middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

The Garden of Lost Secrets by AM Howell

garden of lost secretsThere’s a noticeable rediscovering of nature in current children’s books. It’s the theme of the moment, maybe inspired by the fact that today’s children spend less time outside, and certainly less time being wild than they used to, or perhaps because they have less awareness of where their food comes from, yet at the same time a creeping alarm over climate change and how nature can wreak havoc if not nurtured.

The Garden of Lost Secrets from debut author AM Howell takes the reader back to 1916, when World War I is wreaking havoc on the human population, and urban children were sent away from the cities after Zeppelin airships flew overhead. Twelve-year-old Clara is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Suffolk, not as a result of air raids, but rather because her father is convalescing after being gassed in the war.

Clara’s aunt and uncle are housekeeper and head gardener of an estate, living in a small cottage on the edge of the grounds. But rather than welcoming her kindly, her aunt in particular is austere and formidable, showing none of the kindness of her previous visits. What’s more, there’s a strange boy in the grounds at night-time, and an unopened letter from the War Office that Clara has intercepted in London and brought all the way with her.

As each day passes, more and more mysteries are presented, from the stealing of fruit from the gardens, to the appearance of mandarins in peculiar places, and a locked room in the house in which Clara is staying. Clara tries her best to be good, but the idea of solving the mysteries is too great a temptation to ignore, and before long her adventures are getting more than just herself into trouble.

This is a nostalgic, wonderfully atmospheric novel, taking the reader into a world in which, despite the war, children roam free, unhindered by parents and school, and everyday delights are simply the exploration of a large manor house’s grounds and greenhouses. Inspired by the real diaries from a 100 years ago of a gardener at Ickworth House in Suffolk, AM Howell has created a detailed, authentic imaginary tale.

The characterisation is spot on – from her pinafore to her small disobediences, Clara feels wholly from 1916; her head is consumed with worry for her family, but her heart is set on making everyone happy, and the reader is plunged inside her head, privy to all her thoughts. The secondary characters are equally well-drawn, with the layers of society firmly in place, the staff and their duties, the soldiers exercising in the woods nearby, and the ever-present over-arching fear about the war that consumes everyone, from the distance noise of gunfire to the threat of Zeppelins.

An abundance of period detail, including the cultivation of exotic fruits (pineapples) in hothouses, the damp coal cellars, and the features of the town, all transport the reader firmly to 1916, and open up a world of England on the home front, seen from a child’s perspective. There’s both knowledge, and yet still a profound innocence.

There is definitely a classic feel to this book, bringing to mind such greats as Tom’s Midnight Garden, although The Garden of Lost Secrets has a modern bent with its themes of the natural world, child sleuthing, and bravery. It is far pacier than The Secret Garden and other Edwardian literature, layering questions and mysteries in each short chapter, and only revealing the depths of the secrets near the end. With fresh modern writing, a sublime use of simile where needed, and extolling the virtues of the power of true friendship, this is an excellent new children’s novel, which is both gripping and fun.

For children aged 8+ years. You can buy it here. With thanks to Usborne for the review copy.

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

good thievesFairy tales were often told as warnings or instructions on how to behave. Don’t play with the forbidden spinning wheel, don’t wander alone through the dangerous woods (even if you’re wearing a bright red cape), don’t break into someone else’s house and eat their porridge… Today’s tales are different. Children can do naughty, even bad things, if they are fighting evil or battling for the greater good. In essence, they can be good thieves – not good at thieving (although that too), but both good and a thief.

Set during the Prohibition in New York, during the 1920s, Vita (meaning life itself), has come over from England with her mother in order to set her grandfather’s affairs in order so that he can return home with them. It turns out, he has been cheated out of the ancestral home by an unscrupulous villain, Victor Sorrotore. Whereas her mother is all for signing paperwork and leaving swiftly, Vita is determined to win the house back for her grandfather, and recruits a pickpocket, and two apprentice circus performers to help her.

Set in a time well before house alarms and mobile phones, when picking locks is an asset for any thief, and children are left to their own devices, Rundell cleverly weaves period detail into her heist novel. Bootleggers and speakeasies, beautiful brownstone buildings and the intricacies of Carnegie Hall, as well as the specific grid system of New York, all provide a compelling and different backdrop for her children’s novel. And gender and race attitudes of the time are dropped into the story with deft awareness.

But it is the characters who win over the reader. They are bold and brave and keen to make their mark upon the world, always active, strong and memorable, but above all passionate about something, whether it be finding an emerald long since hidden in the ancestral house, or pursuing their vision of their future circus act, or simply surviving the mean streets of 1920s New York. They are fierce in their love for those they care about, and inspire a fierce loyalty from the reader.

Vita is slowed in movement by an episode of polio when younger, (a limp), and this hampers her throughout, although Rundell is keen to show the other children’s compassion, yet not pity for her. Vita is also a determined child with distinct attributes, which Rundell brings to life with little touches – Vita has ‘six kinds of smile, and five of them were real’, and she owns a supremely active way of thinking about things – Vita wears ‘a skirt you can kick in’.

Vita’s accomplices are well-drawn too, most particularly the circus apprentices, and this is where the story picks up zest and flair. Flying through the air, being an escape artist, understanding animals or throwing knives are all prized skills in both the ring and in life itself, and Rundell imbues her descriptions with colour and artistry, bringing the acts and performers to life.

As always, Rundell’s writing is swift and breathless, propelling the reader through the text like a glider through air, swooping and diving in and out of the plot, with short paragraphs and snippy dialogue. She uses simile and metaphor with the precision of a knife thrower. She cuts through excess, landing each word with specificity and wisdom. It is this apparent confident knowledge of the world, of higher truths, such as that ‘sometimes it was sensible not to be sensible,’ which gives her text its gravitas in the middle of scintillating storytelling.

With themes of loyalty and friendship, righting wrongs and clever thinking, this is a smart, pacey heist novel, with an inherent sense of wit throughout. Reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives in its wise way of children working together and outwitting evil adults, yet with the Rundell idiosyncrasies that mark her stories as being a cut above the rest. A must read. For 8+ years.

The Good Thieves publishes on Thursday 13th June, and you can pre-order it here. With special thanks to Jade at Bloomsbury Publishing for my review copy.

Playing with Time and Nature

charlie noonI’ve long been an admirer of Christopher Edge’s novels. In his latest series of books, (connected by theme, but completely stand-alone stories), he takes a scientific concept and writes a children’s novel around it. It started with The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, which took Schrodinger’s Theory or the many worlds theory, and ran with it. The Jamie Drake Equation was about space travel, although for me it resonated most heartbreakingly with its depiction of an absent father. The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day was quite devastating, in that it investigated relativity, virtual reality and black holes, but mainly sibling relationships, and was both quite frightening and then impossibly sad. The magic of the stories is that although the reader subconsciously absorbs the big scientific ideas, they are also stung by the supreme emotion and fallibility of human relationships, as well as seeing hope for the future.

This time, in The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, Christopher Edge has taken his theme and created an impossible tale, a masterpiece of keeping the reader guessing and turning things upside down and inside out until at the end the reader realises that time has flown…

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is ostensibly about three children who get lost in the woods one evening after school. Edge wonderfully juxtaposes town and country here, as Charlie has moved from London to the country, and experiences the woods in a different way from the other children. There are lush descriptions of wildflowers, and in particular, the different sounds of the birds, and the trees and the lights and shadows that are cast in different areas of the wood.

There’s also a legend about Old Crony, a monster maybe, who lives in the heart of the woods, and who eats children. Charlie and two friends are looking to solve some cryptic puzzles that have been left in the wood, but when night falls they find themselves lost, or maybe trapped. Time plays tricks on them, as Edge explores the concept of time, and how we experience it. There are loops and hurdles for the reader as well as the children as we read a series of scenes that play with our sense of perception.

Edge again cleverly weaves together science and creative thought, nature and story, to stimulate further thought and discussion after reading, but also imparts a huge amount of knowledge. Charlie Noon is an immersive story with non-stop twists and turns, gives each child a real sense of character, and also provides a wonderful key to seeing not only the power of nature, but how stories can stimulate intellectual curiosity and thought.

Here, Christopher Edge explores the inspiration behind the novel, Brendon Chase by ‘BB’, about three boys who run away from home and live wild in the woods:

“When we are young all our impressions are much clearer and more vivid than when we are middle-aged.”

So reads the opening line of The Pegasus Book of the Countryside written by ‘B B’, the pseudonym used by the author, illustrator and naturalist Denys Watkins-Pitchford.

First published in 1964, B B goes on to bemoan how when children are at the most receptive age to enjoy the wonders to be found in the countryside, they are forced to stay indoor for lessons at school, showing that concerns about the lack of nature in children’s lives isn’t a wholly modern phenomenon.

However, in recent times, the role that nature plays in children lives has been brought into sharp focus through books such as The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, which have sought to rewild children’s vocabularies and reconnect them with the natural world, and also the work of the inspirational climate activist Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl whose protests highlight a younger generation’s deep concern for the environment, and how we need to act now to save nature.

Education is about understanding the world around us, so learning about the natural world should be at the heart of the school curriculum. From forest schools to fiction, through subjects like science, art, English and geography, we can rewild children’s education in a way that helps them to understand the fragile wonders that can be found in the natural world, and help give them the heart to defend these wild places.

Reading a novel changes your brain and I hope in the pages of The Longest Night of Charlie Noon young readers might find glimpses of the wild mysteries that fed my imagination, and find inspiration to explore the wild places around them and make their own adventures there.

To end this piece, I’ll borrow the closing words of The Pegasus Book of the Countryside, where B B writes of how reading about nature, ‘remains inside you and adds a richness to life which is with you until your life’s end.’ Let’s give our children the riches they all deserve.

With thanks to Christopher Edge. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is published by Nosy Crow on 6th June, and you can buy it here. With thanks to Nosy Crow for the review proof, and also the sublime finished copy, cover artwork by Matt Saunders. 

The House of Light by Julia Green

house of lightSometimes it’s the quiet books that have the most forceful impact. When I read Close to the Wind by Jon Walters, I understood that this understated book with its everyman tale of migration and movement was a thing of beauty. And now Julia Green has done the same with her timeless tale of stagnation and closed borders in The House of Light. As we move into a more politically uncertain time, filled with aggression and anxiety, this kind of book will resonate with young readers, but will also stir them with its moral integrity and innate sense of hope for the future.

Bonnie lives with her Granda on a wild coastland, where the sea is out of bounds and border guards patrol the area and keep tabs on who is attending school (and who isn’t!). When Bonnie is scavenging on the beach one day she finds an upturned boat, but realises it has been recently used. Before long, she discovers the owner – a bare-footed boy hiding from the authorities. In these lean times, he’s hungry and in need of shelter, so Bonnie harbours him, waiting for the day when he can take his freedom – and maybe she can too.

This beautifully written novel not only lays out the political foolhardiness of closing borders, denying citizens’ rights, and the rule of tyranny rather than compassion, but it also shows the differences that individual people can make. Bonnie learns more at home than at school, under the moral guidance of her Granda, and realises that it is appropriate to welcome strangers and mete out kindness rather than comply with rules that don’t make sense. In the current period of political language around migrants and refugees, this is particularly compelling.

More than this though, the book speaks to the wonder of creativity, and thus creative thinking. The schools impose strict timetables of arbitrary rule-learning rather than embracing any creativity of thought, and when Bonnie discovers a house in which art and liberty are celebrated, she sees that creativity and freedom are connected.

But most of all, it is the wildness of the natural world that shines through the book. The coastline is depicted with intense beauty as well as harshness – Bonnie learns the wonders of the woods near her house, the benefits of snow (over which a boat can be more easily pulled and when footsteps disappear), but most importantly, the use of nature to guide and to heal. Birds give Bonnie clues as to what’s going on, she learns to read the sea and the creatures within, and she understands when to take from nature for survival and when to let it grow and flourish. This is a timely children’s novel set in a world in which medicine no longer exists for people like Bonnie, and she must turn to nature for its healing plants and tinctures. Moreover, energy supplies and mass food production have disappeared too – and it is up to Bonnie and Granda to seek from the animals and from the land. This is about people in a modern world re-learning the earth, its natural resources and its wonders.

This is children’s literary fiction, and Green steadily guides Bonnie and the reader through the book with the metaphor of light highlighting principles. When to break the rules, and how the individual is important. Bonnie’s relationship with both the boy, Ish, and her Granda are drawn tenderly and evocatively. The reader feels her doubts and pain, her love and instincts. Although this is a simple story, it is well told, with underlying depth and memorable characters, and a tangible setting. It sears its message and vision into the reader’s mind.

The novel is indicative of the courage and hope this generation will need to take into the future, and is a hidden gem. I heartily recommend letting it light up your young reader. For ages 9+. You can buy it here.

Cover artwork by Helen Crawford-White. With thanks to OUP for the review copy.

The Golden Butterfly by Sharon Gosling

the golden butterflyWhat is it about the Victorian era that makes reading about it quite so appealing? Is it because it was the age of massive advances in science and technology, changing the world of communication, transportation and work? Perhaps it was the changing ideas about the treatment of women, or the recognition and shifting ideas of class and social mobility, industrialisation, the expansion of empire….

Amazingly, and with some skill, Sharon Gosling covers a lot of this ground in her novel, The Golden Butterfly, set in 1897, although most of the themes are subtly lurking behind the scenes.

Luciana’s grandfather was the Magnificent Marko, a leading magician of his time, who performed the most astonishing, spectacular trick called ‘The Golden Butterfly’. Since he dramatically departed the stage, no one has come close to performing a trick quite as extraordinary. After his death, the leader of the Grand Society of Magicians comes searching Luciana’s house for secrets of the trick, setting Luciana on a treasure hunt of her own. Before long, she’s embroiled in magic herself, ready to protect her grandfather’s legacy, and set to show the world that women have just as much right to perform magic as men.

Luciana is a strong female character – as are many protagonists in today’s current crop of middle grade (8+ years) fiction, but she has more to prove in her era, striving against being cast as ‘other’ or a ‘witch’ in order to practise a trade that has been embraced by theatre audiences, but only when performed by a man.

But all people are not who they seem. In fact, it is this very idea – the art of appearances and illusions – that stalks the novel, magic being about deflection and distraction. Luciana comes to discover that it is the person behind the façade that counts.

Where better than to set her cast of characters then, than in a theatre, with the fluidity of appearance and reality, front of stage and backstage. Throughout her novel, Gosling plays with the idea of the mask people show to the world, and what’s really underneath, as well as how distraction aids magic and can lead people in the wrong direction in real life too, and lastly, the power play involved with rivalry and ambition.

Luciana adventures with a trust sidekick, the loveable Charley, son of a housekeeper and thus of a different social class from Luciana. Warned off him by her grandmother, Luciana learns that it is not only the gender she is born into but the social class that enables or disables her. Gosling builds a wonderful friendship between the pair, despite their differences, showing that loyalty and shared history counts more than social status, but she also draws them into a world of polarisation – the sumptuous houses of the wealthy with their butlers and warm beds juxtaposed with the ragamuffin children lurking by the railway stations and the workers in public houses.

With a clever treasure trail set in motion from the beginning, Luciana moves through Victorian England encountering all these people, using different modes of transport, and learning to look behind the curtains.

She’s also an orphan – raised by grandparents, and part of her quest revolves around finding out who her parents might have been. This is visually evocative in that she has a recurring fear of fire, stemming from something in her childhood. Linking this to the secret use of lighting magnesium during a magic act to create a distraction (a bright white light like the original photographers used in their ‘flash’), and the science of the era is brought to life.

With her confident prose, Gosling is adept at describing the magic tricks, not only the strange contraption puzzles that Luciana’s grandfather leaves behind to solve (reminiscent of modern rubik’s cubes), but also in her description of the golden butterfly act itself and its behind the scenes mechanism. Her word precision, her specificity, is inherent on every page, so that the Victorian theatre world seems very real to today’s audience, each word as carefully placed as the cards in a magic trick.

Although the plot was guessable (by me at least), it does not spoil enjoyment of the novel. Like seeing a magic trick, it is the enigma of how it is done. Gosling imbues her world with colour and vibrancy, fully embracing the appearance and reality of her plot and using the built-in drama of anticipation and excitement of a theatre’s magic show to give her book its dramatic arc. The fun is in seeing how Gosling is going to reveal the truth – how the final trick is going to be played.

The cover design is divine, the chapters are short and sharp, the villains shady, the final reveal heart-warming, cheerful and looking to the future. A great novel, showing that although we’ve come a long way since the Victorian era, there’s still a way to go, and that as Houdini said, ‘my brain is the key that sets my mind free.’ Books, like magic, dazzle and make you think. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Stripes books for the review copy. Cover art by Pip Johnson.

Has Your Memory Stored Your Old Tech?

bootWhen I was younger I had a Spectrum ZX. And I can’t imagine how many hours I spent playing a game called ‘Jet Set Willy’. The idea of the game was that the player was Willy, a figure who had to tidy up all the items in his house after a party – and he had a lot of rooms in this house, ranging from the cold store with dangling rope, to the wine cellar with its many black holes, to the forgotten abbey where moving platforms and skulls dominate the room.

I don’t play ‘Jet Set Willy’ any more, but I do spend a great many hours tidying up the items in my house (I don’t have a wine cellar, cold store or forgotten abbey),  not after a party, but after the children have gone to school.

I mention this because the publishers of Shane Hegarty’s latest book, Boot, suggested that I revisit a piece of technology that holds special memories for me, in order that I can tie it to the themes of memories, objects, and technology that permeate Hegarty’s novel.

Boot is about a toy robot, called Boot, who wakes up in a scrapyard, and finds his hard drive mainly wiped of memory, except for 2 and a half images and an idea that it was once loved by its owner, Beth. Boot is determined to find its way back to Beth, and with a group of other abandoned, half-working robots, it struggles across the city to find her. Except that, of course, discarded pieces of technology are usually thrust aside for a reason.

I think I abandoned ‘Jet Set Willy’ because of GCSEs (at least my parents would probably like to think so). However, it does hold a soft spot in my heart, and if you gave me a spectrum ZX with Jet Set Willy downloaded now, I’d while away a few hours exploring.

Children would do well to while away a few hours reading Boot. Although in the science fiction genre and with a robot protagonist, the book pulses with emotion. Hegarty executes this with ease because Boot is a toy robot – made specifically to be a child’s companion, and thus its ‘set’ emotions are written all over its face/screen. When sad, the orange smile on its face turns blue and upside down. Moreover, Boot has suffered some damage, so some of its ‘set’ feelings are slightly off, leaving Boot with rather more emotion than a robot usually has, and the weird consequence that not all its emotions inside show correctly on the outside. But more than this, Boot is programmed to decipher emotions in others – it sees that one adult is angry by way of ‘teeth clenching’ and ‘jabbing finger’. In this way, as in real artificial intelligence, robots are being programmed and learning just as toddlers do – from being fed experiences.

As well as using emotion, Hegarty manipulates his readers – making them feel profoundly for, what is, after all, an object. In fact, in a Toy Story reminiscent scene, Boot discovers it’s not unique – there are lots of robots identical to it. Just like Buzz Lightyear, it makes readers think about our own identity. What is it that makes each of us unique, why are we, and how can we use that as a positive, and recognise it as positive in others.

Because Boot befriends so many robots, all discarded or cast aside for some reason, the reader is constantly reminded that they are just machines in this fictional future landscape, and yet by bringing them to life with human characteristics, Hegarty asks the reader to think about them as ‘disposed’ objects. Should we dispose of things so quickly – can we not repair and mend, reuse and recycle? And should we?

In the end, Boot does find Beth, but the ending is more complicated than that. Hegarty builds on his theory of disposability, extending it to humans too. For this is a story about growing old, being discarded, and the value of memory.

Illustrated in black and white throughout by Ben Mantle, with a keen eye on the idea that the robots in the novel seem more friendly than many of the humans, this is a heartwarming, funny, neat little novel with some big ideas, an extending vocabulary and light modern prose, for children aged 6+ .

I don’t know what purpose my memories of ‘Jet Set Willy’ serve, but they definitely make me smile. And if memories make the person in the present happy, then that’s about the best reason of all.

To buy Boot, click here. With thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for the review copy and for sparking an idea for the blog.

Starfell, Magic and Dreams

starfellMagic. It’s a key ingredient of some of the most pervasive children’s books, from The Worst Witch through to Harry Potter, and a tool that ‘literally’ opens a thousand doors. Characters with wands can change their plot with a flick of the wrist, they can take control over a world without any, they can make what’s unfair fair, and push the rules and boundaries of normal society. They can even conquer villainy with a mix of natural ingredients. However, what happens if your own brand of magic is a bit well, rubbish…

In Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day by Dominique Valente, Willow Moss is the youngest in a magical family, but her own particular magical attribute is rather lacking: she can find lost things. When most people are just looking for their glasses or their socks, the skill can feel a little mundane. Especially when one’s family members have rather more exciting magical skills: Willow’s mother can hear dead people, and her big sister can move things with her mind.

But when an entire day is lost, and the most powerful witch in the kingdom summons her for a mission, Willow discovers that finding lost things is of extreme import. And the reader, on the quest with her, also finds out that each individual day may feel humdrum, but actually the things that happen on a particular day have consequences, have knock-on effects that reach far beyond boring Tuesday…

Valente sprinkles her easy-going prose with a liberal dose of rainbow magic – there are quirky creatures galore, twinkling colours, and eccentricity. She plays on the idea of a Magic 8 ball beautifully, and conjures such delights as Wisperia the magical forest, and of course, ‘there be dragons’. Reading it is to be immersed in a magical land, in which the dangers aren’t too great, the quest is fun, and there are delightful inventions – such as a travelling cloak having a portal to a kitchen pantry (useful when on a journey).

But behind the enjoyment lurks a strong message of teamwork, courage, and above all the importance of everyday, an appreciation for what you have, and a really strong understanding of loss and its impact.

A lively read for 8+ years, Valente has a deft humour and a light touch, which will enthrall her readers. Illustrated throughout by Sarah Warburton, who accentuates the quirks and comedy. Below, Dominque Valente explores what she dreams about when deadlines loom, and times get tough:

Becoming a hobbit. I have active fantasies about having my own hobbit house, second breakfasts, a fully stocked pantry and just spending time in the Shire. Gandalf would be welcome to visit, but he could keep saving Middle Earth for the others.

Taking a year off just to read. I have this photograph of a book-lined cottage by the sea and I often just stare at it and sigh. I’ve never taken off more than three weeks of work before, but the idea of a year’s sabbatical spent beachcombing and reading, sounds like bliss.

If I could choose my own magical ability it would be to eat whatever I want and not put on weight. I have spent a long time thinking about this, and really this would be the ideal superpower for me… of course when children ask me this question, I tell them it’s flying.

One of my oldest daydreams is about packing it in and moving to Provence. I fell hard for Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. The only trouble was that I was sixteen at the time, and so was the only teenager I knew, dreaming of retirement, sleeping in hammocks and going truffle-hunting. I still dream of this edible Shangri-La on cold days in Suffolk, when summer seems like a distant myth.

Going on a narrowboat adventure with Prunella Scales and Timothy West. I’d quite like to be the grandchild they never knew about, and I feel like I could write plays for them to perform when we aren’t exploring the water ways and drinking wine …

Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day by Dominique Valente, illustrated by Sarah Warburton, is out now in hardback (£12.99, HarperCollins Children’s Books), and you can buy it here. With thanks to HC Children’s books for the advance review copy.

Malamander by Thomas Taylor

malamanderSometimes a story lures you in like a beckoning finger, and as you step over the threshold, what seems familiar turns gothic and dark, and you are swept away on a tide of imagination and character.

Malamander is one such story. In Cheerie-On-Sea (the letters c and h fall off the sign every winter), Herbert Lemon, the lost-and-founder of the Grand Nautilus Hotel, finds a lost girl one snowy winter evening. She too is sweet, named Violet Parma, and she’s an orphan, looking for her parents who disappeared one night twelve years ago when she was just a baby staying in the hotel.

Together they form a formidable duo, as they roam the coastal town looking for clues as to where Violet’s parents might have gone, and also learning more about the legend of the unctuous sea-monster who stalks the town in winter, hiding in the rolling sea fog, and waiting for its mate on the longest night of the year. This, of course, is the Malamander.

Taylor’s writing is both highly gothic, and laced with a fine dose of humour. The plot whips along at 100 knots, and the tantalising descriptions of the familiar turned dark make this story hugely appealing. The seaside town at close-season is sensually described; it may be without ice cream and sandcastles, but it is imbued with the warmth of fish and chips that steams up the café and gives comfort, and also the horrific sounds of the sea-monster’s shrieks, the frightening foggy sands, and the sea mist that makes the town more than live up to its wintry name of Eerie-on-Sea. The tangible salty fishy smell almost seeps from the pages itself.

But it is the way Taylor has populated his book that makes it so special, drawing on familiar tropes and yet giving it a twist of his own. Every name in the book is joyfully Dickensian, from the sweetie-named children to the villainous slippery Sebastian Eels (a writer with dubious motives), and a very Famous-Five-ish, Scooby-Doo-type villain in Boathook Man. (Some of the names are decidedly creepy. Jenny Hanniver may seem like a nice bookshop lady but, if one looks up what a Jenny Haniver actually is, one may not sleep well that night.) The hotel owner, a reclusive Lady Kraken (think Miss Haversham) holes up in her tower with her claw-like hands and her cameraluna – (a camera-obscura-magic looking-glass) – spying on those below.

What’s more there is a kind bookshop owner, a talking cat, a beachcombing forager, and a mechanical mermonkey who spits out book references to where the correct book for each individual is stored in the bookshop – reminiscent of all seaside towns and their strange magical arcades (think the movie Big).

As Herbet and Violet’s quest for her parents turns into a quest for the egg of the Malamander, so they traverse the town and meet its people, and here Taylor excels in his use of dialogue, which is full of dramatic tension, slowing down in the right places, pausing, leaving gaps, all weaving in and out of his tale with its gothic mystery slant.

The denouement is like an action movie, set in a tide-filling shipwreck just off the coast, with Taylor even managing to make the reader as sympathetic to the Malamander as to the children.

By threading his coastal novel with ancient legend, and misleading the reader with red herrings, mysteries and untrustworthy adults, Taylor has shown he can write with flair, embedding hidden depths into the plot. He himself has hidden depths too – he illustrated the first Harry Potter editions. No wonder the map at the beginning of Malamander is as atmospheric as the prose itself.

This is a novel to hook you in from the first word. It’s cunning, clever, manipulative, deliciously dark and fun, and also holds delightfully old-fashioned storytelling. Don’t miss it. For ages 9+. You can buy it here.

Cover artwork by George Ermos. With thanks to Walker Books for a review copy.

The First Novel: Branford Boase Award

BBA 2018 winners

Branford Boase Award 2018 winning author Mitch Johnson with his winning editors Rebecca Hill (left) and Becky Walker (right).

The Branford Boase Award is given annually to the author of an outstanding debut novel for children. Uniquely, it also honours the editor of the winning title and highlights the importance of the editor in nurturing new talent.

The novel that won the Branford Boase Award 2018 was Kick by Mitch Johnson, and this year he is serving on the 2019 Award Panel. Below, he introduces the 2019 shortlist and explains what makes each of the books so special:

I think for many authors, the publication of their first novel can be an ambivalent experience. On the one hand, all the hard work has paid off, your dream has come true, and finally (FINALLY) your book is out in the world. But on the other hand, what if no one reads it? Or what if people read it and hate it? Or what if there’s been some mistake, and it actually belongs under the bed with all the other unpublished novels you’ve written, rather than on a shelf with proper books written by real writers?

kickNeedless to say, publishing your first novel can be a jittery time. Luckily, the Branford Boase Award is here to help.

It’s difficult to express just how important an award celebrating debut authors – and the editors who bring their books into print – can be. For me, being recognised by the Branford Boase Award gave me renewed confidence in my writing, and encouraged me to pursue projects that I might otherwise have considered too ambitious to attempt. Even now, the trophy reminds me, on the bad days, why I sit at my desk and risk another bad day. And that is to say nothing of the prize money and the financial lifeline that it offers.

Participating as a judge on this year’s panel has been great fun, and to think that Kick survived the process is really quite humbling. (I’ve just about stopped wondering exactly what last year’s panel said about my book.) This year’s shortlist showcases the quality and diversity of publishing for younger readers, and it’s fantastic to see publishers investing in new talent. From imaginative adventures to stories of war-torn Europe to novels tackling contemporary issues, there really is something for everyone on the shortlist. Each deserves a wide readership, and together they form a worthy list to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the award.

And so, in alphabetical order by author, to the books we shortlisted:

house with chicken legs
The House with Chicken Legs
by Sophie Anderson is a wonderful retelling of a Slavic folktale about – you guessed it – a house with chicken legs. The writing is dreamy and magical, the characters feel like old friends, and the book is beautifully packaged. But my favourite thing about The House with Chicken Legs has to be the way it handles death. Death is so often portrayed as a thing to be feared and avoided in storytelling (and for good reason), but The House with Chicken Legs repaints it as the destination that makes life’s journey so special.

train to impossible places
The Train to Impossible Places
by PG Bell is a wildly imaginative adventure that hurtles along at breakneck speed. As I read it, I found myself desperate to know where the next stop would be (my favourite was the Topaz Narrows), and Bell’s wonderful way with words brings each impossible place to life. It also contains one of the best chapter titles I’ve ever seen. The only downside to The Train to Impossible Places is that it will make any future Interrail trips across Europe seem a bit tame by comparison.

rosie loves jack
Rosie Loves Jack
by Mel Darbon was a surprise package for me. I was completely disarmed and wrong-footed by the unique voice, and what I expected to be a fairly predictable love story quickly evolved into something much darker and more complex. The protagonist, Rosie, has Down’s syndrome, and you really feel her frustration as she is repeatedly underestimated and misunderstood by the people she meets. More than anything else, this novel reminds you of how underrepresented some voices still are in fiction, and how desperately we need writers like Darbon to create some balance.

the goose road
The Goose Road
by Rowena House is a real treat to read; the writing is wonderfully evocative, and right from the first chapter – when you learn of the protagonist’s relief that her father has died in battle – you just know that you’re in safe hands. I’ll admit I was initially sceptical about the premise of herding geese through war-torn France, but the writing absolutely blew me away. It was refreshing to read a story from a French civilian’s perspective, and for a time defined by bombs and bullets, the danger in this novel is chillingly subtle.

i am thunder
I Am Thunder
by Muhammad Khan tackles a highly emotive, heavily politicised subject: the radicalisation of a young Muslim girl. Khan does a brilliant job of exploring the tensions that can arise when cultures clash and allegiances are tested, and the sensitivity with which he handles such a volatile subject is astounding. I think it would be easy to underestimate just how difficult this book must have been to write, but Khan’s prose is as subtle and seductive as the grooming it depicts.

orphan monster spy
It’s hard to think of anything more terrifying than being a Jewish spy in Nazi territory, but that is the prospect faced by Sarah, the protagonist of Orphan Monster Spy (by Matt Killeen). Killeen’s novel grabs you by the throat on page one and doesn’t let go: it’s an irresistibly compulsive read. The Second World War may be well-trodden terrain, but this novel brings something fresh and dynamic. The stakes are high, the characters are delightfully flawed, and the result is just as tense and twisty as an espionage thriller should be.

boy at back of class
The Boy at the Back of the Class
by Onjali Q Rauf has already received heaps of recognition, and I was similarly impressed by Raúf’s tale of a young Syrian refugee trying to find peace in the UK. It’s so heartening to see a novel for younger readers tackling the refugee crisis, and books like this one make you hopeful that the next generation will be a more tolerant and understanding one. It’s the kind of book that everyone, young and old, should read.

So there we go. Seven brilliant titles, and I have no idea who is going to triumph when the judging panel reconvenes to discuss the shortlist. It could be any one of them.

With huge thanks to Mitch Johnson. The winner will be announced on Thursday 27th June. 

Football School Q&A and Competition

football school star playersWhen I was about four, my Dad took me to White Hart Lane (home of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club). There was no game on, but he was choosing his season tickets. (Things were different in those days!) I remember being very scared of the height of the steep bank of seats as I walked along the empty Upper West Stand.

Many years and games later, football continues to rule my life. The fixtures go into the diary before anything else, family meals are allowed to be interrupted only for football, and the garden isn’t a garden, it’s a pitch. So, it was great pleasure to interview two footballing greats – not footballers so much – as experts in their field: maths and football writer Alex Bellos, and football journalist and writer Ben Lyttleton, authors of the Football School series.

The Football School series aims to explain the world through football, and the latest in the series, published last week, is Football School: Star Players, a collection of fifty inspirational lives from the world of football, and is full of facts, inspiration, and Alex’s and Ben’s unique blend of humour, fun and personality. 

Here, Alex and Ben answer my questions:

The more I read Football School, the more enamoured I become with using football as a way to teach all kinds of things from podiatry to metaphor! How did you form your collaboration and come up with the idea?

Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton

Alex: Ben and I met at a football conference more than ten years ago. When we discovered we lived very close to each other we kept in touch and became friends. We would often meet for lunch and chat about collaborating. We became aware that lots of children stop reading around the ages of 7-13 and we thought that one way to get kids reading would be to provide them with a book about a subject they felt passionate about. We also wanted to use football to open up the curriculum. Football is a great way to show how everything in life is connected. That’s how the idea of Football School began – as a way to get children to develop a love of reading and a curiosity about the world.

Is much of your own life dominated by football? Do you play/watch/involved with fantasy football etc.

Ben: I would say so, yes!  I write and talk about football every day as part of my job which is lucky because I LOVE the game! I used to go to around 40 games every season but now I have a young family, I’d rather play with them and watch them play. My daughter has just joined her first team which is a brilliant girls’ team that play in a league. I still go to some live games, just not as many, and I now take my daughters to a few as well.

I have played in a Fantasy League with the same people for over 20 years. Last season I lost out on the title by one point when Bournemouth scored a last-minute goal against Burnley! But in 2007 I won a trophy for the highest Fantasy League score in the whole country! A proud moment! I enjoy playing the game because it’s another way to connect with people through our love of football.

football schoolAlex, you’ve spent much time studying futebol – the Brazilian way of life. What’s the difference between English and Brazilian football?

Alex: Yes, I lived in Brazil for five years. I think that the key difference is Brazilians are much more technically skilled, on the whole, than English players. My opinion is that this is because of geographical and cultural factors, as we write in Football School Season 1. Brazilians do not learn to play on grass, because in Brazil grass doesn’t grow very well. Brazilians learn to play on the beach, on tiny concrete pitches, and indoors with a small ball: the challenges of these surfaces makes them overdevelop their technique.

Why is the English premier league so popular worldwide?

Ben: There are a few reasons for this. The game is so exciting in England, and has some of the best talent in the world. Players such as Mo Salah and Kevin de Bruyne are great to watch and capable of pure brilliance. The league is competitive and you never quite know what will happen next. In 2012, Manchester City won the league title with the last kick of the season, when Sergio Aguero scored a dramatic winner against QPR. You can’t make up that kind of drama!

The coaches here are among the best in the world – top guys such as Guardiola, Klopp, Pochettino and Mourinho. But the league is also really well-organised – we know in advance what time the games will kick-off, and the lunchtime games often suit an audience in Asia or North America. Something as simple as that can make a big difference – in Spain, for example, they change the kick-off times at quite short notice so you often never quite know when the game will be taking place.

You’ve managed to bring all subjects into football – biology, history, languages, geography. But does maths play the biggest part in football?

Alex: Ha! My stock response is that maths plays the biggest part in EVERYTHING! Of course it does! Imagine a world with no numbers…we’d be back in the Stone Age. When it comes to football, I think that the links between maths and football are perhaps more obvious – score lines, data, numbers on shirts – than the links with other subjects. But this is not to say that maths plays the biggest part. We take a holistic view: all the subjects are interlinked.

Can you tell me a bit more about Football School Star Players?

Alex: Star Players is a book of 50 profiles of football players who are inspirational role models on and off the pitch. We chose famous footballers with amazing life stories, but also lesser known players who have changed the game – or the world – in some way. For example, there’s the player who became president, the one who invented a new football boot and the one who survived the Holocaust to become the best coach in the world.

Alex, do you have an emotional relationship with numbers and football?

Alex: Of course! When I look at league tables I feel all warm and gooey: there is nothing more satisfying that looking at lists of numbers, especially when they represent important facts!

football school season 3Ben, can you switch off when you watch football, or is it always ‘work’?

Great question! Football used to be my passion and my hobby, and even though now it is still work, I can still sometimes switch off to enjoy some matches – especially when my children are playing. I am actually pretty good at not commentating on what they are doing and still able to see the game as a tool for pure enjoyment and a chance to get some exercise with good friends, which is essentially what it is.

If someone says to you – football’s just a game. What is your response?

Ben: I agree – it is a game and we mustn’t forget that above all else, that’s exactly what it is. But it also has a wonderful way of emotionally connecting with people, which means it can have an impact beyond just the winning and losing of a game. It can bring people together, like it did when the Ivory Coast ended its civil war after the national team qualified for the 2006 World Cup for the first time.

It can be a lovely way for families to spend time together, cheering for the same cause. And footballers themselves have a unique connection with the communities in which they play and a lot of them make huge charitable contributions – by giving their time and support – to people, often children, who are less fortunate than themselves and need some help. So football is a game, but it can also be used as a force for good. That’s what we hope to do with Football School – take the game itself and use it to help children discover a love of reading and a curiosity about the world.

Can you really explain the whole world through the prism of football? What about Brexit?

Alex: Of course we can! We could write a whole book on football and Brexit! For example, we could write about immigration, such as foreign players in our leagues, and our players abroad, and how this will change with Brexit. We could talk about the history of the Champions League. We could write about footballers who became politicians. Once you start looking, you will find many links.

What is your view on women’s football?

We are passionate about women’s football and incredibly excited about the women’s World Cup this summer. We’re not that old but we know that around 1920, women’s football was more popular than men’s football in England. One team, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, would regularly sell out huge stadia like Goodison Park (whose capacity was over 50,000). The men who ran the FA sadly – and unfairly – banned women’s football in 1921. It’s an important part of history as it coincides with the suffragette movement and it’s something we explore in detail in our History lesson in Season Two.

We have been inspired by stories of parents and educators who have told us of the book’s positive effect among their children, and that includes girls. Ben has two daughters who love to play football and he loves hearing them talk about their favourite players and goals to their friends. There are many more opportunities for girls to play football now and coverage of the women’s game is improving, with matches on TV and newspapers giving regular coverage to the women’s league.

At all the school talks we do, the girls are just as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the game as the boys; at our first event, when we invited a few children up to invent their own goal celebrations we were blown away when one of the girls did six back-flips across the stage! That was impressive! Since then, we have done lots of school talks – many at all-girls schools – and found the same enthusiasm for the sport, even if we have yet to meet such another talented gymnast!

Football School Star Players includes many stories of inspiring women players, such as Nadia Nadim, who escaped from a brutal regime growing up in Afghanistan to play for Denmark and Manchester City, and Brandi Chastain, the US player whose dramatic penalty won the 1999 World Cup final. She has promised to donate her brain to scientific research after her death.

With huge thanks to Alex and Ben for answering ALL my questions. And you can buy Football School Star Players here.

Would you like to be a sportswriter like Alex and Ben? The Guardian and Football School have teamed up to launch a competition all about sports writing. To enter, you need to write a 600-word match report on any sporting event, or a 600-word profile about a sports person. You can enter here for a chance to win ‘an opportunity to watch a Premier League football game as a journalist in the press box’, your entry published in The Guardian, or a signed bundle of Football School books and goodies. You need to be aged between 7-12 yrs, and enter before 19th May.