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Children’s Mental Health Week

With social media and children’s mental health dominating the airwaves this week in the UK, and statistics released that show, not only the rise in mental health problems among the young, but also a rise in suicide, it’s more and more important to be an active part in protecting and looking after children’s mental health. For me, books are an effective way through any difficulties, providing a de-stress just by reading, but also often having the content show a way forward, to promote empathy, and to calm a troubled mind. Here are three books to help a child navigate through, particularly pertinent in this Children’s Mental Health Week.

my hidden chimpMy Hidden Chimp by Professor Steve Peters (and The Silent Guides)
Which child (or adult for that matter) hasn’t over-reacted to something? Perhaps using anger as a reflex when being told off, or experiencing heightened anxiety about an upcoming test that then manifests itself as an extreme emotion? Perhaps a toddler resorts to tantrums or being unkind to another child when things aren’t going their way. Professor Peters believes that one way of dealing with this is to control one’s inner chimp.

Peters’ first book, The Chimp Paradox, sold over a million copies, but it was a self-help book aimed at adults. Now he’s brought his concept to a children’s book, illuminating how they too can train their inner chimp and learn life-changing habits.

In My Hidden Chimp, Peters suggests that the brain contains two parts: the human rational side, and the irrational chimp side – the part that leaps to conclusions, acts rashly, causes your emotions to rocket, or for a child, makes them feel grumpy, worried, naughty etc.

Written and illustrated in a simplistic comic book style, the book is an eye-opener for adult and child alike. It is also a workbook – so that the child works through the book using exercises rather than just reading and consuming. Peters aims to explain how to keep the chimp under control (although also, and very importantly, recognising those occasions when the chimp might be right – when it’s sending out danger signals). Moreover, he explains that the chimp is not a scapegoat for a child’s actions, nor an imaginary friend – this is a part of the brain for which the child is responsible and it’s about knowing when to tame it, and how to train it.

For example, when confronted with something a child doesn’t want to do – one part of the brain will be accepting of this, the other part is the chimp who will get upset and grumpy. Peters argues that the child always has a choice of which side to be on. And then he gives ten tips for how to help manage the chimp, and choose the positive side – these include smiling, saying sorry, being kind, talking about feelings etc. And always with examples and exercises for how to do this. It sounds almost obvious, but can be really helpful to have everyday emotions and reactions managed in this way.

silent guides

The accompanying book (although marketed as being the other way around with The Hidden Chimp as the companion title) is a hefty book called The Silent Guides, which is aimed at an adult audience, but particularly one that deals with children either in a parental or caring capacity. Peters’ writing style is easy-going and straightforward, and some of the guidance is fairly obvious. His conclusion too, is that the guidance won’t work for every child. But if you’re a fan of the basic concept, or want to learn some habits that will engender a change in irrational behaviours, then this is a good start. You can buy it here.

turn off live onTurn Off Live On by Vincent Vincent
A small pocket book (smaller than an ipad mini), with plenty of graphics, puzzles, and drawing space, this book aims to show how to live some of your life without your mobile phone. It’s a plea to go slow, to look around more, to avoid losing hours scrolling. While acknowledging a phone’s worth and pleasure, the author aims to show the reader how to unleash their creativity, feel better and escape from some of the negativity that the devices can promote, just for a little while.

Seeing a real opportunity here, I sought Teenager One, who was on the sofa scrolling through something on his phone (head down, posture bad – this is another thing Vincent talks about). So I tossed him this book and asked him for his opinion.

To be fair to Teenager One, I’m forever shoving books at him, so he has a high bar on which books grab him. This one did get an extended look in- although it was a step too far for him to dislodge himself from the sofa and find a pen to fill in some of the activities. But it did make him take some time away from the phone. So, full marks.

In each section there are activities to engage the reader. In the chapter on avoiding social media because of its ability to promote negative feelings, the book encourages self-awareness exercises, promoting self-belief and self-confidence, writing attributes about yourself and understanding what you like doing. The chapter on ‘train your brain’ aims to show how we defer to the phone too often, for example on finding somewhere on a map or not memorising phone numbers. There are code and map exercises to help. The book also contains exercises on mindfulness and relaxation, and quotes from current celebrities on positivity etc.

Although I feel that many teens will greet the book with a fair amount of disdain if given to them by a parent when they’re on their phone (as I did!), it could be a good tool to use for all the family to detox, and if slipped surreptitiously into a teen’s bedroom, may well hold some positive truths that they discover gradually.

A good message nicely packaged (black and white illustrations/graphics throughout). You can buy it here.

even superheroes make mistakesEven Superheroes Make Mistakes by Shelly Becker, illustrated by Eda Kaban
For the youngest member of the family, who may not yet be on their mobile phone, this fun picture book teaches a great lesson. That everyone makes mistakes, and what’s important is taking responsibility, saying sorry, learning from the error and moving on (and up!). From the team behind Even Superheroes Have Bad Days, this is a fun rhyming tale about an array of superheroes who make errors but ‘own’ their mistakes.

It’s very American in tone – the superheroes ‘goof up’ and ‘spiff up’ their hair, and some of their errors feel a little tenuous as if only there for the rhyme – they don’t clean their clothes, or get up on time, but the main thrust of the argument here is that they should ‘own’ their mistakes.

“If their rescue attempt was NOT super-clever,
they could stock up supplies and hide out FOREVER.”

My favourite rhyme comes near the end, when the author declares that what makes our heroes super is their ability to ‘fess up their mess-up’:

“Instead they remember perfection is rare,
And they choose super ways to respond when they err.”

The illustrations are great fun though – the superheroes based on ‘real’ ones, zooming through the air with capes a-flying, unleashing threads from their fingers, shooting lasers with their eyes – and making a mess of it. For this alone, it’ll be a winner with very young children who like their superheroes everywhere – even if they are teaching them good behaviours. But I think the rhyming was better in Even Superheroes Have Bad Days. Buy Even Superheroes Make Mistakes here.

The Light in the Dark

It’s the time of year when the days are getting longer, and the Christmas lights at teatime are just a memory. But with January weather in London, the evenings are still very dark. For some children (and adults), the darkness of winter brings sadness and even fear – dark can be scary for many – altering shapes in the darkness, the fumbling unknown of not being able to see, shadows springing unbidden. When I was little, I took great comfort in The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, enjoying Plop’s discovery that other people like the dark for many different reasons. Dark was super, and kind, and exciting.

Four newer picture books aim to shine a light on the fear of darkness too. And they are all fantastic.

light in the night
The Light in the Night by Marie Voigt
Betty has no fear of the dark and enjoys bedtime for her bedtime stories. But when a Bear from one of her books comes to life, she must help him overcome his fear of the dark – and in turn he might help her too. On the surface, this is a simple book with adorable illustrations – a cuddly bear whose every expression shows on his face, a small intrepid child. And yet there is more depth – this is not just a book about conquering fears, making friends, or helping one another. The climax of the story draws out the notion that one has to try new things and this may entail showing incredible bravery in the face of darkness. Rewards come from adventure.

The ending is also particularly sweet and clever – the bear and Betty dance and sing back home; their fear masked by a togetherness in hope, and their shadows when they arrive home aren’t the scary shapeshifters of most fiction, but tall and proud elongated reflections. This pair have inner strength. Voigt’s illustrations feel animated – and each scene shows prescience in the story to come, as well as the character within. The pictures on Betty’s walls are of adventures, the bedtime book foreshadows the adventure she is to take, and the different illustrative perspectives of the woods show the reader when something familiar and normal can become scary and vice versa. Conquer your fears here.

the rabbit the dark and the biscuit tin
The Rabbit, the Dark and the Biscuit Tin by Nicola O’Byrne
A slightly different issue in this picture book with a lift the flap element, in that Rabbit just doesn’t want to go to bed. And if it doesn’t get dark, he won’t have to. So he traps the dark in a biscuit tin. The consequences, of course, are that Rabbit upsets a lot of other animals – the bats and owls and foxes. But the really excellent part of the book is the dialogue between Rabbit and the Dark, as the Dark tries to negotiate its way out of the tin. In the end, it’s Rabbit’s ability to empathise with others that makes him open the tin. This gradual awareness of the needs of others mirrors the development of a child – recognising others and feeling empathy for them.

O’Byrne cleverly uses her illustrations to mirror this point, highlighting Rabbit’s grumpiness and own desires with subtle use of ear positioning and body language, before the joy of doing things for others is shown all over Rabbit’s face.

The Dark is neatly personified in the illustrations too – a dark hand reaching out for a biscuit, but in the end the Dark is shown in its glory – it is necessary, and exciting, and rather wonderful. Open your own biscuit tin here.

elephant that ate the night
The Elephant that Ate the Night by Bing Bai, illustrations by Yuanyuan Shen
A not dissimilar theme in this Chinese tale of a dark mushroom forest and the night that grows over it at the end of every day. The baby animals are scared of being swallowed by the darkness, and invite Awu the elephant to swallow any lurking darkness himself. He does, and as he does, his stomach gets fuller, illustrated by a growing blackness across his grey skin. When he’s satisfied he pats his tummy and sleeps. But the animals soon realise that they need the darkness for sleeping, and they implore Awu to spit it back out.

The repetition of sounds and phrases make this a perfect bedtime read, and the quirkiness of the illustrations – the elephant’s pink toes, the colour palate of yellows and greys, the patterned trees and the animals’ teeth – make this stand out from the average picture book. It treads on the edge of fear, without being swallowed by it completely. Find your bravery in the shape of an elephant here.

king who banned the dark
The King Who Banned the Dark by Emily Haworth-Booth
This picture book came out earlier last year, and takes the premise of no darkness one step further. A prince who is afraid of the dark bans it completely upon becoming King, installing an artificial sun and enforcing anti-dark laws.

However, there is much more to this story than the fear of darkness. The King has to win over his people, persuading them why darkness is so terrible, and sustaining his argument. Manipulative marketing morphs to a slow brainwashing. But before long, the people start to revolt.

With pages that stimulate discussion on propaganda, and selling a story, as well as distortions of the truth, this is an up-to-the-minute picture book that deals with an age-old fear in a very modern way. It analyses what makes people happy, and how people can be manipulated to think they are happy with the way things are, as well as exploring freedom of speech, tyrannical rule, and of course, the power of darkness.

And the illustrations are different too – although almost all in shades of grey and yellow, there is careful thought behind light innovations – a lamp hat, the power of torches, an array of light shops, candelabra dripping with light – but also the scariness of the dark, the creeping shapes and shadows, the stealth behind cover of darkness, and also its magnificence. Buy your own princely beam of light here.

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. So it’s fitting that in primary school library book club this week we were looking at the theme of diaries. My Y6 cohort embraced this with gusto, reading everything from The Wimpy Kid to Artichoke Hearts to Anne Frank’s Diary. Which brings us back to the Holocaust. They spent the first five minutes debating how old Anne Frank would be if she were alive today and where she might be living. It was a memorable and emotional discussion.

peter in perilPeter in Peril by Helen Bate is a graphic novel that aims to show how the people swept up in the Holocaust were ordinary people. This is a tame book for a young audience though, and doesn’t go into any detail on the camps or genocide, but instead illuminates the dangers and changes that one Jewish boy went through during the Second World War, hiding from the Nazi’s. Despite the fear and darkness, Peter is one of the lucky ones. Perhaps why the book is subtitled: Courage and Hope in World War Two.

The story is written in first person by Peter, a young boy living in Budapest, who loves football and cake. Like Anne Frank, he too is forced into hiding, but unlike most Jewish people, he is reunited with his parents and his former home by the end of the war.

Because it is told from a young person’s perspective, there is an ignorance to what is actually happening around him – but from the action the reader will understand that Peter survived round-ups of Jewish people by moving hiding places several times, the only constant being a colouring book; he frequently faces hunger and cold. Despite the removal of the more harrowing elements of the Holocaust, the reader will understand that this was a horrific time, challenging and frightening for even the luckiest child.

The novel is in graphic novel/comic book style, which makes it very easy to follow for the most reluctant reader; in fact the book’s pictures working best when they aren’t annotated with incidental dialogue.

This is a true story, and the background of what happened in Budapest during the war is given at the back, as well as a summation of what happened to the real Peter. Many of Peter’s extended family were killed in the death camps, although miraculously he and his parents and baby brother survived and continued to live in Hungary.

My only wish is that the figures involved in deportation were explained. In March 1944, there were more than 800,000 Jews living in Hungary (as a result of annexations from Slovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia). In May 1944 deportations began and in just eight weeks, 424,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Yad Vashem statistics). 

You can buy a copy of Peter in Peril here

TomiThere are fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust now living, and it’s important to hear their accounts. Tomi Reichental’s Holocaust Story has been retold by Eithne Massey for young readers age 10+. Tomi describes Tomi’s life in Slovakia, at first pretty idyllic, but then it deteriorates rapidly, firstly because of the taunting Anti-semitism from schoolmates, and then from restrictive laws passed forbidding Jewish people to go to school. Then the arrests start, and finally Tomi is captured and sent to Bergen-Belsen. Amazingly, Tomi survived, (although 35 members of his extended family were killed). As above, this is told through the eyes of a child, and so shies away from the absolute horror of Bergen-Belsen, but is still a devastating read, (much more so than Peter in Peril) although Tomi is appropriate for children, in that it explains the Holocaust in a powerful yet simple way.

Told in narrative format, novel-like in its prose, yet with a slight distance to protect the reader, the book describes graphic events – the death in the carriage on route to the camps, the whips of the guards, death and disease within the camps.

There’s a clear balance needed between explaining the truth of what happened – even to young children during the Holocaust – and protecting today’s children from nightmares and fear. And yet, there is also a duty to make sure we and our children ‘never forget’. In a time of rising anti-Semitism again, it is crucial that these true accounts are shared widely, absorbed, and lessons learnt. As Tomi says “I realised that, as one of the last witnesses, I must speak out. I owe it to the victims that their memory is not forgotten.’ We owe it to Tomi to read and understand his story. You can buy Tomi here. 

Humans

January seems like a good time to address the different things that make us human, and to show the differences between us.

humans
Humans: The Wide World Awaits by Susan Martineau, illustrated by Vicky Barker
The award-winning team behind Real-life Mysteries have produced a new series called Geographics, which aims to show intriguing geographical facts with dynamic infographics design.

Geographics: Humans certainly is appealing. A thin book with a sturdy paperback cover, the book is bright and colourful throughout. It is quirky too, in that this isn’t just a fact book of information, but aims to provide guidance too.

There is typical geography information, such as on the page entitled ‘Where We Live’, and this shows the world at night with the lights indicating population, and shows the most populated cities, and the least, and the spread of humans around coastlines and in the Northern hemisphere. Following pages have information on water, resources, transportation, power and inventions, but there is also guidance on recycling and communication.

This is a wonderful first approach to human geography, which despite its small size, reaches further than most – using its vibrancy to illuminate facts and the author’s emotional intelligence to promote the idea of being a global citizen, understanding and caring for the planet on which we live. I’m proud to have absorbed the information within easily, and have learnt facts including: more people have a mobile phone than a toilet, and Papua New Guinea has 841 living languages. You can buy it here.

i am human
It’s not just our impact on the Earth but our impact on each other. I am Human: A Book of Empathy by Susan Verde, art by Peter H Reynolds aims to explore, through simple illustrations and text, the idea of who we are inside ourselves – a person who is always learning, with dreams and hopes, but also one who makes mistakes and feels pain and fear and sadness. The third part of the book aims to show the choices available – to be kind and fair, to forgive and move forward – in essence to show empathy. The book is about being the best human you can be, reminding children that they are unique at the same time as belonging to the human race, in which there is familiarity.

Reynolds’ line drawings bring to life this manual for living. The people are diverse and different, yet similar in their thin legs and neat noses. They feel vivacious and active, even when they are blue in both feeling and colour:  fear is represented as a huge ladder stretching to the unknown, sadness is a boy sitting on a ledge – followed swiftly by him standing, arms outstretched, hope on his face as he makes a new choice. There is a wonderful empathy that Reynolds delineates in his expression.

In it’s ability to showcase both self-worth and caring for others, this serves as a good guide in both home and school, for children and adults. You can buy it here.

when I was a child
When I was a Child by Andy Stanton and David Litchfield
is a picturebook that also uses colour wisely, bursting with a zest for nature and life, as it aims to show how humans can embrace the world around them. Ostensibly a book about a child aiming to show her grandmother that the world is still magical, and that wonder still exists, this is also an exploration of imagination and curiosity bearing a subtle environmental message. The grandmother believes that her world is now grey, but through the child’s eyes, through her innocent wisdom, we see that what we have lost sight of as we grow older is still abundant if seen through the eyes of the child.

The prose is poetic: faces in raindrops and heartbeats in mountains, but once again it is the power of the illustrations that lifts the book. Litchfield brings his remarkable talent for different perspectives and clever use of light to insert his own magic on each spread. Whether it’s a parade of people in a sunrise, with the light flooding translucently through the leaves on the page, or the underwater fragmented light shimmer of a layered background as strange and wondrous horse fish swim through the river, there is both a lifting and lightness to the colourful illustrations. Each drawing pulsates with imagination in a kind of modern dreamlike wonderland, the book getting more and more fantastical as it progresses.

This is an enchanting book about humanity – encouraging intergenerational relationships, wonder in the world around us, and also the power of the imagination to soar and grow. A rainbow of images and prose. You can buy it here .

human body
The Human Body: A Pop-up Guide to Anatomy by Richard Walker, illustrated by Rachel Caldwell
Lastly, it would not be right to explore humans and humanity without one in-depth look inside the body.  This comprehensive, somewhat gruesome, guide to the human body invites the reader to venture on a real post-mortem examination, cleverly using paper engineering so that the reader can look beneath body parts – my favourite section definitely the abdomen, in which you can open up the body to see the kidneys and small intestine from different angles.

The illustrations feel old-school, traditional, multi-layered in their detail (each is highly captioned to show which body part is which), and also with instruments pencil-sketched too, so that the scalpel and tweezers lie happily next to the body. The book explains the different systems of the body – circulatory, respiratory etc, with keen observation and elucidation. Sentences are short and sweet, keeping it simple without numerous subclauses interrupting the information, and it feels matter-of-fact and clear.

You can lift the blood spatter to see it under a microscope, or open the heart to see how it works. Each tooth has been extracted so that they can be labelled, and the thorax can be opened in many layers to explore the ribs, lungs and heart. There’s even opportunity to remove the skin from the upper arm and shoulder to see the muscles underneath. This is a thoroughly enjoyable way to be educated on the human body and how it works, and a beautifully stylised well-thought-out book. You can buy it here .

Little Bird Flies: A Guest Post from author Karen McCombie

McCombie Little BirdWhat Do Sheep, Queen Victoria and Drunkenness All Have in Common?

Well, they all feature in Karen McCombie’s latest novel, stirring historical adventure Little Bird Flies, the story of a young girl coming of age on a remote Scottish island in the 1860’s. MinervaReads will review on Sunday (keep your eyes peeled). In the meantime, it’s well worth reading Karen’s explanation and Little Bird Flies‘ background detail below; she illuminates key features in a book that’s clearly close to her heart: 

  • Sheep?

Yes, sheep. Sheep are essentially one of the (unwitting) bad guys of my story. All Scottish schoolchildren learn about the Highland Clearances, a period of around a century when the lairds, ie landowners, in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland realised they could make a lot more money if they cleared the tenant farmers and communities off their lands and replaced them with sheep. Over that period, it’s estimated that over half-a-million Highlanders were made to leave – very often brutally forced off – the land their ancestors had farmed for generations. So where did they go? Some headed for the teeming streets of newly industrialised Glasgow, but many found themselves packed on sailing ships bound for countries like Nova Scotia, Canada and Australia. In Little Bird Flies, twelve-year-old Bridie’s family think their island has escaped the fate of so many other areas of the Highlands… till a new Laird arrives, heralding a time of huge change and danger at every turn.

  • Queen Victoria

On a visit to the Highlands with Prince Albert, Queen Victoria fell in love with the peace, the quiet and the beauty of the rugged landscapes. The royal couple bought a manor house, which they transformed into the grand, turreted Balmoral castle, and escaped there as often as they could with their growing family, enjoying a chance to break away from royal duties in London and the formal life they lived there. In doing so, Queen Victoria suddenly made Scotland, and the Highlands and Islands in particular, a tourist destination. I couldn’t resist featuring the Queen in Little Bird Flies, even if it is just a very, very small, barely there appearance.

Of course, Queen Victoria’s descendants carried on the tradition of escaping to Balmoral where they can live an almost ordinary life… a few years ago, I slowed to pass a Range Rover on a narrow country road near the Castle, and realised it was being driven by none other than Queen Elizabeth herself!

little bird flies

  • Drunkenness

When Bridie and her family make the move to the teeming streets of Glasgow, Bridie finds herself handing out leaflets for her sister’s employer, Mrs Lennox. Mrs Lennox is involved in the Temperance Movement – an anti-drunkenness initiative – which sprang up all over Britain in the Victorian era. In busy, industrialized Glasgow, the problem with alcohol was particularly bad, as whisky was being mass-produced, and pubs and drinking houses were popping up at an alarming rate. Lots of religious or just socially-minded men and women like Mrs Lennox were worried about the effects of drink – and the money spent on it – on poorer families, especially the children.

Apart from livestock, royalty and too much whisky, my novel is also full of drama, daydreamings and danger; friendship, family loyalties, and of course, flight…

Little Bird Flies by Karen McCombie is out now, from publishers Nosy Crow. Click back on Sunday for my review – this is possibly McCombie’s best book to date, full of passion and, as you can see, fascinating social history. You can buy it here

Laura Wood: A Q&A about Vote for Effie

laura woodLaura Wood has certainly made her mark in the world of children’s literature. From the Poppy Pym series to last year’s triumphant YA title, A Sky Painted Gold, Wood can plot an adventure, create a dreamy 1920s landscape, and make the reader laugh. Vote for Effie (review coming tomorrow on MinervaReads.com) is a laugh out loud look at school council elections, with a bold exploration of female leadership. Here, Laura explores what made her turn from 1920’s Gatsby parties to present day school room drama:

What inspired you to write VOTE FOR EFFIE?

There were a few things that inspired me to write Vote for Effie. In my job I’m so lucky that I get to go into different schools and meet loads of brilliant students, and something I was noticing was how incredibly politically engaged and switched on these young people were. I think that when I was eight years old I would have struggled to tell you who the Prime Minister was, and yet even the youngest children I work with know so much about what’s going on in the wider world – about Brexit, and Trump and the refugee crisis. And not only do they know, they CARE. This was really crystalised for me when the first Women’s March took place in 2017. Seeing so many young people taking part, hearing the stories of young activists, made me feel hopeful during a dark time. I wanted to write a book that was about that, about a character who is an optimistic force of nature, one who sees things that need changing and does something about it.

vote for effieWere you like Effie when you were at school?

There are definitely bits of my personality in Effie, and we share a love of musicals, Disney films and glitter glue, but I think Effie is a lot braver than me. We didn’t have student council, but I don’t think I could have handled the high-stakes rollercoaster of an election campaign… I’m much more of a behind-the-scenes person!

If you could join Effie’s campaign team, what role would you want?

I’d love Angelika’s job as campaign manager. Running the campaign, organising things, and owning lots of colour coordinated post-it notes and shiny ring binders would be ideal!

Do you have any tips for young people who want to make a difference at their school?

I think the first thing is to make a manifesto, to think about the things that you want to change and why. Once you have a practical, manageable list of issues you want to tackle then it’s much easier to start taking action. At first Effie finds it difficult to narrow down her list of issues, but talking things over with her friends always helps her to make sense of things.

With thanks to Laura Wood, and publishers Scholastic. To buy a copy of Vote for Effie, click here, and to read my review, come back tomorrow! 

When Good Geeks Go Bad: A Q&A with author Catherine Wilkins

when good geeks go badIt all started with a pair of trainers. Ever had an argument with your child over their choice of shoes for school? Or about an accessorised piece of school uniform? When I was a child I wore a brightly-coloured coat to school as a clear mark of rebellion against my school’s black coat policy. Today, I see various attempts to challenge authority with hair style, or key rings on bags, or shoes!

When Good Geeks Go Bad begins with Ella’s Dad refusing to buy her a cool pair of shoes or let her stay up late. And yet she’s always been a good girl. So Ella decides to go bad. Perhaps then she can get her own way. But being bad is more than just a few detentions and she’s soon losing control.

In fact, she’s already lost control at home, where her parents are spending time apart. So when her best friend wants to spend time apart from her too, she wonders if it really is best being bad, or if being geeky was good after all.

This highly-relatable, funny read from comedienne and writer Catherine Wilkins is an excellent look at a young teen fitting in at school, and finding her own place at home, as well as working out which identity she’s going to carry through her teen years. Who to be friends with and for what reasons? It poses the sorts of questions many children ask of themselves in Year 8, on the cusp of being full-blown teenage. Wilkins understands how to write funny as well as how to explore the pathos in harder family scenarios, and she creates a highly identifiable character in Ella.

Written in first person, Wilkins captures the wishes and desires, the nuances of Ella’s life and thoughts, almost in diary-style, as well as those of her peers, so that the reader can often see more of their motivations than Ella can herself – giving the reader even more laughs, and also understanding. Here, Catherine Wilkins answers some questions on the book, and her own ‘funny’ life:

Were you Good at school or were you Bad?

A bit of both. I was a slightly mischievous younger child. When I started secondary school I became shy and quite well behaved. Then I eventually rebelled again a little bit. Like Ella, I wore trainers to school. I think there’s something about testing where the line is that all kids do. (Also I really liked my trainers at the time).

In When Good Geeks Go Bad, Ella’s dad refuses to let her have cool shoes. Was there an item you wanted in your childhood that you never got bought? 

There were many, many items I wanted that I never got. From a sooty puppet to a frosty the snowman ice slushie maker. We never had money for crazy purchases, but my parents encouraged me to save up for things, or wait for birthdays, so sometimes I got lucky too. (The downside of this is that when I wanted a shell suit, I eventually got one. And I still have not managed to burn all the photos of it.)

In the book there’s also some serious stuff about separated parents. Do you think all comedy should go dark at some stage?

I would never legislate that all comedy should do anything. I think comedy is subjective and everyone has different taste. I find when things in my life go a bit dark, it can help me to laugh at them, make them less scary, make sense of them and bring them back into the light. But that might not work for everyone. Comedy can be used in many different ways. I like that it can be a coping mechanism, to cheer things along, or satirical beacon shining a light on hypocrisy and corruption. And you can enjoy dark comedy and still like slapstick too.

Also I feel like in this book, there are genuinely serious bits, that we’re not laughing at, but they are then undercut or contrasted with the more funny bits.

You write comedy for kids – does being funny come naturally to you? Are you the funniest in your house?

I live in such a fun house that it unfairly throws off the grade curve. My three-year-old daughter is probably the funniest. She’s always making up jokes and dances and clowning around. She has comedy chops. Then my one-year-son is pretty funny, but more in a cute way. Then my husband is a comedian and writer too, and they all play funny games together. I might be somewhere at the back, just after the cat (who is actually really funny at falling off things and then looking to see if anyone saw).

What’s the scariest thing about doing stand-up comedy?

The profit margin. BOOM. (Jokes). For me, the scariest thing would be never having tried doing it. But lots of people would say performing in front of other people is nerve-wracking. I didn’t find that so much when they were strangers, but as I climbed the ladder a bit, and there’s accountability because the gig matters and you have to impress the next booker or reviewer, that’s when I would get nervous and lose my spark. But when I started, the thrill of testing a new joke and getting a laugh made up for everything.

Which fictional character do you wish you could be (for a while)?

This is a really hard question to answer because there’s so much to choose from. Maybe I’d like to be Alice and check out Wonderland for a while, and have some adventures.

What advice would you give budding comedy writers?

You are probably already a fan of comedy, so keep doing that and consume as much comedy as you can. Keep a notebook about your person to write down your funny thoughts and observations. I think sometimes with comedy it can be ‘spotting’ the joke, as much as making it up, seeing if you can spot something that no one else has connected in that exact way.

If you have a friend who has the same sense of humour as you, sometimes it helps to pretend you are trying to make them laugh. Or even collaborate with funny friends and try and write stuff together. (When I was at school I was often trying to force friends to do comedy with me, but they weren’t always as into it).

But also it’s important to write about what you think is funny, not what you think other people might laugh at, or what’s expected. It’s yours. Your jokes, your voice.

And lastly, is the next book simmering – will we see Ella again? Or is there something new?

There is a new book on the horizon, but it’s something brand new, not Ella. But never say never, it might be fun to see what Ella gets up to next in the future as well.

With thanks to Catherine Wilkins for her time. When Good Geeks Go Bad is published today, 10th January, and you can buy it here. 

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.

On Being Asked My Opinion

my opinionTwo things struck me last weekend reading the newspapers. Firstly, an article by Matthew Parris in The Times on Saturday December 29th, in which he spoke about parliamentarians being ‘representatives’ rather than direct conduits of what the people want. This was, of course, in relation to Brexit. Secondly, I read an article by Decca Aitkenhead in The Sunday Times Magazine (December 30th) about Charlie Brooker’s latest Black Mirror episode, which admittedly I haven’t, and can’t watch as I don’t have Netflix. But it is an interactive TV experience – every so often the viewer has to answer a question as to how the plot spins next. Exactly like, and based on, the Choose Your Own Adventure stories that were published when I was a child – turn to page 42 if you want to walk through the deep dark forest, turn to page 38 if you want to stay sitting on the sofa in front of Netflix…

In everyday life, I’m often asked my opinion. Every time I buy something, or even have my haircut, I seem to receive an email asking how my experience was.

The funny thing is, I’m a critic. I review children’s books and love giving my opinion (advice/recommendations). That’s what I do, and in happy times I’m paid for this ‘expert’ opinion.

But, and here’s the rub. I don’t want to be constantly asked my opinion – I’d like other experts to decide things for me (most of the time), and especially in fiction.

choose your own adventureThe problem with the Black Mirror interactive TV drama, as mentioned by Decca Aitkenhead, is that it’s hard to suspend disbelief – to buy into the authenticity of the character and plot of a fiction – if you’re making the decisions, if you’re imagining the ‘what ifs’. I’m happy to do this when I write my own fiction, but I like other people to decide the endings of the fiction I read. I might not like their chosen ending, but that’s part of the joy of reading – being a discerning reader. The opinion of the fiction you consume will be vastly different if you’ve chosen the ending yourself.

Reading children’s fiction (and any fiction) holds its own wondrous delight. The stories are escapist, or reflect a mirror back unto yourself; the authors shining a light on a thought, an issue, a type of character, and the reader understanding that and allowing themselves to be led through the story. The more unobtrusive the leading, the better the fiction.

So there are massive future implications of choosing your own adventure. Charlie Brooker must have sussed this out himself – if the consumer of the fiction is making all the key decisions on the plot strands, why have an author at all? Once lots of possibilities have been written into the algorithm, it’s just a case of rejigging them enough times to create new stories. The author, as Barthes said, will be well and truly dead.

In some cases, the author has already died. And the reader can see the downside to this. Although I’m all for a brief stint for children on the Rainbow Fairies stories by fake author Daisy Meadows or the Beast Quest series, by fake author Adam Blade, (spoiler – these are collaborative works of fiction by an editorial team), they fail to spark the same joyfulness in depth of plot, character and theme that books by real authors do. By their very nature the series are supposed to be formulaic, designed to contain familiar tropes because young readers like the repetitiveness of them. They promote confidence in reading and instill habit reading, an important stop on the pathway to creating readers for life, but it’s just a stopgap – readers then feel confident enough to progress to fiction with multi-layers and nuanced thought.

If there’s too much ‘collective’ fiction, then plot and characters become distilled and limited. There might be a new confidence in reading, but not a surge in imagination, or empathy.

Indeed, what’s most frightening about Charlie Brooker’s interactive Black Mirror is that the idea for the interactivity didn’t come from him, but from Netflix execs. I’d almost trust it more if it came from the author himself. But, it seems that they wanted him to execute their idea to see if it worked.

In my dystopian future, carrying this concept through to the end, does this mean that it’s not the death of the author so much as the complete obliteration of him? An author isn’t needed if publishers or TV execs can just regurgitate from their bank of story vignettes. Mixing and matching. Pick’n’mix adventures. A murder mystery could turn into a vampire zombie romp simply because you, as the viewer or reader, decided to take a certain pathway, choosing a) vampire rather than b) Sherlock Holmes.

However, limiting our choices as readers and consumers is just as bad. As Haruki Murakami said, ‘if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’ In this time of division, perhaps people want more homogeneity in terms of the way we think. I would argue the opposite – we need more diverse opinions, together with an understanding and tolerance of them.

So it’s particularly depressing to see the bestseller charts for the books sold in 2018. In terms of children’s books Walliams appears 11 times in the top 100, dominating the scene by a long way. Before the celebrities pounce upon me, I’d argue that even if it was Hilary McKay or Katherine Rundell appearing 11 times to the exclusion of many others, that would be stifling and a pity. In terms of interest, eight children’s authors who aren’t celebrities are on this top 100 list, but I’m including Jeff Kinney, JK Rowling and Julia Donaldson as non-celebs. Two of the others are due to film tie-ins (Paddington and Wonder).

We’re not doing a great job as a society when we limit children’s accessibility to different books by closing 130 public libraries in 2018. I’ll say it again, if the only place children have access to books is their local supermarket or WHSmith we’re severely limiting their choice. Of the 18 children’s books at Tesco online, eight are Walliams and six are JK Rowling.

Perhaps we need greater choice on what we read, but not in choosing how the story ends.

I dread the day when I have to make the decisions on everything. It’s bad enough being asked ‘what’s for dinner’ everyday – if I have to choose what the characters in the book I’m reading want to eat too, I’ll have to give up reading fiction (and giving my opinion on it).

Animal Fun

anthology of intriguing animals
An Anthology of Intriguing Animals by Ben Hoare, illustrated by Daniel Long, Angela Rizza, and Daniela Terrazzini
This beautiful book looks as if it belongs in some treasured library, with its foil cover, gold edges and hefty weight, but inside it feels modern, spacey and fresh. The book aims to be encyclopedic with a twist, not only showcasing the visual image of the animal, and exploring facts about them, but also including myths and stories too. Initially, some of the animals don’t seem to be ‘intriguing’, after all there is an ant listed, which feels fairly ordinary, until you read the text about ant colonies, and honeypot ants that once sucked as sweets in Australia and North America. Written by a wildlife journalist and with huge images, this is quite a collection. The piranha looks so three-dimensional on its full page that I had to turn the page to stop it looking at me. A phenomenal book that goes beyond the ordinary facts. (Buy it just to see the adorable picture of the koala asleep). You can buy it here.

clue is in the poo
The Clue is in the Poo by Andy Seed, illustrated by Claire Almon
The title may be enticing for some children, offputting for older children, but this book is much more than a book about animal droppings. It aims to create a nature detective in the reader, teaching them how to track or tell an animal from its faeces, but also revealing the other tracks and traces animals leave in their wake, as well as exploring animal homes, animal eggs and feathers, bird pellets and more. With occasional quizzes to test knowledge, and pages that are neatly broken up into different colourful boxes, diagrams, captions and annotations, this is packed full of information. I love the ‘leafy lunch menu’ which explores how to tell if a leaf is being nibbled by a minibeast, as well as the spread entitled ‘Do Bears poo in the woods?’ to which the answer is a definitive ‘yes’ but covers other signs for bears and things they eat. This page is enhanced by the gorgeously cartoon-like illustrations, which show bears climbing trees, digging a hole, and yes, pooing. With a title like this, the text inside needs to convey humour, and matched with the witty illustrations, this is a fun animal read. You can buy it here.

we build our homes
We Build Our Homes by Laura Knowles and Chris Madden
I’ve long been a fan of Laura Knowles’ picture books, which offer information and a message in a simple yet ultimately stylish way, and this is a treat for natural architect fans everywhere, particularly when the reader realises that some of these animals build their intricate homes afresh every year – they can’t simply give it a lick of paint or hang new curtains! The book showcases a range of animals and their homes from the obvious, such as the beaver, to the more unknown such as Darwin’s Bark Spiders or Edible-Nest Swiftlets. But what’s really incredible is Knowles’ prose style, which verges into poetry as she writes, as if each animal is talking to the reader (first person narrative) and manages to rhyme in places, as well as provide perfect metaphor. The Ovenbirds build their nests out of mud so that the summer sun bakes them hard “Like pots in a kiln. Like biscuits in an oven.”  The illustrations bear a tone of softness and understanding, as if the reader is a respectful voyeur, an invited observer. There is no white space on the page – each landscape floods to the edges. The book ends with a look at humans, a world map and a fact file. You can buy it here.

who are you calling weird
Who Are You Calling Weird? By Marilyn Singer and Paul Daviz
More unusual animals in this bold vibrant collection of animal profiles, including the aye-aye, boxer crab and Mwanza flat-headed agama. Each animal is featured with a large computer-graphic style illustration in its own landscape; the platypus swims towards the reader with bubbles escaping from its mouth. A few paragraphs sum up each animal, explaining why they are ‘weird’ and explaining how the quirk serves a purpose. The proboscis monkey’s large nose is not only attractive to the female but the larger his nose, the more noise he can make, scaring away enemies. There’s lots of information here; each animal is described in terms of their behaviour, diet, and habitat. The book is colourful in aesthetics but also in language – it feels bold and outgoing, friendly and lively – asking questions of the reader, speaking in second person at times, almost in dialogue so that the reader feels they are being gently led by the hand into the animal kingdom. The last page features the human – what’s so weird about us you might ask – you’ll have to read it to find out. You can buy it here.

when the whales walked
When the Whales Walked (And Other Incredible Evolutionary Journeys) by Dougal Dixon, illustrated by Hannah Bailey
For something slightly more complex, this is a fascinating look at evolution, using 13 case studies to explore evolution of species, including the transformation of dinosaurs into birds, and documenting the earliest elephants. Each journey takes a few pages of the book – there are details that need extrapolating. Experienced author Dixon takes the reader through each journey carefully, explaining and guiding so that the reader is assured about the evidence and progress through time. Dixon references bones and fossils, and gives boxes of detailed species information including pronunciation of names, period lived and size, as the journey proceeds. The whys are also explained – Why are elephants so large? Elephants reached their large size for protection. Other data showcases large numbers too  – elephants evolved to their current size over 25 million years – but the other information is just as incredible. I love the detailed drawings of cats’ teeth, and the head shapes of birds. Each page is more fascinating than the last, and there is annotation, timeline, maps and diagrams to help the reader understand. Compelling. You can buy it here.