is so much to adore about this book. There is humour throughout – both in the witty dialogue and in the turn of phrase as the action unfolds. The characters’ interaction is priceless. To add to the fun the blue tonal illustrations are exquisitely funny – it really is like watching a cartoon on the television. From Rabbit’s surly eyebrows, bent ears, downturned mouth to the playfulness in size between Rabbit and Bear – and the wonderful illustrations of food – their hunger for good food, and relish in eating, is palpable.

With allusions to Winnie the Pooh – the map at the beginning highlights a ‘giant sandpit’ and a ‘bear’s cave’ and ‘rabbit’s warren’, as well as Bear’s little(ish) brain:

“Bear was actually a lot cleverer than she thought she was.”

And the introduction of a wolf who is turned off the idea of vegetarianism by a mouldy carrot, this is a book to cherish. One of those that turns children onto reading – with humour, knowledge, fun and perfection in text and illustration. Don’t let this one slip through your fingers – buy it and read it. Again and again. A classic in the making. Age 6+ years. Click the link to buy the book.

bear in love

Bear in Love by Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by Will Hillenbrand
More allusions to Winnie the Pooh in this rather whimsical picture book about giving and taking in friendship. Bear finds little treats left for him outside his cave – the first morning a juicy carrot, then many carrots, and before long a flower, and a cookie. He decides to leave gifts in return, including a honeycomb; and lie in wait for his secret admirer. However, being a sleepy bear, he always falls asleep before the mystery guest turns up.

The illustrations are gentle and ambling – the bear is portrayed as a little stupid, and makes up various simple amusing songs as he strolls along in the forest. The beautiful tepid watercolours of the illustrations give a softness to the characters – the bear is seen yawning and with flushed pink cheeks – as well as softly asleep. Indeed, he spends much of the book with his eyes closed. The reveal of the ‘mystery friend’ isn’t shocking for the reader, but is amusing nevertheless – the rabbit’s pink cheeks matching the bear’s, their posture mirroring each other. But it is the delight in food gifts here that will appeal to small children – from the blueberries, to the enjoyment of honey, to the chocolate bar. An easy picture book for age 3+ years. You can buy it here.

Beatrice and Bear

Sleepover with Beatrice and Bear by Monica Carnesi
Another rabbit and bear tale, although sadly not widely available in the UK. The two are best friends, and do everything together – supporting each other even when they do something that one can and one can’t – such as swimming. But then Bear hibernates, and although Beatrice the rabbit wants to share in this too, she cannot get to sleep. A wonderful few pages of Beatrice attempting to sleep will draw appreciative nods from insomniacs.

She is devastated that winter will be ruined because she cannot share it with her friend Bear. Her ears flop. Then she decides to document everything she does and prepare a scrapbook for Bear about the winter. She creates The Great Scrapbook of Winter Delights and Adventures For Bear by Beatrice – snow bear snowflakes, ice skating, how to make a bunny angel, and bunny tracks in the snow. The page in the book even looks like a scrapbook. The book deals excellently with the friends’ separation, the illustrations are full colour – dominated by browns, blues and greens. Age 4+ years

Finally, I can’t finish the blog without mentioning one of my favourite picture books about rabbits and bears – I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. There is certainly no friendship in this one – just a thieving rabbit (do I see a pattern emerging?)

Waiting for Callback by Perdita and Honor Cargill

waiting for callback

Whether it’s the inspired pairing of a mother and daughter author team, or simply the authors’ great perceptive insight, Waiting for Callback auditions brilliantly for the part of freshest new voice in young teen fiction.

It tells the story of fifteen year old Elektra, as she struggles to fulfil her dream of becoming an actor, at the same time as she juggles with the everyday dramas a teen faces, from a row with a best friend, schoolwork, a crush on a boy, to frustrating parents and an eccentric grandmother.

The book cleverly portrays the unglamorous world of acting – even when Elektra signs with an agency, it’s mundanely situated above a dentist surgery, and she gets offered bit part roles in advertisements and student films – the part of Dead Girl Number Three, for example – there’s no sudden red carpet or flight to Hollywood.

Accompanying this realistic portrayal of a teen acting career are the fleshed out characters surrounding Elektra. Her parents are a phenomenal supporting cast in the book – their emotional and financial support for Elektra are depicted beautifully, as are their moments of irritation and frustration with their own daughter. Although told in the first person by Elektra, the character of her mother is captured beautifully – the conversations of ‘how did it go’ after her auditions are spot on, as are the hours she spends waiting for her daughter to finish filming some bit part, as well as the father’s detached yet loving interest. Their accurate portrayal induced many wry smiles and snorts of agreement.

There’s incredible detail of the acting classes that Elektra takes too – she finds much of it pointless to begin with, but warms to it, and her enjoyment shines through despite her teenage ‘lack of enthusiasm’ attitude.

The writing is so confident and clear that the reader is pulled along on Elektra’s journey, and roots for every casting with her. Add to this the constant deadpan comedy, and this is a pleasurable and fun read from start to finish.

There are some powerful lessons in here too – that no matter what one’s profession, it takes graft (grit and determination and hard work) to get ahead – that envy of others in the profession gets you nowhere and is often misplaced, and that patience is indeed a virtue. But the story is told in such a light, fun-filled way, that none of these lessons is forced.

It also skims lightly over the idea of introspection and empathy; Elektra falls out with her best friend at one point, and it’s a good lesson on how to handle friendships when interests diverge and boyfriends take up friendship time. Learning to like a friend’s chosen other half is a lifelong skill, as is respecting their passions, whatever they may be.

There’s also Elektra’s crush on a fellow teen actor, which is well handled in a gentle way. There is nothing graphic or risqué about the love interest, which makes it a ‘safe’ read for the youngest teen wannabe. In fact, the title may very well apply to teenage crushes as well as acting careers!

The prose is interspersed with realistic letters back and forwards from the agency to Elektra and her parents, and this gives a good insight into the acting world as well as breaking up the text. There are also plenty of up-to-date references – the use of the internet and mobiles, things that are written rather than said, Buzzfeed, emoticons, quotes from modern actors, celebrity – but also clever allusions to Waiting for Godot and Austen – in ‘waiting and dating’ some things don’t change.

This is a warm, encouraging read for teenagers. Believable characters, a realistic plot and plenty of humour. Highly recommend for 11+ years. Publishes 28 January. You can buy it here.