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Has Your Memory Stored Your Old Tech?

bootWhen I was younger I had a Spectrum ZX. And I can’t imagine how many hours I spent playing a game called ‘Jet Set Willy’. The idea of the game was that the player was Willy, a figure who had to tidy up all the items in his house after a party – and he had a lot of rooms in this house, ranging from the cold store with dangling rope, to the wine cellar with its many black holes, to the forgotten abbey where moving platforms and skulls dominate the room.

I don’t play ‘Jet Set Willy’ any more, but I do spend a great many hours tidying up the items in my house (I don’t have a wine cellar, cold store or forgotten abbey),  not after a party, but after the children have gone to school.

I mention this because the publishers of Shane Hegarty’s latest book, Boot, suggested that I revisit a piece of technology that holds special memories for me, in order that I can tie it to the themes of memories, objects, and technology that permeate Hegarty’s novel.

Boot is about a toy robot, called Boot, who wakes up in a scrapyard, and finds his hard drive mainly wiped of memory, except for 2 and a half images and an idea that it was once loved by its owner, Beth. Boot is determined to find its way back to Beth, and with a group of other abandoned, half-working robots, it struggles across the city to find her. Except that, of course, discarded pieces of technology are usually thrust aside for a reason.

I think I abandoned ‘Jet Set Willy’ because of GCSEs (at least my parents would probably like to think so). However, it does hold a soft spot in my heart, and if you gave me a spectrum ZX with Jet Set Willy downloaded now, I’d while away a few hours exploring.

Children would do well to while away a few hours reading Boot. Although in the science fiction genre and with a robot protagonist, the book pulses with emotion. Hegarty executes this with ease because Boot is a toy robot – made specifically to be a child’s companion, and thus its ‘set’ emotions are written all over its face/screen. When sad, the orange smile on its face turns blue and upside down. Moreover, Boot has suffered some damage, so some of its ‘set’ feelings are slightly off, leaving Boot with rather more emotion than a robot usually has, and the weird consequence that not all its emotions inside show correctly on the outside. But more than this, Boot is programmed to decipher emotions in others – it sees that one adult is angry by way of ‘teeth clenching’ and ‘jabbing finger’. In this way, as in real artificial intelligence, robots are being programmed and learning just as toddlers do – from being fed experiences.

As well as using emotion, Hegarty manipulates his readers – making them feel profoundly for, what is, after all, an object. In fact, in a Toy Story reminiscent scene, Boot discovers it’s not unique – there are lots of robots identical to it. Just like Buzz Lightyear, it makes readers think about our own identity. What is it that makes each of us unique, why are we, and how can we use that as a positive, and recognise it as positive in others.

Because Boot befriends so many robots, all discarded or cast aside for some reason, the reader is constantly reminded that they are just machines in this fictional future landscape, and yet by bringing them to life with human characteristics, Hegarty asks the reader to think about them as ‘disposed’ objects. Should we dispose of things so quickly – can we not repair and mend, reuse and recycle? And should we?

In the end, Boot does find Beth, but the ending is more complicated than that. Hegarty builds on his theory of disposability, extending it to humans too. For this is a story about growing old, being discarded, and the value of memory.

Illustrated in black and white throughout by Ben Mantle, with a keen eye on the idea that the robots in the novel seem more friendly than many of the humans, this is a heartwarming, funny, neat little novel with some big ideas, an extending vocabulary and light modern prose, for children aged 6+ .

I don’t know what purpose my memories of ‘Jet Set Willy’ serve, but they definitely make me smile. And if memories make the person in the present happy, then that’s about the best reason of all.

To buy Boot, click here. With thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for the review copy and for sparking an idea for the blog.

Starfell, Magic and Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klaus Flugge Prize Shortlist: Kate Milner summarizes

klaus fluggeLast night the shortlist for the 2019 Klaus Flugge Prize was announced at Foyles, Charing Cross Road.

The Klaus Flugge Prize is awarded to the most promising and exciting newcomer to children’s picture book illustration, and the winner will be announced on 11 September.

This year the shortlist is all-female, and the books are particularly interesting for their mix of traditional themes of family and imagination with very modern commentary on the right to self-expression, and the structure of contemporary society.

More and more picturebooks are taking a stance with social and environmental messages. Here, last year’s winner, Kate Milner (My Name is Not Refugee) introduces the six shortlisted titles:

shortlist klaus flugge

The Extraordinary Gardener by Sam Boughton

Joe, the hero of this charming story, starts with a pip from an apple core and ends by greening the whole city; a message that feels very timely. The final fold-out spread is a riot of colour and life. There is so much to discover here, this is a city that anybody would love to live in. Sam Boughton has an extraordinary facility for turning apparently casual mark-making into glorious cityscapes as well as believable domestic interiors.

Looking after William by Eve Coy

This delightful book is a real evocation of the warmth and humour of family life. The little girl at the heart of the story has decided to look after her father for the day, and Eve Coy has caught the tone of a child mimicking the adults around her perfectly. The charming illustrations are full of empathy, generosity and wit. They really bring William, his little daughter, his cat, and their home to life in a way that will beguile parents as well as children.

The King Who Banned the Dark by Emily Haworth-Booth

It seems obvious that the way to make sure no one is ever afraid of the dark again is to keep the lights on all the time; but, of course, the citizens of Emily Haworth-Booth’s town soon start to miss the dark. There is so much invention and humour in this little yellow and black and white kingdom, from the rather troubling light inspectors to the light bulb hats worn by all the dogs. This book is a rollicking roller-coaster ride with some big themes and good jokes. The vibrant energy of the illustrations exactly match the funny, anarchic text.

I Can Fly by Fifi Kuo

Despite his best efforts, the young penguin at the centre of this story can’t fly but, with a little help from his father, he can swim. Fifi Kuo has beautifully captured this busy and determined little bird and the amazing landscape in which he lives. It truly feels freezing cold. The image of this little penguin lost in the vast, freezing ocean is chilling, and rather heart stopping. It is a relief when Dad comes to the rescue.

Julian is A Mermaid by Jessica Love

The little boy at the centre of this warm and delightful story is really a mermaid. Jessica Love has represented this little boy in the real world of trains and city streets, and the more colourful world of his day dreams, with such delicacy and tenderness. He springs to life on every page, and so do the vibrant characters around him. With the help of his wise and wonderfully drawn old Grandma, he does find his place among the mermaids.

Red And the City by Marie Voigt

The city that Marie Voigt has created for her Red Riding Hood to get lost in is, at the same time, wonderfully sinister and totally familiar.  This is a world of cash machines and advertisements and fast food; and, always lurking in the shadows, watching her, is the wolf. The reader is very glad that Red Riding Hood has her loyal and sensible little dog to keep her out of real trouble. Both are delightfully evoked. The imagery is simple but so eloquent about the thoughts and feelings of this intrepid pair.

An In-depth Read: Indonesian Children’s Literature: When It Rains…

when it rainsThere’s a magic to life that children see, but adults are quick to forget. Perhaps this is why we like to revisit children’s stories so often and see things through a child’s eye. When it Rains by Rassi Narika, translated by Ikhda Ayuning, Maharsi Degoul and Emma Dai’an Wright, starts as a grumble about all the things we cannot do when it rains. But the book soon branches into what joy awaits if we look for positivity – even in the rain.

The narrator, Kira, and her friends, explore in the rain: they see the colours of umbrellas, the animals that enjoy the wet, and the joy and safety and privilege they have of coming home to a hot shower or bath and warm towels to dry them. This is a lovely experience picture book for a very young reader, and encouragingly has a wonderful map of the adventure at the end for readers to peruse. It doesn’t look too dissimilar from the map I might draw of my surroundings here, and yet this picture book heralds from Indonesia.

Many times, I’ve looked at the UK book market and marveled that the books we see here aren’t the same as in any other country – even those that share the language. American friends are constantly baffled that so many titles are different – but the sharing of cultures and stories is becoming more widespread. Below, author Rassi Narika, gives us a glimpse into Indonesian Children’s Literature, and how the future of children’s books there looks bright:

Inside pages from When It Rains by Rassi Narika

Indonesian children’s literature is a bit tricky. It’s there, but at the same time it feels weirdly invisible. When I was studying in the UK, I saw how important children’s books were. In bookstores, children’s books were displayed prominently and there would be storytelling sessions for kids a couple of days a week, and universities even ran courses in children’s literature – I never thought that this could be a thing. I enjoyed seeing this all so much and wished we had the same environment in Indonesia.

A couple of years ago, I started working on a children’s book called Terbang (Fly). I was going to self-publish it through an independent publishing initiative called Seumpama, which I co-founded with a friend. I wrote and illustrated my first book while nervously wondering if anyone – other than family and friends – would ever be interested in buying it. We didn’t really know what we were getting into. Our initial idea came from thinking about how my friend couldn’t find any Indonesian children’s books that she wanted to read to her young daughter. So, we did some research to try and understand why this was.

When It Rains

We found that, despite having the biggest share of the book market, with 22.64% of the total sales at the biggest chain bookstore in Indonesia (from 2013 data published by IKAPI, The Indonesian Publisher Association), Indonesian children’s literature was barely recognised by the literary scene. At book events, there were few talks focusing on children’s, and for whatever reason, I could only name a handful of notable Indonesian children books or authors. I felt it wasn’t getting the attention it deserved from the industry and its readers.

Perhaps it’s a mindset: adults thinking that children’s literature is just for children, so they stop paying attention as they grow older and until they have their own offspring. Or perhaps it’s something more fundamental that is preventing the scene from thriving. Four years after my first book, I find myself utterly compelled by this challenging journey; the combination of frustration and excitement at finding a new playground and experimenting with its complexities.

The ‘research’ I did at the start of my writing and publishing journey was brief and hardly captured the big picture. But one thing I realised was that the market share of children’s book sales was not representative of growth in Indonesian children’s books, especially in terms of quality. In big chain bookstores, translated children’s books and Japanese comics were highly popular; you’d see them everywhere and you’d see more varieties of their titles and stories too. I used to read these too when I was a child. Now I wonder if this was because I preferred them to Indonesian books or if it was because of the limited range of local books.

I remember feeling like something was missing when I skimmed through the books from local publishers. I thought that most of their stories were predictable; they always ended with a moral, and promoted stereotypical values in their narrative.

There is nothing wrong with talking about morals and values, of course. It is necessary to introduce them to children. But children have the right to be part of more diverse and rich conversations too, and they were not getting that from the books available to them. Despite diversity being embedded in our nation’s official identity, with ‘Unity in Diversity’ as Indonesia’s national motto, Indonesian children books weren’t really providing that. They didn’t feel inclusive to a variety of children’s perspectives, backgrounds, ideas, and interests. It also bothered me that most of the stories focused more on what the adults had to say, rather than celebrating children and allowing them to be part of the narrative.

Nevertheless, there has been an exciting change in Indonesian children’s literature these past couple of years. Waves of independent literary organisations have been springing up and pushing for Indonesian children’s literature to be a more versatile and collaborative playing field.

One of the prominent names is Litara Foundation. Litara is an independent publisher that has been a real breath of fresh air to the scene, introducing good books and giving local contexts a more contemporary approach. They have published some of my favourite titles, with themes that were quite unheard-of in most Indonesian children books. Srinti is my favourite book from Litara. It is about the post-disaster trauma of a girl who lives in Yogyakarta, Central Java, where earthquakes had devastated the area. The journey to find Srinti, a doll that was lost under the debris of the earthquake, is a journey about experiencing loss as told from a child’s perspective. It is a hard topic to deal with, yet it’s a conversation in which children should be included.

Other publications from Litara Foundation explore issues of cultural diversity, like in Cap Go Meh, which is the name of a celebration at the end of the 15th day of Chinese New Year. The title also refers to a local cuisine that is central to the Eid-al Fitr celebration. It’s very refreshing to find books where children become the centre of their own experiences.

I think celebrating childhood should be a significant part of children books, and the Na Willa series, by Reda Gaudiamo, is a perfect example for that. This is my other personal favourite and is hands down one of the best works of Indonesian children’s literature today. It brilliantly captures the voice of Willa, a little girl who lives in Surabaya, East Java, in the ’60s. The amazing thing about this book is that regardless of where you live and whichever era your childhood was, Willa’s story feels extremely close to heart.

The book was inspired by Reda’s own childhood experience and her feelings as a young girl when facing issues of multiculturalism, racism, bullying, family, and friendship, as well as simply encountering things in everyday life that excited her – like the little chicks or her favourite food. The book captures the innocence of children and at the same time gives voice to their wisdom in seeing the world. I love that Reda is giving a platform to children that allows them to be part of the cast of an imperfect world. (The Adventures of Na Willa has been translated into English by The Emma Press, who also helped to translate my book, When It Rains. They did an amazing job translating it).

What’s also exciting is that this momentum has extended to other aspects in children’s literature. It’s now easier to find community-based children’s libraries, and children’s storytelling events are taking place in coffee shops. I’ve seen a higher quality in the Indonesian children’s book selections in mainstream bookstores, and independent bookshops are giving more space to children’s literature. I have met academics who are sharing their findings with the public, like Herdiana Hakim who’s currently doing her PhD in Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow and spreads the word about Indonesian children’s literature through her blog Si Kancil. Also there are communities like Ayo Dongeng Indonesia (Let’s Do Storytelling, Indonesia), which runs the annual Indonesian International Storytelling Festival.

The scene is still growing and there’s a lot of work to be done. I’m looking forward to there being more books and authors and illustrators who depict children’s perspective and capture stories in which children’s voices are heard. We need to form a better infrastructure, educate institutions, and get more attention. We need to claim physical spaces to allow Indonesian children’s literature to thrive and be part of society. The challenges remain but the possibilities are endless, and those who share the passion are finding their way to meet up and continuously build the scene.

It is definitely an exciting time to be in.

With thanks to Rassi Narika for her fascinating article. You can buy When It Rains from The Emma Press here

Gardening and Nature: An Appreciation

In spring our thoughts often turn to nature and being outside. But our children are rarely outside. A 2016 survey found that three quarters of UK children spend less time outside than prison inmates, a fifth of children not playing outside at all on an average day.

Gardening is a wonderful skill for children, giving them the opportunity for responsibility as well as teaching them nurturing skills. But if, like me, you’re a gardening novice, barely knowing weed from flower, you may need some help.

sunflower shoots
Busy little Bees: Sunflower Shoots and Muddy Boots by Katherine Halligan and Grace Easton
is a children’s guide to gardening, in a handy covered-ring-bound format (the cover goes over the ring-binder). Aimed at pre-schoolers and their carers, it introduces the top ten plants for easy growing, and ten useful gardening words to accompany the activity – including ‘pollen’, ‘compost’ and ‘mulch’.

The bright and colourful pages give an array of activities, from sprouting baby beans to creating a window box, a bug spotter’s guide, and making compost. Some of my favourite bits are the ‘Did You Know’ boxes, including details such as photosynthesis, and how long it takes an oak tree to produce acorns. But also, the very funny and handy tips at the back just for grownups, including ‘Be a Secret Garden Gnome’ on how to keep up the smaller gardener’s morale.

This is a fun and fabulous introduction for first-time gardeners, encouraging time spent together enjoying nature. You can buy it here.

plant sow make and grow
Plant, Sow, Make and Grow: Mud-tastic Activities for Budding Gardeners by Esther Coombs
is aimed at primary school age children and is neatly organised by season. Also illustrated in colour throughout, the book shows more of the flowers and plants in the diagrams with fewer people and insects. Instead, it gives step-by-step instructions for things such as making toilet-roll seed starters, sowing tomatoes and strawberries, as well as information about insects, and water conservation. Because the book is formatted into seasons, it also gives helpful information on how to deal with frost, and a guide to carving pumpkins for Halloween.

The activities are easy to follow, with lots of tips and shortcuts, and making and using tools from recycled rubbish. As well as masses of practical advice, the book also seeks to impart facts, such as explaining why corn on the cob tastes sweet, and that an ear of corn always has an even number of rows. Hands-on and aspirational. You can buy it here.

easy peasy
Another gardening title for children is the informative Easy Peasy Gardening for Kids by Kirsten Bradley. With numbered step-by-step activities, this is a gardening book even for those without much space or without a garden. There’s advice on growing vegetables and herbs indoors, designing a plant pot, making a kokedama to hang inside, or a terrarium. Interspersed between these easy-to-follow activities are informative pages about the different types of soil, pollination, a wildlife spotter’s guide, and companion planting. Some of the activities definitely need a visit to a garden centre, but on the whole these are family-friendly projects. Carefully illustrated, with much white space and clear diagrams with a wide variety of colour, the pages of the book feel as if you have brought a touch of nature inside already. Charming and do-able. A great gardening guide for age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

a walk through nature
A Walk Through Nature written by Libby Walden, illustrated by Clover Robin
is aimed at the very young, and is less an instructional manual and more of an appreciation of nature, guiding the reader gently through the landscape. It implores time to pause and notice flowers blooming, leaves changing colour and the wildlife sounds and activities. There is beautiful poetry, snippet facts, lifecycles and a spotters’ guide. Each page has a fold-out section beneath the cutout illustration, providing further information. Pages are split into coherent subjects: night-time, seasonal change, light, minibeasts, water, skies and more. The illustrations are bold, bright and accessible – looking like a 3D collage upon the printed page. Sumptuous use of colour and texture gives extra depth, so that the reader becomes immersed in the landscape. A thorough embrace of the natural world. You can buy it here.

green giant
For those who like more story with their books, The Green Giant by Katie Cottle serves a purpose both as a story picture book and a tale that encourages the reader to be aware of nature. From its neon orange cover to mass of green pigment creeping throughout the book, this is a delight for the eyes. Bea and her dog go to stay with her grandfather in the country, and although he’s a keen gardener, Bea is content to sit on a garden chair and play on her electronic device. Until her dog chases a cat into the next-door garden, and Bea has to pay attention to her lush green surroundings. She meets a resident green giant in the greenhouse, who tells her about the choking fumes of the city and how he had to move away, and he gives her seeds to plant when she goes back to the city.

Exploring an appreciation of both the aesthetics and benefits of greenery, and how one child can make a difference to the world, this is a timely and relevant picture book with extraordinarily appealing illustrations. There’s a nod to ancient myths of the ‘Green Man,’ and the practice of re-seeding and regeneration. Most readers would be inspired to plant a few of their own seeds after reading and see how much grey they can obliterate. You can buy it here.

i saw a bee
Publishers are taking note of young people’s new-found appreciation for the environment, and I Saw a Bee by Rob Ramsden may be for very small children, but points to an important topic. A young boy finds a bee in a box, and at first is alarmed by its potential menace, reacting with aggression stemming from fear. But gradually, he realises the bee is harmless and they can be friends. The gentle rhythmic text is simple and repetitive, matching the sunny simply-shaped illustrations, which gradually spread across the pages so that by the end, the boy and bee are surrounded by a frame of greenery and flora. Promoting positivity with nature, this is an excellent picture book for the very young. You can buy it here.

little green donkey
Experts agree that much of children’s hesitancy to try new foods or appreciate tastes comes from a lack of awareness of where food comes from and how foods are grown. But for some children, fussiness persists. Little Green Donkey by Anuska Allepuz is a great cautionary tale about a lack of variety in the diet. Little Donkey loves to eat grass and…just grass. But too much grass makes Little Donkey green, and before long Little Donkey endeavours to try other foods in an effort to make himself…less green. With a genderless protagonist and enormously witty illustrations, this is an hilarious story that will have youngsters laughing and eating, although hopefully not grass. Great vocabulary in describing why Little Donkey likes grass so much, (and also carrots), and witty characterisation attributed to the donkey, this is a celebration of the natural world, as well as fruit and vegetables. A reader could even grow their own (vegetables, not donkeys). You can buy it here.

The First Novel: Branford Boase Award

BBA 2018 winners

Branford Boase Award 2018 winning author Mitch Johnson with his winning editors Rebecca Hill (left) and Becky Walker (right).

The Branford Boase Award is given annually to the author of an outstanding debut novel for children. Uniquely, it also honours the editor of the winning title and highlights the importance of the editor in nurturing new talent.

The novel that won the Branford Boase Award 2018 was Kick by Mitch Johnson, and this year he is serving on the 2019 Award Panel. Below, he introduces the 2019 shortlist and explains what makes each of the books so special:

I think for many authors, the publication of their first novel can be an ambivalent experience. On the one hand, all the hard work has paid off, your dream has come true, and finally (FINALLY) your book is out in the world. But on the other hand, what if no one reads it? Or what if people read it and hate it? Or what if there’s been some mistake, and it actually belongs under the bed with all the other unpublished novels you’ve written, rather than on a shelf with proper books written by real writers?

kickNeedless to say, publishing your first novel can be a jittery time. Luckily, the Branford Boase Award is here to help.

It’s difficult to express just how important an award celebrating debut authors – and the editors who bring their books into print – can be. For me, being recognised by the Branford Boase Award gave me renewed confidence in my writing, and encouraged me to pursue projects that I might otherwise have considered too ambitious to attempt. Even now, the trophy reminds me, on the bad days, why I sit at my desk and risk another bad day. And that is to say nothing of the prize money and the financial lifeline that it offers.

Participating as a judge on this year’s panel has been great fun, and to think that Kick survived the process is really quite humbling. (I’ve just about stopped wondering exactly what last year’s panel said about my book.) This year’s shortlist showcases the quality and diversity of publishing for younger readers, and it’s fantastic to see publishers investing in new talent. From imaginative adventures to stories of war-torn Europe to novels tackling contemporary issues, there really is something for everyone on the shortlist. Each deserves a wide readership, and together they form a worthy list to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the award.

And so, in alphabetical order by author, to the books we shortlisted:

house with chicken legs
The House with Chicken Legs
by Sophie Anderson is a wonderful retelling of a Slavic folktale about – you guessed it – a house with chicken legs. The writing is dreamy and magical, the characters feel like old friends, and the book is beautifully packaged. But my favourite thing about The House with Chicken Legs has to be the way it handles death. Death is so often portrayed as a thing to be feared and avoided in storytelling (and for good reason), but The House with Chicken Legs repaints it as the destination that makes life’s journey so special.

train to impossible places
The Train to Impossible Places
by PG Bell is a wildly imaginative adventure that hurtles along at breakneck speed. As I read it, I found myself desperate to know where the next stop would be (my favourite was the Topaz Narrows), and Bell’s wonderful way with words brings each impossible place to life. It also contains one of the best chapter titles I’ve ever seen. The only downside to The Train to Impossible Places is that it will make any future Interrail trips across Europe seem a bit tame by comparison.

rosie loves jack
Rosie Loves Jack
by Mel Darbon was a surprise package for me. I was completely disarmed and wrong-footed by the unique voice, and what I expected to be a fairly predictable love story quickly evolved into something much darker and more complex. The protagonist, Rosie, has Down’s syndrome, and you really feel her frustration as she is repeatedly underestimated and misunderstood by the people she meets. More than anything else, this novel reminds you of how underrepresented some voices still are in fiction, and how desperately we need writers like Darbon to create some balance.

the goose road
The Goose Road
by Rowena House is a real treat to read; the writing is wonderfully evocative, and right from the first chapter – when you learn of the protagonist’s relief that her father has died in battle – you just know that you’re in safe hands. I’ll admit I was initially sceptical about the premise of herding geese through war-torn France, but the writing absolutely blew me away. It was refreshing to read a story from a French civilian’s perspective, and for a time defined by bombs and bullets, the danger in this novel is chillingly subtle.

i am thunder
I Am Thunder
by Muhammad Khan tackles a highly emotive, heavily politicised subject: the radicalisation of a young Muslim girl. Khan does a brilliant job of exploring the tensions that can arise when cultures clash and allegiances are tested, and the sensitivity with which he handles such a volatile subject is astounding. I think it would be easy to underestimate just how difficult this book must have been to write, but Khan’s prose is as subtle and seductive as the grooming it depicts.

orphan monster spy
It’s hard to think of anything more terrifying than being a Jewish spy in Nazi territory, but that is the prospect faced by Sarah, the protagonist of Orphan Monster Spy (by Matt Killeen). Killeen’s novel grabs you by the throat on page one and doesn’t let go: it’s an irresistibly compulsive read. The Second World War may be well-trodden terrain, but this novel brings something fresh and dynamic. The stakes are high, the characters are delightfully flawed, and the result is just as tense and twisty as an espionage thriller should be.

boy at back of class
The Boy at the Back of the Class
by Onjali Q Rauf has already received heaps of recognition, and I was similarly impressed by Raúf’s tale of a young Syrian refugee trying to find peace in the UK. It’s so heartening to see a novel for younger readers tackling the refugee crisis, and books like this one make you hopeful that the next generation will be a more tolerant and understanding one. It’s the kind of book that everyone, young and old, should read.

So there we go. Seven brilliant titles, and I have no idea who is going to triumph when the judging panel reconvenes to discuss the shortlist. It could be any one of them.

With huge thanks to Mitch Johnson. The winner will be announced on Thursday 27th June. 

Football School Q&A and Competition

football school star playersWhen I was about four, my Dad took me to White Hart Lane (home of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club). There was no game on, but he was choosing his season tickets. (Things were different in those days!) I remember being very scared of the height of the steep bank of seats as I walked along the empty Upper West Stand.

Many years and games later, football continues to rule my life. The fixtures go into the diary before anything else, family meals are allowed to be interrupted only for football, and the garden isn’t a garden, it’s a pitch. So, it was great pleasure to interview two footballing greats – not footballers so much – as experts in their field: maths and football writer Alex Bellos, and football journalist and writer Ben Lyttleton, authors of the Football School series.

The Football School series aims to explain the world through football, and the latest in the series, published last week, is Football School: Star Players, a collection of fifty inspirational lives from the world of football, and is full of facts, inspiration, and Alex’s and Ben’s unique blend of humour, fun and personality. 

Here, Alex and Ben answer my questions:

The more I read Football School, the more enamoured I become with using football as a way to teach all kinds of things from podiatry to metaphor! How did you form your collaboration and come up with the idea?

Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton

Alex: Ben and I met at a football conference more than ten years ago. When we discovered we lived very close to each other we kept in touch and became friends. We would often meet for lunch and chat about collaborating. We became aware that lots of children stop reading around the ages of 7-13 and we thought that one way to get kids reading would be to provide them with a book about a subject they felt passionate about. We also wanted to use football to open up the curriculum. Football is a great way to show how everything in life is connected. That’s how the idea of Football School began – as a way to get children to develop a love of reading and a curiosity about the world.

Is much of your own life dominated by football? Do you play/watch/involved with fantasy football etc.

Ben: I would say so, yes!  I write and talk about football every day as part of my job which is lucky because I LOVE the game! I used to go to around 40 games every season but now I have a young family, I’d rather play with them and watch them play. My daughter has just joined her first team which is a brilliant girls’ team that play in a league. I still go to some live games, just not as many, and I now take my daughters to a few as well.

I have played in a Fantasy League with the same people for over 20 years. Last season I lost out on the title by one point when Bournemouth scored a last-minute goal against Burnley! But in 2007 I won a trophy for the highest Fantasy League score in the whole country! A proud moment! I enjoy playing the game because it’s another way to connect with people through our love of football.

football schoolAlex, you’ve spent much time studying futebol – the Brazilian way of life. What’s the difference between English and Brazilian football?

Alex: Yes, I lived in Brazil for five years. I think that the key difference is Brazilians are much more technically skilled, on the whole, than English players. My opinion is that this is because of geographical and cultural factors, as we write in Football School Season 1. Brazilians do not learn to play on grass, because in Brazil grass doesn’t grow very well. Brazilians learn to play on the beach, on tiny concrete pitches, and indoors with a small ball: the challenges of these surfaces makes them overdevelop their technique.

Why is the English premier league so popular worldwide?

Ben: There are a few reasons for this. The game is so exciting in England, and has some of the best talent in the world. Players such as Mo Salah and Kevin de Bruyne are great to watch and capable of pure brilliance. The league is competitive and you never quite know what will happen next. In 2012, Manchester City won the league title with the last kick of the season, when Sergio Aguero scored a dramatic winner against QPR. You can’t make up that kind of drama!

The coaches here are among the best in the world – top guys such as Guardiola, Klopp, Pochettino and Mourinho. But the league is also really well-organised – we know in advance what time the games will kick-off, and the lunchtime games often suit an audience in Asia or North America. Something as simple as that can make a big difference – in Spain, for example, they change the kick-off times at quite short notice so you often never quite know when the game will be taking place.

You’ve managed to bring all subjects into football – biology, history, languages, geography. But does maths play the biggest part in football?

Alex: Ha! My stock response is that maths plays the biggest part in EVERYTHING! Of course it does! Imagine a world with no numbers…we’d be back in the Stone Age. When it comes to football, I think that the links between maths and football are perhaps more obvious – score lines, data, numbers on shirts – than the links with other subjects. But this is not to say that maths plays the biggest part. We take a holistic view: all the subjects are interlinked.

Can you tell me a bit more about Football School Star Players?

Alex: Star Players is a book of 50 profiles of football players who are inspirational role models on and off the pitch. We chose famous footballers with amazing life stories, but also lesser known players who have changed the game – or the world – in some way. For example, there’s the player who became president, the one who invented a new football boot and the one who survived the Holocaust to become the best coach in the world.

Alex, do you have an emotional relationship with numbers and football?

Alex: Of course! When I look at league tables I feel all warm and gooey: there is nothing more satisfying that looking at lists of numbers, especially when they represent important facts!

football school season 3Ben, can you switch off when you watch football, or is it always ‘work’?

Great question! Football used to be my passion and my hobby, and even though now it is still work, I can still sometimes switch off to enjoy some matches – especially when my children are playing. I am actually pretty good at not commentating on what they are doing and still able to see the game as a tool for pure enjoyment and a chance to get some exercise with good friends, which is essentially what it is.

If someone says to you – football’s just a game. What is your response?

Ben: I agree – it is a game and we mustn’t forget that above all else, that’s exactly what it is. But it also has a wonderful way of emotionally connecting with people, which means it can have an impact beyond just the winning and losing of a game. It can bring people together, like it did when the Ivory Coast ended its civil war after the national team qualified for the 2006 World Cup for the first time.

It can be a lovely way for families to spend time together, cheering for the same cause. And footballers themselves have a unique connection with the communities in which they play and a lot of them make huge charitable contributions – by giving their time and support – to people, often children, who are less fortunate than themselves and need some help. So football is a game, but it can also be used as a force for good. That’s what we hope to do with Football School – take the game itself and use it to help children discover a love of reading and a curiosity about the world.

Can you really explain the whole world through the prism of football? What about Brexit?

Alex: Of course we can! We could write a whole book on football and Brexit! For example, we could write about immigration, such as foreign players in our leagues, and our players abroad, and how this will change with Brexit. We could talk about the history of the Champions League. We could write about footballers who became politicians. Once you start looking, you will find many links.

What is your view on women’s football?

We are passionate about women’s football and incredibly excited about the women’s World Cup this summer. We’re not that old but we know that around 1920, women’s football was more popular than men’s football in England. One team, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, would regularly sell out huge stadia like Goodison Park (whose capacity was over 50,000). The men who ran the FA sadly – and unfairly – banned women’s football in 1921. It’s an important part of history as it coincides with the suffragette movement and it’s something we explore in detail in our History lesson in Season Two.

We have been inspired by stories of parents and educators who have told us of the book’s positive effect among their children, and that includes girls. Ben has two daughters who love to play football and he loves hearing them talk about their favourite players and goals to their friends. There are many more opportunities for girls to play football now and coverage of the women’s game is improving, with matches on TV and newspapers giving regular coverage to the women’s league.

At all the school talks we do, the girls are just as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the game as the boys; at our first event, when we invited a few children up to invent their own goal celebrations we were blown away when one of the girls did six back-flips across the stage! That was impressive! Since then, we have done lots of school talks – many at all-girls schools – and found the same enthusiasm for the sport, even if we have yet to meet such another talented gymnast!

Football School Star Players includes many stories of inspiring women players, such as Nadia Nadim, who escaped from a brutal regime growing up in Afghanistan to play for Denmark and Manchester City, and Brandi Chastain, the US player whose dramatic penalty won the 1999 World Cup final. She has promised to donate her brain to scientific research after her death.

With huge thanks to Alex and Ben for answering ALL my questions. And you can buy Football School Star Players here.

Would you like to be a sportswriter like Alex and Ben? The Guardian and Football School have teamed up to launch a competition all about sports writing. To enter, you need to write a 600-word match report on any sporting event, or a 600-word profile about a sports person. You can enter here for a chance to win ‘an opportunity to watch a Premier League football game as a journalist in the press box’, your entry published in The Guardian, or a signed bundle of Football School books and goodies. You need to be aged between 7-12 yrs, and enter before 19th May.

Runaway Robot by Frank Cottrell-Boyce: the humanity in artificial intelligence

runaway robotIan McKewan caused a bit of a stir the other week over claims that his new novel, Machines Like Me, about artificial intelligence (ie robots) was not science fiction, remaining firmly in the genre of literary fiction. He also claimed that future writers might look at the ‘human dilemmas’ posed by artificial intelligence.

As readers know, writers have long-looked at robots or artificial intelligence as a way of examining our own humanity, starting perhaps with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley…and spinning onwards through HG Wells to Margaret Atwood and beyond. But the snootiness over whether something is sci-fi just because it contains robots luckily doesn’t infiltrate children’s fiction. What’s always rather startling, and somewhat refreshing, is that despite holding a market-share of about a third of print books, the children’s book shelves are still arranged by age rather than genre. Thus Enid Blyton’s adventure capers sit neatly next to Tony Bradman’s historical fiction, Holly Smale’s contemporary fiction sits next to SF Said’s science fiction, David Walliam’s comic mass market books sit adjacent to Robert Westall’s fiction.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce, shelved under C for those in doubt, is a master of comic fiction, and his latest adventure for children, Runaway Robot, definitely speaks to the humanity in us all.

Alfie, very much human, but with a bionic hand, discovers a robot with a missing leg in his local Airport Lost Property. The robot happens to be a giant robot called Eric, with manners as good as a butler, and a demeanour as chivalrous as a knight. The only problem is that he takes instructions quite literally, and is rather large. Alfie and Eric have much in common. Alfie is boyishly charming, Eric is gallant almost to a fault. Both have a missing body part, and both are missing the memory of how they lost their missing parts. Together, they try to solve the clues without leaving too much destruction in their wake.

Cottrell-Boyce writes with confidence and flair, spilling his story into the reader’s head with artistry and comedy, so that readers are equally amused and enthralled, but also touched with a large brush of heart. He has a keen eye for human quirks, and seeing them play out both robotically as well as in humans, is rather fun. And Steven Lenton’s illustrations create that extra dimension of humour.

It is Alfie’s distinctive voice that propels the fiction forwards – written in first person it is as if Alfie himself is telling the reader the story, perhaps sitting next to you or by your bedside, with modern phrases slung in, such as ‘oh my days,’ and the specific brand of truisms that children see when adults don’t – such as the scene in which Alfie is surrounded by his old schoolmates wanting to look at his new bionic hand, and he describes one of them as ‘one of those people who thought the news always understated things so you had to exaggerate to get the truth’. There is also a spectacular twist on how Alfie is telling the story towards the end, which took even this experienced reader by surprise.

What’s more, Alfie is surrounded by a super cast of characters, both in the Limb Lab, where other children with missing limbs are helped by a super scientist and a 3-D printer, including in particular, Shatila, a girl who suffered the loss of her foot by stepping on a mine in Bosnia, and who speaks with extra punctuation. She’s a fantastic character, clearly thought-out, and an attribute to the human feel of the book.

There’s a specific passage in the book about the different ways of walking, which is clever as it speaks to how a good writer depicts character: everything from a person’s walk to their speech and mannerisms forms their character, and the more detail there is, the more authentic the character.

The adults are well drawn too, maybe because Cottrell-Boyce has a knack of depicting adults from a child’s perspective. Alfie sees his Mum through the prism of comfort – food, routine, boundaries and unconditional support. He sees the woman who runs Lost Property through her badge and demeanour – ‘Happy to Help’ – a complete misnomer judging by her expression.

The only flaw I found in the entire book was the profession of Alfie’s mother – in this automated world they live in, it came as a surprise that they still have postwomen.

For although the world Cottrell-Boyce has created will be familiar to readers, with schools and buses and airports, there is a sense that automation has taken over many jobs – the buses are self-driven, there are robot street cleaners and robot pizza delivery ovens, but the most comedic fun for me was Alfie’s house itself, which greets him upon arrival, tells him if he has a high heart rate (‘have you been running?’), and turns all lights and devices off at 10pm.

As with all good fiction, it is the way it makes us look within ourselves that sets this novel apart. Setting a novel in an imagined future where things can be slightly uncomfortable causes us to look at our own present and see the direction we want to go in. Do we want everything to be automated? When there’s an accident, is human error more or less acceptable than machine error?

Although Cottrell-Boyce writes with a deft touch and a comic heart, there are themes pushing up against the reader all the time – with artificial body parts, and thinking chivalrous robots, what makes us human? What possibilities are there for a machine-led future, and how much do we want it? What do we project onto the machine that tells us more about ourselves than it does about the machine?

This is a confidently written, pacey novel with a beating heart in the middle of it. Warm, funny, enjoyable – a great children’s book, whichever genre you think it is.

For age 8+ years. You can buy the book here. And I have one copy to give away. Just comment on my Facebook page below the review.

What My Pupils Have Taught Me About Writing: A Guest Blog by Catherine Bruton

no ballet shoes in syriaA couple of weeks ago my book of the week was No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton. An astute, moving novel about a refugee, drawing on influences from Noel Streatfield to Pamela Brown, it publishes today, at a time when the media is talking about how many adults are reading children’s books, and why. One of the reasons, of course, is that we adults can learn so much from the children around us – their views are fresh and often untainted, their hope more sustained, their outlook less jaded. Many children’s authors start as teachers, reading other children’s books and picking up dialogue or character traits from the children populating their classrooms. Catherine Bruton is one such author: teaching and writing. Here, she outlines what her pupils have taught her about writing:

Being an English teacher is a great privilege. I get to spend all day talking books and writing with young people. Ok, sometimes we have to do grammar and learn how to jump through GCSE exam hoops and write timed A Level essays, but the rest of the time we read and write and talk about stories and poems and words and ideas.  And for everything I’ve managed to teach in over 20 years at the chalkface, my pupils have taught me a hundred times more. Here are three of the biggest lessons I have learned.

  1. Never underestimate young readers.

Reading books together means we end up talking about  all the important stuff – love and hate,  death and despair, loss and longing, family and friendship and freedom and growing up – books cover it all. And my pupils show me daily how open-minded, how thoughtful, how receptive young people are – often much more so than adult readers. I learn so much from the way they react to books and characters – from their openness to new ideas – from the new and changing perspectives they bring to texts each time we read them.  Which is probably why I don’t shy away from big topics in my books (terrorism and Islamophobia in We Can be Heroes; family breakdown and reality TV in Pop!; urban poverty and institutional racism in I Predict a Riot; refugees and most recently the migrant crisis in No Ballet Shoes in Syria) My pupils teach me never to underestimate my readership – and that’s a great lesson as a writer.

  1. Go with the flow!

Teaching creative writing to young people has taught me so much! The youngest writers I teach bring an energy and excitement to writing tasks that I wish I could bottle and imbibe (or sell – I’d make a fortune!) Whatever prompt I bring, whatever idea I suggest, they are immediately fizzing with ideas – ideas which pour out of them unfiltered, uncensored, unquestioned.  They don’t second guess themselves, they don’t question their right to tackle a particular topic, or their ability to realise their vision – you certainly don’t hear young writers  debating what the market predicts for publishing trends!  They trust their imaginations, they enjoy their ideas, they are playful, unfettered and free – and it is glorious to behold. As you get older and more self-conscious/ self-critical that joy is incredibly easy to lose, but my pupils remind me how central it is to the process. Writing is work but it can also be like play – and a degree of abandonment is necessary to get into the state of ‘flow’ which is when the best ideas come pouring out. So I try to remind myself that there will be time to edit later, time for apostrophes and self-doubt later, time to interrogate the concept later (time to dust later!) – sometimes you need to go with the flow and allow yourself to enjoy it!

  1. Learn to love your internal critic.

As my students get older I witness the arrival of their ‘internal critics’. It’s a stage all young writers go through, which tends to hit around adolescence, and it leads them to question themselves, to doubt their creative impulses, to fear failure, to worry about how their writing will be received. Sadly, for many young people this is the moment when they stop writing – and many adult writers find themselves paralysed by similar sentiments! But as I try to explain to my pupils (and remind myself!)  it means they are coming of age as a writer, because the ability to be analytical, critical, objective about your work is absolutely necessary to the editing process. As Dorothea Brande explains in ‘Becoming a Writer’ an author needs two heads – the creative head and the editing head. They need to be kept apart as much as possible but they are BOTH necessary to crafting a successful piece of work. I advise pupils to put work aside for a period before returning to it with an objective critical frame of mind and I try to follow my own advice and learn when to shut out the internal critic – and when to invite her in. It’s not always easy though!

So, a huge thank you to all the wonderful young people I have had the privilege to teach over the years – and who have taught me more than they can ever know! Mrs B (or Miss P!) loves you all!

With thanks to Catherine Bruton. No Ballet Shoes in Syria publishes today and you can read my review here, and buy the book here

The Dog Runner and Climate Change

the dog runnerBren MacDibble’s latest book for children is set in a dog-eat-dog future, in which food production has failed and energy sources have dried up.

Ella and her big half-brother Emery live in a future dystopian Australia, where a fungus has wiped out grass and led to worldwide famine. They live in the city, but when Ella’s mother fails to return from her job trying to restore the solar power grid, and then their father fails to return home, they gather their dogs, make a dry-land dog-sled and set off across the open countryside to make it to Emery’s grandparents’ farm.

This is a journey novel – an adventure story about two children making it across rough terrain. But MacDibble gently nudges the reader into deeper thought about the way we treat the land, our food, our future, and each other.

In the wake of famine, societal norms have broken down. Cities, and sometimes houses themselves, are enclosed by security guards as much to keep people out as keep people in; there are checkpoints and rogue gangs, empty promises by the government of food distribution. For a society starving to death, behaviour disintegrates. The children learn to trust no one – not even a mother with her pushchair and crying toddler. Gangs roam on solar-powered motorbikes, trigger-happy with guns and eager to find any food – even dogs, and willing to shoot children who get in their way.

In a particularly difficult scene, the children come across a farm that has been razed to the ground, the farmer killed, presumably for the meat they were harboring, for the few fruit trees they had left.

As Ella relates, the news tells them that there is no rice in Asia, no maize in Africa, no corn in America. The book explains the importance of grass for all food production.

With her idiosyncratic prose, MacDibble sets to show how over-production and inattention has wiped out the consideration that must be given to the land we harvest. She gives voice to indigenous cultures in the form of Emery, who is of Afghani/Aboriginal ancestry, and whose grandparents are attempting to re-utilize the old ways of storing grain – working on the land with people who have garnered knowledge about it over time.

In fact, what MacDibble shows is that respect must be given equally to other people and to the land we care-take, and in the absence of both, people die.

The children’s relationship is highly reminiscent of Scout and Jem from To Kill a Mockingbird: the younger feisty sister, and an older protective brother, but in circumstances that dictate it is Ella, the younger sister, who must summon all her courage, step up and take the lead after Emery is hurt.

Above all though, this is a fast-paced adventure novel, about adaptability, the importance of kindness, and a showcase for children’s hope in the future of the planet.

Bren MacDibble

Issues of climate change surface in MacDibble’s novels, firstly in How to Bee and now in The Dog Runner. Here, she gives her top tips for everyday changes we can all make to fight against climate change:

What can I do about climate change?

Walk, cycle or take public transport

Plant trees or volunteer to help reforest an area

Eat what is grown locally

Cut back on red meat, especially save beef for special occasions

Stop using pesticides

Plant wildflowers

Leave some areas wild as a haven for insects

Create a bug hotel

Reduce single use plastic bags, cups, bottles, straws and packaging

Pick up litter to prevent it entering waterways

Turn lights and switches off when you’re not using electrical items

Write to your local government about creating more forested or green spaces

Bren MacDibble was raised on farms all over New Zealand, so is an expert about being a child on the land. After 20 years in Melbourne, MacDibble recently sold up, and now lives and works in a bus travelling around Australia. In 2018, How to Bee – her first novel for younger readers – won three major awards in Australia. The Dog Runner, her second children’s novel, publishes 2nd May. You can buy it here.