middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

Prescient Publications

“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.”
Orwell 1984

My last blog listed some children’s books that described a future dystopia of some kind. Today’s books are so acutely in tune with what’s happening right now that you might find them kind of spooky. However, as Orwell wrote, it is indeed the best books that tell us what we already know, and so below are two that feel weirdly prescient.

astounding broccoli boy
The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce, illustrated by Steven Lenton
Cottrell-Boyce has been reading this book in extracts on his Instagram feed during the lockdown from his grand storytelling chair – it’s worth it just to see the chair – and his voice is calm and soothing, but die-hard readers will want to read the book for themselves too.

Rory Rooney is locked up in isolation as a medical mystery after he unexpectedly turns broccoli-green on a Y7 school trip. Then, the school bully, Tommy-Lee, also turns green, and the pair are locked up under observation together. Rather than admit they may be medical guinea pigs or in throes to a horrid disease, Rory decides that he must be a superhero (after all the Incredible Hulk was green).

Before long, the pair are escaping into night-time London, which itself is under threat from a weird feline flu virus, known as Killer Kittens.

As with many children’s books, and ideal societies, it isn’t a far stretch in the story before the unlikely heroes decide that they could do a better job of running the country than the incumbent prime minister, and the climax feels typically Cottrell-Boyce as it makes the most of a wonderful London setting to stage its extreme denouement.

Brimming with humour and likeable characters, this is a gripping read told in short digestible chapters. As one would expect from Cottrell-Boyce, the scenes are filmic, the storytelling dripping with adventure, pathos and excellently-timed humour. With Steven Lenton’s impeccably comic illustrations, this is a great children’s adventure story that deserves to go viral! You can order the book for delivery here.

where the world turns wild
Where the World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold

Published earlier this year, Nicola Penfold’s characters were in isolation long before our lockdown. The majority of people in Penfold’s book are forced into lockdown under strict regimes in order to protect themselves from a nasty disease that is spread by ticks. This future dystopia is set in a world in which most of the Earth has been destroyed, and a group of ‘ReWilders’ create a tick-borne disease to enable nature to claw back some of its wildness.

Following protagonists Juniper and Bear, two children who are immune to the disease, the book tracks their adventure from closed city to wild nature in order to find their mother.

Part paean to nature, part thrilling dystopia, the book picks up on so many dystopian traits, including the banning of books (this time those to do with nature), the fierce importance of immediate family, the role of the outsider and the acceptance of the ‘new normal’ despite its negative and dangerous undertones.

A lush description of the natural world, and a good old-fashioned chase make this a good book, but the relationship between Juniper and Bear, and the authenticity of their emotions from fear to hope and back again is what separates this from the crowd.

A truly hopeful book, and in some way a call to arms. Thoughtful, wise and perfect for lockdown. You can order it for delivery here.

With thanks to Stripes publishers and Macmillan for the review copies.

A Dystopian Landscape

“Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”
― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

I go through phases with the current situation. There are moments of pragmatic acceptance when I believe that all will be well in the end and there will be an afterwards to this mayhem. At other times, I spiral into complete anxiety, in which I believe we are at end-times, and it’s only a matter of months before the electricity and water supply run dry. In this scenario, my family will perish because although we read a lot and play a lot of sport, we lack basic survival skills such as foraging, hunting, or making fire. The nearest we’ve come to building a shelter is stringing blankets between cupboard handles and calling it a ‘den’.

My far-fetched imagination of #endtimes stems from reading too much dystopic fiction. In normal times, we read dystopic narratives as a warning to what might come to pass, for example, if we continue to destroy natural animal habitats, then the animals will die out. If we continue to take risks with artificial intelligence, then the robots might take over.

What about if you’re already living in a dystopian reality? The children’s fiction highlighted below may deal with frightened people living in terrible times, but they all offer more than a glimmer of hope – they’re positive affirmations of the kindness of humanity, our willingness to build decent communities, and the belief that good will come again. Perfect for age 9+ reading lists right now.

the last wild
The Last Wild by Piers Torday
Possibly my favourite children’s book of the last decade, The Last Wild is the first in a trilogy about a boy called Kester. Opening with Kester locked in a home for troubled children, it tells of a world in which animals no longer exist. When a talking cockroach approaches him, he thinks he’s gone mad, until he sees that maybe there is a last wild – a last group of surviving animals, and he could be the one to save them. The Last Wild explores the concept of another large extinction, but also holds underlying tones of how humans are guardians of the planet. It’s written with such a complete lack of condescension that adults will identify with Kester just as much as children. My go-to page-turning children’s read.

boy in the tower
The Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen
A modern day Triffids for children, Ade lives with his mother in a tower block. Then one day, the buildings around them start to fall. Before long the Bluchers – plants that feed on metal and concrete and give off deadly spores – have overtaken the landscape. Ade is trapped. But why hasn’t his tower block fallen to them yet, and how will he get his mother out before it does?

outwalkers
Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
England has closed its borders, not following a virus, but following the ‘Faith Bombings’, and Scotland is now entirely an independent country. Individuals are chipped to enable government tracking, and there are even clearer distinctions between class groups – your microchips dictate whether you can enter a department store or a food-bank. The story follows twelve-year-old Jack, who plans to break out of his state institution, find his dog, and escape to his grandparents in Scotland. This is a fascinating thriller, with political currents and a filmic dystopian landscape. For older readers.

the giver
The Giver by Lois Lowry
A community cut off from all others, and more importantly, cut off from any form of history. Jonas is approaching adulthood and must be given a role in the community. Unlike his peers though, his role is as the new Receiver. In a world in which all pain and suffering have been removed, someone has to remove the painful memories. This dystopian vision of a future way of living reveals itself by slowing peeling back the layers of this community, but ultimately leads to Jonas and the reader questioning the value of life. Powerful and provocative.

the middler
The Middler by Kirsty Appplebaum
If birth order dictates your role in society, would you want to be first born or last born? Applebaum takes the point of view of eleven-year-old Maggie, a middler, and therefore one with a lack of expectations upon her. And yet, when she meets a wanderer – someone who is deemed even lower in society, she begins to question all the things she’s ever been told. A novel that explores a child testing her very literal boundaries, and how going against the grain is difficult, but sometimes necessary, in order to find the truth. Exceptionally crafted.


The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
First published in 1962, this alternative version of England, in the early 19th century reign of King James III, explores a time in which wolves from Europe and Russia have entered Britain via a channel tunnel, and prey upon and terrorise inhabitants in rural areas. Focusing on two cousins, Bonnie and Sylvia, it is in essence a triumph of good over evil, as they combat the dastardly plans of their evil governess Miss Slighcarp, and their boarding school teacher, Mrs Brisket. A tale of children doing the right thing, and corrupt adults getting their comeuppance, told in simple engaging prose.


Z for Zachariah by Robert C O’Brien
If you were a child in the 1980’s, then your fear was not a global pandemic but nuclear annihilation. Capturing the zeitgeist, this novel written in 1974 was actually one I studied at school (just so we were more terrified of global events that we could not control). Set in America, it’s a diary-form first person account of Ann Burden, who has survived a nuclear war, and believes she is the only survivor. A year after the war, a stranger approaches her farm. This is for an older teen, and brings up a host of intriguing issues, including the morals behind science, and individual freedoms.


Floodland by Marcus Sedgwick
More pertinent than ever as the flood waters subside (for now) in parts of England, this short book is set in a near future in which many parts of England are permanently underwater, and people survive by living in gangs on raised patches of land, fighting over food and territory. Zoe has been left on an island that used to be Norwich, and when she discovers a boat, decides to try and escape for a better land, and to find her parents. Although concise, Sedgwick’s future dystopia feels very real, and explores how societies form and disintegrate, as well as alluding to William Blake in a ruined cathedral setting.

floodworld
FloodWorld by Tom Huddlestone
Another flooded future, with sunken cities ripe for scavenging, this is a gripping thriller following Kara and Joe, who forage for a living in their new dystopian ruins. But when they find a much-wanted map, they too become much wanted. This may be a dystopian world, but familiar elements come to the surface – pirates, gangsters, hi-tech submarines. It’s a good versus evil action story, with excellent characterisation and a look to a better future with cooperation, equality, and justice.

how to bee
How to Bee by Bren MacDibble
The bees have died out, and so children are used for pollination. Peony is nine years old and works on the farm, although she is not yet a ‘Bee’. With her unschooled, unrestricted voice, she tells of how she is moved to the city before she can become a Bee, to work with her mother in one of the big city houses. This is another tale of a future dystopia in which society is even more starkly delineated by class and money. This future is bleak. Human rights have been eroded; there is no right to education, poverty is widespread. However, though dark, there is an overwhelming sense of light through Peony’s prose, and readers will come to consider how they want their future world to be shaped. It’s also worth looking at The Dog Runner by the same author, another dog-eat-dog future, in which food production and energy sources have dried up, and society is once again in huge peril.


Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari
Once more, a society in which the divide between rich and poor is strongly felt, and children are used as labourers on farms, pollinating by hand. Following the story of Shifa and her brother Themba, the book explores the treatment of people who don’t quite fit the mould, as well as how we cultivate and protect nature. A journey story, and one not for the faint-hearted, Brahmachari weaves her lyrical prose in such a way that the words show the beauty of nature, and freedom is seen to be the most coveted concept. For slightly older readers.

All available to purchase through Waterstones for home delivery. No need to venture out!

 

Escapism

“Fear unmans us. Fear degrades us. Fostering less fear—that’s your job and mine.”
― Philip Roth, Nemesis

Perhaps like me you’re oscillating between joy at having the children at home with their wonderful laughter, and an enormous paralysing anxiety about everything else. As I said last time, I’m finding it really hard to focus. Particularly on the reading and writing, which for me is profoundly unusual.

One solution however, is in finding a children’s book and reading it out loud to the children, or even to a partner, or a dog (failing any other willing listener). There’s something about reading a book out loud that forces the mind to concentrate more, to think about the expression one is putting into each phrase, to notice the difference in speech patterns between characters, to note the change in timeframe as a novel builds suspense or accelerates to a climax.


Currently we are reading Black Beauty by Anna Sewell to child three at bedtime – the novel a complete antithesis to our current situation. Actually intended for an adult audience, it is now firmly regarded as a children’s classic, and tells the story of a horse from the horse’s own point of view. Written in a time when horses were the primary means of road transport, Sewell offered a fictional story as a way of showing the population the price of animal cruelty, and how important it is to care for animals.

The book takes the form of showing Black Beauty’s life through its owners: some kind, some cruel; and there are many scenes of companionship among horses, as well as some dramatic episodes. The language is as sleek as a horse’s groomed mane, and although historical, there are signs of basic human kindness and community spirit that are terribly apt. Age 9+ years. You can buy this very beautiful hardback here or opt for a cheaper option by typing Black Beauty into the Waterstones home page.

freddy yates
For some, the best antidote to anxiety is laughter. The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson, illustrated by Rob Biddulph is snortingly chucklesome. It tells of fact-obsessed Freddy Yates, who is desperate to find his biological father, even if it means taking part in an onion-eating competition, a loo explosion, and donning a supergirl costume on national television. Although there’s pretty much a joke a page, there’s a serious undertone too, as Freddie learns the true meaning of friendship and family, and that maybe miracles can happen. We have never needed laughter and miracles so much. For age 9+. You can buy it here.


If you are after pure escapism, then look for Orla and the Serpent’s Curse by CJ Haslam. This fantasy adventure is written by The Sunday Times Chief Travel Writer (and he’ll be wanting to keep writing children’s books at this time). Publishing in a couple of weeks – you can pre-order and have something to look forward to – it is about Orla and her family who arrive in Cornwall for a relaxing holiday, only to discover that Orla may have uncovered an ancient curse. What’s more, their holiday cottage seems surrounded by a coven of elderly ladies, who do more than just flower arranging at church. With two brilliantly drawn brothers, and a family dog who has a large role to play, this mash up of the Famous Five’s adventures, folklore, witches and pirates is powerfully imagined, and deftly crafted. The dialogue between siblings is as good as in Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island, and the book feels fresh and feisty. Age 10+ Pre-order here.


Lastly, for those who want to scare themselves silly in a completely different way, Crater Lake by Jennifer Killick is just the answer. For those Year Sixes who are missing out on their end of year residential, they’d do well to read this instead – it will make them feel relieved they didn’t have to go! From the moment a bloodstained man tries to stop their coach on route, to the lack of human activity when Lance and the rest of Year Six arrive at the Crater Lake activity centre, something doesn’t feel right about this school trip. Although there is horror here, (they must NOT fall asleep), and peculiar things happen, Killick is another children’s author who has managed to capture the particular politics and dynamics of a Year 6 class – from friendships and individual circumstances to loyalties and fears. Her dialogue is authentic, and there is more than a touch of well-placed humour. For ages 10+. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Firefly, Usborne, and Walker publishers for review copies.

World War Two Explored

A range of books to explore World War II with any budding historian, including a young adult title suitable for reluctant readers or dyslexics, a middle grade adventure story with a shocking ending, and a non-fiction book that brings the National Archives to children’s learning so that they can see history from actual source materials.

white eagles

White Eagles by Elizabeth Wein
As war breaks out across Europe in 1939, Kristina Tomiak has been called up to join the White Eagles, Poland’s air force. But when the Nazis invade Poland, and reach her town, killing her twin brother, she knows she must use her flying skills to escape. What she doesn’t realise is that there’s a stowaway in her plane, and he wants her to fly further than she thinks is possible.

Wein is a master at depicting a female perspective during World War Two, and this doesn’t deviate, in that she shows both depth of character and the horrors of war all within a small novella. Kristina is based on the true story of Anna Leska, a pilot for the Polish Air Force, and Wein’s passion and in-depth research of this period of history and the female aviators really shines through.

Although this is more character-led than plot led, it gives a good insight into the fears and determination of different people at this time, and inserts tiny details that resonate in the mind and stay with the reader long after the book is finished.  

It may have been written and published with struggling or dyslexic readers in mind, but the relationship within the story, and the authentic descriptions of flying make for an altogether brilliant read. An author’s note at the end gives some extra true detail to her fictional story. You can buy it here

the runaways
The Runaways by Holly Webb
The story begins in London at the outbreak of the Second World War. Molly’s school is being evacuated to the countryside, but her mother refuses to let her go, and so she’s stuck at home, helping her mother in the shop, and watching her older sister go off to join the war effort. When she hears that Londoners’ pets are to be put down, because supplies will be short, she runs away with her beloved dog Bertie. Once in the countryside, she meets other runaways, with even sadder stories, and before long, home seems like a distant memory.

After reading some of Webb’s other stories, I imagined that this book might be fairly animal-led and quite tame, so it was a surprise to read that Webb doesn’t hold back in trying to present some sort of reality of how miserable the war might have been on the home front. It wasn’t all gusto and bravado, and some children (and adults) suffered terribly. The book is an easy read – fast-paced and punchy, but it also bears a depth of loss and grief, which is sensitively dealt with, even if the end comes as rather a shock.

This is carefully written historical fiction that aims to portray the uncertainty of wartime, and show the effect of displacement and family break up. A refreshingly different take on World War Two fiction. You can buy it here

national archives
National Archives: World War II by Nick Hunter
So often, secondary school children are told to look at the source material when writing about history. And yet for many primary school children, source material is a distant object – they are just presented with a list of facts. This lively, colourful, and informative book aims to lay out some primary sources and let children discover them for themselves.

From Hitler’s rise to power to the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, the book uses photographs, artefacts and original documents from the National Archives to bring the history to life. Each spread has a sprinkling of colour as well as a number of black and white photographs and documents, all interestingly laid out to pique a child’s curiosity. To accompany the archive, Hunter includes introductory paragraphs, captions and facts, to provide a fuller explanation of what happened.

Children may read it chronologically, or dip in for information they need. There’s a lovely range of sources and some interesting detail on technological advances, and war on the home front. I’m impressed that it doesn’t shy away from details on the horrors of the Holocaust and Nagasaki, but it also brings the book to a good close with reflections on physical reminders of the war, and the importance of historical documentation and remembrance. You can buy it here

With thanks to Barrington Stoke, Scholastic and Bloomsbury Publishers for the review copies. 

Nevertell by Katharine Orton

nevertellMany a children’s book has been set in a snowy landscape with chasing wolves and stretching vistas, from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken to Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder, promising the romance of ice crystals and the danger of snapping jaws. Of course, there’s nothing romantic about the punishing Siberian prison camps under the reign of Stalin, which is where Orton has chosen to set her debut children’s book, Nevertell.

Lina, born inside one of these Siberian prison camps, has never seen the outside world, so when the opportunity for escape is presented at age eleven, she grasps it wholeheartedly, despite having to leave her mother behind. However, Lina and best friend Bogdan are soon pursued not by Soviet guards, but by ghost wolf hounds and a dangerous sorceress, who lives in a Frozen-esque ice palace and bears a resemblance to Baba Yaga and The Mistress of Copper Mountain from Russian folk tales.

This is in essence an adventure story across the snowy tundra of a Russian winter, and Orton’s lyrical writing interweaves the magic of the landscape she is describing with the thrilling pace of a chase. Her descriptions of cold are indeed chilling, and the frozen fractals feel both dangerously icy but also wonderfully enchanting, as if the reader is spellbound by the cold as Lina and Bogdan are by the sorceress.

“The sky itself stretched cloudless and pale, like a flawless frozen lake. It all felt upside down, as if the sky had switched places with the earth while they slept and now they were wading through yesterday’s storm clouds.”

As well as the escape to freedom, Lina is on a quest to discover her heritage. She sets out on a path to Moscow to find her grandmother and discover what she is like, all the time wondering who in the left-behind camp is her father. What becomes apparent through the telling is the importance of family – both in their presence and their absence, and how belonging is so key. Separation was a cruel punishment oft inflicted by Stalin.

There are familiar children’s books tropes in Nevertell: a chase across countryside, a fierce and loyal friendship between the protagonist and a sidekick of the opposite gender…but where the novel stands apart is the terrific juxtaposition between the harshness of Russian gulags and Stalin’s reign with local folklore and fairy tales, which conjure a different kind of adventure story.

The idea that creativity was stifled in Stalin’s Russia, that a repressive regime sought to shut down any telling of fairy tales and folk stories is barbaric – after all freedom of thought and imagination are some of the most precious assets of being human. Orton plays with this idea of repression, and of course sets it free by taking Lina and Bogdan away from the harsh realism of a Siberian prison camp and placing them within the magical realms of a sorceress, even if that magic can also be used for harm.

Orton also plays on the importance of objects – again a device taken from native folk and fairy tales, in which one thing can be of such import – be it a house of chicken legs, or simply a stone. Lina wears a stone around her neck that provides pulsing warmth in times of great cold and throbbing heat in times of danger. The sorceress relies on her cape for much, but it is also in the human realm that objects are important: a winter coat, a bag of vegetables, a horse for transportation. These are essential elements of survival: food, warmth, shelter.

At times the magic is complex, at times simple, as are the relationships, but there’s a shining simplicity to the images of growth and gardens that frame Lina’s story. The idea of being able to conjure magic within a garden has been used for decades in children’s literature – a garden showing the flourishing of the heart and soul, the blossoming or growth of a forbidden fruit actually proving to be sustenance and food for thought rather than evil temptation. Orton sets up the magic vibrancy of fruit vines against a Siberian snowy backdrop and it is with strong images such as these that her power as a storyteller glitters most strongly.

The reader is left with an array of visuals – ice crystals frozen from wintry breath, a fluttering moth, a shadowy girl, an ice palace. With a startling cover illustrated by Sandra Dieckmann, interior illustrative snowflakes and more, this is a winter read with staying power. You’ll be as enchanted as if you had been captured by a sorceress. A perfect wintry read. For ages 8+.

With thanks to Walker books for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here.

Explorers and Pioneers

From the history of exploration to the extremes of our planet, from game-changing theories to contemporary outdoor adventures, these four books take the reader on journeys of discovery and endeavour.

darwins voyage of discovery
Darwin’s Voyage of Discovery by Jake Williams
Pure, simple illustrations from upcoming illustrator Jake Williams make this new book about Darwin rather distinctive. Publishing to celebrate 160 years since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it follows Darwin’s journey on the The Beagle to Cape Verde, the Galapagos, Australia and more, paying careful attention to the discoveries Darwin made. Split into sections of the journey, with the beginning profiling Darwin’s early life and then the ship and preparations for the voyage, the rest plots the geography with basic maps and then wildlife of the region that Darwin noted.

The book goes into detail on the creatures, noting their features, but also the questions that Darwin asked about them, sparking ideas of evolution and ancestry. As the book highlights these, today’s reader will also begin to think – about exploration and discovery, but also about making connections and learning from nature – how analysis of behaviours and patterns can provoke theory. The space on the pages allows for this freedom of thought. There are no contents, no glossary…this is a book as a voyage – a linear discovery. You can buy it here.

dk explorers
DK Explorers, illustrated by Jessamy Hawke, written by Nellie Huang
This is a beautifully designed primer to exploration, with an introduction from explorer Barbara Hillary. Taking in the breadth of what exploration means – from adventuring to the furthest reaches of geography, whether it be deep sea or outer space – to understanding the commitment, determination and courage that being an explorer means, this book will open up the reader’s eyes to what has been achieved and at what cost.

Divided into sections: sea and ice, land, air and space, the book focuses on personalities – taking a double page for each explorer. There is a marvellous mix of graphics, of course maps, but also photographs of artefacts from American William Clark’s compass,  to photographs of British archaeologist Gertrude Bell on exploration, as well as full page illustrations that bring the scenes to life. There are first person accounts and quotes, as well as third person explanations and captions. Engaging and informative, this is a lovely nonfiction book, with careful nods to inclusivity, and a reflection on the darker side of exploration, all appropriate for the age group (9+yrs). You can buy it here.

adventures on earth
Adventures on Earth by Simon Tyler
This too divides the world into geographical regions, including polar, mountainous, volcanic, oceanic and more, looking at the extremes of our Earth, and noting their features, their wildlife, and the people who have discovered and explored them. With a nod to conservation issues too, this is a compelling looking book, with large shapes and blocks of colour denoting entire regions – deserts in terracotta and brown, caves in deep black, and oceans, in a nice touch, with a deep sunset beyond.

At times, the text is hard to read against its dark background, at other times stark against the polar regions, but always fascinating and packed with information. Maps and a glossary give clear guidance. Tyler’s background as a graphic designer shines through – some features look poster-like in their blockiness, and the design feels bold and sophisticated. Like some of the explorations it features, such as El Capitan and Dos Ojos, this is certainly attention-grabbing. You can buy it here.

wild girl
Wild Girl: How to have Incredible Outdoor Adventures by Helen Skelton, illustrated by Liz Kay
For those inspired by books such as those above, this may be a child’s entry point into their own exploration. Skelton has been and done many things and this book showcases her various explorations, from cycling to the South Pole to kayaking the length of the Amazon. It tracks the adventure, describes the preparation, kit and training, as well as the specific details such as going to the toilet and staying hydrated, as well as highly personal details such as cravings for apples and drying hair. Then each section attempts to give hints as to how a child can have their own adventures and explorations closer to home.

In the ‘sand’ adventure section, it suggests beach running, campfires and even sand boarding. For ‘rivers’, Skelton encourages ghyll scrambling, rafting, kite-surfing and more. These are not adventures for the garden, but certainly high-level activities that require some ‘warnings’, which are in place in the book. I particularly liked the idea of having a wild adventure in a city, making use of seeing things from a different perspective, such as going low, or going high. This is a highly personal recollection of voyages taken, but also an aspirational one for children wanting to be like Helen Skelton. The design is busy, but nicely arranged to read part-diary, part information manual, with plenty of colour, illustrations and photographs to draw the eye. An admirable non-fiction on the realities of modern exploration. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Pavilion, DK, and Walker publishers for the review copies.

The Apartment: A Century of Russian History by Alexandra Litvina, illustrated by Anna Desnitskaya

the apartmentNot all good books have to be new ideas. Sometimes the brilliance is in the execution. When I first started working at Dorling Kindersley publishers, one of the big titles was A Street Through Time by Steve Noon, which time travels a street to the Roman times, through history to the industrial revolution and Victorian England. Recently a documentary series on the BBC showed a similar concept – A House Through Time – with historian David Olusoga painstakingly researching a single house through different eras.

So The Apartment is not unusual. Except that this oversize piece of non-fiction for children is exquisitely presented, with so much information and curiosity within its pages that it feels as if it were recreating the concept afresh.

The illustrations and text follow the story of a six-bedroom apartment in Moscow from 1902 to 2002, showing the reader not only who lives there and why, but also their personal stories, political changes and upheavals, and the cultural choices and developments that then rippled from Russia across the world. Events in Russia are documented and remarked upon first and foremost according to their impact on the inhabitants of this apartment, but there is also a wealth of extra material.

A double-page family tree opens the story. This large extended family features the inhabitants of the apartment, and also indicates which pages of the book each person appears on. This handy tool helps the reader to navigate, particularly when some of the names may be tricky for an English readership.

The book opens with Irina Muromtseva in 1902, a young child moving into the apartment with her family and their dog. The cutaway apartment shows the different rooms and belongings, with annotations to characters and objects. There’s a fictional feel to the narrative, a first person introduction citing smells and emotions, but there’s a non-fiction feel to the rest, documenting the type of belongings the family had, the technologies of the time, including here a hot tap, and the inhabitants’ professions and general way of life.

Interspersed between the generational page cutaways – in which the current child of the family gives their impression of what is happening – there are double pages that explain the historical and political landscape, and show the reader smaller illustrations of particular objects and scenarios – from speech bubble vignettes of political or philosophical conversations, to types of pens for letter-writing, tree ornaments for Christmas celebrations, types of money and even recipes. This broad spectrum highlights a whole life – the feelings about war and revolutions, about communism and leadership, but also about the day-to-day: from embroidered school collars to samovars and newspaper articles.

Further on, the apartment is split as more families move in and share the space. Then more lives are documented, and the apartment sees arrests, deaths, a wedding, the advent of a telephone and television, men in space. The text introduces terms such as glasnost and perestroika, documents Stalinism and the Thaw, right up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

There are so many features in the book. There is of course an extensive glossary, timeline, bibliography and more. There’s a search and find game to see which objects survived how many years of change. But my favourite is the Afterword, explaining how much history and social history we glean from mere objects in everyday homes. And how for some of Russia’s history, there were things that could not be talked about. Could not be mentioned. And how books such as this can open these conversations.

We often say that to know who we are, we have to know where we came from. Our personal histories can provide a focus and explanation for how we see the outside world. And this book is a perfect example of how fiction and nonfiction can mesh and explore, can explain and provoke understanding. The text is dense, the pictures intricate, but it is a world waiting to be explored. All within one apartment.

With huge thanks to fellow children’s book blogger ReadItDaddy, without whom I would never have discovered this scintillating book. And proof therefore of the power of the children’s book blogger.

Translated from the Russian by Antonina W Bouis. For curious children aged 9+ and curious adults. You can buy it here.

The Lollies 2020: A guest post from author Jo Simmons

lollies


The Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (Lollies) celebrates the funniest children’s books in the UK and Ireland, and is voted for by children. In surveys, children tend to cite laughter as a key reason for keeping reading a book, and so I’m delighted to introduce one of this year’s shortlisted books for 9-13 year olds, I Swapped My Brother on the Internet! by Jo Simmons and Nathan Reed. This book had me chortling away – I would never dream of swapping my own brother of course – but the book let me wonder about what would happen if I did!

Jonny is sick of his big brother Ted, so when he hears about the website, SiblingSwap, he figures he has nothing to lose. But it turns out his new choices aren’t so great either. You can read MinervaReads review here, and below Jo Simmons asks ‘What makes the Perfect Sibling?’

i swapped my brother
When I was about eight years old, having tea with my slightly older brother and a couple of friends, he smashed a Dairylea Triangle against my forehead. The creamy contents burst through the foil wrapper and became stuck in my fringe. The perfect sibling would not have done that to me but, then again, I was not being the perfect sibling when it happened. I was being annoying and provoking and probably deserved a Dairylea Triangle to the face. There was blame on all sides, and outrage. This is not perfect sibling behaviour – but what is?

A quick check list of perfect sibling attributes might read like this: someone who is fun and cool (but not too cool – no one wants to be the square sibling). He or she is ready to defend you against the forces of evil (your parents, annoying relatives, bratty friends) and always has your back, offering rock-solid friendship that can stand the strain of a few petty sibling squabbles. Perfect siblings share their stuff happily – from toys and sweets to bikes and makeup – but give you space. They understand you inside-out but respect your individuality. They keep you company, make you laugh, share adventures.

The perfect sibling sounds really great – like your best friend, only better. After all, siblings understand first-hand all that grubby family stuff, too – how loud your dad blows his nose, or how your mother’s obsession with vest wearing is tough in the teen years. But does the perfect sibling exist? Probably only in moments and flashes, here and there, but not all the time. It’s not their fault. The sibling relationship is under constant pressure; all that sharing of space, toys, clothes and, worst of all, your parents’ attention.

It’s no wonder that most siblings have far from perfect relationships. Instead, theirs are loaded with tension, competition and fury; a blend of love and annoyance, incredible but infuriating closeness. And fights. Always fights. Hopefully just the garden variety bickering and squabbling that gives each sibling a chance to behave in a way that they just couldn’t with friends, for fear of being dumped, and not full-on combat or wrestling (although, inevitably, that can happen, too).

I had a lot of fun in I Swapped My Brother On The Internet with the idea that, via a website that works a bit like a dating app, you could choose a sibling. How might that go? Spoiler alert – not that well. We are stuck with our siblings, but we should take comfort from the fact that some improve with age, like a fine wine or a very bouncy dog. That brother who smashed a Dairylea Triangle into my forehead in the late 1970s is now a lovely friend, who cooks me dinner and goes running with me. So, what makes the perfect sibling? The answer, perhaps, is time.

With thanks to Jo for her guest blog. I Swapped My Brother on the Internet is published by Bloomsbury and is available to buy here. The full shortlisted titles are as follows: 

You can vote for your favourite here until 13th December:

The winner will be announced in early 2020.

The Pearl in the Ice by Cathryn Constable

pearl in the iceSet in 1912 with an impending global conflict, twelve-year-old Marina is the daughter of a Naval Commander and a long-absent mother, so is often left on her own. The book opens with Marina up a plane tree in a leafy London suburb contemplating imminent boarding school. Yet, bound within Marina’s daydreaming and watery metaphors, is the inexorable pull of the sea, and before long Marina is swapping one train for another and heading to Portsmouth to stow away on her father’s ship.

But as with so many stories, all is not what it seems. In any way. This 1912 is a slightly alternate reality, with the enemy of the British the fictional Mordavians, and a battle over codes, transmitters and missing ships being waged near the fictional town of Svengejar near the very real Sea of Murmansk. By cleverly mixing reality with fiction, Constable creates a tangible landscape for her story, and makes sure that mentions of sea beasts and mermaids don’t feel as far removed as they should.

Much of the novel takes place aboard The Sea Witch, where Marina’s father is the captain. Discovered by the crew, Marina quickly earns her place on board, looking after the dogs who will eventually pull the sleds when the ship docks in the Arctic Circle. As well as painting an intriguing picture of life on board a ship, complete with sailors’ superstitions, roles and responsibilities, ropes and rigging, there’s also the tension of imminent war, codes and code-breaking, and the mysteriousness of her father’s real role in the conflict.

By basing her book half in reality and half not, Constable sets up some wonderful tension in her characters; the reader having to guess who is speaking the truth, and who not. Near the beginning, Marina makes fast friends on the train with a Miss Smith, whom she admires for her feminist outlook, her insistence that women are just as good as men. This modern sensibility takes a battering on the ship, where Marina is referred to as ‘Boy, 2nd class,’ as girls do not feature as seamen. But her respect and admiration for Miss Smith doggedly follow her through the story, and by the end her feminist beliefs are restored, although she learns that even the bravest feminist can be on the wrong side.

The main tension in the book though, is not Marina’s seafaring adventure, or the end quest to save her father, but more her understanding of where fantasy meets reality, and the true understanding of why her mother disappeared. This is most clearly borne out in the very frightening and gripping dream/memory sequence at the end of chapter three, as Marina’s earliest memory seems to be that of being nearly drowned in the bath. From this sprout ongoing hints as to who Marina’s mother really is. By the end, the book’s plot – filled with double lives, spies, and codes – bends to encompass a fantasy realm too.

For readers of this age group, there is solace to be found in reading of a girl’s search for greater independence, not just in knowing who she is and where she comes from, but mainly in where she is going as she makes the leap from childhood to adulthood, understanding the premise that not all adults are to be believed and that challenging them can reap its own rewards.

This is a far from watery novel – in fact like the dark shape that follows Marina’s quest across the seas – it has real bite. The characters are well-formed – Miss Smith rather glamorously reminiscent of shades of Mrs Coulter – and the messages behind the story strong and well thought-out. But it is the imagery of the sea and what lies beneath that leaves lingering visions in the mind: the power of a storm, the surging dance of the waves, and the ever-changing colours of the water above the darkness below.

For 9+ years.

With thanks to Nina Douglas and Chicken House publishers for my review copy. Catch up with the rest of the blog tour below. And you can buy your own copy here.

New Detective Fiction

I’m sure there weren’t as many detective novels for children when I was young. For me, my most memorable encounter with the genre was one summer, on our annual trip to Cornwall. We were staying in a hotel with its own giftshop – the height of luxury, I thought. To my dismay, halfway through the trip, I ran out of reading material (despite probably having taken about 10 books for a two week stay). In those days, gift shops rarely stocked books, and certainly not children’s books. But I was in luck. The books they did stock were a collection of Agatha Christie novels, and so, aged about ten, I embarked on a journey on the Orient Express, found a cat amongst the pigeons, and journeyed along the Nile.

Today, the mystery/detective/crime novels for children drop onto the doormat almost daily. Here are three new novels that are everything one could ask for in the genre – gripping, tightly plotted, with excellent characterisation, and all superbly written.

lori and max

Lori and Max by Catherine O’Flynn
With a good eye for giving her characters backstory, introducing first Lori, wannabe child detective with deceased parents living with her grandma, and then Max, new girl in school with too-small clothes, a depressed Mum and gambling Dad, O’Flynn deploys enough wit to stop the book descending full flow into misery.

These girls have gumption and spark, the steel and resolve to see their detecting through difficult areas. When a stack of charity money goes missing from school, and Max is accused of the crime, Lori sets out to prove that her new friend is innocent.

Although contemporary, the characters rely on skilful sleuthing and walkie talkies rather than the Internet or mobile phones, and with lashings of descriptions of food, the understanding of real friendship, and a writer’s keen eye for observation and nuance, this is a well-told, brilliantly executed detective story. One of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t miss it. Buy it here.

trouble in new york

Trouble in New York by Sylvia Bishop
It seems Sylvia Bishop can do no wrong – I’ve loved every single one of her books. In her latest, she turns to an analysis of news and fake news in her crime caper set in 1960’s New York.

Jamie Creeden delivers papers but he wants to be a reporter. When he stumbles into the mystery of a missing actress, he realises he’s stuck fast in the middle of a network of corruption and criminality. Assuming the role of investigative journalist, he sets out to discover the truth, and whether that truth is always what’s printed in the papers.

Bishop writes with an assured confidence, imbuing her characters and her insights with warmth. She has a style that brings the essence of a children’s world into a larger view of right and wrong, so that the reader feels secure in the familiarity of the adventure, whilst at the same time having their horizons broadened. My favourite insight comes early on: in the building of the Yorker, the newspaper featured, there is a statue of a woman in the entrance, to symbolise the motto of the paper – ‘Always punctual, often accurate’. Bishop goes on to say:

“In one hand the woman held a lantern for Truth; and in the other, a Rolex watch, for Punctuality. (She used to hold an hourglass, but the Rolex company paid the Yorker a great deal of money to change it.).”

It’s simple, but effective, bringing our real world capitalism to a child readership, and lightly placing clues for them to question what they see and what they hear.

There’s more of course: two plucky female sidekicks to the protagonist, a tight plot, and a pervasive enthusiasm for the plucky innocence and perseverance of children, the truth, and the beauty in both. Effortless and yet brilliant. Another triumph. Buy it here.

agatha oddly

Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key by Lena Jones
From New York to a detective story set firmly in London, complete with secret comms in the London Eye, and a girl who resides in the groundsman’s cottage of Hyde Park.

Thirteen-year-old Agatha Oddly, named for Agatha Christie, adores detecting, and so when a motorbike knocks over an old lady in the middle of Hyde Park, Agatha is straight on the case. But the lady isn’t who she first appears, and when London’s water pipes are filled with a toxic red algae, Agatha has to join the dots in a relentless adventure around London in order to come up with the culprits behind a dastardly plan to change the way Londoners drink water for ever.

There is so much to love here, from the hidden network of super spies in London’s midst, to the secret tunnels and gatekeepers of London, to the everyday reality of Agatha in school, and dealing with who and who isn’t her friend. Smartly plotted, and hugely enjoyable, this is a fast easy read that zings with character and energy.

Although slightly predictable for those of us with some reading experience, Agatha’s quirks and indomitable spirit lead the way here. It’s fitting that the series bears her name, and for readers age 9+ approaching the book, they’ll find something to love in her slightly obtuse and subversive nature. The plot is key, of course, but it is in her friendships – battling with the popular kids, understanding the needs of her best friend, and coming to see that people aren’t always as they present in one scenario, that this book wins big. Plenty of dialogue, an understanding of when mobile phones can assist the plot and when not, and carefully laid red herrings all make for a perfect crime caper. Highly recommended. The second in the series, Murder at the Museum, has been published too. You can buy Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key here.

With thanks to Firefly Press, Scholastic and HarperCollins for the review copies.