middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

Quick Gift Guide: Books

Are you still stuck for Christmas gifts? Perhaps it’s not for Christmas, but a seasonal present. I’m always pleased to receive a book – and trust me I already have a few! Here are some eclectic titles that have nothing to do with Christmas, which various family members might like:

the boy and the bear
For the very young:
The Boy and the Bear by Tracey Corderoy and Sarah Massini
There’s a wintry feel with this delightful picture book about unlikely friendship, and patience. With glowing silver snowflakes on the cover, and a boy in a woolly hat holding hands with an adorable bear, the book gives a warm fuzzy feeling from the start. The story has an old-fashioned timeless feel, the boy running in the countryside flying a paper aeroplane with satchel swinging from his hip. There is not a screen in sight. Nor a friend either. But there is a shy bear. Although seemingly incompatible (in the most adorable ways), the pair strike a friendship, which has to take a hiatus for hibernation. The matching of text to illustration strikes perfection here. There is humour, pathos, a conveyance of the passing of time, and so much emotion. I suggested this for the very young, but if you’re young at heart, you’ll love this too. An absolute gem of a picturebook. You can buy it here.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

For the unicorn-obsessed (and others)
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson (7+)
This glittery pink full length comic strip novel tells a cute story in simple sharp lines, with jokes a-plenty, and will enthral youngsters with its tale of Phoebe and her vain mythical animal companion. Phoebe skips a rock across a pond and accidentally hits a unicorn in the face. The unicorn, until then completely absorbed in its own reflection, is thankful for the distraction and grants Phoebe a wish. She wishes for the unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, to be her obligatory best friend. And thus the adventures begin. As you’ve noticed from the name of the unicorn, there’s more than a hint of mischief here, but the book also bears a special message about overcoming loneliness and finding one’s own strengths and virtues. This is a lot of fun, and because the comic strip maintains focus on the key characters rather than deviating too much into the landscape, and the strips are self-contained, the story is easy to follow for reluctant readers. The newest full length comic strip title is Phoebe and Her Unicorn in Unicorn Theater. Sweet and sugary, and reminiscent of My Little Pony with a bit of attitude, this is a US title now available here.

the ink house
For the appreciative art fan:
The Ink House by Rory Dobner (8+)
This isn’t a usual picture book. More a unique curiosity through the artist’s mind as he seeks to explore the insides of The Ink House, an intricately designed mansion built on a pool of ink, in which a party of animals is due to take place, after the human resident takes off in a hot air balloon to search for further knickknacks to add to his treasured collection.

The illustrations, in ink of course, are amazingly detailed and stunningly imagined. There’s a darkness, a gothic tendency in the drawings, and the feeling is that each stroke is penned as delicately as if he were crafting a poem. The story isn’t really a story – just a menagerie of animals within a setting, and the scenes in which Dobner showcases the house in most detail work best. The mouse on the desk with piles of books, clocks, candle, quill pen; the ape in armchair with guitar, old-fashioned tea set, and gramophone showcases the neat juxtaposition between old and new, distorting one’s expectations and reality; the horses in the tiled hallway complete with pillars and a view onto the gardens. The artwork is disturbing, disjointed and wonderful, justifying the purchase even if the text is a little clunky. My advice – add your own words to the pictures, and tell the story in your head. You can buy it here.

absolutely everything

For everyone:
Absolutely Everything by Christopher Lloyd, illustrated by Andy Forshaw
The author of this conversational tome is nothing if not ambitious. The contents of this nonfiction narrative span from the Big Bang through dinosaurs, homo sapiens, ancient civilisations, the classical empires to the medieval, age of exploration, revolutions, wars and onwards. Everything in fact. The tone is avuncular, as if you’ve asked a favourite relative to let loose – tell me about the ancient Greeks, Chris…In this chapter, Lloyd starts with an anecdote about an olive, which merges into why olive oil was so precious, then onto slaves, democracy and war…you can see how the narrative flows from one idea to another, incorporating facts, events and stories. Each section is colour-coded for easy reference and there are colour visuals throughout, from illustrations adorning the text to photos, maps, timelines etc. There’s a nice linear progression to the book, an understanding of how one thing in history leads to another (although this is definitely Western civilisation’s history), and an over-riding infectious enthusiasm to explore how societies linked up, how the world became global. Engrossing and all-encompassing. Give as a gift, and keep a copy for yourself. The sort of book to stop you getting bored in the holidays. You can buy it here.

Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway

unicorn girlThere is a Year 1 girl in my library club who is obsessed with unicorns. She can recall every book in my library that features a unicorn (and not just on the cover). So, in a few years’ time, she’ll delight in reading Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway.

Not many children’s books start with a funeral, but when Ariella’s grandma dies she not only leaves her with a sense of sadness, but also a unicorn charm. Days later, Ariella spies a real unicorn in the empty field at the back of the house. The unicorn proves useful in helping Ariella with her feelings of grief, as well as with her worries about her baby brother who is born with a hole in his heart, and settling in at her new school – which is proving more difficult than she thought, especially when one of the girls, Belinda, starts picking on her for her size (Ariella is small for her age).

Wouldn’t it be helpful if we all had a unicorn to deal with our anxieties? This novel from the award-winning author of Butterfly Summer captures its readership with its authenticity – despite the book venturing into magical realism with the appearance of a unicorn. Conway works as a drama teacher, and her knowledge of schools and how they operate today is plainly apparent and lends the book a huge dose of realism. The lessons, the teachers, and the pupils feel more real than many depictions in the children’s books I read – even down to the minute details of topics learned, the impact of a good teaching assistant on children who are struggling, and the ability of children to perform actions unseen by staff, no matter how diligent the teachers.

Many of today’s children are consumed with worries, observing the stresses of their parents, absorbing the changing attitude of older teen siblings, and struggling to navigate through the landscape of friendships. Conway piles worries on Ariella, but the book never feels too sad – there are shimmers of hope in kind supportive adults, and also of course in the introduction of the unicorn and its magic. Conway is clever here too, giving the unicorn its own backstory, and applying scruffy characteristics to it, so that by the reveal at the end, it becomes very clear to the reader what’s going on. The unicorn brings not only a sense of wonder and possibility, but also a calm space in which Ariella can breathe and contemplate.

Conway’s prose is absorbing and readable, and she touches on difficult themes with a sensitive and emotionally intelligent eye, observing not only the realism of schools, but also a keen understanding of a family under stress, and the dynamics of how each member of the family deals with the emotional upheaval, before finally coming together.

What’s particularly heart-warming is the way in which the book has been published. Anne-Marie Conway had finished her draft of the book, in which Ariella finds incredible solace in a particular unicorn book she finds in a hospital library, when she was approached to raise some money to build a new school library at her child’s school.  Now,  profits from Conway’s published book are being donated to building that new school library for her local school. You can click on the link here to see the fundraising project, and here to buy a copy of the book.

The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller Extract

the night i met father christmasI’m delighted to be able to share with you an exclusive extract of The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller. (Please click the title to read my review). I’m sure most children have dreamed about coming downstairs on Christmas Eve to find Father Christmas in the act of emerging from the chimney through the fireplace, with his bulging toy sac over his shoulder, ready to deposit all those lovely goodies for Christmas Day. In Ben Miller’s book, a small boy waits up all night to do just that. But when he does meet Father Christmas, the most extraordinary thing happens – Father Christmas begins to tell him the story of how he became Father Christmas – and it’s not at all how you might expect. This extract takes place just after the boy hears bells ringing and rushes into his living room to see lumps of soot falling into the grate. Father Christmas is coming….

 

 

 

 

 

You can buy The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller here.

 

Maps of the United Kingdom by Rachel Dixon, illustrated by Livi Gosling

maps of the united kingdomWhen I was in primary school we had to memorise the countries and capital cities of South America. For a long time many of these were retained in my memory, and even now I’m better at that continent’s geography than Europe. What’s even worse, to my shame, is my lack of knowledge about the geography of my own country, the United Kingdom. And as I watch my children go through school, I realise that it’s something that just isn’t taught. Thankfully, one of them can pinpoint where cities are situated (this is because he knows them from their football clubs), but we are all clueless about counties.

All that’s about to change. Maps of the United Kingdom does exactly what it says on the cover, and although the illustrations seem at first glance to be fairly random – a red post box planted between Devon and Somerset, a hedgehog somewhere between Perth and Kinross and the Highlands – there is both enthusiasm and geographical symbolism behind the illustrations, and the drawings are actually an excellent visual guide to help readers learn and memorise the counties and cities of the United Kingdom.

Divided, as to be expected, between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and then further delineated by county lines – either featuring one large county or several smaller ones – the full page spreads show the geographical placement of the area, and then proceeds to illustrate history, nature, people and scientific breakthroughs originating in the region. The information chosen is specific and well-written, but in such a way that it shouldn’t date. This is both clever and interesting.

Lancashire focusses firstly on Blackpool, illustrated by its tower, but then pulls away to showcase the mill towns and the countryside. Local food plays its part, as does sport, highlighting Lancashire County Cricket Club on the map, but then also drawing a portrait of Andrew Flintoff as one of the regional biographies. Other Lancashire biographies include current personalities such as Brian Cox, but also historical activists such as Edith Rigby. There is information about wildlife and history and suggestions of places to visit to learn more, (the Pendle Witch trials at the Pendle Heritage Centre). For ease of use, each page has the entire map of the UK in one corner with the focus place shown by its county border.

All this means that as well as learning the geography, there is an abundance of trivia to absorb, and seven biographies on each page. Each map is colourful too – a different colour for each county as a background and full colour illustrations laid over the top. The small illustrations are intricate and distinctive, so that the reader can smile at the hands raised by the children on the theme park rollercoaster in Derbyshire, but also see the details in the clothing worn by Elizabeth Gaskell. The buildings too are distinctive – the Pierhead Building in Cardiff with its clock tower to the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey in The Valleys.

As we divorce from Europe, now might be a particularly good time to become schooled in our local heritage and traditions, and celebrate the people who’ve made Great Britain great. If all this sounds a bit Trumpish and isolationist, it is perhaps only through knowing ourselves that we can seek to understand others. Once you’ve mastered the lay of the land in this book, you’ll be keen to explore Europe and beyond. I know I am. (The maps in the book aren’t to scale, so it’d be wise to consult a proper atlas before leaping from London to Lincoln.)

Written by a travel writer, this is an excellent classroom and home resource, a smashing Christmas present, and suitable for all from about 6 years. You can buy it here.

Beauty and Nature

I may live an urban life, but there are still pockets of natural beauty all around. There’s a pathway near my house that leads between two fields in which horses graze, and the other morning half the grass was dusted with a sprinkle of frost and emitted a white glow, while the stark green of the other side was trampled as the horses meandered and whinnied. Looking up, we saw a plethora of autumnal reds, yellows and browns, as differently shaded leaves fluttered on the branches above us.

perfectly peculiar plantsPerfectly Peculiar Plants by Chris Thorogood, illustrated by Catell Ronca

The overwhelming vibrancy of this book sucks in the reader as if they are a fly teetering on the edge of a Venus flytrap. Featuring a different plant on each double page spread, the colour of the illustrated plant takes over the page, blending with the insects and birds depicted alongside it. With a watercolour wash background, this is an immersive plant book, a far cry from ancient plant identification tomes that feel cold and staid. Indeed, Ronca’s illustration of the bee orchid looks like a psychedelic Kandinsky painting.

Written by a professional botanist, the text doesn’t shy away from complete explanations and correct information. There are Latin names here, but also exciting enthusiastic prose that aims to convey a love and respect for plants as well as an interest. And the plants chosen are truly magnificent. They are peculiar indeed – from the Dead Horse Arum which looks like an animal’s tongue and apparently smells like a rotting animal, to the Giant Waterlily, which produces heat. The text is written in small paragraphs in a large typeface but for so few sentences, Thorogood provides specific, pertinent information in easy to understand language.

The selected plants are global, and feature different peculiarities, but there’s also an emphasis on some general information about plants – how they get energy, how they work with animals, and of course how they need protecting.

A glut of information, displayed wondrously. You can buy it here.

book of treesThe Book of Trees by Piotr Socha, illustrated by Wojciech Grajkowski

I am lucky to be surrounded by trees despite living in London. A cherry tree lightly brushes the front window, and I can see the broad oaks, beeches and chestnuts that line the roads and fields opposite. Socha’s book is as large in scope as the oak, attempting not to just identify trees, but to understand their importance, their physical and spiritual natures. This large hardback is beautiful in itself – a beauty that comes in part from its source material, and Socha references this.

In fact, this is almost a story of trees rather than a non-fiction book. Its narrative sweeps from a basic understanding of the cyclical nature of trees, to their physicality – age, size, material, leaf shapes etc, to their spiritual and magical elements, their role in the environment as homes and sources of food, to the elements they inspire – wood art, buildings, musical instruments, human-constructed tree-houses and so much more. But the tree’s overwhelming beauty and magnificence makes itself known in the stunning illustrations that dominate the pages – leaving just a strip of text at the border to highlight information. The range of leaves and roots is illustrated, but as the reader journeys through the tree and its importance in different cultures, the author/illustrator team showcase how trees have been used to map our evolution, to map families, and to provide spiritual succour. As with The Book of Bees, there is humour liberally applied to the fact-giving, and a sophistication in both image and text. The Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia pictured overgrown with tree roots is simply sublime. You can buy it here.

wild buildings and bridgesWild Buildings and Bridges: Architecture Inspired by Nature by Etta Kaner and Carl Wiens

It is fairly rare to come across a mainstream children’s book on architecture, and this is certainly one of the more pleasing ones. The premise is the exploration of how nature’s patterns and design informs architecture – using the beauty and aesthetics of nature, as well as problem-solving features within the laws of nature, to good effect in man-made structures. As well as general spreads giving examples of such buildings, there are also small profiles of architects and small experiments to conduct at home – teaching by practical example.

All of this is explained in a range of text, diagrams, illustrations and photographs. Techniques that copy nature include conservation of water, keeping cool, repelling water and strength in shape and design. There are also references to inspirations – the Gherkin in London was inspired by the Venus Flower-basket Sponge. Some of the buildings and structures are quite extraordinary – the Easter Dawyck Bridge that mimics nature’s recycling process, the Council House 2 office block in Melbourne that is modelled on African termite towers, the Wave apartment complex in Denmark that aims to mirror the water of the fjord on which it sits.

There are even admissions of mistakes when architects haven’t quite understood the science behind the natural structures they are copying. This is a fascinating book, documenting not only how we learn from nature but also how we can try and live in harmony with it – using natural light, or local materials and resources. You can buy it here.

riversRivers by Peter Goes

The beauty of this book lies not so much in its depiction of nature, but in the stylistically elaborate carving of time and space into the geographic linearity of the world’s rivers. Goes blends the true depiction of the shape of each river that he profiles with an almost surreal aura, festooning each river with tributaries of information and branches of illustrations to sum up the cultural, historical, and natural history of his rivers.

Covering rivers all over the globe from the Thames in Europe to the Yukon in North America, the Niger in Africa to the Fly in Oceania, Goes takes each river and uses his scattered style to meander from the centre of his river into a stream of consciousness about it. So, for example, The Thames profiles its source and route as well as its water level, but also explores the meaning behind the name, the history of the Frost Fair, the kingfisher on the water, The Thames Barrier, the Henley Boat Race and so much more – each nugget of information illustrated in monochrome. There’s a playfulness to the information too – some personal opinion, and clearly a very personal selection of rivers and facts, but this is an extraordinarily dramatic graphic resource. You can buy it here.

 

A Very Christmas Roundup

how winston delivered ChristmasThe first book on your radar for Christmas should be How Winston Delivered Christmas by Alex T Smith. This is the most sumptuous book, but a word of warning, you need to give this present early. The neat conceit is that the story has been written in 24 and a half chapters, one chapter to share every day in the lead up to Christmas – ending with a final special story time for Christmas morning. Now, I like advent calendars with chocolate windows, but a book with a story behind every window is even better. The story is about Winston, a homeless young mouse with an important mission, and a special message about the joy of little kindnesses rather than just the material side of the festivities.

But more than just a story, there are also activities throughout, such as writing a letter to Father Christmas, making Christmas cards, a recipe for mince pies and so on – all the traditional things a family might do in the run up to the holiday season, but here with a neat tie-in to the story. There are also ideas that might be new – but feel traditional: making an orange pomander, stained-glass window biscuits, and even a pompom robin.

Not only are the activities fun, easy and related to the season and story, the story itself combines all the attractive tropes of Christmas narratives – the old-fashioned department store, gingerbread men, a nativity scene, toys and snow. And of course, there’s a happy ending and the lyrics of carols at the end.

This is a perfect Christmas book, lovingly produced with a green bookmark ribbon, a fabric spine, and beautiful colour illustrations, through which the warmth of happiness radiates – a lit shop window, a kitchen all a-glow, a dolls’ house, headlights in the snow. Magical and heartwarming. You can buy it here.

pick a pine tree
If you’re looking for a picturebook, there is a glut of tie-ins but for something original, Pick a Pine Tree by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Jarvis might tick the box. It’s also suitable for the run-in to Christmas itself, being all about choosing and decorating a tree. It’s unabashedly Christmassy, with nothing held back in its glorious rhyming list of the things needed to turn a pine into a Christmas tree. The text is magical in itself, a gentle rhythm that speeds up with the excitement of Christmas, but the illustrations imbue the book with light and warmth again, whether it’s the brightness of the children’s faces around the tree, or the up-close inside tree drawing of baubles, paper angel dolls and pine needles. You can buy it here.

jingle spells
Another book that seems to fall in between the start of autumn and Christmas itself is Jingle Spells by James Brown, a rather delicious mash up of Halloween and Christmas, as Trixie the witch prefers Christmas to Halloween, although her fellow witches think that’s strange, and the Christmas Elves judge her on her appearance and reputation (fearful of tricksy witches). In the end, Trixie helps the elves and Santa get over their winter colds with a warming potion, and they help her to bring Christmas to everyone. Heartfelt, and gloriously illustrated with lots of colour – an emphasis on red and yellow against a blue background helping to bring that magical Christmas warmth again. You can buy it here.

very corgi christmas
Royalty is all the rage at the moment, with a King in waiting, a new baby on the way, and the memory of a couple of weddings this year. But, if you prefer your royalty corgi style, then A Very Corgi Christmas by Sam Hay, illustrated by Loretta Schauer will suit. It tells the simple story of the youngest corgi – enthralled with the rush and excitement of Christmas – who gets lost in London and befriended by a more worldly dog. The book works as a paean to London, showcasing an illustration of a dazzling silhouetted London skyline through a window before honing in on the corgi experiencing Piccadilly Circus (a bit too bright for her), a London bus, the London Eye, Big Ben unscaffolded and a London theatre. Even a London litter bin is given central stage. There are plenty of union jacks too – this is a London Christmas to the top of the tree. And of course a happy ending. You can buy it here.

sammy claus
From dogs to cats, Sammy Claws: The Christmas Cat by Lucy Rowland and Paula Bowles understands a cat’s life. Sammy Claws will sleep anywhere, but when he falls asleep in a box on Christmas Eve, he finds himself wrapped in a present and due for delivery with no way of telling Santa of the mix-up. Hiding in his box, Sammy hears of Bad Billy’s and Mischievous May’s plans to steal Santa’s Christmas presents, and finds that yowling fiercely and jumping out can quite seriously shock robbers. This is a delightful Christmas rhyming tale, and although it borrows heavily on other picture books in which canny animals outwit stupid robbers, there is enough dastardly action and colourful Christmassy illustrations to win over every child. At its centre sits a cat with a huge personality. Watch out for smart touches in the illustrations such as Santa’s sleigh goggles, clever rhyming in a bouncy lively text, and the neat ending too. You can buy it here.

how to hide a lion at christmas
If you do like tie-ins, How to Hide a Lion at Christmas by Helen Stephens retains the magic of the original in this Christmas story of Iris going to visit family for Christmas and being made to leave the lion behind – because he is a little large and might offend their hosts. Many parents have negotiated with children about leaving toys home when they travel, and this is a rather sweet tale of the lion deciding to follow of his own accord. With trains, snow, carol singers and Father Christmas, this also brings to mind old-fashioned Christmases. Stephens has an astute understanding of how to draw her lion to look realistic (reclining on a tree) but also to make him naturally fit within the domestic sphere too – this lion always reminds me of The Tiger Who Came to Tea – I wonder who would get all the Christmas dinner if they were sat at the same table. You can buy it here.

the snowman
If you’re revisiting classics, the key title has to be The Snowman by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Robin Shaw. Yes, this is based upon the original story and drawings from Raymond Briggs, but to mark the 40th anniversary of the original picture book, this year the publishers have released a brand new novel. At first you may ponder why such a re-imagining is necessary, but there is a simple continuity in Morpurgo’s version, a nod to modern sensibilities, and an understanding of the gentle care it needs to revisit this classic Christmas tale.

The original Snowman picture book is wordless and doesn’t feature Father Christmas as a character, but Morpurgo has merged the collective memory of the book and animation into his new story, imagining a boy named James with a stutter who takes a magical Christmas Eve flight with his Snowman to a party, where he does meet Father Christmas. In Morpurgo’s version there is the introduction of a Grandma figure, who not only reads The Snowman to James but eventually takes flight with him too. It’s an interesting dynamic to add to the tale, showing the inter-generational relationships that exist, and profiling how James and his grandmother relate to each other. Nice touches include Brussels sprout buttons for the Snowman, and the newly found confidence James develops. I would quibble that some of the Christmas gifts feel dated already, but the gentle tone sits nicely alongside the original. Extras at the back include instructions on how to make the perfect snowman. You can buy it here.

the night i met father christmas
Lastly, The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller, the comedian, is a mash up between A Christmas Carol and Elf. A small boy with avid curiosity wants to know how Father Christmas became Father Christmas. When he meets him on Christmas Eve, he hears the story from the man (or rather elf) himself – a story within a story format. The tale he recounts is about the elf Torvil, now miserly and mean, who is shown Christmas past, present and future by red-nosed reindeers and magic trees. It’s a pure spin off from Dickens, but told in a spritely jovial way with old-fashioned hot chocolate warmth. As well as the first person narration from the small boy, and the third person narration of Torvil’s story, there are also narrative asides, which seemingly may come from Torvil or the boy, but feel much more as if they come from Miller – hoping the reader never has an accident, waxing lyrical on the joys of sled-rides. It jolts the reader slightly from the narrative, but the whole is so easy to read, so joyful and formulaic (how could it not be, following past, present and future), that it feels familiar and new at the same time. I read an early proof so couldn’t see the illustrations, but the publishers promise illustrations throughout from Danielle Terrazini. Look out for an extract of the book on my blog in early December. You can buy it here. Happy Christmas shopping.

Timelines of Everything

timelines of everything

It seems fitting during National Non-Fiction November to feature a book that attempts to cover everything. As one would expect from Dorling Kindersley, this is a highly visual non-fiction title, over 300 pages long with an extraordinary number of images. The book explores the history of the world in a series of illustrated timelines on ‘everything’, including slavery in the US, the technology of writing, the industrial revolution, kingdoms of Southeast Asia, postcolonial Africa and much much more.

As well as general knowledge, dates, and small explanations of well-known events, there are tiny nuggets of trivia embedded in each page, so that the reader comes away having learnt that the Medieval period lasted from the 5th to the 15th centuries and followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and that the majority of the population in Medieval Europe was comprised of peasant farmers, but also lesser-known trivia during the period, including that the Vikings founded Dublin in 841. The timeline on this page traverses neatly between religious re-organisation and acts of battle and aggression, spanning from the East-West Schism in the church in 1054 to the Battle of Hastings, to the Hundred Years’ War, to the to the Gutenberg Bible printing in around 1439. Reading about the Hanseatic League and their trading alliance in 1241 felt relevant to today’s Brexit deals.


But it’s not the text information in the book that inspires, so much as the magnificence of the presentation. Each subject is afforded an apt graphic design. The Renaissance is laid out like a fresco between classical pillars. The Timeline of Exploration of the world features dates running up a ship’s mast, Spanish America is encapsulated within a series of silver coins, and Astronomy casts its own constellation across the page. The timelines are also broken up by pages in between – some full colour-paintings including that of the fall of Tenochtitlan, some that document a single day such as the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

The reader can read through in chronological order as set out in the book – traversing prehistory, the dinosaurs and the wheel, before entering the ancient World, Medieval, the Age of Exploration, Revolution and then the Modern World, or simply dip in and out depending on mood and interest. One great fun thing to do is to test fellow family members with the dates of when things happened, flicking through the book at random.

The text is accessible, concise, and clear. There are no opinions here, no injected humour, just straightforward precise information. Of course, the whole of human history can’t be condensed into one book, so there are omissions and much is touched on in scant detail, but it provides a context for what’s going on, and a springboard for further discovery. This way, history can be looked at with a wide lens, and then an intrigued child will be able to hone in on what piques their interest and opt for a more specialist look at the subject.

To settle arguments and answer quizzes, this is a winner. I liked the roll call of British royalty and American presidents at the end – yes, the book is skewed towards a Western audience for sure – and thoroughly enjoyed the quick romp through choice moments to explore the Story of Democracy. I learned much about the Rise of the Samurai and the horror of Plagues and Epidemics. For a spread-eagled timeline view of the world – this is a wonderful visual treat. You can buy it here.

Skycircus by Peter Bunzl (Book Three of the Cogheart Series)

skycircusWhen I was reading Skycircus, I couldn’t help but think of The Greatest Showman. The success of that film wasn’t down to critics, who panned the movie on its opening weekend, and I went to see it (somewhat reluctantly and with low expectations) with the children, and now own both the DVD and the soundtrack and secretly play them when the children are at school. Is it the music, or is it perhaps the emotions that circuses inspire that proved it such a great success?

The Greatest Showman is based very loosely upon PT Barnum, remembered for his travelling circus. Ironically the film sets out to show acceptance of difference, despite Barnum being known for his exploitation and sometime racism.

Circuses have long been a source of inspiration and imagination for novelists. Many children’s book characters visit the circus at least once in their series – Pippi Longstocking, Madeline, Doctor Doolittle, Claude, Paddington Bear all went to the circus, and some of my favourite stand-alone literature is set in the circus – The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll, Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfield.

The circus arena is a great site for storytelling. As with theatre there’s the theme of appearance and reality, what’s hidden behind masks and costumes, but the circus also brings a daredevil nature to the stage – acts that seem impossible, daring and courage, excitement and danger. And an inherent subversive nature. Whether it’s the people behind the circus – seen for such a long time as ‘other’ – or the arguments over mistreatment of animals in the arena, the dichotomy of both providing entertainment but also making money, and the long history and argument of exploitative acts versus acts celebrating freedoms.

Peter Bunzl had already incorporated elements of this into his Victoriana steampunk series that  begins with Cogheart, an adventure story that subverts history and science, featuring mechanimals, penny dreadfuls, clocks and cogs, the author supposing that mechanicals were more advanced than they really were – that humans had reached a scientific equivalent to robots and AI but without computing leading the way – instead using mechanical parts.

Skycircus, the third in Bunzl’s Cogheart series, transports the characters from Cogheart – Lily, her mechanimal fox Malkin and her human friend Robert into a circus adventure. With the energy and tone of the prior books, it adds to the atmosphere a circus in which the people are treated more as prisoners, and circus acts that fuse the mechanical with the derring-do of trapeze acts and escape artists.

On Lily’s fourteenth birthday, she receives a cryptic poem inviting her to a travelling skycircus, arrived in the locale. Not being able to resist the clues, she sets off to watch the acts, little failing to realise that it’s a trap and that before long she’ll no longer be the observer in the audience, but the headline act herself.

With references to the past books, and Lily’s own past creeping forwards to haunt her, the book works both as a stand-alone read but also a continuation of the series. Never shy with words, the book is meaty and dense – an imagined world full of science and steampunk and its accompanying vocabulary.

With a keen nod to today’s preoccupations of gender stereotyping (a plot twist for which I fell cog, sprocket and gear), and liberally littered with allusions to Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the leading thinkers of the time in which it’s set, this is a layered book with much to extrapolate. Of course, there’s much about exploitation, and of animals too, but mainly about how we see others who may seem different from us; whether it’s a seen physical manifestation (perhaps race or a disability), or whether its just about seeing things from another’s point of view. Whom do you trust and how far can science take us?

Despite all this, at its heart this is a thrilling, danger-filled adventure story. I particularly enjoy Bunzl’s small touches of humour and detail that imbue each story with depth of character and charm. The clown who speaks in spoonerisms in Skycircus, the magnificent understanding of the rolling out of the circus, and the allusions to ancient myths and the power of storytelling itself.

This is a grand book with a plot as tense as tiptoeing the tightrope, and bold narration that shouts as loudly as the red and white stripes of the circus tent. You can run away to your own circus here.

The Lifters by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Aaron Renier

the liftersMany of my test readers adore short chapters in their children’s fiction. It might be because they are reluctant readers and getting through the chapters feels like an achievable accomplishment. Or perhaps because they enjoy the cliff edges in the chapter cliffhanger endings, or simply because they can easily find a place to stop at lights out.

The Lifters by Dave Eggers has one hundred and thirteen chapters – not because it’s War and Peace for kids, but rather because most of the chapters are only a couple of pages long. Brief they may be, but they certainly contain a depth of metaphor.

Like many books for children this age, the main character’s story begins when his family move house to a new town. However, unlike anyone else, this boy is called Granite Flowerpetal, which he shortens to Gran as he starts his life afresh in the town called Carousel.

Life isn’t everything he and his parents had hoped in the new town. Gran is not teased at school, more ignored than anything, and his father fails to find the work he hoped would materialise in the new town. Instead, he travels miles away, leaving Gran, his sister and their wheelchair-bound mother.

Not long after they arrive, houses and buildings in Carousel start disappearing into massive sink-holes, and it turns out to be no coincidence when Gran follows a girl into a series of hidden underground tunnels, in which children called Lifters prop up the foundations of their towns.

The metaphor is blatant, but cleverly written. The town, particularly this kind of traditional manufacturing town, is literally sinking or collapsing because of the depth of misery and disheartened thinking, and it’s only the hope for the future (represented by the children) than can help to lift it again.

Granite, named for strength, turns out to be stronger than he thought, and Catalina, the girl who at first had questioned his moniker: “Don’t you realise Gran sounds like you’re a grandmother?” turns out to appreciate his company, especially after he proves his worth in the tunnels.

Although this was written before Trump became President, Eggers skilfully picks up on the US rust belt towns’ feeling of hopelessness: Carousel is a fictional town that was famous for making carousels, but has fallen victim to the new thrill seekers who prefer rollercoasters.

This is no rollercoaster of a novel – it’s more an extended metaphor with plenty of critique of the times in which we live. Adults come across quite badly – they cannot cope with conflict and tend to avoid trying to see another’s point of view at all. When part of the school falls in, the teachers act as if the sinkhole is inevitable and offer counselling to the children by way of individual cubicles and a psychology examination by an automaton on screen.

But although the responsibility for healing the community falls squarely onto the children’s shoulders, there is enough humour to lift the reader’s spirits, and plenty of great writing that keeps the reader turning the page, especially the little universal truths interjected by the writer. Away from the despondency and overplayed metaphor, I really rather enjoyed it. A good choice for older primary school readers looking for meaning behind a story. You can buy it here.

Armistice Day

On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. We know the historical facts about the First World War and we understand the remembrance at Armistice Day, but 100 years on, how do we not only keep the memory of it alive, but also make it relevant for today’s children. Two very different stories bring the topic to fresh generations by using issues that are forefront in the minds now, to illuminate how those same issues were a part of society then. It’s often said we’re living in a time of identity politics, and these two books both highlight individual identity within the context of the First World War.

white featherWhite Feather by Catherine and David MacPhail
This powerful tale is about how we remember somebody after they have died. The war is over, and everyone is celebrating, except Tony who is still mourning his brother Charlie who never returned from no man’s land. What’s more, Tony is given a white feather during the Armistice, a sign that his brother is remembered as a coward – executed for running away from Frontline service. Tony doesn’t believe that his brother was a coward, and sets out to find the truth, so that he can remember his brother – and that his brother can be correctly identified as a brave soldier.

Just as now, with first-hand recollection gone, the truth about the First World War may seem more misty, more distant. It’s important that we understand the facts of what happened, but also that we see through poetry or novels the individual’s experience, so that we can better empathise with the realities of that time. White Feather is about the search for truth – told as half a mystery and half a ghost story in a quest to uncover what really happened on the Front Line. With sympathetic characters, this novella provides a great talking point for how we understand the horrors of the time, as well as the importance of an individual’s identity, even after death. You can buy it here.

 

respect walter tullRespect: The Walter Tull Story by Michaela Morgan, with illustrations by Karen Donnelly
Another short novel, this time based on the true story of a First World War hero, pulls in today’s children for two reasons – firstly it’s again about identity – Walter Tull was a black man and suffered from prejudice because of this, and secondly because it ties football to the First World War, pulling in a raft of children who may be reluctant readers. In fact, even though this was first published in 2005, there is still a dearth of books for primary schools with strong black role models, and this fits the bill nicely.

Although Morgan has fictionalised Tull’s story, she has used a mixture of illustrations and photographs to highlight events, with a map too, so that a reader can see the primary sources behind the story. Tull was the first ever black professional footballer, and also the first black officer in the British Army, and his story is fascinating; one of great courage and resilience. You can buy it here.

You may also want to read about Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer here. All books published by Barrington Stoke, specialist publishers for reluctant and dyslexic readers.