middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

The Lifters by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Aaron Renier

the liftersMany of my test readers adore short chapters in their children’s fiction. It might be because they are reluctant readers and getting through the chapters feels like an achievable accomplishment. Or perhaps because they enjoy the cliff edges in the chapter cliffhanger endings, or simply because they can easily find a place to stop at lights out.

The Lifters by Dave Eggers has one hundred and thirteen chapters – not because it’s War and Peace for kids, but rather because most of the chapters are only a couple of pages long. Brief they may be, but they certainly contain a depth of metaphor.

Like many books for children this age, the main character’s story begins when his family move house to a new town. However, unlike anyone else, this boy is called Granite Flowerpetal, which he shortens to Gran as he starts his life afresh in the town called Carousel.

Life isn’t everything he and his parents had hoped in the new town. Gran is not teased at school, more ignored than anything, and his father fails to find the work he hoped would materialise in the new town. Instead, he travels miles away, leaving Gran, his sister and their wheelchair-bound mother.

Not long after they arrive, houses and buildings in Carousel start disappearing into massive sink-holes, and it turns out to be no coincidence when Gran follows a girl into a series of hidden underground tunnels, in which children called Lifters prop up the foundations of their towns.

The metaphor is blatant, but cleverly written. The town, particularly this kind of traditional manufacturing town, is literally sinking or collapsing because of the depth of misery and disheartened thinking, and it’s only the hope for the future (represented by the children) than can help to lift it again.

Granite, named for strength, turns out to be stronger than he thought, and Catalina, the girl who at first had questioned his moniker: “Don’t you realise Gran sounds like you’re a grandmother?” turns out to appreciate his company, especially after he proves his worth in the tunnels.

Although this was written before Trump became President, Eggers skilfully picks up on the US rust belt towns’ feeling of hopelessness: Carousel is a fictional town that was famous for making carousels, but has fallen victim to the new thrill seekers who prefer rollercoasters.

This is no rollercoaster of a novel – it’s more an extended metaphor with plenty of critique of the times in which we live. Adults come across quite badly – they cannot cope with conflict and tend to avoid trying to see another’s point of view at all. When part of the school falls in, the teachers act as if the sinkhole is inevitable and offer counselling to the children by way of individual cubicles and a psychology examination by an automaton on screen.

But although the responsibility for healing the community falls squarely onto the children’s shoulders, there is enough humour to lift the reader’s spirits, and plenty of great writing that keeps the reader turning the page, especially the little universal truths interjected by the writer. Away from the despondency and overplayed metaphor, I really rather enjoyed it. A good choice for older primary school readers looking for meaning behind a story. You can buy it here.

Armistice Day

On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. We know the historical facts about the First World War and we understand the remembrance at Armistice Day, but 100 years on, how do we not only keep the memory of it alive, but also make it relevant for today’s children. Two very different stories bring the topic to fresh generations by using issues that are forefront in the minds now, to illuminate how those same issues were a part of society then. It’s often said we’re living in a time of identity politics, and these two books both highlight individual identity within the context of the First World War.

white featherWhite Feather by Catherine and David MacPhail
This powerful tale is about how we remember somebody after they have died. The war is over, and everyone is celebrating, except Tony who is still mourning his brother Charlie who never returned from no man’s land. What’s more, Tony is given a white feather during the Armistice, a sign that his brother is remembered as a coward – executed for running away from Frontline service. Tony doesn’t believe that his brother was a coward, and sets out to find the truth, so that he can remember his brother – and that his brother can be correctly identified as a brave soldier.

Just as now, with first-hand recollection gone, the truth about the First World War may seem more misty, more distant. It’s important that we understand the facts of what happened, but also that we see through poetry or novels the individual’s experience, so that we can better empathise with the realities of that time. White Feather is about the search for truth – told as half a mystery and half a ghost story in a quest to uncover what really happened on the Front Line. With sympathetic characters, this novella provides a great talking point for how we understand the horrors of the time, as well as the importance of an individual’s identity, even after death. You can buy it here.

 

respect walter tullRespect: The Walter Tull Story by Michaela Morgan, with illustrations by Karen Donnelly
Another short novel, this time based on the true story of a First World War hero, pulls in today’s children for two reasons – firstly it’s again about identity – Walter Tull was a black man and suffered from prejudice because of this, and secondly because it ties football to the First World War, pulling in a raft of children who may be reluctant readers. In fact, even though this was first published in 2005, there is still a dearth of books for primary schools with strong black role models, and this fits the bill nicely.

Although Morgan has fictionalised Tull’s story, she has used a mixture of illustrations and photographs to highlight events, with a map too, so that a reader can see the primary sources behind the story. Tull was the first ever black professional footballer, and also the first black officer in the British Army, and his story is fascinating; one of great courage and resilience. You can buy it here.

You may also want to read about Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer here. All books published by Barrington Stoke, specialist publishers for reluctant and dyslexic readers.

World Science Day

Saturday 10th November is World Science Day. But every day is science day in our house. Whether we’re working out how much baking powder will make the cake rise, to calculating our speed at running up the steep inclines near the house, to gathering different types of fallen leaves outside the front door. Because, for children, science doesn’t necessarily slot neatly into a named discipline, but fits into everything they do, everywhere they go. In the same way that these books aren’t chemistry or physics text books, but a wonderful mix of non-fiction picture books, non-fiction narrative, fiction etc; and they introduce science into children’s lives in a range of different ways.

Max EinsteinMax Einstein: The Genius Experiment by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein, illustrated by Beverly Johnson

“Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born.”

This bouncy fiction title from best-selling American author James Patterson is a typical adventure story, but it oozes science and is all the more winning for doing so. Twelve-year-old orphan Max lives above stables in New York City, and is obsessed with Albert Einstein. She’s a bit of a genius herself, fabricating records to get a place at NYU. Then one day, she’s recruited by a mysterious organisation, taken to a gathering of the world’s other child prodigies in Israel, and asked to take part in a competition to lead world-saving projects. With teamwork and creativity, Max overcomes various obstacles, and nasty ‘oligarch’ baddies to win the day, providing globally conscious, humanitarian solutions to various scientific problems.

The setting of part of the book in Israel is down to the fact that the book is officially approved by the Albert Einstein Archives (housed at Hebrew U in Jerusalem) and so Patterson liberally sprays his text with Einstein quotes (they all work within the plot and are great fun), as well as simply explaining with a deft writer’s touch ideas such as The Theory of Relativity. These science bits are sprinkled throughout and are lovely touches – buried within the story so as not to feel too sciencey, whilst also clearly imparting knowledge.

Holding many of the ingredients for a key ‘girls in STEM’ title, such as learning about teamwork, caring for the planet, new technology, resilience, kindness to others, and the pursuit of creativity as well as knowledge in problem-solving, this is an excellent story with a warm protagonist who should win hearts everywhere. Includes glorious science-themed black and white illustrations. Find your inner genius here.

The QuentioneersThe Questioneers Book 1: Rosie Revere and the Raucous Riveters by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
I turn to the Rosie Revere picture books time and again for all sorts of purposes – the rhyming, the illustrations, the scientific message, feminism, the humour, characters, and so much more. Now, engineer Rosie has her own chapter book starring her friends architect Iggy Peck and scientist Ada Twist.

In this first of a series, Rosie’s Great-great Aunt Rose introduces the children to the Blue River Riveters, a group of women who built aeroplanes during WW2. One of them, June, wants to enter an art contest but has broken both her wrists in a motor-scooter accident, so needs Rosie to invent something to help her be able to participate.

The book is smart and fun, despite losing the rhyme, and continues the theme of girls in science as Rosie confronts the historical lack of women in traditional science jobs, as well as providing new themes of cross-generational bonding. As always with Rosie, there is learning from failure and experimentation and developing her persistence and resilience, and also a nod to science with the graph paper backgrounds and illustrated inventions. With its short chapters and two-tone illustrations, this is a good follow-on to younger fiction for those who have read the picture books so many times that they need something new. I can see Rosie going from strength to strength – just like her inventions. Ask your questions here.

Secret ScienceSecret Science: The Amazing World Beyond Your Eyes by Dara O’Briain with Sally Morgan, illustrated by Dan Bramall
I really approve of a comedian writing science books for children. Although I generally dislike promoting celebrity books, this hits a good note with me. It isn’t meant to be high-level science, and is delivered as a narrative strand – much like a comedian delivering a standup routine. And yes, amongst the sciencey bits are plenty of fart jokes, and the text is punctuated (probably almost more than necessary) with a huge number of WORDS IN CAPITALS, different typefaces, and many cartoons. This book covers the science that you can’t see – hormones, forces, energy etc, aiming to answer questions that children will spontaneously ask – why does hair stand on end, how do giraffes sleep? There are some lovely descriptions, including how a jet engine works and comparing it to a hose pipe, as well as parts that describe what stress does to the body and how to relieve it. Luckily, there’s a cool index at the end so that you can dip in rather than read the text all the way through, as it can be quite a noisy book. There are also the now necessary warnings about climate change and the environment. An entertainingly busy read. Discover the secrets here.

 

 

Before we tackle the large non-fiction, I must also draw your attention to a new periodical. The Week Junior has long been a favourite of mine for its bright photographs, news round up and excellent cultural coverage, but now there’s a The Week Junior Science and Nature magazine. This monthly 60 page magazine holds multiple entry points – a reader can dip and discover, absorbing fun facts or reading a feature. The first issue was in September, and featured such current topics as the secret behind Fortnite’s success, but also an in-depth feature on superhumans. Each month will have an eight-page Lab section with experiments and a monthly guide to the night sky for budding astronomers. Really excellent quality. You can order it here.

 

 

the speed of starlight

The Speed of Starlight, written by Colin Stuart, illustrated by Ximo Abadia
Subtitled ‘A Visual Exploration of Physics, Sound, Light and Space’, this is an elegant title with simple text and sharp colourful graphics that uncovers the mystery behind basic quantum physics.

It goes beyond starlight to investigate the science behind space but also how we explore the Universe. Divided into the four sections named in the subtitle, the book explains, using simple graphics, Newton’s Laws of Motion, the insides of an atom, soundwaves, photosynthesis, the colour spectrum and then goes into space.

Any author who’s had an asteroid named after him in recognition of his work to popularise astronomy must know a bit about what he’s writing. Not only does Colin Stuart have the expertise and enthusiasm, but he can explain it in the simplest terms without resorting to cliché. Find your speed here.

 

 

 

the element in the roomThe Element in the Room by Mike Barfield, illustrated by Lauren Humphrey
From physics to chemistry in this illustrated guide to the chemical elements. Any book on chemical elements will feature the periodic table, plus a small handy guide to each element, detailing its name, symbol, atomic number, key characteristics and so on. But here, as well as this basic information, the book is set out as a sleuth story, solving the case of the element in the room with a detective (Sherlock Ohms) whose catchphrase is ‘Elementary’ of course. To add spice and fun to the mix, the text is interspersed with full page comic strips, the first of which, for example, is a fun guide to Aristotle’s belief in the four elements – earth, air, fire and water.

There’s so much information packed into this book it would feel bamboozling if it weren’t for the sheer creativity of the author and illustrator, who explore where in the house the element can be found, (sodium in urine, zinc in nappy cream etc), fun experiments (building an electric lemon), and clever explanations of basic chemistry. You can buy it here.

 

 

first book of quantum physicsMy First Book of Quantum Physics by Sheddad Kaid-Salah Ferron and Eduard Altarriba
The very friendly illustrations, and quite large font size in this book belies the difficultly level of the subject matter and text in this absorbing yet challenging physics book. This book goes in a slightly different direction to the two above, exploring theoretical physics as much as the practical stuff. So, you’ll find pages on Schrodinger’s Cat as well as a page exploring waves and particles. This is an exciting book in that it leads to further thought and investigation rather than just imparting knowledge. There are good colourful graphics that attempt to illuminate the harder principles, such as The Uncertainty Principle or the Mystery of Antimatter, and illustrations that will explode the mind, such as the Tunnel Effect. I liked the graphic representation of the periodic table here – building blocks fitting together like Lego, and CERN represented as a toy train track. Amusing, stimulating and challenging – an awesome if ambitious science book. Explore theorem here.

 

Peter Pan by JM Barrie, retold in rhyme by Caryl Hart, illustrated by Sarah Warburton

Peter PanI have a confession to make. I decided to read the worthy classic Peter Pan by JM Barrie to my first child at bedtime one year and picked out an exceptionally beautiful edition of the original. And yet a few pages in, I found myself précising the text, rewording it, changing sentences and skipping bits – the prose just wasn’t as captivating as I thought it should be. It had all the elements in the plot – removable shadows, pirates with hooks, crocodiles with clocks and fairies with attitude, yet it didn’t zing along.

So when this latest version came through the post, I wished that it had arrived years earlier, but settled for reading it to the youngest child instead. What a delight. Hart has used her extensive experience in rhyming picture books to retell the story in her own energetic style, and it is a joy to read aloud:

“Our tale begins in London
in a house on Bloomsbury Street.
Inside there lived a family,
the nicest you could meet.”

Hart not only retells the story, but imbues it with a narrator’s warmth, gently guiding the readers as Peter guides Wendy through the sky. There’s much plot and little description, but the setting is neatly filled in with Warburton’s filmic illustrations, rendering the mermaids mischievous with a flick of an eyebrow, the pirates both comedic and threatening with their sometime mean, sometime dozy expressions, and their excessive facial hair.

With pure pantomime timing, Hart executes all the finer details of the plot, and the familiar phrases – as children the land over clap their hands to save Tinkerbell, and there is much walking the plank, the introduction of the ‘Wendy’ house, and of course lots of fighting. But she also pulls out the dramatic pantomime hilarity of the story – Pan poking Hook from behind, then inciting him to climb the crow’s nest where he immediately feels dizzy. Child readers and listeners will be both engrossed with the fast-paced plot but also cheered with the numerous nods to win their humour. Hart also makes use of much onomatopoeia, building drama wherever possible with the ticks of the clock and the snaps of the crocodile, the canon’s boom and the water’s splosh.

The text is split neatly into four line verses, at times each illustrated separately, and sometimes illustrated with a full double page spread landscape. The production is superb – the pages are lush and thick, the colour bursting from the page in wondrous detail – the last spread has Peter almost silhouetted on a rock whilst in the foreground Tinkerbell literally shines and the flowers seem luminous in her wake. Other spreads delight with detail – the pirate ship, but also the lost boys’ underground home with its hammocks, swinging lanterns and shelves of curiosity. This is one you read to a child nestled in your arms – and with a ribbon bookmark and foiled jacket, you’ll both feel spoiled and all set for winter nights in – just keep the windows closed:

“They’d slipped out through the window,
quite ignoring Nana’s warning.
“Second to the right!” they cried.
“Then straight on until morning!”

Find your own way to Neverland here.

Halloween Murder and Magic

There’s nothing like a Halloween night to bring out the ghosts and ghoulies and spooky horror stories. But there’s also plenty of room for fun and frolics. When I first starting stocking murder stories in the primary school library, a parent queried the content. Murder? For children? Indeed. Murder, monsters, howling winds, dark nights, swamp creatures, are all perfect fodder for little ones (age 9+). Here are two I particularly like.

what manor murderWhat Manor of Murder? by Christopher William Hill
“It looks like the sort of place where bad things have happened,” whispered Master Oliver Davenport.

The author of the Tales from Schwartzgarten series is back with a new book called The Bleakley Brothers Mystery: What Manor of Murder? Spoofing traditional murder mysteries with a good helping of homicide, one-by-one elimination of suspects, a dollop of old country house, and a smigden of regurgitated legend, Hill tackles his topic with aplomb, dropping gothic clichés and hints throughout in the build up to the crime (the family’s Latin motto, mors cum Laetitia, means death with joyfulness). In the approach to the old manor house, there is an old man surrounded by clouds of smoke telling superstitious tales of gloom and doom, an ominous howling wind, a rickety bridge, and the looming towering walls of Bleakley Manor itself.

Posh twins Horatio and Eustace, freshly released from their boarding school, accompanied by Poor Unfortunate Oliver Davenport, arrive at Bleakley Manor for Michaelmas Eve with their extended family. Things are rather out of sorts though – with the butler and footman gone and replaced by inferior staff – and then a body is found in the study…

Hill assembles his eccentric characters; including cousin Loveday, a rather winning know-it-all who brandishes a jolly lacrosse stick and excitedly relays her new venture writing a school magazine entitled ‘Murder and Mayhem’, a Great Aunt who writes crime novels (and explains to Oliver Davenport that the poor unfortunates in her books always die), and an uncle who happens to be a roving explorer and Egyptologist.

Murder is discussed continually in the most off-hand manner, the children are desperate for mystery, and so it isn’t long before they get what they deserve. The author flourishes his deft wit on every page, playing with the readers as he assembles his cast and then eliminates them, all with fantastically posh period detail – from pineapple cubes and aniseed balls to roast goose and roly poly pudding (there is a lot of food).

If there’s an occasional clunker (insects sent scuttling more than once), the reader either excuses it as being part of the hammy style or overlooks it because the rest of the book is so much fun. I wanted to read it aloud in a plummy posh accent and revel in the quirky dark humour. It’s deliciously wicked. You can buy it here.

witch girlMore macabre goings-on in Witch Girl by Jan Eldredge, titled Evangeline of the Bayou in the States, which gives much more of a clue to the contents. The book is set in the swamps of Louisiana and stars twelve-year-old haunt huntress apprentice Evangeline Clement. (Haunt huntresses are on call to protect everyday folks haunted by supernatural creatures).

Evangeline Clement lives with her witchy grandmother, learning how to keep the locals safe from the monsters of the Bayou, including such nasties as banshees and terrebonnes. Evangeline and her grandmother rely on various herbs, potions, talismans and spells for their trade, which all tie nicely into the scenery – Eldredge borrowing from Cajun culture and the plant life of the American South.

The book plunges the reader into the action, showing Evangeline attempting to prove her worth by tackling a number of supernatural monster invasions on her own, although much to the reader’s amusement, she makes rather a mess of it.

Then, she and her grandmother are called to New Orleans to investigate the rather peculiar case of Mrs Midsomer who transforms into a rougarou (a werewolf). Fully immersed in the setting with its white wedding cake houses and aroma of coffee and chicory, this is a transportive novel brought to life most magnificently with the superstitions and local folklore tied into Evangeline’s witchcraft and voodoo. There is much monster-fighting action, and more than a hint of wit and sass.

In the end, the reader understands that trusting one’s gut is as important as knowledge, although a UK readerships’ knowledge will be greatly enhanced with the glossary of Cajun folklore creatures at the back of the book. Paranormal in abundance, creepiness indeed, but no outright horror. This is a nod to bravery in the face of creepy old mansions and terrifying monsters that make the dangerous alligator seem like a fluffy pussycat. Try it here.

 

Autumn 2018 Picture Book Round-Up 2

a house for mouse
A House for Mouse by Gabby Dawnay and Alex Barrow
There’s a wonderful satisfaction in spotting literary allusions in texts, as if the author has winked at you, and you looked up to catch it. Sometimes they’re very well hidden – but for children it’s important that the literary allusions are accessible. A House for Mouse plays upon the enticing estate agent theme of looking into other people’s houses, and also the literary allusions game.

Mouse is searching for a new house, but they all seem to have negatives – clear building regulation failures (The Three Little Pigs), architectural issues (Gingerbread house), inaccessibility (Rapunzel’s tower), overcrowding (There was an Old Woman) and so on. He settles on Sleeping Beauty’s castle but realises that in the end, home is where his heart is, of course.

With humour galore, a fairy tale map at the beginning and soft pencil illustrations delineating the different landscapes, this is a comforting and appealing story book that is more about friendship than location. See if the book suits you here.

theres room for everyone
There’s Room for Everyone by Anahita Teymorian
Mouse was wise to share his castle with his friends – Teymorian uses her picture book to point out that although the library has enough space for all the books (she’s clearly never been in my house), and there’s enough room for all the stars in the sky, human beings constantly fight over space – be it on the train or in a larger context of land and war. The message is simple – that with kindness and love there’s enough room for everyone. What might come across as a little sanctimonious and simple becomes more thoughtful if the reader studies the illustrations used to make Teymorian’s point – the clever use of the boundaries of the page, the distorted long-limbed humans, the neat use of lines to create patterns and textures. A warmth oozes from the pages. There’s room for you here.

the dam
The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold
Immediately bringing to mind the beginning of Haweswater by Sarah Hall, a novel tracking the lives of dispossessed people after the flooding of a valley, this may feel like a strange topic for a picture book. Walker, pushing the boundaries, allows Almond to tell the story, based on truth, of a dam building in Northumberland, which led to the flooding of a valley and the village within it. Here, Almond and Pinfold retell the story of the musicians who played music in this lost place before the flooding.

With themes of loss, dispossession, rebirth and the power of creativity, Almond blesses his lyrical text with a deep simplicity, much repetition, and a clear placing of words within their white background. However, it is Pinfold’s brown and dreamy illustrations that provide the atmosphere and haunting quality to the text, showing both the before and after effects with deep pathos, understanding and clever use of soft muted, almost sepia colour. Pinfold brings a clarity to his study of water and structure, rendering the narrative with a distinct sense of place. And the light – the light pours through the book like water into a flooded valley. You can buy it here.

mary and frankenstein
Mary and Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Julia Sarda
Another atmospheric interpretation in this celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Bailey approaches her topic by investigating how the events of Mary’s life brought her to the moment of creativity, exploring how the story of Frankenstein festered and developed within Mary’s mind. From the death of her mother, to the animosity of her stepmother, the mood swings of her father and her travels and influences, Bailey creates a full image of Mary’s young years with just a few carefully chosen words.

Sarda’s illustrations use darkness, shadows and an almost Picasso-like angularity to illuminate Bailey’s words, creating an unforgettable aura in the people she draws and the landscapes she illustrates. The richness of the colour palette – vivid reds, oranges and browns elucidates the richness of the culture within which Mary was subsumed, but it is the clever rendering of the skies, storms, and imagination at work in dark greys that really sets the tone. Many details to look at, including the houses of the era, the interior décor, as well as gravestones and horses and carriage provide an extra thrill for readers. Like Frankenstein itself, an unforgettable book. Inspirational. (The book is titled Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein in the United States). Explore the life of Mary Shelley here.

on a magical do nothing day
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna, translated by Jill Davis
Illustrations of a completely different order in this modern award-winning text about finding creativity and adventure out of boredom, now published in paperback. A purposefully gender ambiguous protagonist is told by the mother to put down the computer game and find something to do. The child leaves the house with the computer console in order to be out of sight, yet gradually becomes sucked into the natural environment.

At first miserable and bored, the child soon finds joy and creativity in solitude; the neon orange coat at first marking the child as separate from nature, but then seamlessly blending into the myriad of mushrooms and toadstools, and before long there is wonder to be found in the sensuous delights around – jelly snails, the aroma of fungi, the sifting of earth through fingers. The weather plays its part too, and at the end mother and child bond over quiet contemplation and hot chocolate.

This is a phenomenal book of everyday discoveries, with illustrations that make the reader draw breath. The change in perspective, the clever use of light, tone and vignettes gives the book an excitement, and yet also tender empathy. I’m longing for a Do-nothing Day of my own. You can buy the paperback here.

travels with my granny
Travels With My Granny by Juliet Rix and Christopher Corr
On the surface a vibrant picture book about destinations throughout the world, told by an adventurous Grandmother, this is actually a book about dementia, and explaining to children how to try to understand what people with dementia are going through. The grandmother believes she is really travelling, and the other adults explain that she doesn’t know where she is, but for the child, (again an ambiguous gender) he/she is happy to explore the grandmother’s mind, even if it seems confused.

The illustrations are bright and garish, depicting New York on a bright yellow background with multi-coloured skyscrapers and entertainments – as brash and brassy as Times Square. London is blue, Jerusalem orange, Rome a tender mauve. A few facts punctuate each city – in Delhi the tricycle taxis are rickshaws for example. The information at the back explains about dementia. An important, interesting addition. Buy it here.

The Train to Impossible Places by PG Bell, illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino

train to impossible places“Letting people choose their own leaders is wonderful in theory, but they keep making the wrong choices. Better to have someone in charge who knows what they’re doing, wouldn’t you say?”

Is The Train to Impossible Places a post-Trump children’s novel? What started, according to notes from the author at the back of the book, as a made-up-on-the-spot bedtime story for his child has surely picked up political acuity and cultural relevance as it was written down and came to find its place on publishers’ lists and bookshops’ shelves.

At the heart of this fantastic adventure story is a fight between two entities – one who’s just a mean bully with the magical powers to imprison people and commands a huge army of stone statues (who come to life to spy and fight), and the other who has an obsession with spying on everyone with the intention to glean all the information in the world, and thus take his place as the most powerful man on the planet, keen to use knowledge to manipulate and coerce.

The narrative starts with eleven-year-old Suzy, a child character whose adventures begin at night-time, and thus stays clothed in her pyjamas and dressing gown throughout (like Sophie in The BFG, or Tom in his midnight garden, the boy in The Snowman). Bell makes use of Suzy’s dressing gown though – the belt and pockets coming in very handy. She finds a troll building a railway line through her house for the Impossible Postal Express. Too late to un-remember what she’s seen, and far too curious, she leaps aboard the train and becomes the new postie under Wilmot, the troll Postmaster, bound for the Union of Impossible Places – a series of magical worlds.

Her first job is to deliver a cursed package to the rather terrifying sorceress, Lady Crepuscula, but things take a turn for the worse when she decides not to deliver the parcel quite as she should. And the consequences stretch far beyond just one undelivered package.

Suzy is a physics nut, which is useful (or useless depending on your perspective) in a place in which the usual rules of physics turn surprisingly on their head; the trolls introducing her to fuzzics instead. With clever reference to real scientific principles such as energy, velocity and speed, Suzy not only uses her science to save the day more than once, but also battles to comprehend the new fuzzics of the Impossible Places, where wormholes are normal and whole cities hang upside down.

Bell’s knack of plot propulsion, with many twists and turns, ups and downs, and multiple viewpoints, keeps the action fast and fresh in a whizzing adventure story. At the same time he introduces an undercurrent of scientific principles, a clear witty nod to the feminist movement with his introduction of womanly Ursel, (a brown bear who is yellow – she’s a blonde by choice – and has the job of keeping the Postal Express moving by fueling it with fusion bananas), and also an acknowledgement of age-old industries dying and with them both the job market and a population’s sense of purpose.

The Postal Express has been whittled down to just a lone Postmaster, what with the advent of new technologies, and the old manufacturing level at Troll city is in decline. With problems on the railways, including occasional disconnects, some late post and last minute delays, Bell gives a sharp precis of our changing world and diminishing trades.

There’s also a huge dose of British irony, with humour nicely planted throughout the book, and witty allusions to much culture and storytelling of the past – including the chapter heading ‘The Lion, the witch and the war zone’ – parents reading the story aloud will adore the many references, not least the underwater ghost pirates, Lady Crepuscular and her stone army, and many more. I kept jotting down little notes next to the text – Miss Haversham, Dr Who, Harry Potter, Men in Black….

The book is so much more than this though. With clearly defined characters all with motives for their actions, an understanding of the rhythm and flow of a good book, comic flair, and above all a top-notch fast-paced adventure plot, this is a phenomenal new novel.

The publishers thought so too – they have spared no expense. There’s a beautiful cover that sits underneath the dust jacket, and glorious black and white illustrations throughout by Flavia Sorrentino. I particularly appreciated her rendering of Trollville. (turn the book upside down).

Don’t miss this one – it’s a cracker. I’m going to read it again now – this time to a willing listener, and I’m ready for book two (as yet no publication date). You can buy it here.

Adventurers

race to the frozen northRace to the Frozen North by Catherine Johnson

Subtitled ‘The Matthew Henson story’, Catherine Johnson has fictionalised the life of ordinary man, yet heroic explorer and adventurer Matthew Henson and created an intriguing, highly readable, gripping novella of the incredible story of how illiterate eleven-year-old Matthew Henson became the first man to reach the North Pole.

Actually there continues to be contention over who really reached the North Pole first, with it often cited that either Dr Frederick Cook or US explorer Robert Peary reached it in the years 1908 and 1909 respectively. Matthew Henson was in Robert Peary’s expedition, and according to Johnson’s story, made it there first. But his name and achievement were suppressed for many years because of the colour of his skin. He was a black man, and people were disinclined to believe that Peary had put his trust in a black man – both at the time and for many years later.

The story reads almost as a rags to riches fairy tale, in that Henson was beaten by his stepmother and ran away aged 11 with nothing to his name. A kindly restaurant owner took him on, then a sea captain who saw potential in him, and taught him to read and write, and thanks to Henson’s extraordinary motivation, his adventures to different lands, and above all his willingness to learn and understand other people, he transformed himself into a daring and intrepid explorer.

Johnson’s story is gripping for both being based on truth, but also for its telling, which has clever pacing to illustrate the passage of time, and simple, yet extraordinary prose (her descriptions of the polar landscape and its dangerous crevices are awesome). It also teaches compassion and respect – Henson’s treatment of others on his travels, especially indigenous people, (his willingness to learn from their expertise rather than treat them as subservient) is part of what made him so successful, enabling him to go from impoverished youth to sailor to navigator, craftsman to explorer. Johnson cleverly inserts subtle parallels here, foreshadowing the plight of the black man with Henson’s freeing of a caged bird, and  contrasting Henson’s deep respect for the ice and the Inuit with the disrespect he was shown in his Western world.

This is both a coming-of-age and an adventure story, but brought to life with evocative descriptions, an understanding of racial relations and social history at the beginning of the 20th century, and yet also the tiny acts of kindness that lead to world-changing events. Although not all plain sailing, Henson’s adventures highlight the importance of determination, patience and friendship. A fantastic story, illustrated with Katie Hickey’s vignettes on the bottom of each page highlighting which section of the narrative you’re in, that brings attention to a well-deserved hero. It just goes to show that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

The title is published by Barrington Stoke, who create readable books for reluctant or dyslexic readers with phenomenal storytelling. Explore it yourself here.

great adventurersAlistair Humphreys’ Great Adventurers, illustrated by Kevin Ward

For those new to adventuring, Alistair Humphreys is an English adventurer whose first big adventure was cycling round the world. It took him four years, and he was the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012. Looking him up, I see that he is just a few days older than me, which puts me to shame as most days the furthest I go is about five kilometres.

Anyway, for those who want to be inspired, or live vicariously through books, you will want to read his stunning children’s book, Great Adventurers, in which Humphreys profiles 20 heroic explorers who have undertaken some of the most incredible journeys and expeditions in history.

The choice of adventurers is certainly broad and eclectic, ranging from Rick Hansen, the Paralympian who wheeled around the world, to Ibn Battuta, the 14th century explorer who visited more countries than Marco Polo, to Audrey Sutherland who paddled the Alaskan coastline on her first expedition at the age of 59.

Each adventurer is treated differently in the book, but with the same awe-inspiring imagination, attention-to-detail and simple storytelling. With full colour throughout, some of their adventures are drawn in cartoon comic-strips, others contain lists of kit equipment with illustrations, others a map of their route, and each is different. Dervla Murphy’s destinations are shown in an array of postcards, Ranulph Fiennes has a page of floating icebergs that give facts about his Transglobe Expedition. Colour pallettes distinguish each adventure from the next – Nellie Bly is illustrated with a delicious traditional sea-mint green, with illustrations and motifs echoing the time period – a distinctive wallpaper, the underwear she packed, a fake newspaper front page.

But I think one of my favourite things is the small box accompanying each adventurer that explains why Humphreys included that person. Some inclusions are for the person’s enthusiasm, others for their message of a slow and simple life, some for bravery and resourcefulness, and others are deeply personal to Humphreys but all model good adventuring in one way or another – even those who suffered terrible journeys.

This is a glorious non-fiction title that explains, explores and fascinates. With cartoon strips, maps, charts, varied layouts, illustrations, points of interest and colour, I was bowled over by the expeditions I read about as well as the production of the book. It seems Humphreys is not only good at adventuring.

Did I mention he’s also rowed the Atlantic, run six marathons through the Sahara, and crossed Iceland by foot and packraft? Although now he’s a pioneer of microadventures – a movement that encourages people to seek short, local adventures. That’s more like it – perhaps even with a book in hand? Take your adventure here.

 

The Afterwards by AF Harrold, illustrated by Emily Gravett

the afterwardsWhen I was at school I studied the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in a couple of different forms – French playwright Jean Anouilh’s version and Ovid’s telling. It’s a love story of the highest order, in which Eurydice tragically dies and Orpheus attempts to bring her back from the Underworld. Even in the versions in which a narrator has tried to imbue the story with some kind of uplifting ending – such as Orpheus’s songs enchanting everyone forever – the tale is still incredibly melancholy. Thinking back, I wonder if my teachers were mad to give such material to fourteen-year-old girls.

And yet modern children’s literature is constantly eking out the darker corners of our lives – the shadowy parts. In the past year I’ve come across many picture books, young fiction and young adult fiction that all show children harsh realities – the horrific plight of refugees, bullies at school, death of close family members. Almost all of them end on a hopeful note in an attempt to show children resilience, forbearance perhaps, and that they are not alone in their tragedy.

When AF Harrold writes ‘serious’, he tends to reach into those dark corners, having dealt with loss in The Imaginary and bullying in The Song of Somewhere Else, amongst other things. He has described The Afterwards as the last of this triumvirate of books (not a trilogy – these are stand-alone titles) but they all link, in their collective other worldly, serious, atmospheric way. For it is the atmosphere they evoke almost more than the plot itself, which disturbs the soul.

The Afterwards is perhaps his darkest yet, melancholy in feel and quietly devastating. Ember and Ness are best friends – Ember lives with her father after her mother left a long time ago, and Ness lives next door. But then Ness dies (rather horrifically by falling off a swing and hitting her head – this is not a book for the faint-hearted child). Ember is left feeling lost and empty.

When Ember finds a way into the Afterworld, she decides she must bring Ness back with her. But the Afterworld is not going to let go of Ness so easily, and Ember finds that the demands made upon her will change how she thinks about things forever.

Any book dealing with the large topics of death, loss, memory and what happens after death is bound to address the darker side, but Harrold’s writing, even in its comic sphere, is full of atmosphere – and here it is dark indeed. The colours of the world are stripped away in the Afterworld – a metaphor used oft before – but here it really packs a punch. For not only has the colour been stripped away but also Ness’s energy, sapping slowly from her to leave her in a frightening, apathetic state – half the person she was, lacking her zest and charisma. An even more haunting premise is the other person that Ember comes across in the Afterworld – a frightening prospect that comes at the climax of the book, leaving Ember with an unbearable choice and the lingering feeling of sadness at mothers who die without seeing their children grow up. What’s more, there is a character in Ember’s real world who is willing to do something so dreadful that you wonder at Harrold’s daring at placing it at the heart of this novel.

This is a powerful book – written so matter-of-factly (and yet with the poise of a poet) that the magical realism of the Afterworld seems palpable and plausible; the characters so neatly drawn that they feel as if they are just around our own corner. But what haunts particularly is the unbearable feeling of loss and grief that permeates all the shadows of this book – even the grief over an animal.

Brief moments of comedic insight come in a wry style in dialogue between Ember and her father, but for the most part this is a deeply disturbing read. That’s not to say it isn’t troublingly good. It is. The story is always compelling, pushing the reader on in a relentless thrust of impatience to make everything right again, to make Ember happy again. And in the end, with a talking cat and the uplift of happy memories, things are, sort of, okay. But any children’s book that ends with a funeral needs to be read with an enormous amount of sensitivity.

This is a story about memory and loss and the power of love, the latter of which exudes with the illustrations drawn by Emily Gravett. At this point I must confess to only having seen an early proof with limited illustrations, but so far for me, they have provided the uplift – the handsome colour of real life – snapshots of Ember’s ordinary life, which both warms and chills once the reader realises what’s going to happen. The image of Ember’s Dad untying her shoelaces, the family photographs around the house, the wonder of friendship giggles over holiday stories, and the sure-fire shared look of best friends across a room. The couple of illustrations provided nearer the middle of the book are of course, darker, but there is a wonderful intimacy to them still – a poignancy and power that goes hand in hand with the text.

This is an extraordinary book, one that will stay in the memory, and one that should be widely read – but with caution. Its haunting quality may be contagious. You can buy it here.

Lollies: An Interview with Liz Pichon, author of Tom Gates

LolliesThe Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (Lollies) is a celebration of the very best and funniest books for children, voted by children themselves after judges choose the shortlist.

The Lollies are a relatively new award in the world of children’s books, started in 2016 as a riposte to the demise of the Roald Dahl Funny Book Prize. So many children rate the value of a book by its comedy, with 63% of children surveyed for the Scholastic Kids Reading Report 2014 indicating that they wanted a book that made them laugh. This was their top priority, the next criteria was identifiable characters.

This year, the four shortlisted titles in the 9-13 years shortlist are Football School Season 2: Where Football Saves the World by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttelton and Spike Gerrell, Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure by AL Kennedy and Gemma Correll, My Mum’s Growing Down by Laura Dockrill and David Tazzyman and Tom Gates Epic Adventure (Kind Of) by Liz Pichon.

I took my own epic adventure and asked Liz Pichon some questions, on your behalf, as a celebration of her shortlisting, and also as part of the Lollies Blog Tour (when many book bloggers each take a different title on the shortlist and celebrate it for a day).

Tom Gates Epic AdventureHi Liz. You’ve won numerous awards for Tom Gates, including the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, Waterstones, Blue Peter Book Award etc. What does it mean to be shortlisted for a Lollies prize – you must be pleased humorous books are being recognised again.

I’m THRILLED! I love the fact it’s a prize for funny books too. It’s a great list so I’d encourage everyone to read them all and have a really good laugh!

Before Tom Gates, you worked on greetings cards with Giles Andreae in his Purple Ronnie days. Are you now happy working as author and illustrator on your own – or have you thought about making a book that’s a collaboration?

That’s right I did. I took my portfolio of designs to the Spring fair in Birmingham where all the companies who make cards and gift items sell into shops. Giles was on one of the stands and he looked at my work and then I got commissioned to do a range of cards which sold pretty well (I think!).

I used to illustrate other people’s work, but now I like illustrating my own stories as it means I can think about every aspect of what the book will look like. But never say never!

The doodling illustrations of Tom Gates are highly distinctive, and you often wear Tom Gates decorated accessories. Do you draw things in other styles any more or is Tom forever in your mind (and hand)?

Yes I do – I’m about to start work on a completely NEW story which will look different to the Tom Gates books – still funny hopefully, but different characters.

Does this mean the end is in sight for Tom Gates? And will Tom ever grow up – like Harry Potter?

Tom will remain the same age for now – like Bart Simpson I think. I have lots of ideas left for Tom and the family still – as long as I’m enjoying it and the readers are too – I’ll keep going. 

Apparently Tom Gates is headed for the stage with a brand new story in 2019. How involved are you in this venture and how different is it from producing a book?

So far I’ve been very involved and it’s SO exciting! I’ve been working a lot on the script which is a brand new story and my husband Mark is doing the music for the play. Some of the songs already feature in the books – but we have new ones too.

It’s The Birmingham Stage Company who’ll be taking the play on tour and Neal Foster – who runs it – has been amazingly collaborative. They already do Horrible Histories and Gangsta Granny – so they are experts at putting on fantastic children’s theatre. It’s going to be amazing I know.

It’s quite different from the books in some ways because this is the chance to find out different things about the characters and bring them to life. I have loved the process so far. It’s on tour all next year – so go and see it!

Are you surprised by the popularity of Tom Gates? Is it particularly pleasing to have Tom Gates books recommended as being for reluctant or struggling readers?

You always HOPE that the books will do well – but until they’re out in the world you really have no idea!

I love that kids who don’t think reading is for them seem to be enjoying the stories and being creative too. That’s been amazing – watching the way children have got into the doodling and making stuff from the back of the books as well. All I wanted to do – was to make a book that I would have loved at that age and every time I start a new book, that’s what I keep in my head.

Lastly, I have burning question from one of my blog readers’ children, who is a big fan of Tom Gates: “Please ask Liz if she used to play the caramel wafer trick on her parents and if not, where did she get the idea for it?

Good question! I used to play this trick on one of my sisters and she’d do it to me too. We’d use club biscuits as well (other biscuits available!). They worked really well because they used to have an outer wrapper that you could slide the EMPTY biscuit back into and then put it on a plate. The other thing that would DRIVE everyone crazy is if we had a box of chocs – I’d pinch the good ones from the bottom layer as well! Ha! Ha!

With huge thanks to Liz Pichon for her time, and good luck in the awards. The winning book in each category will be decided solely by children’s votes, with schools and parents encouraged to help kids get involved and vote via the Lollies website.

The winning books will be announced in January 2019. If you haven’t read Tom Gates: Epic Adventure (Kind of), you can buy it here.