middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

Summer 2019 Reading Recommendations

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

picture books

Picture books

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

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

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

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

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

young fiction

Young Fiction (ages 7-9 years)

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

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

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

middle grade

Middle Grade (Novels for 9+ years)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YA

YA (novels for 12+ years)

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

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

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

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

non fiction

Nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

Girl. Boy. Sea. by Chris Vick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Swarm: A Hal Strider Adventure by Tim Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jemima Small Versus the Universe by Tamsin Winter

jemima small versus the universeIs it Love Island that perpetuates the non-stop pre-occupation with looks, eating and fitness? Or the sense that Insta is feeding into our kids’ idea of their appearance and how they would want to change it? If feels as if children’s focus on body image is as strong as ever.

Neatly fitting into this zeitgeist is the latest offering from Tamsin Winter, author of Being Miss Nobody, (a top hit in my school library with the Year 6s, who adore its modern take on bullying and its consequences, and read it as a key text for transition into high school and Year 7). Winter’s new book, Jemima Small Versus the Universe, also takes the reader into secondary school, and deals with bullying, but with a different focus and a very different protagonist.

Jemima Small’s surname is a bit of a misnomer. She’s actually rather the opposite in terms of her brain – she’s super brainy and an expert at quiz questions and random facts, and her personality too is large and joyful – she has a wicked sense of humour and a zest for embracing life. But for most people, they see that the misnomer lies in her body size, something pointed out rather distinctly when her school forces her to join a healthy eating group at lunchtime.

The focus on Jemima’s weight ranges from the blatant bullying and name-calling at school and on the bus (not made any easier by the fact that she’s been asked to join the school’s fat club), but also from the not-so-subtle looks exchanged by strangers, the whispers by fellow customers in the pizza restaurant.

Winter pulls attention to it as well, showing Jemima’s discomfort at squeezing into a booth or a bus seat, her excessive sweating in the face of pressure, her embarrassment at trying on clothes (think swimming costumes), and her dread of the upcoming school camping trip. But perhaps the most excruciating moment in the novel is science teacher Mr Shaw’s bananometer, which is intended to demonstrate estimation – he wants to see how many bananas class 8N weighs, and therefore needs to weigh each child and convert the weight to bananas – writing each person’s on the board. When I read this scene, I thought it was fairly implausible, but then after talking to some pupils in Y7 and Y8, discovered that some teachers do the daftest, and sometimes most insensitive things. In the book, this scene is spectacularly cringy but superbly effective.

However, Winter doesn’t just concentrate on Jemima’s weight. In fact, much of the book is taken up with Jemima’s larger-than-life personality, and her intelligence and wit. But we see, as the book progresses, the ease with which someone’s confidence can be knocked. Jemima should be happy and outgoing, but gradually others’ bullying increases Jemima’s lack of confidence in her body, which leads to a lack of confidence in her whole self. She can’t be happy in herself. And when the school is asked to take part in a television show – the general knowledge quiz show Brainiacs – she should be an obvious candidate, but her worry about being on television because of her size dominates her thoughts.

Winter’s knack at drawing a complicated 13-year-old is evident throughout – Jemima’s sassiness is often crushed by bullies, and the reader feels every blow, every slight with her. Cleverly, it’s not just a black and white issue though – Jemima faces jibes from her older brother Jasper, but there’s a nuance therein, as Jasper is both supporter and tease – there’s a deep love and affection, even an admiration that comes across under the layers of mischief. Indeed, Jasper and Jemima share a bond in that their mother left them when they were young and when emotions about this come to the surface, they are definitely a team.

It is the support network behind Jemima that enables her to find her confidence, and feel happy in herself – her father, who also has a nuanced relationship with her weight, seeing his daughter’s positive sides and yet aware that maybe he needs to take some responsibility for his daughter’s fitness and eating habits, and also Gina, the ‘healthy body guru’ at school, who initially is viewed with suspicion, but carefully comes good with her positive energy. Jemima’s best friend Mika is a key supporter too – a good friend who consistently boosts Jemima’s confidence.

This isn’t a novel that preaches losing weight, but it subtly shows the benefits of a healthy mind and healthy body and that the two are neatly intertwined. It also cheers the celebration of intelligence and brains, and perseverance.

The book is obviously issue-based, but it is so much more than this. It celebrates being happy with who you are, with not being afraid to use your strengths, and seeing each individual shining brightly in their own field.

An accessible contemporary novel that feels both of the moment, and yet bigger than that too.

For ages 11+. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Usborne Publishers for the review copy.

Fashion Fun

With the Christian Dior and Mary Quant exhibitions at the V&A in London, and an increasing awareness of the dangers of disposable fashion, plus an appreciation of the ability of fashion to define an era, an identity, a personality, it feels timely to introduce the study of fashion and clothing to children. I have encouraged my children to learn to sew (something I never mastered), in the hope that they will mend and re-use, rather than succumb to the fashion pitfalls of wearing something only once. For those who prefer to indulge their fashion sense with reading, here are some stunning options – all beautifully produced as one would expect from a fashion book.

planet fashionPlanet Fashion: 100 Years of Fashion History by Natasha Slee and Cynthia Kittler is a large square book bursting with an exuberance and vitality that static pictures often can’t convey.

Here, the illustrations walk the clothes.

There are 25 scenes of fashion history from around the world, capturing the time and place of that moment, in chronological order throughout the book from 1890 to 2012.

The first scene shows a waltz in a ballroom in 1890 in the UK. The captions give a perfect flavour of the era, but also show how carefully the illustrations have been chosen and annotated – there is intense attention to detail within the book, including pointing out how the corset made a ‘pigeon breast’ shape, and how wide necklines accentuated the curve of the shoulder.

Just as every stitch counts in a dress, so every word has been carefully placed here. There is more too, from the hairstyles to the accessories, highlighting both men and women’s fashions.

The 1930s moves to Shanghai where the clothes tended to be figure-hugging with upright Mandarin collars. The scene highlights the street, a bustling metropolis featuring expats as well as residents, modes of transport, and even points to culture and politics in explaining about the movie stars in China, and the rise of the feminist movement.

Further in, readers can compare Bollywood with Hollywood, understand the effects of wartime on fashion, and begin to understand how fashion became a statement.

And at the back, there are some brilliant timelines, featuring moments of political, social and cultural significance as well as timelines dedicated to silhouettes, shoes and bags.

This book is a riot of colour, charm and clothes. A classy reference book for age 8+. You can buy it here.

wonderful world of clothesA younger, more straightforward look at clothes and their uses is The Wonderful World of Clothes by Emma Damon. Ordered completely differently, this is not a historical look at clothes, but a celebration of global fashion, showing cultural diversity, the future of technology in clothes, and the bits and bobs that may seem like trivia, but actually make an outfit.

Damon looks around the world to see what people wear in different climates and why. She then explores the clothes people wear to do different things – whether it’s uniform, sports clothes, equipment for a job, or for religious and celebratory purposes. This is fascinating, stemming from an underwater photographer to a Sikh wedding ceremony.

For me, the real fun came with Damon’s small vignettes about accessories, exploring different types of shoes (tiger slippers and brogues, for example) to jewellery and buttons (the satsuma button stood out, as did her clever instructions on how to wear a kimono and sari).

With bright personable illustrations, and an eclectic gathering of information, this is a unique and quirky book. Highly recommended for children aged 6+ years. You can buy it here.

midnight at moonstoneWhere better to go for clothes information than to Lara Flecker, who worked for 15 years as a Senior Textile Conservation Display Specialist at the aforementioned Victoria and Albert museum in London.

Midnight at Moonstone by Lara Flecker, illustrated by Trisha Krauss is an adventure novel for children aged eight and over, and takes the reader on a journey with Kit, who has gone to stay with her grandfather at Moonstone Manor, a costume museum threatened with closure.

Creative Kit decides she must save the museum, particularly after realising that the costumed mannequins come alive at night, and by persuading them to help under cover of darkness, and encouraging her grandfather that it is worth saving, Kit manages to pull off a feat of some imagination and skill.

With nods to the meaning of teamwork, family, and above all the wonder and usefulness of creativity, this is a marvellous novel.

Moreover, to fully celebrate the costumes, the book is illustrated throughout with modern scenes of Kit, but also the most exquisite capturing of the mannequins donning their costumes, from 18th century silks to Chinese dragon robes, 19th century bustle dresses and more.

Designed with French flaps, and patterned borders around the text, as much love has gone into the production of the book as the writing of it. This is a treasure to look at and read, so much so that I had to buy a finished copy after seeing just a few pages of the proof.

A wonderful paean to the inspiration of costume design and small museums everywhere. You can buy it here.

Anna at War by Helen Peters

Anna at war‘There aren’t too many of us left, and it would be a shame if our stories died with us.’

There is an abundance of adult’s and children’s books set during the Second World War. It’s a period of great interest to many people, and just about remains an era in living memory. However, as the last soldiers reach a very old age, and the last Holocaust survivors too, the valuable resource of living witnesses on whom we have so long relied for testament and truth, is whittling away. And it becomes even more important to cherish their memories, to hear survivors talk, to share their stories.

As someone who has worked on Holocaust books, I always approach those for children with trepidation. Will it warp the truth and tread dangerous ground, will it remain true to events, and will it represent what happened in a palatable way for children to comprehend? With true stories of shattering horror, this is always a difficult topic. But Helen Peters, with her extensive research, and able storytelling, has managed a book that both has a light touch and yet deals with a dark truth.

Apparently Peters came to write this  story about a Jewish girl on the Kindertransport by being inspired from a re-reading of Anne Frank, two survivors getting in touch with her husband, and also that she saw similarities in the plight of today’s refugees.

It’s always a puzzle why certain stories percolate in the mind of authors. Peters has no direct connection with any of the Kindertransport children, she isn’t Jewish herself, and after the controversy that still haunts (quite rightly) The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, a certain wariness might creep into novelists’ desire to tell the stories of others. In fact, Catherine Bruton, author of No Ballet Shoes in Syria, highlighted just this in a recent blogpost for Booktrust.

I have no fear of others telling the stories of the Kindertransport. Many survivors have now died of old age, and many are not able or willing to write down their stories in a way in which children can relate to them or understand them. So, instead of ‘appropriating’ the stories, I would suggest that Peters is giving voice to them for us – using her skill and aptitude for writing children’s books to bring one such story to life.

A story within a story, Anna at War begins in modern day Year 6, in which Daniel is learning about World War II in school, and decides to ask his granny about it, knowing that she came over from Germany before the war. Bringing the story to current children’s contemporary landscape is a clever pathway in.

The grandmother’s story, Anna’s, starts in Germany in November 1938 on Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass, in which the Nazis attacked Jewish people and properties in a night of violence. Fearing for her safety, Anna’s parents secure her a ticket on the Kindertransport, an organised rescue effort that took about 10,000 Jewish children to the UK and placed them in foster homes. Quite often, entire families the children left behind in Germany perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Peters doesn’t hold back with her description of Kristallnacht. Told from Anna’s point of view, the night is terrifying; a child’s fear for her teddy abandoned on the bed in front of a Nazi Stormtrooper, a mother’s unearthly scream, the silent disappearance of family members. And then the terrifying decision, taken by Anna’s parents, to send her away, not knowing what will happen to any of them. The descriptions of the parting, and Anna’s journey to the unknown is authentic, heart-rending and gripping – told from a child’s perspective there is fear, but, with parents removed, the children on the train step up to the responsibility of caring for each other – a kind of team spirit and camaraderie. And also, of course, the descriptions of food – so important to every child.

Once in England, Peters not only describes the newness of the English countryside to Anna (she is taken in by farmers), but also brilliantly takes on home life during the war with all its detail – mixing the humdrum of every day with war time changes. Describing the Home Front, Peters tackles not only food shortages, but the wariness of foreign spies, the feelings about German refugees, the fear of invasion when the Nazis get close – for even reading this with hindsight – the reader gets the impression of the Nazis invading country after country and coming nearer and nearer. Although this may seem horrifying, the text is just gentle enough that it remains a children’s adventure story – the everyday juxtaposed with the war, so that it is both removed and yet very close.

And here, Peters lets rip with Anna’s adventure story – working in conjunction with British intelligence. Within the darkest depths of her story – her sad plight, her desperation for her parents to join her, her bullying at school for being German – comes a hopefulness and light as Anna begins to work in secret for the British.

At all times, Anna is presented as a sympathetic and very real character, with layers of resilience and yet a fearsome compassion. The storytelling is deft – the reader always feels in the hands of a supremely confident writer. And the ending, when it comes, is both good and bad. There isn’t perfect happiness – there were few happy endings for Jewish children at the end of the war, but in this novel there is a hope for the future, an insight into the effect of an enormous global event on the individual, a humanising of the victims. A message of remembering with sadness, but letting the memory forge a better future.

Helen Peters has clearly done meticulous research to write this magnificent historical fiction, and every step feels real and immersive, even Anna’s grand adventure in England, which makes the novel zip along at some pace with its spy adventure. The parts that deal with the Jewish experience and the Kindertransport are sensitively and delicately handled, taken from real life experiences, and it is the voices of the actual Kindertransport who sound loudly throughout.

This is a highly readable, engrossing adventure story. For anyone approaching World War Two for children, this is a fresh modern take on a classic genre, and a book that should have longevity and win prizes.

You can buy it here. With thanks to Nosy Crow publishers for my advance proof copy. Recommended age 10+

The Dictionary of Difficult Words by Jane Solomon, illustrated by Louise Lockhart

dictionary of difficult wordsDo you want to be a sesquipedalian? Or perhaps a dabster at words? Maybe you watch Child Genius and marvel that the children can spell those long complicated words and yet you wonder what they mean and if Richard Osman is pronouncing them correctly? This delightfully packaged colourful book by lexicographer Jane Solomon aims to bring tough words to our attention, so that we can play with words, show off our knowledge, and win at scrabble.

In fact, although labelled as a dictionary ‘of difficult words’, that’s exactly what dictionaries used to be. Dictionaries didn’t begin life with Samuel Johnson, and they didn’t always contain a comprehensive list of all words in alphabetical order. The first dictionaries were word lists containing difficult words, usually adopted from other languages or about technical topics such as falconry for example, and people consulted them for difficult words that they hadn’t heard before.

And they didn’t necessarily have the pronunciation in them either. Luckily for us, Jane Solomon has included pronunciation too, so that the book can be read out loud from parent to child (without parent looking too stupid), or by the child themselves.

There are three types of words within the book. Words that an adult will probably know, and can elucidate for a young child, such as ogre and ombudsman. There are harder words that an adult will probably know but might find hard to define, such as paradigm, and then there are words that are really obscure, such as prestidigitation.

Each letter of the alphabet has about four pages of words and their definitions, although each is spread out with lots of space, and surrounded by wonderful full page illustrations, or just little illustrations next to the word – plethora is illustrated with a woman surrounded by more flying insects than one would want. Replica is accompanied by a full page image of an artist drawing a replica of the Mona Lisa.

The illustrations illuminate every page, and each letter tends to have its own colour palette – J is red and orange, and the style tends towards folksy, sometimes symbolic, but most of them are imbued with a wonderful sense of humour. ‘Jilt’ has a great illustration of a bride storming away, ‘juxtapose’ shows a girl in two types of weather.

The words included range across a spectrum of the parts of a sentence – adjectives and nouns mainly, with some verbs creeping in, and the words range across a huge number of subjects from science to the arts, types of animal to types of people, musical instruments, nature, and history.

This is fantastic for dipping into or reading right through. I’m determined not to show it to my children yet, until I’ve exhausted the x words in scrabble. There are also some wonderful notes at the beginning about the parts of speech, and how to work out what a word means and how to pronounce it, as well as some simple notes at the end about usage, and all written in a bouncy light tone, which feels friendly and yet still authoritative.

Personally, I am ebullient about this book, although haven’t reviewed it extemporaneously. Quite a frabjous book, and after reading it I can be grandiloquent in future, and quite a maven about the English language. For any age, but particularly 8+ years. Don’t be a mugwump – buy your own copy here.

The Dragon in the Library by Louie Stowell, illustrated by Davide Ortu

dragon in the libraryJames Daunt might be straddling the Atlantic by now being both Managing Director of Waterstones bookshop chain and newly appointed CEO of Barnes & Noble bookshop chain, but for those with an interest in books this side of the Atlantic, we seem to be getting something wrong.

The book market is going from strength to strength, but in these lean times of government cuts, the UK is pulling investment from libraries – those most important bastions of a civilised society.

In 2018, about 130 public libraries closed outright, whilst many others (as yet unnumbered) fell into voluntary hands with limited opening hours and services. Most recently children’s authors stepped in to protest against Essex County’s proposed closure of up to 44 libraries.

So it’s incredibly timely to read Louie Stowell’s excellent younger fiction novel, The Dragon in the Library, set in a library that is threatened with closure by a Simpsons’ Mr Burns-type villain, who wishes to turn the space into a shopping centre. He represents those who believe that economics rules over creativity and knowledge, and those for whom moneyed connections are deemed to be more important than empathy and curiosity. Who needs libraries, he says, when there is the Internet?

Our unlikely protagonist is Kit, a reluctant reader, who prefers climbing trees and getting messy outside to time spent inside, particularly in a library. But her two friends are desperate for the latest book in a series of books they are into, and they drag her along to the library. Once there, they stumble on a secret – the librarian is a wizard. What’s more, Kit herself seems to have magical powers, and the library is the most magical place of all.

Stowell goes to town on her magical tropes – there are librarian wizards, hidden creatures in secret stacks, portals from one magic place to another. Nowhere could be quite as exciting as the library, and she excels at extolling the absolute magic of reading and story – books literally take the reader into a different world. She also weaves a wonderful intertextuality in the book – for those who know their children’s literature there are nods to it all over the place from Ursula Le Guin to Baba Yaga to fairy tales and Harry Potter of course. There’s even a nod to the old trope of children drinking lemonade and eating something gingery (memories of Enid Blyton picnics come to the surface). Although the world-building of this magical structure of wizards and libraries seems a little confusing at first, it soon becomes apparent what’s at stake and why.

And it is the characterisation of the three children that makes the novel. Each child has his or her own attributes, goals and motivations, worries and anxieties. Kit and friends Alita and Josh feel very real, and support each  other in a wonderful triumvirate of camaraderie. Although Kit is the only wizard of the three, she’s the least ‘into’ books, and so it takes the help of her friends for her to be able to pursue her wizard path.

Faith Braithwaite is a wonderful role model of a wizard librarian and teacher/mentor to Kit. She is sassy and warm, modern and authoritative, understanding and knowledgeable, in essence, everything a librarian should be. Plus, in the times we live in, brave too.

So Stowell nods to our current preoccupations, not only in the fight for survival of the library, but also with dripped-in truisms about our modern obsessions with risk awareness, knowing what’s real and what isn’t, gender bias and diversity.

And cleverly, above all that, lies the essence of the novel, which is the celebration of the story behind the book. It is rare in a children’s book, particularly one set in a library, to have the protagonist as a reluctant reader, but here, although Kit hates reading aloud, and doesn’t particularly want to sit and read a book quietly either, Faith Braithwaite shows her the magic behind the book – the power of the story – the magic that’s contained within, especially when the reading is pleasurable and not graded or schooled in some way. How a story can teach and explore, delight and entertain, stimulate and encourage.

This is an exciting, pacey book for the 7-9 years (and beyond) readership, with superb neon packaging and a plethora of black and white illustrations throughout, which feel cartoonish and vivacious.

Oh, and there be dragons.

You can buy your copy here. Thanks to Nosy Crow for the review proof.

The Garden of Lost Secrets by AM Howell

garden of lost secretsThere’s a noticeable rediscovering of nature in current children’s books. It’s the theme of the moment, maybe inspired by the fact that today’s children spend less time outside, and certainly less time being wild than they used to, or perhaps because they have less awareness of where their food comes from, yet at the same time a creeping alarm over climate change and how nature can wreak havoc if not nurtured.

The Garden of Lost Secrets from debut author AM Howell takes the reader back to 1916, when World War I is wreaking havoc on the human population, and urban children were sent away from the cities after Zeppelin airships flew overhead. Twelve-year-old Clara is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Suffolk, not as a result of air raids, but rather because her father is convalescing after being gassed in the war.

Clara’s aunt and uncle are housekeeper and head gardener of an estate, living in a small cottage on the edge of the grounds. But rather than welcoming her kindly, her aunt in particular is austere and formidable, showing none of the kindness of her previous visits. What’s more, there’s a strange boy in the grounds at night-time, and an unopened letter from the War Office that Clara has intercepted in London and brought all the way with her.

As each day passes, more and more mysteries are presented, from the stealing of fruit from the gardens, to the appearance of mandarins in peculiar places, and a locked room in the house in which Clara is staying. Clara tries her best to be good, but the idea of solving the mysteries is too great a temptation to ignore, and before long her adventures are getting more than just herself into trouble.

This is a nostalgic, wonderfully atmospheric novel, taking the reader into a world in which, despite the war, children roam free, unhindered by parents and school, and everyday delights are simply the exploration of a large manor house’s grounds and greenhouses. Inspired by the real diaries from a 100 years ago of a gardener at Ickworth House in Suffolk, AM Howell has created a detailed, authentic imaginary tale.

The characterisation is spot on – from her pinafore to her small disobediences, Clara feels wholly from 1916; her head is consumed with worry for her family, but her heart is set on making everyone happy, and the reader is plunged inside her head, privy to all her thoughts. The secondary characters are equally well-drawn, with the layers of society firmly in place, the staff and their duties, the soldiers exercising in the woods nearby, and the ever-present over-arching fear about the war that consumes everyone, from the distance noise of gunfire to the threat of Zeppelins.

An abundance of period detail, including the cultivation of exotic fruits (pineapples) in hothouses, the damp coal cellars, and the features of the town, all transport the reader firmly to 1916, and open up a world of England on the home front, seen from a child’s perspective. There’s both knowledge, and yet still a profound innocence.

There is definitely a classic feel to this book, bringing to mind such greats as Tom’s Midnight Garden, although The Garden of Lost Secrets has a modern bent with its themes of the natural world, child sleuthing, and bravery. It is far pacier than The Secret Garden and other Edwardian literature, layering questions and mysteries in each short chapter, and only revealing the depths of the secrets near the end. With fresh modern writing, a sublime use of simile where needed, and extolling the virtues of the power of true friendship, this is an excellent new children’s novel, which is both gripping and fun.

For children aged 8+ years. You can buy it here. With thanks to Usborne for the review copy.

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

good thievesFairy tales were often told as warnings or instructions on how to behave. Don’t play with the forbidden spinning wheel, don’t wander alone through the dangerous woods (even if you’re wearing a bright red cape), don’t break into someone else’s house and eat their porridge… Today’s tales are different. Children can do naughty, even bad things, if they are fighting evil or battling for the greater good. In essence, they can be good thieves – not good at thieving (although that too), but both good and a thief.

Set during the Prohibition in New York, during the 1920s, Vita (meaning life itself), has come over from England with her mother in order to set her grandfather’s affairs in order so that he can return home with them. It turns out, he has been cheated out of the ancestral home by an unscrupulous villain, Victor Sorrotore. Whereas her mother is all for signing paperwork and leaving swiftly, Vita is determined to win the house back for her grandfather, and recruits a pickpocket, and two apprentice circus performers to help her.

Set in a time well before house alarms and mobile phones, when picking locks is an asset for any thief, and children are left to their own devices, Rundell cleverly weaves period detail into her heist novel. Bootleggers and speakeasies, beautiful brownstone buildings and the intricacies of Carnegie Hall, as well as the specific grid system of New York, all provide a compelling and different backdrop for her children’s novel. And gender and race attitudes of the time are dropped into the story with deft awareness.

But it is the characters who win over the reader. They are bold and brave and keen to make their mark upon the world, always active, strong and memorable, but above all passionate about something, whether it be finding an emerald long since hidden in the ancestral house, or pursuing their vision of their future circus act, or simply surviving the mean streets of 1920s New York. They are fierce in their love for those they care about, and inspire a fierce loyalty from the reader.

Vita is slowed in movement by an episode of polio when younger, (a limp), and this hampers her throughout, although Rundell is keen to show the other children’s compassion, yet not pity for her. Vita is also a determined child with distinct attributes, which Rundell brings to life with little touches – Vita has ‘six kinds of smile, and five of them were real’, and she owns a supremely active way of thinking about things – Vita wears ‘a skirt you can kick in’.

Vita’s accomplices are well-drawn too, most particularly the circus apprentices, and this is where the story picks up zest and flair. Flying through the air, being an escape artist, understanding animals or throwing knives are all prized skills in both the ring and in life itself, and Rundell imbues her descriptions with colour and artistry, bringing the acts and performers to life.

As always, Rundell’s writing is swift and breathless, propelling the reader through the text like a glider through air, swooping and diving in and out of the plot, with short paragraphs and snippy dialogue. She uses simile and metaphor with the precision of a knife thrower. She cuts through excess, landing each word with specificity and wisdom. It is this apparent confident knowledge of the world, of higher truths, such as that ‘sometimes it was sensible not to be sensible,’ which gives her text its gravitas in the middle of scintillating storytelling.

With themes of loyalty and friendship, righting wrongs and clever thinking, this is a smart, pacey heist novel, with an inherent sense of wit throughout. Reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives in its wise way of children working together and outwitting evil adults, yet with the Rundell idiosyncrasies that mark her stories as being a cut above the rest. A must read. For 8+ years.

The Good Thieves publishes on Thursday 13th June, and you can pre-order it here. With special thanks to Jade at Bloomsbury Publishing for my review copy.