middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

The Road Less Travelled

migrationMigration by Mike Unwin and Jenni Desmond
This is an spectacularly stylish book telling the story of the incredible journeys of twenty animals. Mike Unwin, UK travel writer of the year, has been superbly paired with Jenni Desmond, winner of The New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book, to draw attention to the migration patterns of the monarch butterfly, great white shark, caribou, Arctic tern and many others. Whether it be seasonal changes, a search for food, a place to breed, or an escape from a hostile environment, these are scintillating journeys that can occur annually or once in a lifetime.

Each animal is afforded a double page spread and each of these double pages looks as individual as the animal itself, and startlingly beautiful enough to hang on the wall. The butterflies, for example, in ‘Forests of Flutter’, are shown a-fluttering among the trees, with incredible perspective and perspicacity so that the reader feels as if they are standing amongst them, waiting for one to land on their palm.

The text matches the beauty of the pictures; it is told informatively but also poetically. Monarchs ‘dance’ in the air like ‘confetti’. Sentences are short and specific, and the four to six paragraphs per spread give a comprehensive overview. The reader will gasp often at the huge distances the animals travel – the delicate hummingbird, weighing less than a sugar lump, flies 800 km across the ocean.

The book manages to be a staple non-fiction text as well as depicting the awesome beauty of the world with powerful text and alluring images. The range of animals is well thought out – and well indexed at the back on a migration map of the world, with hints of conservation advice. It’s not often that a reader will find the Christmas Island red crab adjacent to the Globe skimmer dragonfly, the blue wildebeest and whooping crane. Here, they come together to create a thrilling book. Make the journey here.

journeysJourneys by Jonathan Litton, illustrated by Dave Shephard, Chris Chalk, Jon Davis and Leo Hartas
From animals to humans. This book gathers stories of human discovery, amazing endeavours, untrodden paths, and journeys that explorers have made from the earliest times – before they could even document them.

Journeys craftily concentrates on the lesser known explorers, the lesser well-trodden paths, so that although Christopher Columbus gets a mention, it is Nobu Shirase’s race to the South Pole that draws attention, the lawless Mary Bryant, the impressive James Holman, the pony express in the Wild West.

What’s great fun about these snippets is the unpredictability of the journeys – not only the road travelled and hitches along the way, but also the discovery upon arrival. Alexander Gordon Laing may have been murdered on his quest to find Timbuktu, but many others came back to tell and document their extraordinary stories.

The book is ordered physiographically, and also kind of chronologically so that it begins with exploration across the seas by the Polynesians, the history of which has been pieced together by archaeological evidence and knowledge of their culture. Towards the end of the book are journeys by motor car, and finally the exploration of space.

But as well as simply telling the stories of each explorer and each journey in paragraphs, sometimes punctuated by quotes from the explorer, the text seeks to ask questions too – why do humans make journeys with the dangers and risks involved – what are the rewards, and is curiosity itself a justifiable reason?

There are many extraordinary journeys in here, including Auguste Piccard and his balloon flights, Thomas Stevens with his penny farthing, and Nikolay Przewalski and his wild horses. Whether it’s all-encompassing across global cultures is difficult to tell, but it certainly attempts to be diverse and not be wholly ‘western’ focussed. There are bound to be sensitivities when discussing explorers and their treatment of indigenous people, the use of habitats etc, but Litton has tried to be fair.

The accompanying ink drawing illustrations are varied – some full-page pictures, other annotated maps, some vignettes, all with a sense of movement, and they balance the pages well. The character sketches all depict fierce determined travellers with a sense of a faraway look in their eyes, but again, there may be sensitivities to how some peoples are depicted. Explore it here.

mapmakers raceThe Mapmakers’ Race by Eirlys Hunter
I wanted to love this book about four children entering a competition to map a rail route through uncharted mountains. It has all the makings of a great adventure story, and from a writer who brings knowledge of the amazing landscapes of the South Island of New Zealand and Snowdonia in Wales. The premise starts off well enough. The children and their mother are on board the train to take them to the start of the competition, but when the mother fails to get back on after a break, the children are left to their own devices. There’s the inevitable panic and alarm and much humour too, before the children realise too much is at stake and they must enter the competition without parental guidance – a competition against professional adult route-finders.

There’s much debate about finding food (children left alone must deal with such matters), and of course dastardly cheating from some of the other competitors, and really beautiful descriptions of the difficult pathways and encounters with nature.

My caveat to loving this novel is the magical realism evoked when one of the children develops the ability to leave her body and fly up in the air to get a birds’ eye view and map their route. It just didn’t work for me, although other readers may find this the appealing strand of the story.

For those who love journeys though, this is a good read with beautiful illustrations throughout – particularly the maps at the beginning of each chapter. I would heartily recommend Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy and The Explorer by Katherine Rundell as other ‘exploration’ novels. To purchase The Mapmakers’ Race, click here.

 

Fabulous Fashion

fabulous hat
When I was a little I was obsessed with a small picture book called The Fabulous Hat by Joan Hickson. It’s out of print now of course and sells second-hand for about £20, but then it was a small 32 page pint-glass sized book illustrated with the most luscious psychedelic drawings. (It was published in 1970).

My fascination was not only with the dazzling bright pinks and oranges, but also with the fact that the main character, a small girl called Louisa, goes shopping with her cool older sister in an array of wonderful clothes shops but everything she tries on is too big, whilst her sister looks fabulous in everything and buys it all. Louisa gets fed up but finally finds a hat, which is indeed fabulous.

And of course to my eyes now, the hat is far from ‘fabulous’ – it looks like a shower cap.

polka dot shopFashion, and retro fashion, or vintage, is near the top of the agenda in Laurel Remington’s new book The Polka Dot Shop. But Remington brings it right up to date in this very modern tale about a girl living with her single, depressed mother, and trying to make the right choices – in friendships, fashion and finally business.

Andy’s mother runs a kooky boutique selling vintage clothes, but unfortunately it’s not doing very well. Meanwhile, her school decides to revert to a non-uniform policy, and what everyone wears to school becomes super important. (And every mother’s worst nightmare I should imagine). Andy’s wardrobe is full of her mum’s shop cast-offs – pre-owned clothes and accessories, and none of it passes the fashion police test. She longs to buy brand new high street clothes.

Then Andy finds a bag of designer goodies in the shop, and everything changes – just not quite in the way she expects.

Not only is this a heart-warming tale of friendship and first romance, written in an easy-going contemporary style, but if the reader digs deep, they’ll find a story that resonates deeply with modern life. The throwaway culture of our modern clothes obsession – buying cheap and disposable clothing, the disintegration of neighbourly awareness and community that goes hand-in-hand with the demise of our local high streets, and a creeping proliferation of mental ill-health.

That’s not to say this is a depressing novel – not in the slightest. In fact, the text and content is bouncy and full of warmth; with zest for life and hope for the future. Remington shows that the relationship between the generations is key for future prosperity – (not monetary) but finding fulfillment. When Andy and her friends reach out and learn from the histories of the older generation – particularly the man who runs the fish and chips shop next door – and when Andy reaches out to understand her own mother, then things fall into place, and Andy and her friends can hatch a plan for the future that benefits all.

What’s also magical is that Andy makes plenty of mistakes. She learns to fail and by failing, learns to succeed. It’s good to find this message in a book for this age group.

By connecting to the past and learning from it, Andy finds a new future for herself and her mother. And it’s the cast of characters around her that helps too – Andy finds it hard to make friends, and when she does, they each have their own challenges but create a support network and camaraderie to help each other through. When Andy meets her ‘boy next-door’, and they communicate properly, they are able to finish the project they started in winning style.

This is a fabulous book that doesn’t need psychedelic illustrations to bring it to life. It’s bursting with life and energy already, and would look good on any catwalk. I have a signed copy of this book to giveaway. Just find me on twitter @minervamoan and RT my tweet about the book. Or you can buy it here.

octopantsSticking with clothes, but for younger readers is Octopants by Suzy Senior, illustrated by Claire Powell. This cheeky little picture book is published on 12th July, and in rhyming verse encompasses all my woes of looking for the perfect pair of jeans.

Octopus is looking for the perfect pair of pants. He’s laughed out of town by the shop sellers who explain that he has too many legs, and has no luck surfing the net either. Then the octopus discovers the Undersea Emporium, staffed by a seahorse, and filled with clothes (even with pockets) for all types of sea creatures. They still don’t stock octopants, but a little twist in the tale means that the octopus goes away happy.

Cartoon fish are probably every illustrator’s dream, in that there are so many colours, shapes and sizes to play with. Here, Powell has had great fun playing on words such as ‘surfing the net’ with her underwater scenes. All the illustrations are bright and endearing and bursting with colour and movement, and she’s managed to bestow a full range of emotions on the sea creatures, at which younger children will delight.

It’s often the small touches that turn a picture book from something ordinary into the extraordinarily popular, and the team behind this one have put in all sorts of fun jokes for both adults and children. Look out for the sign outside the changing room, the queues, even the title of the undersea newspaper. Just as Aliens in Underpants and The Queen’s Knickers remain firm favourites in the library and at home, I have a feeling that Octopants is going to continue the underwear success. It’s anything but pants. You can buy your own pair of octopants here.

 

But A Mermaid Has No Tears…

girl who thought her mother was a mermaidThe Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was a Mermaid by Tania Unsworth, illustrated by Helen Crawford-White
Not out until 12th July, but well worth waiting for, this middle grade (junior fiction age 9+) mermaid book is another triumph from the dark pen of Tania Unsworth. A master at combining reality with tinges of dark fantasy, and beguiling the reader with intrigues of what is real and what is make believe, Unsworth’s new novel picks up beautifully on the current zeitgeist for mermaid stories.

Stella is terrified of water, yet has a penchant for the ocean and the huge picture of the sea that hangs in the back of her house. Her mother died when she was eight, and left Stella a necklace called ‘the word of the sea’, but no one seems to be able to give her more information on it. When her grandmother, suffering from a form of dementia, gives Stella a hint that her mother may have been a mermaid, Stella follows a series of clues that leads her to a place called Crystal Cove and a mermaid show, where things aren’t always as they seem.

Good, sparse yet engaging text leads the reader, with Stella, into a labyrinth of truths and untruths, as she investigates whether her mother was a mermaid. The book also investigates the nature of friendship – Stella finds this difficult but has made a friend in the flamboyant Cam. There is also a look at the reliance children place upon adults to keep them safe and reveal the truth to them, but in typical Unsworth style, there is a sharp twist, and a fearsome and chillingly real villain.

The book is great at its description of the real world, especially the seaside town to which Stella runs away, but it also has a wonderful handle on depicting Stella’s inner thoughts, fears and motivations. By adding her spin on magical realism in the way of mermaids, Unsworth allows Stella and the reader to ask the bigger questions in life too.

A hugely compulsive novel, with superb characterisation. You can pre-order it here.

the surface breaksThe Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill
Almost all the current books about mermaids are influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, whose protagonist sacrifices her world, tail, and voice for love, but none are quite as sharply or devastatingly reimagined as this feminist retelling. Bringing her trademark biting satirical agenda and fight for gender equality to the tale, O’Neill has written a gripping, terribly dark fairy tale for our times.

Gaia’s world is dominated by men, none more so than her powerful and controlling father. When she spies a human boy on a boat, she falls for him and decides to sacrifice her world, and mutilate her body, in order to be with him. Unfortunately, she has gambled on his looks alone, and the reader becomes more swiftly aware than Gaia how reckless this is. The reader’s awareness of the palpable horror of her situation, a description of her ever-shredding feet that is almost too painful to read, and a mounting frustration at the treatment of women throughout, and Gaia’s hopes in particular which are so much pinned on frivolity and appearance, make this an engaging but demanding read.

O’Neill goes to great lengths here to subvert the original fairy tale so that she can pose an exploration of women as more than just a stereotype – more than just erotic objects, or manipulative shrews, but as multi-layered beings – fallible, abused, powerful, exotic, all at once. The Sea Witch is shown as feisty and motivated, not just a Disney character of pure evil revelling in her own wickedness, but in fact a believable and sumptuous character who is the most free of all the women, by vaunt of being most comfortable with who she is.

In fact, in some places it brings to mind what was really embedded in Christian Andersen’s text, which has been lost to the images in our minds of red-headed Ariel with her big blue eyes. It’s astonishing that so much of the misogynistic cruelty and darkness resides in the original story, and to find that O’Neill hasn’t deviated as much as we might think.

The book also gives a beautiful twist to women above the sea’s surface. They are not as free as Gaia imagines, and the prince is preoccupied and ungrateful – not the fairy tale beau of generosity and unparalleled power. Layers of lust and love, sibling rivalry and power dynamics ebb and flow throughout the book. It doesn’t smash the patriarchy so much as stimulate young women to think about who they are and their position in life. Clever, thoughtful and raging – this is not a soothing or subtle tale. For YA readership. Take a dip here.

bad mermaids on the rocksBad Mermaids: On the Rocks by Sibeal Pounder, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft.
For much younger readers – those aged about seven and up, Sibeal Pounder is an absolute joy to read. Her Witch Wars series is wacky and zany and never fails to raise a smile, and the Bad Mermaids series elicits the same response. On the Rocks is the second in the series about three mermaids accompanied by a talking seahorse.

Pounder’s ultimate strength is her exquisite world-building, in this case, the undersea kingdoms of the mer people. The vocabulary is broad ranging, with many plays on words and satirical digs at our normal world, (Pounder is inventive with transport and fashion) and conjures a playful fun underwater plot that keeps the reader absorbed and extremely entertained. She makes fun of the world as she writes and makes subtle winks to a feminist agenda – mermaids happily burp bubbles, which turns upside down the idea that mermaids are just aesthetic beauties, and give each other plenty of sass in their dialogue. Each mermaid has her own particular and distinctive character traits and it makes for a diverse and fascinating story.

In On the Rocks, the three mermaid heroines from book one are stuck aboard a spooky ship, but a human, Paris Silkensocks, discovers a plot to destroy the mermaid world. Paris must find the mermaids in time and avert a crabtastrophe. Fun and frolicks. With scattered black and white illustrations from Jason Cockcroft. Swim with mermaids here.

LoraliLorali by Laura Dockrill
From zany to zanier, Dockrill’s writing style can be a bit of an acquired taste – veering towards the wacky and unpredictable, so tackling mermaids and the fantastical seems like a good fit. Dockrill has two books published in her mermaid series, the first of which, Lorali, was published in 2015.

Rory finds a naked girl washed up under Hastings pier during a storm on his sixteenth birthday. But even more surprising is where she comes from. Lorali has to get used to some strange things in the ‘walking’ world, but it’s Rory’s gradual awakening to Lorali’s world and why she’s running from the sea that becomes the centrepiece of this intriguing novel.

Dockrill deals cleverly with her convoluted plot, telling the story from three points of view: Rory, Lorali, and the sea – the last of which provides the reader with the background to the world of the mermaids.

But it’s Dockrill’s handling of the teen world that is where she is most adept. The mermaid’s newness to the world is not unlike that of a teenager, exploring themselves and their surroundings for the first time as realisation dawns of the sort of adult they might turn into, and the choices they make.

There is a raw darkness to the book too, jumping from the realism of a seaside town to a world in which strange weather and pirates rule. Dockrill’s words tumble over like the crashing of the waves, and her nod away from fairy tale and to modernity lies in the way in which she addresses feminism and misogyny, but not always in the way in which the reader expects. For a YA audience. You can buy it here.

There are a few adult novels published in the past year or so that also feature mermaids, creatures that speak to our times. Mermaids are regarded as freaks, albeit beautiful ones, and in today’s society, when we are constantly alert to ‘otherness’ and ‘diversity’, the concept of mer-people on land or humans at sea is all about how we fit in, and the similarities and differences between us. Happy swimming.

 

Candy by Lavie Tidhar

candySometimes when you have a lot of something, it can begin to feel a bit samey. I read lots of children’s books, and there are moments when themes that are topical or zeitgeisty occur a little too often and the topic begins to feel a bit staid. It’s probably like eating a lot of chocolate. If it’s readily available and you eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it can taste a bit mundane. But if you live under a strict regime in which chocolate is more or less forbidden, just one taste can be electrifying.

When I opened Candy and started reading it, it was like eating chocolate again after a 12 week hiatus; it was a breath of sweet fresh air.

The press release announces that this book is Bugsy Malone crossed with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I like to think it’s a conversation between Raymond Chandler and Willy Wonka. Or Jessica Rabbit set in Cadbury World. Lavie Tidhar has written a detective story in film noir style based around the prohibition of candy. And it’s superb.

Nellie Faulkner is a child detective, living in a city in which sweets have been forbidden under the new mayor and his Prohibition Act. Roaming the unsweetened mean streets are gangs of candy bootleggers, all smuggling in sweet treats, eating their booty and making money. When gangster Eddie de Menthe’s teddy bear goes missing, Nellie has a case to solve. But when the teddy shows up and Eddie himself disappears, things turn serious.

Tidhar has gone in guns blazing on both film noir style and candy mode in the novel. Every description compares the world to candy in some way, so that the clouds are either candy floss or meringues and people are compared to sweets:

“She was the sort of person to hold on to a grudge like chewing gum stuck to a shoe.”

“He looked as trustworthy as an ice-cream seller in winter.”

But what makes the book zing is Tidhar’s talent in sustaining his Chandler-esque child-friendly film noir style throughout. Think Goodfellas, think The Godfather. For kids. There’s the bootlegger boss who throws a tantrum in his mansion:

“’Can we get some cake, boss?’ Gordon said. His friend nudged him in the ribs nervously. Waffles’s hand came crashing down on the folding table before him, sending plate and spoon and crumbs flying in all directions.
‘Nobody gets cake!’ he screamed. His face was red, his eyes bulging’”

There’s a mean girl gang led by Sweetcakes, a black car that slides in and out of view that Nellie may or may not see, and scene setting straight out of the film noir genre in which electric fans move hot air slowly round a room, for example. Tidhar’s ability to write with tongue firmly in cheek means that the style is both consistent and hilarious:

“In the morning, the sun shone through the window and the new day smelled of cut grass and fried eggs. The cut grass was outside. The eggs were in the kitchen, and they were for me.”

The book is funny, but also zings along with a great cast of characters and an excellent plot. Of course, with any book about sweets there are bound to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory allusions and there is great fun to be had spotting them, and even more fun as the adult reader spots the film noir allusions too.

But in the end, despite all this fun, this is a children’s book with heart. The book explores doing the right thing, and overcoming bullies, and is engaging, warm and topical. A mayor whose slogan is ‘Eat Your Greens’ with supporters throwing celery sticks in the air, is of our times.

The publisher has employed Mark Beech to supply illustrations throughout, and happily they are quirky, and slightly zany, beautifully matching the text style.

Candy may be Tidhar’s first novel for children, but it’s easy to tell it comes from an accomplished award-winning author (for his adult titles). Let’s hope there’s more to come for children – they’ll crave it more than chocolate (well….maybe). If you’re an adult, and want a sample of Tidhar’s bizarre film noir mind, go read his Winnie the Pooh thread on his twitter timeline. You’ll never see 100 Acre Wood the same way again.

And buy your own copy of Candy here – it’s a golden ticket of children’s books.

Mirror Magic: A Guest Post from Claire Fayers

mirror magicClaire Fayers may be known for her Accidental Pirates series, which was named a Beano.com best book of the year, but she has excelled with her latest book, Mirror Magic; a move from pirates into the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution.

Twelve-year-old Ava returns with her brother to the town of Wyse, on the border between England and Wales, after the death of her parents. But the town is famous for being the only place left in England in which magic happens. Mirrors are portals to UnWyse, where the Fair Folk live, and enchantments are commanded from them and sold in tourist shops. Ava’s arrival provokes stares and suspicions – and it’s not long before she works out why. When she travels through a mirror into UnWyse and meets Howell of the Fair Folk, the pair are quickly drawn into solving the mystery of why the magic is ending, and why Ava’s presence is stirring up suspicion. 

Refreshingly, as a break from so much angst in contemporary children’s fiction, this stands out as a fantastic old-fashioned adventure story with wit, ingenuity and charm. Any modern children’s book about magic will inevitably draw allusions to Harry Potter: here there are villains who aren’t completely whole human beings; the use of mirrors as magic entities; spells and transfigurations, but then Harry Potter wasn’t original in many of these ideas either. The wonder of magic, of course, is that you can make anything happen anywhere. What makes it work within a novel is a basis in reality and familiarity, and the ability to exploit its comic as well as dark potential. Fayers successfully does all this.

By chronicling the gradual demise and failure of the magic mirrors, and the rise of invention through the Industrial Revolution, Fayers establishes a firm link between fantasy and reality, cleverly suggesting that magic is no longer needed if science takes over. At the start of each chapter, there are excerpts from ‘the book’; a fairly unknown entity until about halfway through the novel, when it becomes apparent that the book can tell the future. Through its writing, the reader learns dates of important inventions of the Victorian era, such as the telephone and the electric oven, which lends some informative fun to the novel, and helps the narrative prose settle firmly in a rich Victorian era. As well as establishing her timeframe and setting, Fayers has a knack at moving her characters through the story with urgency, and the book becomes ever more compulsive and enjoyable. It’s a wonderful fantasy romp. 

Here, Fayers imagines some historical newspaper articles that may have chronicled the end of the era of magic:

Mirror Magic imagines a world exactly like our own but with one big difference – magic exists. Fairy mirrors connect us to the Unworld where the Fair Folk have promised to provide magical goods and services to anyone who asks.

The story starts in 1842, when most mirrors have stopped working and only one small town on the border of Wales and England still has access to the Unworld. The Wyse Weekly Mirror (expertly designed by Jess at Macmillan Children’s Books) gives an insight into daily happenings in the last town of magic.

But what of other time periods?

The first newspaper, the Oxford Gazette appeared in 1665 and newspapers were well-established by the Industrial Revolution, but what would those times have looked like with a bit of magic?

Real Garments Don’t Fade

Are you tired of your fairy gowns disintegrating around you? Are you suffering rashes and skin complaints from cloth made of dead leaves?

Wilkinson of York is a new textile manufacturer. Using the latest machinery and real human labour, we produce good-quality clothing at reasonable prices – and guaranteed not to fall apart at midnight!

Made by people for people.

Unworld Allergy to Iron ‘a Myth’

Sir Clement Clark, formerly of the Council of Conjurors, has proved that the fairy allergy to iron does not exist.

It was long thought that the rise of the iron industry may be responsible for the failure of certain magic mirrors, but Sir Clement, whose own magic mirror stopped working two years ago, has made a thorough study, including locking fairies into iron boxes to see if they suffered any ill effects from the metal. He reports that they do not, although some have emerged from the boxes looking faint from hunger.

Steam-Powered Mirrors? Fantasy or Reality?

With the failure of magic mirrors, efforts, some conjurors are spending vast fortunes on finding new ways to power their access to the Unworld. Now, steam power is seen as the new saviour of magic.

Experiments are underway, connecting steam engines to magic mirrors. These steam engines are currently coal-fuelled, but if this method proves successful, the engines could be powered with fuel brought through the mirrors from the Unworld. Thus, in effect, the engines would be self-powering.

Magic Not Needed Says Isambard Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel has caused further controversy by saying the rise of engineering proves once and for all that magic is no longer relevant to modern life.

Brunel, himself the great-nephew of a conjuror, has released designs for a suspension bridge to be constructed in Bristol. This bridge will be constructed entirely without the assistance of Unworld workers and enchantments.

Magic has been in decline for decades with mirrors ceasing to work across the country. Early research into steam-powered mirrors was abandoned after it proved ineffective. Wales and the west of England now has the highest concentration of conjurors.

With thanks to Claire for her blogpost. You can buy a copy of Mirror Magic here. For age 8+ years.

Claire’s bio:

Claire Fayers was born and brought up in South Wales, an area of the country sadly deficient in dragons. Having studied English at University of Kent, Canterbury, she built a successful career writing short stories for women’s magazines until the lure of magic became too much and she wrote The Accidental Pirates: Voyage to Magical North. It was selected for Waterstones Book of the Month and shortlisted for the FCBG Children’s Book Award 2016, and its sequel, The Accidental Pirates: Journey to Dragon Island, was published in 2017. When she’s not writing, you’ll find Claire at her allotment. Mirror Magic is her third book with Macmillan Children’s Books.

Claire’s links:

Twitter: @ClaireFayers

Facebook: /clairefayersauthor

 

 

 

Yuval Zommer sketches

A few weeks ago I featured the new book by Yuval Zommer, The Big Book of the Blue. Yuval’s illustrations are distinctive among today’s crop of children’s illustrators – playful and cartoonish, populating his exquisitely edited Big Book nonfiction series with a sense of fun and also knowledge. Here, Yuval gives an insight into his drawing process:

I loved working on The Big Book Of The Blue and now that the book is out I often get asked “what was your favourite animal to draw and why?” But I have so many favourites…

I’ll start by telling you that the animals I found most challenging to draw were the Dolphins, they already have a naturally friendly smiley expression and I really didn’t want them to look too cute. I first thought the Sharks would be the most challenging but when I got to draw them they became rather mischievously endearing. Many readers seem to really like the Whales in the book, as do I, but my favourite animals to draw were actually the smallest creatures in the book.

Here are a couple of examples of what I call ‘moods’ (rather than sketches) that I would do as preparation for the book:

Yuval Zommer

I loved drawing these Coral Reef Fish. Here Mother Nature really excelled herself when it comes to flair: these tiny fish who flit brightly among the corals have the most delicate features, almost transparent fins and tails, some gorgeous abstract patterns and splashes of vibrant colours. In my ‘mood boards’ I first try to capture the essence of the animals, how they move together as a fish shoal, what’s the overall colour palette, the corresponding flora etc. Even in a group in which every fish looks almost identical, if you look closely you’ll see there are subtle differences so that each of my fish is still an individual 🙂

Yuval Zommer

Not everyone likes the Crustaceans group, otherwise known as Shellfish, but to me they were some of the most interesting creatures to draw. Crabs, lobsters, shrimp and krill all belong in this ocean family; each has a hard skeleton on the outside of the body. I love how they make such intricate ‘alien like’ shapes with their claws and multi limbs. Also, if you look closely at each shellfish there are so many beautifully blended tones of orange or pink or coral. One of my favourite pages in the book turned out to be the Krill. It’s set at night time and I managed to show a swarm of tiny krill all shimmering under the surface of the sea!

With many thanks to Yuval. Take a look at the book yourself here, and see more of Yuval’s fantastic drawings. 

 

Little Guide to Great Lives: Marie Curie by Isabel Thomas, illustrations by Anke Weckmann

marie curie
There’s been a glut of biographies of women recently, not only to fill the gap in the market, but also to celebrate the centenary of the first women getting the vote in the UK. But this new series, Little Guides to Great Lives, also features men, and isn’t skewed towards the women’s suffrage movement. Rather than a bound anthology of biographies, each of these biographies is a small standalone book, although they are exquisitely designed and so do look good together on the shelf.little guides to great lives

Other than their size and design, what makes these biographies stand out is the ease with which the stories are told, the fascinating details included, and the chatty tone of the prose. Including quotations from the famous people themselves, and questions about why their lives matter and what made them who they were, these are intriguing little books.

The book about Marie Curie starts with her childhood – including references to her siblings, her friendships and even her likes and dislikes. Cartoonish illustrations complete with speech bubbles give pause for thought, empathy and understanding; a child reader might quickly relate to a wild child who loved lemonade and ice cream.

With the world outside encroaching on her life, and a lack of money and lack of opportunity as a girl, boredom and frustration eventually turn to studiousness and adventure when Marie makes her way to France and the Sorbonne. Marie’s own scientific studies take off, and here the book really excels: explaining very clearly to the reader the science she was testing, the notes she made, the importance and relevance of her discoveries and the ongoing impact she has on science and our world.

Each book in the series deals with their subject in this way – starting with childhood but not just the dry facts. The books drill down into the person’s emotional stability, the benefits they experienced or the deprivations they suffered. Successes and failures are highlighted, as well as the impact of the outer world and when they had to overcome something difficult or sad and persevere. With only 64 pages in which to accomplish the extraordinary tale of Marie Curie, Thomas keeps the prose succinct and neat, but with small dashes of personality so that it feels lively and relevant.

The design is part of the appeal too. The hardback textured cover shows articles that made a difference in the subjects’ lives – Marie Curie’s is full of chemical symbols, test-tubes and writing implements, whereas Frida Kahlo has monkeys, skulls, watermelon and the Mexican flag. The colour theme from the cover is then extended throughout the book – each is highly illustrated in colour.

The books also contain glossaries, indexes and timelines for quick glances, and so far the personalities chosen bear out an equality in gender and global significance. (The sixth title, publishing in the autumn, is Charles Darwin). Frida Kahlo publishes to coincide with the V&A’s upcoming exhibition (London), and Amelia Earhart and Leonardo Da Vinci titles tie in well with the Year of Engineering. It’s been 100 years since the birth of Nelson Mandela, so it’s fitting to have that title too.

These are wonderful treasures for any child’s bookcase, and an absolute pleasure to read, share and own. I’d recommend 7+ years – but they are of equally good quality and substance for those just starting secondary school who need to do topic work. You can buy Little Guides to Great Lives: Marie Curie here. And the others here.

she persisted

While we’re dealing with biographies, and seeing as I’ve cheated on having just ‘one book of the week’, you might also extend your wishlist to include She Persisted Around the World by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. This book profiles 13 women who changed history, particularly those who were told to quiet down and had to strongly persist. Including Marie Curie, but also Sor Juana, Leymah Gbowee, Wangari Maathai, this is an unusual collection and profiles each woman in just a couple of sentences. It’s a flavour, an inspiration perhaps. You can buy it here.

Trees, Treehouses and the Spaces Inbetween

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to understand the importance of trees as a metaphor or literary device in children’s literature. Their growth from seed to giant is in accordance with the growth of knowledge or imagination, they represent the wild within urban areas, they are a liminal space between ground and air. We use them in all manner of ways to talk about family trees, with all the various branches. We refer to a ‘tree of life’, a force that connects creation. Trees are affirmative – they give life by releasing oxygen, they provide food and shelter, they cover about 30 per cent of the world’s land area. No wonder I can rattle off ‘tree’ books in an instant – The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, The Thirteen Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, The Magic Treehouse books by Mary Pope Osborne…and so many more.

But these three recent ‘tree’ books are something special.

everything you need for a treehouseEverything You Need for a Treehouse by Carter Higgins and Emily Hughes

There’s something about a treehouse – that arboreal space that’s also domestic, a meeting of urban and wild, a place where imagination lets loose. This is sumptuously captured in this highly detailed picture book published earlier this year. Lyrical text leads the reader into the book – explaining that what you need for a treehouse is time and imagination. The text then branches out into poetry, using extended metaphor and alliteration, comparing trees to an army, but then calming into more natural imagery – sun speckles seen close, boxes for begonias, and of course elements of play. And the treehouses imagined in this book invoke all sorts of play, from swinging tyres to bookshelves and boats.

There’s practical advice about building treehouses too: proposing a child starts with a plan, or wears a hard hat, and remembers snacks and socks for cold overnight stays. The beauty of the language, of course, is that this is not a set narrative, but a bundle of suggestions, a plethora of ideas. And so illustrator Emily Hughes is let loose with her imagination – just as the child would be, with passion for adventure and creativity.

There are numerous children in this book – a whole school perhaps or a village – each with their own identity, using brains or brawn or humour to play their part. One girl does another’s hair while she lies in a sleeping bag, some children are telling ghostly stories with shadow movement, others listen to music or watch the stars. They play pirates, or direct others with drills and measuring tape. And each page holds a different kind of treehouse – one over water, one as a pirate ship, one as a palm house, and one with a helter skelter staircase. These are treehouses from the imagination and they are fully realised on the page – detailed, wondrous and fantastical. Because of course, not all children have the adult help, time, resources or space to build a treehouse, but Hughes shows that even with just imagination, the most fanciful treehouses can be built in the mind or on the page. Like castles in the sky. You can buy it here.

a good day for climbing treesA Good Day for Climbing Trees by Jaco Jacobs, illustrated by Jim Tierney

Jacobs is a prolific and popular author, with more than 120 books published, although mainly in Afrikaans. This novel, translated into English, is a light book about serious issues. Marnus feels invisible, stuck in the middle of a teenage older brother and a genius entrepreneur younger brother. So when Leila knocks on his door with a petition to save a tree, an opportunity presents. Before he knows it, he’s climbing a tree to stop the bulldozers, and then remaining there in case the bulldozers return.

As well as showing the reader how activism develops – from kindly neighbours and friends, to local journalists, and student protestors, the book explores a thirteen year old’s friendship with a child of the opposite sex, particularly one he’s just met – Marnus’s awkwardness round Leila is drawn with pathos and understanding, and quite a bit of humour too.

A cast of eccentric characters who gather round the tree and their activism makes the text warm and quirky, but Jacobs does more than just populate the story with colour – each character has their motivations and backstory, each character is fully developed and cleverly drawn. But it is Leila’s motive to save the tree that draws the book to a satisfying close – and leaves the reader feeling both fulfilled and uplifted. (Age 8+ years). You can buy a copy here.

the family treeThe Family Tree by Mal Peet, illustrated by Emma Shoard

Another well-known and hugely admired author, Mal Peet’s emotive and evocative novella, The Family Tree, has been given loving treatment by publishers Barrington Stoke after his death. Peet’s succinct, intuitive and astute writing tells the emotional story of an unnamed narrator who returns to his childhood house, looking back with nostalgia but also adult realism, as he recalls the breakdown of his parents’ marriage and the pivotal treehouse in the garden, which provided a childhood adventure but also eventually the sanctuary for his father’s breakdown.

Stunningly told, the publishers have pared the perspicacious prose with Shoard’s impressionistic full colour illustrations – their light smudging a beautiful counterpart to a story going back into the past. Features are slightly indistinct, the green and greys lend a fluidity to the scenes, and the treehouse is both a loving object and a place of menace as it becomes the father’s home and the cause of much angst and pain. Shoard’s illustrations bring an almost sensory element to fill the white spaces left in between Peet’s words – the body language of the three family characters is both poignant and brilliant.

Rarely does one come across a children’s tale written quite so hauntingly, leaving one drained and emotional but also strangely hopeful, nostalgic and understanding of human nature, and in particular fatherhood. I read in one sitting – as will you – and yet it will stay with you much longer than the hardiest of treehouses. (YA title, not suitable for younger readers). Unmissable. Buy it here.

 

The Boy Who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

boy who grew dragonsSo, this is not the first book about a young boy with a dragon pet. I bet you can think of a few yourself. Which begs the question, what makes this book standout from the crowd, what makes it so unique, good and worthy of the book of the week spot?

Tomas helps his grandfather with his unwieldy garden, and one day stumbles upon a strange tree growing the most peculiar looking fruit. He takes one of the fruits home, and later that evening is immensely surprised to discover a dragon hatching from it. What follows is the trials and tribulations experienced when hatching your own baby dragon.

But for me, Shepherd’s unique selling point is not her plot, although it moves with pace, but her ability to mix humour and fun with an intense pathos and understanding of human emotion. It is Tomas’ interaction with the other human characters that really pulls on the reader’s emotions – although there is plenty of fun to be had with the dragon too.

Tomas has a little sister Lolli, who although too young to talk, communicates and spars with Tomas brilliantly in her capacity as co-conspirator in hiding the dragon. Their alliance also demonstrates the uniqueness of sibling relationships – the bond that stretches from affectionate love and sharing of secrets and a helpful camaraderie at one end, to being able to blame the other for something they didn’t do at the other extreme.

The sympathetic grandparent relationship within the story also rings true, and draws the most pathos. Tomas loves spending time with his grandfather, but is torn with guilt between how much time he spends with him versus time with his friends, and Tom also shows an acute awareness, in a wondrous childlike fashion, of how delicate the relationship is as his grandfather gets older and more fragile. The feeling of not wanting to disappoint and yet also wanting to live his own best life compete beautifully within the plot structure.

This gamut of human emotion also stretches to Tomas’ new pet dragon. Feelings of responsibility compete with curiosity and awe, the knowledge of having something different and special and being the envy of one’s peers, and yet knowing that the dragon is precious and special and not merely for showing off – in fact it’s a live being with feelings of its own.

There are some lovely touches here – the timidity of the dragon at first, the portrayal of its physicality as it learns to trust Tomas, and Tomas’ inventive efforts to control the poos and treat his dragon correctly.

But none of this overshadows the sheer fun and vivacity of the novel. Shepherd brings out every flourish of her imagination in Tomas’s discovery – from the tree itself with glowing fruit, to the different types of dragons, their combustible poos, and how difficult dragons are to capture and hide.

Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations here do what they did for the characters in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series, and she brings to life the tree, the dragons and characters with limitless expression. These are warm, animated, engaging illustrations that almost seem to move across the page.

This is a sumptuous start to a new series, bursting with energy and humour, yet tinged with the darker side of life too. There’s a grumpy neighbour, aware but preoccupied parents, an eclectic group of friends, a strange gardening guide, nomenclature of dragon pets – so many facets all covered and explored. A perfect example of domesticity interrupted with a touch of magic. Dragon fruit will never look the same again! Happily for 7+ years; you can buy it here.

Exploring the Hidden World of the Young Carer

Ruby's StarMister P is the most delightful creation – a cuddly, sympathetic polar bear, whom the publishers describe as a mashup of Mary Poppins and Scooby-Doo. The bear enters the lives of those who need him most, trying to change things for the better. Readers first met Mister P when he visited Arthur, who needed some help to feel less jealous of the attention afforded his younger sibling. In this latest book, Mister P visits Ruby, a ten-year-old girl with much on her hands. She is a young carer. Ruby looks after both her mum and her baby brother Leo, as well as trying to do things other ten year olds do, such as go to school. The last thing she feels she needs is a ridiculous giant polar bear trailing after her. But as before, it turns out that Mister P can open doors for Ruby and provide her with new opportunities, different insights, friends, and finally a change in situation and behaviour – all for the better.

What’s most interesting is that there are many children’s books out there that introduce an imaginary friend, or a cuddly creature to help and advise and make the child’s life better, but mainly they are unseen by the surrounding characters, particularly the adults. In this case, the polar bear is most definitely seen – in fact rather than be viewed as something surprising, dangerous or challenging to the little girl he’s with, he’s most often seen as an irritation, something to be angry about, or amused by. Farrer’s use of the ‘friend’ device is different then. Perhaps it contains a small undercurrent of anger – because the adults very clearly see the polar bear and find that it is in their way, but they are blind to Ruby’s difficulties and struggles. They are not able to be empathetic or even sympathetic. The one adult who does understand immediately dives in to Ruby’s life to help her and is the shining example in the novel, followed by Ruby’s Headteacher, who finally seems to take notice of Ruby – but only after seeing the polar bear. 

Farrer writes with care and compassion in her portrayal of a struggling youngster with a depressed mother, and her touches of humour make this an easy and encouraging read for youngsters – the big text helps too. Daniel Rieley’s warm illustrations, although in black and white, also convey a world of colour and imagination and laughter. Here, Maria Farrer explores why writing about young carers was so touching and is so necessary:

No-one knows exactly how many young carers there are. Their role is often hidden because it is something they feel reluctant, unable or scared to talk about. Some have never known anything different and accept their responsibilities as a normal part of everyday life.

Estimates suggest that there are around 700,000 young carers in the UK, but the real figure is likely to be higher. A young carer is someone under the age of 18 who looks after, or helps to look after, a relative with physical or mental health problems. Sickness, disability, depression and alcohol or drug addiction are just some of the responsibilities that young carers take on in an attempt to support someone they love. Caring involves providing physical and emotional support and often taking on domestic duties such as cleaning, shopping and cooking as well as managing finances. Many young carers find caring a positive and rewarding experience and feel that they manage well. However, when the responsibilities mount up, there can be knock-on effects into other aspects of life—school, friends, academic attainment, confidence and self-esteem. Many find it hard to get out and relax. If a parent or sibling is unwell, there isn’t much ‘down-time’ as the worry and concern stays with you wherever you are—often more so when you are away from the home.

Ruby’s Star explores the challenges of being a young carer. Ruby was 9 when her Dad left and she now looks after her Mum who has mental health issues and her baby brother, Leo. Like many young carers, she rarely complains and is justifiably proud of the way she manages. She is tough and determined and capable—most of the time. But when things get really rough she has no-one to turn to and feels isolated and afraid. Her Mum has told her that she mustn’t talk to anyone about the situation at home in case the family gets split up—and there is no way that Ruby is ever going to let that happen. So she battles on alone, often exhausted and stressed, often in trouble at school and occasionally letting her frustrations spill over in the form of aggression and anger. Ruby doesn’t resent her responsibilities, but there are times when she just wants to be a care-free child and enjoy the things that other children enjoy—like skateboarding.

So when a large polar bear arrives and moves in to Ruby’s already crowded and hot flat on the 15th floor, it is pretty much the last straw. Another mouth to feed, another thing to worry about. And it is hard to go unnoticed when you have a polar bear in tow; a polar bear who doesn’t always do as he is told. It is through the arrival and antics of Mister P that Ruby accidentally gets to meet the wonderful Mrs Moresby on the floor below and life begins to change.

Researching for Ruby’s Star made for some pretty sombre reading. Apart from the arrival of a large polar bear, the problems faced by Ruby are similar to those faced by many young carers. When you are exhausted, it is hard to keep up with school work and sometimes hard to even stay awake at your desk. You may be absent from school a lot or too consumed by worry to concentrate on lessons. You may feel misunderstood, overwhelmed, lose friends, experience bullying. The fear of your home situation somehow being ‘discovered’ is very real and makes you increasingly isolated and lonely. The need for a support network or a trusted individual is paramount.

We need to build a greater awareness of young carers and to make sure that they know that it is safe to discuss and share their experiences without the (usually unwarranted) fear of heavy-handed intervention. Sharing brings understanding and empathy and many schools and authorities are aware of the young carers in their midst and help to support them.

We should also do more to celebrate young carers—the job they do and the responsibilities they take on from an early age are phenomenal and it would be great to let them know that they are valued, not just by those for whom they are caring, but by all of us (polar bears included!).

Further information and help can be found at:-

https://carers.org/about-us/about-young-carers

www.actionforchildren.org.uk

www.nhs.uk/conditions/social-care-and-support/young-carers-rights/

With thanks to Maria Farrer for her insightful guest post. You can buy Me and Mister P: Ruby’s Star here. And join me on twitter @minervamoan to win a copy of both Mister P books.