middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

The Tzar’s Curious Runaways by Robin Scott-Elliot

tzars curious runawaysEarly on in this historical novel, author Scott-Elliot introduces a footnote to a particular scene that simply says, ‘This really happened at the court of Peter the Great’. This tempting piece of information follows the reader throughout this startling novel – did that really happen, could that really have happened, stimulating both interest in the story, but also great intrigue in the historical setting. The reader is bursting to know more.

Good historical fiction not only holds a mirror up to our own times, pointing to similarities, and lessons learned or unlearned, but it also encourages the reader to think more about that period of history and entice them to discover more about it. Scott-Elliot does both these in his first novel for children, The Tzar’s Curious Runaways.

Katinka is a ballerina with a hunchback, part of a collection of people in Peter the Great’s Circus of Curiosities, his Kunstkamera. (The Tzar was particularly interested in deformities, collecting specimens and people (such as dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks and more) as a way to dispel myths that ‘monsters’ and monstrous formations came from the devil. He frequently put them on display and used them as tools for humiliation and cruelty.) On his death, Katinka and the other ‘curiosities’ are to be killed on the orders of the even nastier Tzarina. Together with her friends Alexei the Giant and Nikolai the dwarf, Katinka escapes the palace in St Petersburg and sets off across the snowy Russian steppe to find her parents, from whom she believes she was snatched by the Tzar’s henchmen.

This is, of course, an adventure story as journey, and therefore one of a tide of children’s novels that fits this description. What sets The Tzar’s Curious Runaways apart is not only the historical and geographical setting of 1725 Russia, but most particularly the intense suspense and danger conjured by a plot unfolding in an immensely cruel, violent and unforgiving society.

This Russia is a place of fear: The court around the Tzar, all in fear of being humiliated or worse, being killed; the peasants in surrounding areas fearful of any change or anything different; humans in general scared of wolves and bears and the darker side of nature. And in every facet of this society, Scott-Elliot describes those in power or holding authority as being corrupt, greedy or just cruel, from the adults in the village to the monks in an onion-turreted church, who of course, should provide the moral code. This is a poverty-stricken and cruel society – scenes include prisoners in chains being made to work on The Grand Canal, fearful adults throwing rocks at mere children.

Beauty, in this book, lies both in the endless snowy steppe and the mountains that take the form of animals, but also in children – their innocence, their bravery, their self-belief, and their hope.

Although the book is hugely scenic, with its dense forests, ornate palaces and snowy landscapes, and the plot reliant upon a magical map, this is a story about personalities overriding visuals, about not being judged for one’s physical imperfections, but rather using them to advantage, or overcoming their adversity.

In this way, the book shines a light on our current times – about the possibilities offered in a diverse society and about how people shouldn’t discriminate based on looks or beliefs. Of course our current society isn’t utopia, and has a long way to go for acceptance and tolerance to reign, particularly with regards to minorities, those with disabilities, and even women. But, if anything, Scott-Elliot shows us how far we’ve come.

Despite its use of historical research, this is still a novel, and Scott-Elliot cleverly draws attention to our understanding of history and the past by muddling Katinka’s memories of home. She is a protagonist seeking to belong, seeking a home, and yet her memories of the past are hazy – she isn’t sure whether they’re derived from her actual childhood surroundings, or from story books. And so the novel asks the question: what memories and histories of the past can be trusted? How much are we fabricating and filling in the gaps in our historical knowledge?

Into this mix, Scott-Elliot throws a wise librarian named Johann Daniel, who imparts a great deal of survival knowledge to the children and also gifts them a magical map to guide them on their journey. This light relief from the cruelty and harshness around them gives the children and the reader hope. It is with magic and story that a happy ending can be reached, despite the tribulations on the way.

For those who enjoy historical novels, this is something a little different, a curiosity in the children’s literature canon. You’d be wise not to run away from it.

With thanks to Everything With Words for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here. Suggested for ages 8+.

Invisible in a Bright Light

invisible in a bright lightIt has struck me recently that the newspapers have been full of the word ‘reckoning’, particularly of course, over Brexit. A Day of Reckoning – when we look back at past misdemeanours, and try to deal with them, perhaps seeking forgiveness; a time in which we have to deal with something unpleasant that so far has been avoided. Whatever happens with Brexit, Boris Johnson will have a ‘reckoning’, a choice as to whether he fulfils his promises or not.

Sally Gardner’s new book for children aged 9-12 years, Invisible in a Bright Light, toys with the idea of a game of Reckoning – a ‘gutter of time’ moment in which we make a choice – do we go one way or another? And what consequences does that decision bring? How does it change the course of our life and, by extension, who we are?

Celeste works as a runner in the Copenhagen Opera House in the 1880s, but when she wakes one day in the costume basket, everyone seems to think she’s someone else – a ballet dancer called Maria. Celeste knows she is Celeste, even though all she can remember is a Man in an Emerald Coat and a game she must play called the Reckoning.

When a crystal chandelier falls from the dome of the opera house, she is badly injured, too injured to dance, and so begins to recuperate in the house of the star opera singer, a spoiled and nasty diva. Before long, clues as to who she really is begin to emerge, and soon the reader and Celeste see that time is of the utmost importance, and she must take part in the Reckoning Game, because everything, including her life, is at stake.

This mysterious riddle-strewn novel, set within the grandeur of a Royal Opera House, calls on fairy tales and the appearance and reality of theatres to dazzle the reader with its tale of mistaken identity, sea-faring, and performance. Gardner waves her wand throughout the novel, creating play with language, narrative, and time structures, to create the most intriguing and unique book for the age group – reminiscent in ways of I, Coriander, and yet totally original.

Insightful readers will pick up intertextual clues of Alice in Wonderland, the Phantom of the Opera and more, and will be richly rewarded for pursuing this sophisticated read. Part historical novel, part surrealism, the writing shines as much as the chandelier that inspired Gardner, and readers enthralled by theatre stories will adore the sumptuous scene setting of costume fittings, theatre sets, rehearsals and more.

There are many contemporary children’s writers playing with the concepts of time and narrative, but Gardner does it with style and panache. You’ll have to read the book to see if Celeste wins her game, but Gardner is definitely at the top of hers. You can buy it here.

Frostheart by Jamie Littler

frostheartWith exquisite artworks to match the finely tuned world-building, illustrator turned author Jamie Littler has written a captivating fantasy adventure.

Ash is a Song-Weaver, a boy with a powerful ability to tame the monsters that lurk in the Snow Sea, the vast tundra that surrounds the human-kin stronghold in which he lives. But he doesn’t fully understand his power, and nor do the other human-kin, choosing to shun him for his ability.

When the book opens, Ash is waiting for the return of his parents, who left the stronghold many years before. All he has to remember them by is a lullaby, although this too he doesn’t fully understand. When Ash uses his song to calm the monsters as visitors approach the stronghold, the rest of the human-kin are scared, and they exile him along with his guardian, a grumpy Yeti called Tobu. Ash and Tobu leave with the visitors on their sleigh, the Frostheart, set to traverse the snowy tundra in order to find Ash’s parents and solve the mystery of the left-behind lullaby.

In a nod to time-honoured explorer adventures, the crew of the Frostheart together with Tobu and Ash visit many strongholds, all separated by the Snow Sea, and in each stronghold discover a different kind of tribe, some human-kin, others not, such as the Vulpis (small fox-like creatures who like shiny things). This Gulliver’s Travels-esque set up provides much momentum and intrigue across the book, but at the same time the reader, with Ash, is grappling with Ash’s own individual mystery – how to solve the riddle of the lullaby and the whereabouts of his parents.

Along with these questions, comes the question of the motive of the other members of the Frostheart crew, such as the captain (a wooden-legged walrus), Lunah, a young girl mapping the undiscovered world, who soon becomes a close friend for Ash, and the shadowy Shaard, a knowledge-hunter looking for clues from the World Before.

Littler uses classic tropes in his fantasy adventure, from the role of the protagonist Ash as an outsider, to his mentor and teacher Tobu, who appears grumpy and sets Ash repetitive tasks, but actually holds and gives intense wisdom. In this way, he reminded me so much of Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid films. But because Littler has built such an extraordinary new world, these tropes are welcome as familiar signposts in an unfamiliar landscape.

Themes of friendship and family and belonging pervade the entire story, as Ash seeks his heritage and his true clan, all the while learning to be part of a team with the Frostheart crew, and finding true friendship with Lunah.

Littler’s clever use of song, positing Ash as a Songweaver with unexplored powers, points to the power of creativity and the creative arts, something that seems to get a little lost in education today, and the power of song gets Ash into trouble, but also proves to be a solace and salvation, as well as a way into his emotional well-being.

The other intensely creative element across the book is Littler’s illustrations, which almost spill into graphic novel territory – there are so many and they are so intricate. They delineate the characters, both complementing and going further than the text, and in some cases are hugely humorous.

The book is so punctuated by these illustrations that it helps the reader along the voyage – this is a lengthy adventure for the age group. However, it is always packed with action and onwards momentum, with numerous dangers, and interesting technologies, using a mixture of age-old weaponry such as bows and arrows, but also solar polar in the sunstones.

There’s an innate pull to nature too – the power of fire and light, the bleakness and intensity of cold and snow.

Yet, what remains strongest is the characterisation of Ash. His vulnerability makes him endearing, and Littler has a good eye for compassion and when to pull at the reader’s heartstrings. In fact, with his sublimely executed illustrations, and his well-constructed other world, this awesome adventure won’t leave any reader with a frosty heart. The only problem is that it does leave them hanging – the ending points thoroughly towards the sequel, and threads are left untied.

Look out too for the gorgeous production – the book has a die-cut foil cover, and Waterstones are selling a special edition with sprayed edges. For ages 9-12 years. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Puffin for a review copy.

Beyond Platform 13: Through the Gump

beyond platform 13Three years before JK Rowling published her first book, making a tourist attraction of Platform 9 and 3/4 at Kings Cross Station, Eva Ibbotson published The Secret of Platform 13, an adventure about a magical island populated with wizards, ogres, hags and fairies, access to which is through the ‘gump’ – a portal under platform 13 at King’s Cross Station that only opens once every nine years. Although it has been 25 years since the original, Sibéal Pounder has re-opened the gump with her sequel, Beyond Platform 13, illustrated by Beatriz Castro.

There’s risk in this, of course. Writing a sequel to a late author’s original book, which was shortlisted for the then Smarties prize, is an adventure of its own, but Pounder pulls off the sequel with aplomb, not only staying true to the original characters, but creating her own stand-alone read.

The island is under attack from the Harpies, intent upon ethnically cleansing the island of hags, ogres, wizards and more. Odge and Prince Ben hatch a plan to recruit a mist-maker to save their island, but when they pluck nine-year-old Lina from Vienna in a case of mistaken identity (her fluffy rucksack looked very much like it belonged to a mist-maker), they have to work out a different plan to overcome the Harpies.

Although set mainly on a mysterious island with mythical creatures (veering into London territory occasionally), this is a superb satire, as well as a pacey adventure. Sibéal Pounder (of Witch Wars fame), neatly digs into our current psyche and preoccupation, with subtle references to corrupt societies, banishment/immigration, sly politics, and the struggles of feminism, all with a huge dollop of humour. With moral messages about collaboration and standing up for what’s right, a huge understanding of children, and lashes of sharp wit, this is both a great little adventure and a huge amount of wicked fun. Below, Sibéal gives her readers five ideas of books to take with them on holiday, I mean, through the Gump!

FIVE BOOKS TO TAKE THROUGH THE GUMP

THE EXPLORER by Katherine Rundell
Rundell lists Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea as a key inspiration for her Costa-winning future classic, and The Explorer would be at the top of my pile of books to take through the Gump. It also has useful information about eating tarantulas should you find you get peckish…

DIAL A GHOST by Eva Ibbotson
Along with The Secret of Platform 13, Dial a Ghost was up there with my favourite Eva Ibbotson books. It tells the story of a young boy who orders a haunting only to find he’s sent a lovely family of ghosts, not the terrifying one he requested. Reading up on ghosts is essential when going through the Gump – they guard the gumps and are very important to everyone on Mist.

THE TRAIN TO IMPOSSIBLE PLACES by P.G. Bell
This is essential reading given you’re travelling to an island with trolls. The story begins when Suzy finds a grumpy troll building a railway through her house. It will give you plenty to talk about with the residents of Thwompburg should you stop by for a bite of cheese at Han’s famous eatery Hans-ome Cheeses.

RETURN TO WONDERLAND by Robin Stevens, Pamela Butchart, Patrice Lawrence…
This compilation of Wonderland tales from best-selling authors is fabulous, and a great collection of short stories to accompany you on a journey through the Gump. Each focuses on a different character from the Wonderland universe – from Patrice Lawrence’s story about the hedgehog croquet ball to Robin Stevens’s innovative story about the real Alice’s sister Lorina Liddell.   

RUMBLESTAR by Abi Elphinstone
Elphinstone’s magical tales will make you crave adventure, so her latest gem, Rumblestar, is a must to get you in the mood for an adventure on the island of Mist. It features a harpy villain, which is important reading given harpies lurk beyond the Gump!

With thanks to Sibéal Pounder, Clare Hall-Craggs and Macmillan publishers for the early review copy. I highly recommend Beyond Platform 13 by Sibéal Pounder and Eva Ibbotson for ages 8+, and dare adults not to read and chuckle too. You can buy it here.

In the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido

in the key of codeDid you catch the GQ picture storm in June of this year? The magazine published a photo of about 20 top Silicon Valley executives, including the founder of LinkedIn, on a trip to Italy. Then, someone spotted that the only two women in the picture had been Photoshopped in. Without them it would have been an all-male photo. As it happens, those two women did actually attend the trip, but the story has been taken as a metaphor for the tech industry as a whole.

The world still seems to be failing in its attempts to attract women into STEM jobs. (Let’s not discuss yet the myriad of ways in which the world is failing women in other areas). Apparently, girls tend to lose interest in future tech jobs at about age 11, and the reasons stem from lack of adult support, to peer pressure about girls’ roles, and an impression that tech careers are lacking in creativity.

Does Aimee Lucido know this? A software engineer as well as author, she’s produced a wonderful free verse novel, In the Key of Code, for age 10+ that meshes music, poetry, and coding to tell the story of twelve-year old Emmy, starting a new school in San Francisco, but feeling isolated and invisible. When she starts computer science classes, she begins to see patterns between her musical background and coding, and inspired by her new teacher, Mrs Delaney, and a burgeoning friendship, she comes to accept her new home, and find a new passion.

Lucido cleverly interlaces her themes both through her text and also in the way she writes her text. The novel is written in free verse – each chapter a piece of poetry with a firm rhythm. In first person narrator voice, Emmy writes her story in fairly typical teen book free verse (see Kwame Alexander books, for example), explaining her move to a new city, her parents’ love for music, and her feeling that she just doesn’t quite fit.

Even in these first poems though, there is a thread of musical tuning running through them; metaphors and similes in the text, rhythms and rhymes stylistically. When Emmy starts to learn to code at school, Java programming language starts weaving its way into the verse, and before long computer code, poetry, and music are all fusing together to create startlingly emotive free verse poems, which create tension and anticipation in the writing:

“The semicolon is the period at the end of a line-
of code.

It’s the space between one perfect moment;”

and on the next page:

“whatever comes next.”

Lucido’s book doesn’t break out into unreadable Java code, even though terminology is gradually introduced. A novice can easily read it, and learn, and through the rhythms and timbre of each poem, and the collective accumulation of them, they form into an entire narrative structure with a dramatic arc and a great storyline.

The characters zing off the page – there’s Emmy, shy and struggling to find her voice, and her new friend Abigail, also struggling to find her voice, despite seemingly being popular with the ‘in-crowd’ of kids.

Most inspirational to Emmy and Abigail, is the character of the computer science teacher, Mrs Delaney, who manages not only to inspire and impart knowledge, but to embed herself in their hearts.

By writing code-poetry, Lucido mixes science and creativity – producing something that’s exactly what tech companies need – that crucial fusing of imagination and know-how in order to spark innovation. The arts play a key role in our advancement of technology.

And Lucido produces Java script full of humanity. The book is inherently about finding out one’s real self and about friendship – human connections being the driving force in learning, attainment, creativity and tech.

Readers can be music or code novices, and still see a beauty in the poetry, with lots of emotion to keep them gripped, and intelligence to steer them through. The use of white space within and between the poems is as much a pause to breathe and absorb as it is to express and articulate and keep to rhythm. And there is a huge differentiation between the poems, depending on plot, and mood of narrator.

This is a great read – showing the importance of collaboration in life and in tech, the power of inspirational teachers, the purpose of friendship, and searching for one’s own true voice. It brings humanity into tech, and tech into humanity. A rich, absorbing read, and a lovely story to boot.

With thanks to Walker Books for the early review copy. In the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido publishes on 3rd October in the UK. You can buy yours here.

The Night’s Realm by Nick Ward

nights realmWe are such stuff as nightmares are made on. And this is a nightmarish novel. Not in the way it’s written or illustrated, which is pure delight, but rather the spooky story, and the frightening concept.

Like many children, Billy is scared of the dark. But it isn’t something he wants to admit. So when his best friend invites him for a sleepover, he has to think of a reason to back out, even though he’d love to attend. Then his fear of the dark becomes all-encompassing, and he gets transported into the ‘Night’s Realm’, an evil domain in which an evil magician rules, a magician whose very essence is kept alive by feeding off children’s fears. And things get very very dark.

Although printed with fairly large font size, and heavily illustrated throughout, what might seem like a read for a youngish child has many scary elements. Which supposedly, is what happens when the writer transplants all his child characters to a world in which their worst nightmares become real. So there are threatening jackdaws, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Hitchcock film, crawlers (little men with jagged teeth who crawl on all fours), witches and warlocks, Shadowmen (gigantic men made from dust), and more. Add to this the sophisticated vocabulary – words such as cacophonous and cadaverous leapt off the page – this is a novel for readers with sophisticated taste, those with a penchant for spooky stories, or for older yet reluctant readers who want to be brave in the face of some horror.

Above all, it is the ideas behind the story that haunt. When Billy is captured, the daytime turns to perpetual night, and although his town looks familiar, it is empty of adults and devoid of all life, other than the night creatures. Doors are locked, shops closed, factories stopped. And over it all rules a cruel magician who manipulates children with magic, and wants them to be as scared as possible.

The most potent moment is when Billy is taken to his cell in the fortress, which appears to be exactly like his bedroom at home, with sunlight behind the curtains. Of course, it’s all fake and the momentary comfort is swept away.

The illustrations add to the dystopian feel of the novel. In fact, at times, it seems as visually authentic as a high-end computer game – the fortress as detailed as a multi-room escape game. The children’s eyes are large – not cute as Disney eyes – but hollowed out and haunting; each illustration adding a wonder and depth to the story being told.

There are some captivating moments – the children’s attraction to light like that of moths fluttering around an electric light bulb, the unspoken fears even among peers, the loss of identity the more subservient to the magician they become. Multiple allusions to other novels abound – from the tempting Turkish delight, to the room of birds in cages, which doesn’t feel like a huge leap from the Harry Potter series. Plays on words too, most particularly the title, for it is a sword in a stone that Billy needs to find in order to execute his victory. There is also a clever use of childhood itself, as Billy ingeniously uses everyday items to aid his run for freedom – a coat hanger, chewing gum etc.

Overall though, the novel’s overriding message is that nothing wondrous comes from staying in comfort zones. Billy has a defence against the darkness, a resilience against the magician, manifest in a physical object at first, but one that serves as an extended metaphor as to what makes each individual tick. At the denouement, the reader becomes aware that everyone is afraid of something, but that facing one’s fears is the first step to overcoming them – and that fears can be overcome.

By stating the fear, and with the support of others, Billy’s confidence grows until in the end he doesn’t even need a physical object to overcome the magician – self-confidence wins the day from the night.

And all for the sake of attending a friend’s sleepover! For age 8+, although if you’re reading it to your child at bedtime, you might need to leave a night light on…

You can buy it here. With thanks to David Fickling for the advance copy.

The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan, illustrated by Ben Mantle

the land of roarNarnia lives on the in public imagination, almost 70 years after the publication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis. According to a poll conducted in August by eBay UK, the book tops the list of the most popular books among adults in the UK. But it’s not just among adult readers that this tale of an icy land where it’s winter but never Christmas, lives on. In fact, it lives on with adult writers too and penetrates our children’s literary inheritance.

For those of you who were away in August, Waterstones book of the month was The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan. In this astoundingly bright, bold and fearsome novel, protagonist Arthur and his sister Rose enter the Land of Roar not through a wardrobe but through a Z-bed.

Staying with their grandfather over the summer, eleven-year-old twins Arthur and Rose start to clear out his attic, throwing away their childhood mementos and old toys. Arthur is reminded of the make-believe land they once played, the Land of Roar, in which they had both things they loved (mermaids, ninjas and so forth), and yet also was filled with their fears. But Rose is more sophisticated now – hanging with her friends, fiddling with her phone, shunning her childhood imaginings.

When their grandfather mucks about with the Z-bed, he is pulled into the portal and vanishes. Which means Arthur must follow to rescue him – except that Roar isn’t real – it only existed in their imaginations. Or did it? And how to convince Rose that she’s needed too?

The ingenuity of McLachlan’s writing lies not so much in her land of warmongering dragons, the Lost Girls, ninja wizards and frightening scarecrows, although her world-building is impressive, but her wit and intelligence lie in her use of time passing, nostalgia, childhood and old age. For this is a fantasy adventure that pulls on the essence of what it means to imagine, of what it means to grow up; and how our fears fade, and then manifest as other, different things in adolescence. In this way, it strongly conjures the literary landscape of Peter Pan.

Roar is representative of Arthur’s and Rose’s younger selves, from the ‘unsophisticated’ map, which labels areas such as ‘the bad side’ and doesn’t conform to geographical rules, to the props within, the relics of the fun they once had: the language ‘Obby Dobby’, which is just like a childhood language we all spoke (in which you insert extra letters into English words); the ninja wizard’s collection of left-behind toys from Arthur, such as his fidget spinner.

The ‘Bad Side’ of Roar reveals both the fears of their childhood, and also the youngsters’ growth. The enemy of the land is Crowky, a frightening scarecrow with Coraline-esque button eyes. And whereas once it was their fears that built him, their fear of the dark or of crows, frogs and heights; playing with those fears was a thrill, ‘like listening to a ghost story’. When the children re-enter Roar as adolescents, the fears feel more real, the scare feels deeper, there’s worry there too. The world feels more serious, even an imaginary one.

McLachlan has oodles of humour, and she liberally sprinkles this throughout the novel, firstly through the imaginary world, such as labelling a bit off the coast of Roar with small islands as ‘Archie Playgo’, and her naming of the rocking horse that comes to life as ‘Prosecco’, but she niftily handles the added bonus of bringing teenage sarcasm and sardonic humour to Arthur and Rose’s new entry into the land. Arthur apologises to Prosecco that Rose hasn’t come too, choosing to go to Claire’s Accessories instead.

Of course the darkness comes with the increased power of their childhood nightmare Crowky, whose power has grown since Rose and Arthur have neglected Roar. But their neglect has had other consequences too – the land is suffering from sink holes, and cracks appear; as the land leaks from the children’s memories and thoughts, so it literally disappears. This extended metaphor speaks to how we neglect those imaginings as we age – how things in childhood get pushed to the back of our minds, and yet to stop the ‘bad’ overcoming us all, we still need creativity and imagination as we grow older.

One of the things I most admired about the novel was the changing relationship between the siblings. The hints of how they used to play together as young children, the changes that occur as they grow, the frustrations with each other for growing too quickly or not maturing fast enough – mutual exasperation that their attitudes are no longer in tandem. But most of all the camaraderie, the need for one another, and the protective loyalty that exists – a sibling understanding of shared pasts and families, and the knowledge that they’re entwined, no matter what.

There’s also a fierce protectiveness of their grandfather – a key figure to them – wise by dint of his willingness to play and experiment, to break rules and embrace freedoms. He’s an embodiment of why creativity and memory are still important as we age. (Who wouldn’t love a grandad who encourages throwing things from the attic window into the garden as a way of clearing a room).

Although I saw an early proof of the book with artwork to come, the illustrations by Ben Mantle that were shown were rather spectacular. The finished version is a treat to behold – Mantle captures the dichotomy of Roar – the beauty of it and yet its profound danger.

This is an engrossing and vividly-imagined story, with messages that stretch from story to the real world; themes of imagination, but also feminism and adolescence – a growth in mindset as well as imagination. For children aged 8+ (and for adults too).

You can buy it here. With thanks to Egmont for an early review copy.

Summer 2019 Reading Recommendations

I always like to leave a list of great new children’s books on my main page at the end of July, because MinervaReads doesn’t blog in August. And, usually you’d find a small selection of picture books, nonfiction, novels etc. This year THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS. Narrowing down my summer reads for you has become increasingly difficult. So without further ado, I’ve tried to sum up each book in a concise way in order to feature as many as possible. Flick to the heading for the correct age group.

picture books

Picture books

Falling below the threshold of the age group for whom I normally review, but too adorable to ignore, is a new series of lift-the-flap board books called Treacle Street by Kate Hindley. From following Marcel Trunkmore delivering parcels in Marcel’s Parcels, to the star ballerina bunnies in Prima’s Missing Bunnies, the books are tightly plotted with intricately detailed illustrations for curious minds.

Stylistically arresting, Grandma Z by Daniel Gray-Barnett is a curiosity in itself. Coloured orange and blue, it not only explores the dynamism of a grandparent/grandchild relationship and the power of imagination, but adds retro dimensions and quirky elements to stand out from the crowd. Wild, exuberant, full of energy.

In the holiday spirit, Clem and Crab by Fiona Lumbers is cognitively dissonant as it feels both traditional and completely fresh. Clem explores the beach, and rescues a crab stuck in plastic. If ever a book made you wish you were at the seaside, this is it. And with an environmental message. Illustrations are expressive and wholesome – a whole story encapsulated in each vignette.

Also by the beach is The Tide by Clare Helen Welsh and Ashling Lindsay. Slightly more linear illustrations with harder colouring, this also captures the sensual nature of the seaside, but deals with dementia too. A heartwarming grandfather/grandchild relationship with clever analysis of memories and making memories.

For fun, The Big Stink by Lucy Freegard will capture hearts from the cover, just as mouse is captured by cat in this heist adventure. Nods to Mission Impossible, among other references, this mouse-led caper will have adults chuckling along with captivated children. Who could escape arrest with ears like that?

young fiction

Young Fiction (ages 7-9 years)

Newly independent readers are well served nowadays. Ariki and the Island of Wonders by Nicola Davies and Nicola Kinnear is pure summer adventure. Shipwrecked to a paradise island, Ariki and Ipo are initially struck by the wonder of nature they encounter, but then realise there is a darkness to paradise. With conservation overtones, and textured black and white illustrations, this is an immersive text that sparks a real sense of purpose and love for nature.

It’s not a new premise, but My Babysitter is a Robot by Dave Cousins, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri is neatly executed. A grandma inventor, twins, swimming pools, football and more, this is a fun and funny new series.

Fairy tales remain high on the list of starting points for stories, and Cinders and Sparks by Lindsey Kelk, illustrated by Pippa Curnick is another twist on the Cinderella story. A talking dog, an unreliable fairy godmother, and neighbours called Jack and Jill combine in a modern deviation and continuation of the traditional fairy tale. Fun, neat and magical.

middle grade

Middle Grade (Novels for 9+ years)

Abi Elphinstone’s new novel Rumblestar is possibly her best yet, and that’s saying something. She writes with a keen intelligence, a fiery spark, and a wisdom that infects the fantasy she writes, so that the reader feels there is an importance to the story being told. And she sweeps the reader away with engrossing, action-filled storytelling. In this first of the Unmapped Chronicles series, Casper accidentally stumbles into an unmapped kingdom in danger, and finds out that the peril is tied to his own world.

More peril in Peril En Pointe by Helen Lipscombe, described as Ballet Shoes meets Murder Most Unladylike. The novel has a relatable protagonist and a surprising reveal. A series to watch.

The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike delves deep into fantasy, as main character Rayne discovers more about the magic that keeps her village safe. A wholly original idea with a great mother/daughter dynamic, and a sense that magic and darkness pervade everything. Well crafted.

Ben Davis often makes me laugh, whether it’s a one line tweet or a whole novel. What’s That in Dog Years? is a tender book about losing a dog but gaining perspective. Part narrated by owner, part by dog, this is a heartfelt and touching book about friendships and families with a mystery at its heart, and a bucketful of humour. Makes the reader laugh and cry.

Stewart Foster’s Check Mates offers a surprising twist and marries ADHD, chess and the Stasi. It’s a longer, slower read, but merits rewards to those who stick the course with superbly drawn characters and a great reveal.

Halo Moon by Sharon Cohen is an easy read, but the short sharp chapters belie a degree of profundity in its message. Blending two disparate cultures – Ageze in Ethiopia and Halo in Yorkshire, Cohen uses the stars to navigate her protagonists towards each other and avert a disaster. Told with aplomb, this is a hope-filled, inspiring story.

Fleur Hitchcock’s The Boy Who Flew has an explosive opening and immerses the reader in Bath during the Georgian era. It’s dark and inventive, and leads the reader in a twisty mystery involving flying machines and shadowy villainy.

A much more down-to-earth mystery in A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths, also set in the past, this time the 1930s, in which the heroine is sent to boarding school, where crimes and misdeeds need investigating. From an experienced adult crime writer, this is a delight, with common room gossip, games in the rain, and a Christmas play, and although the ingredients feel old, the result is fresh and lively, and will be devoured in one day by competent readers.

Scavengers by Darren Simpson is for those looking for something completely different. It’s a coming-of-age that’s gritty, clever and brave. With a sort of wild abandon, this novel shows how far an imagination can go, and there’s a terrific undertone of tenderness and empathy.

I was blown away by Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm last year, and this year Wildspark: A Ghost Machine Adventure is another success. A sort of steampunk mechanical adventure, reminiscent of Tin by Padraig Kenny and Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart, this has a particular focus on dealing with grief, and the things that drive us. Hardy is most adept at creating new worlds and absorbing the reader with superb detail.

As climate change dominates the young generation’s thoughts, Sita Brahmachari’s timely Where The River Runs Gold explores a dystopian future of rations and compounds, in which children labour to pollinate the crops. But of course, there is hope amid the inequality and deprivation. Dense and thoughtful.

If you’re just after some short stories – the Return to Wonderland anthology brings some of the very best modern children’s writers together in a mission to re-imagine Alice and her Wonderland.

YA

YA (novels for 12+ years)

It’s rare for a book to catch the attention of both my older children – but William Sutcliffe’s The Gifted, the Talented and Me was whipped through by both, each stopping only to roar with laughter. Light and humorous, this satire of a modern middle-class family who go to live in Hampstead hits all the right spots.

Slightly darker but also an accessible read is Because of You by Eve Ainsworth, a dyslexia-friendly story about family dysfunction and learning to live with a parent’s new partner. Ainsworth excels at getting inside the head of a teen, particularly a victim of bullies, and this is an emotionally astute short novel.

Rose Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence is another tale that invokes social media, so important to today’s teens, but it explores it from a different angle, as Rose and brother Rudder have escaped from a religious sect and are coming at it anew. How do you navigate this new world where everything is so alien? A coming-of-age that uses a new approach to show us the perils of modern life, and how we work out who we really are.

Lastly, The Boxer by Nikesh Shukla is a brilliant exploration of the psyche. Told over the course of the rounds of a boxing fight, with flashbacks, this is a fantastic read about a seventeen-year-old who feels disengaged, but finds a community and a purpose. With themes of radicalisation, violence and belonging, this is an essential teen read.

non fiction

Nonfiction

Three completely different reads here. Be a Super Awesome Photographer by Henry Carroll gives 20 photo challenges for the budding photographer, with real photographs to illustrate and inspire, and ideas for tasks to make different and interesting photos. We’ll be using it on our summer holiday.

Incredible Journeys by Levison Wood, illustrated by Sam Brewster is an informative and inspirational large-size book about famous explorers. With illustrated maps and full page illustrations, this book travels from The Silk Road to Zheng He, and all the way to Nellie Bly and into space.

Watched too much Love Island? A modern and relevant book for teens is Body Brilliant by Nicola Morgan. It takes the reader through the steps to embracing a positive body image. Morgan provides data, encourages taking challenges to make her points and inspire confidence, and aims to change mindsets. Common sense goes hand-in-hand with examples and explanations.

glitchLastly, a graphic novel for you – the only one that dropped in my mailbox this summer, but anyway, Glitch by Sarah Graley would be a good choice. Ever since Aha’s Take On Me, we’ve dreamed of entering into our own comic. Here, 14-year-old Izzy, the protagonist, is depicted in a comic, but enters into her video game. But what happens when she gets Game Over? Great bright visuals, humorous too.

Well that should keep you busy reading over the summer! Come back in September for ballerinas in Russia, furious teens, prison camps, 1870’s opera houses, shadows in the woods and frosty hearts.

Girl. Boy. Sea. by Chris Vick

girl boy seaIn recent years, many a children’s author has been inspired to write a story influenced by the movement of refugees across the globe. The images of children traipsing their way across a dusty road, young boys hitching rides in dangerous places, girls shouldering too-heavy bundles across their backs. The plight of the refugee is one of survival against all odds; the issues of scarred pasts, horrors witnessed, uncertain futures, a sense of not belonging, an awakening of identity – all pose questions. To whom do we belong, to where? Who are we? And nowhere is the power of the individual more diminished than when faced with the might and terror of the sea.

Vick deploys these ideas with dexterity; deviating from them, twisting them, and showing their import against the backdrop of an ordinary, fairly privileged British boy who must also fight for survival.

Bill is sailing off the coast of Morocco with his peers when a storm hits, and he’s shipwrecked and abandoned in the ship’s small rowing boat. As the rations run low, a girl clinging to a barrel comes into sight across the waves. Together Bill and Aya, a Berber, navigate together, waiting for rescue, desperate for other humans. But mainly there is the water, and just their two minds. With the power of storytelling, and the inevitable human will to survive, this is a tense moving read about the growing bond between two desperate and vastly different people, and the lengths humans will go in order to live.

Told in the timeframe of the days and nights the two spend at the mercy of the sea, sunburnt, hungry, and scared, and on the precipice of life itself, Vick interweaves their days with Aya’s stories of Shahrazad and the Arabian Nights. The way the heroine prolonged her life at the hands of the king by playing on the king’s curiosity – his desire to know what happened next, night after night. In the same way that Bill and Aya persevere: Aya by telling stories and Bill by listening. Cleverly, Vick does the same with the reader – pulling us along on the journey, making us wait for the next piece of the survival story.

As Aya and Bill have to overcome their language and cultural differences, Vick shows the reader their compassion for each other – something that grows as their understanding of each other grows. This basic coming together mirrors the way their lives have been stripped down to the essentials – water, food, shelter. But also company. With each other, their purpose is stronger, their agency secure, their will to succeed strengthened.

Vick is clever in his storytelling. As with many tales of shipwreck and survival, the cast of characters can be thin, and stuck at sea the scenery the same for miles, and yet Vick draws out every nuance of their day to day, the shift of their bodies in the boat, the patterns of the ocean.

In fact, it is this last that really dazzles – the power of nature, both the strength of the sun and the changeable features of the sea. The author has a detailed knowledge of marine biology, and here it is put to excellent use in the scene with the whale, which is evocative and incredibly dramatic, but also used in Vick’s descriptions of the interminable endlessness of the ocean, and the emptiness when viewed just from a bobbing rowboat.

In a nuanced middle section, Vick also manages to weave in some moral ambiguity – a dangerous situation in which he enhances cultural differences and behaviours, the threats to women and minorities, the power of knowledge but also the power of making assumptions about a person because of their background.

By the end, some of the detail is graphic in the extreme, and yet unbelievably tender. Vick doesn’t shy away from the devastating rawness of the situation, but by leading the reader there, he also explores the deepest emotions. There is love as well as courage, hope matching despair.

Life is stripped to its essence – what do we know, how safe are we, can we find compassion to be the support system for someone who doesn’t even think in our language, who can’t begin to fathom how different our way of life is? And yet, each is simply human.

Vick easily places us in another’s shoes by transplanting Bill from his relatively safe and easy life into that experienced by a refugee, by making his protagonist embrace the grit it takes to survive, and doing it all with taut and distinct prose. This is a powerful, starkly told novel, which holds its tension to the end, and although simple in its essence, is as profound as the depths of the sea.

Age 10+. You can buy it here. With thanks to Zephyr for the review copy.

Earth Swarm: A Hal Strider Adventure by Tim Hall

earth swarmDrones over airports, artificial intelligence making human work obsolete, new kinds of warfare. Whatever it is that keeps you awake at night, bear in mind that Tim Hall probably suffers from the same insomnia. Although he’s put his to good use in a new book for children aged about 10+ years.

A Terminator-style battle of humans versus machines is the premise of this new novel, and yet it is distinctive for Hall’s canny take on the science-fiction/dystopian tech aspect.

Hal Strider’s father owns a biomimetics company, designing drones and other airborne machines. He works hard, and is often away from home, leaving Hal and his sister Jess alone. When drones start to attack London, and Hal’s father is nowhere to be found, Hal and Jess must battle to figure out what the drones have to do with their father, and in the end try to save their country.

The drones are cleverly designed to mimic certain features of insects – and the different types of drones are like different types of bugs. There are hornets – mean angry buzzing fliers; and burrowers working like ants with highly damaging proboscises. Others are beetle-like, their mandibles adapted with metal saws. There’s even a pheromone-copier, the insects leaving a green dust on their victims to better seek them out and destroy them. Hall neatly uses insect vocabulary throughout to enhance this – cocoons, scavengers, infestation. Of course, with added dangerous explosives, metal components, added artificial intelligence and computer technology, they can adapt and evolve to suit the environment and their new circumstances, and they can do this at pace.

Which the book is all about – the action unfolds at extraordinary pace, just like watching an action or disaster movie – the different perspectives feel like a camera (or drone-mounted camera) zooming in and out, unfolding before the eyes, so that the reader sees the action from the air, below ground, street level etc. Inspiration must stem from 9/11 or similar real-time disasters and news incidents played out on the television, because the scenes presented in the novel are frightening and dystopic, but not so much removed from our own reality – tower blocks in London fold in on themselves just as the twin towers did, others topple, tube stations implode, people swarm away from disaster zones; Hall is great at the visual immersion of destruction.

But to capture the reader’s emotions, the characters need to have dynamism just as much as the drones, and Hall throws in a frisson of attraction between Hal and Sky, a daughter of another engineer at the biomimetics company, as well as the genuine sibling loyalty and protectionism between Hal and Jess. The teens all speak in snappy, urgent dialogue, which is both disaster-movie filmic (all action and command), but also with some realism in their interactions.

Unfortunately, the adult villains are somewhat two-dimensional, ruthlessly motivated by money, but it is the drones who incite the tension and danger, and feel like the real enemy.

Occasionally Hall dips into the drones’ minds/databases too, a fascinating style that lends itself more to computer code than novel-writing, but works well here in short bursts.

The novel is tightly structured, the essence simple, but the execution gripping, dynamic and unbelievably visual. Want to draw your child away from the video game – chuck this book at them – they’ll never look at a drone or insect in the same way again.

You can buy the book here. With thanks to David Fickling for the review copy.