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Reading Brexit for Kids: Outwalkers

outwalkersAt the end of last week, someone wrote on twitter about how unproductive she’d been. As with many of us, she had been consumed with checking the news every few minutes for the latest in the Brexit debacle, although at the same time rueing the fact that it was so all-consuming, when really there were so many more important issues on which to concentrate the mind.

So it was with full fervour that I threw myself into the latest read from David Fickling Books after being promised by their publicity agent that it was a post-Brexit novel for children. Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw is indeed a post-Brexit novel, dystopian and political, with a warning that makes you realise we are only a few steps from our own dystopia. Or are we living it already?

Outwalkers imagines a time long after Brexit in which England has closed its borders, following the mass murder of the ‘Faith Bombings’, and imposed a wall between itself and Scotland (now an entirely independent country). What’s more, individuals are chipped to enable government tracking and citizen identification, and there are clear distinctions in the way different classes are treated – those whose microchips enable them to enter John Lewis, as opposed to entering the foodbanks, for example. On the good side, citizens are looked after and protected, the propaganda says.

In this mix, the reader is introduced to twelve-year-old Jake, currently in a state-sponsored Home Academy after his parents die in a car accident. He escapes this prison-like institution to find his dog, Jet, and plans to flee England (it is illegal to leave the country) to join his grandparents in Scotland. Before long, he meets a group calling themselves Outwalkers, also bound for the border for various reasons, and all self-de-chipped. But as their journey progresses, they become more and more important for the government to find, and more entrenched in danger.

Shaw has created a thrilling read, essentially a chase novel through England – and it’s her details that bring it to life both politically and visually. The scenes in John Lewis and in the London Underground, particularly the visit to the postal museum in Kings Cross, are superbly rendered, as is the use of the Angel of the North as a rather battered landmark. More than this, she delves into the future with old posters for ‘Brexit the Musical’, and endless Star Wars sequels, as well as the constant news streaming, and of course citizen tracking.

The message behind the book is definitely anti-Brexit: that closing the borders is short-sighted, insular and ultimately devastating for the people inside, but it really pushes its message about the loss of democracy. Although England is ruled by the ‘Coalition’ in government, a seemingly harmless and democratic-sounding compromise government, they actually work more like a dictatorship, duping their people and ruling behind a veil of secrecy. There’s commentary on ‘group’ rule too – or perhaps on our current government cabinet and the whip:

“But when it’s something that’s really wrong, really terrible: then I don’t think there’s any excuse. Doesn’t matter if someone else orders you. Doesn’t matter if your team all agree.”

The group of Outwalkers are well-delineated and strikingly different from each other. At the beginning they induct Jake into the group by asking him for his contributing skill, but it soon becomes apparent that they have different hidden skills too – not just the obvious of navigation, climbing, cooking etc. Some are empathetic, some nurturing of the little ones, some motivational, others optimistic. All are brave and savvy, and it is this courageousness and loyalty to each other that sees them through. In a society in which people are encouraged to spy and report on each other, this ancient attribute of loyalty and love is particularly poignant, and these attributes grow with the novel so that by the end the reader is fully invested in both the chase but also the fate of each individual.

Shaw also delves hard into the idea of class – something so inherently British – and, in the novel, so divisive. There are the forgotten people – lowlifers – who dwell mostly underground, away from prying government eyes – and there is a futility in their existence, and yet heartrending humanity. Implicit in the novel is a clear message of how we treat others dependent on who they are – something as simple as the sound of a ‘posh’ voice has different consequences from those without that accent, and the amount of money people have and their standard of living makes a huge difference to their societal choices. The privileged work high up in the government, and remain privileged.

So, yes, Outwalkers feels very much of its time – a Brexit novel for children. But as with the government in the novel, this is a skewed view. And this view veers massively towards Remain. There is little nuance, and far too much unexplained at the end of the novel. There’s no examination of right or wrong – the morality is very straightforward.

Some critics have complained that the harshness of the dystopian society Shaw has created feels out of kilter with the normality and sanity of the people depicted, but judging by past oppressive regimes, what’s happening in China at the moment, or even judging by our own political madness, who knows how far and how quickly things can spiral out of control – despite the seeming normality of the everyday?

This is a sharp critique of people’s acceptance of what they are told, what they are fed by the news or government and what they believe, and in the end saviour comes in the form of a member of a religion in a seemingly faithless landscape (interesting in itself). But also the real saviours are the children themselves – bringing about a resolution of their own stories but also a resolution for the dystopian England they grew up in – and perhaps this is where Shaw is most accurate in her portrayal of our politics. The real change is going to come from our youth – striving for the government to listen to them about climate change, when all around them politicians and leaders are ensconced in this political hiccup in time called Brexit. You can buy Outwalkers here.

The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog on World Poetry Day

the proper way to meet a hedgehogThe Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog and Other How-To Poems selected by Paul Janeczko, illustrated by Richard Jones
It’s World Poetry Day. This eclectic anthology of poems aims to teach you how to do something, at the same time as teaching you an appreciation of fine poetry. For example, titles include ‘How to Build a Poem’, ‘How to be a Snowflake’, which made me chuckle – the next generation might be surprised at the content!

On a serious note, this is a beautiful selection of poetry, including old and new. ‘How to Tell Goblins from Elves’ by Monica Shannon feels traditional in tone and structure. Phrases including ‘willow clump’ and ‘coverlets of leaves’ speak to our sense of poetry as belonging to the natural world, yet contrasted with Kwame Alexander’s brilliant ‘Basketball Rule #2’, readers feel the brilliance of modern movement, poetic punch and fast flow and rhythm in its ‘Hustle dig / Grind push / Run fast / Change pivot’. Poetry become chant, become the game itself.

The poetry throughout is stirring and heartfelt, pure in form, and clever in wit and language, but also each subject of the poetry speaks carefully to children of primary school age – there are poems on riding bikes, playing table tennis, swings (a beautiful soaring poem from Robert Louis Stevenson – ‘Up in the air I go flying again / Up in the air and down,’), as well as bird-watching, and reading braille.

The collection also tracks cleverly through time. There’s pancake mixing, toasting marshmallows and fireworks, as well as Fourth of July celebrations, trees in winter, and snow.

‘Best Friends’ by Helen Frost sums up the magical elements of poetry – the atmosphere of the ‘summer night’, the anticipated meeting of a friend, the instructions on how to blow a signal through a grass whistle: ‘hold it straight and tight -/bring grass and thumbs/up to your mouth/and blow.’ With a colour wash behind the words – which are themselves given space to breathe on a whole double page spread – the colours capture the beauty of the summer sunset: reds, blues, purples, yellows adrift across the page. The reader can almost smell the summer breeze, the magic.

Some with repetition, some with rhyme – each poem plays with the space on the page, and has been set against beautiful illustrations that are soft and complementary. ‘How to Ride a New Bike’ by April Halprin Wayland is illustrated by a lush autumn day – the bike not the focus of the page, but rather the close-up of the hedge and animals, the bee buzzing, the dog chasing – giving a sense of the freedom and natural wonder expressed by the words of the poem: ‘Quick, quiz, Cycling Whiz’. The poem is cryptic – implying recklessness and speed contrasting with safety and surety – daring to do something.  

The ending of the book is smart too – the last poem in the book ‘How to Pay Attention’ comprises two lines only: ‘Close this book. Look.’ Again, beautifully illustrated to show doorway through doorway – a world of openings awaits. Wise, simple, illuminating and inspirational. Happy World Poetry Day. You can pre-order it here. Publishing 4th April 2019.

Picture Book Round Up Spring 2019: Animals

the big race
The Big Race by David Barrow
Never normally one to agree with awarding certificates simply for taking part, this book may have changed my mind.

Aardvark is small and doesn’t have the skillset of the other animals, the crocodile, cheetah, buffalo and African hoopoe, taking part in the race. And stamina, strength and speed are required in this ‘great race’, which involves running, cycling, diving off a waterfall, swimming, tightrope walking, rope swinging and parachuting from a hot air balloon – all in the natural African landscape.

Aardvark doesn’t give up, showing resilience all the way through – battling on her scooter against the other animals’ bikes, using armbands to swim underwater – never succumbing to her tiredness and misfortune.  She’s the only one whose parachute goes awry, for example. And she shows immense pleasure at her medal – simply being rewarded for taking part (as she should, this is one tough race!).

Barrow’s illustrations throughout are a delight. Any animal race will be reminiscent of The Hare and the Tortoise, but Barrow’s vision is modern and fresh, with relentless movement and humour in the pictures. You can buy it here.

kiss the crocodile
Kiss the Crocodile by Sean Taylor and Ben Mantle
This playful, happy book also features a group of animals, this time as friends, a monkey, a tortoise and an anteater, playing in their natural habitat, splashing in rivers, making up monsters, doing silly dancing. They are a little intimidated to play with Little Crocodile though, with his many teeth and sharp claws. The naughty Crocodile mother (and adult readers will laugh inwardly here) suggests a game of ‘Kiss the Crocodile’, a sort of daring game.

This is, in essence, a simple and oft-repeated message about letting everyone join in, but the illustrations are so impossibly endearing, the monkey so impish, the crocodile so self-assured, that it makes reading an absolute pleasure. Even more pleasure if you read it aloud (with its repetition and suspense). Well executed and great fun. Kissable. You can buy it here.

dinosaur department store
The Dinosaur Department Store by Lily Murray and Richard Merritt
Looking for something more ferocious than a crocodile – how about a dinosaur? The pictures tell the reader that Eliza Jane (a human girl) is obsessed with dinosaurs, from dressing up as one, to the shape of her cuddly toy, to the pictures adorning her walls. So when, rather delightfully, she tells her parents that now she is four she wants a real dinosaur (rhyming is throughout), there is only one place to visit – the dinosaur department store.

Here, with flourish and eccentricity, the department store owner shows Eliza Jane all the different types of dinosaurs, only to be annoyed that his time has been wasted when she declares at the end that she no longer wants a dinosaur pet. Why not? The clues have been in the pictures all along. An excellent rhyming picture book that’s vibrant, exuberant and fun, with pictures telling the other half of the story. Highly recommend. You can buy it here.

lots of frogs
Lots of Frogs by Howard Calvert and Claudia Boldt
More fun and frolics and rhymes in this jumping book about frogs. Tommy brings his box of frogs into school, and unfortunately for the staff, they don’t remain in the box for long. Calvert has great fun exploring the different places around the school that the frogs might inhabit (including the Headteacher’s hair), and also ways in which Tommy might capture them again.

What’s more Calvert, and illustrator Boldt, imbue the frogs with lots of personality – they are as cheeky as monkeys. Lots to admire here – the frogs almost seem to be like schoolchildren themselves – very human, and Calvert introduces numbers, eating habits and so on. One slightly dodgy rhyme, but on the whole a great fun read that will have the class clamouring to bring in their own pets. Or certainly to be read the story again. You can buy it here.

five more minutes
Five More Minutes by Marta Altes
Anthropomorphic foxes in this sympathetic look at how children and parents view the concept of time differently. Reminiscent of some of the Jill Murphy picture books, this representation of a sprightly family and their everyday lives is both wise and heartwarming. Five more minutes means something very different for the child or adult as they view the various moments in their lives. For Dad (the primary caregiver), five more minutes at a children’s party feels long whereas five more minutes in bed feels short.

On the way to school, fox is doubtful of his father’s protestations that there is no time – they need to hurry – but the young fox makes time for jumping in puddles, watching the birds and more. Conversely, for the young fox, waiting for a cake to bake takes ages: there is too much time. The illustrations are kind and forgiving, the Dad always attentive and loving, the house ordinary and familiar, the expressions well-articulated. Take a particular look at the little foxes’ faces when eating the cupcakes. Some things are worth waiting for. Pre-order your picture book here now.

what clara saw
What Clara Saw by Jessica Meserve
Meserve has a way with illustration. Her child characters are hugely differentiated, personalities zinging from the page, and she holds an astounding attention to detail – the shoelaces of the children like little wings, the crafting of the teacher, Mr Biggity, as condescending, before the reader has even read a word. Is it his long nose, his large nostril, the upturn of his toe, his hand positioning, the way his eye glances back at the children. He’s going to be tricky.

And thus it proves, on an outing to a wildlife park, Mr Biggity dismisses the animals as being vastly inferior, when Clara, with the red coat, notices that animals are rather good at communicating and feeling. The reader will notice how observant Clara is, and if they too are observant, they’ll witness a whole other story just by ‘reading the pictures’ rather than listening to the text. A book that encourages thought and debate about how much animals feel, and perhaps even about how much we should stand up for what we believe to be true rather than being mindlessly fed false information. Exquisite illustrations. You can buy it here.

rhino neil
Rhino Neil by Mini Goss
A simpler message in this animal book about not judging someone from the way they look. Rhino Neil is huge and the other animals stay away from him. After all, he has a huge horn that might spike, fearsome feet that trample, and a tremendous tummy that can fit lots in it, as well as a big bottom that could squash everyone.

When an even bigger animal arrives by truck, the animals are all scared – except for Rhino Neil, who accepts the new elephant as his friend – and sometimes even feels small next to him. It’s not fully explained where the animals are – a wildlife park perhaps – and it’s a shame that all the animals aren’t accepting and make friends with the rhino and elephant at the end, despite their size, but this is an interesting take on the idea of size and may entertain some. Bright images and close-ups of body parts. You can buy it here.

A Little Bit Brave: Sketches by Nicola Kinnear

a little bit braveFrom the moment I set eyes on Logan, the stay-at-home bunny who features in A Little Bit Brave by Nicola Kinnear, I rather fell for him. Logan is first seen sitting comfortably and knitting, a steaming mug nearby, alongside a bookcase almost as packed as mine. He is listening, rapt, to the daring adventures of his companion Luna – herself mid-leap, wooden spoon thrust as if it were a sword, as she acts out her latest adventure with passion and zest.

All of Kinnear’s drawings are equally immersive in this book about plucking up the courage to have adventures. Logan does eventually venture outside, away from his knitting, and tries to join Luna in her adventures, but the world outside can hold danger, and in the end he might have to face up to it alone – albeit to save his friend.

There’s a great camaraderie between Logan and Luna, which takes a simple but effective look at wanting to please a friend and sticking up for them, but also how enormous courage surfaces when confronting dangers.

Kinnear effectively explores the colours and sights of the natural world in her imagined woodland, giving the animals enough anthropomorphic features to render the scenarios and behaviours familiar to a young child.

Here, Kinnear shows the fun she had in creating her two rabbits, and kindly gives us an insight into her creative process:

brave

“These are some early sketches of the characters, Logan and Luna. I really love this part of the project where I can play around with creating characters, figuring out how they are going to look and what their personalities are.”

“I knew from very early on, that the story was going to be about two very different, contrasting rabbits; one brave, and the other scared. The rabbits were really fun and expressive to draw and I could use their ears a lot to convey their emotions.”

A Little Bit Brave by Nicola Kinnear (Scholastic) is available now. You can buy a copy here. It’s a glorious new picture book, perfect for scared little ones, or those being brave and confronting adventures.

The New Boy: True Love

the new boyWas it the marketing description of ‘Black Mirror-esque’ that made me pick up this YA thriller, or its supposed preoccupation with social media, free will and privacy? A few YA titles have been dropping through the post that are bouncing around this theme – social media, privacy and truth are hot topics right now. However, it’s also Rawsthorne’s gripping writing and her previous books that made me pick up The New Boy.

When Jack starts at Zoe’s school, everyone seemingly adores him. What’s not to like? He’s charming, handsome, outgoing, popular – as good with parents as he is with peers. So Zoe’s amazed, but flattered, when Jack chooses to date her. But as they become more involved, things feel slightly out of kilter. Is it her, or him? Can someone be that perfect?

This is an intriguing novel that dissects personality as well as technology. Which behaviours are helpful and which controlling, when is a person being manipulated? The book explores tension between using tech wisely as a force for good, and letting oneself be guided by it. It’s about control of ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Rawsthorne also explores social groups, peer pressure and relationships. In fact, it’s Zoe’s initial strength – her confidence with her individual image, her unwillingness to follow a crowd on social media that makes her stand out as a great protagonist, someone we want to identify with, and someone who is suspicious of anything out of the ordinary. But everyone has their weakness, and when Zoe’s is exploited, her boundaries and relationships begin to crumble. This is a thoroughly enjoyable, yet also thought-provoking look at how we can stay truthful to ourselves, but also fit in with society. I’m delighted to host Paula Rawsthorne dissecting true love:

Falling in love can be dangerous when you don’t know who’s pulling the strings.

The New Boy is a twisting psychological thriller and that makes it very hard to talk about the themes of the story as they only become clear once the reader has finished the book and discovered what it was really about.

However, I think it’s safe to say that one of the themes is about different understandings of romantic love.  We may all think we know what it is, but if you ask a group of people you’d be surprised at the array of answers – it often seems that one person’s idea of romantic love would make another person run for the hills.

So, let me ask you, what does it take to fall in love with someone?

Does there have to be a chemistry between you?  Do they have to be charming, thoughtful, full of romantic gestures?  Do you want their undivided attention and adoration? Are shared interests and passions important? Should it be a meeting of minds as well as a physical attraction?

I’m sure that you could add your own ‘must-have’ factors to the above, including that ‘je ne sais quoi’ – that alluring, intangible element that seals the deal.

In The New Boy, everyone at Hinton Dale Sixth Form College is enamoured with the handsome, charming and clever, Jack Cartwright.  However, romantically, Jack only has eyes for Zoe Littlewood.

Jack seems to provide Zoe with all of the essential factors for falling in love.  He’s drop-dead gorgeous and full of romantic gestures.  They have interests and passions in common, he’s generous, thoughtful, kind and even heroic.  He’d go to any lengths to make her happy.  He bolsters Zoe’s confidence and helps her with her studies.  He even takes her to one of the most romantic locations in English Literature.

Anyone in Zoe’s shoes would be head-over-heels with Jack but, despite his perfection, it takes some time for his charms to work on Zoe as there’s something about Jack that unsettles her.

Maybe a contributing factor that bothers Zoe is Jack’s belief that the ultimate romantic lovers are Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights.

“He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”  Catherine Earnshaw in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Whilst Jack considers Heathcliff and Catherine to be soul-mates who embody passionate, eternal love, Zoe sees a toxic, revengeful relationship that destroys the lives of the couple and others around them.

Zoe is also a fan of the Bronte sisters’ novels but, for her, it’s the relationship between Jane Eyre and Rochester that represents a healthier, stronger ‘romantic love’.

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you –and full as much heart!  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Sure, Rochester is far from perfect (SPOILER ALERT – even if he thought he was protecting his wife from an inhumane asylum, he did have her locked in the attic and was prepared to let Jane marry him in ignorance).  But Zoe admires Jane’s strength of character and individualism (something that Zoe also possesses, not least for her decision to come off social media).  Zoe considers Jane Eyre’s relationship with Rochester as, ultimately, a rather beautiful meeting of minds, bodies and souls and not the twisted love displayed in Wuthering Heights.

However, Jack seems to have a particular understanding of what constitutes true love and once he sets his sights on Zoe she soon realises just how hard it is to resist The New Boy.

………………………………………………

With thanks to Paula for her intriguing post. You’ll have to read The New Boy to find out the twists and turns in this fast-paced, not always romantic, novel. You can buy a copy here.

The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet: A guest post from Martin Howard

cosmic atlas of alfie fleetCharlie Bucket (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl) was the first name that sprang to mind when I started reading this chucklesome new book from Martin Howard about an impoverished boy who follows up a newspaper advert to earn some quick cash doing odd jobs for an unbelievably eccentric man. But then The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet deviates from the world of Charlie Bucket into a world (or worlds) of its own, and I was both intrigued and highly amused by the comic writing, the inventive imagining, and the high adventures and cunning of its protagonist, Alfie.

The eccentric man I mentioned is Professor Bowell-Mouvemont, the president of the Unusual Cartography Club, who shows Alfie a series of worlds unknown to the majority of humans on Earth (too preoccupied with their ordinary lives to care). These worlds range from Brains-in-Jars world to planet Maureen and Outlandish. Together, the Professor and Alfie travel through these worlds as explorers. Quick to spot an opportunity, Alfie takes it upon himself to fend off danger by showing the inhabitants of these strange lands some of our own traditions, and marketing them as a way of progressing on his journey. He explains and sells advertising space in his travel guide, gives favourable reviews to inns and pubs, makes a mark on the map of the atlas he’s drawing to indicate good shops, hospitable peoples, and so on.

For the young reader, this is both highly amusing and yet also cunning – giving a serious nod to travel guides and atlases, as Wimpy Kid does for diaries. Illustrated by the award-winning Chris Mould, this is a great new series from an author with a clearly somewhat strange mind. So I asked him for his inspirations…

martin howardI first had the idea to write a travel guide to fantastical lands about fifteen years ago. I’m a huge, geeky fan of fantasy books and (like Alfie) I’ve always loved exploring the maps you find in them. A travel guide seemed like the obvious next step.

It bubbled away in the back of my mind for years before I came back to it. Stone circles, like Stonehenge, have always fascinated me. You find them in many places around the world – from Australia to Europe – and no one knows for sure why. I decided they were intergalactic portals first used by space tourists and, later, by a secret map-making society called the Unusual Cartography Club, which had a mission to explore other worlds. Having Alfie – the book’s protagonist – write a travel guide along his journey seemed perfect.

And that’s how The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet came about.

When I was young I was bullied all through my school years. In those days no one took bullying very seriously and one or two teachers even joined in. It was difficult to deal with and I found an escape from some pretty horrific verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse in books and comedy. I was lucky to be growing up at a time when some great comedians were making hilarious TV shows and on Thursday nights my parents would let me and my sister stay up late to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sketches like the Ministry of Silly Walks and Dead Parrot changed my life. If I was having a rough time at school all I had to do was say “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition” to myself in a silly voice and I’d be smiling. I can still quote many Python sketches word for word.

As I got older – I found other shows I loved: The Young Ones, Blackadder, French and Saunders, as well as older comedy movies such as The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I saw lots of brilliant comedians perform stand-up, too. Bill Bailey, Jo Brand, Omid Djalili and lots of others. All of those shows, movies and comedians helped shape my own sense of humour.

Comedy is really important to me. It gave me optimism during traumatic times and I don’t understand why some people think funny books aren’t important. Laughter is as much a part of being human as music or love, and just as essential to our happiness. With humour we can laugh at life’s problems; without it the world would be a pretty grim place.

I also grew up during a time when Terry Pratchett was writing. I loved any fantasy books, but because I was so into comedy his had an especially big impact on me. In fact, I went to both the same schools as Pratchett, though he was there years before me. I also shopped regularly in the second-hand bookshop in Penn, Buckinghamshire, on which he based the magical library of the Unseen University. I was lucky enough to meet him once, when he was doing a talk at the local library after his second Discworld book came out, and it’s easy to see in my own writing that he has been a major influence. He introduced humour into fantasy.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy casts a long shadow, too. Like Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams made sci-fi funny. Eagle-eyed readers of The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet might spot I’ve paid a tiny tribute to The Hitchhiker’s Guide! Any book that contains space themes and humour is always going to be compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide nowadays, and I’ve got the travel guide theme running through mine, too, so I was very aware that I was using a couple of the same ingredients as Douglas Adams. I hope I’ve used them to create a dish that has a very different flavour.

PG Wodehouse had a massive impact. I discovered the Jeeves and Wooster books when I was about twelve and his characters and his use of language to create humour are beyond incredible. In sci-fi and fantasy, I owe inspiration to Neil Gaiman, Tolkien, Ursula K. le Guin, Susan Cooper, as well as Joss Wheedon – I usually watch all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at least once a year! There are lesser well-known writers who have influenced me as well, like Jim Butcher whose pulp-fiction Dresden Files books about a detective wizard in Chicago are fantastic.

It’s impossible to write in isolation: all genres are built over time by writers who have made great contributions, and every writer will have favourites who have shaped the way they write, whether it’s Enid Blyton or Jane Austen. But it’s important that writers find their own voice and – I hope – in The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet I’ve written a book that recognises where it came from, but which is packed with fresh ideas and which could only have been written by me.

With thanks to Martin Howard. You can buy The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet written by Martin Howard, illustrated by Chris Mould here

International Women’s Day 2019

I’m a keen viewer of University Challenge on the BBC, a quiz show for students. Recently, I’ve noticed more and more questions creep in that refer to women in history, previously unnoticed women composers and artists, those whom the layperson in the street definitely couldn’t identify. I admit, I don’t know enough about women in history either, and my shouting ‘Beethoven’ in answer to most questions just doesn’t cut it! Luckily, on this International Women’s Day, children’s publishers are waking up to these lesser-known important historical figures too. And so today’s collection is a definite celebration of women – from famous sisters in history, to lesser-known scientists and pioneers, to modern celebrity women pushing boundaries.

the bluest of bluesThe Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs by Fiona Robinson
This extraordinarily exquisite picture book is a biography of British botanist and photographer, Anna Atkins, who lived 1799 to 1871, and used the newly-invented technology of cyanotype photography to record her catalogue of plant specimens.

What could be quite a dry biography is manipulated into an aesthetically intimate and touching portrayal of Anna, her enthusiasm and love for her craft – and a meshing of science and art, creativity hand-in-hand with discovery.

The book is cast in an illustrative shade of blue, mimicking the cyanotype’s blue and white tones – with Robinson cleverly incorporating the odd splash of red or yellow to emphasise inspiration – the first poppy Atkins examines, the roses in her marriage bouquet, the red ribbon round the gift of her first camera.

The book explores her life and works, and also the support from those around her, particularly her father, who educated his daughter in science, despite it being unusual at that time. This is good narrative non-fiction, delineating the scientific concepts of photography and botany, whilst remaining true to telling Atkins’ life. You can buy it here. 

the brontesThe Brontes by Anna Doherty
Another picture book that frames the world of important women in a single hue, this time a turquoise minty green. Of course, these sisters are well-known to many, but may be accessed for the first time by readers of this picture book, as it is squarely aimed at a young audience. Illustrations dominate the pages, as Doherty documents the girls’ life story from their childhood through to publication, illness and death.

A family tree starts the book, and individual profiles of the sisters and Branwell come near the end. The story is inflected with the author’s own perspective, clearly infused with feminist undertones as she explains how the sisters first published under male pseydonyms. The text is simplistic but clear, and the author takes the opportunity at the end of the book to articulate further social history, exploring why the Brontes were so fantastically feminist.

The book is marvellously attractive, speaking not only to the power of women, but to the power of imagination and story. An inspirational book that makes the world of the Brontes feel intimate, and fascinating. First in a series. Other titles include Ada Lovelace and Michelle Obama. You can buy it here. 

grace hopperGrace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu
With a rhyming poem on the endpapers introducing the scope of this lively picture book for youngsters, ‘Software tester. Workplace jester. Order seeker. Well-known speaker…’ the reader is immediately engrossed in this enthusiastic exploration of how Grace Hopper discovered computer code and became a trailblazing STEM advocate. What’s intriguing about this book is that it highlights that women’s involvement in computers and tech isn’t a recent phenomena  – Hopper was engaged from the beginning – she was a pioneer.

Hopper developed a ground-breaking way of writing computer code, as much from her understanding of how things work, numbers and logic, as from her intuition and creativity. The book carries that perpetually important message of determination and perseverance, especially in the face of adversity, and ends on a high hopeful note.

The full-colour, almost cartoonish illustrations provide an insight into the zest and energy that powered Hopper, from showing her as a frustrated but determined and curious little girl, to a hardworking, brave and intrepid Navy employee. Her insatiable curiosity and her ability to step away from code to find the answers in life as well, show her as a fully rounded, identifiable human. This is an informative and aspirational picture book – you’d do very well to show this to your sons and daughters. You can buy it here. 

one shotOne Shot by Tanya Landman
Ever since my parents took me to see Annie Get Your Gun in the West End as a child, I’ve had a thing about Annie Oakley. With numbers like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, and ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’, who wouldn’t be inspired by this trailblazing feminist? Landman’s novella on Annie Oakley’s childhood, One Shot, (which is completely fictionalised) is just as powerful and poignant, although in a very different way. Set in the later part of the 19th century, this sometimes disturbing, haunting book imagines Annie’s harsh upbringing – the death of her beloved father, her rejection by her mother, and her abusive treatment by adoptive parents (there are references to rape).

But mainly this is a compelling historical visualisation of the social normalities that Annie had to fight in order to prove her worth as a sharpshooter, to rebel against the constrictions imposed on her because of her gender. Powerfully dressing herself younger so her rebellion looked more excusable to outsiders, and her constant seeking of parental approval, are both markers of the nuance and depth of Annie’s character that Landman has imagined in her novella. Written for a reading age of nine, but with teen content, this is another example of a strong inspirational woman fighting for survival and recognition, and beautifully conjures the landscape and political reality of America at that time. Landman cleverly incorporates Annie’s bravery into her fight to do what feels natural, even though it is classed as unladylike, and also showing her courage in admitting her abuse to her future husband. The chapter in which she steps into the shooting competition with Frank Wilkes made me want to sing again. I’m hoping Landman will bring her own targeted eye to writing the next part of Annie’s life. You can buy it here. 

ariane grandeUltimate Superstars: Ariana Grande by Liz Gogerly
Hot on the footsteps of the wildly successful Ultimate Football Heroes, comes this new series on ‘superstars’, a loose concept, but so far comprising Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. It doesn’t matter how famous a person is for these biographies, it’s the journey to get there or the quirkier achievements that make for a decent life story.

The focus for Ariana Grande is, of course, the bombing at her Manchester Arena concert in 2017, and this is where this life story starts and ends, and is dealt with sensitively, making much of the fans, and also her shock at the time and sympathetic nature afterwards. Grande’s life story has been one of success after success from early days as part of the cast of 13, a ground-breaking all-teenage production on the Broadway stage, to Victorious on Nickelodeon, and then onward to her music career, including performing in front of President Obama at the age of 21.

Success may have heralded success, but the book documents Grande’s tough skin, her hard work and determination, her efforts and affinity with fans through social media, and her supportive family, including her much-loved grandfather. For fans, a must. For others, I’m generally of the opinion that a subject needs to be slightly older to have a truly interesting biography. Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez publications follow in May. You can buy it here. 

gloria's voiceGloria’s Voice by Aura Lewis
A good premise to showcase the influence and achievements of feminist Gloria Steinmen needs more explanation in this picture book for a young audience. Illustrated in throw-back 1970’s oranges and pinks, the text is simplistic and yet in some places rather cryptic – simplistic in the language used that explains how Gloria dreams of being famous, yet cryptic in that it fails to explain the name or influence of her magazine ‘Ms’. However, it does explore the aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and it does draw attention to global inequalities that Steinmen witnessed then, and that persist now. So this is an interesting biographical text that may stimulate further curiosity. Watercolour illustrations range from the fantastical to the strange in showing Steinmen playing unhappily with a dolls’ house, representing her care-taking role in her mother’s illness, to a rather strange portrait of Steinmen flying ‘a la Wonder Woman’ above a suburban neighbourhood. Extra information at the end gives some context, but really the text needs more explanation from the beginning so that young readers understand why Gloria was so influential. You can buy it here. 

Fiction Books with Birds

Ever since the dove made an appearance in the Bible as a symbol of peace, and ravens whispered news into the god Odin’s ears in Norse mythology, or since Ancient Greece where the goddess Athena had an owl as a symbol of wisdom, or in Ancient India where a peacock represented Mother Earth, birds have been used in religion, mythology and literature symbolically, as messengers or perhaps signs of hope, and particularly freedom. In some of my favourite novels, birds have been used in symbolic ways: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle…. Here are three children’s novels that synchronise with this theme.

larkLark by Anthony McGowan
McGowan returns for a final time to his beloved working class characters, Nicky and Kenny, in this novella for Barrington Stoke. Although the last of a quartet, Lark can be read as a standalone, a self-contained adventure. The teenage boys are escaping their everyday reality, in this case, a visit from their estranged mother, by taking a walk on the Yorkshire moors with their dog. With understated empathy, McGowan describes Kenny (who has cognitive disability), as needing to let out his pent-up energy – ‘he’d punch the cushions on the settee or shout out random stuff in the street’ – and so the brothers seek nature as a release – the perennial theme of this book quartet.

Narrated by Nicky in an authentic teen voice, which is both accessible and yet intensely profound in its own way, the prose starts in the middle of the action, backtracking a little but then ploughing on – not unlike the boys, who are suddenly caught in the middle of a blizzard on the moors.

Danger becomes all too apparent – the problems of home (hunger, cold, poverty) are magnified in the natural expanse of the moors, and yet also reduced to this particular day and this particular time. The boys get into deep trouble, pushing them to the brink of existence.

Nicky’s trademark humour never lets up, lending even more pathos to the situation in its own darkly rich way, and by the end a fair number of readers will be sniffing back the tears. What lingers is the bond between the boys, the exploration of teen masculinity – full of bravado and yet vulnerability – and yet also the ultimate draw of never-ending hope.

Suspenseful, written with immaculate style, and ultimately heart-warming, this is another triumph from McGowan. You can read the review of Rook, the third in the series here, when it looked likely to end as a trilogy. To buy Lark, click here

asha and the spirit birdAsha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
Another book reaching for the symbol of a bird as hope, and with a treacherous journey, is this spellbinding lush book from newcomer Jasbinder Bilan.

Asha lives with her mother in the foothills of the Himalayas, living a rural life and working on the farm, spending leisure time in the mango tree with her friend Jeevan. Her father works away in the city. But when he stops sending money and moneylenders come to collect her mother’s debt, Asha decides to find her way to the city herself and see what’s happened to her father.

As vibrant with the sights and sounds and colours of the landscape on the inside as the cover is bright on the outside, this is a stunning evocation of a completely different way of life, with a filmic quality to the descriptions of flowers and wildlife, food and landscape. The journey is treacherous, the children not only at risk of death from hunger and tiredness, but also in the face of wild animals. Here too, though, nature is a saving grace in the form of a magical spirit bird that guides Asha, giving hope and reassurance throughout.

The book takes an even darker turn with its exploration of poverty and exploitation in the city, but Asha never loses self-belief, and the book drives forward with an unrelenting optimism and moments of kindness, exploring too the role of faith and ancestry, ritual and tradition, in shaping personality and way of life.

But more than this, it’s an immersive experience in a different culture. A glossary gives Hindi and Punjabi words, but Bilan seamlessly blends them into her prose, so that with context it is easy to understand what they mean. The Indian way of life is portrayed with enthusiasm, empathy and energy, and the threads of friendship sew the plot neatly together. You can buy it here

call me alastairCall Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo
Something vastly different in this quirky novel told from three completely distinct points of view, the first of which is Alistair, an African grey parrot. Trapped in an American pet shop, Alistair dreams of freedom and blue skies, but unfortunately for him has two broken wings and a habit of plucking his own feathers out of anxiety. When he discovers eating paper, and delights in the taste of the different types of literature – poetry being his favourite – he soon starts to compose verse himself.

With this sense of the world giving him an extra taste for freedom, he is adopted by lonely widow, Albertina Plopky (Bertie), whom the reader meets through letters to her deceased husband. Add to this eclectic mix, the meticulous record-keeping of pet-shop helper 12-year-old Fritz, (musing also on the recent separation of his parents and the death of a grandparent) and suddenly the reader grasps how the three points of view and stories meet.

The book is about perspective and freedom, but also speaks to the idea of loneliness. We stifle our own freedom if we build cages around ourselves. Unique and idiosyncratic, this is not for everyone, but with a mix of poetry and prose, different narrative voices, and a quest for courage, this is a very unusual middle grade book. You can buy it here. 

 

 

The Light in the Night Giveaway

light in the night
A few weeks ago I reviewed The Light in the Night by Marie Voigt, a new picturebook about overcoming fear of the dark, and helping others. It explores the notion that bravery can only be found if one confronts one’s fears – that reward comes from adventure.

Marie Voigt’s aim with her picture book is to inspire and delight, to have a small impact on making the world a little bit brighter and happier. And this book does exactly that.

You can read the full review here. It’s a very special book, winning over the reader with its adorable cuddly illustrations. Although I’d love to give away replica cuddly bears, all I can offer is books!

To celebrate this very special picture book, I have three hardback copies of the book to give away, thanks to Simon and Schuster publishers. To win one of these, simply find @minervamoan on Twitter and retweet the Light in the Night blogtour tweet from today to win.

The Sheep of Fate: Storm Hound by Claire Fayers

storm houndTowards the beginning of Storm Hound by Claire Fayers, the powerful(ish) protagonist, Storm of Odin, (a dog somewhat fallen from grace) is confronted by a flock of sheep, who rather hilariously, mock his seemingly inflated ego.

“If you’re a storm hound,” one says to him, “then I’m Aries, the Ram – get it?”
and they fall about laughing.

Sheep and cats and dogs play a large comic role in Fayer’s new humorous magical and mythological book about identity and companionship. This storming novel, for readers aged 8 and over, is about learning where we fit in, and how home can be anywhere, as long we’re rooted within ourselves.

Storm of Odin is the youngest hound of Odin’s Wild Hunt in the mythological skies. But on his first hunt, he gets lost, falling to earth from the Otherworld and ending up on the A40 about 5 miles from Abergavenny, near a flock of sheep. And in falling, he seems to have transformed from powerful horse-sized hunting dog to loveable cute little puppy. In time, he’s adopted by 12-year-old Jessica, a girl who also feels that her real home doesn’t lie in Abergavenny.

Together, facing a magical world that they don’t quite understand, they slowly learn who to trust, and they form a strong bond that enables them to overcome the fiercest of challenges.

Fayers throws a myriad of hilarious creatures into her novel, with cats and dogs and sheep given not only a voice but also comic interior monologues, incorporating extra depth to an ordinary Abergavenny day.

Here, Claire Fayers highlights the power of sheep in mythology, and why they’re such intriguing characters to insert into a novel:

Hey! Sheep! the stormhound shouted.
The sheep gazed blankly at him, chewing grass.
Eventually, one of them wandered closer. You talking to us?

Wales has a lot of sheep: just under 10 million at the last count, so it won’t surprise anyone that a book set in Wales is going to feature sheep. They form a woolly Greek chorus, standing about the hillsides, watching and commenting on the action, and occasionally leaping out of bushes at people, like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

Writing Storm Hound, I learned a few things about sheep that surprised me. (Disclaimer: these things may not necessarily be true). They have a really bad sense of humour, and make the most atrocious puns. Storm finds that out straight away. They always seem to know more about the world than they’re letting on, and they can give quite good advice sometimes if you know how to ask them.

One thing I had to cut from the book, however, was the secret link between sheep and fate. There wasn’t quite space to include it, and it’s a bit of a side-step out of Norse and Welsh mythology and into Greek.

According to Greek legend, Fate takes the form of three women: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropis. Clotho spins the thread of human fate, Lachesis measures it and Atropos cuts it.

Flemish tapestry c. 1520 Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Fates also appear in Roman myth, where they are called Nona, Decuma and Morta. They are often depicted as old women, inflexible and implacable. You cannot, after all negotiate with fate.

What has this got to do with sheep, I hear you ask.

Well, the Fates spin and measure and cut the thread of life, but what do you think that thread is made of?

My money is on wool. It’s as likely as anything else and, in fact, it makes a lot of sense. Sheep are raised all over the world. They stand about in fields and on hills, staring at anyone who happens by. Watching and waiting. Because life is interesting and someone has to pay attention to what’s going on.

Next time you see a field of sheep, don’t try to engage them in conversation. They’re not allowed to talk to humans, and if they did you’d get tangled up in woolly puns before you knew it. Just give them a wave and say hello. It always pays to be polite to Fate.

Some sheep facts

  1. Sheep have four stomachs. (One for starters, one for main course and two for puddings!)
  2. A sheep’s wool never stops growing.
  3. One pound of sheep’s wool can make up to 10 miles of yarn.
  4. Sheep have rectangular pupils and nearly 360 degree vision, meaning they can see behind without turning their heads. (Further proof that they are the watchers of the world.)
  5. Sheep can recognise up to 50 other sheep faces. AND they can recognise human faces.
  6. The world’s most expensive sheep sold for £231,000 at a sale in Lanark, Scotland.
  7. Sheep feel emotions and prefer smiling human faces to angry ones.
  8. If you put a sheep on its back, it won’t be able to get up again. (Do not do this!)
  9. It is estimated that there are over 1,000 different breeds of sheep worldwide.
  10. A lamb can walk within minutes of being born.

With thanks to Claire Fayers for this guest post about sheep! To buy Storm Hound, click here