magic

Close to the Wind by Jon Walter

close to the wind

Walter’s second book, My Name’s Not Friday, may have been longlisted for The Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize this year, and nominated for the 2016 Carnegie Medal, but in case you are waiting for the paperback (July 2016), I suggest you read Jon Walter’s first book first, Close to the Wind. It was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal last year, and is a great piece of literature.

Close to the Wind tells the story of Malik, a refugee waiting with his grandfather for a ship to carry him across the sea to a promised land, where there are big houses with white picket fences and post boxes at the front gates. In order to secure them a place aboard, his grandfather makes a deal, but it’s not the one Malik imagines, and in the end, Malik must dig deep for the courage and tenacity to travel, and find a way to perfect a magic trick that might just save him.

This book works well in three different ways – keeping the reader in thrall to the very end. Cleverly conceived, although Malik is given a name, there are no clear indicators of time or place, so that the soldiers, the ship, the deserted houses, and the cast-aside animals drop clues to the reader but could belong to any war-torn country at any time. Malik becomes the everyman refugee – an everyboy.

Secondly, the plot is tightly planned so that everyday boyish incidents which seem trivial in the first part, become crucial to the second. Every action predetermines another – every thought is consequential. Saying that, it’s not a hard book to follow – the writing style weaves along simply enough so that the reader is swept along on the journey with Malik, and the plot reveal of Malik’s accomplished magic trick is breath-taking.

And thirdly, this simple story is jam-packed with emotion. From the anticipation of the journey aboard the ship at the beginning of the story, to the anger at betrayal, to a small boy’s fear of abandonment, and his bewilderment at the behaviour of others, to the abiding tension of whether he will ultimately succeed in his quest, his longing for resolution, the promise of the new and the remembrance of the old. There is no let up to the inner turmoil and conflict of the characters. In this way, it is a perfect read for our age – a perfect vehicle for empathy with those fleeing their homelands, for any child lost in an adult world. The final reconciliation brings so much joy that any reader will weep with relief and happiness. I wish there was a sequel – I was reluctant to leave Malik, even in the good hands he finally found himself.

This is Jon Walter’s debut novel. It is truly accomplished, so you won’t want to wait for the paperback of His Name’s Not Friday, you’ll want both books…as soon as possible. Recommended for 9+ years.

You can buy a copy here. Or go to http://www.davidficklingbooks.com/ for a signed copy.

I would like to thank Jake Hayes and Jon Walter for sending me a copy of the book.

Dynamic Duos

The world of children’s publishing is thriving. In part, this is down to massively popular illustrated books such as Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and Tom Gates by Liz Pichon. This seems to have had two effects – one that children’s book publishers have slightly more money to play with, and two, that illustrated stories (beyond picture books) have become all the rage. These illustrations don’t just stand idly by portraying that which has been described by words – the illustrations push on the plot, define characters, and display visual jokes, using the full space of the page. There are excellent wordsmiths pairing up with superbly talented illustrators to create some DYNAMIC DUOS in children’s books. Here are three such pairs:

Mango and Bambang

Mango and Bambang: The Not-a-Pig written by Polly Faber and illustrated by Clara Vulliamy
A brand new pairing, Polly Faber’s debut writing is accompanied by Clara Vulliamy’s experienced illustrations. This exquisitely packaged book tells four delightful stories about Mango Allsorts, a girl who discovers a lost tapir and adopts him as her pet. The first page introduces (through words and pictures) the main characters in the story, and the first story explains how Mango met Bambang. The writing is simple and effective, and plays beautifully with the English language – explaining such things as how Mango’s papa spends his time ‘balancing books’. Polly Faber describes how Mango herself is good at all sorts of things (hence her name) but that wasn’t the same as being a good girl. The phrasing is enticing and winsome and the reader can bask with enjoyment at the wordplay. The illustrations play the same game – a simple two tone purple and black in colour, yet massively effective – the purple stripes of the opening pages contrasting with the black and white stripes of the zebra crossing where Mango meets a camouflaged Bambang, and then also complementing the stripes of Mango’s clothing. Clara’s pictures of the settings – eg, Mango’s city, the street traffic scene, etc, build a world around Polly’s words and the two mesh beautifully together to form a complete story. There is much to pore over. The stories are gentle – about kindness and friendship – the two characters complementing each other in a reflection of the pairing of author/illustrator. There is also a peacefulness that emanates from the book – childhood as a time for wonder and playfulness, as opposed to the busy world of the adults. The book feels very global, there is a real mix of dress, modes of transport, foodstuffs – and as in all good children’s literature there is a fair mention of food – banana pancakes in particular here. The other three stories involve a swimming pool, fabulous hats, and singing. It speaks to the inner child in everyone, and will enchant all newly independent readers. A lovely addition to books for this age group (6+). To purchase, click here.

pugs

Pugs of the Frozen North written by Philip Reeve and illustrated by Sarah McIntyre
This fabulous pairing can do no wrong at the moment. Following the huge success of Cakes in Space and Oliver and the Seawigs, comes my favourite so far. Pugs of the Frozen North is ‘Wacky Races on ice’. Shen and Sika enter the once in a lifetime race in True Winter to be the first to the North pole to see the Snowfather who grants wishes. Their sled is pulled by sixty-six pugs, who have been rescued from a shipwreck. It’s fantastical, magical and silly, with great charm. Reeve’s writing prose is a cut above – the plot races in time to the sled, the language is bewitching – a mass of alliteration throughout the novel using the letter ‘s’ – from the names of the children, Shen and Sika, to those of the polar bears, Snowdrop and Slushpuppy, to the number of pugs, ‘sixty-six’, to words associated with sleds and snow – ‘silvering of light’, ‘statues’, ‘slush’ and ‘snowmen’, not to mention the fifty types of snow – ‘screechsnow’, ‘shrinksnow’, ‘stonesnow’, ‘songsnow’…and made up words to describe the movement of the sled across the ice – ‘skreeling’. He isn’t afraid to use new language and to increase a young child’s vocabulary, and it’s all done to fit perfectly with the story.
Of course the humour shines through in abundance too. There are self-references to the Seawigs book, the yeti’s noodle bar instead of spaghetti (they wanted to avoid the obvious), and the camaraderie with the reader: “…looked very yeti-ish…you know the type of thing.” But the humour really shines with Sarah McIntyre’s fundamental illustrations. Sarah always shows how the story can be told through illustration, not just through text. We learn of the Chief Marshal’s mistake with the hot air balloon through the hilarious illustrated pages before it appears in the text, we are told through pictures only of the other racers’ mishaps (spot the selfie stick – it’s hugely comical), and of course the numerous wonderful drawings of 66 pugs. Particularly wonderful were those of the pugs warming in Helga’s beard, yipping at the Snowfather, and the endpapers with their names (look out for ‘Not-a-Pug’).
Children will adore this book – there is no let up in the pace: Shen, our main character, shows depth of character and thought – especially his anxiety about being disappointed at the end of the race, and the illustrations delight and amuse constantly. There’s a great use of landscape here too – from the types of snow, to the uses of it, and the Northern Lights. Read it, if only to find out what the Po of Ice is! This is a gem, all children aged 6+ will adore it and all parents will find it funny. Read it with your child so as not to miss out! Click here to purchase from Waterstones.

magic potions shop

The Magic Potions Shop: The Young Apprentice written by Abie Longstaff and illustrated by Lauren Beard
From the team behind the Fairytale Hairdresser comes a new series for slightly older readers. Although not afforded quite the same packaging as the two titles above, The Magic Potions Shop is a great stepping stone for newly independent readers – black and white illustrations on every page accompany large text that utilises italics, bold, and font changes to highlight particular words and phrases. The book tells the story of Tibben, apprentice to the Potions Master, who is trying hard to gain ‘glints’ on his robe, which will afford him the qualifications to become the next Potions Master. He starts the book by being rather inept, but through endeavour and bravery gradually earns his skill. The book is reminiscent of The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton, packed with mermaids, trolls, elves and sprites – and tells a typical adventure story complete with long journey (a map at the beginning shows the way), and magical happenings in the Kingdom of Arthwen. The vocabulary is largely accessible. Lauren’s illustrations don’t push the story along in the same way as in the titles above, but they do provide an extra layer of detail not given in the text. There’s a lovely section at the back detailing ingredients and potions – which will delight children. My only gripe is that the cover artwork for books one and two is tending towards being gender specific – whereas this is a series that could lend itself to being read by all. A good first reader though – I can see children devouring this new series. Buy it here.

Thank you to OUP for my review copy of Pugs, and to Abie Longstaff for my review copy of The Magic Potions Shop

I, Coriander by Sally Gardner

I Coriander
Republished by Orion in a special edition to celebrate its 10th anniversary, this is a historical novel for children that is brilliantly crafted, well-told and beautifully researched. Coriander is the daughter of a silk-merchant in 1650’s London. By candlelight, she tells the story of what happened to her after her mother’s death during the shaky period when Oliver Cromwell took power in England. Coriander’s father is a Royalist and after marrying a Puritan for protection, flees for France, leaving Coriander with her stepmother. Sally Gardner weaves fantasy into her historical novel, transporting Coriander to a fairy tale world for passages of the book, but this is brilliantly juxtaposed with her very real re-imagining of the politics and physical setting of London Bridge in the 1650’s. It is gripping from the beginning, summoning a vivid historical London, as well as setting a rapid pace for a plot paved with twists and turns. The characters feel authentic, even those within the fairy tale world.
Readers will delight in the fact that reality and fairy tale overlap – wicked stepmothers, princes, good and evil – the strands are so well integrated that it lends to the discussion of how fairy tales work and why they are told. The violence and abuse in the 1650’s scenes starkly contrast with the beautiful landscape of the fairy tale world, but both worlds portray good and evil in their various guises.
Told in the first person, Coriander is a well-defined and likeable feisty young woman, rebellious and brave, both straddling two worlds and torn between them. The reader cannot help but root for her. A thoroughly enjoyable read, for children aged ten plus. It won the 2005 Nestle Children’s Book Award.

With thanks to Orion for the review copy. To purchase your own, click here.

Alfie Bloom: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent

alfie bloom

One of the most readable novels I’ve read in some time, Gabrielle Kent has crafted a finely woven mash-up of some of the best known children’s literature and created her own excellent adventure. Alfie Bloom, poor and bullied, receives a peculiar summons from an even stranger solicitor and discovers that he has inherited an extraordinary castle. Added to this, he appears to be the custodian of a potent magic, part of which allows him to ‘timeslip’ back hundreds of years. Once living in his castle, he realises that there is a dangerous force roaming the fields, trying to take his magic from him, and he must fight it to save himself and the local village.

There are numerous hidden references and allusions in this book to the great children’s writers. The headmistresses of the local school to which Alfie is transferred hail from the realms of Dahl. Named Murkle and Snitch, one short, one tall, yet with Trunchbull-like punishments and glee in issuing them. They are superbly imagined. Alfie’s friendship with his cousins, and their tree house, as well as the sumptuous meals described, hark back to Enid Blyton, and the flying bear rug speaks to many a fantasy author’s imagination – it reminded me of Mary Norton’s bedknob.

The darkness and magic are vividly conjured. Although not a wizard, Alfie’s Harry Potter tendencies mean he can feel the intensity of his powers as a physical manifestation; and the castle itself is a wonderful mixture of modern and ancient, with hidden passages, concealed rooms, rich tapestries and a chandelier in the Great Hall – which works with an electric light switch, but the switch doesn’t light bulbs, it causes a mechanical arm with a flame to individually light all the wicks. It’s well described, pitched perfectly at the intended age group, as are the descriptions of the characters:

“Her nose was sharp, her fingernails were sharp but Alfie soon realised that the sharpest thing about her was her voice.”

This was such a captivating read – it flowed so well – and ticked all the boxes of children’s literature – down to descriptions of food wherever possible, an absent parent, a phenomenal Christmas celebration, and a play within the main drama where all is revealed. If I was a child again, I’d hope for at least ten in the series – it would be my mainstay. Gabrielle Kent has really taken all those tropes and reimagined them into a great little book. This start to a new series is fabulously promising.

Buy it here. For a capable age seven and over.