magic

Halloween Round Up

Writers and publishers love cultural events upon which they can hook a theme – be it glowing Christmas scenes or the approach of a new season – windy autumns, growth in spring. Halloween seems to intensify every year in the UK – a very large percentage of the autumn books I received had a ‘spooky or witchy element’ to them, and I don’t mean that the pages turned by themselves (although that would be useful). So, to help you through the ghosts and ghoulies, here are my spooky and also witchy-themed picks:


Witch for a Week by Kaye Umansky, illustrated by Ashley King
Not unlike Sylvia Bishop’s stories, also illustrated by Ashley King, this latest from top children’s author Kaye Umansky is an absolutely charming story, which is ideal for newly independent readers. Elsie is recruited to house-sit for local witch Magenta Sharp for a week, and although promised a quiet easy week, has to contend with a host of quirky eccentric neighbours, a tower with personality, and a grumpy talking raven. Each character is well-defined, and Elsie herself is beautifully drawn as unflappable, book-loving, and kind.

The book contains some lovely touches, including hilarious customer service rules (Elsie has been schooled in retail), a love potion that goes awry, a book of instructions that seems to be blank, and a sassy witch whose business is mainly mail-order. Sumptuously modern, but with an old-fashioned fairy tale feel, this is one new witchy series which I’ll be recommending to all. Fun, memorable, touching and bubbly – a real hug of a book. Magic it here.


Spectre Collectors: Too Ghoul for School by Barry Hutchinson, illustrator Rob Biddulph
Some books just scream cinema. This highly visual first-in-a-series will delight comedy fans everywhere. Opening mid-action, Denzel is in the middle of maths homework when his home appears to be invaded at first by a poltergeist, and then by two figures with a gun. Before long, he too is recruited to be part of the ‘Spectre Collectors’, a kind of cross between Ghostbusters and Men in Black, an organisation in which children use magic and technology to rid the world of ‘spectres’.

With impeccable timing on jokes, sparkling top-class humorous dialogue between Denzel and his mates, and great variety of action scenes, this is a wonderful ghostly spoof. Beware a terrifying episode in the middle in which Denzel’s two fathers don’t remember him at all – as if his existence has been scrubbed from the world – but there are enough laughs and improbabilities to combat the darkness. For age 8-12 years. Spook it here.


Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball by Laura Ellen Anderson
Vampire Amelia wants to hang out with her pet pumpkin Squashy, but her parents insist she attends their Barbaric Ball. When Squashy is captured, Amelia must plan a daring rescue. This highly illustrated read for 7-9 year olds dazzles with superb illustrations, macabre puns, (including diePhones, scream teas and daymares), and is set in a grisly Nocturnia. But Amelia is a fun, endearing and captivating protagonist, and Anderson’s energy shines through with exuberance in both the prose and the illustrations. Much of the normal landscape has been inverted of course, with the characters sleeping by day and playing by night, as well as ‘cute’ things being feared, and gruesomeness celebrated. Join the vampires here.


Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Kathryn Ourst
I’m not convinced Amelia would love Vlad, but this reader certainly did. Another vampire adventure for 7-9 year olds, Vlad isn’t keen on being a vampire. He secretly reads a rather jolly boarding school book about normal children and decides that it would be nicer to live an Enid Blyton-esque existence. Anna Wilson’s trademark humour works a treat in this rather adorable little adventure, in which Vlad tries to balance his life between human school, in which they don’t realise he’s a vampire, and home life, in which he has to hide his new friends from his family.

Added to the plot are some wonderful little touches, such as his new friends telling Vlad that he needs to get his teeth fixed, to Vlad’s relationship with his very elderly grandfather, but mainly his growing friendship with Minxie. Ourst’s illustrations are a joy – very cartoonlike with gleeful vibrancy. The final picture of Minxie and Vlad laughing is enough to bring a smile to any youngster’s face. A thoroughly enjoyable vampire adventure story, sparkling with wit and warmth. Look out on the blog to see a guest contribution from author Anna Wilson next week, and you can show Vlad some pathos by buying your own copy here.


You Can’t Make Me Go to Witch School by Em Lynas, illustrated by Jamie Littler
A slightly longer adventure story from Nosy Crow publishers for the 7+ age group, which sees the advent of another little witch. Daisy Wart wants to be an actress, more particularly she wants to star as Shakespeare’s Bottom on the stage. But when her grandmother dumps her at Witch School, she struggles to escape, despite all her dramatics. This is a strange school, with cauldrons for beds, pupil-eating plants in the school garden, and the ghost of the former headmistress stalking the corridors – a step up from the sudden appearances of Miss Hardbroom in The Worst Witch.

There are highly original touches and a fixation with hats to distinguish this from other ‘witchy school’ books, and Daisy is a protagonist who definitely fulfils the role of leading lady, with her particular brand of speech and her innermost thoughts about the other characters. First in a series, this book sets up further adventures rather nicely, when Daisy, as I’m sure you’ve all guessed, decides that maybe acting isn’t the only thing she could be good at. Littler’s illustrations work their magic here too – bringing the whole ensemble to life. Join Witch School here.


School for Little Monsters by Michelle Robinson and Sarah Horne
I do sometimes wonder where Michelle Robinson finds the time to write so many picture books, but here’s another one that ticks all the boxes. The book follows two children – Bob and Blob – one a human, one a monster – due to start their first days at school. But sadly for them, some naughty monsters have swapped signs and Bob and Blob attend the wrong schools. Rhyming text pulls the reader through this great mash-up of ‘experience’ and ‘monster’ genres, as the reader finds out about their first days at school. The rules for monsters and humans are apparently a little different. Great fun, superbly funny, colourful illustrations, with lots of mayhem. As with all great picture books, the illustrations speak louder than the words. The message is that school is good, as long as you’re at the right one…Be a little monster here.


An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings by Aidan Onn and illustrated by Rob Hodgson
Actually, this should probably be at the top of the pile, as the book very cleverly introduces and explains the different types of monsters, from aliens to zombies. Each letter takes a different ‘magical’ being, with a full double spread committed to it. There are plenty of wacky, although somewhat simply conceived, illustrations in matt, muted colours, accompanied by a small paragraph of text, which is more playful than it is informative. Learn the alphabet here.


Pretty by Canizales
A message in a book, this witchy picture book contribution to Halloween and beyond, is a story about a witch with a date, who wants to look her best. The creatures she meets on route give her hints as to how to better her appearance, but by the end of course, her date is disappointed with her new looks. Rather like wearing a little too much make up. The message is obvious – be yourself, but there’s also a rather dark twist at the end. The witch is brilliantly depicted – simplistic and rather lovingly drawn – despite her perceived failings, from hooked nose to pointy chin. Nice touches include her choice of outfits! Be pretty here. Happy Halloween!

Watch out too for my extract from Scarecrow by Danny Weston coming soon – for an ideal first horror book for your 11 year old (and up!)

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend


There is a treat in store for children this October and it comes in the shape of this surprising, laugh-out-loud, inventive, wondrous new fantasy/magical book, one of the best children’s books published this year.

The story is about a cursed child called Morrigan, accepting of her forthcoming doom – her death on her 11th birthday – when she is dramatically, and rather hilariously, saved by a mysterious man called Jupiter North, who whisks her away to another land called Nevermoor, in which she won’t die. But there’s a catch – isn’t there always? – and to stay in Nevermoor she has to ‘win’ a place in the Wundrous Society by completing four weird and wonderful trials. If she fails she must go home, where she will meet her fate of death.

There are some excellent devices within the text. Morrigan’s new home is within the Hotel Deucalion, a wondrous place itself. Most children who have ever been in a hotel love to explore its nooks and crannies, to divine the layout and find the secrets, and Morrigan, along with the reader, does exactly this – sweeping through the interior and discovering great and wonderful things. It’s a fantastic motif to anchor the setting.

There’s much tongue-in-cheekery too – there is a scene at the beginning that shows school selection in Morrigan’s original land, and this certainly seems like a poke at grammar school selection, there is complicated politics within Nevermoor with the elite Wundrous Society, and Jupiter’s frequent forays to avert disaster within the city’s infrastructure, as well as the characters’ exceedingly well-conceived names, from Morrigan Crow to Jupiter North and beyond, as well as a dark unsettling Dahl-esque humour that contrasts wickedly with the warmth, colour and emotion of the main characters and the hotel occupants.

The reveals are well-timed; there are endless surprises, the trials are magical, fun, quirky and original, and each new scene evokes such empathy with Morrigan that the reader wills her to success at every turn.

Of course comparisons will abound, and accusations of borrowed ideas – the cursed child motif from Harry Potter, the trials from The Hunger Games among many others, shades of Christmas scenes borrowed from all children’s books ever, and the hooked umbrella travellator which reminded me of the doors conveyer belt in Monsters Inc, and the borrowed image of Mary Poppins floating down with her umbrella. But there are so many other innovative ideas, such originality in its conception, such world-building, with Townsend’s magnificats, vapour rooms, bedrooms that change overnight or even before your eyes, grounds in which the weather is slightly more exaggerated than everywhere else, that it doesn’t matter in the least where they came from.

There will be an envy felt by readers – who wouldn’t want a bedroom that morphs to suit the occupant’s personality and mood? But also readers will feel incredible pathos for a girl who essentially is unwanted by her family. But most of all the reader shares with Morrigan an ignorance of what is to come, of not knowing the full story, the rules of the new land she now lives within, and the motives of the people around her. Like every new immigrant, this is a story about passing the test of a new country, about finding out if you belong, who you are and where your home lies.

This is a pacey story, as apparently demanded in today’s modern fiction, and there will be sequels. (and a film apparently).

But what makes Nevermoor stand head and shoulders above the other children’s books this autumn? Is it the warmth, wittiness and pace, the combination of all of the above, or its very own special brand of magic? I think its the ease with which the whole comes together – the layers of the world feel like the softest sponge cake and icing – all coming together to create a magnificence to be devoured. The whole feels flawless, and tastes divine. There is magic within. Come find it yourself. You can buy it here.

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell


There’s so much chatter about ‘gender’ at the moment, so it’s liberating to see another children’s book with dual protagonists – a boy and a girl, both on a mission to overcome perceived ideas of who they should be and how they should turn out.

Set in a sort of long-ago Iron Age, in which iron defeats magic, and before the British nation has any sort of identity, this is tribal warfare in deep dark forests, in which warriors are pitted against wizards, and witches are a third tribe, perhaps extinct, but definitely most evil.

Prince Xar is a princely Wizard, whose magic hasn’t ‘come in’ yet, and is desperate to join his peers and brother in that attribute. Wish is a Warrior, determined to express both her independence and worth to her mother, the Warrior Queen. When tweens Xar and Wish meet by happenchance in the woods, both rebelling against their parents, it sets forth a rollercoaster of events and opportunities for both of them to prove themselves. Before long, it becomes apparent that the two tribes may need to come together in order to defeat a third.

Cressida Cowell is an accomplished storyteller, having risen to fame with her prior series, How To Train Your Dragon. Not dissimilar, this is a world teeming with engaging characters, effervescent humour, and hugely wondrous world-building. Cowell has a particular ability to pit deep questions alongside silliness and humour, so that readers are absorbing both with great delight. Cowell poses terrific questions such as, ‘what if what you had been taught to believe was wrong?’, and shows the reader how to see beyond someone else’s differences, as well as challenging perceived notions of upbringing and parents’ perceived perfection.

There is plenty to love. Both characters, being royal subjects, are surrounded by entourages – Xar’s is particularly large, and includes a bird with a screaming sense of when things are rebellious or wrong (reminiscent of The Lion King’s Zazu). Wish’s entourage includes a bodyguard who faints at the first sign of danger, and an enchanted spoon.

This kind of wackiness is enhanced by the purposefully haphazard illustrations (drawn by Cowell herself) that sit alongside the text, from the map of the lands at the beginning, to the various facial expressions of the spoon. The illustrations are scribbly and sketchy and give the impression of being spontaneous and highly creative, as energetic as the prose itself.

The pace is fleet of foot and unrelenting, and this new world is populated with a realm of enchanting and peculiar creatures, from slow but philosophical giants to sprites, fairies, and ogres, all with their own individual personalities – be it cute and small, or large and menacing.

But most of all, two things stand out. Firstly, Cowell’s voice, which is confident and unswerving, appealing to her young readers without didacticism or being patronising, but making them think. It also carries a humour and slight quirkiness, even posing the question to her readership of who this omniscient narrator might be within the story. And secondly, the emotional intelligence with which she writes her young characters – they are authentic in their selfishness and desires as well as their relationships with their parents and siblings, and yet courageous and resilient, adaptable to the changes happening around them.

If you buy a hardback copy, do look under the dust jacket for a rather shimmery surprise. Unfortunately though, the only fault lies also in the production. In my copy, the blackness of the background on many pages rubbed off on my fingers, leaving an inky residue, which meant that the book not only touched my heart, but certainly left its mark. For the younger end of the middle grade category – this is suitable from 8+ years. You can buy your own signed exclusive edition from Waterstones 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.

Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone by Lyn Gardner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Magic curated by Abi Elphinstone

winter-magic

Since the publication of the Mystery and Mayhem (Crime Club) children’s stories anthology, I’ve been looking for another book of short stories for children that really hits the mark in the same way. Luckily Simon and Schuster publishers, together with the esteemed children’s author Abi Elphinstone, have crafted a truly marvellous collection in time for Christmas.

The collection is magical in many ways, firstly of course, because it is packed with wintry stories, bound in the most beautiful egg blue fabric cover, complete with snowflakes and wintry trees, so that it feels like a Christmas gift, but also because the stories themselves are penned by a distinguished group of children’s authors, from Michelle Magorian – author of Goodnight Mister Tom, to Lauren St John, Berlie Doherty, Geraldine McCaughrean…and so many more.

The anthology kicks off with Emma Carroll’s beautiful historical tale of a Victorian frost fair, incorporating some magical realism, and a beautiful frozen Thames river. Carroll’s writing is always transportative, easily leading the reader into the past and creating a swirling atmosphere of bustle and intrigue. It’s a short story that’s both perfect escapism but also brilliant for teaching – and a wonderful start to the book.

Michelle Harrison takes inspiration from her longer novel, The Other Alice, to write a fairy tale about a stolen voice. Harrison has an immense talent for weaving an emotive atmosphere in the shortest passages, leaving the reader tingling with a sense of magic.

Woodfine borrows from a ballet long associated with the time of year – The Nutcracker, which has its own connotations of darkness and light, sugar plums and Christmas gifts. Marvellously, she evokes the warmth and nostalgia of Christmas, using a Russian setting to take the reader back in history to the first performance of the ballet. It’s a lovely tale, and well worth re-reading with the same zeal with which one re-watches the ballet each year.

Further in, there’s a beautiful poem about snow by Magorian, which pictures a child looking out onto a snowy landscape. Pure childhood delight.

In between there are tales of sneasles: a magical tale of the outbreak of snow measles involving elves; a brilliant boarding-school adventure from Lauren St John; new twists on The Snow Queen and Pied Piper; and a cautionary tale from Piers Torday about Christmas wishes and gifts.

Elphinstone herself brings up the rear with her usual affinity for bravery in the face of adventure, with a magical tale about a snow dragon.

Although there is a winter theme running through the collection, each author has their own unique style and imagination, so the reader really gets a feel for their writing as a whole. In this way, it’s a great sampler for each author, leading the reader to explore more books from the stories they most enjoyed. Personally, I couldn’t pick a favourite – this is a wonderful collection from a talented bunch.

The stories are for confident readers, but for this family time of year, they are also perfect as bitesize chunks to read aloud to a young family. My other delight about bringing together talent in this way, is for teachers to be able to teach a full story text, rather than just an extract. Many of the stories within this collection lend themselves to that.

There are eleven stories in all, each one perfectly crafted, each one a great taster for its author. The overall feel is one of snowy landscapes, magical witches, wishes and wolves, with families, fairies and fireside glows.

Featuring stories by Michelle Harrison, Piers Torday, Lauren St John, Amy Alward, Katherine Woodfine, Geraldine McCaughrean, Berlie Doherty, Jamila Gavin, Michelle Magorian, Emma Carroll, Abi Elphinstone.

You can buy it here.

Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood, illustrated by David Wyatt

podkin

If you want to buy your child a sumptuous book this autumn, which will inspire a love for storytelling, adventure and imagination, and one which has a wintery flavour, this is it.

Podkin One-Ear is a legend, a fearsome warrior rabbit with a reputation for fighting and winning against the Gorm (a dangerous and evil iron-flesh-clad rabbit breed that invades warrens and kills or captures those within). When a traveling bard arrives at Thornwood Warren on Bramblemas Eve, the bard is welcomed into the hall with its warming fireside glow and given food and drink in return for a tale of Podkin One-Ear. He tells the story of how the young Podkin fled his warren with his baby brother and older sister, how he lost his ear, and how he grows and learns until he is ready to fight back against the evil greedy Gorm. The bard’s version is not only enthralling, but far more realistic than his little rabbit listeners have heard before.

This is the classic story within a story – telling a fantasy tale of a family of rabbits turfed out from their home, seeking not only to escape the Gorm but to protect a sacred sword that bears good magic, and eventually to overcome the evil Gorm.

With influences of Watership Down (inevitable – there are rabbits on a quest against evil), and even Station Eleven (this is a dystopian future in which humans have clearly gone and all that is left is a landscape of scattered rabbit warrens, and travelling storytellers), this is a sumptuous tale that manages to pull on the emotions and remind readers of classic tales and classic tropes.

As well as the old traditions of storytelling (and Larwood intersperses the tale of Podkin with interlude chapters in which the Bard and his audience interact and discuss the role and purpose of storytelling), Larwood also introduces familiar traditional tropes from the human storytelling mould, such as there being 12 ancient tribes of rabbits with 12 handed down symbols (the magic sword being one of these), allusions to religion or a higher being (in this case a goddess), a warring balance of good vs evil magic, and the traditional make-up of families and the patriarchal royal lineage. All this adds to the feeling that the reader is digesting a classic tome.

If all this feels heavy, it isn’t at all. The bulk of the story follows three sibling rabbits, Podkin and his older sister and younger brother, as they escape from and finally fight the Gorm. The narration delves inside their heads so that the personification of the rabbits is complete, exploring their worries, fears, comforts and hopes.

There are familiarities for children too, as well as the old storytelling tropes, such as the hunt for painted carrots at Lupen’s Day at the start of spring, which of course parallels Easter egg hunts.

Larwood is particularly good on his observational details of his fantasy landscape. He insinuates that social skills are important for warren life – all those rabbits in such close proximity. He also, through various characters, makes poignant matter-of-fact philosophies on the painfulness of loss and death, and memories living on, as well as on bravery: “You don’t have to be brave or strong or powerful to do incredible things.” Larwood describes well the loss of Podkin’s ear and the aftermath of this loss, and Podkin’s observation about how quickly life can turn upside down.

Podkin is reflective without ever being insular, and is fully rounded – he bemoans the loss of his ear, and is bad-tempered, but shows depth of character in his recovery. His sister, Paz, is sensitive and empathetic. She makes astute observations about everyone they meet, most tellingly, with the ‘witch’ rabbit, Brigid, a grandmotherly figure who facilitates good magic restoring the balance with bad. Her relationship with the young rabbits portrays what the elderly traditional can teach the new upstarts, as well as pulling into the equation the benefits of folklore and understanding nature.

There’s some lovely language in the book, introducing vocabulary such as ‘scrying’ at the same time as playing with words to describe iron – a dangerous and evil substance in this fantasy landscape.

The storytelling is fluid, and feels like a cosy Christmas telling with interludes breaking tension, and the analysis of storytelling itself, which gives the book both a sense of history and depth.

Faber publishers have given this story the love it demands, pairing the tale with Wyatt’s beautiful black and white illustrations, so that every so often the reader is thrown into a whole page picture, showing depth and detail and throwing an added warmth and tenderness to some scenes, as well as displaying the Gorm’s menace in others. There are further nice illustrative touches – the constellations in the sky in rabbit shapes, the map of the landscape at the beginning.

But most of all, it feels as if there is a sprinkling of magic across this book. A modern, yet old-fashioned story that is captivating and comforting. Like a warm hug, this is a fantastic children’s book, with a cute little surprise at the end.

As the bard in the story says, “my bard’s memory filled it [the story] with little things that made it real. Everyday details. Feelings and sensations. Nothing but a piece of storytelling magic.”

For readers 9+ independently, earlier for sharing. Do buy it here.

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

 

 

The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison

the other alice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Bikes, Trains and Boats

No information books about transport here, but three lively stories for newly independent readers. Each contains phenomenal illustrations, making these all easy transitions from picture books.

the secret railway

The Secret Railway by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Sam Usher

This is a sparkling book, everything one could want for a young child starting to read, as it bursts with joy and magic and the silliness of fantasy lands where anything is possible. Wendy Meddour is the author of the quirky series Wendy Quill, as well as more recently, How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel, and she does have a wacky way of looking at things, which is a delight in a young children’s book.

A gorgeous sibling relationship between older brother Leo and younger sister Ella develops throughout the story. The children have moved house and while the parents unpack, the siblings go exploring and discover a secret railway in the station workshop of their new station house. But of course it’s not just a disused train line, but a magical railway that leads to the Kingdom of Izzambard where Griselda, the Master Clockmaker, has stopped time.

Riding the train in error, Ella and Leo are informed that they must return the magic magnifying glass to The Chief Snarkarian at The Great, Grand Library of the Snarks, and receive a key in return that will help them back to their own world. It’s as crazy as it sounds, but satisfyingly eventful and imaginative. With swooping mechanical birds, butterfly spies, and a marketplace full of beavers reminiscent of the munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, this is a jam-packed story of wonder and adventure. For an early reader it bursts with action and non-stop fun.

The book talks to the reader with text that is spunky and full of vitality, from the beginning where it asks for the readers’ tickets, to the description of ‘ordinary children’:

“Ella and Leo Leggit were not ordinary children. ‘Well, of course, you’ll say: ‘No children are’
And you’d be right. I’m sure you’re very peculiar. But what I mean is, Ella and Leo were extremely not ordinary.”

Each chapter is a different platform number, and the entire story is accentuated by Sam Usher’s now distinctive and endearing illustrations. Usher draws the sort of children that you want to hug, and manages to make every scene seem three-dimensional – you could just step into the story.

More to follow in The Secret Railway and the Crystal Caves in July 2016. You can chug along on the first Secret Railway here.

grey island red boat

Grey Island Red Boat by Ian Beck

A Little Gem by name (from Barrington Stoke’s Early Reader series) and a little gem by nature, Ian Beck writes a story that makes you want to sink back into a comfortable chair and be sailed away into the magic. He tells a modern day fairy tale with his own illustrations punctuating the text, and has dedicated it to his grandson. It’s exactly the tale you would imagine a grandparent telling a grandchild.

A princess lives with her father, the King, on the Island of Ashes. As the reader may expect from the name, everything on the island is grey. The sea, the sky, the land. The black and white illustrations convey this too. It rains all the time, and the month is always November. The princess feels that something is missing, and the tone of the text is muted, sad and withdrawn.

Then one day a small boat washes up on the island – and there’s something different about it. It’s red. Before long the stranger aboard has disembarked and is colouring the world with every touch of his hand. Some people are bewitched by this – the Princess and others feel “tickled” by it. But the King fears change, and takes action to prevent it, although change proves inevitable.

Ian Beck brilliantly captures the rhythm of a fairy tale or legend, as well as an underlying depth beneath the simple story. Reading the book was like feeling a warmth spread across one’s body. Children will adore the gradual introduction of colour into the illustrated landscapes, and the perfectly easy descriptions of the feelings colour gives the people on the island. Adults will see the depth of the message. You can buy it here.

fergus

Flying Fergus: The Best Birthday Bike by Chris Hoy, with Joanna Nadin, illustrated by Clare Elsom

Sometimes I feel reluctant to review ‘celeb’ books on the blog, knowing that they will probably gain a huge audience in the wider press anyway. But the publishers have paired Hoy with children’s author Joanna Nadin quite brilliantly, and the result is a hugely entertaining story.

Fergus desperately wants a Sullivan Swift for his ninth birthday. A stupendous bike with “24 gears, hydraulic brakes and state of the art suspension.” When he receives a rusty old second hand bike, he’s a little disappointed. Until he discovers something magical happens when he rides it in the right way.

The story whisks the reader into a fantasyland, complete with a princess (who wears mismatched welly boots), a Swamp of Certain Death, and some rather ridiculous rules.

Clare Elsom’s illustrations deserve great credit. The book is jam-packed with them, and each is as funny and madcap as the text. The princess in particular, with her dishevelled hair and wonky eyes, is a sight to behold. There are also two maps at the beginning.

But despite cramming this slim little early reader with oodles of fun and endless adventures, there are still some great messages within. Fergus has a heart-warming relationship with his grandfather, who is endlessly encouraging about Fergus’s ambition to win a cycle race. But he firmly believes that it’s not about luck – it’s about hard graft.

There is also some poignancy within the story as Fergus’ father has been missing from his life for nine years and Fergus still dreams of finding him and making his father proud.

There are so many facets to this book that each child will be able to extract their own enjoyment – whether it be fantasy, the reality of the bullies, a missing father, a princess, or simply ambitions and dreams. A good start to the series. Pedal your way to your copy here.