magic

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.

 

 

The Shadow Keeper by Abi Elphinstone

shadow keeper

Picking up the narrative from the end of The Dreamsnatcher (although it could equally be read as a stand-alone), The Shadow Keeper begins with another wildly atmospheric setting – a secret cave by the sea. Hiding from the evil Shadowmasks, far from the forest they love, Moll and her friends are seeking the amulet, keeper of Moll’s mother’s soul, in an attempt to fight the dark magic.

An adventure/fantasy novel, Abi Elphinstone’s writing continues to move at pace. With an almost visceral, physical quality, the characters move forwards on every page – the text is littered with action:

“Siddy held Moll fast and yanked on Jinx’s tethering rope. The cob backed up against the wall, narrowly avoiding an owl’s blades. Siddy struck his knife against another that came close; metal clanged and the impact of the collision was enough to send the owl swerving away.”

It’s an extremely visual text, with dense prose and vocabulary, and an intense quality that puts Abi in the realms of classic writing rather than the pared and stripped back prose that contemporary writers tend to favour.

Threads of bravery and determination run through the novel, both in the writing, which never holds back from dark disturbing imagery (owls with wingspans of “black blades…each edge serrated and sharp”) but also in the characters of the children who hold friendship and loyalty above all else – showing bravery in the face of extreme fear and danger.

One of the book’s most admirable qualities is the juxtaposition of the vulnerability of the children and the childishness of their emotion: “there was a mountain of hurt inside her”, as opposed to the frightening images of the dark magic. Main character 12-year-old Moll wears her heart on her sleeve and states her emotions plainly and simply:

“I’m angry.” Moll muttered, scuffing her boot against the floorboard.”

But it’s the darkness that pulls. From owls with blades grinding, to a girl with her tongue cut out, to walking with bare feet on shards of glass, the danger is everywhere, as the dark magic rises. In fact, the dominant theme of dark magic versus the children and their lighter magic is reminiscent of such ancient fights as The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper – ordinary children fighting an ancient fantastical evil with historical curses and messages from long ago.

Of course, the children in The Shadow Keeper aren’t quite as grounded in reality as Will in The Dark is Rising with his idyllic Christmas in the family home. Moll and her gypsies reside in a hidden cave, and rely on nature to help them hide, and heal and eat. The premise of the children’s gypsy background gives them a terrific freedom to adventure, but Elphinstone cleverly weaves in the vocabulary of a childhood set entirely in nature, from a daemon like wildcat companion in Gryff, to a pet crab, bowls of mussels for dinner, mealtimes round the fire, and healing flowers and herbs.

The characters have developed from book one, all three children protagonists are complex and feel very real, despite the simple vocabulary used to depict their emotions. They continue to develop throughout book two, so that the reader not only feels empathy with them, but really feels that they know them. It’s exactly the sort of story you can live within – complete escapism – about as far removed from urban London as you can get!

It’s also riddled with themes, in particular ‘seen and unseen’, ‘said and unsaid’, as well as bearing echoes and motifs from The Wild Swans so that you feel the magic being woven around you as you read.

The ending is uplifting, and yet shot through with further mystery, so that the reader is left raring for book three. For confident readers, aged 10+ years. You can buy it here (if you dare!)

Top Ten Places I Wrote The Shadow Keeper: a guest blog by Abi Elphinstone

shadow keeper

Abi Elphinstone wrote one of the most exciting children’s books last year, The Dreamsnatcher, which I wrote about here. This week the sequel, The Shadow Keeper, is published. And it’s even better (if that were possible). Abi has very kindly contributed this guest post. 

I want to do a Dodie Smith and say that I wrote The Shadow Keeper sitting in the kitchen sink. I didn’t get all creative amongst the fairy liquid – not this time – but I did end up in some extraordinary places writing my second book. So, here goes for the Top 10 Places I Wrote The Shadow Keeper:

Smoo waterfall

  1. Smoo Cave. It’s located at the eastern edge of a village called Durness, on Scotland’s most northerly coastline. After I’d waded past the KEEP OUT sign I found a hidden waterfall and I wrote the very opening of the book, about the Shadowmasks meeting in a dark cave, here.

Brazil cave writing

  1. Abismo de Anhumas. Another cave. This time in the Brazilan jungle outside Bonito. It was like a journey to Middle Earth – a 72 metre abseil into a cave home to incredible stalactite formations – and I wrote about the very big (and very magical) cave at the end of The Shadow Keeper while I was here – with a head torch.
  1. Iguazu Falls in Argentina. I took my writing pad to the top of the raging waterfalls and wrote while swifts dived into the spray.

Writing shed

  1. My writing shed in the garden. I wrote much of the book by candlelight here, surrounded by books and souvenirs I’ve picked up from my travels (shaman daggers and buzzard-fletched arrows…).
  1. The 316 bus in London. Not quite so magical but because I do a lot of school events I end up writing most of my books on buses, trains and planes.
  1. Clavell Tower, Dorset. I wrote with the sea spread out below the cliffs and the cries of the gulls hanging in the wind. Bliss.

St Cyrus

  1. St Cyrus Beach, Scotland. I grew up building sandcastles and exploring rock pools on this beach and I wrote many of the Little Hollows scenes here.

Norway writing

  1. Engelsholm, a remote island off the Norwegian coast, not far from Kristiansand. I learnt to forage for mussels and oysters here and I wrote for days on end on the jetty looking out over the fjords.

Abi biking Burma

  1. On the back of a motorbike in Burma. I wrote one word ‘the’ (not a classic) then realised it was too bumpy to continue.
  1. On the BA flight home to my Dad’s in Scotland. There is perhaps nowhere as magical to write as up above the clouds.

THE SHADOW KEEPER:

Moll Pecksniff and her friends are living as outlaws in a secret cave by the sea, desperate to stay hidden from the Shadowmasks. But further along the coast lies the Amulet of Truth, the only thing powerful enough to force the Shadowmasks back and contain their dark magic. So, together with Gryff, the wildcat that’s always by her side, and her best friends Alfie and Sid, Moll must sneak past smugglers, outwit mer creatures and crack secret codes to save the Old Magic. With more at stake than ever before and the dark magic rising fast, can Moll and her friends stop the Shadowmasks before it’s too late? Perfect for fans of J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Michelle Paver and Eva Ibbotson.

Shadow Keeper Blog Tour [46971]

www.abielphinstone.com

 

Witches for slightly older children

Following last Wednesday’s blog on younger readers’ books about witches, three more witchy series for slightly older children. What’s noticeable about these newly published series is that the reader can almost reach out and touch the amount of fun and tongue-in-cheek mischievousness within.

bella broomstick

Bella Broomstick by Lou Kuenzler and illustrated by Kyan Cheng
This newest witch, Bella Broomstick, was first published this year. Author Lou Kuenzler is a perennial favourite author in children’s libraries, with her series Shrinking Violet and Princess Disgrace, and Bella is a spritely addition to the canon. She’s a young witch, raised by her nasty Aunt Hemlock, and told that she is so terrible at magic that she’s being sent to live in Person World (through the invisibility curtain dividing the two worlds), and she mustn’t use magic ever again.

As it happens, Bella makes herself at home in this new world, and finds it quite exciting – with fluffy slippers, yummy breakfasts and proper baths, as opposed to Aunt Hemlock’s wobbly warts, frogspawn porridge and squelchy swamps.

Of course not everything goes to plan, and Bella does use some magic to rescue a kitten, and before long she’s in a bucket load of trouble.

Lou Kuenzler has cunningly subverted the children’s literature trend for exploring the witch world, and instead has implanted Bella in the Person realm, reminiscent of long ago shows on television such as Bewitched, except here the protagonists are children. The lovely deeper meaning behind the simple story is that Bella doesn’t expect there to be any magic in the person world, whereas in fact, she discovers that although mirrors don’t talk back – there are some magic things, such as toilets that flush and television. There is magic in our world, if we open our eyes and look for it.

There’s also the underlying theme of a child just wanting to be appreciated, and discovering that its not the tricks you can do that define you, but how you behave and how you use those magic tricks.

There are influences of Blyton here – the magic is gentle and beguiling, and a lovely use of animals as comforters for a young child – Bella’s distinguishing talent is that she can talk in animal language.

Accompanied by cute, doodle illustrations throughout, this is suitable for fluent 6 year old readers and certainly for age 8+ yrs. You can buy the book here.

witch wars witch switch

Witch Wars by Sibeal Pounder, illustrated by Laura Ellen Andersen
This the most fun I’ve had reading a book in quite a while – the most inventive, crazy, yet hilarious read – humour that reaches far beyond the slapstick – although there’s that too. Fashion meets witches in this madcap adventure that takes Tiga Whicabim (work out the anagram), down the drain pipes into a world of witches (a town called Sinkville, ie., the world beneath the sinks – there’s even a map at the beginning of the book).

Fran the Fabulous Fairy from the Sinkville version of Hollywood (Brollywood – so called because it’s under most of the drainpipes from human world and so gets very wet), explains that Tiga has been nominated to take part in Witch Wars, a competition between nine nine-year old witches to see who will be Top Witch. Fran is a TV presenter, and will be following Tiga round with a television camera to film her taking part. In a Big Brother-esque motif, the competitors are all filmed.

Each witch must solve a series of riddles to move onto the next clue and win, as long as another witch doesn’t squash their shrivelled head (carried about on their flat hat – no one in this witch world has a pointy hat – they are made pointed by shooting back up the drainpipes into the human world.)

Indeed, every facet of this book is original, inventive, entertaining and witty. From the underwater spa, to the bed with feet, to viewing television on the back of a spoon or on somebody’s bald head (bringing a whole new meaning to the word portable!), to my favourite scene with the cove witches, where Tiga and her friend Peggy practise their ‘echoes’.

This book is fabulous. Witty, contemporary, the plot zips along, presenting the riddles of the competition to the reader so that they can solve them too, as well as containing jokes for both smaller children and overgrown ones! The nine-year-old witches are told they can be trusted to make all the rules for Sinkville, but not be trusted to look after themselves – brushing their teeth and putting themselves to bed on time.

There are constant allusions to fashion – although there’s clumsy and scruffy Peggy for those who can’t quite identify with the frock fascination. The prose is also punctuated with ‘breaking news’ alerts as each witch is knocked out the competition.

Added to the mayhem are Laura Ellen Andersen’s confident and stylish illustrations, depicting the shoe house, the clothing store, angry fairies and bald witches. They complement the text beautifully. Sibeal Pounder has no bounds to her imagination, and also cleverly alludes to fairy tales – Rapunzel to name but one, as well as Mary Poppins, with the witches’ floating tables. But the overarching theme is friendship.

These witches certainly have edge. They are feisty, funny, fabulous and flamboyant. Reading Witch Wars is like eating a cake that’s been made with the lightest of touches. It’s moreish and sweet. Thank goodness for the second, Witch Switch, and a third to come in March this year, Witch Watch. Try Witch Wars here.

Witchworld witchmyth

Witchworld by Emma Fischel, illustrations by Chris Riddell
Another modern spin on how witches might be in the 21st century. Our protagonist, Flo, is a quietly intelligent and sensitive young witch about to start secondary school. Her mother is editor-in-chief of a celebrity witch magazine Hocus Pocus, and Flo also has a typical witchteen sister Hetty.

As with Witch Wars, it’s the inventiveness and modernising that shouts from this book, although it’s much more serious than Witch Wars. The witches in Witchworld are not antiquated witches who ride on broomsticks and stir potions in cauldrons. They have a cupboard full of Potions2Go, they ride on Skyriders, talk to each other on their skychatters (phones), and their wands have become up-to-the-minute touchscreen spell sticks.

When Flo’s grandmother comes to stay, and warns Flo and her family about the impending Ghoul Attack, no one believes her. After all, she’s a throwback to a bygone era with her broomstick and ‘old ways’. Then Flo discovers that her grandmother is right – and not only do they have to save Witch World from the ghouls, they also have to convince everyone that the ghouls are real.

Featuring celebrity forest pixies and witch school proms, concerns with modern technology (using a magic mirror for hacking), obsession with appearances, therapy and communicating with busy parents, this is a witchworld that holds up a mirror to our own. It’s not subtle, but it’s incredibly fun.

The plot darts along merrily and the beautiful packaging of the book (from cover and inside illustrations by Chris Riddell to the colourful sprayed edges – the first book purple, the second orange) makes this a sure-fire winner with the 8-12 years age group. The second book, WitchMyth was published at the end of last year. Cast your spell here for a copy of the book.

 

First Witches

What is the appeal of witches for young readers? When I started the idea for this particular blogpost, the titles of ‘witchy’ series of books for little ones kept spilling off my tongue – there are so many. And more are being produced. The main hook of featuring witches in children’s literature is of course magic – witches can wave a wand and solve a dilemma – or in a well-used twist – use their wand badly and create a bigger problem.

Unlike fairies, witches appeal because they are human. They don’t have wings – they don’t have to occupy a different world (although some do). They are also edgier than most fairies – witches can have a mean streak whereas most fairies tend to be good (other than Tinkerbell from Peter Pan).

Witches are also usually accompanied by an animal – in fact looking at my list below, they are all in a close relationship with a ‘pet’, or animal friend, and this feature is a well-used device in children’s literature. So, where to start…..

hubble bubble monkey

Hubble Bubble: The Messy Monkey Business by Tracey Corderoy and Joe Berger
This series was first published in 2011 as picture books, but then quickly morphed into a series of young fiction titles for newly independent readers. There are three picture books for aged 3+ years with rhyming text, and then a series for 6+ years, each containing three stories. New titles published last year were The Wacky Winter Wonderland and The Messy Monkey Business. Delightfully enticing covers draw the reader into the story, with two-tone illustrations inside. The stories are about Pandora, an ordinary girl, whose grandmother happens to be a witch – she’s not alone in this, in Messy Monkey Business the third story reveals that many of the children also have grandmothers with witchy powers.

Messy Monkey Business features three stories including a school trip to the zoo, a babysitting disaster, and a camping trip. With ‘trouble’ and ‘chaos’ in the titles, it’s not long before Pandora’s Granny’s magic goes wrong, but in each story she does her very best to rectify the situation. She certainly means well. The stories zing with quick dialogue, and some lovely phrases:

“the children dived into the leaves like five excited little hedgehogs.”

The zoo adventure contains all the necessary elements – smells, mess, escaping creatures and a sea lion show – but all with a touch of magic in both text and illustration.

In all the Hubble Bubble books the short stories bounce along, there’s an element of ‘fairy godmother’ about Granny – she tries to be helpful by using her magic, but her results often lead Pandora and her friends astray. With wonderful names, such as Mr Bibble the schoolteacher, and Cobweb the cat, there’s plenty for a young reader to discover. The stand-out factor about the Hubble Bubble books though is the warmth that exudes from them. Despite mishaps and mayhem, the characters are loveable – the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter delightful, the humour spritely and the text pitched perfectly – some lovely expressions and adjectives, but all easy enough for first readers. You can purchase Hubble Bubble The Messy Monkey Business here.

worst witch

The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
This series is still an absolute favourite with all – from old to young. The books remain fresh and lively. They tell the adventures of Mildred Hubble and her best friend Maud at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. It’s hard to believe that the series is over 40 years old…but when re-reading you can see Jill Murphy’s original witty inventions – lessons on flying a broomstick, potions classes, creepy corridors and invisibility spells.

Jill Murphy originally pitched Mildred as a fairy, unfortunately attending the wrong school – but then changed her to a witch who’s just not very capable. From her tabby cat instead of a black one, to her long enmity with Ethel Hallow, and her even stronger friendship with Maud, this is a school story to treasure. Names are used cunningly here too – who can forget Miss Hardbroom – a precursor to Minerva McGonagall I should think. The black and white illustrations depict the greyness of the school as well as the hilarious friendship between short round Maud and long tall Mildred. Jill Murphy is both author and illustrator. Meet Mildred Hubble here.

titchy witch

Titchy Witch by Rose Impey, illustrated by Katharine McEwen
Perhaps our least famous witch here, Titchy Witch inhabits a world in which only her family are witches – her classmates at school vary from goblins to princesses, and her teacher is an ogre. She is also looked after by a particularly grumpy Cat-a-Bogus, a sort of au-pair/nanny. Full colour illustrations throughout add to the charm of this compelling world. Titchy Witch is different from the other witches, in that she is only seven, and acts as such. She finds some witchy things hard, has difficulty keeping her temper, and is very mischevious. The text is suitable for first independent readers and these children will recognise themselves in Titchy Witch.

Titchy Witch and the Frog Fiasco is typical of the stories. When Gobby-goblin at school pokes Titchy one too many times, she has her revenge by putting a spell on him. The teacher catches her and Titchy is blamed, and decides she no longer wants to go to school. Cat-a-Bogus shows her why she should attend when it turns out she cannot read or practise magic perfectly just yet. There is an adorable twist at the end, only understood by studying the illustration. You can conjure Titchy by purchasing here.

winnie the witch

Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul
Another aging witch, Winnie is more than 25 years old. She has a beloved black cat, the prickly Wilbur. The wonderfulness of Winnie is the amount of colour Korky Paul throws at the books, in fact our standout title is the original story in which Winnie colours her world. There are some beautifully unique traits to Winnie – she has a crooked hat because Paul found that drawing it straight didn’t always fit on the page, she is not the most attractive witch to look at, and yet her personality is adorable. Wilbur’s personality is as acutely drawn as any human’s – his laziness, his addiction to a certain level of comfort, his weariness with Winnie’s adventures. The attention to detail is present in both the meticulously drawn illustrations, as well as the scope of the adventures. Each book is very different – from Winnie’s trip to the seaside, to her birthday celebrations. There is much to admire in each, and much to look at. Winnie also seamlessly moves with the times – see for example Winnie’s New Computer.

Like Hubble Bubble, there are both picture books and young readers, so that the books grow with the child. No library is complete without Winnie on a shelf somewhere. Wave your wand here.

meg and mog

Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski
Another 1970’s invention and catering for the youngest readers out of the books featured, I couldn’t write a blogpost about witches and not include my favourite. It is the simplicity of the words and pictures that is Meg and Mog’s unique selling point. The repetition, the sound effects and the rhythm make this a treat to read-aloud. The sentence describing Meg going downstairs perfectly sums up the clomping noise she makes:
“She went down the stairs to cook breakfast.”
as each word of text is positioned underneath each stair, enticing the reader to pronounce the sentence in a particular way. The drawings are iconic – each of the five witches portrayed almost as stick figurines, and yet all distinguishable by their different hair squiggles and noses. The colours are bright and bold, no white spaces in this preschool colour block delight. But the best thing about the original book is that it doesn’t conclude neatly. When Meg changes the witches into mice, she leaves them like that until the following Halloween – there is no happy ending. Edgy and mischievous. Just how witches should be. You can purchase Meg and Mog here.

Look out for my forthcoming blog on witches for slightly older children…