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Tom with a ‘Laugh’ in His Name: An Interview with Tom McLaughlin

Accidental Prime Minister mr tiddles

In the same way that our politicians are touring the country to garner our votes, Tom McLaughlin, author of The Accidental Prime Minister, is touring the country to inspire children to read and write and draw. For Tom, inspiration starts with a blank piece of paper. “Books can spring from a doodle, or a mood – a moment you’re trying to create, and then you wrap a picture or a narrative around that. When I’m writing I think about drawing, and when I’m drawing I think about writing. I tend to plan out my books like a spider chart – mapping it out pictorially.”

Of course, Tom didn’t start his career writing books – he started, somewhat aptly for someone promoting The Accidental Prime Minister, drawing political cartoons. “It’s similar to what I’m doing now; drawing pictures and writing jokes, but of course with a book you get much more time to think about and play with ideas. Also, the world is quite a miserable place, and with a book it doesn’t have to be based in reality – so you can have the queen wearing roller skates!” This suits Tom well, as he’s never far away from a joke, inspired by anything from TV to podcast, Monty Python to John Oliver, Father Ted to The Daily Show. He even has the word ‘laugh’ in his name, a fact his publisher has highlighted by colouring it a different colour on the front of The Accidental Prime Minister.

He likes satire, and clever comedy, although admits that in writing for children, he does include plenty of fart jokes too. In fact, I was never sure during the interview quite how much Tom was joking: “If I were PM for a day I would make it compulsory for all cars to be fitted with dogs. Because there is nothing nicer than walking down the street, and seeing a car with the window down and the dog poking its head out, tail wagging in the wind. It just cheers me up. It would just make the world a better place…oh and world peace – that one as well.” In all seriousness, Tom does think that children need to have some knowledge of what’s going on around them. “I think it is important for children to know about the world. As a family, we always used to sit down and watch the news together. Knowing about the world can only make you a better and more rounded person.” Although he admits that writing The Accidental Prime Minister wasn’t a ruse to get children into politics: “It was never meant to introduce politics to children – that was a by-product of what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about the most famous boy in the world, and I was trying to think of how to do that. Should he invent something or be rich? But I wanted him to be powerful and to have a voice – and that’s how the politics thing came about. I liked the idea of him being PM by mistake, although I had to bend the constitutional laws slightly to do that.”

story machine

Tom is following this with The Accidental Secret Agent, although with different characters. He’s also busy creating more picture books as well, following in the footsteps of The Diabolical Mr Tiddles and The Story Machine. Tom told me how he enjoys working within both media: “I like the illustrative quality of picture books, there’s something really beautiful about creating that world. With The Story Machine it was all about creating a mood – although it’s hard because you have to agonise over every single word – it’s not like writing a novel in which you can just go for it.” Surprisingly, as he is dyslexic, Tom found he liked the ‘going for it’ with novel writing despite remembering reading and writing being difficult as a child: “It knocked my confidence for six. I hated the idea of reading in front of people, in front of the teacher. It was terrifying and you felt kind of stupid. I was put on the table with the slow learners and told I was lazy. I was tested for dyslexia, so the school knew about it, but didn’t do anything. I think things are better nowadays.”

Even doing readings of his own books makes Tom nervous: “I still mess up reading my own books – so for The Accidental Prime Minister I read the same passage because I’ve sort of learnt it off by heart. Also, I have good days and bad days and that’s really weird.” He’s learnt certain techniques to help though, and admits writing is easier than reading. “I audio book stuff, and listen to the radio, and I’ve learnt to think about something else while I’m reading – almost like not looking at the words too intently – reading slightly above the line I’m reading so that I’m looking at it out of the corner of my eye – that makes things a little easier.” The strategies help him, and encourage him to speak out about it to children. During our school visit, he told his audience about his dyslexia, and how it hasn’t held him back as an author: “You can still do anything. What’s important as an author is not so much the pictures and words as having an idea and having something to say.”

Tom also treats his keyboard like a piano; music inspires him. In fact, music resonates throughout The Accidental Prime Minister because the chapter headings are all song titles – London Calling was originally the title of the first chapter – although this was dropped in the end, and it became ‘I don’t like Mondays’: “Being at home in front of the computer 12 hours a day drawing or writing you need something, so I listen to a lot of music. If I’m writing I tend to listen to quite spiky, anarchic jazz because it’s like playing the piano on the keyboard. You don’t want any words though when you’re writing. I used to have classical music but you ended up feeling quite sleepy.” Perhaps the sleepiness inspired his next picture book, The Cloudspotter, publishing 18th June. The cover has a dreamlike quality – and the book is inspired by using the shapes of clouds to make images. Judging from his talent at changing mere pen strokes into full-blown political caricatures of the children at this latest school visit, Tom’s pictures and jokes look likely to win him many votes.cloudspotter

Quick Fire Round:

Ears or eyes: eyes

Majority or coalition: coalition

Tea or biscuits – Earl grey tea

Jetpack or parachute – jetpack

Cat or dog – cat

Computer or paper – blank piece of paper

The Girls of Year 7

completely cassidyperfectly ella Dog Ears

I have three excellent books for those children facing, with some trepidation, the start of secondary school. Each book has its own distinct qualities and themes, but the one aspect they all share is demonstrating that with support from friends and family the upheaval and newness of Year 7 can be conquered: from dealing with a new faculty of teachers, juggling different subjects and homeworks, meeting and making new friends and keeping old ones, and other people’s expectations of a Year 7’s greater personal responsibility. Year 7 can be daunting and tough, so three great protagonists with whom young readers will identify are Cassidy from Completely Cassidy, Ella from Perfectly Ella, and Anna from Dog Ears.

completely cassidy

Completely Cassidy: Accidental Genius by Tamsyn Murray, illustrations by Antonia Miller
This book had me chuckling from the outset, and kept up the humour and pace all the way through. I devoured it in one sitting and highly recommend it. Tamsyn Murray captures the essence of what it means to be a tweenager in this endearing new series about a girl called Cassidy. Written in the first person, Cassidy is just starting secondary school and intensely worried about looking right and fitting in. Her mother is pregnant with twins, and her big brother is annoyingly at the same school, and just generally annoying! In the first in the series, Cassidy’s test results get muddled with someone else’s, and the school mistakenly place her in the Gifted and Talented group, as well as putting her on the school quiz team. Overnight she’s the school genius! At the same time she’s juggling her old friends, one of whom has a crush on her older brother (much to her annoyance), her transformation from little girl to bigger girl – from still wearing fairy knickers to dying her hair – and her changing family situation. Tamsyn employs the use of CAPITAL LETTERS to accentuate her tweens’ intonation, as well as random doodles and squiggles, and graphics showing ‘torn out’ to do lists, extracts from diaries, and lists of facts that Cassidy attempts to learn to keep up her genius status. But above all, what shines through is the realism of Cassidy’s voice, in her deepest thoughts, her squabbles with her brother, and her conversations with her friends. I can’t wait for the next book. This one was fantastic. (and there’s a website www.completelycassidy.co.uk). You can purchase it from Waterstones here.

perfectly ella

Perfectly Ella by Candy Harper
Although this book also opens by talking about knickers, it’s not meant to be as comical as Completely Cassidy. The voice of Ella, also in the first person, seems slightly more imbued with the author’s voice, with a more serious sensibility and worldly awareness. Ella’s family situation dominates the novel, for although Ella is also starting Year 7, she is still dealing with the breakup of her family:
“I don’t think their divorce will ever really make sense to us”
Her weeks are split between time at home with her teacher mother and three sisters, and time with her sisters at her Dad’s place with his new partner and new baby. Ella is also dealing with a sharper case of insecurity – she struggles to define herself against her other sisters, all of whom appear to her to have much more distinctive characteristics. They also deal with the outcomes of the divorce in different ways; her eldest sister bottling up the emotions but releasing a drip of anger and resentment; and her littlest sister wanting her whole family to live together under one roof. Ella herself counts the exact days since the divorce, and tries to make an effort to get everyone in her family to be happy, no matter the cost to herself. The accuracy of the situation is heartrending and I particularly loved that Ella prized her time alone with each parent more than anything. Ella is also contending with the dynamics of bringing two old friends of hers together at school and attempting to make them like each other – and then realising that a threesome of girls can be tricky. It’s a well-crafted book, and the writing shows that the author herself comes from a large family. She picks up the dialogue superbly. For her readers, there’s the added delight of craft activities, recipes and quizzes at the back of the book. You can also read my Q&A with Candy Harper here, and buy Perfectly Ella from Waterstones here.

Dog Ears

Dog Ears by Anne Booth, cover by Pip Johnson, illustrations by Anne Booth
This author shot to critical acclaim with her debut novel, Girl With a White Dog, in 2014. It gently introduced the topic of Nazi Germany to a young audience and makes for compelling reading. Her new book, Dog Ears, also uses the device of a dog to bring a much bigger topic to life. Anna, halfway through the autumn term of Year 7, finds that she can’t easily talk to anyone in her family, so relates her day to day thoughts and feelings to her dog. This works well, as the reader is the dog and therefore privy to Anna’s struggle as she tries to balance the hectic life of a Year 7 schoolgirl with problems at home. Her father is away, her mother dealing with an ill premature baby, and so Anna is left to pick up the pieces, dealing with domestic duties and the increasing stress of her home environment. Anne Booth wants to draw attention to the multitude of children who suffer the pressures of being young carers at the same time as dealing with schoolwork and friends and growing up. She manages to strike a fine balance here between bringing an issue to light and making this a fun read. Through the telling of the story we gradually realise that Anna is finding it harder and harder to keep up with not just her schoolwork – but also to remember things for school such as ingredients for food technology, costumes and musical instruments for school performances. The extent to which Year 7 can be overwhelming is patently laid bare here. Anna is also under pressure from her Gran to be more helpful at home, and all of this is set against the backdrop of an exciting talent competition at school. There’s the fluctuating emotions of her mother because of the situation with her sick baby brother, as well as frustrating Skype conversations with her absent father. By the end she has realised that she is not alone in her predicament, and also that once her feelings are properly aired, she has a huge support network around her. Anne Booth manages to pack a great deal into this slim manageable book. It’s a complex situation dealt with simply and deftly, and an enjoyable read. Buy it here.

 

With thanks to Usborne Publishers for sending me a copy of Completely Cassidy for review, and to Simon and Schuster for sending me Perfectly Ella for review.

 

Candy Harper Q and A: The Perfectly Ella Blog Tour

perfectly ella
Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing three books that feature Year 7 girls as protagonists. One of them is Perfectly Ella by Candy Harper, a new witty and enjoyable coming-of-age tale about Ella, who is the fourth of five sisters. Ella has to deal with family break-up, shifting friendships, and being part of a large family of girls. Author Candy Harper is herself the fourth of five sisters, so I wanted to quiz her on her fabulous family.

MinervaReads: I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a Jo from Little Women, or Saffy from the Casson series of books. Who are your favourite fictional sisters?

CH: Ooh, loads. The Conroys in Hilary McKay’s The Exiles series. The Fossil sisters in Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes. Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and BeezusThe Penderwicks. Laura and Mary from Little House on the Prairie (I love it when Laura pinches Mary because she can’t stand what a goody-two-shoes she is.) The Bennets in Pride and Prejudice (When people hear that I’ve got four sisters they ask me if we’re like the Bennet sisters, I tell them actually growing up with a load of sisters is less about helping each other do your hair for a ball and more about learning to eat with one hand guarding your plate.)

Are any of your siblings also writers – like an Emily to your Charlotte Bronte?

CH: No, but my 10 year-old daughter, Lyra, is a brilliant writer and illustrator. Her latest picture book ‘The Day All the Pets at the Pet Show Died’ is a heart-breaking work of staggering genius and I’m sure we’ll see it in bookshops soon.

Many groups of siblings have formed some kind of group act – Jackson Five, The Von Trapp singers, etc. Does your family have a special talent?

CH: We can’t sing, dance or play the ukulele, but we do know how to put on a rollicking good row. During which, two sisters are usually blisteringly angry, and the other three are convulsed with laughter. Seeing my littlest sister (who is actually quite tall) grab my middle sister (who is Kylie Minogue sized) by her collar and pin her up against a wall is a special memory I will treasure forever.

candy harper sistersCandy (second from left), and her four sisters (when they were little)

You have four sisters. Did you miss not having a brother?

CH: When my mum was pregnant with my little sister I really hoped she’d be a brother. When she was born, my parents bought me a boy doll to make me feel better. For the next three years I spoke to the doll more than I did my little sister. Then I discovered she was small enough to sneak under our back fence into the neighbour’s raspberry patch, and all was forgiven. Ever since then, as long as people bring me something nice, I don’t mind which gender they are or whose garden they’ve stolen it from.

What is the best and worst thing about having four sisters?

CH: Growing up, the worst thing was that they were EVERYWHERE. We were a family of seven living in a three bedroom semi. I used to climb into the airing cupboard to get some peace and quiet. But on the plus side, there was always someone to play with.

You are the fourth of five sisters. Did you ever get bought anything new?

CH: Ha! You sound like a younger sibling yourself. The short answer is no. I was always optimistic about the whole hand-me-down process; I used to admire the new things my big sisters got and imagine how great I’d look in them years later, ignoring the fact that they’d be covered in felt tip stains and bobbles by then. It took me a while to consider the impact of changing fashions, too. I remember looking at my eldest sister’s mint green court shoes and thinking ‘One day those babies will be mine.’ When they finally reached me in the ’90s, everyone was wearing Doc Martins and I was a lot less keen on them.

With huge thanks to Candy Harper for being so honest and sharing her stories of sibling rivalry with me. Look out for my review of Perfectly Ella here. To win one of five giveaway copies of Perfectly Ella, find me on twitter @minervamoan and follow and retweet. If you’re not lucky enough to win, you can buy your own copy in the shops here.
Perfectly Ella blog tour bannercandida harper photo

Ivy Pocket Character Development: A Very Lofty Opinion of Herself

ABIPCOVER

I’m delighted to host a guest post from John Kelly, the illustrator for Anyone But Ivy Pocket on my blog today:

Ivy in cake

I love designing characters.
My favourite thing about being an illustrator and writer of children’s books is the bit at the beginning of a project where you get to decide what a character looks like. To be honest, I’d be happy just doing that, and not bothering with any of that messy story business. So, back in November last year when I got an email from Bloomsbury asking me if I wanted to illustrate, Anyone but Ivy Pocket I didn’t even wait to find out if I had time in the schedule to do it. I just read:
“Ivy Pocket is a 12-year-old maid of no importance with a very lofty opinion of herself.”
‘Perfect’, I thought. I know exactly what she looks like. So I drew a quick sketch and sent it to the designer.
It was Ivy standing by the broken pieces of a priceless vase, with a dopey expression that said, “I’m afraid it was an escaped panther, M’Lady.”
IVY rough 1

And that, with a few tweaks of expression, was pretty much how long it took to design Ivy.
IVY rough 2

That’s not normal. Usually there’s loads of versions and roughs. Lots of furious scribbling, curses, and rubbing out before the character starts to slowly appear. So, just for form’s sake, I did a few more doodles of Ivy, and a simple character pose. But she pretty much stayed the same. And the character pose I did even ended up as the cover of the book. I credit the writer, Caleb Krisp, with writing such perfectly described characters. And he was brilliant at offering feedback when I got it wrong. For example, my first attempt at the beastly Matilda Butterfield wasn’t right at all. Her description read:
12 years old. Very pretty. Dark hair, hazel eyes, red lips and an olive complexion. Looks like a doll. Lovely, but somehow unreal.
For some reason I gave her bubbly blonde curls and an expression of worried angst. Caleb put me straight and pointed out that she was supposed to be a selfish, malevolent, spoilt brat. I gave her long dark hair and a vicious little expression.

Matilda wrong
The hardest character to pin down was the enigmatic (and villainous) Miss Always.
Prim-looking young woman (aged 25-30) with mousey brown hair. Wears a brown dress and matching gloves. She has unremarkable brown hair pulled back from her face. Round spectacles. Excellent teeth.
She’s supposed to look harmless, uninteresting, and unthreatening. It’s really hard to draw ‘unremarkable’ and make it interesting. Anyway, it took me a while to get there. At first she was too silly, then too scary, then a teensy bit prim, then too friendly, then stern, then sappy.

Ms Always (1)

Good grief! Eventually I somehow combined them all and got it right.

Ms. Alwats final

So, I do love designing characters, but give me a massive evil beard, a villainous octopus juggling a cutlasses, or a giant alien robot every time. Much, much easier.

With thanks to John Kelly. The illustrations, as you can see, do enhance Caleb Krisp’s characterisations and further bring the story to life. You can read my review of Anyone But Ivy Pocket here, and purchase it here

Why Do We Buy the Books We Buy?

Last week the children’s author Anthony McGowan made a controversial statement when he tweeted that book blogging was a commercially pointless endeavour. He said that it doesn’t have a big impact on sales of books. Then a seminar at the London Bookfair agreed that with regards to book blogs it’s not about direct sales but about creating a buzz. I disagree, having consistent anecdotal evidence from my own experience and other bloggers that it does point to sales (although not huge…most children’s authors have never had huge sales). Of course it all depends on who is reading your blog. My blog is read mainly by parents, teachers, librarians and carers looking for book ideas.

But the controversy did make me question why I buy certain books and not others. And this is why

National Press Reviews: I avidly read several newspapers’ book sections each weekend. However, there are only certain reviewers with whom I tend to agree, so I take more notice of them. I also read reviews from national press online – when the links are tweeted into my timeline. Others may browse the bestseller lists for inspiration – this is not something I have ever done.

Book Displays in Bookshops: This is a lethal one. I’m often in independent and chain bookshops for work purposes and I find it tricky to leave empty-handed. Outward facing covers and display tables definitely pull me in, as do handwritten recommendations or personal recommendations from booksellers I know. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a good bookseller nearby though.

Author Loyalty: This is one of the strongest paths to purchase for me. If I liked a first book, even if not in a series, I will be far more likely to buy the next by the same author and so on. The more books I like, obviously, the more likely I am to buy another by the same author. Anecdotally, this seems to be key for many people. It doesn’t always follow – and sometimes you’ll come across a clanger, but generally this has worked for me.

Face-to-Face Recommendations: Certain friends of mine and family members share the same taste in books as myself – I will very often look up a book if they recommend it, and sometimes buy it too.

Bloggers/The twitterati: I follow a circle of bloggers/authors/booksellers on twitter and they do very often steer my reading purchases. In the same way as face-to-face recommendations, there are some whose taste I know I share. However, this community talks about a far bigger quantity and variety of books, and have great book knowledge. I think I’d be mad not to listen to them.

Price/Offers: I would never buy a book just because it’s on offer. Only very rarely will I ‘search’ for a third book if I’m already buying two and there’s a three for two offer. And yes, I ALSO use the library, but I have the book disease, whereby if I love a book I’d like to own it. Then I can recommend and loan it myself.

Search on a Topic: Very occasionally I’ll buy a book as a result of searching the topic online. For some of my writing I need to do quite extensive research, and then a search will bring back a book which I feel might be useful. Most people I know tend only to do this for their children’s non-fiction habits rather than for themselves.

Book Prizes: I do take note of which books win book prizes, especially The Booker and the Baileys Prize for adult purchases, and with children’s books, The Carnegie and the Kate Greenaway, The Guardian and Waterstones – as well as many other book prizes out there. However, more often than not I totally disagree with the winners!

Before I finish, a couple of points I must reiterate. Many of my readers have told me that they purchased a book as a result of reading about it here. In fact, more than one person has told me that I MAKE them spend money. Hey, it’s on children’s books – I’m not sorry about that! I must point out that I never recommend a book on my blog that I haven’t read myself, but do admit (and try and point out when) I have been given that book free from the publisher/publicist. I don’t only review books they send me, but often review my own purchased books. I never review/recommend something that I don’t like, even if the publisher has sent it to me for review.

To show you exactly, here are the last ten books I bought and why. This doesn’t include books I get for review, and I am not necessarily recommending these books as I haven’t yet read them all – they are my personal purchases:

  • Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
    I bought this as a present for someone else as a result of my twitterati bloggers. It promises to be subversive, dark and different. Just right for the recipient!
  • A Placed Called Winter by Patrick Gale
    I bought this as a result of a combination of factors; national press reviews, huge twitter noise, having read previous Gale novels, a feeling of not wanting to miss out!
  • Hamish and the Worldstoppers by Danny Wallace
    Purchased at someone else’s book launch because a twitterati person told me it was hilarious, because I thought my children might like it, and because it has beautiful printing down the edges of the page! And because I thought my blog readers might like it.
  • History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life by Jill Bialosky
    Research for some writing I’m doing.
  • Family Life by Akhil Sharma solely because it won the Folio prize (and it sounded interesting)
  • The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, by Daniel Hahn.
    I think this is an obvious one – it’s my speciality – I’d look a bit daft if I ignored this.
  • Third Term at Tall Towers by Lou Kuenzler
    I’m not sure if this counts as it was bought with my daughter’s birthday money on her behalf, so because it doesn’t count
    7a) Where Bear? By Sophy Henn.
    Browsing in the bookshop. (Shh don’t tell anyone I was in one again!)
  • The Unluckiest Boy in the World by Andrew Norriss
    Purchased on the back of a review by a fellow blogger. And I know the author to be a good one! I hope to review it for you.
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
    Author Loyalty.
  • Crow Road by Mary Lawson
    Author Loyalty

FCBG Conference: Inspire

logo FCBG
Last weekend I attended the FCBG Conference. The FCBG aims to promote enjoyment in children’s books and accessibility of those books to all – as well as attempting to put the right book in the right child’s hands. The theme of the conference was ‘Inspire’ and I was inspired in three ways.
its about love

Firstly, by those who seek to examine fresh ways of looking at narrative in children’s publishing and what can be achieved. From the award-winning narrative apps, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, of Nosy Crow Publishers, presented by their supremely dynamic MD, Kate Wilson, to the spoken word artist Steve Camden (aka PolarBear), author of Tape and the soon to be published It’s About Love, who introduces his young adult novels with performance poetry. See here. In fact, understanding and being able to decode narrative is critical for a child’s development of empathy. And taking time to be engaged in a narrative and not be easily distracted can contribute to a child’s wellbeing. The writer Nicola Morgan explained that a big report on offline/online reading will be published in about 2017/2018, but that it is notable that reading offline does lend itself to fewer distractions. Everyone at the conference pointed to print books as an integral part of the narrative process as well as whatever other technologies we may apply. Books I’m looking forward to from Nosy Crow in the near future include There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins, the next in the Wigglesbottom Primary series by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor, and My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons. Reviews to follow.
Theres a Bear on my chair
Secondly, I was inspired by people working within the children’s publishing industry and others I met who are simply sharing their incredible book knowledge. Philip Ardagh is passionate about books and writes some startlingly funny ones. I’m hoping to review his book The Unlikely Outlaws soon, and he has also written a funny series called The Grunts, and Awful End. Sophy Henn and Rob Biddulph spoke about creating their picture books, PomPom Gets the Grumps and Blown Away respectively, which I’ve reviewed previously. Click on the titles to read my reviews. There was also much to learn about non-fiction titles, and I had a lovely chat with Nicola Davies who told me about her new theatre venture at the Hay Literary Festival. Nicola bubbles over with enthusiasm when speaking about her books, which weave a narrative structure within non-fiction to create spellbinding titles. One of my favourite titles of hers is The Promise, a picture book that seems to use osmosis to seamlessly transfer the author’s love for trees and nature onto the reader. Not only that but it imparts the idea that just because a child has a difficult start in life, it doesn’t mean that the rest of life will be equally difficult.

The Promise

Lastly of course, it is all about the power of the book; the power of the story to tell you that you are not alone, and as Frank Cottrell Boyce (author of The Astounding Broccoli Boy) put it “to break you free of the prison of the present”. Getting the right book into your own hands can inspire you in the same way that putting the right book in the hands of the right child can inspire them for life. Frank Cottrell Boyce revealed that simply reading Heidi empowered someone he knew to understand that happiness was a possibility for them despite all their hardship. On a lighter note, Steven Butler (author of The Wrong Pong) realised that reading might be for him after all when he realised that it was possible to put the word ‘knickers’ in a children’s book – he discovered it in Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes!
the wrong pong

I came away with MORE knowledge about children’s books and subsequently a better idea of which books I can recommend for your child. It’s about getting children reading. You can access the FCBG website here.

Countdown to the Election

General elections throw up a lot of questions. Who shall I vote for? Is our electoral system the right one? Why are television debates so long? It can be hard to answer the questions, and harder still when they are asked of you by your children!

There is so much to cover when explaining politics that I wanted some books to help children navigate the political landscape. Actually I found very few books on politics for children. There are many that serve an agenda, such as highlighting conflict or understanding refugees, but very few that simply define what politics is, what an election is, and how the system works. In the end I chose just three books.

the election

The Election by Eleanor Levenson, illustrated by Marek Jagucki
This picture book for young children explains what happens when two families support two different parties in an election. The parties are simply drawn and illustrated – one is spotty and one is stripy. The book defines an election, campaigning, debating and voting in simple language. The pictures show typical families in an attempt to illustrate that the election is something that affects everyone; there are drawings of a lady in a wheelchair, a person cycling, and people of different ethnicity and age. For the adult reader there are certain jokes contained within, such as a political reference to the Acropolis, the industrial revolution, and more mundane observations such as a Dad about to fall on marbles and various poses of people looking at their mobile phones. It’s not subtle, but it serves its purpose very well, and is the only book of its kind to illustrate a British election so succinctly and simply. Buy it from Waterstones here.

whos in charge whos in charge inside2

Who’s in Charge? How People and Ideas Make the World Go Round
This non-fiction gem explains the idea of politics from power and the different types of leadership through political ideas, the building of society, the economy and people’s rights. For me it works well because to explore politics, you need to have some understanding of history – and that’s what this book gives as well. It illuminates ideas of democracy, theocracy, monarchy, anarchy, and dictatorship, as well as giving definitions of the state, a citizen, government, a politician, and isms. From the timelines showing how different civilisations were borne, to the introduction of monarchies and leadership, populations, and land as a way of explaining how different political systems were thought up and needed, to illustrating the different ideas of the state in a ‘rainbow of ideas’ from communism through to fascism, the book also explores capitalism, the economy and local politics. The beauty of the book is that it speaks in generalisations, rather than homing in on specific countries, leaders and governments, so that the child gleans a view of what is possible and why politics exists without forcing any agenda or giving room for pre-imposed political leanings.
whos in charge inside1
What’s more this isn’t a dry book at all, the graphics are exciting and playful – from a local politics jigsaw to a monopoly board of capitalism, flow diagrams, venn diagrams, comic strips, quizzes and a mix of illustrations and photographs. The foreword is by Andrew Marr, and it is great for reading through cover to cover, or just dipping into for a particular topic. This served its purpose very well too. You can buy it here.

Accidental Prime Minister

The Accidental Prime Minister by Tom McLaughlin
Lastly, I wanted to have some fun with politics. After all, I grew up on Spitting Image – there was no greater vehicle for getting people young and old interested in politics. Tom McLaughlin’s book manages to introduce the idea of politics for a 7+ readership with some serious points, but mainly with laugh-out-loud humour. It tells the tale of Joe, who makes one great speech that goes viral, and he ends up as prime minister. There are slight misrepresentations – most of our prime ministers were voted in, not just handed power – but the book makes some serious points amongst all the silliness. It begins by bringing politics to street level – Joe’s ambitious speech starts because the government want to close his local park, and he wishes to keep it open. Other serious points include those adults who are just in politics for the ego-trip, the ‘spin’ that can be put upon events, and the randomness of war – but essentially the book is packed full of humour – because what would happen if a twelve year old were in charge? There are jetpacks, bouncy castles, a Queen who rollerskates, ice cream and whoopee cushions, and the author’s delight in writing this satire comes across with his very 1980s pop song chapter titles, including Fame, Parklife, Don’t Stop Me Now, as well as his parody of Thatcher’s famous speech: “Where there is grumpiness, may we bring giggles”. A riotous laugh. He also illustrated it himself with some winning cartoons. Grab yourself a copy before the election, click here.

The Unreliable Narrator

Some of my favourite literature has unreliable narrators, The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – the latter of which clearly reaches into the children’s literature genre. For children, it can be fun to spot an unreliable narrator and makes for great discussion.

Some narrators are unreliable simply by being young – the story is told from their first person perspective and they are too immature to appreciate everything that’s happening around them. In many ways the reader can see through this and may appreciate that they themselves have a greater understanding of the narrative than the person telling them the story. Diary form novels fit easily into this genre – Wimpy Kid, Emily Sparkes, Dork Diaries. We can see the author’s intent where the first person narrator of the story is playing catch up with the reader.

Then there are more subtle unreliable narrators, perhaps those who are lying to us, to themselves, deliberately or not. I wanted to review two books with unreliable narrators, both of which are for the middle grade readership (9+yrs.) but the two books couldn’t be more different. These are both highly recommended by me.

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Anyone But Ivy Pocket by Caleb Krisp, illustrations by John Kelly
Twelve year old Ivy Pocket is a maid, sacked by her employer at the beginning of the novel, and left destitute in Paris. She is summoned to the bedside of the Duchess of Trinity and asked to deliver a very precious jewel, the Clock Diamond, to Matilda Butterfield in England on the occasion of her birthday for the reward of £500. Ivy agrees, and starts her adventure of gothic charm, ghosts, catastrophe and murder.
The brilliance of the novel though, is not so much the somewhat violent action scenes, twists and turns, and great characterisation, as the way in which the story is told. Ivy Pocket is swamped with the most extravagant case of delusional self-belief, believing herself to be above her station, and brilliant at everything. She is hilariously quirky; ebullient, tongue-in-cheek, absurd and captivating.
She reminded me at times of that long-ago American heroine Amelia Badelia, who does everything she is told completely literally from making sponge cakes with sponges to stamping on letters, but with the best intentions. Ivy too believes she is constantly in the right, and all those around her are ridiculously wrong. She insults, misconstrues and acts dumb in turns, but in the most winning and humorous way, that you love her despite everyone else in the book finding her deeply irritating. The language is deeply satisfying – Kaleb Crisp employs delightfully tongue-in-cheek vocabulary throughout from ‘carbunkle’ and ‘stupendously’ to ‘claptrap’ and ‘bunkum’. Her insults are luscious:
“Lady Elizabeth, there is no great crime in being a dried-up bag of wrinkles. In fact, I’m not even sure it would be kinder to drag you outside and shoot you.”
and
“A great big slug of a woman – part goddess, part hippopotamus…her enormous body spread out on every side like an avalanche”
I wanted to read aloud parts to everyone I met whilst I was mid-read. Ivy Pocket also has stock phrases that she repeats throughout the book, giving her great characterisation, added to the fact that almost everyone else in the book is highly satirical, and you have one of the most fun books I have read in a long time. I’m imagining that a child will have to be quite sophisticated in order to appreciate all the nuances within, but once hooked, they’ll devour this and every sequel that follows. It’s reminiscent of Lemony Snicket’s books, and yet highly distinctive.
You can buy a copy here, the book is published on 9th April 2015

Liar and Spy

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Where Ivy Pocket is playful and verbose, Liar and Spy is realistic, modern and minimalist. Set in New York, the story is mainly told through dialogue. Liar and Spy is narrated by Georges, a young boy whose family is suffering from financial difficulties. Georges tells us about himself, the difficult time he is having in school, and the family he befriends when his family downsizes into a new apartment block. Georges’ Dad pushes him into joining a ‘spy club’ that they stumble upon in the building, and before long Georges is playing at being a spy on his neighbours in the building.
The humour within this novel is observational. Rebecca Stead has managed to capture the dialogue, worries, and thoughts of young boys particularly well, and it soon becomes apparent to the reader that everything is not as it seems. The cleverness lies in working out, from the small clues that Stead drops throughout the narrative, whom is lying to whom and whether our narrator can be trusted. In the end, it’s for the reader to understand that if our narrator is living under a delusion, then by default, so are we, the readers. It’s a small, clever book that betrays some youngsters’ fears and anxieties in a subtle, non-threatening and understanding way.
Liar and Spy also brings into play how other people live – not just a view of American life for those of us reading it in the UK, but also how different families operate in different ways. It also opens our eyes to some deeper thoughts – what matters in life – how our small actions every day build up to create a bigger picture. It’s a great book, a terrific story, but also makes for interesting talking points as children grow towards the teenage years. Buy your copy here.

An Interview with Piers Torday, author of The Last Wild trilogy

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Piers Torday looks a bit like his twitter avatar, which in turn looks a bit like the BFG (Big Friendly Giant). That’s not an insult, in fact he refers to it himself, and I can concur that he’s definitely friendly, and is building up to be a colossus in the world of children’s literature. Winning the Guardian Fiction Prize in 2014 for The Dark Wild, which is part two of his Last Wild trilogy, the third book, The Wild Beyond, was released into our wild on April 2nd, and is a literary tour de force. Read my review here.

I have to admit something. I was in love with Pier’s first book before I had even read it. My son, who devoured only information books, was hooked into fiction by The Last Wild – the first book he read that he really physically wouldn’t put down. Then I read it, and understood why. I read a great many children’s books – this one is destined to be a classic.
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Piers Torday grew up in Northumberland – where he claims there were more animals than people. His mother ran a children’s bookshop, and she even had Roald Dahl come visit, which probably gives you a good background if you want to write children’s books (with lots of animals inside!) Piers kindly took time out of his busy schedule ahead of his book launch to answer some of my questions, as I wanted to delve further and find out how the big ideas in the trilogy were born.

The Last Wild trilogy deals with human impact on the Earth. Did you set out to write a book based on the environment? 

PT: Yes, right from the get go, the Last Wild trilogy was conceived as a way of writing about the environment, climate change, humanity’s relationship with the natural world and the “sixth extinction”, for children. I wanted to find a way of asking questions about our role as self-appointed stewards of the planet, our hypocrisy over our sentimental attitude towards some animals (e.g. pets) and our capacity to destroy/consume other species and habitats at a rapacious rate, and ponder how different we really were to other creatures. I didn’t want to lecture children with statistics about sea levels or temperatures, as that kind of high statistical science, whilst pertinent and all too real, still feels at one remove emotionally. I was writing about animals but, obviously, I also wanted to deploy them as a metaphor for the planet at large – giving it soul and identities we could care about. I am an author, not a scientist or politician. I make no claims or have no answers but I do think, especially for the next generation, the questions are worth asking.

Did you always want to write for children specifically?

PT: It was always a possibility but not an overweening aim. I loved reading as a child, and made no distinction between “adult” and “children’s books” before I became a children’s author, gobbling up modern classics such as Harry Potter and Northern Lights as eagerly as the new Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel. But it wasn’t until my first attempt at novel writing contained several talking animals as characters that my agent wisely pointed out it was definitely a children’s book! I am now so happy writing children’s books, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do anything else, and always feel a bit disgruntled when people ask if I will one day write adult fiction. Not that I won’t, but I resent the somewhat condescending implication that writing for older readers is in any way a graduation, rather than simply a sideways shift in genre.

How much did your parents influence your writing? Ie. Your father himself an author and your mother running a children’s bookshop?

PT: I don’t know if they influenced my actual writing directly, other than creating the best possible environment for it to develop. It was wonderful spending my early years on a bookshop floor – that is one of my earliest memories, and to this day I associate bookshops with security, safety and happiness. Which is lovely but bad for my wallet! They read out loud to me continuously, and introduced me to many of my favourite authors – Lewis, Herge, Jansson, Tolkien etc. Tolkien taught my dad at Oxford and his myths always had a special place in our household. I think to a degree my father’s love of that world, combined with growing up in Northumberland, meant that many long walks in hills, dales and forests helped shape my childhood imagination to see a remote rural landscape as one filled with adventurous possibility.

Did you always envisage writing Kester’s story as a trilogy?

PT: I always had images in my head of various scenes with various characters, all of which feature in all three books, but it was only as I was writing them that the trilogy structure became clear. I can only see one book ahead at a time, but I knew the story was always too long for just one book, and the third book became very obvious to me while I was writing the second one.

Your villains are all very distinct, very different. Do you have any precise influences for them?

PT: I always try and make my characters as distinct as possible – I think it’s particularly important in children’s fiction and I also think visualising the characters is key for them – it’s not just about personality, especially with villains. Captain Skuldiss, the animal catcher, was based on the Child Catcher from the film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, who terrified me as a child, but his funny way of speaking is borrowed from my Hungarian great grandmother who was formidable but not similar to Skuldiss in any other way. As a child I always enjoyed villains who had a special gadget or weapon all of their own, which is why I gave him supersonic crutches. Dagger, in The Dark Wild, is based on a family member’s large white dog – who couldn’t be sweeter – but who is visually very striking.  Fenella, in The Wild Beyond, is my attempt to create a female villain in the grand Disney style of Ursula from The Little Mermaid or Mother Gothel from Tangled. I imagined all her dialogue as the lyrics to a big musical number! I wanted her to be scary but also have something of the pantomime about her. But the main villain, Selwyn Stone, I wanted to be as real and normal a person as possible. Because real people do bad things as well as cartoon crazies.

As the books go on, it becomes more frustrating for Kester not to be able to talk to humans. Was it frustrating as a writer to have a main character who didn’t speak to other people?

PT: You bet! I’m never doing that again… and in first person, present tense too. It was a challenge, though, and I enjoyed the pressure of having to reinvent ways round it, and it was a good focus for finding the voice, especially in a debut book. I’m very proud of having survived the experience with my sanity intact but next time, there will be speaking!

In your acknowledgements you mention that the animals didn’t always talk. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

PT: The Last Wild, way back when, began life as a sitcom about growing up on a farm, believe it or not. A TV colleague suggested that it might be better if the animals – cows, sheep, hens – talked, and that got me thinking and re-reading Animal Farm, and then I abandoned the sitcom idea altogether and wanted to write something about animals revolting against human authority. That became The Dark Wild, but it was the seed from which the whole trilogy grew.

If you were an animal, what would you be?

PT: I would be a Koala bear. For one thing they are asleep for 91% of the day, and also, look at them! Who wouldn’t want to be that adorable?

Anthony Horowitz talks about writing a book about a grownup Alex Rider. Would you consider the possibility of writing about a grownup Kester?

PT: Never say never!

Concerned about finding my next great book, Piers tells me that he is writing a new children’s book, but that he is sworn to secrecy. It will be published in October 2016, and will be a stand-alone novel, maybe with illustrations…He’d better not delay. I’ve marked my calendar already.

To purchase Piers Torday’s books, click here for The Last Wild, here for The Dark Wild, and here for The Wild Beyond.

 

Another Revamp Hits the Shelves: Alex Rider

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Yeah yeah, I thought. I know why the kids like it: boys’ toys and gadgets, action scenes, mystery, slick dialogue, bam bam. Dismissing them out of hand in the same way I dismiss grown men’s love for 007, gladiator movies, Bourne identities, etc. Then my son went to hear Anthony Horowitz talk at the Southbank centre and came back inspired, and Walker Books contacted me about their relaunch for the brand, and I thought okay it’s time I read Alex Rider myself.
Wow! Tightly plotted, niftily written, the first book in the series, Stormbreaker, zooms along like a rocket to its target. I felt compelled from the first sentence. It’s as exciting and unrealistic as you could ask for in this genre. I loved our hero, and how clever and skilful and cool he is. I loved the machinations of the ‘MI6’ set up and the elusive villains. It made me smile, and admire Horowitz’s skilful storytelling. For someone usually disdainful of such spy thrillers, this one was more than a pleasure from start to finish. In this first adventure, Alex Rider is employed by MI6 precisely because he is a schoolboy, and can infiltrate the headquarters of Sayle Enterprises as the winner of a computer magazine competition to discover if there’s anything suspect about the line of computers, the Stormbreakers, which Sayle Enterprises are rolling out free to every school in the country. Of course, there is something highly suspect about Mr Sayle, not least his penchant for keeping a Portuguese Man ‘o War as his pet, and Alex Rider has to stop his deathly plan before it’s too late.

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What’s so pleasing is that the Alex Rider books are exactly what they say on the tin! From the corny filmic staplines on the back cover…”His first assignment may well be his last” to the spy gadgets bestowed upon Alex (the zit cream that melts metal), to the chapter headings, “Double O Nothing” and the exhilarating non-stop action – these are all the right ingredients for this genre of pacey thriller. But it’s the flawless perfection that Anthony Horowitz brings to the genre with his taut writing style and seemingly effortless imagination that make this a powerful and exemplary series. I fully intend to now read the rest.

One keen fan has helped me out this week with my blog – here are his comments. His name is Samuel and he’s 10 years old:

Alex Rider is a good series, which I really like because it is fun and exciting. It follows an orphaned teenage spy, recruited by MI6. Alex was brought up by his Uncle Ian and his housekeeper, Jack Starbright. Jack kept on living with him after Uncle Ian’s death. Alex later discovers that his parents and his uncle were all secretly spies and were all assassinated.
One of my favourite books in the series is “Eagle Strike”. Alex is certain that Damian Cray, pop singer has got an evil plan after finding his phone number on an assassin’s mobile. MI6 don’t believe him and Alex sets out on his own to investigate. He travels to Holland to find Cray’s game console factory and finds out what ‘Eagle Strike’; Cray’s plot; is all about. I like it because it is exciting and there are lots of unexpected turns in the story. My favourite part is when Alex finds himself inside a deadly video game… in real life!
What I like most in this series are the gadgets. They are fun and exciting to have. The gadget maker Smithers is a bald, fat, friendly man who is my favourite character. My favourite gadget is a calculator which can be used to contact MI6 and can also jam CCTV cameras. Gadgets play a big part in the books because they add excitement and help make them interesting and full of suspense.
I love the Alex Rider series and hope to finish reading them all.

 

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For those of you who are yet to discover Alex Rider, luckily for you the whole series has been rebranded with covers designed by a video game designer, Two Dots, the studio who designed the packaging for Ubisoft’s video games Assassins Creed and Far Cry, and they suit the stories well. Clever spines highlight the number in the series, as well as spelling out Alex Rider when they are lined up on the shelf. To buy Stormbreaker, click here.

There is also a new Alex Rider website, www.alexrider.com and you can even go on ‘spy training’ camp with the Youth Hostels Association.

Thank you to Walker books for a review copy of Eagle Strike

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