main

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

Illustrating Politics

Chris Riddell was the Children’s Laureate from 2015-2017, and as well as touring the country and promoting children’s literature and libraries, he also writes and illustrates his own books. I’ve looked at the Ottoline series on here before, but wanted to draw your attention to two recent publications, which may deviate slightly from the ‘normal’ children’s books I like to recommend.

If you remember, there was a lot of chatter at the end of 2016 about what an awful year it had been, politically and otherwise. And the situation has become ever more unstable with the somewhat strange goings-on around us in 2017. So it’s an interesting, and yet altogether sensible premise, to have a book that mashes together political commentary with the goings on in children’s literature from the last two years. Riddell is, of course, as well as being a children’s author, the political cartoonist of a national newspaper, and Macmillan, his publishers, have released a book of his illustrations from the past two years – including personal musings, published political cartoons, illustrations from children’s books festivals, cartoons advocating saving libraries, and random images from children’s books.

Politics and kids’ literature? Do they go together? Yes, because one of the things children’s books do best is to provide a passport to the wider world – to get children to open their eyes to different things, be it how people lived in historical fiction, how other cultures live now, or just how other people react to events (both familiar and strange). The children’s books I’ve covered in the last six months have talked about politics, leprosy, bullying, refugees, outer space, Tibet, maps, depression, dressing up, the environment, the pleasures of doodling, butterflies and so much more.

So Travels with my Sketchbook is a complex book – it’s very much a testament to Riddell’s time as Laureate, and will be much treasured by people within the book world, but it is also interesting as a sign of our times, and a call-out to children to illustrate or doodle more, and so will be fascinating to see how it sells and to whom? Are we more politicised and more interested in children’s illustration than we used to be? I think we are. You can buy Travels here and Chris Riddell is kindly donating all profits to Booktrust.

And if we are more politicised, are our children? I would actually wager yes to this, judging by how many children read a newspaper, watch the news, or scroll through news items on social media, and by how aware they are of their rights. In which case, an interesting addition to their library would be My Little Book of Big Freedoms, illustrated by Chris Riddell.

In partnership with Amnesty International, this is a simplified text from the Human Rights Act. Each of the 16 freedoms or rights are highlighted with an interpretative illustration, from a polar bear hugging children to exemplify ‘togetherness’, to a rather beautiful elephant with a girl resting on his trunk representing ‘solidarity’.

The saccharine and rather over-simplified text takes on a more fatidic and powerful tone in 2017, seeing as we have a president whose finger rests on the twitter button, and a hotchpotch political situation in the UK. Illustration can be an outlet for those children who want a way to express questioning and even rebellious thoughts and feelings, and yet who cannot express how they feel about a political situation in an adult sphere or with the appropriate vocabulary, perhaps for want of anxiety about how their views might be taken. It may be that if our youngsters take such a book to heart, the next generation may turn out better political leaders than the current crop. To purchase, click here.

Story

What do I mean when I say I’m a writer? Aren’t we all writers? Whether it’s composing a ‘to do’ list, thumbing a text, emailing a sick note, we all do a bit of writing in an average day. My writing tends to be a little more creative; as well as reviewing or writing opinion, I also spend a vast amount of my time ‘making stuff up’.

So, in a day, I’m likely to do various types of writing. Writing to communicate direct information with people, writing for publications, and lastly for an artistic purpose – which also has a personal aspect – it’s a way of trying to make sense of the world.

I’m lucky in my artistic pursuit. I don’t (at the moment) have a time or topic constraint, and my first draft can literally be whatever splurge I like. Then I can revise it with a view to shaping and developing my thoughts, and adding knowledge. At the same time I’m going to hone my language, perfecting my ability to express myself.

My children, however, are not so lucky. The majority of their writing happens in school, and at the moment they are constrained by the topic they are being taught, the grammar system they have to learn or put into their work, and time. More often than not, the stimulus for writing is external rather than internal – their piece of writing is a response to another piece of writing or a film clip.

In essence, there is little freedom in their writing. There is little opportunity to empty their heads, to write about what interests them individually. And most of those children do not want to go home and write. Some do – and all are able – but most will not write for pleasure. They are far more likely to read for pleasure – writing is seen as work, associated with school – even more so than reading.

In an ideal world, there would be time in school for both reading for pleasure – quiet reading time to read a book of their choice – and time for writing – to write something of their choice.

Of course with ultimate freedom, comes some panic. Stick me in front of a blank screen and I will succumb to ‘writer’s block’. The same with children. So a walk in the park, a listen to the birds, might do the trick. If you’re stuck inside though, a package from ‘Story’ might help.

Story is a new company that sent me something called a ‘Walk-in Book’. It’s not as fleshed out as a Choose Your Own Adventure Story, and in actual fact doesn’t look anything like a book. It comes in a bag, and contains inspiration for characters, settings, and quests.

It’s like the stimulus mentioned above, except far less restrictive. It’s a walk in the park in a bag. In fact, my young testers and I found the map far more helpful than the plot pointers. Printed out on what looks like square maths paper, the map winds and weaves round leaves, buildings and crude drawings of animals and gives the most delightful nameplaces within which to set your story. We loved ‘Whispering Walk’, Red Rabbit Run’, and ‘Gushing Gully’, and found that picking out a route around the town was a good way to build a plot from scratch.

The story cards were a little pedestrian in their themes, but we did notice that what they had in common was that they asked questions, so we did that to form our story too. What if this happens, why would our character behave this way, who is doing what, and of course where does that happen? The cards are separated into ‘beginning’ cards for those who find it hard to start, and ‘quest’ cards for those who need a little help on the way. A doll and mask are provided for character beginnings.

I think the doll may be intended to look fairly unisex, but we attributed a girl’s name for it, and couldn’t quite see it as a boy.

The package did make us think quite hard about writing our own story though, and I can imagine that it would work well in group environments – discussion pointers for children to then go off and write their own story. I intend to use it in school, and think it will go down well, particularly for those children who just don’t know where to start.

For me though, I find the best stories hit me when I’m not looking for them. I’ve given my own children blank pieces of paper and told them to write from scratch – just to splurge from their own heads. And inside, they found treasure troves.

It must be all that reading they do!

Story can be found online at https://www.wearestory.co.uk/

 

 

Diggers and Dinosaurs (and Dodos)

My nephew is obsessed with dinosaurs. My son at that young age was obsessed with diggers. So much so, that an afternoon day out was to drive up the motorway spotting roadworks.

So when this little picture book reared its head, I thought to myself – why didn’t I think of that?


Diggersaurs by Michael Whaite
Diggersaurs was inspired by the author’s daughter, who is obsessed with both dinosaurs and diggers, leading to this ultimate mash-up. Diggersaurs are bigger than a digger, and bigger than a dinosaur, and they also roar. It’s not hard to envisage the shape and bulk of a digger as a living breathing creature – the scoop at the back its tail, the scoop at the front a large mouth. So Whaite takes each machine and anthropomorphises it into a dinosaur both in attributes and name – dumpersaurus, wreckersaurus. It’s a cute idea, although the machines all look far more like machines with mouths than they do dinosaurs to me.

The text rhymes well, and is full of exciting action verbs, as well as being chockablock with onomatopoeic digger noises, from rumbles to kerplunks and whirrs. There are even numbers to count too.

This is a huge hit with certain little friends of mine – they are particularly keen on the drillersaurus with its spike scales, pointy tail, and excavation of dinosaur bones. Watch out for the illustrations of the builders – they are exceptionally cute. It’s brightly illustrated, although I do wish they hadn’t made the ‘sweepersaurus’ pink. You can buy it here.


How Many Dinosaurs Deep? By Ben Kitchin and Vicky Fieldhouse
Perfect for the summertime as some of our lucky children embrace life by a pool for the holidays, this is an emotionally perceptive look at assuaging a child’s fears of swimming by appealing to their interests. Jim is learning to swim but is worried about progressing from the baby pool to the middle pool. So, his mother attempts to explain the depth of each pool and river by using dinosaurs as a measurement:

“I don’t think the middle-sized pool would even come up to a Stegosaurus’s knee!” she says.

The point is well-made, gradually diminishing Jim’s fears. The illustrations bear out the wisdom of the parenting well. Jim’s mother crouches down to his level and holds his hand to explain the depths, and then we see him gradually move from sitting on the bench with his mother to standing with her, tentatively holding the bench with one hand, as she leans forward encouragingly. The progress is handled sensitively and with a gradual ease. Meanwhile the dinosaurs are illustrated in a toy-friendly, colourful way, particularly when they balance on top of each other under the water.

Other points of merit include the diversity of the people around the public swimming pool and their actions, as well as Jim’s complete delight at swimming in the end. There’s even a factual dinosaur reference at the end. A lovely book for pre-schoolers and young children to see how to face down fears and take the plunge. Age 3+ years. You can buy it here.


Edward and the Great Discovery by Rebecca Mcritchie, illustrated by Celeste Hulme
It’s hard to grow up feeling that you are a disappointment. This is exactly how Edward feels, coming from a long line of important archaeologists who have all made significant discoveries. The reader first sees Edward sitting glumly on the stairs, the wall of which is hung with a plethora of portraits of the famous explorers in his family. By the end of the book, of course, Edward has made a little discovery of his own.

The overwhelmingly spelt out message of the book is that friendship is Edward’s important discovery, but for me, the redeeming features and appeal of this unusual picture book is the depiction of what discovery and exploration are – it shows what an archaeologist does, and also what a scientist does – how to investigate a discovery – learning information from museum specimens and books, as well as learning to be proud of one’s learning.

There’s a distinctive gloss and mood to the illustrations – almost like an illustrated movie, and the book is made more compelling by this – it’s a muted dark colour palate, with numerous depictions of vast bookcases, and certainly yields an unusual protagonist. These things, as well as the background detail, lend themselves well to be investigated by the reader – turning the reader into his or her own kind of explorer/decipherer. An intriguing picture book with wonderful kit list endpapers. Dig for it here.

 

An Interview with CLiPPA shortlisted poet Kate Wakeling

Moon Juice by Kate Wakeling, illustrated by Elina Braslina, has been shortlisted for the CLiPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award). Past winners have included Sarah Crossan, Michael Rosen, Carol Ann Duffy, Roger McGough, Joseph Coelho, John Agard and many more. Before the winner is announced next Friday 14th July, I have the honour of welcoming Kate Wakeling onto the blog. Her collection of poems is broad and varied, both in subject and tone, and has a wonderful mix of word play and storytelling. 

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the CliPPA Childrens Poetry Award for your debut collection of poems for children, Moon Juice. Can you tell the readers a little about the collection?

Thank you! And thank you for having me on your excellent blog! Moon Juice is a mixture of lots of different sorts of poems – there are list poems, riddles, story poems, character poems – I wanted it to feel sort of technicolour in the mind’s eye. Much of the writing is quite mischievous and playful – the book is peopled by some absurd characters like Skig the Warrior and Hamster Man – but amid the mischief, a number of the poems aims to explore (in gentle ways) some more serious things like difficult moods, death, and ideas of authority. I am keen to try and talk about important things in an unsentimental way and with a good peppering of humour. The poem I am most proud of in the collection is called ‘The Demon Mouth’. It explores ideas of compulsion and the need for tenderness, but in the midst of some rascally wordplay and (I hope) a rollicking story.

Theres a huge emphasis on the soundof the words in the poems. At the beginning of Comet, you even instruct the reader how to read it. Do you think poetry should always be read out loud?

Ha! Yes, Comet comes with the instruction that it should be read as quickly as possible. I liked the feeling of adding something of a physical game into a poem’s set-up on the page and have been amazed at how much fun it seems to have generated for readers. I’m definitely going to keep exploring this sort of idea!

In terms of whether every poem should be read aloud, I don’t feel too dogmatic about this. I think the key thing for me is that each poem deserves to be sounded – so much is gained from a poem when the reader lets the full sound of each word really chime. Reading aloud is a great way to capture these riches but it can work pretty well when reading to oneself too. Part of the magic of poetry for me is the sense of quiet and privacy that being absorbed in a poem allows, so I understand that some people want to take their poetry in silence (but would urge them to make plenty of noise on the inside).

And leading on from that, the shape of the poems on the page is also important to their comprehension – the white space of Ghost Sister, which speaks to a sense of loss and absence, the capitalisation of the letter ‘Oin Telescope. Are poems meant to exist both in audio and visual form?

I loved playing with the page when writing these poems. And yes, the look of a poem can be absolutely key to its meaning and effect – this is definitely the case with the two poems you mention. Now I think of it, I very rarely perform ‘Telescope’ or ‘Ghost Sister’ – perhaps because I feel like something might be lost when they are lifted from the page. ‘This be the Scale’ also springs to mind as a poem in the book with a strong visual identity that I rarely read aloud to groups. The poem is structured as a numbered list that charts the world of sound from the deepest noise imaginable to the very very very highest ping. Ha, perhaps the reason I don’t perform it is also because I think the reader is being invited to imagine some extraordinary sounds and so needs the privacy of their own brain to get to grips with them.

You describe yourself as an ethnomusicologist as well as a poet, and in fact work as a writer-in-residence with an orchestra. How does music influence your poetry?

I think music infuses absolutely everything I write. I think I have quite a keen awareness as to the ‘sonics’ of the words I use, and am also pretty obsessed about the rhythm of text, be it when writing couplets or completely free verse – rhythm is central to absolutely every kind of poem. Thinking about the question above, I’m also struck more and more by how the white space on the page in a poem (or lack thereof) creates a sense of rhythm and have been enjoying experimenting with this.

And is there a specific genre or piece of music that inspired this collection of poetry?

Perhaps not one piece of music but I think all the music I’ve played and listened to and studied over the years has played a part in creating a certain energy and enthusiasm for seeking out the musicality in my writing. That said, I lived in Indonesia for a year-and-a-bit to research Balinese music for my PhD, and I think that experience was crucial to me in finding my way as a poet. I find it hard to lay a finger on how, but I feel like my imagination really relaxed there. Perhaps it was having the space to be away from familiar things and spending so much of my time – hours and hours most days! – playing this particularly complex but quite repetitive music. I think playing gamelan (an ensemble of bronze and bamboo percussion instruments) can do something really excellent to a person’s thought process – you are at once freed up while also forced to be precise. And on reflection, I think these are the two qualities I feel I need to hone when I’m writing a poem.

Kate Wakeling

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and yet even claimed in his acceptance speech that songs are unlike literature. Theyre meant to be sung, not read.Whats your view on this?

I think I agree, at least in part, with Bob! Which is not to say lyrics oughtn’t to be read on the page in any circumstances, just that I think music and text interact in such a special way when created together expressly to form a song. And so extracting one bit of that creation and then framing it as something else isn’t always perhaps fair or particularly enriching to that material. But heck, I’m not Bob Dylan so who am I to say what anyone should or shouldn’t do with their sleeve notes.

There seems to be a deliberate amount of play with form and words in the collection. For example Hair Piece looks as if it might be prose, but feels like poetry. Are you trying to pose questions to the readers about the essence of poetry?

Certainly not deliberately, but I did particularly enjoy writing ‘Hair Piece’ and found the idea of infusing this bit of prose with as much sonic punch as I could muster really exciting and satisfying. I love squeezing a bit of semi-secret poetry into things (I get irrational amounts of pleasure from trying to cook up a really good text message to a friend). I should also say that ‘Hair Piece’ owes lots to John Hegley, whose books I love and who writes wonderful prose poems that are full of mischievous and insightful word play. There is an amazing narrative prose poem in his Love Cuts about a break-up and it explores a burgeoning affair with a pensioner, a sliced onion and a piece of cubist art (among other things). It looks just like prose on the page but fizzes with poetry through and through. I still base almost all my internet passwords on various characters from that poem (I here confess this strange but sincere Hegley homage) so I think about it everyday.

With huge thanks to Kate Wakeling for such insightful answers to my questions. Moon Juice is available to buy here. Don’t miss out.

Q&A with Catherine Barter, author of Troublemakers


I had the recent good fortune to not only review Catherine’s debut novel, Troublemakers, but also to chair a panel conversation between Catherine and Keren David, author of The Liar’s Handbook, among others. For those of you unable to attend, I also sneaked in a cheeky Q&A with Catherine so that I could share it with you here. Troublemakers is an unusual YA novel – it’s contemporary, about politics, and very apt in the current political climate. Set in London, it’s a coming-of-age novel that speaks of activism, terrorism, and family relationships.

I understand that you worked for an organisation campaigning for the rights of garment workers. Have you always been involved in political activism of some kind?

That’s right, I used to work for a brilliant organisation called Labour Behind the Label. I mostly did office admin – answering emails, stuffing envelopes, that kind of thing. I’m much too shy to be any good at direct action or street protest, so where I’ve been involved in activism it’s mainly been doing boring, behind-the-scenes things.

I’ve always been quite political, and my family talked politics a lot, but I think I got particularly switched on to it in my teens. When I was about sixteen I had that Naomi Klein book, No Logo, which a lot of people were reading at the time, and I got quite caught up in the idea of fighting back against global capitalism. Not that I exactly knew what that meant (I’m not sure I actually got to the end of No Logo), but I could tell it was important!

And then the Iraq War began the year that I started university, and I went on one of the marches against it, as did a lot of young people that year. So that was my first introduction to that kind of mass movement activism. You care very passionately about things when you’re a teenager, so I think it’s a good time to get interested in politics and activism.

You co-manage a radical bookshop (Housmans). What’s the most rewarding part of the job?

I love when young people come in to the shop looking for copies of old radical classics, things like bell hooks’ Ain’t I A Woman or Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. You get the feeling they’re just getting started on their political journeys and they’re putting in the groundwork by reading all these big, difficult, important books. And they’re really excited about it. I love seeing that.

Did the attacks on Housmans in the past in some way inspire what happens to Nick’s coffee shop in Troublemakers?

Hmm! I actually never thought about that link, but maybe on some level it was inspired by that. There’s definitely a bit of Housmans in Nick’s coffee shop, and working in the shop has made me aware that any business which has its politics up-front makes itself vulnerable to some extent. We do still get far-right people coming in to shout at us sometimes, and I can imagine Nick’s coffee shop with all its activist posters in the window would get the same.

When did you start writing Troublemakers?

I can be very specific! It was March 2011, when I took a six-week course at Writers’ Centre Norwich. I was feeling very liberated after finishing a PhD and wanted to start doing something completely different from academic writing.

Did you always want to write YA?

No. I didn’t know a lot about YA until I started writing Troublemakers. Then I sort of fell in love with writing from the perspective of a teenager and realised that YA was the right home for the kind of story I wanted to tell. Which was really exciting.

How did you feel to be shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award?

I was so happy. I can remember that whole day really vividly. It was gratifying because after I was longlisted, and before I submitted the full manuscript for the next stage, I’d worked really hard to fix all the problems that I knew the book had. I was still rewriting until the last possible moment, because I knew I could make it better. So I was thrilled when all that work paid off.

This is your debut novel. Tell me your route to publication.

After the shortlist was announced, the organiser of the Bath Novel Award, Caroline Ambrose, contacted literary agents to let them know about the books and authors on the list. As a result of that, a few agents requested to see my complete manuscript. Two of those offered to represent me–but one of them wanted me to write a different book, and one of them wanted to work on Troublemakers. So that was an easy decision! I did quite a lot of editing with my agent, who then sent the book out into the world, where it found a home with Andersen Press.

You wrote a PhD on Sherman Alexie. What attracted you to him?

I’d never heard of Sherman Alexie until I read one of his short story collections for a class on ‘multi-ethnic American literatures’. Then I got completely hooked. His writing is very funny and very sad, very immediate and sometimes flawed and all the more alive and interesting because of that. It’s very layered and political, too, and writing about his fiction was also a way to write and think about American history and politics and storytelling traditions. So all of that was very appealing. And he’s also written one of my favourite YA novels ever, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

What are you working on next?

It’s still in a bit of a fragile, embryonic stage, but I’m working on a story about four friends in a desolate Norfolk seaside town in winter. So it’s a completely different setting from Troublemakers, which has been fun to write.

Thank you so much to Catherine for agreeing to answer yet more questions. I encourage you all to read Troublemakers, it’s one of the best YA published this year. You can purchase it here.  

 

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.

 

London Days Out and Origami


Last year there was a flurry of colouring-in books for adults, with the aim of providing relaxation and mental health benefits, (and making some money for the publishing industry). Personally I prefer to just read a book, which in itself has many mental health benefits. However, I’m also going to try my hand at origami, because publisher Nosy Crow has teamed up with The British Museum to produce a new collection of books and they’ve started with something rather special.

As part of my summer series looking at places to visit in London that are children’s book related (see also Defender of the Realm and Hetty Feather), this book inspires another trip. Currently at The British Museum there is an exhibition called Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, featuring works from Katsushika Hokusai, one of Japan’s great artists. So, to link with the exhibition, Nosy Crow have published this rather beautiful book about Japanese culture, featuring haikus, pictures and origami.

The book called Origami, Poems and Pictures, is exactly that. It gives instructions for constructing 13 origami models (with 50 sheets of paper for practice), and alongside each set of instructions is a relevant painting from the museum’s exhibition, the Japanese name for the object, and a haiku – so that different elements of Japanese tradition are explored.

I love that the first offering from Nosy Crow and the British Museum isn’t based on Ancient Egypt – which tends to be the ‘go to’ theme when children visit – but instead they have focused on a culture that children may not have been taught about in such depth.

What’s more, the quality of the book is excellent – I found the pieces of paper easy to tear from the book, and each is patterned and coloured uniquely. The instructions are clear to follow, with a difficulty level chart on each page so that you can work your way up the scale, and there is something rather calming and satisfying about achieving the shape. (And I’m certainly not very adept at these sort of things usually). That’s not it though, for then there is the haiku to read and reflect upon, and also the painting to absorb.

The book and paper are bound separately so that even when all the paper is used, this remains a useful little book, with no rips, just a slightly loose cover. There’s even a tech advanced QR code to watch instructional videos if you find that easier. I can’t fault the book – and it is a lovely introduction to a new culture. What’s more, it could entice me to the British Museum to visit the actual exhibition (which runs from May 2017 to 13 August).

I have a feeling though, that I may be doing origami longer than that. Recommended for ages 5-9 years. You can buy it here.

Hetty Feather at the Foundling Museum

There are days when all my kids and I want to do is find a patch of green in the sunlight somewhere in London and read our books. But, living in such a great city gives us many opportunities to explore. And there’s nothing I like better than matching a day out with a book.

That’s exactly what they’ve done at The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square. Their exhibition, Picturing Hetty Feather, runs from now until September 3rd and explores not only the history of the Foundling Hospital, but also how Hetty Feather was brought to life by Jacqueline Wilson in a book, and then on stage, and screen.

The Hetty Feather exhibition is very hands-on. There are workshops being led throughout the summer, and you can see the list by clicking here, (including a talk from Jacqueline Wilson herself, traditional bookbinding and creative writing), but even in the main museum there are activities to do.

The exhibits range from the historical to props used in the modern TV show. I was particularly taken with Jacqueline Wilson’s original Hetty Feather manuscript, in the most beautiful leather notepad, as well as the original matron’s mallet, and an 18th century pew. There are the children’s coat pegs from the original hospital (now hanging with dress-up costumes), as well as film clips of the TV programme, a schoolroom, dinner plates, and more.

What’s great is how the museum brings history to life with compelling stories – the staircase in the museum is the original staircase from the boys’ wing, with a wide flat sturdy handrail that was ideal for the braver boys to slide down. In the 18th century, iron spikes were put there instead, due to an incident in which a boy had fallen to his death – a story to turn into a novel if ever I heard one. It’s not only the history that pulls, but also the empathetic tone of much of the narrative throughout the museum. Children are asked to imagine the lives of the children at the Foundling Hospital – what they ate, how they slept, how they felt when their names were changed, how and if they behaved according to the strict Victorian rules. Today’s visitors can dress up, fill out their own menus, and write letters home.

Upstairs, there are some inventive ideas too. Children can visit the governors’ meeting room (the Court Room), not something many of the foundlings did I’m sure, and hold a mirror up to examine more closely the highly decorated ceiling. There are also the original tokens the children had (given to them as identifiers in place of their names, which were changed to prevent difficulties for the mothers), and some beautiful yet evocative paintings by Emma Brownlow depicting various situations in the children’s lives.

With a café too, and green spaces outside in Brunswick Square Gardens, this is a lovely way to spend an hour or two. You can buy a copy of Hetty Feather here.

The Right To Fail

So recently, I was shown a TED talk all about how we (society) are letting down our girls by pressing on them the idea that they need to be perfect. We are enabling them to be scared of failure. We are not pushing our girls to take risks, to be brave. And we should be.

Then, two very different children’s books arrived on my desk, and yet they have something in common. They want children to be bold, to be brave, to experiment, to risk failure.

If Found Please Return to Elise Gravel by Elise Gravel
This amusing sketchbook shows the reader how to be an illustrator. In fact, Elise prefaces her book like this:

“I give myself the right to fail, to mess up, to create ugly drawings. I’m kind to myself.”

Pages and pages of full colour doodles and inspiration follow, as well as small snippets of stories, to provoke the reader’s imagination. There are some step-by-step guides, such as how to draw a hedgehog, but with a bit of perseverance, and a recognition that failure is an option, most of the illustrations are fairly easy to copy without a broken down guide.

But as well as recognisable hedgehogs, Elise also stimulates the imagination with her made-up creatures, from ‘floofs’ to the perfume-footed ‘woompus’. It’s a great example of how to start a character description, with some illustrations leading into textual explanations such as the ‘woompus’ being a “close cousin to the squirrel…he communicates with a little sharp cry that sounds like an angry baby.”

Each illustration is drawn and coloured with vibrant felt markers – so any child can copy, or take it as a starting gun for their own design. The idea is to stop the reader or young artist from worrying about whether what they’ve drawn is good or bad – it’s all about practising and drawing anything.

The joy of this book is that it looks and works like a journal – an organic entity, which aims to explore, humour, and tease the reader into keeping their own doodle pad – to experiment without risk of judgement, ridicule or failure. There are no blank pages within though – you have to buy your own blank sketcher for that.

With an attached elastic bookmark to keep place, this is a feel-good addition to any young artist’s stationery and book collection. Buy it here.

Rosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers by Andrea Beaty, illustrations by David Roberts
No child I know has failed to love Andrea Beaty’s cool STEM picture books: Rosie Revere Engineer, Iggy Peck Architect and Ada Twist Scientist – which manage to spin a cunning rhyme, promote women and diversity within science subjects, and tell a good story at the same time. This spin-off title takes the reader even further by offering interaction.

The activity book begins with a story – the background to Rosie Revere and the influences in her life. Most important is her Great Great Aunt Rose, who explains that success comes after a series of failures:

“Your brilliant first flop was a raging success.”

“Failing is just part of learning and the only true failure can come if you quit.”

The book then lists some treasure that the reader might want to collect over time to use in their own inventions, including nuts and bolts, pliers and yarn, and all sorts of bits from recycling or thrift markets.

As well as a myriad of activities throughout the book, such as directions on how to make a catapult, and making your own marble run, the book also explains that part of being an engineer is improving existing designs and models – challenging the reader to improve a bicycle for example, and also looking at world problems that need solving, such as lack of water.

The activities are interspersed with knowledge: information about real life engineers and scientists, the different types of engineering, as well as definitions of different simple machines.

There is plenty of space for creativity: the book poses questions, showcases inspirational people, promotes brainstorming etc. Being an engineer also involves using your imagination. And there’s a section on teamwork too.

The book is a great way to develop a child’s problem-solving skills, but most importantly it empowers a child to fail on their way to success. This is a brilliant book. You can buy it here.