middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

The Ethan I was Before by Ali Standish and Truth or Dare by Non Pratt

It’s funny how books bucket together. In the past two months I’ve read three books with ‘dares’ as their theme – I Dare You by Reece Wykes, a picture book for the young at heart with a wry sense of humour, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt, a most excellent YA novel with some hard truths at heart, and The Ethan I was Before, a middle grade novel with a dare at its core.

In The Ethan I Was Before, twelve-year-old Ethan is moved with his family to live with his grandfather in Georgia, a far cry from the Boston he is used to. Allegedly the move is to help his grandfather, although it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather is an independent soul, and the move is to remove Ethan from an uncomfortable incident in his past.

Ethan’s relationship with his angry older brother, his new relationship with Coralee (an enigmatic girl he meets at school), and the exploration of his new town make up the bulk of the novel, but all the time the reader is aware of a past secret that Ethan is hiding.

Standish’s prose pulls in the reader from the beginning. There are some key phrases that show flashes of great writing, her similies are excellent and create an authentic sense of place: she describes the air at one point with “humidity like a wet fleece blanket”. Her characterisations too are neat and winning, from her portrayal of forthright and keenly intelligent Mack, who runs the local store, to Ethan’s Mum, who tends to burn food because she forgets having put it in the oven in an endearingly absentminded preoccupation. Standish also has a handle on the unsophisticated twelve-year-old way of trying to describe in words the complex emotions of guilt and anxiety. She also focuses on what Ethan’s therapist has told him to do, extrapolating the way Ethan is feeling without laying it too bare for the readership:

“It’s almost funny, that everything that would make a normal person happy is what makes me feel the most sad.”

And yet, it’s the not laying it bare that holds this book back from being as good as it should be. The ‘secret’ in the past is too often alluded to by Ethan’s family, and himself, and yet doesn’t feel real. Because they are all holding back so much, the constant nudges that there is something else going on, or something big that happened in the past, feel too contrived. Although in real life, we all do keep back parts of ourselves, even in some cases from ourselves, one feels that Ethan’s family would talk more frankly – particularly his brother – or that Ethan, who narrates the story in first person, would be slightly more honest with himself and with the readership. It doesn’t sit well that he hides the past from himself, because it doesn’t fit with his character.

On the whole this was a really enjoyable book; I just felt that it could have been bigger. With slightly more depth and more subtlety, the past could have been explored in more detail and led to a weightier novel. So the denouement, when it comes, feels half-hearted, and I wanted the ‘dare’ to be more dramatic. But for glimpses of what Standish can do, and with the possibility that there is better to come, this is an intriguing debut. It will fit the bill nicely for a summertime coming-of-age novel, and gives a great sense of small town America. You can buy it here.

For meatiness I’d go to the YA coming-of-age title, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt. Although the production at first seems gimmicky, in that the first part is narrated by main character Claire Casey, leaving the story on a cliffhanger, with the second part physically flipped over so that the reader has to turn the book upside down and start from the other end to read the other main character, Sef’s narration continuing the plot, the story itself is far from contrived. In fact, it becomes swiftly apparent reading part two that this consecutive narration adds depth and substance.

Kam Malik suffers a life-changing injury after a stupid stunt goes wrong. Claire, shy and unobtrusive, volunteers at his rehabilitation clinic. When she gets to know Kam’s brother, Sef, together they come up with a scheme to raise much-needed funds to maintain his rehabilitation. It’s a Truth or Dare YouTube campaign, but before long their truths collide and their dares take things too far.

Non Pratt has a magnificent turn of phrase that enables description without the reader feeling they’re reading any. The plot is deft and agile – the book skips along punctuated with accurate and authentic dialogue, and a look into the innermost thoughts of her narrators, which is, at times, devastating.

What shines through is the depth of characterisation, as at first the reader, through Claire’s eyes, really likes Sef Malik, but what soon becomes apparent through his point of view in part two, is that no one shows their true self to everyone, and that people aren’t kind or unkind throughout. Everyone has their motivations, demons, and selfishness. Pratt wheels through a host of issues including prejudice, fame, guilt, and love without once making this an issue novel. It’s a gripping read, as tumultuous as Claire’s relationship with Sef, and deeply satisfying. You can buy it here.

 

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Crazily enough, this children’s novel is the second I have read in the last two months that is rooted in an historical leprosy colony, and explores the effects on families and society. The other novel is Lauren Volk’s Beyond the Bright Sea.

Millwood Hargrave’s second novel, The Island at the End of Everything, is set in Culion in the Philippines, which in 1902 was established by US forces as a leper colony. Ami’s ‘touched mother’ gives birth to her on the island, and they live fairly simple lives until Ami’s thirteenth year, when US forces take over the island and decree that it is to be home for the ‘touched’ only, and they ship in many more lepers, segregating them from the untouched. The new governor then strips the island of the disease-free children and ships them to an orphanage on another island, so Ami takes it upon herself to find her way back home.

The story is told in Millwood Hargrave’s lyrical style, with her zing of brevity that wings the reader through the book. She has a poet’s eye for relaying a scene swiftly without flowery embellishment, managing to write vivid descriptions that all strive for the specific. The Philippines lend themselves to this prosaic style, and their lush landscapes are brought sharply into focus – the scent of oranges and colour of butterflies remain long after the book is finished.

The prose is startlingly different from Lauren Wolk’s book. There are no truisms spoken here, although they do exist – they are more subtly buried in an undercurrent of the adventure. But Hargrave’s characters are equally impetuous – particularly Ami herself and her friend Mari – they do not stop to think or listen to the grown ups around them, but take matters very much into their own hands. This plays with a general theme in current children’s fiction in which children often try to please their parents, not realising that they have misunderstood the essence of what will make their parents happy.

Millwood Hargrave also brings in her now characteristic element of writing strong female protagonists, and managing to instill a slight feminist agenda –  in that she shows her protagonists’ ability to act equally to the boys around them, despite them often being belittled by older boys or men.

But above the layers of all this, is a page-turning adventure story, packed with verdant scenery, and a demonstration of characters’ defiance against hatred and judgement, and their defence of love and friendship. There’s a sort of ‘no man left behind’ feel to the adventure, which is populated by good people, especially children, who are all overcoming adversity and striving to do well.

I actually preferred its simplicity and pace to the Millwood Hargrave’s debut, The Girl of Ink and Stars, for which she won the overall Waterstone’s Book Prize. Island feels more effortless, as if it flowed from the pen more easily, and is a kind of flawless adventure that definitely fulfills the author’s aim in showing children how to wonder at the wonders around us. I can’t wait to see what she does next. You can buy a copy of Island 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.

An Interview with CLiPPA shortlisted poet Kate Wakeling

Moon Juice by Kate Wakeling, illustrated by Elina Braslina, has been shortlisted for the CLiPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award). Past winners have included Sarah Crossan, Michael Rosen, Carol Ann Duffy, Roger McGough, Joseph Coelho, John Agard and many more. Before the winner is announced next Friday 14th July, I have the honour of welcoming Kate Wakeling onto the blog. Her collection of poems is broad and varied, both in subject and tone, and has a wonderful mix of word play and storytelling. 

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the CliPPA Childrens Poetry Award for your debut collection of poems for children, Moon Juice. Can you tell the readers a little about the collection?

Thank you! And thank you for having me on your excellent blog! Moon Juice is a mixture of lots of different sorts of poems – there are list poems, riddles, story poems, character poems – I wanted it to feel sort of technicolour in the mind’s eye. Much of the writing is quite mischievous and playful – the book is peopled by some absurd characters like Skig the Warrior and Hamster Man – but amid the mischief, a number of the poems aims to explore (in gentle ways) some more serious things like difficult moods, death, and ideas of authority. I am keen to try and talk about important things in an unsentimental way and with a good peppering of humour. The poem I am most proud of in the collection is called ‘The Demon Mouth’. It explores ideas of compulsion and the need for tenderness, but in the midst of some rascally wordplay and (I hope) a rollicking story.

Theres a huge emphasis on the soundof the words in the poems. At the beginning of Comet, you even instruct the reader how to read it. Do you think poetry should always be read out loud?

Ha! Yes, Comet comes with the instruction that it should be read as quickly as possible. I liked the feeling of adding something of a physical game into a poem’s set-up on the page and have been amazed at how much fun it seems to have generated for readers. I’m definitely going to keep exploring this sort of idea!

In terms of whether every poem should be read aloud, I don’t feel too dogmatic about this. I think the key thing for me is that each poem deserves to be sounded – so much is gained from a poem when the reader lets the full sound of each word really chime. Reading aloud is a great way to capture these riches but it can work pretty well when reading to oneself too. Part of the magic of poetry for me is the sense of quiet and privacy that being absorbed in a poem allows, so I understand that some people want to take their poetry in silence (but would urge them to make plenty of noise on the inside).

And leading on from that, the shape of the poems on the page is also important to their comprehension – the white space of Ghost Sister, which speaks to a sense of loss and absence, the capitalisation of the letter ‘Oin Telescope. Are poems meant to exist both in audio and visual form?

I loved playing with the page when writing these poems. And yes, the look of a poem can be absolutely key to its meaning and effect – this is definitely the case with the two poems you mention. Now I think of it, I very rarely perform ‘Telescope’ or ‘Ghost Sister’ – perhaps because I feel like something might be lost when they are lifted from the page. ‘This be the Scale’ also springs to mind as a poem in the book with a strong visual identity that I rarely read aloud to groups. The poem is structured as a numbered list that charts the world of sound from the deepest noise imaginable to the very very very highest ping. Ha, perhaps the reason I don’t perform it is also because I think the reader is being invited to imagine some extraordinary sounds and so needs the privacy of their own brain to get to grips with them.

You describe yourself as an ethnomusicologist as well as a poet, and in fact work as a writer-in-residence with an orchestra. How does music influence your poetry?

I think music infuses absolutely everything I write. I think I have quite a keen awareness as to the ‘sonics’ of the words I use, and am also pretty obsessed about the rhythm of text, be it when writing couplets or completely free verse – rhythm is central to absolutely every kind of poem. Thinking about the question above, I’m also struck more and more by how the white space on the page in a poem (or lack thereof) creates a sense of rhythm and have been enjoying experimenting with this.

And is there a specific genre or piece of music that inspired this collection of poetry?

Perhaps not one piece of music but I think all the music I’ve played and listened to and studied over the years has played a part in creating a certain energy and enthusiasm for seeking out the musicality in my writing. That said, I lived in Indonesia for a year-and-a-bit to research Balinese music for my PhD, and I think that experience was crucial to me in finding my way as a poet. I find it hard to lay a finger on how, but I feel like my imagination really relaxed there. Perhaps it was having the space to be away from familiar things and spending so much of my time – hours and hours most days! – playing this particularly complex but quite repetitive music. I think playing gamelan (an ensemble of bronze and bamboo percussion instruments) can do something really excellent to a person’s thought process – you are at once freed up while also forced to be precise. And on reflection, I think these are the two qualities I feel I need to hone when I’m writing a poem.

Kate Wakeling

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and yet even claimed in his acceptance speech that songs are unlike literature. Theyre meant to be sung, not read.Whats your view on this?

I think I agree, at least in part, with Bob! Which is not to say lyrics oughtn’t to be read on the page in any circumstances, just that I think music and text interact in such a special way when created together expressly to form a song. And so extracting one bit of that creation and then framing it as something else isn’t always perhaps fair or particularly enriching to that material. But heck, I’m not Bob Dylan so who am I to say what anyone should or shouldn’t do with their sleeve notes.

There seems to be a deliberate amount of play with form and words in the collection. For example Hair Piece looks as if it might be prose, but feels like poetry. Are you trying to pose questions to the readers about the essence of poetry?

Certainly not deliberately, but I did particularly enjoy writing ‘Hair Piece’ and found the idea of infusing this bit of prose with as much sonic punch as I could muster really exciting and satisfying. I love squeezing a bit of semi-secret poetry into things (I get irrational amounts of pleasure from trying to cook up a really good text message to a friend). I should also say that ‘Hair Piece’ owes lots to John Hegley, whose books I love and who writes wonderful prose poems that are full of mischievous and insightful word play. There is an amazing narrative prose poem in his Love Cuts about a break-up and it explores a burgeoning affair with a pensioner, a sliced onion and a piece of cubist art (among other things). It looks just like prose on the page but fizzes with poetry through and through. I still base almost all my internet passwords on various characters from that poem (I here confess this strange but sincere Hegley homage) so I think about it everyday.

With huge thanks to Kate Wakeling for such insightful answers to my questions. Moon Juice is available to buy here. Don’t miss out.

Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth

Another new novel for children (aged approx nine years and over) that seeks to explore an immensely difficult political reality, but without making it too complicated for children to understand or too upsetting to read. Instead, it uses adventure and ongoing hope in the face of extreme adversity.

Tash lives in Tibet, where her father works for the resistance in an attempt to keep his supressed religion alive, and to get word out to the wider world about the oppression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese occupation. When a man sets fire to himself in the village as an act of protest, the Chinese soldiers step up their curfews and subjugation. Tash’s parents are taken away, so she sets off across the Himalayas to India in search of help from the exiled Dalai Lama. The majority of the book tells the account of her trek across the mountains with her friend Sam, and two yaks.

What makes the book work is that this is a depiction of an ordinary child in extraordinary circumstances. At the beginning of the novel she is shown attending school, and yet she can’t run home through the fields as she’d like because the patrolling soldiers don’t allow it. The emotions and thoughts are those of a child, with hurts, guilts and worries explored, but all the time there are small nuggets that lead the reader to believe that being small doesn’t mean that you can’t make a difference.

The prose is simple too. Short sharp sentences in short sharp chapters, with distinct character development as Tash moves across the mountains. This gives the character a clear sense of purpose, but also makes the book a swift quick read, as if the reader too is running from danger. It also lowers the age range accessibility – meaning that a young confident reader can tackle the book because the vocabulary and sentence structures are kept easy and tight. However, in its brevity, the book glosses over some of the implausibility of the journey, and the action feels a little lacking in overall cohesion – almost as if the journey dominates the overall purpose – but for children this could be read less as a flaw and more as simply a sign of a pacey read.

As with many novels for children, there is a very positive, yet dependent relationship between child and animal, (in place of family), and so the yaks become very much characters on whom the children are reliant, and so for whom the readers feel passion. There is also a huge emphasis on friendship, loyalty and courage.

And lastly, the production of the book is simply stunning. With a cover that sings of sunrise and adventure, and inside pages that hold intricate print designs and hidden yaks, this is a beautiful book to own. An eye-opening and somewhat different read. Buy yours here.

The Norris Girls by Nigel Hinton

I remember searching for new Nigel Hinton books when I was in my teens, relishing Collision Course, The Finders and Buddy. So, when I was approached by an independent publisher to review a book they were calling ‘Little Women’ for the twenty-first century, I was a little surprised to discover the author was the very same. It’s a far cry from the broken father/son relationship of Buddy, or the guilt-ridden teenage angst of Collision Course. And yet, is it?

In fact, the book owes more to Hinton’s previous novels and his exploration of family relationships than it does Little Women, (although there is a Beth in both, and a tomboy, not called Jo, but Georgy). Hinton explores sibling relationships, guilt, and personal passions, which come together to form a rounded family portrait, in this delightfully vivacious novel for children.

The father in the Norris girls is working abroad, in dangerous territory. But life at home goes on. Beth is in her early teens, keen to shine in the school musical, whilst keeping her options open with potential boyfriends, Georgy is focussed on her running and trying out for the Inter-Counties competition, and Katie, the youngest, wants a pet.

The chapters move between the siblings, giving each their own perspective on the others at home, but also insight into their own preoccupations. What Hinton does here, by voicing so many points of view, is to show a typical family structure at work – each person enveloped within their own interests and individual lives, and yet also part of a whole – sharing relationships and worries and common goals. The reader gets a clear view of the girls’ individual passions and hobbies and friendships, yet also sees how that bounces off the conflicts and dilemmas within the family. The tension mounts as each faces a struggle on their own, which is all the time very much tied to the general conflict when their father gets taken hostage.

There is a lovely balance of supportive and friendly adults, as well as those who offer support in a harsher manner, with the petty jealousies, bickering, and upsets between peers. There are also strong friendships, as well as burgeoning boyfriend/girlfriend scenarios – but all on such a tame level that it’s quite suitable for a young audience. In fact, an older audience might be less taken with the chapters told from Katie’s point of view, endearing though they are.

There are ups and downs for the girls, successes and failures. Hinton captures well Georgy’s running abilities, and gives a real poignancy to Katie’s loveable ways. I wanted to feel Beth in a little more depth – she is at that perfect age where she’s struggling to identify herself as a girlfriend and as a teen within the family – she argues most with their mother, but I would have liked to see this more. Hinton also uses the first chapter to explore her texting with her friend, but this dies down shortly afterwards and it could have been embellished further – teens look to friends so much in the scenarios in which Beth finds herself.

But these small criticisms aside, this is a read to relish. As easy and breezy to read as a Jacqueline Wilson, yet filled with pathos and understanding. For me, it was less Little Women, and more like the Gemma stories by Noel Streatfield. The characters are fresh and sharp and have so much more to give – I would warrant this could be stretched to a series easily.

Hinton’s style and characterisations shine through, and he’s embraced the modernity of the girls’ lives, with video chats, phones at the ready, and media galore. He’s collided into the world of girls beautifully, with a soft ending that exemplifies exactly why his publishers have compared it to Little Women, or The Railway Children in fact. You can’t beat a happy ending for precipitating the tears. You can purchase it here.

 

 

 

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.

 

Hetty Feather at the Foundling Museum

There are days when all my kids and I want to do is find a patch of green in the sunlight somewhere in London and read our books. But, living in such a great city gives us many opportunities to explore. And there’s nothing I like better than matching a day out with a book.

That’s exactly what they’ve done at The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square. Their exhibition, Picturing Hetty Feather, runs from now until September 3rd and explores not only the history of the Foundling Hospital, but also how Hetty Feather was brought to life by Jacqueline Wilson in a book, and then on stage, and screen.

The Hetty Feather exhibition is very hands-on. There are workshops being led throughout the summer, and you can see the list by clicking here, (including a talk from Jacqueline Wilson herself, traditional bookbinding and creative writing), but even in the main museum there are activities to do.

The exhibits range from the historical to props used in the modern TV show. I was particularly taken with Jacqueline Wilson’s original Hetty Feather manuscript, in the most beautiful leather notepad, as well as the original matron’s mallet, and an 18th century pew. There are the children’s coat pegs from the original hospital (now hanging with dress-up costumes), as well as film clips of the TV programme, a schoolroom, dinner plates, and more.

What’s great is how the museum brings history to life with compelling stories – the staircase in the museum is the original staircase from the boys’ wing, with a wide flat sturdy handrail that was ideal for the braver boys to slide down. In the 18th century, iron spikes were put there instead, due to an incident in which a boy had fallen to his death – a story to turn into a novel if ever I heard one. It’s not only the history that pulls, but also the empathetic tone of much of the narrative throughout the museum. Children are asked to imagine the lives of the children at the Foundling Hospital – what they ate, how they slept, how they felt when their names were changed, how and if they behaved according to the strict Victorian rules. Today’s visitors can dress up, fill out their own menus, and write letters home.

Upstairs, there are some inventive ideas too. Children can visit the governors’ meeting room (the Court Room), not something many of the foundlings did I’m sure, and hold a mirror up to examine more closely the highly decorated ceiling. There are also the original tokens the children had (given to them as identifiers in place of their names, which were changed to prevent difficulties for the mothers), and some beautiful yet evocative paintings by Emma Brownlow depicting various situations in the children’s lives.

With a café too, and green spaces outside in Brunswick Square Gardens, this is a lovely way to spend an hour or two. You can buy a copy of Hetty Feather here.

King of the Sky by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Laura Carlin


An exquisitely moving picture book for an older age group that displays extraordinary depth in an ordinary tale of a boy moving to a new place and trying to make it feel like home.

Atmospheric from the start, the reader learns that the setting is a place in which the rain falls relentlessly, and the landscape is strange for the narrator – grey, and noisy:

“Little houses huddled on the humpbacked hills. Chimneys smoked and metal towers clanked.”

In fact it is Wales, and an Italian immigrant boy’s interpretation of his new surroundings.

This is a poetic reading, of a place our narrator feels is bleak. The text informs that he feels alone, and the accompanying evocative and dreamy illustrations tell the same story, with an emphasis on work and hollow spaces, faceless houses, and isolation. The boy remembers the contrast of the different smells and tones of the place he calls home – the Italian vanilla smells, yellow backgrounds, ice cream. The boy’s memory of home has been sparked by the sound of the Welsh pigeons cooing. In fact, his ensuing hope and salvation come not from new friends at school, but from a friendship with an elderly man and his hobby of pigeon racing.

This boy isn’t a toddler – again showing that this picture book isn’t for the very young, but for those who are able to fully utilise the given visuals to embellish in their own mind the narrative that is written on the page, and for those who can probe a little deeper into the emotion and meaning behind the text.

There are many layers to explore in the text, such as the boy’s ability to understand a different language through the soft speech of his new friend, the different foods he eats, and the growing friendship with the old man. But the illustrations bring out so much more, not just the contrast between the landscapes, but the change to the landscape as the boy settles; the intimacy between the man and boy that extrapolates the teaching and wisdom being imparted; the industrious town in which the boy has settled and all the different characters who populate it, from the farmer on his wagon to the mother hanging her washing; the memories of fighting in the war;  the different modes of transport and communication depicted; and finally the flight of the pigeons and the warmth that they exude.

This is an unusual story, timely indeed, although the pictures of war and the landscape make it seem historical. It is about memories of war and conflict, the settling of a newcomer in a town, as well as old age, and ultimately hope and friendship.

The depiction of the landscape’s industrialisation creates a nostalgia for a time past, as well as a nostalgia for the glowing images of Rome, as if the sun is just setting across the pages of the book with its orange and pink glow. But it ends with a look to the future, as the boy realises that home is where the heart is. You can buy it here.