mental health

Worry Angels

I’m delighted to host the launch video for Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari, illustrated by Jane Ray. This super-readable book deals with issues around family breakup, anxiety and refugees, using the healing powers of art and friendship to overcome worries. Despite being a shorter read, it’s beautifully soul-searching and handles complex emotions in an age-appropriate way, providing much space for thought and contemplation. I highly recommend. Below, Sita Brahmachari introduces the video and video artist:

I first met the artist Grace Emily Manning when I walked into a cafe and she had an exhibition of her beautiful Kites flying above my head. I had just been asked by Pop Up Festival to create an exhibition around my novel ‘Kite Spirit’ and so I thought our connection was ‘meant to be’. I contacted her and found that she was studying for her final year at Central St Martins and asked if she would like to create an installation so that people would have the experience of physically walking inside my book! Grace worked with textile artists from The Royal Opera House and created the most beautiful landscape of owls, moss, heather​ and sculptures for readers to explore the themes of the story. Since then Grace and I have worked together on many projects. She has created a magical patchwork storytelling quilt for me to take around to schools for creative writing inspiration (a film of this has been made for Pop Up Festival.) She created an animated for my novel ‘Red Leaves’ and now this beautiful animation for ‘Worry Angels’.

TRAILER: Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari from Barrington Stoke on Vimeo.

It’s by no coincidence that the name of the artist-teacher who runs the Sandcastle Support Centre is also called Grace! The ‘Worry Angels’ book trailer gives a visual insight into some of the symbolic elements of my story and captures deep feelings children and young people have about how we can communicate our worries and anxieties even when everything in life feels like its changing and built on shifting sands. 

Worry Angels is published today by Barrington Stoke, and is available to buy here.

Grace Emily Manning’s website can be found here

 

 

All The Things That Could Go Wrong by Stewart Foster


There’s been much talk recently about how reading can improve a person’s empathy. But few writers can see inside people’s heads as well as Stewart Foster, author of The Bubble Boy for children, and We Used To Be Kings (for adult readers).

His latest novel for children, All The Things That Could Go Wrong, deals with the topic of bullying in a terrifically empathetic way, alternating chapters between the points of view of the bully and the bullied.

Alex is struggling in secondary school. He has a lot of worries and his OCD makes doing the most ordinary things, such as leaving the house to go to school, very difficult. This term Sophie and Dan are picking on him, which makes life even harder.

Dan is not doing so well at school either. He’s angry because things have been different since his brother went away, and it’s easier to take out that anger on someone weaker.

So it’s mortifying for the both of them when their mothers, naïve to the ins and outs of school gangs and friendships, arrange for them to meet up outside of school to finish building the raft that Dan started with his brother.

The inevitability of the changing nature of their relationship becomes obvious from the moment that Alex’s and Dan’s mothers force them into spending time together, but Foster manages to eke out every single moment of tension between them, as well as realistically delineating exactly how their relationship changes, why, and at an honest pace. It’s not like they’ll be friends overnight.

The dual narrative works well here in a perfect equilibrium. The reader loves both the voices, so that, unlike some books in which the reader races through one narrative to reach their favourite voice, here, the scales feel well-balanced. What’s more Foster doesn’t insinuate more sympathy to or empathy with either character – they are dealt with equally but differently. Each boy’s perspective pushes the plot along, as well as revealing their gradual realisation not only of their own outward projection of how they want to be seen, but also how they are perceived. In the end of course, they have an insight into who they actually are, and how they can be the best part of themselves.

Alex is a fascinating character in that Foster makes sure that his OCD is not what defines him. He has many other interests and talents, which are easy to identify – it’s just that his OCD gets in his own way. What’s more, Foster doesn’t make the OCD the reason that Alex is bullied – in fact the bullies hardly seem aware of it – other than the physical gloves he wears. For Alex it is the preoccupying factor in his life, but for the bullies, they just pick on him because he projects weakness. In fact, they are satisfied to move onto bullying another victim when the time is right.

Also punctuating the story are Alex’s lists of worries, which he is encouraged to write down by his therapist, and the lists are both highly irrational and yet highly understandable. Written in a different typeface, the lists add yet another insight into his mind.

And Dan too is distinctly likeable, despite his bullying of Alex. He exudes a loneliness, anger and frustration symptomatic of many twelve-year-old boys struggling to understand their place in society, as well as struggling to make sense of a significant change in their home lives – in this case the absence of Dan’s older brother. Foster portrays Dan’s lack of communication with those around him, and as an extra insight into his mind, shows the reader Dan’s letters to his brother. They are immensely poignant.

Because of course, part of what defines us as human beings is our relationships with others – how we handle those around us, and as children not just the friends we make at school, but the changing family dynamic. The worry of Dan’s mother, and the portrayal of Alex’s father in handling his son’s illness, are both treated with brevity and yet clear intelligence. Alex’s frustration in not being able to be the big brother he’d like to be to his sister is also heart-breaking.

But as well as the prodigious character crafting, Foster supplies a page-turning plot, a constant anxiety about what could go wrong for the boys, and an excellent breakdown of bullying. The chapters are short and pithy, the prose perspicuous.

It’s an utterly immersive novel about learning to be yourself, and like yourself. It’s a book that I’d like to shove at primary school teachers to share with their classes because of its brilliant exposition of bullying, but also the kind of book children will read by torchlight under the covers because they need to find out what happens next. When they say ‘not to be missed’, this is the kind of book they mean. You can buy a copy here.

My First Novel (age 9) by Lisa Thompson

I’m delighted to welcome onto the blog today a guest post from author Lisa Thompson. The Goldfish Boy was my first book of the week for 2017 – you can catch my review here. Below, Lisa tells us about what inspired her to write her first book, aged nine. 

When I was nine, the one thing I really wanted to do more than anything in the world was learn how to ride a horse. We lived next door to a family whose daughter was also horse-mad. Her bedroom had horse wallpaper, a horse light shade, piles of books about horses and the best thing of all; a beautiful display of colourful rosettes. Yes – she actually had riding lessons whereas I was still tying my skipping rope onto my bike handlebars to make reins. The jealousy factor turned up to 11 when she eventually got her own horse. They kindly took me to the stables to meet him and okay, maybe horses were a bit scary close-up but I still really, really wanted riding lessons.

I grew up in a small terraced house in a suburban town and although we weren’t struggling for money, we certainly didn’t have any to spare for lessons, so my parents said no. I used to watch my neighbour get into their car wearing her boots and jodhpurs and my stomach used to knot with envy and sadness. Not only could I not have riding lessons but I was now losing my friend who was spending every available second at the stables.

So, what did I do to vent this frustration?  I wrote a book.

I didn’t write about a girl wanting to ride, I wrote about a girl who rescued horses and opened a sanctuary – I was thinking BIG. For each chapter my main character would remarkably stumble across an abandoned horse which instantly fell in love with her. She’d somehow persuade her parents to let her keep it (on their conveniently vast farm full of empty stables) and then after that one was safe, she’d somehow find another horse that needed her help. On the occasional page I drew a picture of the girl, and the horses. Chestnut ones, piebald ones, skewbald ones, palomino – I knew all the names and I coloured them in using felt tip pens.

I was utterly engrossed. This was a defining moment for me because this was the first time I felt what I can only describe as ‘writing euphoria’. It’s the moment where you are so absorbed in your writing you forget where you are, the words just flow on and on. It’s wonderful feeling.

Then I got to a difficult part in the book and it dawned on me that all of the rescued horses were found just wandering around the area which was, in fact, a completely ridiculous idea. I put the book in a drawer and forgot all about it.

A few years later my friend next door moved away and although we didn’t keep in touch I heard in later years that she ended up owning her own stables. This makes me really happy. I did get to go on a horse once when I was around twenty-one and it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life which I wouldn’t want to repeat.

And then of course there was my book about the girl and the rescued horses. Unfortunately, I found it when I was a teenager and thought it was the most embarrassing thing I’d ever seen. I ripped it up into tiny pieces and put it in the bin.

But although the book was gone I didn’t forget that feeling I had when I was writing it. An idea had been planted and it niggled at me for decades afterwards – maybe one day I could be a writer? How I’d love to go back to see my nine-year-old self now and say; “Well done, kid.  You did it.”

Lisa Thompson worked as a radio broadcast assistant first at the BBC and then for an independent production company making plays and comedy programmes. During this time she got to make tea for lots of famous people. She grew up in Essex and now lives in Suffolk with her family. The Goldfish Boy is her debut novel.

The Goldfish Boy is available now, and you can buy it here.

Me and Mister P by Maria Farrer, illustrated by Daniel Rieley

Arthur is frustrated with his family. Living with his younger brother Liam isn’t easy, and Arthur feels left out and overlooked. Until, that is, he opens the front door to find a polar bear called Mister P. The bear doesn’t talk, he’s pretty big and clumsy, and enormously scared of spiders, and yet somehow, through a great talent for keepie uppies, dancing, and hugs, he’s able to lend some help to families that need him.

Liam seems to be on the autistic spectrum, although this is never spelt out – the story is told from Arthur’s point of view. In this way, Farrer has managed to portray Liam sympathetically but also realistically, showing all the ways in which Liam annoys Arthur. Arthur moans about the restrictions on his life, such as the limited volume when watching football, the mode of transport to school etc, although the reader can see that these restrictions are only imposed by his parents because they simply want to protect, and do what’s right, by Liam.

This is a simplistic story for the seven plus age group – it’s blatantly obvious that Mister P’s arrival is to show Arthur how lucky he is, how to manage his family situation, that patience is a virtue, and that Liam is one of Arthur’s biggest fans. Some strange quirks come across – there’s a total lack of surprise or reaction by the rest of the world to the fact that a polar bear has arrived and can play football, and there is a slightly over-extended section in the middle of the book on a football game, but altogether this adds up to the book’s charm.

It’s the little moments that draw Arthur and Liam together, which pull on the heartstrings. Children at this age do often need reminding that for all their annoyances, their siblings are their friends – and will be loyal and dependable, as well as mainly, awfully good fun.

There’s nothing startlingly new about this of course. Animals, teddy bears, created ‘other’ personas or imaginary friends, have long been used in children’s literature to bring siblings together, from Aslan to Paddington; or they have been employed to help a child deal with a tricky situation until they’re no longer needed, from Brigg’s The Bear (another polar) to Skellig, and Mary Poppins. I still retain warm memories of George by Agnes Sligh Turnbull, a now out-of-print book, that tells of George, a talking rabbit who helps Milly and Tommy – especially with their arithmetic!

But there’s a warmth and naturalness that oozes from the writing in Me and Mister P, as well as scenes that are punctuated in a wonderfully low key way by Rieley’s illustrations. A full double page is awarded to the illustration of Mister P in the back of a truck on his way to the football, complete with headphones and team scarf. Rieley has been set quite a task here – a polar bear adept at football – and it works both humorously and with pathos.

It’s a fun book, massively endearing, with much heart. There are even a few scattered facts about polar bears at the end of the book – perhaps to encourage readers to find out more about them, and learn to protect them. For although of course we’d all love to snuggle up with a glossy furry bear who solves our problems, we need to make sure that polar bears don’t become imaginary creatures, but rather remain a plentiful species that inhabits the Arctic.

For newly independent readers, but also great to share with little ones at bedtime. You can buy it here.

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson


A pacey page-turning mystery mashes with an ‘issue’ story in this latest middle grade novel, which won me over with its cunning charm and sympathetic lead character.

Twelve-year-old Matthew Corbin suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder to the extent that he has imprisoned himself within certain rooms of the family house. He spends his days watching out the window – either of his own bedroom or the office/nursery in the upstairs of his house. This device, as anyone who has ever done any surveillance or curtain-twitching, can lead to surprising and interesting discoveries. Matthew takes copious notes of his neighbours’ comings and goings – some humorous, some intriguing.

When a sleek car pulls up in the road and delivers two children to their grandfather, in the house next door to Matthew, things in the neighbourhood start to shake up. Particularly when one of the two children disappears.

Light compelling prose is interspersed with Matthew’s notes on his neighbours, which lightens the text even further, and the chapters are short and pithy, so that the novel skips along at pace. The observations are funny and astute:

“Mr Charles could have been anything from sixty-five to ninety-five – he never seemed to get older. I thought he’d just found an age he quite liked and just stopped right there.”

What’s more, although the book contains a clever mystery – can the reader work out who has taken the child before Matthew does – Lisa Thompson deals sensitively with the issue at hand – OCD.

This is a book for eight year olds and over, so of course, simplicity rules in dealing with the emotional complexity of mental health. Thompson skims over any difficulties with children’s mental health services, and merely touches the surface of the excruciating physical pain that comes with obsessively washing hands and using strong cleaning products, but she does include some brilliant nuggets of truths in dealing with the issue. That a person with OCD can’t just stop it because they’re told to, that it’s not a result of being an overly ‘tidy’ person – but that there is usually a complex reason behind it. With Matthew, Lisa makes the reason fairly simplistic and drops large clues throughout the novel that point to it, with an ending that gives massive hope for recovery.

However, she does also include the heartache that goes along with mental health issues – from the reaction of strangers and neighbours to the illness, to the absence from school and friendships – and, most telling, the agonies of Matthew’s parents. For young readers this will just come across as a shadow of anxiety that falls across Matthew’s life – borne out sometimes by his father’s frustration, and his mother’s hurt, but other readers will also pick up on how they wrestle with what to do in the situation. There’s a strong background of hurts not only in their lives, but in the neighbours’ hidden pasts, and these are all hinted at during the novel. No one’s behaviour goes unexplained.

In fact, for me, this is what propels this novel to book of the week. Each character behaves weirdly if judged simply from Matthew’s notebook – the girl who visits a graveyard almost daily, the bully, the old lady who keeps a light on 24 hours a day, the awkwardness in their dealings with each other, (and Matthew is adept here at looking at body language as well as actions). But each character’s own quirks and perceived weirdness is gradually explained through knowledge and empathy.

So yes, mental health is addressed, and the book features a missing child, but there are so many elements of humour and so many incidents of sympathy and hope that this isn’t a dark novel. It’s poignant, uplifting, and essentially pretty positive. All in all there is more to a person than the quirk with which they are labelled, in the same way that this book is much more than just about OCD. Scratch the surface – there is much more to gain.

Publishes 5th January, although I have already seen copies in the shops, and you can buy it here.

The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

secret-of-nightingale-wood

A short story published in 1892 called The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman has long held a grip on my consciousness. It describes the treatment of a woman who is accused of suffering from ‘hysterical tendency’.

Lucy Strange, in her children’s book debut, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, has drawn together some huge issues and themes, including the treatment of ‘hysteria’ in women, the after-effects of the First World War (the book is set in 1919), the loss of sons, and the emotional desperation to hold onto a baby, as well as the equating of women and children as inferior and invisible beings compared with men.

Strange tells the story of the protagonist’s mother, who is undergoing treatment for her near ‘hysterical grief’ and mental disturbance following the death of her son, incorporating an over-zealous doctor who is intent on moving the mother into an asylum and experimenting on her mind with electric shock treatment.

All this may seem far too adult and overreaching for a children’s book, but actually the themes sit well against a magical realism backdrop of a mysterious wood, ghostly apparitions, an empty attic room, a hidden staircase, and a child intent on overhearing the adult conversations around her, using her bravery to steer through the madness of the adult world, and pull her family back from the brink.

Henry (short for Henrietta, but tellingly using a boy’s name), moves to Hope House in the countryside, with her baby sister Piglet, and her parents and nanny. But soon after their arrival, the father leaves for abroad, and other sinister adults interfere more and more with her family set up. Henry escapes into the woods, where she finds Moth, a witch-like woman, who through her wisdom and own experience, guides Henry and helps her to claim back her family from those with sinister intentions.

This book is, at times, as frightening as it might seem, with such intense themes as the loss of a child and the ensuing grief, and a mother blind to the other children in her lives, but it is overwhelmingly the powerlessness that Henry feels that really shakes up the reader. When other adults usurp parental roles, and yet a child knows that these new adults don’t have the children’s best interests at heart, the world can seem a very dark place.

But Henry’s bravery and passion stride a hopeful path throughout the text. In fact, despite all this, Lucy Strange has told a simple children’s historical novel, with all the major tropes one might expect. A sick parent, and one absent, leaving Henry time and space to roam free, eavesdropping on adult conversations she doesn’t understand, discovering a hidden staircase leading to an abandoned attic, a madwoman in the woods, and stimulating enough gumption to seek out her own happy ending.

The writing is lyrical, and yet incredibly light, so that the reader storms a path through the tangled woods and never trips. There’s a limping man who scuttles like a spider, a dark forest like a thundercloud fallen from the sky. The scenes are tangible and vivid. You can feel the wind, smell the food, and hear the voices. It’s a triumph of a book, partly with a classical feel, and partly with an entirely modern perspective on an era in which the female gender was held to be inferior.

Above all it’s about bravery, and finding the courage to change your own life for the better. The plot is pacey, breath-taking at times, and despite harrowing moments – I cried buckets – it’s eminently uplifting. There are lots of references to other classic children’s books, and even if the reader doesn’t pick up on them all, it lends the book the feeling of belonging in a children’s canon – a long succession of sparky, intelligent child protagonists who can change the world for the better. There’s a good reason it was a Waterstone’s Book of the Month. One of a few titles I was recommended by a child, rather than a publisher! Don’t miss out, buy one here.

Emotional Literacy: Books about feelings

Young children may find it difficult to identify and express their feelings, and quite often it can come out as difficult or disruptive behaviour. In others, feelings may be locked away and expressed only in silence. Key strategies for helping children to express their feelings include learning how to identify what they are feeling – naming feelings and giving them labels is vastly helpful. As is learning to identify them in others – by facial expressions for example. After naming the feelings, it helps to talk about them. And books are excellent ways to trigger an emotional response:

feelings

Feelings by Richard Jones and Libby Walden
Sometimes with children, one way to ask them to express how they are feeling about something is to ask them to draw a picture. A yellow sunshine or a black sky can give a clear indication of emotion. Richard Jones explores this with his debut picture book, Feelings. With the same boy on each spread (die-cut so that he remains the same while all around him changes), emotions are evoked throughout the book by a series of images on each page.

The illustrations cleverly surround the child – changing mood with colour, texture, shapes and illustrations, all of which convey the emotion expressed in the rhyming couplet text.

Each double page is a different emotion. Brave is expressed with a beautiful orange sky at sunrise or sunset, and acres of land below, as the boy stands atop a mountain:

“The journey might be hard and the path may not be straight,
but if you’re bold and carry on, the view below looks great!”

Angry is red, the boy halfway up an erupting volcano, whereas Happy sees him surrounded by smaller images in a variety of bright colours – mainly depicting nature, from flowers to dancing dogs, symbols of love, music, and a string of coloured lights. Jealous shows the boy atop a mountain again, but this time set in a green land, watching a girl on pink hills riding a bike with a flock of red and pink birds rising behind her.

“Your vision blurs, your mind is fixed on things you do not own
and as green steam begins to rise, you give an envious moan.”

Other emotions include Alone, Embarrassed, Excited, Afraid and even Calm – and there’s a strong call to empathy at the end of the book as other children join our boy in a beautiful orange and blue palette of child-friendly images, from swinging on a tree branch to walking a dog, and breathing in the air from a calm sunny winter’s day. A host of smaller illustrations at the bottom of the page give different scenes, and each one could be discussed by the reader – how does each picture make you feel?

This is a clever book – enabling emotions to be discussed frankly against a background of an appealing, calming and emotive collection of landscapes and illustrations. Showing that emotional literacy and visual literacy are meshed together. You can buy it here.

a-book-of-feelings

A Book of Feelings by Amanda McCardie, illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino
A more overt and explicit show of emotions is discussed in this new book from McCardie and Rubbino. Rather than filled with abstract landscapes and vignettes, this book goes to the heart of the family. Rubbino portrays two children, Sam and Kate, with their mum and dad and Fuzzy Bean, their dog. Then by illustrating everyday actions and situations, Rubbino and McCardie draw attention to the different emotions felt, and give them name.

They start with happy (a very good place to start), and Kate and Sam look directly at the reader. This is a brilliant way to invite the child reader to bond with the characters – their facial expressions and body language invite the reader right inside the book, and therefore into the emotions of Sam and Kate.

Throughout the book, the family are seen doing everyday things. Things that make them happy, such as saving a goal, reading, drawing etc. And, in a gorgeous full double page spread, showing that they are loved. In bed with their parents, sharing breakfast, amidst the clutter of their home. It feels intimate, and safe and comfortable, and again, makes the reader feel included.

But, of course, it explains over the next few pages, that everyone experiences different emotions, and although they are still loved, sometimes Mum gets cross, and Dad might get sad or angry. A raft of emotional feelings is explored and explained, including grumpiness, nervousness, feeling shy, feeling embarrassed, feeling scared and sad. What’s clever here is that not only does the author explain that sometimes saying sorry or thank you can be difficult when you’re not feeling happy and gracious, but also that sometimes you can feel mixed emotions, and that people express their emotions differently. An easy one to explain is that Mum cries when she is happy and sometimes sad people don’t cry. I particularly loved:

“Sam cries when he’s had a bad fall, or can’t explain something, or he’s tired.
Kate cries when she can’t think what she feels, or she’s downright cross.”

The author stretches the family a little to include a friend whose parents are separating. A myriad of emotions come out here, as well as a clear explanation of what she needs from Kate and Sam’s family to help her.

Death too is dealt with – the death of a pet, and even the dog’s emotions. Jealousy is first explained with Fuzzy Bean, and then goes back in time to when Kate was born, and Sam’s jealousy of his new sibling.

Bullying too is explored, as well as one of the reasons behind it.

This is a fabulously thought out book. Both entertaining, with delightful illustrations that make the reader feel part of the family, and which contain a great deal of detail of the family home, so that each picture needs intense scrutiny, as well as deciphering (very easily) which emotion is being explored. Mostly though, there is an overriding sense of understanding for each member of the family, and love, so that by the end, a young child will be able to see that emotions are in flux all the time, but as long as there’s a basic grounding of love and understanding, they will be fine. A great addition to any bookshelf. You can buy it here.

meh

Meh by Deborah Malcolm
Of course sometimes it’s a little more complicated than that. Meh is a wordless picture book that explores depression. A young boy is shown happy – he draws pictures, runs across a rainbow. But then an abstract shape of darkness appears and pulls him inside, and then he appears trapped in page after page of darkness.

Finally, he sees a way out and follows a trail to overcome the darkness. Cleverly, Malcolm has illustrated this with enormous dexterity, so that not only does the way out look glowing and illuminated, but also it looks incredibly difficult for the boy to climb out from the darkness.

There’s quite a limited pool of resources explaining depression to children. In fact, it’s a fairly difficult thing to explain to adults too. This wordless picture book shows that depression can happen to children too – and is a great starting point to talk about it – to explain that it’s something that happens and can happen to anyone and importantly, is not something that can just be shaken off by a kick about in the park etc.

The boy seems fairly age-less in the story, which is good as the book can appeal to a wider audience. His way out of the depression is through a vague, illuminated white cat, which could be a symbol for a variety of things that pull someone out of depression, and because the story is left wordless and fairly vague, the emotional literacy is left to the reader to decipher and interpret in a way that resonates with them.

Meh has questions at the end of the book for further discussion, although I feel that the illustrations themselves pose enough questions to talk through as the book is read. But it is an excellent tool for dealing with this complicated issue, and quite unique in its marketplace. You can find it here.

 

All three books were sent to me by the publishers for review. 

 

Food for Thought

Do you remember food from childhood books? Winnie the Pooh is synonymous with honey, Paddington with marmalade, the Famous Five with ginger beer. The tiger came for tea, the caterpillar was very hungry, and Narnia wouldn’t have been the same without tea with Mr Tumnus. Food functions as a symbol of togetherness. The OECD found that students who do not eat regularly with their parents are more likely to truant, that children were more likely to be overweight if they didn’t eat with their family at least twice a week (European Congress on Obesity 2014). In a topic close to my heart, researchers found that young children learned 1,000 rare vocabulary words at a family dinner, compared with 143 from a storybook reading (Catherine E Snow and Diane E Beals, 2006).

Three authors have cleverly woven food into their recently published family stories. Do have a look at each very different title.

library of lemons

A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill

A sad and touching middle grade story about ten year old Calypso. She lives with her father, and they are both grieving for the death of Calypso’s mother. Her father is suffering so much that his mental health deteriorates and he starts to obsess over lemons for a book he is writing on the History of the Lemon.

Calypso has been told by her father to nourish her inner strength – to show the world a steely exterior rather than exposing her emotions – so she nourishes herself with books and stories. In a compellingly poignant portrayal, Calypso’s Dad is neglectful because of his all-consuming grief, and the cupboards in the kitchen are starkly empty.

Although a loner, and Cotterill portrays this part of Calypso particularly well, leaving the reader feeling that solitude is not a black and white issue – there is loneliness and then there is wanting to be more solitary than others – Calypso does find a friend in Mae, and through her, a family, complete with family meals, and warm, giving parents who expose what is so severely lacking in her own home circumstances. The scenes with Mae shine with affection and are particularly engaging.

Jo Cotterill writes with emotional insight and tenderness in this well-crafted novel. From her clever perversion of the lemons – usually such bright, alluring, wonderfully scented fruits – she twists the metaphor so that the lemons are hidden and grow hard – revealing what happens when fruit is kept in dark places, and when emotions are left hidden in dark places rather than expressed and managed.

By contrasting darkness and light, inner and outer, family/friendship as opposed to loneliness, Jo Cotterill reveals how Calypso can come out of herself and forge a new way forwards for herself and her father. It’s compelling reading and draws on the point that there are always some adults on hand to help a child through such a crisis – from friends to a support network of child carers.

There are some good insights too about children wanting to please their parents and meet expectations, the benefits of writing as a way of venting emotion, and of course, as you will guess from the title, a liberal sprinkling of literary references, and a paean to reading and its comfort.

The characters feel well developed, the ending is not too saccharine – it’s uplifting but with a hint of realism that grief/depression cannot just be turned off like a switch. Easy to read, not too sentimental – this is a bittersweet novel. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

caramel hearts

Caramel Hearts by ER Murray

A slightly older, much grittier read, Caramel Hearts tells the story of 14 year old Liv. Liv resides with her older sister while her mother recovers in a unit for alcoholics. Whilst her mother is away, Liv discovers a homemade book of recipes, written in her mother’s hand, and clearly at a time in the past of love and happiness. Liv endeavours to make the recipes within, in the hope that some of that love will come dripping back into her life. Sadly, at the same time, she has to contend with issues at school, lack of money, and her own anger, which comes flooding out of her at the slightest tension or confrontation.

This is such a character-led book that the reader feels invested in Liv from the start, which is important, as Liv doesn’t behave brilliantly. ER Murray’s portrayal of her – her inability to keep her emotions in check, even when necessary – her spontaneous and often not very well thought out decision making, and her wish to fit in, lead her to make some particularly unwise decisions, and yet she garners intense understanding from the reader precisely because she is so well-defined and so real in so many ways.

ER Murray is good at drawing the distinction between right and wrong, and yet at the same time, giving the reader those grey areas of discovery as teens grow and learn which path to choose.

There are some excellent scenes – and a particularly disturbing case of hardcore bullying, as well as the problems and uncertainty that go with being the child of an alcoholic.

Secondary characters are also nicely drawn – no one is completely good or bad – and, as with A Library of Lemons, there is a lovely supporting cast of adults who can help if given the chance – including a particularly wonderful dinner lady.

A love for food comes through of course – the recipes from the mother’s books are sprinkled throughout the text and seem easy to try, and there are references to music too.

The book is all about learning to stand up for what’s right – doing the right thing, but it makes no claims to provide easy solutions or quick fixes. As with the previous book reviewed, mental health – in this case, alcoholism, is dealt with carefully – it’s a long road, and there are no certainties.

Saying that, the ending is also uplifting – friendships are nurtured and thrive, food can be an equalizer, and forgiveness can be healing.

In the same way that A Library of Lemons toyed with darkness and light, this is sweet and sour – the joy that can come from finding a hobby/skill in the baking, the joy of sharing food with friends and family, and the sweetness of nostalgia for their mother in a more positive light, but also the sourness of doing the wrong thing, bullying, getting into trouble and not knowing how to get out of it. Age 12+ years. You can purchase it here.

Sweet Pizza

Sweet Pizza by G R Gemin

For younger readers, with bite-size chapters, is the tale of Joe, a young boy growing up in Bryn Mawr, South Wales. Joe’s mother runs a café, inherited from her father and his parents – who were Italian migrants before the Second World War. The café is failing to make money, and the book follows Joe’s attempts to discover his Italian heritage and make the café great again.

As with the other books featured, food plays a strong role in this book, with Joe’s fascination with learning to cook, the other youths’ addiction to the unhealthy ‘chicken box’ takeaways over the road, and Joe’s cousin Mimi who visits from Italy, and seasons the town with her good looks, but also her belief in fresh ingredients, healthy eating and the healing power of a good meal.

The tone of this novel is hard to pin down – it’s written so starkly, so matter-of-fact and mainly through dialogue, and yet somehow Joe’s feelings do shine through. For this age group the sparseness of the language works quite well, and moves the plot along quickly, although personally I would have preferred some rounding of the parental figures’ characters and a little more detail and description, but saying that, this is an important book for the following reasons.

The backbone of the novel comes from Joe’s grandfather. During the course of the book he suffers a stroke and is hospitalised, but his recordings of his memories of wartime Wales are played as a backdrop throughout the story, and the warmth flows mainly from these recollections.

Joe learns, as does the reader, not only the facts about Italian migrants in Wales during the war – the terrible cost when they were interned during the war, but ultimately the kindness of the community that surrounded the immigrants in Wales.

The gradual realisation that history can teach us something, that having a thriving immigrant community can lend so much colour and vibrancy to a town, and that the kindness of a community can see people through hard times, is a valuable lesson to both Joe and young readers. It’s an interesting study to compare immigrant experiences then and now, and debate the meaning of patriotism, migrants, heritage, and community.

Gemin weaves food and taste throughout his book – from the Italian food to the Polish supermarket across the road, and the coming together at family mealtimes as well as the community (Joe interacts with bus drivers, the doctor’s receptionist, and a whole host of other figures who make up his town). There are also some well-handled incidences in which Joe’s mum is worried about her son’s weight, and steers him away from the greasy takeaways.

An infusion of opera and its stories pervades the text too, and the mouth-watering descriptions of the coffee aroma and bubbling tomato sauces leave the reader lusting after their own home-made Italian meal. Bravissimo. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.