middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

The Secret Starling by Judith Eagle, illustrations by Kim Geyer

the secret starlingSetting is of great importance in most literature, and at first I read The Secret Starling with confusion, then with compulsion and ultimately joy.

The story begins with Clara, being raised with a strict routine under the watchful eyes of a series of governesses hired by her generally neglectful and uncaring uncle, in Braithwaite Manor, a place seemingly disintegrating before her eyes. Artefacts disappear, the grounds are unkempt, and food seems scarce – Cook making do with basic ingredients.

Braithwaite Manor seems extraordinarily reminiscent of Misslethwaite Manor from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which Eagle even refers to within the text, explaining how it is Clara’s favourite book, although there is no secret garden at Braithwaite. Indeed, the metaphor of Misslethwaite Manor is extended here too. There is no potential for growth at Braithwaite (indicated by the lack of secret garden), but both houses are gloomy, shut up, disused, representative of repression or stifled creativity, and the moors in both represent wild freedom.

However, Clara’s uncle grants her this freedom early on, depositing her in the nearby village, and abandoning her to her own devices. It was at this point that I realised the book wasn’t set in some Edwardian era, as The Secret Garden, but is in fact, set in the 1970s, clues being Clara’s shiny fifty pence piece gifted by Cook, the general modernity of the village, and the Queen on the throne.

Clara is joined by Peter, who feels far more up-to-date, a modern child raised in London who is street-savvy and wordly-wise. He is visiting from London, where he lives with his adoptive grandmother in a tower block. Together, Clara and Peter at first make the most of having a manor house to play in without adults, before realising that there is a mystery in the heart of their story – and they set off to London to discover why Clara’s uncle is selling the house, why he’s abandoned her, and what the whole story has to do with Clara’s mother and a ballet shoe.

Before long, this intertextualised novel turns into the most exciting chase to undercover a deeper mystery, involving searching a library for old newspapers, riding the underground, meeting Nureyev, the famous ballet dancer, and outwitting and escaping from the most dastardly villains – good old-fashioned types with no scruples and definitely people who care nothing for child welfare!

The conclusion is satisfyingly old-school too – identities uncovered, new relationships formed, and a definite nod to Noel Streatfield and the canon of children’s literature. However, as well as these nods to those that have gone before her, Judith Eagle brings a lovely modern sensibility to her fiction. Peter, in particular, is independent and resilient, although his knowledge and freedom of getting round London on his own does perhaps speak more to the 1970’s London child than today’s.

The objects and places that root this book in the 1970s will feel terribly old-fashioned to today’s young reader, although of course quite familiar to the older reader reviewer! What at first seemed like an Edwardian children’s book to me, then transpired to be from the 1970s, shows that perhaps society has changed exponentially from the 1970s to now, and that the 1970s feel closer to 1910 than they do to 2019.

In Eagle’s fictional world, nothing and nobody is as they seem to Clara, and she has to learn whom to trust, and delve into her own knowledge and past to discover who she really is. In the end though, no matter what era the children are living through, the same attributes hold inherent value: truth, love and loyalty.

This is a cracking pacey novel, written with assurance and with a distinct nod to classic children’s literature. Suggest for age 9+. You can buy it here.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

no ballet shoes in syriaOne of the most important skills reading teaches us, albeit subliminally most of the time, is that age-old question: ‘What must it feel like to be you?’, or ‘empathy’. The word empathy stems from the Ancient Greek, em – in, pathos – feeling. In fact, our usage of the word has increased, in particular from the 1950’s onwards. This is interesting, as most people might feel that in recent years our feelings of empathy have waned.

Because of course, as our world becomes more global, our acceptance of others seems to decline. Despite the fact that our high streets look the same, we drink the same brands, own the same clothes and do the same jobs, we keep recognising and highlighting our differences. Sometimes recognising difference is good, but when used against people, it is not. Identity politics has never seemed such a loaded term. Setting us straight, is this insightful and winning new novel from Catherine Bruton, No Ballet Shoes in Syria.

Eleven-year-old Aya could live anywhere. She has a father and mother, a little brother, and a huge passion for ballet, which she learns under the tutelage of Madame Belova in her dance studio near home. However, that’s Aya’s previous life. In Aleppo. Since the war, she has had to flee, and the reader meets her as she seeks asylum in Britain. When she stumbles across a ballet class in the community centre in which her family is seeking help with their asylum application, the instructor recognises her talent, and her situation. Before long, Aya is fighting for a ballet scholarship, a place in Britain, and contact with her lost father. Luckily for her, she has more than one empathetic English resident on her side.

This nuanced gentle portrayal of a young Syrian girl is a fantastic read and an eye-opening book. Bruton successfully shows her roundedness and that of the characters around her. Aya has had to take over and assume a great deal of adult responsibility in the wake of her mother’s traumatised state – the loss of Aya’s father and the journey has been too much. Aya takes great care of her baby brother Moosa, fights for their rights, and also tries to navigate the delicate balance of still being a child, and adapting to life in a foreign country.

The girls in the ballet class are also beautifully brought to life, but play a very distinct role within the novel. It is their attitudes (and changing attitudes) to Aya that inform the reader and will start to pose questions in the reader’s mind. Here, with their youth and naivety making them susceptible both to what they’ve been told by elders, but also making them more open to Aya, they come to discover the differences between refugees and asylum seekers, but also come to understand the cyclical role of history through their ballet teacher, Miss Helena.

Aya’s situation calls to mind Miss Helena’s own past – her own refugee status in the Second World War, as she fled Nazi Germany and found a home in England. Her experiences, although very different from Ava’s, show how time moves on, but the same wounds are inflicted. By that token though the same wrongs can be corrected – through kindness and empathy:

“Perhaps if history was always repeating itself – wars and families fleeing their homes; persecution, refugees – then other stories recurred too: stories of kindness, sacrifice, generosity.”

Through this very stark quote, Bruton also pulls the reader into the stories that have preceded No Ballet Shoes in Syria, and those to which she refers in her introduction – Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, the books of Lorna Hill and Pamela Brown and many more.

Alongside Aya’s gradual acceptance into the ballet class, Bruton flashbacks through Aya’s journey from Syria to Britain – interlaying the text with memories. This slow revealing of Aya’s past is like the slow learning of friendship – a gentle discovery of the other person, helping us to know and understand what they have been through, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

At the same time as the reader’s growing awareness of Aya’s past, Aya slowly learns about the country she’s come to – the accents, the food, the different ways the children live and behave, and also the similarities – in particular the global language of dance.

But perhaps my favourite element of the novel is the idea of community. It is not carelessness that sets the world of form-filling and yet also ballet classes within a community centre. Bruton cleverly shows the reader all the different forms of community that exist, and how useful they are for us as human beings to reach across the divide. The community of asylum seekers themselves, helping and looking out for each other, and slowly replacing the community they have lost in leaving home. The community of ballet dancers, all helping each other to improve and succeed. The community of global dance – the fact that Miss Helena recognises and knows about Aya’s dance teacher from Syria. And of course, the global community of human beings and how by recognising ourselves in each other, we can come together and accept and invite difference.

To assuage any fears about getting Aya’s voice wrong, Bruton took the opportunity to work with Bath welcomes Refugees and Bristol Refugee Rights in the writing of the book and her research sparkles throughout. She’s also the alter ego of Cate Shearwater, the author of Somersaults and Dreams, and her ability to see dance, creativity, and sport as outlets of expression and emotion are very apparent.

The book is published on 2nd May and you can pre-order and buy this story of hope here.

Cloud Boy by Marcia Williams

cloud boyWhat makes a children’s book good? In Edwardian times, critics might have been concerned with the imparting of morality within the text. These moral instructions can still be valid – does a book show the reader how to be socially conscious, perhaps about discrimination, difference or the environment? Or perhaps it’s about psychological improvement – teaching a child about empathy, imagination, making them happy? Helping that child to identify with someone different, or to see themselves mirrored within the story, to validate their identity and their difficulties, to reinforce the self.

But above all, it’s about believable character and good story.

Experienced author Marcia Williams imparts knowledge – this time about some little-known history – in Cloud Boy, and provokes psychological conscientiousness by showing children how to overcome deep adversity, but she has also created a thoroughly authentic main character within an accessible, gripping text.

The book is written in a child’s diary format, which gives the text an absolute simplicity and makes it easy to read. Angie keeps a diary about her life and her friendship with Harry, the boy who lives next door. Together, their fathers have built them a treehouse, which straddles the two children’s gardens, and serves a purpose for them both – a place for Angie to draw and write, and a place for Harry to watch the clouds – he’s an expert in identifying the different formations.

When Angie’s grandmother comes to stay, she shares with the children the letters she wrote as a prisoner of war during Japan’s occupation of Singapore. Drawing on a survivor’s tales of life in the Changi Prison during the Second World War, Williams blends the two stories – the modern children and the tragedy that strikes them, and the history of the Guides in the Changi Prison, and how they sewed quilts to pass the time and create a symbol of hope and endurance.

There is a poignant naivety to Angie’s writing, as she struggles to comprehend how sick Harry is becoming, whilst the reader is all too aware. The stabilising force of her grandmother, who has endured hardships unimaginable to our modern sensibility, enables Angie and Harry to find coping mechanisms to face their own adversity. Like other modern children’s books, the growing awareness of inter-generational relationships and their intense value is well documented here, as grandmothers in literature become more than silver-hair-bunned figures knitting in rocking chairs.

The children’s eagerness to hear their grandmother’s history speaks to the need within us all for a knowledge of our ancestry and identity, but also provides a framework for learning about resilience. All the while, the treehouse represents a place of calm and safety, of independence, as Angie has to learn to deal with her emotions. A treehouse also provides the ability to see things from a different perspective – gazing at the clouds or perhaps on the people below. The careful positioning of it in this novel gives the children a physical structure in which to cement their friendship.

But readers should beware – at times the cruel adversity written about seems much more advanced and harsher than the level implied by the simplicity of the vocabulary and ease of the text. The brevity may suit reluctant readers but there is immense depth in the emotion portrayed – and this is one of Williams’ strengths – she easily portrays Angie’s difficulty in dealing with her strong emotions, and shows incredible pathos in her depiction of Harry’s mother. This is not an easy read in terms of subject matter, but it is worth acknowledging that not all children’s books can be filled with happy endings – not everything does end happily. However, there are glimpses of hope and optimism, and the possibility of how life continues despite the adversity faced.

Williams has woven her own gem here, inspired by an exhibition at the V&A Museum in London, and a glimpse of a Changi quilt – a single object of love and endurance. It’s a fascinating piece of social history, and well worth exploring. You can buy a copy here.

CBA: The Storm Keeper’s Island, A Q&A with Catherine Doyle

It came as no surprise to me that children shortlisted The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle as one of their top three books for older children this year in the Children’s Book Awards. One of the most beautifully written children’s books in recent times, Doyle mixes the magic of everyday children’s lives with the ancient magical legends of the island of Arranmore (off Ireland) in a gripping, dark, bold and imaginative story that is about hope and courage, family love, and memories. Most importantly, there is a wonderful humour blended within the text, striated throughout like the swirls in candle wax, and storytelling as strong as the wildest storm.

It tells the story of 11-year-old Fionn Boyle, worrying about his ill mother, his deceased father and his annoying older sister, and transported for the summer onto his grandfather’s island. All is not as it seems, and there is magic within. Doyle is a master at describing bickering siblings, the taste of a summer ice cream, and modern sensibilities, whilst also contrasting with a setting that comes alive with an ancient magic.

I’m delighted that Catherine has taken the time to answer my questions.

The book is set on the island of Arranmore, a real island, which you’ve imbued with magic. The island feels very real the way you’ve described it – particularly as Fionn approaches it on the ferry. Does familiarity help you write a setting? Did you write the book while on Arranmore?

Arranmore Island is the place where my grandparents were born, grew up and fell in love. It holds the beginning of their story, as well as those of my many sea-faring ancestors, so it has always occupied a very special place in my heart. Arranmore has been such a huge character in my own life, I’m not surprised that it naturally assumed a similar position in Fionn’s story.

I began writing The Storm Keeper’s Island after spending a week on Arranmore. I explored the sheer cliffs and hidden lakes, the secret Sea Caves and the towering cliff steps as well as the houses where my grandparents were born and the beaches where they played as children. That week was the closest to real magic I have ever come.  I was so inspired by the rugged landscape and the wild Atlantic Ocean, as well as the enchanting experience of walking in my ancestor’s footsteps, that I immediately began writing about it when I got home. When I started, I couldn’t stop!

One of the most delightful and humorous aspects of the book is the sibling relationship between Fionn and his older sister Tara. Did you draw this from your own experiences?

This dynamic was very much inspired by my relationship with my brothers when we were younger. In fact, when my younger brother Conor read the book last year, he called me to say how delighted he was that I had based the main character Fionn on him. He had come to this conclusion because of what he described as the ‘striking similarities’ between Tara’s attitude and my own attitude at 13 years old! I like to think that when it comes to sibling relationships, some days you’re the Fionn and some days you’re the Tara.

Early on in the novel, there’s a wonderful scene of the children eating ice-creams – one of the best descriptions of devouring a Twister, Magnum and Calippo. Did you try them all out as research? And seriously, how much research did you need to do into the Irish legends in The Storm Keeper’s Island?

I took this scene very seriously, because going to the corner shop to buy an ice-cream was a very important ritual of my childhood. I picked the ones that my brothers and I used to choose every Sunday after mass. I haven’t eaten a Twister in years, but I can still vividly remember what it tastes like!

Growing up in Ireland, my childhood was steeped in Irish myths, so I started out with a pretty solid level of knowledge about all things Dagda and beyond. From there, it was just about choosing the legends that I loved the most, researching them properly, and then finding a way to weave them into Fionn’s tale.

The device for revisiting the past in Arranmore is candle wax – a clever idea as it is transient, and the swirling of the coloured wax is like the memories themselves, slippery and abstract. Where did this idea come from?

I moved to Dublin from the West of Ireland for a stint a few years ago, and I remember really struggling to write in my new surroundings. I missed being near the sea, and felt claustrophobic being cooped up in a much busier, city area. As a way to help with this, my mom bought me a candle called ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’, and told me to burn it whenever I wanted to write. This idea was met with great scepticism on my part, but to my surprise (and delight), when I finally did light the candle, it filled my bedroom with the unmistakeable scent of sea air. Immediately, I was transported back to the Salthill promenade in Galway, and my creativity kicked straight into gear. There was a kind of magic in it, so I tucked the idea away. When I started writing The Storm Keeper’s Island, I knew I had the right story for that particular device.

The use of memory is key in the book, as the grandfather is beginning to lose his. How important is it for you to portray grandparent/grandchild relationships in children’s literature?

I think the grandparent/grandchild relationship can be one of the most formative and important relationships in a child’s life. There’s just something so special about it. Having enjoyed a wonderful bond with my grandfather growing up, I felt it was important to explore it in The Storm Keeper’s Island. I have also experienced the sadness and confusion that comes with the onset of dementia in a grandparent. I wanted to explore this aspect in Fionn’s story, but not in a melancholic way. It was important for me to write about a grandfather who lives with memory loss but is not defined by it, a man who is still the sum of his experiences despite his inability to sometimes recall them. I wanted to write about hope, instead of despair, and portray the love between a grandfather and grandchild as one that will always anchor you no matter the changing tides of memory.

Another element in the novel is the island breathing. It inhales as Fionn time travels. How do you write the magical elements – do they occur to you mid-stream or do you pre-plan these markers for the reader?

The island’s actions occur organically mid-stream. It sounds peculiar to say, but I wasn’t even expecting the first exhale until it came out on the page. Up until that point, I wasn’t intending to make the island its own character, but as I was writing, it just felt entirely natural.

You’ve previously written a YA mafia romance trilogy. Was writing this very different?

Writing The Storm Keeper’s Island was a truly magical experience. It poured out of me, in a way that I’ve never quite experienced before with any book. There was something so freeing about being able to write magic that was big and grand and rippling with adventure. My YA books were darker and more serious, and had to be handled with a slightly different level of care. The process of including humour and emotional development was quite a similar experience, despite the different genres, however, and one I always thoroughly enjoy as an author.

How do you feel about being shortlisted for the FCBG Children’s Book Award, voted for entirely by children?

I squealed with delight when I found out! It is an incredibly special feeling to know that The Storm Keeper’s Island has been embraced by children. That not only are they enjoying it, but they’re voting for it. There really is no other word for it – it really is a dream come true.

Lastly, is there a second Arranmore book coming?

The sequel, The Lost Tide Warriors, will be out on July 11th, and I cannot wait to share it with everyone!


Good luck to Catherine Doyle for the Children’s Book Award. You can add your voice to the mix by voting here. The winners’ ceremony is on 8th June in London and the CBA are giving away a pair of tickets to the ceremony to one lucky voter and their carer. 

The Middler: Exploring birth order in dystopia

the middlerDoes birth order affect one’s personality? One’s success? There have been numerous scientific studies aiming to explore the effect of being a firstborn or a middle child or the youngest, and also of course an ‘only’. Even in The Bible, the firstborn inherited double that of other siblings, and was the new head of the household. Our royal family decide the line of succession by order of birth. Studies have shown that US presidents and science nobel laureates have been overwhelmingly first-borns, as were 21 of the first 23 NASA astronauts. But Charles Darwin, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King Jr, Bill Gates are all middle children. Does it really have a bearing on personalities, achievements, or is it down to parenting? Or nature?

Kirsty Applebaum has written a fascinating dystopian novel for children based around this very premise, that birth order dictates one’s role in a society. In her timeless setting, communities live in closed villages, and the firstborn is revered and idolised for fourteen years until each is sent away on the important mission of fighting in the Quiet War (never to return).   

Told from the point of view of a Middler, eleven-year-old Maggie resents the lack of expectations on her simply because she was born second in her family. But then she meets a wanderer – a girl who is living outside of the village boundary, a person whom Maggie has been warned against  – wanderers are ‘dirty’ and outside of civilised society. But gradually Maggie strikes up a friendship with wanderer Una, and before long she is questioning authority and the way of life she’s been used to.

Reminiscent of The Giver by Lois Lowry, Maggie is a strong-willed character who is willing to push against the physical and psychological boundaries placed around her – sensing that not all barriers between places and people are strictly necessary. Like Maggie Tulliver in Mill on the Floss, who subverts gender expectations by racing ahead of her big brother, Maggie here subverts expectations of her birth order, and goes against established duties and rules to summon her instincts and pursue what she feels to be right. She shows compassion and understanding for the wanderers, and a sense that all she has been taught about The Quiet War might not be completely true.  

Applebaum neatly explores what it is like for a child to test boundaries, to realise that authority is not always correct and that what she and the village are being fed is propaganda not truth. But at the same time, understanding the sense of disquiet going against the grain creates, and how difficult it is for a child (particularly a middler) to push against accepted rules and customs.

The book feels fresh and timeless, and speaks to our current zeitgeist of children standing up and questioning ‘received truth’, and then making a difference in the world. Here, Kirsty Applebaum explores the role of birth order in writing her novel:

Kirsty Applebaum: pic credit Donna Slater

It’s said that middle children often feel overlooked and unimportant – and Maggie Cruise is no different. She lives in an isolated community where only the eldest children are considered brave and special – like her older brother Jed. And her younger brother, Trig, is sweet and vulnerable – people can’t help but love him. So Maggie’s pretty fed up with being in the middle.

When I first began The Middler, I wrote from the viewpoint of an eldest child. The book was completely different, with a different title – and it wasn’t working. Then, in a flash of inspiration, I remembered an exercise I was given at school, to re-write a Greek myth from a particular character’s point of view. It was The Judgement of Paris. I chose the messenger Hermes, tasked with escorting three goddesses to the mortal Paris, so he could judge which one he thought the most beautiful. But afterwards, I realised I’d missed an opportunity – I should have chosen one of the losing goddesses. Surely they were the most interesting characters – the ones who lost out, the ones on the sidelines? I was annoyed with myself for weeks.

I decided to change my novel to the viewpoint of the middle child – the one who’s not special or brave or heroic. I re-wrote the opening lines, and The Middler sprang to life.

Maggie, though, is based very much upon myself – and I’m not a middler. But I often felt overlooked and unimportant, in spite of a happy childhood. Could it be that we all feel these same things to a greater or lesser degree? Eldests, youngests and middlers alike – and single children too? That we’re not always special? That we’re on the sidelines sometimes?

The good news is, from my conversations with friends and their children, many middlers find a lot to like about their position in the family. There’s nearly always someone to play with, for example. And a middler can be their ‘older self’ or their ‘younger self’, depending on how the mood takes them, and still have a suitable buddy to join them.

In The Middler, Maggie finds the brave, special hero that was inside her all along, ending up proud to be a middler. I hope all children can relate to her, regardless of their birth order, and be inspired to live as the courageous, unique person they already are inside.

With thanks to Kirsty Applebaum for her guest post. You can buy a copy of The Middler here.

Influences and Goblins

gribblebobsAcquired in open submission by Pushkin Press, this is a rather extraordinary little story. Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins by David Ashby is a quirky tale with short chapters and a plethora of weird and wonderful characters.

On an ordinary Wednesday, siblings Nils and Anna come across a goblin called Gribblebob. He is walking an invisible dog (who becomes visible upon being fed), and chasing after a book. As the book’s text magically transfers to Nils’ hand (rather like a Kindle on the skin), Gribblebob explains to the children that he comes from the other side of the veil, where magical creatures prevail, including goblins, fairies and more. But other characters have also broken the veil, and the children must race against time to clear Nils’ hand and save some books from an evil witch.

At first the adventure feels rather as if Enid Blyton had come back to life and penned another tale in her Magic Faraway Tree stories. The characters bear the same irritabilities and undergo strange unbelievable happenings. In fact, the goblin Gribblebob is hugely Blyton-esque, and enjoyable, mixing up his words and inventing new ones, or slightly mishearing old ones. My favourite is his description of humans as ‘thumbjammers’, jabbing at their phones constantly, or ‘pre-slicely’ for ‘precisely’.

But before long it becomes apparent that there is more than one influence to this story. It goes rather dark at times, despite the easy to read text, and the dangerous and scary ‘ripriders’ feel like Harry Potter dementors – screeching spirits that are overcome only by love. More allusions to folk and children’s literature abound, including a librarian who isn’t as she seems, binding names in a book, and the veil – the conceit of two different worlds that meet in an ordinary place (a playground here), but which can’t be seen by the naked eye.

But for many readers, and writers, the trope of having books as the essential magical element gives a whole other layer of meaning to the reading experience, and with the book-decorated cover, the action in the library, language and attributing names being so important, and the magic of books inside, this is a lovely little paean to children’s literature.

However, there’s more to it, as David Ashby explains – it certainly isn’t just English literature heritage that oozes throughout the story:

Somewhat surprisingly, I find myself living in Sweden these days.  I’ve been here since 2002, and I suppose I should be used to it, but some mornings I wake up, turn on the radio and wonder why people are talking in that strange language before I remember, “Oh yeah, I live here now.”

In lots of ways Sweden and the UK are very similar, just very subtle differences.  In Brighton I would cross my fingers for luck, here in Stockholm I have to hold my thumbs.  So the luck remains in the hands, but just different areas.  Back in the UK I would have let a sleeping dog lie, but here in Sweden it’s the bear that I don’t wake up.  So, very similar.

It’s the same with the fairy tales and legends and myths.  A lot of them are the same, but some have their own special Nordic twist, and some of them were new to me.  In Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins the big villain is the Queen of Nightmares, Mara, The Rider.  Now, I had never heard of her, but it’s fascinating that the English word “nightmare” relates so strongly to her.  She comes along and rides your chest while you dream, and makes sure that the dreams are less than pleasant.  The “mare” in “nightmare” is obviously linked to the Swedish “mara”, and the Swedish word for “nightmare” is “mardröm”, literally a “mara dream”.  I love all these little links and connections!  It really makes you realise how much we all have in common, and how we share a heritage of tales and myths.

Another one of my favourite Nordic fairy tale characters is “Kykogrim” which translates as “Church Grim”, a guardian spirit that keeps watch over a church.  I’d love to write something around that sometime.

There’s a fantastic set of books by Johan Egerkrans where he has collected and illustrated loads of Scandinavian monsters, spirits, gods and so on.  Well worth a look!

It seems that influences lie everywhere. To buy yourself a copy of Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins by David Ashby, click here.

Reading Brexit for Kids: Outwalkers

outwalkersAt the end of last week, someone wrote on twitter about how unproductive she’d been. As with many of us, she had been consumed with checking the news every few minutes for the latest in the Brexit debacle, although at the same time rueing the fact that it was so all-consuming, when really there were so many more important issues on which to concentrate the mind.

So it was with full fervour that I threw myself into the latest read from David Fickling Books after being promised by their publicity agent that it was a post-Brexit novel for children. Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw is indeed a post-Brexit novel, dystopian and political, with a warning that makes you realise we are only a few steps from our own dystopia. Or are we living it already?

Outwalkers imagines a time long after Brexit in which England has closed its borders, following the mass murder of the ‘Faith Bombings’, and imposed a wall between itself and Scotland (now an entirely independent country). What’s more, individuals are chipped to enable government tracking and citizen identification, and there are clear distinctions in the way different classes are treated – those whose microchips enable them to enter John Lewis, as opposed to entering the foodbanks, for example. On the good side, citizens are looked after and protected, the propaganda says.

In this mix, the reader is introduced to twelve-year-old Jake, currently in a state-sponsored Home Academy after his parents die in a car accident. He escapes this prison-like institution to find his dog, Jet, and plans to flee England (it is illegal to leave the country) to join his grandparents in Scotland. Before long, he meets a group calling themselves Outwalkers, also bound for the border for various reasons, and all self-de-chipped. But as their journey progresses, they become more and more important for the government to find, and more entrenched in danger.

Shaw has created a thrilling read, essentially a chase novel through England – and it’s her details that bring it to life both politically and visually. The scenes in John Lewis and in the London Underground, particularly the visit to the postal museum in Kings Cross, are superbly rendered, as is the use of the Angel of the North as a rather battered landmark. More than this, she delves into the future with old posters for ‘Brexit the Musical’, and endless Star Wars sequels, as well as the constant news streaming, and of course citizen tracking.

The message behind the book is definitely anti-Brexit: that closing the borders is short-sighted, insular and ultimately devastating for the people inside, but it really pushes its message about the loss of democracy. Although England is ruled by the ‘Coalition’ in government, a seemingly harmless and democratic-sounding compromise government, they actually work more like a dictatorship, duping their people and ruling behind a veil of secrecy. There’s commentary on ‘group’ rule too – or perhaps on our current government cabinet and the whip:

“But when it’s something that’s really wrong, really terrible: then I don’t think there’s any excuse. Doesn’t matter if someone else orders you. Doesn’t matter if your team all agree.”

The group of Outwalkers are well-delineated and strikingly different from each other. At the beginning they induct Jake into the group by asking him for his contributing skill, but it soon becomes apparent that they have different hidden skills too – not just the obvious of navigation, climbing, cooking etc. Some are empathetic, some nurturing of the little ones, some motivational, others optimistic. All are brave and savvy, and it is this courageousness and loyalty to each other that sees them through. In a society in which people are encouraged to spy and report on each other, this ancient attribute of loyalty and love is particularly poignant, and these attributes grow with the novel so that by the end the reader is fully invested in both the chase but also the fate of each individual.

Shaw also delves hard into the idea of class – something so inherently British – and, in the novel, so divisive. There are the forgotten people – lowlifers – who dwell mostly underground, away from prying government eyes – and there is a futility in their existence, and yet heartrending humanity. Implicit in the novel is a clear message of how we treat others dependent on who they are – something as simple as the sound of a ‘posh’ voice has different consequences from those without that accent, and the amount of money people have and their standard of living makes a huge difference to their societal choices. The privileged work high up in the government, and remain privileged.

So, yes, Outwalkers feels very much of its time – a Brexit novel for children. But as with the government in the novel, this is a skewed view. And this view veers massively towards Remain. There is little nuance, and far too much unexplained at the end of the novel. There’s no examination of right or wrong – the morality is very straightforward.

Some critics have complained that the harshness of the dystopian society Shaw has created feels out of kilter with the normality and sanity of the people depicted, but judging by past oppressive regimes, what’s happening in China at the moment, or even judging by our own political madness, who knows how far and how quickly things can spiral out of control – despite the seeming normality of the everyday?

This is a sharp critique of people’s acceptance of what they are told, what they are fed by the news or government and what they believe, and in the end saviour comes in the form of a member of a religion in a seemingly faithless landscape (interesting in itself). But also the real saviours are the children themselves – bringing about a resolution of their own stories but also a resolution for the dystopian England they grew up in – and perhaps this is where Shaw is most accurate in her portrayal of our politics. The real change is going to come from our youth – striving for the government to listen to them about climate change, when all around them politicians and leaders are ensconced in this political hiccup in time called Brexit. You can buy Outwalkers here.

Girl 38: Finding a Friend by Ewa Jozefkowicz

girl 38This is a clever novel. It’s no surprise, coming from an author shortlisted for the Waterstones Book Prize this year for her debut, The Mystery of the Colour Thief. Ewa Jozefkowicz’s new children’s novel, Girl 38, is written with the same lucid fluidity: accessible, readable, and highly immersive.

The book is set out as three distinct strands, but all come together in great storytelling fashion to illuminate the key themes of the book – friendship, courage, intergenerational relationships and the lessons learnt from history, and also, somewhat surprisingly for a novel, the power of visuals.

Twelve-year-old Kat loves to work on her comic-book heroine, Girl 38, who has traits she wishes she could emulate in real life. The comic is set in the future, as Girl 38 space-travels to new places with a calm and measured courage, even in the face of Vilks (humans with wolf-heads, yellow eyes and sharp fangs). But in her real life, Kat faces her own adversities. She feels lonely when her parents work long hours, and her best friend doesn’t always act as such – in fact, before long Kat begins to see that she’s trapped in a toxic friend relationship, and that if she could build up the courage, she might find truer, better friends.

Courage is contagious, and when Kat befriends her neighbour, Ania, an elderly Polish woman with a penchant for painting, Kat begins to hear Ania’s childhood stories, and before long, understands the meaning of true friendship – something she can put into practise in a relationship with the new boy at school, Julius.

What should feel complicated, actually reads simply and with a gentle truthful wisdom. Although we see Kat’s life through her eyes, the small distance and perspective afforded to the reader gives them the ability for objectiveness and readers can root for Kat to do the right thing, and not be consistently led astray by her mean best friend, Gem. There are particularly astute and wise signposts for the reader – Kat’s parents are busy, although not disinterested. They hover, but not like helicopter parents, so although they see the strain in the friendship, they don’t rush to interfere.

But where the reader really gets to think is in the stories of World War II that Ania tells. From jumping from a train, to deciphering which soldiers are friendly and which aren’t, to navigating through a war-torn Europe to save a dear friend who has been taken away to a ‘walled village’, persecuted simply for being different.

There’s a relevance to the book of course, in its attempt to show how empathy can teach us to be kind, how we need to look at history for its lessons. Jozefkowicz brings together the different strands to show the reader about belonging – Girl 38 finding a new planet on which to reside, people in Europe seeking safety, and even in Kat’s modern world – welcoming newcomers who may act and look different, but, of course, are human too.

The characters are painted with depth and understanding. Ania’s cultural heritage is strong in both the objects that surround her and the stories she tells. Kat and her friends are deeply ensconced in our modern world – the phone is used as a plot device – but it is the children’s modern relationships that are so well depicted. The sly toxicity that Gem promotes, whilst still remaining a rounded character with whom we have sympathy, the small differences that make Julius stand out.

But the overarching heart of the book is in the sharing of stories – of Ania’s painful memories of the friend she lost, of her attempting to express her sadness in a creative way, and the compassion and empathy it stirs in her listeners – in how the contemporary reader will see that courage begets courage, that history is so much more than dates and battles, and that comparative thinking – across generations, time periods, and methods of creative endeavour – can teach understanding and awareness.

This is strong and impactful writing packaged in a simple story with mirrored events and clever plot turns. It implores us to use our time thoughtfully. And what better way than to read this novel. You can buy it here.

The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet: A guest post from Martin Howard

cosmic atlas of alfie fleetCharlie Bucket (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl) was the first name that sprang to mind when I started reading this chucklesome new book from Martin Howard about an impoverished boy who follows up a newspaper advert to earn some quick cash doing odd jobs for an unbelievably eccentric man. But then The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet deviates from the world of Charlie Bucket into a world (or worlds) of its own, and I was both intrigued and highly amused by the comic writing, the inventive imagining, and the high adventures and cunning of its protagonist, Alfie.

The eccentric man I mentioned is Professor Bowell-Mouvemont, the president of the Unusual Cartography Club, who shows Alfie a series of worlds unknown to the majority of humans on Earth (too preoccupied with their ordinary lives to care). These worlds range from Brains-in-Jars world to planet Maureen and Outlandish. Together, the Professor and Alfie travel through these worlds as explorers. Quick to spot an opportunity, Alfie takes it upon himself to fend off danger by showing the inhabitants of these strange lands some of our own traditions, and marketing them as a way of progressing on his journey. He explains and sells advertising space in his travel guide, gives favourable reviews to inns and pubs, makes a mark on the map of the atlas he’s drawing to indicate good shops, hospitable peoples, and so on.

For the young reader, this is both highly amusing and yet also cunning – giving a serious nod to travel guides and atlases, as Wimpy Kid does for diaries. Illustrated by the award-winning Chris Mould, this is a great new series from an author with a clearly somewhat strange mind. So I asked him for his inspirations…

martin howardI first had the idea to write a travel guide to fantastical lands about fifteen years ago. I’m a huge, geeky fan of fantasy books and (like Alfie) I’ve always loved exploring the maps you find in them. A travel guide seemed like the obvious next step.

It bubbled away in the back of my mind for years before I came back to it. Stone circles, like Stonehenge, have always fascinated me. You find them in many places around the world – from Australia to Europe – and no one knows for sure why. I decided they were intergalactic portals first used by space tourists and, later, by a secret map-making society called the Unusual Cartography Club, which had a mission to explore other worlds. Having Alfie – the book’s protagonist – write a travel guide along his journey seemed perfect.

And that’s how The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet came about.

When I was young I was bullied all through my school years. In those days no one took bullying very seriously and one or two teachers even joined in. It was difficult to deal with and I found an escape from some pretty horrific verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse in books and comedy. I was lucky to be growing up at a time when some great comedians were making hilarious TV shows and on Thursday nights my parents would let me and my sister stay up late to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sketches like the Ministry of Silly Walks and Dead Parrot changed my life. If I was having a rough time at school all I had to do was say “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition” to myself in a silly voice and I’d be smiling. I can still quote many Python sketches word for word.

As I got older – I found other shows I loved: The Young Ones, Blackadder, French and Saunders, as well as older comedy movies such as The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I saw lots of brilliant comedians perform stand-up, too. Bill Bailey, Jo Brand, Omid Djalili and lots of others. All of those shows, movies and comedians helped shape my own sense of humour.

Comedy is really important to me. It gave me optimism during traumatic times and I don’t understand why some people think funny books aren’t important. Laughter is as much a part of being human as music or love, and just as essential to our happiness. With humour we can laugh at life’s problems; without it the world would be a pretty grim place.

I also grew up during a time when Terry Pratchett was writing. I loved any fantasy books, but because I was so into comedy his had an especially big impact on me. In fact, I went to both the same schools as Pratchett, though he was there years before me. I also shopped regularly in the second-hand bookshop in Penn, Buckinghamshire, on which he based the magical library of the Unseen University. I was lucky enough to meet him once, when he was doing a talk at the local library after his second Discworld book came out, and it’s easy to see in my own writing that he has been a major influence. He introduced humour into fantasy.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy casts a long shadow, too. Like Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams made sci-fi funny. Eagle-eyed readers of The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet might spot I’ve paid a tiny tribute to The Hitchhiker’s Guide! Any book that contains space themes and humour is always going to be compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide nowadays, and I’ve got the travel guide theme running through mine, too, so I was very aware that I was using a couple of the same ingredients as Douglas Adams. I hope I’ve used them to create a dish that has a very different flavour.

PG Wodehouse had a massive impact. I discovered the Jeeves and Wooster books when I was about twelve and his characters and his use of language to create humour are beyond incredible. In sci-fi and fantasy, I owe inspiration to Neil Gaiman, Tolkien, Ursula K. le Guin, Susan Cooper, as well as Joss Wheedon – I usually watch all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at least once a year! There are lesser well-known writers who have influenced me as well, like Jim Butcher whose pulp-fiction Dresden Files books about a detective wizard in Chicago are fantastic.

It’s impossible to write in isolation: all genres are built over time by writers who have made great contributions, and every writer will have favourites who have shaped the way they write, whether it’s Enid Blyton or Jane Austen. But it’s important that writers find their own voice and – I hope – in The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet I’ve written a book that recognises where it came from, but which is packed with fresh ideas and which could only have been written by me.

With thanks to Martin Howard. You can buy The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet written by Martin Howard, illustrated by Chris Mould here

Fiction Books with Birds

Ever since the dove made an appearance in the Bible as a symbol of peace, and ravens whispered news into the god Odin’s ears in Norse mythology, or since Ancient Greece where the goddess Athena had an owl as a symbol of wisdom, or in Ancient India where a peacock represented Mother Earth, birds have been used in religion, mythology and literature symbolically, as messengers or perhaps signs of hope, and particularly freedom. In some of my favourite novels, birds have been used in symbolic ways: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle…. Here are three children’s novels that synchronise with this theme.

larkLark by Anthony McGowan
McGowan returns for a final time to his beloved working class characters, Nicky and Kenny, in this novella for Barrington Stoke. Although the last of a quartet, Lark can be read as a standalone, a self-contained adventure. The teenage boys are escaping their everyday reality, in this case, a visit from their estranged mother, by taking a walk on the Yorkshire moors with their dog. With understated empathy, McGowan describes Kenny (who has cognitive disability), as needing to let out his pent-up energy – ‘he’d punch the cushions on the settee or shout out random stuff in the street’ – and so the brothers seek nature as a release – the perennial theme of this book quartet.

Narrated by Nicky in an authentic teen voice, which is both accessible and yet intensely profound in its own way, the prose starts in the middle of the action, backtracking a little but then ploughing on – not unlike the boys, who are suddenly caught in the middle of a blizzard on the moors.

Danger becomes all too apparent – the problems of home (hunger, cold, poverty) are magnified in the natural expanse of the moors, and yet also reduced to this particular day and this particular time. The boys get into deep trouble, pushing them to the brink of existence.

Nicky’s trademark humour never lets up, lending even more pathos to the situation in its own darkly rich way, and by the end a fair number of readers will be sniffing back the tears. What lingers is the bond between the boys, the exploration of teen masculinity – full of bravado and yet vulnerability – and yet also the ultimate draw of never-ending hope.

Suspenseful, written with immaculate style, and ultimately heart-warming, this is another triumph from McGowan. You can read the review of Rook, the third in the series here, when it looked likely to end as a trilogy. To buy Lark, click here

asha and the spirit birdAsha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
Another book reaching for the symbol of a bird as hope, and with a treacherous journey, is this spellbinding lush book from newcomer Jasbinder Bilan.

Asha lives with her mother in the foothills of the Himalayas, living a rural life and working on the farm, spending leisure time in the mango tree with her friend Jeevan. Her father works away in the city. But when he stops sending money and moneylenders come to collect her mother’s debt, Asha decides to find her way to the city herself and see what’s happened to her father.

As vibrant with the sights and sounds and colours of the landscape on the inside as the cover is bright on the outside, this is a stunning evocation of a completely different way of life, with a filmic quality to the descriptions of flowers and wildlife, food and landscape. The journey is treacherous, the children not only at risk of death from hunger and tiredness, but also in the face of wild animals. Here too, though, nature is a saving grace in the form of a magical spirit bird that guides Asha, giving hope and reassurance throughout.

The book takes an even darker turn with its exploration of poverty and exploitation in the city, but Asha never loses self-belief, and the book drives forward with an unrelenting optimism and moments of kindness, exploring too the role of faith and ancestry, ritual and tradition, in shaping personality and way of life.

But more than this, it’s an immersive experience in a different culture. A glossary gives Hindi and Punjabi words, but Bilan seamlessly blends them into her prose, so that with context it is easy to understand what they mean. The Indian way of life is portrayed with enthusiasm, empathy and energy, and the threads of friendship sew the plot neatly together. You can buy it here

call me alastairCall Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo
Something vastly different in this quirky novel told from three completely distinct points of view, the first of which is Alistair, an African grey parrot. Trapped in an American pet shop, Alistair dreams of freedom and blue skies, but unfortunately for him has two broken wings and a habit of plucking his own feathers out of anxiety. When he discovers eating paper, and delights in the taste of the different types of literature – poetry being his favourite – he soon starts to compose verse himself.

With this sense of the world giving him an extra taste for freedom, he is adopted by lonely widow, Albertina Plopky (Bertie), whom the reader meets through letters to her deceased husband. Add to this eclectic mix, the meticulous record-keeping of pet-shop helper 12-year-old Fritz, (musing also on the recent separation of his parents and the death of a grandparent) and suddenly the reader grasps how the three points of view and stories meet.

The book is about perspective and freedom, but also speaks to the idea of loneliness. We stifle our own freedom if we build cages around ourselves. Unique and idiosyncratic, this is not for everyone, but with a mix of poetry and prose, different narrative voices, and a quest for courage, this is a very unusual middle grade book. You can buy it here.