middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

First Day of Spring

This week heralds the official first day of Spring, apparently named because in the 14th century ‘springing time’ was a reference to the time of year when plants were ‘springing’ from the ground. And so, a few nature books for you, to usher in the return of migratory birds and draw inspiration from the natural world.

bird houseBird House by Libby Walden, illustrated by Clover Robin
Beautifully designed, with lift-the-flap features, this is a perfect first nature book for little hands. Adorably shaped like a house, the book endeavours to teach about different bird species and their homes. The first page deals with ducks, and man-made duck houses, but also features nests, and gives the names for male and female ducks, groups and babies.

The book goes on to cover pigeons and doves, woodpeckers, swallows, sparrows and owls, with hints at the back for how to create a bird-friendly outdoors space. The book is as sturdy as you’d want a bird house to be, with earthy colours throughout, and much green. The illustrations are cartoon-like rather than anatomical, but layered with wonderful textures, and give a true indication of colouring.

Also available is Bug Hotel, with facts about favourite garden insects and instructions for building your own bug hotel. An attractive, lively and informative start for young readers. You can buy it here.



earth verseEarth Verse by Sally M Walker and William Grill
Something completely different in this stunning picture book that tells the story of the Earth through poetry and illustration.

A haiku on each page simply suggests the beauty and majesty of the planet we live on, starting with a pulled-back image of the Earth as seen from space, with swirling blue and white. The book progresses through a host of illustrations that draw near or zoom out – from the outer crust to layered sediment, huge cliffs and fossil finds, to small flowers perched upon sand dunes.

Each has a concentrated description in this briefest form of poetry, and each illustration in coloured pencil is an impression rather than a factual diagram – a brushstroke of nature. It suits the poetry, which aims to inspire and to emote, (with further reading resources given at the back). The illustrations also suit the sensibility of the book, which is child-friendly and dreamlike in tone.

Colours stream throughout the book – blue to start as we see the planet from space, startling red for fire, then stripes of wonder as the rocks shift and layer with sediment.

The words resound with magnitude, as Walker gallops through dramatic natural events – a volcano, a tsunami, a storm – showing the violence and force, as well as the calm of a gull wearing ‘sand socks’ as it leaves footprints across the shore.

Walker uses personification to bring the haikus close to readers – the intimacy of the fiery fingers, the tiptoes of the creatures. The hotheaded mountain throwing an igneous tantrum. The words and images are both appealing and familiar.

And together Grill and Walker add elements of where there is an Intersection of human involvement in nature, an interaction with our planet.

There are also pages of prose information at the back; the reader is guided to these by a visual key of nine symbols, including minerals, fossils, glaciers, groundwater. These full paragraphs explain their topic well, but the diagrams accompanying are unlabelled and therefore tricky for a novice to decipher.

One for inspiration and awe. 8+ years. You can buy it here.

treesWhat On Earth? Trees by Kevin Warwick and Pau Morgan
For full-on, comprehensive knowledge, What On Earth? is an immensely high quality non-fiction series. This particular book covers all aspects of trees (for the very young), and also ties the basic scientific knowledge into hands-on activities, as well as interconnecting it with culture and history – something for which cross-curricular teachers will be grateful.

The first section takes a look at the different parts of a tree – with an in-depth look at leaves and their shapes and sizes, followed by information spreads on seeds and dispersal, needles and trunks. Interspersed between the information pages are spreads labelled ‘investigate’ or ‘create’ and these contain activities. Both artistic – creating a tree on paper using fallen leaves, to scientific – testing how far seeds travel – there is something for everyone.

The ideas are simply explained and easy to execute, but inspirational and fun. Drawing in other cultures and their stories adds a new dynamic, and of course there is the requisite section on global warming and the effect upon trees.

The digital illustrations are colourful, bright and friendly, and encourage the reader to really engage with the natural world, looking at what grows around them and giving clear step-by-step guidance on the activity spreads. The book will not only teach about trees, but about how to conduct first scientific experiments of exploration and investigation.

There’s an easy conclusion to draw here – this is a fantastic piece of non-fiction in which every page earns its worth – the tree this book originated from would be proud! 6+ years. Buy your own here.

How Does a Lighthouse Work? By Roman Belyaev

how does a lighthouse workDo all children have a fascination with lighthouses? Is it the Rapunzel-esque structure – that tall cylindrical height forging above the wild whipping waves? Or perhaps the power of the light beam, stretching for miles across a wide expansive sea? Or the image of the lighthouse keeper him or herself, spending long lonely hours tramping up and down the spiralling stairs, polishing the glass and ensuring safety for all who travel near? From the picturebook series The Lighthouse Keeper by Ronda and David Armitage, to Emma Carroll’s Letters from the Lighthouse, to more grown up fiction by Sarah Moss (Signs for Lost Children and its protagonist, the wonderfully contained Tom Cavendish) to The Light Between the Oceans by ME Stedman, the romanticism of the lighthouse has never been far from fiction.

But what about non-fiction? This book, which I predict to sweep awards, sits perfectly with its fine balance of teaching the science behind the lighthouse, and appealing to the romanticism at the core. Full-colour illustrations, (with a nod to William Grill in the small differentiated drawings of different kinds of lighthouses, lamps and sounds), lend a narrative arc to the information. The reader is part of a group of children on a school trip being taught about lighthouses. The illustrations, in coloured tones of lighthouse red, sea blue and oilskin yellow traverse the lighthouse scene, giving the reader different perspectives – at a distance, a cross-section, from the top deck (complete with girl steaming up the glass with her breath), and from out at sea.

Inspiring both emerging architects and budding scientists, the narrative aims to decipher the beating heart of the lighthouse, from the way it works on the most basic scientific level, to the question of why there are different types of lighthouses, to the role of the keeper.

Impressed and intrigued, I learnt as much about a lighthouse as if I had been on a tour to a real one (I’m still waiting to experience that). Each spread poses a question (as if from a child on tour), and it is answered astutely, clearly, succinctly. The text is easy to understand, accessible and fascinating. I learnt about the Fresnel lens, the distance light can travel, the strategic positioning of lighthouses, their history (even the Roman coin on which the lighthouse at ancient Alexandria is shown), structure, and what happens in fog. Impressively, Roman Belyaev seems to have covered every angle (no pun intended), from what people did before lighthouses to a lighthouse keeper’s log book, and the colours with which lighthouses are painted.

At the end, Roman Belyaev invites the reader to design their own, presumably based on everything they’ve learnt, but with terrific guidelines. Like a magazine quiz, the reader has to consider where they are building it, its height and shape, its design and pattern.

This is a book that profiles STEM and engineering with a real-world application. But not only that, it does it clearly and precisely with a particular kind of beauty and lustre to the illustrations. Far more accessible than most lighthouses, and brilliantly translated from the Russian with the help of Masha Kulikova, this book’s beam of knowledge should stretch across the widest seas.

You can buy it here.

My Favourite Exploration Story Influences by Vashti Hardy

A big welcome to Vashti Hardy, author of Brightstorm (my current book of the week). Recent tales of explorers that have enthralled me include The Explorer by Katherine Rundell and Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill. Brightstorm too has kept me enthralled, with its adventurous tale of twins, Maudie and Arthur. This new adventure in exploration is sumptuously imagined, gloriously told, and cunningly executed. It is, in fact, as delightful as stumbling upon a new peninsula or archipelago you didn’t know existed. Linked to historical tales of daring and bravery, as well as twinkling with gems from stories past, Brightstorm is a wonderful new middle grade novel. Here, Vashti Hardy explores real-life inspirational adventurers. 

We all know that real-life is often where we find the most phenomenal stories, and the tales of explorers and adventurers are a treasure box full of sparkling story seeds. Here are my favourite explorer/adventurer influences for Brightstorm:

Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17)

“Better a live donkey than a dead lion.”

Aside from the advert Shackleton placed in a London newspaper being my initial influence for Brightstorm, the tale of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition has always held a particular fascination for me. Although it went about as far from the plan as possible, the resulting story is one of inspirational endurance and survival against the odds. One of the most interesting aspects is how Shackleton’s legendary leadership skills contributed. He had a unique warm style, built genuine friendships with the crew and displayed admiration for each member of his team, which I kept in mind when creating the crew of the Aurora. Although this expedition failed to reach the destination, it achieved many fantastic firsts and feats and I think it’s a great lesson in how much can be learned and achieved even through failure.

brightstormAmelia Earhart – Aviator (1928 First woman to fly across the Atlantic)

“Adventure is worthwhile in itself.”

Earhart’s autonomous driven spirit was an inspiration for sky-ship aviator Harriet Culpepper – you may spot glimpses of Amelia in Harriet’s short, wind-swept hair and I hope in her persistent and intrepid personality! Amelia Earhart accomplished many firsts and record-breaking feats in aviation and inspired a generation of female aviators, but also had a wide reach in inspiring females to achieve whatever they wanted. I wanted to create a host of clever and resourceful females in Brightstorm for young girls and boys to look up to, and Amelia Earhart helped me form them.

Edmund Hillary – Mount Everest expedition 1953

“I think it all comes down to motivation. If you really want to do something, you will work hard for it.”

Something of Edmund Hillary’s modest outlook, coupled with his obvious enjoyment of tackling great feats and dangers, is hugely inspiring. He regarded himself as an ordinary person with ordinary qualities and therefore adventuring was for anyone, just like him. I like to think there is a little of this in Arthur Brightstorm – an ordinary boy from no great lineage of explorer family going out there and giving it his all. Edmund Hillary took pleasure in the intense effort required to achieve extraordinary things, and had a great attitude, valuing comradeship and shared exploits in the company of peers (which is what a great crew is all about!).

Nelly Bly – Around the World in 72 Days (1889-1890)

“Very well,” I said angrily, “Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”

In 1888, journalist Nelly Bly suggested to her editor at the New York World that she take a trip around the world, attempting to turn Phileas Fogg’s fictional journey in Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time. On approaching her editor, he told her that it was impossible for her to do it because she was a woman and would need a protector and she would need to carry so much baggage that it would impede rapid changes. He told her that only a man could do it. Nelly replied with the quote above, and consequently the newspaper went on to commission her trip. She set off with the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, changes of underwear, a small travel bag with toiletry essentials, and a purse of money around her neck. She broke the preceding record and the fictional one too and made the journey in just 72 days. Nelly Bly’s gutsy attitude makes me smile and I think something of her certainly found its way into Felicity Wiggety!

If you’re writing and stuck for character, try thinking about figures from history who inspire you – what role might they fill in a story?

With huge thanks to Vashti for her guest blog. Vashti Hardy lives near Brighton and was a primary school teacher before moving into digital marketing. She is an alumni member and buddy at the Golden Egg Academy. Brightstorm is her debut novel published by Scholastic. You can buy it here

International Women’s Day

Tomorrow, Thursday 8th March, 2018, is International Women’s Day.

As we celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage in the UK in 2018, it’s essential to show the younger generation the importance of their political history, so that they appreciate what’s gone before them, but also so that they can be inspired and harness that energy to forge their path in the future.

The publishing industry has been pushing certain children’s books for a while as a call to gender equality (Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is one such book, although I abhor the title). Seeing the young faces in the library each week, I know that they are interested in women in the past who have fought for equality, but the younger generation also need to continue the fight so that equal pay and equal opportunities become global achievements. You can read past blogs about some inspirational books here, and here, but below are a set of just published books celebrating amazing women in history, and contemporary struggles:

Make More Noise (anthology, published by Nosy Crow)
This is a sumptuous selection of short stories by top children’s authors, which all aim to inspire readers and whet their appetite to learn more about important figures in the past, and the meaning of the women’s movement. There are historical stories, contemporary, fantasy; each playing to the strength of its author, so that Emma Carroll and Katherine Woodfine have written delectable historical stories, whereas K Millwood Hargrave goes for fantasy, and MG Leonard sticks to bugs in the present.

For me, the defining story is the tale of an ordinary housemaid by Woodfine, as it probes into the essence of what the Votes for Women campaign meant. The idea was more than obtaining the right to put a simple cross on the ballot paper, but rather a different way of seeing women – a chance to provide further opportunities for education and learning, for social mobility, for basic human rights.

Emma Carroll’s story takes in the Land Girls, Jeanne Willis profiles the first woman to cycle around the globe in a year, and Patrice Lawrence writes a wonderful tale of the Spitalfields slums inspired by the campaigner, Olive Christian Malvery. Catherine Johnson writes a particularly engaging tale about the fairly unknown 43 Group, ex-servicemen who fought against anti-Semitic activists in Britain, and Sally Nicholls writes a jolly hockey sticks adventure about census night 1911, with a clear political message.

It’s all very well preaching history and political correctness, but luckily for its readership, this is a collection that is witty and wise, engaging and accessible, which mixes in themes of friendship, belonging and even the supernatural, whilst still staying true to women’s voices. An absolute joy for the soul – both men’s and women’s, and stunningly written, as one would expect from such a talented bunch of writers. You can buy it here.

herstoryHerStory: 50 Women and Girls Who Shook the World by Katherine Halligan, illustrated by Sarah Walsh

This large biography book takes a double page for each subject and tells the story of the woman it’s featuring. The author breaks the text into chunky paragraphs with subheadings, and each profile features illustrations, and where possible, photographs. The text reads straightforwardly but deals with complexities – as well as highlighting the life of the woman and her achievements, it also poses questions to the reader: What genius might Emily Bronte have produced had she lived beyond 30 years?

The text also extrapolates what was good about these women’s actions – the book features anti-Nazi resistance leader Sophia Scholl, and Halligan has quoted Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The author then goes on to highlight how one person can have the power to change, to speak up for what’s right.

This is a powerful book that highlights the women’s importance but also depicts when in history these women were not recognised – when Mary Anning was not properly credited in museums, how Mary Seacole was never thanked officially by the military for her work. It then goes on to explain why and how these women are now worthy of our studies, of our knowledge, or their place in our ‘history’ or ‘herstory’.

Featuring such diverse women as Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, Wangari Maathai, Anne Sullivan and more, this is a powerful and attractive collection of histories. Subjects are arranged thematically, so that Elizabeth Blackwell sits alongside Eva Peron in ‘Help and Heal’. If you’re wondering about Eva Peron, Halligan also points out where people may have found fault in things these women did too – no one is a saint.

This is crucial in our analysis of history, and being able to think critically about figures in the past. This objective insight also serves us well: if we portray all women as complete saints, we will find it hard to emulate them. Most importantly, the book highlights how all these women had to fight and work hard to get what they wanted – whether it be publishing at first under a man’s name, acting on stage with a prosthetic leg after traumatic amputation, or dying impoverished – each persevered, and have now been found to have made a huge difference to our lives today. An excellent non-fiction title for International Women’s Day and beyond. You can buy it here.

little leaders bold women in black historyLittle Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
Although there is a little more recognition of BAME and diverse voices in history now, and a little more recognition that all people need to be represented in publishing, there is still a gap in the market for such titles. This beautiful little book aims to plug one gap. Born from a project started during Black History Month, Harrison wants to celebrate those who have been marginalised in the past; some of Harrison’s subjects were not even aware that their steps were forging a path for the future. Of course, there is Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, but also less well-known women such as Alma Woodsey Thomas, a teacher and painter.

Arranged in chronological order from date of birth, there is a large focus on modern women, with only 13 featured from pre-20th century, but this is to be expected with our patriarchal global narrative that has cast women as inferior for much of history. There is also quite a large American slant, although others are featured too.

Each woman is afforded a page of text, and Harrison runs through their lives and achievements succinctly, and without much commentary, and it certainly all reads very positively. Opposite the text is a full page illustration (which is how the project started). The illustrations are very similar – all feature the woman in subject looking doll-like with downcast eyes – and here is the rub. Unfortunately for a book about leaders, it seems a shame to have called them ‘little’ in the title, and illustrated them with their eyes down, looking somewhat demure and docile.

Women featured include Augusta Savage, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Julie Dash, Oprah Winfrey, Dr Mae Jemison, and Diane Abbot. At the back, Harrison lists a few more, but her bibliography is lacking. You can buy it here.

anthology of amazing womenAnthology of Amazing Women: Trailblazers Who Dared to be Different by Sandra Lawrence, illustrated by Nathan Collins

There’s a pattern emerging here! Another biographies book that features 50 women from various walks of life who have made significant contributions to society or ground-breaking achievements. Again arranged thematically, and again featuring a full page of text and an accompanying full page full-colour illustration for each person (somewhat stylised and looking a little like the Women in Science series). Sneakily, the author also shoves in another few women for the chapter openers – obviously whittling the list down to fifty proved difficult.

I would query how it’s possible to have a paragraph on Anne Frank without mentioning the word ‘Jewish’, and would query the need to feature this overflow from the 50, seeing as there isn’t the space to highlight their achievements and who they were in enough detail. For the fifty profiled though, the text is factual and unobtrusive without opinion and questioning.

A failing here is that there are no dates at the beginning of each profile, so it’s hard to immediately place the woman in history, but the upside is that generally this is quite a different cast of women, and this itself has the possibility to make the reader think.

Profiles include: Beyonce, Sheryl Sandberg, Tove Jansson, Yani Tseng, Nettie Stevens, Simone de Beauvoir, Hatshepsut, and Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as the reliable Emmeline Pankhurst, Mary Anning, Mary Wollstonecraft and Frida Kahlo.

It is especially delightful to see the inclusion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer who has not only written some wonderful novels, but also continues to inspire with her TED talks. And Fanny Mendelssohn, whose husband encouraged her to compose and publish her work. Although cast aside by many because she was a woman, with the foresight of a feminist husband, she was enabled to gain some recognition for her music.

amazing womenAmazing Women: 101 Lives to Inspire You by Lucy Beevor, illustrated by Sarah Green

Doubling the stakes here, with 101 women featured, this is a more British take on inspirational women, and one of the best. Submitted to me with a press release, it was the only one to express the publisher’s difficulty in navigating history – in that people who were a power for good may also have caused some harm. It mentions replacing Aung San Suu Kyi in future reprints, but has rightly included Margaret Thatcher in spite of many people’s attitudes towards her. Indeed despite less text on each profile (a larger book but sometimes only half a page attributed to each woman), the text manages to deal with controversies, even if mentioned only very lightly, as in the profile of Benazir Bhutto.

This book is definitely one to whet the appetite for further research, rather than comprehensive bibliographies, but happily does give the dates of each woman. Arranged thematically again, but with slightly more ambiguity as subtitles include: pioneer, virtuoso, creator, campaigner, inspiration. It certainly feels more modern than the others, featuring mainly 20th century women, with the exception made for Edith Cavell, Marie Curie and Emmeline Pankhurst.

The illustrations are full colour, engaging and lively – these women look expressive and as if they are facing the reader, many with querying eye contact.

Like all the books featured, this one too promotes hard work and dedication, commitment and standing up for what’s right. The women featured might be lucky to have been picked for inclusion in the books, but there was not much luck in how these women got where they did – that was down to grit. You can buy it here.

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy

brightstormThe great era of exploration is over. Much of our world has been seen and documented, but humans haven’t lost their drive to be the first, to make their mark, and certainly haven’t let go of the idea of heroism. But so often the marks humans make, the braveries people display, are small acts of heroism in a known world. So, we turn to fiction to replicate that experience of exploring the unknown, of seeking out a new world and experiencing new adventure within it.

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy is doubly exciting, because it is not just the reader who is doing the exploring, but the protagonists too.

Twelve-year-old twins, Maudie and Arthur Brightstorm hear that their explorer father has died in an attempt to reach South Polaris – the very southernmost point in their world. Not only that, but he broke the moral code of explorers, stealing fuel from his competitors on his way. The daring twins are intent upon not only clearing their father’s name, believing he would never do such a thing, but also exploring the region for themselves – after all they are Brightstorms.

What could be a run-of-the-mill adventure story, Hardy turns into a fresh, insightful and clever novel of exploration with her clear-eyed writing, and her host of memorable characters.

Maudie possesses exemplary engineering skills, using her analytical mind to solve problems and provide technical solutions. She may be sited in a fantasy landscape, but she approaches technical tasks with a modern outlook – pragmatic and able – there is no gender discrimination here. She forges a prosthetic iron arm for her brother, but has the foresight to see that when they are lost, with the addition of a pool of water, it could act as a compass.

Indeed, Arthur is almost the only male in this female dominated cast, and it is he who shows his sensitive side – painfully aware of the feelings of others, sensing shifts in body language, danger in the air. But he too is an explorer – brave and intrepid.

Maudie and Arthur join Harriet Culpepper’s expedition to track back to South Polaris, on her ingenious sky-ship that uses water as fuel in a new environmentally friendly development, much to the admiration and envy of her peer explorers. What’s more, her ship has a canny disguise, to avoid saboteurs, and even I was envious of this quirk.

The environment is touched upon further with mentions of whale huntings, and humans’ domination of the landscape, all cleverly woven into the story without being preachy or self-congratulatory.

But as well as being aware of our modern leanings towards gender equality, saving the environment and STEM solutions, Hardy also shows us a mirror of our own world in the inequalities of hers. There are the slums of Lontown, the drudgery and hard work. There is the indignation of those of the Third Continent, who do not like to be called by such a derogatory name. And there is also, of course, a villainous explorer who will stop at nothing to sate her ambition.

But among the cogs and compasses, there is humour too: the cook Felicity and her penchant for endless cups of tea, Harriet and her dashing ways of pushing through the darkest moments.

Small flickers of other inspirational books light the path for readers too – I sensed a glimmer of Pullman in the ‘sapient’ animals of the Brightstorm world, who are less present than the daemons of Northern Lights, but also crucial to the plot, as well as the helpfulness of wolves from Piers Torday’s The Last Wild, and many more besides.

But mainly, Brightstorm feels fresh and modern – because although Hardy has veered into fantasy by creating her own world for the Brightstorm twins, she shows us its beauty through its simplicity. None of the landscapes are hard to envisage, none of the ships’ whirrings hard to grasp. This is a beautifully written children’s novel, matched by exquisite production with foil on the cover and a map on the gatefold.

It is testament to the accessibility of Hardy’s novel that it makes the reader think at the end, in the same way that the talking wolves ask the question to the twins – why is it that humans have the need to explore? When it is not for food or shelter – is it to seek the truth? Or to discover the beauty and complexity of the world? Like fiction, it is both and more. To discover a bit of ourselves, and a taste of the possibilities that are out there. Brightstorm is a triumph – it’s time to take the adventure. You can buy it here.

Other Worlds: A Guest Blog by Guy Jones

Guy Jones

I’m delighted to host Guy Jones on the site today, talking about his ‘other worlds’ influences. Guy has spent much time writing for the theatre, including the West End musical Never Forget, but now he has turned his talents to children’s books, and his debut novel, The Ice Garden is a wonderful adventure. You can read my ‘book of the week’ review here. Guy talks below about why, despite enjoying gritty realism, sometimes we like to leap into ‘another world’. 

It started with Tolkein. My dad reading a little of The Lord of The Rings to me at bed each night. Spooling out, bit by bit, a reality that seemed as rich and complex as my own, but with the added benefit of dwarves and elves and wizards. But it wasn’t just the narrative itself that carried me along, it was the sense of there being an entire world – history, language, culture – of which the tale I was hearing was just a fragment. If we went for a walk I would imagine armies of orcs pouring down the hillside or hobbits padding through the trees. It wasn’t only a story, it was fuel poured onto my own imagination.

And then so many more… The grimy, serious fantasy of Earthsea, the raging creativity of Ray Bradbury, the beautiful Dark is Rising series, and the near-perfection of Discworld. And through all that, slowly grasping a new pleasure – stories where the uncanny and the magical rub up against the real world until it’s not clear where one starts and the other ends. It’s why I’m a sucker for the ghost stories of MR James and Susan Hill. It’s why Neil Gaiman is the writer I most look forward to reading. It’s why discovering The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly has been one of my highlights of the year so far. It’s why I wrote a book as deliberately ambiguous and strange as The Ice Garden.

Of course, some of this is just personal preference. I can ‘do’ gritty realism. I enjoy gritty realism! But I don’t enjoy it as much as something that has a little flavour of the other, or what Robert Aickman called his ‘strange stories’. But, also, I think there’s something more to it than that.

ice gardenWriting fiction is an act of imagination. But reading fiction is too. A series of marks on a page translate inside the reader’s head into something completely different; something replete with meaning and emotion that stimulates every sense. (If you don’t believe me then read Stephen King’s description of Stan Uris’s first encounter with IT. You can feel the atmosphere he evokes.) And nowhere is the imaginative leap required of a reader greater than when they’re plunged into an entirely different world.

Put simply, I believe these strange stories build the muscle of imagination. And the importance of that at a young age can’t be overstated. Not many jobs require you to invent a fictional history for the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, but there are very few that don’t require some kind lateral thinking or problem solving. Some kind of imagination, you see. And it’s not only key in a practical sense – I believe all this also only adds to the richness of a child’s inner life.

I understand it’s not for everyone. Some like stories set in the here and now, that deal with the world as it is. Some people hate Tolkein! And if your tastes run that way then I appreciate why. But remember… just because a book is set in another world, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

With thanks to Guy Jones. THE ICE GARDEN by Guy Jones out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Read MinervaReads review of The Ice Garden here, and purchase a copy here. You can follow Guy Jones on twitter @GuyJones80 and find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com

The Ice Garden by Guy Jones

ice gardenHasn’t everyone at some point imagined that they could escape into another world? Whether it be into Narnia through the wardrobe, or cutting a hole in the air with a Subtle Knife, or even discovering a new place within our own world that holds such a different atmosphere, such an exciting contrasting place with our own reality (perhaps through a doorway into a Secret Garden), that new possibilities arise.

Guy Jones provides this opportunity for his protagonist, Jess. A girl who needs new possibilities more than most. Jess is allergic to the sun. She lives a confined life, in the rooms of her own house, or behind the tinted windows of her car, and also within the sterile walls of the local hospital. So when she moves through the trees at night and discovers an ice garden beyond the local playground, in which her skin never burns, she feels as if a whole new world of adventures is opening for her.

But someone else has left footprints in the snow, and a garden made of ice has its own fragilities.

This is a slight novel in terms of pages, but a novel brimming with a richness in words, plot and character. Enticingly written, in that the words are both lyrical and yet gripping, the reader is swept along with Jess, feeling for her in her contemporary world in which going outside means donning ‘Full Hat’ to avoid exposure, and yet also breathless with excitement for her when she enters the Ice Garden, and just as enchanted with all it contains.

Jones has a magical way of describing the real world. Jess’s relationship with her mother feels authentic and heart-breaking, as her mother and Jess are consistently torn between wanting freedom for Jess and a lack of constriction, and yet a protectiveness – Jess of her own skin, and her mother of her own child.

Yet Jones also manages to conjure a quite incredible fantasy landscape too – letting loose his imagination with new creatures, but also playing with features of this garden to make them into a playground for Jess (something she has so wanted). There’s a maze, a groove that acts as a slide, and endless ice features, as well as elements of fear and danger. He also gives a nod to other ‘portal’ adventures, expressing Jess’s disappointment that time in the real world doesn’t stand still while she’s in this ‘otherworld’ but continues as normal. What the ice garden does do though, is make her see her ‘normal’ world as quite remarkable.

This is mainly due to the friend she makes within the ice garden – another asset the garden gives Jess which she had most desired. And it’s the friendship that opens up her eyes to the meaning of loneliness and solitude, which allows her to fully explore the meaning of her illness, the saving capabilities of storytelling, and the tenderness that can exist between people.

The other theme that runs through the book is that of nomenclature. When Jess encounters new things within the ice garden, she gives them names, hence attaching her own emotional significance to them, giving the unknown an indication of the characteristic she sees it possesses – and therefore how she should interact with it.

“But in the ice garden nothing had a name until she gave it one. ‘Elephant Mouse,’ she said. ‘I hereby name your species the Elephant Mouse.’ The animal gave a little squeak, as if agreeing, and Jess giggled with excitement.”

Jess’s naming of the species gives her delight and when she encounters it again later, she refers to it as her own elephant mouse. This ownership and tendency towards colonialism fades as Jess realises that there is another within the garden, and also makes her think – to whom does the garden belong – for gardens are made, they are not freeform landscapes.

When, in the end, Jess’s two worlds collide, she comes to discover that she can make friends in her own world – in fact she already has – and that she can live without her illness defining her.

Jones writes with a sophisticated tenderness, and a confidence in his story that satisfies the reader and leads to deeper thought. An accomplished book that should live long after the ice melts. You can buy it here.

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

Eye of the NorthA timeless, icy, steampunk adventure, this is a really interesting and intriguing debut novel.

Arresting from the first sentence, O’Hart tells the story of Emmeline, a girl constantly on her guard, taking ‘always be prepared’ to the next level. So when she is kidnapped, and stolen away on a ship to the far north to be used as a bargaining chip to get her scientist parents to awaken a giant mysterious creature (the Kraken) buried deep beneath the ice, she must use her wits and her anxiety to whittle herself free.

The book is dense, and surprisingly gripping, and positively teems with ideas. Emmeline meets a stowaway on her first sea voyage, a nippy little figure named Thing, as well as an organisation trying to prevent the evil kidnapper from taking further control of the world – this organisation is named The Order of the White Flower (with headquarters in Paris). With tentative allusions to underground opposition groups in World War Two, such as The White Rose, the complexity of O’Hart’s plot begins to show itself here.

The reader learns that this underground organisation has many members who have been working against Dr Bauer (the kidnapper) for a long time, but little detail is given, although the group sound intriguing and each member fascinating; O’Hart keeps the reader completely in the dark (to the end). One member has built an intensely complex flying machine, which Thing endeavours to fly to rescue Emmeline. As with everything within this detailed and wondrous book, my issue is that the contraption sounds so terrific, so fantastical, that it is difficult to envisage in one’s mind’s eye. The same happens numerous times – with the denouement, in which Dr Bauer constructs an engineering contraption to extract the Kraken from beneath the ice, using mirrors  – the idea is so highfalutin, that it is difficult for the reader to picture.

As Emmeline moves through her adventure, so O’Hart throws more and more at the reader. We learn that the world has been submerged in much water (presumably the effects of global warming), and so Paris is much nearer the sea than it is in the real world. As with the characters of The Order of the White Flower, this idea isn’t completely developed though, which is a pity.

At every stage in the adventure, from Emmeline meeting an almost mythological horse, (which sounds as if inspired by the old Guinness advert in which the horses morph into waves – powerful like the gods), to Emmeline meeting the Northwitch, who splinters into ice shards and then re-forms with a spellbindingly cold evil chill, the inventiveness is powerful and spellbinding, and O’Hart smashes the imagery out of the park. The only issue is that the images are so extreme that the fantastical is hard to pin down in one’s imagination.

There are some wonderful touches – the tribal people living on the ice, with their sledges and their fear of outsiders, although again, this is underdeveloped as a concept, which is a shame.

The Eye of the North is a sensational story, but this book alone could probably have been developed into about three volumes – so that each part could be extrapolated more.

It touches on humans’ environmental impact on the world, scientific explorations and contraptions, evil beneath the ice, mythical horses, an evil ice queen, good versus evil organisations, greed and power, as well as anxiety and bravery.

It fits beautifully into the zeitgeist of the moment, with a wintry landscape, a future blighted by our environmental impact on the world, and a protagonist with parent scientists who have high stakes in the action. Blending a timelessness with technology and environment, and featuring children who perpetuate their scientist parents’ ideas by attempting to prevent harmful agents, but taking the best part of the science and seeing it through.

The two children are intensely likeable. They are feisty and free-thinkers. Emmeline’s character is strong at the beginning; she is determined, holds onto her comforts, remains quick-thinking and suspicious, but I wanted even more character development from her. Likewise with Thing, who has issues with his haunting past, yet has a strong determination to hold onto a person with whom he’s made a connection. Because their characters ring so true, the reader wants to stay with them.

This is a storming adventure story for the age group, ambitious and hugely entertaining, and there’s no denying this is a powerful book. I just think it could have been about three. You can buy it here.

The Eye of the North: A Guest blog by Sinead O’Hart

the eye of the north

Sinead O’Hart’s debut novel tells the story of Emmeline Widget, a girl who has never left her house. Until the day comes when her scientist parents disappear, and she is packed off to a safe house in Paris by boat. But before the ship arrives, she is kidnapped by the evil Dr Bauer, and  it becomes apparent that she is headed in the same direction as her parents – to the far north and the deep ice, within which a legendary monster dwells. But why does Dr Bauer want to unleash the monster? Who is the Northwitch? And why will Thing help her under any circumstances? 

This dazzling, icy fantasy is magnificent in scale, hugely ambitious, and magical at the same time. Here, Sinead O’Hart, who can read Middle English with perfect fluency, explores her inspirational childhood books (they’re all in modern English).

The Five Books that Made Me:

I read Alan Garner’s Elidor when I was eight, and it changed my life. It’s a book about family, about love, and about the threat of all you treasure being lost; it’s a book about another world seeping into the ‘real’ world, and how unsettling that can be. It features magic, mythology, sacrifice, and absolute bravery in the face of terrible odds – and it’s a book I still read at least once a year, because I always learn something new from it every time I read it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince is another book which I adore. Partly a fable, partly a story about the frightening reality of being trapped in a desert without hope of rescue, and mostly a story about love that transcends space and time, it’s a classic that everyone should read.

Orla Melling’s The Singing Stone is a book I read as a young teenager, and it meant a huge amount to me both then and now. It is a children’s book, but there aren’t any children in it; all the characters are teenagers or young adults. Somehow, that didn’t matter to me at all. A young woman travels from Canada to Ireland to find out who she is and where she comes from; a story which links her to the Tuatha de Danaan, the old gods of Ireland, ensues. It’s a magical, dreamlike tale which fed into my love of mythology and folklore.

Pat O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Morrigan is a book I first read when I was eleven, and I can read it with as much joy now as I did then. It’s about Pidge, his sister Brigit, and a ragtaggle cast of characters who seek to save Ireland, and the world, from the terrible power of Morrigan, the Great Queen, the three-faced Battle Goddess of Irish mythology. It’s brilliant. It’s hilarious. It’s also genuinely nail-bitingly scary in places. It’s one of the most important stories in the world to me.

And Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time is a book that captivated me when I was nine or ten. It sweeps from our universe to another; it takes in complicated ideas from science and astrophysics and somehow makes them seem perfectly simple; it has a very clever girl at its heart. It’s also about the power of love, and how that’s the most important force in existence.

With thanks to Sinead for her thoughts. To buy a copy of Sinead O’Hart’s debut book, click here

Children’s Mental Health Week

Children’s Mental Health week in the UK runs from February 5th to the 11th. One publisher has sent me a story specifically for this week, and there’s a gathering number of voices who are publishing books that speak to children’s mental health issues.

But reading any good narrative enables the reader to step into someone else’s shoes, to experience their story, and hence gain some empathy on another’s state of mind. But as well as that, some books relate more directly to the reader’s own experience – if the characters are going through a situation that they too are experiencing, the reader can see how the characters react. How do they deal with the darker side of life, how do they overcome their obstacles? In turn, the reader may review their own situation. The book may not offer a solution, but it can show readers another way of thinking about things, perhaps a different way through their dark time.

Someone asked me recently what comes first – if readers learn resilience through books, or if they come to certain darker books with resilience, enabling them to read the books without fear. It’s a tricky one. Some resilience is innate – there are children who accept scary books quite readily, others who approach them with horror, but some resilience is garnered through the reading of difficult situations and issues.

Most of all, books offer a safe space in which to experience the darkness of life, and also show how others perceive a similar darkness. Reading, funnily enough, can be less isolating.

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book
, illustrated by Quentin Blake
is a great example. Rosen wrote the book as a reaction to the death of his son – which is stated within the first few pages. But he also talks about a general sadness that can come over any of us at any time.

The book also explores ways in which Rosen tries to overcome some of the sadness, by thinking about good things he has done that make him proud, or remembering that other people are sad sometimes too. It’s good not to be alone. Talking through the sadness helps him as well.

This is a deservedly award-winning book, which prompts all kinds of emotions, both through the simplicity of the book, but also through Quentin Blake’s astonishingly emotive illustrations.

The book takes the reader through the different layers and types of sadness, from that which settles like a weight, to the sadness at the edges of the happiest things. Emotions are not isolated – they come in a tangled heap, sad with angry, sad with frustration, and sad with happy.

But most of all, this is not a book to which a child needs to bring their resilience. They will find it in the pages within. You can buy it here.

One newer book on the scene is Night Shift by Debi Gliori. This small formatted picture book is targeted at a teenage audience. Even its size and beautiful production (fabric cover) give away this book’s topic – depression can make you feel small, and anything that relieves it can be beautiful.

Gliori draws on her own experience of depression to illustrate this book, showing the illness in the form of a dragon in her charcoal-like illustrations. At first the dragon’s steam is a fog rolling in at night, but soon it pervades the day. Gliori highlights the physical effect of this mental illness in all its debilitating forms, but all beautifully drawn onto the normal day of a teen girl.

Gliori then goes on to highlight different ways in which the girl tries to rid herself of the feeling, from talking about it, drawing it, living with it. One of the most startling pages is the one in which she addresses the platitudes that are given to her: “chin up”.

There is a resolution at the end – her own way of finding a small beauty that helps the fog to lift, the dragon to fly away. As in Rosen’s book, it’s the skill of the simplicity of the language to convey the feeling, and the essence of sharing and hopefulness despite the darkness. You can buy one here.

Another starkly compelling and moving picture book is Small Things by Mel Tregonning, completed posthumously by Shaun Tan. The title is ironic of course – what the protagonist deals with here is not small at all. This wordless black and white graphic novel deals with one small boy’s misery at school – excluded from sports and friendships. His schoolwork is suffering too, and slowly the reader starts to see strange shapes and shadows that invade and penetrate the boy’s world. These take over, keeping the boy up at night, eating away at who he is.

The illustrations are painful to take in sometimes – the small boy’s sadness manifested in his large head and eyes, the anxiety and angst all too clear, the shapes and his disintegration fairly horrific. But when he shares his feelings with his sister and then confides in his parents, things start to change. Finally, he sees that he is not alone in the strange creatures – gradually, the boy sees that others have the shapes to deal with too, and so feel as he does and a bond is formed. It’s not a complete resolution, but a path forward.

The book comes from a place of pain, but the idea is that it provides solace to those who otherwise may not have reached out. Wordless, it screams louder than most. It’s available here.

The last book is the one sent to me by a publisher for this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week. It’s a book that aims to explore and teach mindfulness. Mind Hug: The First Story by Emily Arber and Vanessa Lovegrove shows a boy upset by the influx of noise inside his head, the buzziness of everyday life, but also the thoughts that can erupt from nowhere. Then his father shows him how to breathe and to dismiss the overcrowding. It doesn’t work at first go, but the boy tries again. In the end he shares it with a friend, who shares it again.

The idea, like mindfulness, is relatively simple, and the premise good. Unfortunately the text is a little all over the place, with some rhyming, some not, and a rhythm that comes and goes. You can buy it here.

But it’s not just picture books that bring awareness of mental health, and I’ve highlighted a couple of others here.

Like so many other ‘issues’, sometimes the best books are those that nudge a child towards the issue rather than focus the entire book on it. Flour Babies by Anne Fine is an excellent example – when the children in school have to look after their own ‘flour sacks’ as babies, and learn many things in the process. Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare talks about the difficult subject of parental depression all wrapped within a beautiful nature adventure story, Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho Yen and A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill also deal with depressive parents, but again, next to well-told stories. The protagonist in The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson has OCD, but the book reads as a mystery.

By opening up a book with a fictional cast of characters but with very real problems, it’s hoped that children can find a way through, discover a path they may not have thought of, see a light in the dark. Have a look at The Empathy Lab here, for more ideas.