mental health

Children’s Mental Health Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

silent guides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Changes Into a Chicken by Sam Copeland, illustrated by Sarah Horne

charlie changes into a chickenMassively hyped already, with marketing material yelling ‘for fans of David Walliams’, this first of a brand-new series actually does live up to the hype. 

Aimed at a young fiction readership, aged seven and up, Charlie Changes into a Chicken is a delight. A genuinely funny, pacey adventure story that has a healthy dollop of pathos and heart from a writer who obviously understands and spends time with young children.

Charlie McGuffin worries about everything. He worries about his brother, who is not very well in hospital, his parents, who are worried about his brother, and he’s worried about garnering any attention from the school bully. Then he finds another thing to worry about – when he worries, he turns into an animal. At first, he metamorphosises into a spider (and with far more anxiety about his situation than displayed by Kafka’s protagonist). Before long though, this change is happening more often, and at the most inopportune times. With the help of his three friends, Charlie must find a way to stop the transformations happening, and prevent the school bully from revealing his secret.

One of the best features of this young fiction title is Copeland’s approach to the writing. It reads as if Copeland is telling the story to the reader personally, and with this intimacy comes reassurance, which is exactly the effect wanted. This is not a new device – in fact it’s in part what made Dahl so successful in his novels.

Here, the intimacy inspires confidence in the writer as a storyteller but also as a warm, approachable understanding adult, so important when, deep down, this book is about overcoming and dealing with anxious thoughts.

On the surface though, the story’s a laugh a minute. From the footnotes in which Copeland gets to extrapolate silly facts or simply extend his jokes, to the plot structure itself which gets funnier and more enjoyable the greater variety of animals Charlie turns into and the places in which he does so. The pigeons in the playground incident is particularly amusing, as is Charlie turning into a rhinoceros in his somewhat small bedroom (and needing to go to the toilet). Indeed, there are toilet jokes a-plenty, but nicely packaged within the overwhelming anxiety Charlie feels, so that they are there for a purpose. There are nail-biting moments too – the incident in the Head’s office, for example.

But what many readers will find succour in, is the friendship group. Charlie summons the courage to share his strange ‘superpower’ with his diverse, hilarious friendship group with all their vastly different personalities. My favourite is Flora, who attempts to discover the reasons behind Charlie’s metamorphosis – her theories fail at first, but she perseveres. As well as teaching a valuable lesson, her attempts provide a raft of laughs.  

Even after the book has finished, Copeland continues to address the reader with a series of fake questions from readers and answers from himself, as well as a letter from the publishers. All induced an amused wry smile.

Copeland is certainly a writer with impeccable comic timing, but also one who understands plot structure. Coming from a literary agent (Copeland’s day job), this shouldn’t be a huge surprise, in that he understands how a book works, but what is refreshing is the intimacy formed with the reader, the light touches, and the insightful imagination. Charlie feels real, despite the ludicrousness of the plot, and his group of friends just like yours or mine.

Sarah Horne’s black and white illustrations feature throughout, and are injected with just the right amount of zaniness. Horne excels at quirky and her characters are differentiated, appealing and expressive: the step-by-step transformation into a pigeon particularly funny.

The book works thrice. Firstly, as a good read for the age group with lots of plot, a fun premise and laughs-a-plenty. Secondly, as an antidote to anxiety – it shows how problems are often entangled with embarrassment about sharing them – the fact that Charlie’s anxiety manifests as an embarrassing problem itself is the whole point – and Copeland shows that fiction can be a calming and positive way to highlight mental health issues. And thirdly, as a conversation with the author. Sometimes, under stress or needing escape, books can become friends themselves. And with such a calm and witty author hand-holding the reader’s way throughout the book, this is one novel that children will embrace again and again.

No wonder there’s hype. This is a cracking novel, brilliantly funny, warmly reassuring. You can buy it here

Mike by Andrew Norriss

mikeThere is something special about this book, and I’m not sure whether it’s the message behind it, the story itself or the style of writing. It could be the combination of all three, although I’m edging towards the last, simply because it’s not often that I finish a book in one sitting – but this hooked me almost by magic.

The prose is so faultlessly lucid, like the cascade of a clear waterfall, and I was spellbound by the fluidity with which the words flowed on the page.

Fifteen-year-old Floyd is training to be a tennis champion – a talented and dedicated sportsman and the star of the under-eighteens circuit. The reader first meets him in the midst of a tennis tournament, and swiftly learns that tennis is his life and that he’s destined to be a professional tennis player. But as we meet Floyd, so Floyd sees Mike again, walking along the top row of tiered seating, his black coat billowing behind him (which rather made me think of Christian Slater in The Breakfast Club, with that haunting yet inviting look in his eyes). At first, Floyd thinks that Mike is a nuisance, an over-eager fan perhaps. But it becomes apparent to the reader, and to Floyd’s great surprise, that only he can see Mike.

Before long, Floyd is seeing a psychologist to try to eke out why he is seeing ‘Mike’ at his tennis practice and during tennis matches.

With straightforward clarity, Norriss and by default, the pleasantly authentic and sympathetic psychologist explore parental pressure, and life choices. There’s philosophy underpinning this story – a sort of moral guide to how we make choices, how we steer our lives through fate or instinct, and an exploration of our conscious and unconscious minds. Most particularly, Norriss touches upon our connections with other people and how that affects our journeys through life. With Floyd and Mike, the reader will come to understand a little bit about their own self – what we are doing for ourselves, or for others, and how to come to an understanding of serving both.

But there is no heaviness to this novel, no preaching, no deep philosophy. Instead, with remarkable pace and with much humour and levity, the reader is steered through Floyd’s path – from tennis through to marine biology, and although written with a breezy simplicity, Floyd’s path is far from easy. Without delving too deeply into the angst, Norriss shows us the difficulties Floyd faces, the lessons he has to learn, the pain that sometimes must be experienced.

Whether this is in part inspired by the movie Harvey with James Stewart (referenced in the text), or in part by Jiminy Cricket or other such fictional guides that give the character a steer through life, this is a fascinating look at finding oneself and one’s true desires and seeking and owning the power and responsibility to make one’s life’s choices.

Norriss’s characters feel real and likeable, the book almost true in its matter-of-factness.

I actually can’t recommend this book enough – it’s now out in paperback and I suggest you all read it – young and old. It’ll definitely make you think, and might turn the most reluctant reader into a reader. If only all books were like Mike. Suggested for age 12+ years. You can buy it here.

Paper Avalanche by Lisa Williamson

paper avalancheThis is a book with a mental health issue at its heart, and although like No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsin, Williamson has clearly taken a ‘theme’ or ‘problem’ she wants to address and written a story on it, the novel in no way feels like an ‘issue’ book. The characters are so well drawn, so likeable and sympathetic and written in such an understanding way, that they could be real, and so it feels more like a character exploration than a focus on ‘issue’. 

Year 9 student Ro Snow spends much of her time at school trying hard to be invisible. She’s one of those children at school who wanders the corridor alone, keeps her head down in lessons, and doesn’t shine in any after school clubs or at any talent because she wants to be un-noticed. She’s a ‘behind the scenes’ kind of person. The reader first meets her at an after-show drama club party where she is shying away from the teenage boy who clearly has noticed her and taken an interest. It feels authentic, and squirmy and also deeply moving.

Ro’s mother is a hoarder, and their house, to Ro, is both highly embarrassing from the outside and an absolute shocker from the inside. Piles of dishes litter the sink, piles of paper line the corridors. Ro can’t see her carpet anymore, and she has to shuffle sideways to make it through her hallway. Her room though, with a lock on the door to keep her mother out, is spotless, clean, minimal. However, she can’t make friends, in case they expect an invite home, so she keeps herself to herself.

Ro feels that her mother’s mental health issue defines her whole life. Until that is, things start to change, as life invariably does. A new family with teenage boy move in next door. And a girl called Tanvi starts at her school who takes an unlikely punt as who’s to be her new best friend – picking Ro. When Tanvi forces Ro into joining the school choir, and Ro discovers how talented she really is, it becomes harder and harder to hide from the spotlight. But with a light shone on her circumstances, things could go drastically wrong…By the end Ro comes to understand that she isn’t defined by her mother or her hoarding, nor limited by it, and it’s through the kindness and caring of people around her that this becomes apparent. 

Williamson is masterful in drawing out the usual trials and tribulations of the teen years into a captivating read, in which the reader feels every emotion with the characters. Her writing is unobtrusive, leading the reader flawlessly from one scene to the next, never breaking the spell of imagination, but managing to show the profound effects of loneliness and shame.

Included in the narrative is Ro’s ever more absent father, who has found a new wife and daughter, and some of the scenes with him are excruciatingly real. With her embarrassment of her home life, her feelings of rejection around her father, and her worries about everyday practicalities, Williamson shows a teenager under huge pressure and anxiety, but still incorporates enough humour, wisdom and kindness from friends and outsiders to make the reader feel that resolutions will come. And they do, but like life, not in all areas, and sometimes they’re still a bit messy.

I particularly enjoyed how Williamson very slowly incorporated into the text Ro’s first experience of having a boyfriend, only at the end revealing how many parallels there are between the pair.

This is a great book from one of the best YA authors around.  Whether it’s showing how secrets are best shared, the small intimate details between mother and daughter, a teen’s frustration at fighting to be in control and yet still wanting a responsible parent, first love that’s not too complicated or angst ridden, or just the emotional pull of engaging characters, this is a book not to be missed.

Paper Avalanche strikes deep, yet remains phenomenally readable. Age 12+ years. You can buy it here.

World Mental Health Day

It is World Mental Health Day today, and research from University College London shows that the number of children and young people with long-standing mental health issues is soaring, rising six fold from 1995 to 2014. Whether it’s pressure from school, social media, or the pace of our world, it’s clear that all agencies are interested in building resilience and promoting emotional and mental wellbeing in our children. There’s only so much schools can do (despite the govt promising training for teachers in dealing with mental health issues in the classroom), so much of it is left to parents.

I’ve been listening to Ester Perel’s psychology podcast, and although she’s known for her books on grown up relationships and fidelity, this particular podcast was on parenting. Her advice is stellar; insightful and sympathetic whilst being wise and objective. How do we make sure our children grow up to be happy and confident, yet also thoughtful and good citizens? How do we make sure that they come and talk when they are scared or sad and how do we listen so that we don’t show a matching fear or sadness or disappointment? I think whenever I need help with anything I turn to those closest to me, but I also receive much wisdom from books.

70 Ways to Boost Your Self Esteem70 Ways to Boost Your Self-Esteem by Jenny Alexander
I’ve started with this excellent book for two reasons. Firstly, having good self-esteem is essential to mental well-being. If you love and feel proud of yourself, you will recognise your own value and importance and consequently you will take good care of yourself, make good decisions and have a positive outlook. Don’t we all want that for our children? Secondly, self-help books can be rather worthy enterprises – for author and reader. We read the book and think, hmm that sounds good, but we never actually put it into practice. Especially when it’s an abstract concept. It’s one thing following a recipe in a diet book, quite another thing to improve one’s self esteem. But this book not only explores what self-esteem is, and why it’s good, but sets tasks at the end of each chapter to achieve good self-esteem. And the tasks are fun.

It splits the steps to gaining self-esteem into seven parts – each with its own designated chapter, example, and tasks. For example: being the hero of your own story; getting life goals; recognising weakness; and celebrating oneself. There’s also a chapter about awareness of others and respect for other people, because although this is about the individual, it’s important that each individual can operate within the real world and work in collaboration with others.

What’s more the tone is friendly – certainly not patronising, with a quirky personality shining through, so that you feel as if the author is a real person talking to you. With some quizzes, diagrams and funny cartoons, the book is set out with plenty of breaks in the information flow so that the reader doesn’t feel overwhelmed. There’s good advice on setting goals and addressing failure, but most importantly clarity and perspective on being one’s own person and getting to know oneself. Having listened extensively to Yuval Noah Harari on our changing world, one of the most important qualities a person will need is self-knowledge and awareness. Why not start them young? For 7+ years (I would add, with parental guidance too). You can buy it here or visit Jenny Alexander’s website and buy it there.

the book of no worriesThe Book of No Worries by Lizzie Cox and Tanja Stevanovic
Speaking of Yuval Noah Harari (whose adult books are excellent btw), this book starts with a section on mindfulness. If you have a child who lies awake at night worrying, or who frets like AA Milne’s old sailor: “There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew, Who had so many things which he wanted to do That, whenever he thought it was time to begin, He couldn’t because of the state he was in,” then this book might help.

With full-colour throughout and bite-size chunks of information, Q and A’s and lists, this is an interesting book that aims to dip in and cover lots of subjects with the intent of calming worries. There are so many topics though, that the advice can feel a bit fleeting, the issues skimmed. However, for short attention spans, this might serve well.

Of course the thing about worries is that they can multiply like bacteria – so honing worries is hard. The book addresses surface worries about school, stress, friends, appearance, puberty, family and love. The advice is slim, but picks out the key points – particularly on social media, by explaining that likes don’t measure worth, and when to stop looking at the phone.

I think what I like best about the book is that in almost all scenarios, one of the key pieces of advice is to talk to someone. For a snapshot of dealing with life’s worries for those approaching and going through puberty, this is a good dip-in guide. You can buy it here.

sign hereSign Here by Gabrielle Djanogly, illustrated by Adele Mildred
This intriguing new activity book is what I’d call a self-help book by stealth. Appparently inspired by playing with mini post offices when little, Djanogly has created a book of forms to fill in that encourages a child to express their emotions, albeit surreptitiously through play. Djanogly imagines a new world of bureaucracy, including The Department of Regret, Remorse and Reconciliation, the Union of Childhood Revenue, the Ministry of Dreams and so on, although this is not some Orwellian nightmare of red tape and officialdom, but a neat way for a child to express emotions and thoughts that may not be so easy to articulate. Thus, saying sorry or thank you, and even filling out the form titled ‘Declaration of Sad’ may better hone a child’s feelings and enable them to decipher where they are coming from and even what’s causing them. There is a tick box for ‘I don’t know, I just feel sad’ as well.

There are plenty of forms for happy occasions too, including the Birthday Party form issued by the Board of Celebration, which my youngest has no problem putting into words, but I’m sure she’d delight in this ‘official form’ to hand over requesting which cake etc. All the forms have authenticity stamped all over them, with logos, frames, tick boxes, signatures, a variety of fonts and so on, and each is neatly printed on good quality paper that is easily detached from the book via its perforated edging. The publisher even recommends photocopying the forms so that they can be re-used.

As well as declarations of sadness, fear and happiness, there are also forms to say sorry, to say thank you, to request a raise in pocket money, a contract with a babysitter, a Christmas present request form, a lost property form, a pet request form and a tell me a story form, as well as many more. Because the deeper emotions are sat alongside the everyday requests, it normalises the emotions and helps to make them everyday things to be shared. There are also ideas for making things better – the Acknowledgement of Anger Form includes tick boxes for requesting a hug or stomping around. Both can be ticked! Lots of asterisks in places allows the author to interject with warmth and comfort:

“**sometimes needing a hug is tricky to admit. If you want a hug, make a BIG tick in the box so that it can be spotted quickly.”

A fun way to express oneself. Apply for your forms here.

 

 

Positively Teenage by Nicola Morgan

positively teenageI often find that nonfiction books about the teenage years are coated in a light film of negativity. From titles such as ‘What’s Happening to My Body?’ as if maybe an alien force has invaded and implanted, or ‘Survival Guides to the Teenage Years’ as if it’s a time of nuclear holocaust. There’s no doubt that one of my favourite things as a teen was to read the ‘problem pages’ in the magazines, but it’s good to finally realise that we shouldn’t be dealing with teenagers as ‘problematic’, but addressing these years with positivity.

Nicola Morgan has been writing about teens for a long time, winning the School Library Association Information Book Award in 2015 for The Teenage Guide to Stress.

But for many parents, especially those parents who have children just approaching the teenage years, they want a book that doesn’t scream ‘stress, bullies, or problems’ on their cover in reference to teens. It would be better to have something that promotes the empowerment that comes from becoming a teenager – the uplifting moments, the maturation, the joyfulness. That’s not to say there aren’t issues – but they can be dealt with in a calm manner, and Nicola Morgan has acknowledged this in her knowledgeable guide, Positively Teenage, which contains some excellent ideas, as well as an assortment of easy-to-comprehend scientific facts and data thrown in – aimed at the kids themselves, but useful for adults to dip into too.

Morgan has based the premise of the book around the principles in the word FLOURISH – Food, Liquid, Oxygen, Use, Relaxation, Interest, Sleep and Happiness. The only slightly ambiguous word here is ‘use’, by which she means using all areas of the brain for a wealth of activities.

The book guides the reader gently through each area, with the book divided into sections such as Positively You, A Positive Attitude, A Positive Mood etc. The headings encompass large ideas, but actually the text itself is broken down well and is easily digestible. In each section there are paragraphs of text, with emboldened headings, some bullet points etc, but also quizzes to answer questions about yourself (you know, the type of thing they used to have in teen magazines, which were always such fun), a host of weblinks and further research, but also lots of good neuroscience explained pitch perfectly.

Morgan traverses the terrain between general things that are applicable to every generation, such as recognising character strengths including gratitude, honesty, forgiveness and so on, with an acute awareness of modern concerns, such as doctored internet pictures, controlling screen use, mindfulness and what neuroscientists have recently discovered about the difference between the teen brain and the adult brain, in terms of need for sleep, taking risks, temptations, emotions and more.

There are sections on building a growth mindset, developing resilience, eating correctly, sleeping well, exercise, and developing interests and hobbies, as well as cultivating a decent personality – in terms of being grateful for what you have, understanding and tolerating others’ differences and opportunities, helping others, trust and friendship. There’s even a section on reading for pleasure!

One of the aspects I like best is how Morgan suggests the many areas over which teens have control, and suggests taking responsibility for them, (which helps to reduce stress and conflict). We’d all do well to take the advice.

The only slight negatives I could find are that the diet suggestions feel very Western in content, and there’s always a worry that web links printed in books go out of date – whereas lots of the text advice doesn’t date. Morgan also suggests visiting a library to find out about community classes etc, but sadly, many teens will now find a library hard to access.

There are no swishy graphics here – which the book doesn’t need. It’s a handy paperback size for slipping into a large pocket or small bag, and the information feels compact, and yet full.

This is generally a really positive book that I’m happy to push into the hand of any pre-teen in expectation for the great years that they have ahead of them. As Morgan herself says: “The more we know of how we work, the better we can make ourselves work.” With this book, teens will have the knowledge and tools to be the best person they can be. You can pre-order it here. The book publishes on 24 May 2018.

The Mystery of the Colour Thief Cover Reveal

colour thief

I am thrilled to showcase this gorgeous animated gif of the cover for The Mystery of the Colour Thief by Ewa Jozefkowicz, cover design by Sophie Gilmore, published by Zephyr on 3rd May.

The Mystery of the Colour Thief is a captivating and uplifting novel about twelve-year-old Izzy, trying to cope with her mother being in a coma after a car accident, her father’s resulting disintegration, and her best friend dumping her. Meanwhile, she has nightmares about a shadowy man stealing colours from her world; nightmares that seem to seep into her daytime consciousness as she watches the colours fade from the mural on her wall.

But things start looking up when she meets her new neighbour, Toby, and together they embark on a plan to save a small cygnet on a nearby river, and find that saving a swan may end up saving Izzy too.

This extremely readable novel lays bare the emotions of friendship and family, as well as exploring the impact of nature on our urban lives, and the ways in which we can find hope and confidence in ourselves. Toby is wheelchair-bound after an accident of his own, but together with Izzy, the two new friends find that positivity and confidence help them through adversity. With authentic characterisation, nuanced emotional intelligence, and gentle unravelling of the mystery, Jozefkowicz has written an impactful and memorable story. Here, she explains how she was inspired by colour.

the colour thief“Let go!’ said the colour thief and he loomed large, long fingers ready to snatch the last of my colour. The world flickered like a faulty lightbulb and then everything went dark.”

The quote above comes from Izzy’s recurring nightmare in which a mysterious figure calls out to her from a cloud of smoke, each time issuing a warning about something terrible that’s about to happen. When she wakes up in the morning, she finds that another colour has disappeared from the mural on her bedroom wall and she begins to panic, as she has no idea about how to bring it back.

I’ve always been fascinated by colour and particularly its link to human emotion. We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘black dog,’ which is an image associated with sadness and the idea of ‘seeing red’ when you’re angry or turning ‘green with envy’. But until relatively recently, I hadn’t heard anybody talk about things becoming ‘colourless’ when they feel down.

The idea for Izzy’s story actually came from a young girl in a school where I was a governor, who was going through an incredibly tough time at home and when asked by a teacher about what impact it was having on her, she said that it felt as though all the colours had disappeared from her world. It was a touching image – when I heard it, I could imagine what it must be like to look at the world as if through the screen of an old-fashioned film, where everything is in shades of grey.

Ewa Jozefkowicz

Ewa Jozefkowicz. Photo credit: Ruta Zukaite

Before the thief entered her life, Izzy’s world was filled with colour. Her mum was an artist, and she was used to helping her mix her paints to create the most amazing hues. She appreciated everything from the deep azure blue of the summer sky above her head as she daydreamed looking up at the clouds, to the particular chocolate brown of her dog Milo’s coat. But then the car accident happened which left her mum in hospital, and all of the colours that they used to enjoy together suddenly began to fade away.

The Mystery of The Colour Thief is a tale of a broken friendship, of illness and of sadness, but there is also much light in it. Izzy loses an old friend who no longer understands her, but she also gains a new one in her neighbour Toby, and she discovers a nest of swans with a tiny cygnet, Spike, who is even more lost than her. Both help her on her quest, so she is no longer alone.

I wanted to convey two important messages within the story – the first is that if you’re going through something similar to Izzy, if you find that your world is a little greyer, the colours a bit toned down, you most definitely are not alone. Sometimes a ‘colour thief’ might descend on you when you least expect it, through no fault of your own. The second, and most important one, is that there are always kind people around you who can help you to repaint your world – you just need to seek them out.

With thanks to Ewa Jozefkowicz and Zephyr, an imprint of Head of Zeus publishers. You can pre-order your copy of The Mystery of the Colour Thief here.

YA Shot: An Interview with Sita Brahmachari

ya shotYA Shot 2018 (an author-run books festival) is human rights themed this year, which makes it a perfect opportunity to interview Sita Brahmachari. Sita’s novel, Tender Earth, has been nominated as one of the UK Honour Books by IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People).

The characters in Tender Earth are diverse in both their backgrounds and their outlooks, and Amnesty International has endorsed the book as illuminating the importance of equality, friendship and solidarity. But it’s not just Tender Earth that eschews these qualities. Sita’s books cover a range of topics, from refugees in Worry Angels and Artichoke Hearts to dealing with divorce in Red Leaves, to the rights of a lollipop man, music, and dealing with loss in her latest for Barrington Stoke, Zebra Crossing Soul Song.

But although they cover so many issues, each book always includes a diverse range of characters. Sita has been the online Writer in Residence for Book Trust, discussing finding a voice and being engaged in current affairs, and Writer in Residence at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, and is an Amnesty Ambassador championing Universal Human Rights. So I asked her the following:

How much of an impact can storytelling for children have on changing the world/on influencing human rights?

Tender EarthI read I Know Why The Caged Bird’s Sings by Maya Angelou when I was twelve years old. I forgot that I was reading. I had stepped into the life of another human being.  I was walking with the young Maya through all her struggles in a time and a country that I had never visited. Reading this book opened a portal in my mind and heart. My reading journey really started there and it has led me to explore so many territories and realities that I would never get to visit in one life time. I love that (if libraries and specialist librarians are properly supported) all books can find their way into the hands of all children. Access to books is perhaps the greatest indicator of equality. In Tender Earth Laila is partly inspired to become an activist by reading I am Malala. This is close to my own experience and I hope young readers might be inspired to empathise with many people through my stories and that their empathy might lead them to act, as Laila does to show her support for what she believes in.

Your books are often about identity, whether it be our cultural identity, heritage, nationality. How important is it for children to know their family background?

I’m interested in all kinds of different identities. There is the identity that we grow up with which we may be comfortable with or not. I’m also interested in the identities we choose.

zebra crossing soul song

I think of it this way. When I was a young child my parents made choices on my behalf – nothing unusual there – But as we grow we gather our own tastes and interests, as well as strong feelings about the identities and  beliefs we should be free to choose. In Jasmine Skies Mira is interested in tracing her family history. It gives her a sense of belonging to a wide diaspora family. However, In Red Leaves Aisha, a young girl who is a Somali refugee, is deeply connected to the family she has had to leave behind, but she must forge a new identity in a new land. We all have several identities depending on context. I think I’m really interested in how identities inform character. In my latest story for Barrington Stoke Zebra Crossing Soul Song Lenny is shocked that Otis his friend would stare at his dads as they stand kissing on the doorstep.

Many children like Aisha or Lenny are adopted or fostered and their early stories may be very unknown or unlooked for…what I’m interested in is depicting communities that are open to allowing us to explore all of who we are and can become, including who we love, how we love, what we believe, our cultures, where we come from, where we travel to.

For me, exploration of identities is a rich seam for storytelling… I would say most human beings do seek places where they feel a strong sense of belonging whether that be in stories or life.

I’ve noticed lots of inter-generational relationships in your novels. Is this something drawn from your own experience?

I find the way we structure and segregate a society through age to be limiting.

I often find that young people in mixed age groups are more open to widen their horizons and listen to each other. In Tender Earth Dara, who was a Kindertransport refugee, has much to share with Laila about her first-hand experience of being a refugee. I am fascinated in the relationship between oral history and storytelling. Whenever I meet young people I encourage them to ask members of their family about their histories. My first novel Artichoke Hearts explores the idea of what we inherit from people who come before us. In Brace Mouth, False Teeth on work experience in a nursing home, Zeni discovers a whole world in the mind of Alice a woman with dementia. I try to paint many different kinds of families in my stories… there is no one size fits all, but in all the kind of families I depict they quite naturally include members of every generation.

Many of your books deal with refugees and the global diaspora.  Do you think we are getting better at welcoming refugees in this country, or worse?

worry angelsWe are at a moment in history where the politics of migration rages through every media discussion. Some of the language used de-humanises. We are also at a moment when our children are growing up with images of children their own ages drowning at sea and making terrible journeys to find safety. Many unaccompanied children have been denied their legal right  (UDHR) to join families who already live in this country. In Tender Earth Dara (who arrived here as a refugee on Kindertransport) cries as she watches the news. But Laila (12 years old) and Pari (the child of Iraqi refugee parents) become best friends. Since Jide in Artichoke Hearts, my stories include refugee children as part of the narrative…Aisha, Janu, Rima, Amir, Pari…they are part of all our stories. How we welcome children in stories matters deeply. Amy May’s and Grace’s welcome of Rima and her family in Worry Angels is the welcome I would like to see in stories as in life. It’s the welcome that I think is just as important for Amy May as it is for Rima in order for all of us to live in a more empathetic society.

I’m glad you mentioned empathy. Can you tell me a little about your involvement in Empathy Lab

I am delighted that Empathy Lab have picked Tender Earth as one of thirty stories that can help young people feel more empathy. I had early discussions with Empathy Lab about the kinds of activities I do in schools and the strongly empathetic responses young people have to my stories.

Writers must fully enter into the worlds of so many different characters. I will often engage in thorough research to get under the skin of situations. The process of having empathy for characters and people who may on the surface feel unapproachable is a valuable one as a storyteller and a reader but also in life in general.

I would go so far as to say that it is perhaps the most important ability we can learn as human beings whatever we choose to do.

For me empathy is active … it creates stories and characters but it also leads me to act differently eg. my discussion about refugee people above led me to work as writer in residence in a refugee centre for several years along with Jane Ray. It also led me to become an Amnesty Ambassador.

I’ll be joining six other writers to work in libraries with inter-generational groups to explore how empathy in stories and life can help us to connect and feel more deeply for each other. In Worry Angels Rima tells her friend Amy May to ‘feel about it.’ Her translator corrects her English to ‘think about it’ but I want my stories to go beyond thinking to make readers ‘feel about it.’

Do you think it is necessary to portray life’s difficulties and sadness in books for children?

kite spiritChildren experience every human emotion just as adults do, and they are often experiencing them intensely for the first time. If we don’t include the full range of human emotion in stories we deny access for children to explore their own emotional worlds.

Stories offer a place for us to explore difficulties as well as mysteries and wonders. Very often they allow us try on different ways of being, paths to avoid as well as those to take.

Just as Nana Josie in Artichoke Hearts involved Mira in all aspects of her planned funeral, I think it’s vital that children and young people are given access to all that impacts on their lives. In Kite Spirit I explore the impact of ‘not speaking’ and ‘ staying silent’ about the pressures faced. I am very happy that this story has been taken up by The Reading Agency as a story that helps young people explore their own mental health, and PHSE resources will be created around the story.

 

Reading your books, it always feels as if they are very much character led. What comes first for you as a writer – the character, the plot or the setting?

Characters always come first for me. They often lead me to their stories in unexpected ways. This is the adventure of writing …characters, like people, won’t be confined and limited by conscious thought, list making and planning….they grow best when you give them space to dream, imagine and expand and then they can take you places in a story and landscape you never plotted out for them. It’s in the space between what you think you might be writing and what you actually write that the magic and mystery of writing lies. Being free to explore in that space allows the imagination to flourish and the possibilities for your stories to open up.

Landscape is also a character in my stories. The Kolkata in Jasmine Skies is perhaps one of the biggest most vital character in that story and its human characters grow out of the landscape. In Kite Spirit I draw heavily on the Lake District landscape of my childhood. Similarly the North London Woods in which Red Leaves is set provided the inspiration for the character of the homeless ‘Elder’… whose skin resembles a gnarled tree trunk in that wood. I find plot from placing my characters in juxtaposition with each other, with landscape and situation and seeing what they say and do! In many ways plot is what comes to me through improvising with my characters.

We have symbols for religion, countries etc. There are also lots of symbols that leap out from your books. How important is it for you to attach a symbol to a story – for example – the artichoke charm in Artichoke Hearts?

artichoke heartsI’m one of those people who likes to collect things! It’s not only Nana Josie in Artichoke Hearts who collects random things like ‘holey stones!’ I have to admit that my bookshelves need cleaning and sorting as much as Uma’s do in Tender Earth. In her keenness to throw out some old objects that have been kept on the shelves because they originally meant something Uma almost throws away the most important symbol in the story. The charm that chimes back to Nana Josie in ‘Artichoke Hearts’ is only saved at the last minute because of Laila’s inquisitive nature. Most children I know like to collect things… shells, pennies, books…

These unifying metaphors often come to me in quite a random way… the artichoke was a vegetable on my table before it was a charm… but it was perfect as a way of drawing together what I was writing about…the complex layers of a life…and what’s at the heart of it.

Often these symbols have a deep personal meaning for me and by planting them in the story they act as a story hearth hidden deep in the centre of the book and giving warmth… it’s these symbols that keep the core of the story alive.

Does it irritate you to be asked about diversity in your books or is it cheering? Do you think we’ll ever get to a point when it’s a given and not an asked question?

We’re not at a point where the children we write for and the characters in the stories are representative of the diverse, global, economically unequal world we live in, so quite simply I see it as part of my job to talk about this and where I can promote change I do. For me it’s not an agenda… all those who love stories want more diversity of stories.

As a child I needed them and didn’t find them, as an adult and as a parent of three young people ranging from early twenties to thirteen years of age, I was shocked to find how little things had changed. Over the past decade the debates around diversity including BAME, LGBTQ and disability representation, and also the need for global stories to be translated into English, have become greater and there is activism and the realisation that outreach is needed in many areas of the children’s publishing world. However, this takes place at a time when there are cuts to library services and in the roles of professional librarians. There is little point writing stories with diverse heart and souls if all young people don’t get access to them.

In my stories, I believe I normalise diversity by populating my books with a diverse cast of characters and stories… this goes far beyond including names from different cultures. It’s about deep engagement with different people…with difference and with similarity…and it’s about a joy in the mystery of travelling a wide, diverse universe of cultures, histories, languages, experiences and beliefs. This is the normal of how we humans live in the world and increasingly so with technological connectivity. It’s the world our children are growing up in but it’s not the norm in books yet. Until it is, everybody’s horizons are limited. Many children will feel their absence in stories and this can have a deep impact in them finding their presence valued in all aspect of their lives.

Can you tell me a little about your route to publication?

Sita Brahmachari

I was late to learn to read. I lived in my imagination for a long time. I was a doodler and a daydreamer like Mira! When I was ready I became a voracious reader and got a reading chair at the age of thirteen – no one else was allowed to sit there! I travelled to new galaxies on that chair!

I studied English at Bristol University. I was in a community theatre play and discovered I loved working with young people on creative projects. My first work was at The Royal Court Young People’s Theatre where I was lucky enough to work on the National Young Writers Festival. Over the next years I wrote plays with and for young people and worked for many different theatre companies.  At the heart of my work I have always felt the importance of young people’s voices being heard. I was writing novels and poetry before I started reading but never showed my work to anyone. In 2005 I finally plucked up courage to send my story Artichoke Hearts to agents. It was miraculous to me that Macmillan Children’s Books published it and it won The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Since then I have been commissioned to write four futher books for Macmillan Children’s Books, four for Barrington Stoke Publishers, short stories in anthologies for Amnesty International and Walker Books and Stripes Publishers (Crisis at Christmas) and a theatre adaptation of Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival. In September I have my first illustrated novella published by Otter Barry Books, illustrated by Jane Ray. I am currently under commission to write two new novels.

With many thanks to Sita Brahmachari. She will be on the ‘Family, faith and identity panel’ at YA Shot on 14th April at 5pm. 

 

Charlie and Me by Mark Lowery

charlie and meAt first glance a simple tale of brothers who take a train journey back to the destination they holidayed at the year before, this wonderfully nuanced novel turns into something much more profound and moving.

Thirteen-year-old Martin, and his younger brother Charlie, are travelling 421 miles from Preston to the tip of Cornwall to recapture the wonder and delight they experienced when they watched a dolphin the previous summer.

But travelling unaccompanied has its hazards and pitfalls, and Martin almost stumbles just purchasing the ticket. And Charlie is not a normal child; he was born too early and needs extra care and attention.

There is so much to like about this novel. The detailed compartmentalised journey – each section of the novel separated into the segments of the journey, be they train times or just sitting on a bench on a platform waiting, work brilliantly, because they pace the novel, and set the tone. Each minute is accounted for: visiting the toilets on the platform, taking a train in the wrong direction, and by doing this Lowery captures a child’s anticipation and excitement of a journey, as well as the small details children notice, such as the other people, the atmosphere, the passing landscapes.

Martin takes his notebook along, and encouraged by a teacher at school, he jots down poems as a way to remember what he’s doing, and express his emotions. The physical book reproduces Martin’s poems on lined paper, in between the journey narrative, which is a nice production touch. But the poems also indicate to the reader the journey of Martin’s mind, as his thoughts become more intense and his emotions confused.

There are occasional flashbacks too, to the summer before, when Martin and Charlie first observed the dolphin from the Cornish harbour, and these capture the wonder of nature, the excitement of the dolphin’s leap from the water, and also the local community who track the dolphin’s whereabouts.

Through the present tense journey, and the flashbacks, Lowery cleverly delineates the sibling relationship, expressing Martin’s pride in his responsibility, yet also impatience and frustration, particularly with Charlie, who is unique and vulnerable. There is also plenty of humour wrapped up in the shades of their relationship; the authenticity of sibling kindnesses and annoyance shines through.

This is particularly apparent in the dialogue between the brothers, and in Martin’s thought-process as he spells out his worries and his protective nature. But mainly, the book feels chatty and warm – these characters make you want to journey with them.

Lowery drops clues throughout the story that this journey isn’t all it seems. Four hundred and twenty one miles is a long way to go to revisit a dolphin, and astute readers will work out that something else is awry too. The final denouement is quite devastating, and will be upsetting for many, because in the end this is not a tale of adventure but a story that deals with mental health and loss.

Despite this shattering turn at the end, the story does feel uplifting – exemplified by the care and support around Martin, and kindness of strangers throughout the book. And what’s more the clues and strands tie together neatly at the end, and will provoke thought and discussion.

The style is easy to read, the plot paced beautifully, and yet the book is also emotionally sophisticated. In turns, light and deep, this is an inspiring read. You can buy it here.

Children’s Mental Health Week

Children’s Mental Health week in the UK runs from February 5th to the 11th. One publisher has sent me a story specifically for this week, and there’s a gathering number of voices who are publishing books that speak to children’s mental health issues.

But reading any good narrative enables the reader to step into someone else’s shoes, to experience their story, and hence gain some empathy on another’s state of mind. But as well as that, some books relate more directly to the reader’s own experience – if the characters are going through a situation that they too are experiencing, the reader can see how the characters react. How do they deal with the darker side of life, how do they overcome their obstacles? In turn, the reader may review their own situation. The book may not offer a solution, but it can show readers another way of thinking about things, perhaps a different way through their dark time.

Someone asked me recently what comes first – if readers learn resilience through books, or if they come to certain darker books with resilience, enabling them to read the books without fear. It’s a tricky one. Some resilience is innate – there are children who accept scary books quite readily, others who approach them with horror, but some resilience is garnered through the reading of difficult situations and issues.

Most of all, books offer a safe space in which to experience the darkness of life, and also show how others perceive a similar darkness. Reading, funnily enough, can be less isolating.


Michael Rosen’s Sad Book
, illustrated by Quentin Blake
is a great example. Rosen wrote the book as a reaction to the death of his son – which is stated within the first few pages. But he also talks about a general sadness that can come over any of us at any time.

The book also explores ways in which Rosen tries to overcome some of the sadness, by thinking about good things he has done that make him proud, or remembering that other people are sad sometimes too. It’s good not to be alone. Talking through the sadness helps him as well.

This is a deservedly award-winning book, which prompts all kinds of emotions, both through the simplicity of the book, but also through Quentin Blake’s astonishingly emotive illustrations.

The book takes the reader through the different layers and types of sadness, from that which settles like a weight, to the sadness at the edges of the happiest things. Emotions are not isolated – they come in a tangled heap, sad with angry, sad with frustration, and sad with happy.

But most of all, this is not a book to which a child needs to bring their resilience. They will find it in the pages within. You can buy it here.


One newer book on the scene is Night Shift by Debi Gliori. This small formatted picture book is targeted at a teenage audience. Even its size and beautiful production (fabric cover) give away this book’s topic – depression can make you feel small, and anything that relieves it can be beautiful.

Gliori draws on her own experience of depression to illustrate this book, showing the illness in the form of a dragon in her charcoal-like illustrations. At first the dragon’s steam is a fog rolling in at night, but soon it pervades the day. Gliori highlights the physical effect of this mental illness in all its debilitating forms, but all beautifully drawn onto the normal day of a teen girl.


Gliori then goes on to highlight different ways in which the girl tries to rid herself of the feeling, from talking about it, drawing it, living with it. One of the most startling pages is the one in which she addresses the platitudes that are given to her: “chin up”.

There is a resolution at the end – her own way of finding a small beauty that helps the fog to lift, the dragon to fly away. As in Rosen’s book, it’s the skill of the simplicity of the language to convey the feeling, and the essence of sharing and hopefulness despite the darkness. You can buy one here.


Another starkly compelling and moving picture book is Small Things by Mel Tregonning, completed posthumously by Shaun Tan. The title is ironic of course – what the protagonist deals with here is not small at all. This wordless black and white graphic novel deals with one small boy’s misery at school – excluded from sports and friendships. His schoolwork is suffering too, and slowly the reader starts to see strange shapes and shadows that invade and penetrate the boy’s world. These take over, keeping the boy up at night, eating away at who he is.

The illustrations are painful to take in sometimes – the small boy’s sadness manifested in his large head and eyes, the anxiety and angst all too clear, the shapes and his disintegration fairly horrific. But when he shares his feelings with his sister and then confides in his parents, things start to change. Finally, he sees that he is not alone in the strange creatures – gradually, the boy sees that others have the shapes to deal with too, and so feel as he does and a bond is formed. It’s not a complete resolution, but a path forward.

The book comes from a place of pain, but the idea is that it provides solace to those who otherwise may not have reached out. Wordless, it screams louder than most. It’s available here.

The last book is the one sent to me by a publisher for this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week. It’s a book that aims to explore and teach mindfulness. Mind Hug: The First Story by Emily Arber and Vanessa Lovegrove shows a boy upset by the influx of noise inside his head, the buzziness of everyday life, but also the thoughts that can erupt from nowhere. Then his father shows him how to breathe and to dismiss the overcrowding. It doesn’t work at first go, but the boy tries again. In the end he shares it with a friend, who shares it again.

The idea, like mindfulness, is relatively simple, and the premise good. Unfortunately the text is a little all over the place, with some rhyming, some not, and a rhythm that comes and goes. You can buy it here.

But it’s not just picture books that bring awareness of mental health, and I’ve highlighted a couple of others here.

Like so many other ‘issues’, sometimes the best books are those that nudge a child towards the issue rather than focus the entire book on it. Flour Babies by Anne Fine is an excellent example – when the children in school have to look after their own ‘flour sacks’ as babies, and learn many things in the process. Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare talks about the difficult subject of parental depression all wrapped within a beautiful nature adventure story, Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho Yen and A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill also deal with depressive parents, but again, next to well-told stories. The protagonist in The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson has OCD, but the book reads as a mystery.

By opening up a book with a fictional cast of characters but with very real problems, it’s hoped that children can find a way through, discover a path they may not have thought of, see a light in the dark. Have a look at The Empathy Lab here, for more ideas.