magic

Starfell, Magic and Dreams

starfellMagic. It’s a key ingredient of some of the most pervasive children’s books, from The Worst Witch through to Harry Potter, and a tool that ‘literally’ opens a thousand doors. Characters with wands can change their plot with a flick of the wrist, they can take control over a world without any, they can make what’s unfair fair, and push the rules and boundaries of normal society. They can even conquer villainy with a mix of natural ingredients. However, what happens if your own brand of magic is a bit well, rubbish…

In Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day by Dominique Valente, Willow Moss is the youngest in a magical family, but her own particular magical attribute is rather lacking: she can find lost things. When most people are just looking for their glasses or their socks, the skill can feel a little mundane. Especially when one’s family members have rather more exciting magical skills: Willow’s mother can hear dead people, and her big sister can move things with her mind.

But when an entire day is lost, and the most powerful witch in the kingdom summons her for a mission, Willow discovers that finding lost things is of extreme import. And the reader, on the quest with her, also finds out that each individual day may feel humdrum, but actually the things that happen on a particular day have consequences, have knock-on effects that reach far beyond boring Tuesday…

Valente sprinkles her easy-going prose with a liberal dose of rainbow magic – there are quirky creatures galore, twinkling colours, and eccentricity. She plays on the idea of a Magic 8 ball beautifully, and conjures such delights as Wisperia the magical forest, and of course, ‘there be dragons’. Reading it is to be immersed in a magical land, in which the dangers aren’t too great, the quest is fun, and there are delightful inventions – such as a travelling cloak having a portal to a kitchen pantry (useful when on a journey).

But behind the enjoyment lurks a strong message of teamwork, courage, and above all the importance of everyday, an appreciation for what you have, and a really strong understanding of loss and its impact.

A lively read for 8+ years, Valente has a deft humour and a light touch, which will enthrall her readers. Illustrated throughout by Sarah Warburton, who accentuates the quirks and comedy. Below, Dominque Valente explores what she dreams about when deadlines loom, and times get tough:

Becoming a hobbit. I have active fantasies about having my own hobbit house, second breakfasts, a fully stocked pantry and just spending time in the Shire. Gandalf would be welcome to visit, but he could keep saving Middle Earth for the others.

Taking a year off just to read. I have this photograph of a book-lined cottage by the sea and I often just stare at it and sigh. I’ve never taken off more than three weeks of work before, but the idea of a year’s sabbatical spent beachcombing and reading, sounds like bliss.

If I could choose my own magical ability it would be to eat whatever I want and not put on weight. I have spent a long time thinking about this, and really this would be the ideal superpower for me… of course when children ask me this question, I tell them it’s flying.

One of my oldest daydreams is about packing it in and moving to Provence. I fell hard for Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. The only trouble was that I was sixteen at the time, and so was the only teenager I knew, dreaming of retirement, sleeping in hammocks and going truffle-hunting. I still dream of this edible Shangri-La on cold days in Suffolk, when summer seems like a distant myth.

Going on a narrowboat adventure with Prunella Scales and Timothy West. I’d quite like to be the grandchild they never knew about, and I feel like I could write plays for them to perform when we aren’t exploring the water ways and drinking wine …

Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day by Dominique Valente, illustrated by Sarah Warburton, is out now in hardback (£12.99, HarperCollins Children’s Books), and you can buy it here. With thanks to HC Children’s books for the advance review copy.

National Unicorn Day

once upon a unicorn hornFor the past few months, the children in my library club have been obsessed with unicorns. They seek out pony books in the library in the hope that they reference unicorns, and there is a waiting list for the few unicorn books we do stock. The trend sees no sign of waning at the moment. So, on this National Unicorn Day I have great pleasure in bringing you news of two new unicorn books. Once Upon a Unicorn Horn by Beatrice Blue explains how this very special creature obtained its horn, in a picture book story about friendship and perseverance. With just the right level of cute without being saccharine, and an endearing amount of magical thinking, the little girl in the book, June, and her parents come up with a solution to help a tiny horse to fly.

I’m delighted to host author Beatrice Blue discussing “who we are and how we choose to be”.

This is what Once Upon a Unicorn cherishes. It is the first title in a new picture book series about how magical creatures came to have their special features.

Do you happen to know how unicorns got their horns?

It all began one day when a little girl called June found some tiny horses learning how to fly in her garden, but one of them was very sad because he couldn’t. Little June found a very fun and sweet way to make her friend fly!

Once Upon a Unicorn Horn talks about about how and where to find magic.

One of my main goals in Once Upon a Unicorn Horn was to make a book where the child’s point of view is the most important. To treasure childhood and to focus on feelings, discovery and self acknowledgement. And above all, fun.

Most books about unicorns I’ve seen are pink or jumpy, bubbly pony happiness and rainbow related. This is fun, but I wanted to show the  importance of the magical creature and human values.

As a child, I wanted to be like Merlin, Hermione Granger, Dumbledore, Matilda and so many other great magicians. As much as I tried moving things with my mind, whispering spells from ancient books or swooshing wands that my dad carved for me out of shoe holders, I could never find my magic.

Beatrice Blue

Beatrice Blue

Eventually, I realised that I had magic inside me all along. I didn’t need to become anybody else. I was making it happen day by day.

Children don´t need to be anybody else but themselves. They might need encouragement to believe in themselves and to use their imagination, but they can make us see the world from an entirely new perspective;  and this book celebrates that.

We can enjoy our surroundings and find magic even in the tiniest of things. And bring unicorns to life with the tiniest gestures.

Once Upon a Unicorn Horn embraces the present and the choices we make, and shows us that it is possible to make the most out of every situation. Sometimes mistakes or accidents create startling surprises and wonderful opportunities. That’s magic!

With huge thanks to author and illustrator Beatrice Blue for explaining her reasons for writing Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, which you can buy here.

the secret lives of unicornsThe second unicorn book is The Secret Lives of Unicorns by Dr Temisa Seraphini and Sophie Robin. This is an encyclopedic volume of unicorn knowledge, exploring anatomy, evolution, life cycle and magical properties. In a fantastical book of pseudo-nonfiction, Dr Seraphini looks at different unicorn species from around the world. Presented as if they were real, there are taxonomy charts, references to unicorns from different eras on a timeline, and illustrations to match, including a height chart, dissection of flight, and even a page on famous unicornologists. You can discover the different species, from winged, to mountain, to volcanic unicorns, and read how best to interact with unicorns, looking closely at the illustrated facial expressions.

Illustrated in muted tones of orange, green and blue, this guide will delight unicorn fans, whilst also showing them how a nonfiction book functions, and is a comprehensive study of how a fantasy world can be constructed. You can buy it here.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lastly, is there a second Arranmore book coming?

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


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

Influences and Goblins

gribblebobsAcquired in open submission by Pushkin Press, this is a rather extraordinary little story. Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins by David Ashby is a quirky tale with short chapters and a plethora of weird and wonderful characters.

On an ordinary Wednesday, siblings Nils and Anna come across a goblin called Gribblebob. He is walking an invisible dog (who becomes visible upon being fed), and chasing after a book. As the book’s text magically transfers to Nils’ hand (rather like a Kindle on the skin), Gribblebob explains to the children that he comes from the other side of the veil, where magical creatures prevail, including goblins, fairies and more. But other characters have also broken the veil, and the children must race against time to clear Nils’ hand and save some books from an evil witch.

At first the adventure feels rather as if Enid Blyton had come back to life and penned another tale in her Magic Faraway Tree stories. The characters bear the same irritabilities and undergo strange unbelievable happenings. In fact, the goblin Gribblebob is hugely Blyton-esque, and enjoyable, mixing up his words and inventing new ones, or slightly mishearing old ones. My favourite is his description of humans as ‘thumbjammers’, jabbing at their phones constantly, or ‘pre-slicely’ for ‘precisely’.

But before long it becomes apparent that there is more than one influence to this story. It goes rather dark at times, despite the easy to read text, and the dangerous and scary ‘ripriders’ feel like Harry Potter dementors – screeching spirits that are overcome only by love. More allusions to folk and children’s literature abound, including a librarian who isn’t as she seems, binding names in a book, and the veil – the conceit of two different worlds that meet in an ordinary place (a playground here), but which can’t be seen by the naked eye.

But for many readers, and writers, the trope of having books as the essential magical element gives a whole other layer of meaning to the reading experience, and with the book-decorated cover, the action in the library, language and attributing names being so important, and the magic of books inside, this is a lovely little paean to children’s literature.

However, there’s more to it, as David Ashby explains – it certainly isn’t just English literature heritage that oozes throughout the story:

Somewhat surprisingly, I find myself living in Sweden these days.  I’ve been here since 2002, and I suppose I should be used to it, but some mornings I wake up, turn on the radio and wonder why people are talking in that strange language before I remember, “Oh yeah, I live here now.”

In lots of ways Sweden and the UK are very similar, just very subtle differences.  In Brighton I would cross my fingers for luck, here in Stockholm I have to hold my thumbs.  So the luck remains in the hands, but just different areas.  Back in the UK I would have let a sleeping dog lie, but here in Sweden it’s the bear that I don’t wake up.  So, very similar.

It’s the same with the fairy tales and legends and myths.  A lot of them are the same, but some have their own special Nordic twist, and some of them were new to me.  In Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins the big villain is the Queen of Nightmares, Mara, The Rider.  Now, I had never heard of her, but it’s fascinating that the English word “nightmare” relates so strongly to her.  She comes along and rides your chest while you dream, and makes sure that the dreams are less than pleasant.  The “mare” in “nightmare” is obviously linked to the Swedish “mara”, and the Swedish word for “nightmare” is “mardröm”, literally a “mara dream”.  I love all these little links and connections!  It really makes you realise how much we all have in common, and how we share a heritage of tales and myths.

Another one of my favourite Nordic fairy tale characters is “Kykogrim” which translates as “Church Grim”, a guardian spirit that keeps watch over a church.  I’d love to write something around that sometime.

There’s a fantastic set of books by Johan Egerkrans where he has collected and illustrated loads of Scandinavian monsters, spirits, gods and so on.  Well worth a look!

It seems that influences lie everywhere. To buy yourself a copy of Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins by David Ashby, click here.

A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison

a pinch of magicThere’s a purposeful foggy dark atmosphere to this magical new adventure from Michelle Harrison, award-winning author of The Thirteen Treasures, which makes it all the more mysterious and adventurous. Set on a series of fictional islands, often enveloped by a ghostly mist, and surrounded by marshes and rocks with the nearest neighbour an eerie prison, this is a tale of curses and sorcery, of magical objects and imprisonment, and yet through the fog, a tale of sisterhood and teamwork, boldness and bravery shines brightly.

The three Widdershins sisters, Betty, Fliss and Charlie, dazzle like a ray of sunshine in the mist, living and working with their grandmother in a busy pub. From the rowdy beginning on the night of Betty’s 13th birthday (unlucky for some), she and Charlie are first encountered galloping down the stairs, Halloween costumes billowing, dancing happily. The sisters are bubbly, proactive protagonists, particularly Betty, the novel’s focus, and she’s an absolute gem of a heroine. On her birthday, Betty learns that her family is cursed, and she endeavours to break the curse and set them all free.

The three sisters each possess a magical object that has been passed down to them through their family heritage – a carpet bag, a set of wooden nesting dolls, and a gilt-framed mirror – all of which they can use to help break the curse. In children’s literature there are many enchanted objects that have a role in directing plot or character, and the more ordinary the object, the more exciting their magic. A wardrobe perhaps (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), a ring (Lord of the Rings), or a mirror (Snow White). Here, the bag feels Mary Poppins-esque, and does indeed go deep. The mirror may be seen to be vain, but holds power, but Betty’s object is the wooden nesting dolls – which have always felt slightly spooky and enchanting to me – the hidden quality, the addictive nature of lining up the seams.

Harrison has great fun weaving the objects’ magic abilities into her narrative, but the bulk of the plot centres around the strangely powerful and dark prison. Believing a prisoner holds the key to breaking the curse, Betty endeavours to bargain his freedom for the answer, only to discover that it’s very easy to make mistakes on a prison break. With a delightful cast of prison villains, shadowy wardens, and suspicious townspeople, the atmosphere simmers with menace.

To embellish the story, and the atmosphere, Harrison has a special attachment to names. The three sisters live in The Poacher’s Pocket on the isle of Crowstone. Their surname, Widdershins, means to go in the wrong direction and is considered unlucky. Crowstone belongs to the Sorrow Isles, among which are the isle of Repent on which lies the prison, and the isle of Lament with its graveyard. These small details punctuate the text providing atmosphere and portent.

But with three intrepid brave girls working together, a rat called Hoppit and a cat called Oi, the darkness of the setting is always going to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the girls’ inner natures – their ability to help others when necessary, pull together in times of conflict, and use their wit and intelligence to break their curse. Harrison writes with more than just a pinch of magic – this is a compelling magical adventure that spellbinds the reader into believing in a whole other world, and understanding that envy, betrayal and prejudice are the real evils, whereas foggy marshes and spooky crumbling prison towers are merely landscapes.

A rich, charming tale for ages 9+.

Cover illustration by Melissa Castrillon

Dyslexia and Writing: Amber Lee Dodd

lightning chase me home

There’s a glut of new middle grade books arriving this January, and it’s intriguing for a reviewer to try to pick up on a ‘trend’ or theme running through them. What were the writers preoccupied with while they were writing, what did they want to say?

Amber Lee Dodd’s Lightning Chase Me Home feels personal from the beginning. Told in first person narration by Amelia Hester McLeod (named for two explorers: Amelia Earhart and Lady Hester Stanhope), this is a heart-wrenching tale of a girl embarking on a new adventure herself – starting a new school. Amelia is immediately endearing – and struggling – her mother is absent, Amelia suffers from dyslexia, and to make matters a little more complicated (and fictional), after she makes a wish on her eleventh birthday off her small Scottish island on the Serpent’s Tooth Rock – she finds herself magically disappearing and reappearing elsewhere. Will she work out why, and can she use it to find the courage to push through, and maybe, maybe could she use the strange power to find her mum?

Lightning Chase Me Home is one of those treasured novels for the 9+ audience, packing in a great plot, some magical realism, but also issues that dominate ‘primary school and beyond’ discussions – how to deal with an elderly grandfather who doesn’t always remember where he is, managing with the emotions invoked by an absent parent, the constant building of resilience and harnessing bravery, and the power of folklore and magic to explain our own small lives. Dodd has a gift for identifying the makeup of a person – be it the objects that help to define us and our relationships, the difficulties some children have in learning or making friends, and how schools and parents deal with this, and the understanding that not all people are what they first seem.

Amber Lee Dodd portrays her main character with an acute sensitivity, but manages to weave in magic, a sense of great explorers of the past, and an endearing friendship that feels as real as it is strong. Below, she reveals why Amelia is so close to her own heart.

As someone with dyslexia, I thought that writing and reading were impossible. Before secondary school, I had real struggles with reading. In fact I hated it! I hated reading, I hated writing and I hated books. I sat in my special needs classes reading Fuzz Buzz books. Books about a blue spiky ball with enormous legs who never did anything more exciting that remark on the weather. If this is what books are, I thought, there is no point in me learning to read.

amber lee dodd
Amber Lee Dodd

But even when my teachers gave up, saying I was hopeless, my parents refused to. They would make me read through my reading books again and again. I ended up memorising them from the pictures before I could make out the words. Slowly, painfully, I started to recognise words, memorise them and store them away. My word bank began to build, until one day, like magic, I realised I could read.

After spending so long struggling to read, when I finally could it felt like I had personally discovered books. At school, I would pour through Tintin and Asterix comics. I read every book on how to care for everything from puppies to pet spiders. Then I found even more books to fall in love with, The Worst Witch series, Jacqueline Wilson’s books and Malorie Blackman’s. Once, I spent a whole day on a kitchen chair with Double Act wishing desperately that I could be a twin.

The only thing better than reading turned out to be writing.For a long time it was the one and only thing at school I was good at. I found that I could invent stories from thin air and filled pages of my exercise books with big wobbly writing and dramatic inky pictures. I once even made my teacher cry with one of my stories. Writing stories became my super power.

And I want to share that power with everyone. So here are my top tips for dyslexic writers (and for non dyslexic writers too).

Firstly, don’t worry about your spelling. I still make massive spelling mistakes. My first book had a spelling mistake in the very first sentence and it still went on to be published. Plus writers get to work with magical people called copy editors and like teachers they can fix all your spelling mistakes. Being creative does not include being an expert at spelling!.

Secondly, read. And read lots. Don’t worry if you’re slow about it. It still takes me about a month to finish reading one book!  But I take a lot of that book in. And I still go back and reread things if they didn’t make sense to me first time or I jumped a few lines. It may be a slow process, but the advantage is you can learn more from it and start to unravel how the author put things together.

Thirdly, don’t worry if you’re doing it differently. My dyslexic brain makes me jump all around a story narrative and I often have to write quite a bit before I can sort out the plotting. Find a way to organise your thoughts and ideas that works for you. Some people make visual diagrams,or come up with places their characters visit and fit the plotting around that.I write lots of lists and notes and flow charts often on the back of used envelopes. There is no right way, only the way that works for you.

And lastly, for me the best way to start a story is just to start writing it. Write that first line. Make it intriguing, or scary, or funny. Make it the best first line you can think of. Then think of who that first line is about. How are they feeling? And what’s happening to them? Stories are all about questions and finding the answers to them is half the fun.

There’s much to extrapolate in Lee Dodd’s second novel, many issues and great characters, but in essence, Lightning Chase Me Home is a good adventure story. Amber Lee Dodd’s first novel, We Are Giants, is reviewed here, and you can purchase Lightning Chase Me Home here.

Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway

unicorn girlThere is a Year 1 girl in my library club who is obsessed with unicorns. She can recall every book in my library that features a unicorn (and not just on the cover). So, in a few years’ time, she’ll delight in reading Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway.

Not many children’s books start with a funeral, but when Ariella’s grandma dies she not only leaves her with a sense of sadness, but also a unicorn charm. Days later, Ariella spies a real unicorn in the empty field at the back of the house. The unicorn proves useful in helping Ariella with her feelings of grief, as well as with her worries about her baby brother who is born with a hole in his heart, and settling in at her new school – which is proving more difficult than she thought, especially when one of the girls, Belinda, starts picking on her for her size (Ariella is small for her age).

Wouldn’t it be helpful if we all had a unicorn to deal with our anxieties? This novel from the award-winning author of Butterfly Summer captures its readership with its authenticity – despite the book venturing into magical realism with the appearance of a unicorn. Conway works as a drama teacher, and her knowledge of schools and how they operate today is plainly apparent and lends the book a huge dose of realism. The lessons, the teachers, and the pupils feel more real than many depictions in the children’s books I read – even down to the minute details of topics learned, the impact of a good teaching assistant on children who are struggling, and the ability of children to perform actions unseen by staff, no matter how diligent the teachers.

Many of today’s children are consumed with worries, observing the stresses of their parents, absorbing the changing attitude of older teen siblings, and struggling to navigate through the landscape of friendships. Conway piles worries on Ariella, but the book never feels too sad – there are shimmers of hope in kind supportive adults, and also of course in the introduction of the unicorn and its magic. Conway is clever here too, giving the unicorn its own backstory, and applying scruffy characteristics to it, so that by the reveal at the end, it becomes very clear to the reader what’s going on. The unicorn brings not only a sense of wonder and possibility, but also a calm space in which Ariella can breathe and contemplate.

Conway’s prose is absorbing and readable, and she touches on difficult themes with a sensitive and emotionally intelligent eye, observing not only the realism of schools, but also a keen understanding of a family under stress, and the dynamics of how each member of the family deals with the emotional upheaval, before finally coming together.

What’s particularly heart-warming is the way in which the book has been published. Anne-Marie Conway had finished her draft of the book, in which Ariella finds incredible solace in a particular unicorn book she finds in a hospital library, when she was approached to raise some money to build a new school library at her child’s school.  Now,  profits from Conway’s published book are being donated to building that new school library for her local school. You can click on the link here to see the fundraising project, and here to buy a copy of the book.

Peter Pan by JM Barrie, retold in rhyme by Caryl Hart, illustrated by Sarah Warburton

Peter PanI have a confession to make. I decided to read the worthy classic Peter Pan by JM Barrie to my first child at bedtime one year and picked out an exceptionally beautiful edition of the original. And yet a few pages in, I found myself précising the text, rewording it, changing sentences and skipping bits – the prose just wasn’t as captivating as I thought it should be. It had all the elements in the plot – removable shadows, pirates with hooks, crocodiles with clocks and fairies with attitude, yet it didn’t zing along.

So when this latest version came through the post, I wished that it had arrived years earlier, but settled for reading it to the youngest child instead. What a delight. Hart has used her extensive experience in rhyming picture books to retell the story in her own energetic style, and it is a joy to read aloud:

“Our tale begins in London
in a house on Bloomsbury Street.
Inside there lived a family,
the nicest you could meet.”

Hart not only retells the story, but imbues it with a narrator’s warmth, gently guiding the readers as Peter guides Wendy through the sky. There’s much plot and little description, but the setting is neatly filled in with Warburton’s filmic illustrations, rendering the mermaids mischievous with a flick of an eyebrow, the pirates both comedic and threatening with their sometime mean, sometime dozy expressions, and their excessive facial hair.

With pure pantomime timing, Hart executes all the finer details of the plot, and the familiar phrases – as children the land over clap their hands to save Tinkerbell, and there is much walking the plank, the introduction of the ‘Wendy’ house, and of course lots of fighting. But she also pulls out the dramatic pantomime hilarity of the story – Pan poking Hook from behind, then inciting him to climb the crow’s nest where he immediately feels dizzy. Child readers and listeners will be both engrossed with the fast-paced plot but also cheered with the numerous nods to win their humour. Hart also makes use of much onomatopoeia, building drama wherever possible with the ticks of the clock and the snaps of the crocodile, the canon’s boom and the water’s splosh.

The text is split neatly into four line verses, at times each illustrated separately, and sometimes illustrated with a full double page spread landscape. The production is superb – the pages are lush and thick, the colour bursting from the page in wondrous detail – the last spread has Peter almost silhouetted on a rock whilst in the foreground Tinkerbell literally shines and the flowers seem luminous in her wake. Other spreads delight with detail – the pirate ship, but also the lost boys’ underground home with its hammocks, swinging lanterns and shelves of curiosity. This is one you read to a child nestled in your arms – and with a ribbon bookmark and foiled jacket, you’ll both feel spoiled and all set for winter nights in – just keep the windows closed:

“They’d slipped out through the window,
quite ignoring Nana’s warning.
“Second to the right!” they cried.
“Then straight on until morning!”

Find your own way to Neverland here.

Halloween Murder and Magic

There’s nothing like a Halloween night to bring out the ghosts and ghoulies and spooky horror stories. But there’s also plenty of room for fun and frolics. When I first starting stocking murder stories in the primary school library, a parent queried the content. Murder? For children? Indeed. Murder, monsters, howling winds, dark nights, swamp creatures, are all perfect fodder for little ones (age 9+). Here are two I particularly like.

what manor murderWhat Manor of Murder? by Christopher William Hill
“It looks like the sort of place where bad things have happened,” whispered Master Oliver Davenport.

The author of the Tales from Schwartzgarten series is back with a new book called The Bleakley Brothers Mystery: What Manor of Murder? Spoofing traditional murder mysteries with a good helping of homicide, one-by-one elimination of suspects, a dollop of old country house, and a smigden of regurgitated legend, Hill tackles his topic with aplomb, dropping gothic clichés and hints throughout in the build up to the crime (the family’s Latin motto, mors cum Laetitia, means death with joyfulness). In the approach to the old manor house, there is an old man surrounded by clouds of smoke telling superstitious tales of gloom and doom, an ominous howling wind, a rickety bridge, and the looming towering walls of Bleakley Manor itself.

Posh twins Horatio and Eustace, freshly released from their boarding school, accompanied by Poor Unfortunate Oliver Davenport, arrive at Bleakley Manor for Michaelmas Eve with their extended family. Things are rather out of sorts though – with the butler and footman gone and replaced by inferior staff – and then a body is found in the study…

Hill assembles his eccentric characters; including cousin Loveday, a rather winning know-it-all who brandishes a jolly lacrosse stick and excitedly relays her new venture writing a school magazine entitled ‘Murder and Mayhem’, a Great Aunt who writes crime novels (and explains to Oliver Davenport that the poor unfortunates in her books always die), and an uncle who happens to be a roving explorer and Egyptologist.

Murder is discussed continually in the most off-hand manner, the children are desperate for mystery, and so it isn’t long before they get what they deserve. The author flourishes his deft wit on every page, playing with the readers as he assembles his cast and then eliminates them, all with fantastically posh period detail – from pineapple cubes and aniseed balls to roast goose and roly poly pudding (there is a lot of food).

If there’s an occasional clunker (insects sent scuttling more than once), the reader either excuses it as being part of the hammy style or overlooks it because the rest of the book is so much fun. I wanted to read it aloud in a plummy posh accent and revel in the quirky dark humour. It’s deliciously wicked. You can buy it here.

witch girlMore macabre goings-on in Witch Girl by Jan Eldredge, titled Evangeline of the Bayou in the States, which gives much more of a clue to the contents. The book is set in the swamps of Louisiana and stars twelve-year-old haunt huntress apprentice Evangeline Clement. (Haunt huntresses are on call to protect everyday folks haunted by supernatural creatures).

Evangeline Clement lives with her witchy grandmother, learning how to keep the locals safe from the monsters of the Bayou, including such nasties as banshees and terrebonnes. Evangeline and her grandmother rely on various herbs, potions, talismans and spells for their trade, which all tie nicely into the scenery – Eldredge borrowing from Cajun culture and the plant life of the American South.

The book plunges the reader into the action, showing Evangeline attempting to prove her worth by tackling a number of supernatural monster invasions on her own, although much to the reader’s amusement, she makes rather a mess of it.

Then, she and her grandmother are called to New Orleans to investigate the rather peculiar case of Mrs Midsomer who transforms into a rougarou (a werewolf). Fully immersed in the setting with its white wedding cake houses and aroma of coffee and chicory, this is a transportive novel brought to life most magnificently with the superstitions and local folklore tied into Evangeline’s witchcraft and voodoo. There is much monster-fighting action, and more than a hint of wit and sass.

In the end, the reader understands that trusting one’s gut is as important as knowledge, although a UK readerships’ knowledge will be greatly enhanced with the glossary of Cajun folklore creatures at the back of the book. Paranormal in abundance, creepiness indeed, but no outright horror. This is a nod to bravery in the face of creepy old mansions and terrifying monsters that make the dangerous alligator seem like a fluffy pussycat. Try it here.

 

Bookwandering with Anna James

Pages & CoPages & Co: Tilly and the Bookwanderers by Anna James is the first in a trilogy that tells the story of eleven-year-old Matilda (Tilly) Pages, who has lived with her grandparents above their bookshop ever since her mother disappeared shortly after Tilly was born. If you’ve ever witnessed a child completely immersed in a book so that they don’t even hear their own name being called, then you’ll understand the type of character Tilly is. She loves books, and with good reason. Her grandparents’ bookshop is an idyll – with nooks and hidden corners, chairs to nestle into, and all the time the permeating aroma of hot chocolate and fresh baking from the café.  

But there is more magic to the bookshop than great cakes and good books. Before long, Tilly is seeing characters from books come alive inside the shop – at first they speak to just her grandparents, but before long she meets Alice (from Wonderland) and Anne (from Green Gables). And then, to her surprise, she finds she can accompany them back to their own worlds too – and her book wandering adventures begin.

The premise of the book is delightful for book lovers – to literally escape into the book, and James is brave here – writing words into Alice’s and Anne’s mouths, even writing a tea party scene from Wonderland, in which Tilly meets the Mad Hatter. James pulls this off with aplomb, capturing the essence of the classic characters in both their speech and their mannerisms. She also executes the rules of her bookwandering world with skill – adeptly laying out for the reader (and Tilly) when it’s possible to enter a book, how to exit, and how the whole system is managed.

Tilly discovers that bookwandering doesn’t just happen in her grandparents’ bookshop, Pages & Co, but in many others, and the management of bookwandering happens in the underbelly of The British Library, where she is eventually invited to learn the rules. (A really wonderful scene here, in which Tilly has to learn to bookwander by starting in an early reader, Peter and Jane book, in which nothing happens).

The book leaps into even more adventurous territory when Tilly discovers that bookwandering may explain her mother’s disappearance.

This is a wonderfully engaging and cosy book with adventure, magic and friendship, and may encourage children to venture towards the classics mentioned above (and also A Little Princess). Today, I’m delighted to welcome Anna James onto MinervaReads to tell you about the real places that inspired Pages & Co:

Anna JamesReal life inspired Pages & Co in several ways (and probably in many other subconscious ways I’m not even aware of). I’ve pulled from people, places, and feelings to try and make the world of the book feel as real as possible, despite the magic going on. There’s one place I literally just stole, but several others inspired some of the locations of the plotlines of the book; here are five that had the biggest impact.

  1. My grandparents house

Tilly’s grandparents are hugely important to her, and to the story. Tilly lives with them in their bookshop and they are essentially her parents. While all of the characters are fictional, Tilly’s grandparents are the most directly inspired by real people; my grandparents. Sadly they didn’t live in a bookshop, but they did live in a farmhouse that they converted themselves, in the Scottish Borders. It was a house with a real fire, with Grandad’s emerald velvet armchair in front of it, full of bookshelves, and the kitchen in Pages & Co is basically their kitchen with its pantry, big table and Grandma making gooseberry crumble

  1. Masons of Melrose

Linked to my grandparents house is Masons of Melrose, their local independent bookshop. When we visited we used to walk from their house down the River Tweed to Melrose where we’d visit the bookshop and then walk back to eat and read in front of the fire. This bookshop is also where my Grandad used to choose our Christmas books, and the booksellers there recommended me, via him, to read Northern Lights and Harry Potter when I was 10.

  1. The University of Birmingham

I studied Modern and Medieval History at the University of Birmingham and I specialised in the early modern period; the Reformation and Tudor History, especially the history of printing and the impact it had on the period. The university is a beautiful red brick campus and the Great Hall, where I graduated, was one of the buildings I used when I was creating the British Underlibrary. I also spent a lot of time in the library, which has since been updated and modernised, but the old red brick building that was at the centre of the campus is my library, and the one that influenced the Underlibrary (more on that later).

  1. North London

I’ve lived in north London for just over three years now and I love it. Hampstead Heath, Alexandra Palace, my local high street full of independent coffee shops – when I started writing Pages & Co the only place I could imagine it, was near where I live. It is entirely impossible it could be, with its four floors and architectural dubiousness, but it’s still where it is in my imagination. It’s also, crucially, near to Kings Cross St Pancras which leads me on to the last real place which inspired me.

  1. The British Library

I write mostly at my local coffee shop or at the British Library, whose airy quiet reading rooms are perfect to get you in the right mood for writing. When I needed a location for a secret community of bookwanderers, I knew straightaway that it needed to be concealed somehow at this beautiful library. In the centre of the atrium there is The King’s Library, a tower of very old books, which is not accessible to the public, and it seemed the perfect place to hide a magical, apparently out of order, lift…

With huge thanks to Anna James for mapping her inspirational geography for MinervaReads. You can buy a copy of Pages & Co here.