middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

Fashion Fun

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

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

Here, the illustrations walk the clothes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna at War by Helen Peters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and there be dragons.

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

The Garden of Lost Secrets by AM Howell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing with Time and Nature

charlie noonI’ve long been an admirer of Christopher Edge’s novels. In his latest series of books, (connected by theme, but completely stand-alone stories), he takes a scientific concept and writes a children’s novel around it. It started with The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, which took Schrodinger’s Theory or the many worlds theory, and ran with it. The Jamie Drake Equation was about space travel, although for me it resonated most heartbreakingly with its depiction of an absent father. The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day was quite devastating, in that it investigated relativity, virtual reality and black holes, but mainly sibling relationships, and was both quite frightening and then impossibly sad. The magic of the stories is that although the reader subconsciously absorbs the big scientific ideas, they are also stung by the supreme emotion and fallibility of human relationships, as well as seeing hope for the future.

This time, in The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, Christopher Edge has taken his theme and created an impossible tale, a masterpiece of keeping the reader guessing and turning things upside down and inside out until at the end the reader realises that time has flown…

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is ostensibly about three children who get lost in the woods one evening after school. Edge wonderfully juxtaposes town and country here, as Charlie has moved from London to the country, and experiences the woods in a different way from the other children. There are lush descriptions of wildflowers, and in particular, the different sounds of the birds, and the trees and the lights and shadows that are cast in different areas of the wood.

There’s also a legend about Old Crony, a monster maybe, who lives in the heart of the woods, and who eats children. Charlie and two friends are looking to solve some cryptic puzzles that have been left in the wood, but when night falls they find themselves lost, or maybe trapped. Time plays tricks on them, as Edge explores the concept of time, and how we experience it. There are loops and hurdles for the reader as well as the children as we read a series of scenes that play with our sense of perception.

Edge again cleverly weaves together science and creative thought, nature and story, to stimulate further thought and discussion after reading, but also imparts a huge amount of knowledge. Charlie Noon is an immersive story with non-stop twists and turns, gives each child a real sense of character, and also provides a wonderful key to seeing not only the power of nature, but how stories can stimulate intellectual curiosity and thought.

Here, Christopher Edge explores the inspiration behind the novel, Brendon Chase by ‘BB’, about three boys who run away from home and live wild in the woods:

“When we are young all our impressions are much clearer and more vivid than when we are middle-aged.”

So reads the opening line of The Pegasus Book of the Countryside written by ‘B B’, the pseudonym used by the author, illustrator and naturalist Denys Watkins-Pitchford.

First published in 1964, B B goes on to bemoan how when children are at the most receptive age to enjoy the wonders to be found in the countryside, they are forced to stay indoor for lessons at school, showing that concerns about the lack of nature in children’s lives isn’t a wholly modern phenomenon.

However, in recent times, the role that nature plays in children lives has been brought into sharp focus through books such as The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, which have sought to rewild children’s vocabularies and reconnect them with the natural world, and also the work of the inspirational climate activist Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl whose protests highlight a younger generation’s deep concern for the environment, and how we need to act now to save nature.

Education is about understanding the world around us, so learning about the natural world should be at the heart of the school curriculum. From forest schools to fiction, through subjects like science, art, English and geography, we can rewild children’s education in a way that helps them to understand the fragile wonders that can be found in the natural world, and help give them the heart to defend these wild places.

Reading a novel changes your brain and I hope in the pages of The Longest Night of Charlie Noon young readers might find glimpses of the wild mysteries that fed my imagination, and find inspiration to explore the wild places around them and make their own adventures there.

To end this piece, I’ll borrow the closing words of The Pegasus Book of the Countryside, where B B writes of how reading about nature, ‘remains inside you and adds a richness to life which is with you until your life’s end.’ Let’s give our children the riches they all deserve.

With thanks to Christopher Edge. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is published by Nosy Crow on 6th June, and you can buy it here. With thanks to Nosy Crow for the review proof, and also the sublime finished copy, cover artwork by Matt Saunders. 

The House of Light by Julia Green

house of lightSometimes it’s the quiet books that have the most forceful impact. When I read Close to the Wind by Jon Walters, I understood that this understated book with its everyman tale of migration and movement was a thing of beauty. And now Julia Green has done the same with her timeless tale of stagnation and closed borders in The House of Light. As we move into a more politically uncertain time, filled with aggression and anxiety, this kind of book will resonate with young readers, but will also stir them with its moral integrity and innate sense of hope for the future.

Bonnie lives with her Granda on a wild coastland, where the sea is out of bounds and border guards patrol the area and keep tabs on who is attending school (and who isn’t!). When Bonnie is scavenging on the beach one day she finds an upturned boat, but realises it has been recently used. Before long, she discovers the owner – a bare-footed boy hiding from the authorities. In these lean times, he’s hungry and in need of shelter, so Bonnie harbours him, waiting for the day when he can take his freedom – and maybe she can too.

This beautifully written novel not only lays out the political foolhardiness of closing borders, denying citizens’ rights, and the rule of tyranny rather than compassion, but it also shows the differences that individual people can make. Bonnie learns more at home than at school, under the moral guidance of her Granda, and realises that it is appropriate to welcome strangers and mete out kindness rather than comply with rules that don’t make sense. In the current period of political language around migrants and refugees, this is particularly compelling.

More than this though, the book speaks to the wonder of creativity, and thus creative thinking. The schools impose strict timetables of arbitrary rule-learning rather than embracing any creativity of thought, and when Bonnie discovers a house in which art and liberty are celebrated, she sees that creativity and freedom are connected.

But most of all, it is the wildness of the natural world that shines through the book. The coastline is depicted with intense beauty as well as harshness – Bonnie learns the wonders of the woods near her house, the benefits of snow (over which a boat can be more easily pulled and when footsteps disappear), but most importantly, the use of nature to guide and to heal. Birds give Bonnie clues as to what’s going on, she learns to read the sea and the creatures within, and she understands when to take from nature for survival and when to let it grow and flourish. This is a timely children’s novel set in a world in which medicine no longer exists for people like Bonnie, and she must turn to nature for its healing plants and tinctures. Moreover, energy supplies and mass food production have disappeared too – and it is up to Bonnie and Granda to seek from the animals and from the land. This is about people in a modern world re-learning the earth, its natural resources and its wonders.

This is children’s literary fiction, and Green steadily guides Bonnie and the reader through the book with the metaphor of light highlighting principles. When to break the rules, and how the individual is important. Bonnie’s relationship with both the boy, Ish, and her Granda are drawn tenderly and evocatively. The reader feels her doubts and pain, her love and instincts. Although this is a simple story, it is well told, with underlying depth and memorable characters, and a tangible setting. It sears its message and vision into the reader’s mind.

The novel is indicative of the courage and hope this generation will need to take into the future, and is a hidden gem. I heartily recommend letting it light up your young reader. For ages 9+. You can buy it here.

Cover artwork by Helen Crawford-White. With thanks to OUP for the review copy.

The Golden Butterfly by Sharon Gosling

the golden butterflyWhat is it about the Victorian era that makes reading about it quite so appealing? Is it because it was the age of massive advances in science and technology, changing the world of communication, transportation and work? Perhaps it was the changing ideas about the treatment of women, or the recognition and shifting ideas of class and social mobility, industrialisation, the expansion of empire….

Amazingly, and with some skill, Sharon Gosling covers a lot of this ground in her novel, The Golden Butterfly, set in 1897, although most of the themes are subtly lurking behind the scenes.

Luciana’s grandfather was the Magnificent Marko, a leading magician of his time, who performed the most astonishing, spectacular trick called ‘The Golden Butterfly’. Since he dramatically departed the stage, no one has come close to performing a trick quite as extraordinary. After his death, the leader of the Grand Society of Magicians comes searching Luciana’s house for secrets of the trick, setting Luciana on a treasure hunt of her own. Before long, she’s embroiled in magic herself, ready to protect her grandfather’s legacy, and set to show the world that women have just as much right to perform magic as men.

Luciana is a strong female character – as are many protagonists in today’s current crop of middle grade (8+ years) fiction, but she has more to prove in her era, striving against being cast as ‘other’ or a ‘witch’ in order to practise a trade that has been embraced by theatre audiences, but only when performed by a man.

But all people are not who they seem. In fact, it is this very idea – the art of appearances and illusions – that stalks the novel, magic being about deflection and distraction. Luciana comes to discover that it is the person behind the façade that counts.

Where better than to set her cast of characters then, than in a theatre, with the fluidity of appearance and reality, front of stage and backstage. Throughout her novel, Gosling plays with the idea of the mask people show to the world, and what’s really underneath, as well as how distraction aids magic and can lead people in the wrong direction in real life too, and lastly, the power play involved with rivalry and ambition.

Luciana adventures with a trust sidekick, the loveable Charley, son of a housekeeper and thus of a different social class from Luciana. Warned off him by her grandmother, Luciana learns that it is not only the gender she is born into but the social class that enables or disables her. Gosling builds a wonderful friendship between the pair, despite their differences, showing that loyalty and shared history counts more than social status, but she also draws them into a world of polarisation – the sumptuous houses of the wealthy with their butlers and warm beds juxtaposed with the ragamuffin children lurking by the railway stations and the workers in public houses.

With a clever treasure trail set in motion from the beginning, Luciana moves through Victorian England encountering all these people, using different modes of transport, and learning to look behind the curtains.

She’s also an orphan – raised by grandparents, and part of her quest revolves around finding out who her parents might have been. This is visually evocative in that she has a recurring fear of fire, stemming from something in her childhood. Linking this to the secret use of lighting magnesium during a magic act to create a distraction (a bright white light like the original photographers used in their ‘flash’), and the science of the era is brought to life.

With her confident prose, Gosling is adept at describing the magic tricks, not only the strange contraption puzzles that Luciana’s grandfather leaves behind to solve (reminiscent of modern rubik’s cubes), but also in her description of the golden butterfly act itself and its behind the scenes mechanism. Her word precision, her specificity, is inherent on every page, so that the Victorian theatre world seems very real to today’s audience, each word as carefully placed as the cards in a magic trick.

Although the plot was guessable (by me at least), it does not spoil enjoyment of the novel. Like seeing a magic trick, it is the enigma of how it is done. Gosling imbues her world with colour and vibrancy, fully embracing the appearance and reality of her plot and using the built-in drama of anticipation and excitement of a theatre’s magic show to give her book its dramatic arc. The fun is in seeing how Gosling is going to reveal the truth – how the final trick is going to be played.

The cover design is divine, the chapters are short and sharp, the villains shady, the final reveal heart-warming, cheerful and looking to the future. A great novel, showing that although we’ve come a long way since the Victorian era, there’s still a way to go, and that as Houdini said, ‘my brain is the key that sets my mind free.’ Books, like magic, dazzle and make you think. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Stripes books for the review copy. Cover art by Pip Johnson.

Has Your Memory Stored Your Old Tech?

bootWhen I was younger I had a Spectrum ZX. And I can’t imagine how many hours I spent playing a game called ‘Jet Set Willy’. The idea of the game was that the player was Willy, a figure who had to tidy up all the items in his house after a party – and he had a lot of rooms in this house, ranging from the cold store with dangling rope, to the wine cellar with its many black holes, to the forgotten abbey where moving platforms and skulls dominate the room.

I don’t play ‘Jet Set Willy’ any more, but I do spend a great many hours tidying up the items in my house (I don’t have a wine cellar, cold store or forgotten abbey),  not after a party, but after the children have gone to school.

I mention this because the publishers of Shane Hegarty’s latest book, Boot, suggested that I revisit a piece of technology that holds special memories for me, in order that I can tie it to the themes of memories, objects, and technology that permeate Hegarty’s novel.

Boot is about a toy robot, called Boot, who wakes up in a scrapyard, and finds his hard drive mainly wiped of memory, except for 2 and a half images and an idea that it was once loved by its owner, Beth. Boot is determined to find its way back to Beth, and with a group of other abandoned, half-working robots, it struggles across the city to find her. Except that, of course, discarded pieces of technology are usually thrust aside for a reason.

I think I abandoned ‘Jet Set Willy’ because of GCSEs (at least my parents would probably like to think so). However, it does hold a soft spot in my heart, and if you gave me a spectrum ZX with Jet Set Willy downloaded now, I’d while away a few hours exploring.

Children would do well to while away a few hours reading Boot. Although in the science fiction genre and with a robot protagonist, the book pulses with emotion. Hegarty executes this with ease because Boot is a toy robot – made specifically to be a child’s companion, and thus its ‘set’ emotions are written all over its face/screen. When sad, the orange smile on its face turns blue and upside down. Moreover, Boot has suffered some damage, so some of its ‘set’ feelings are slightly off, leaving Boot with rather more emotion than a robot usually has, and the weird consequence that not all its emotions inside show correctly on the outside. But more than this, Boot is programmed to decipher emotions in others – it sees that one adult is angry by way of ‘teeth clenching’ and ‘jabbing finger’. In this way, as in real artificial intelligence, robots are being programmed and learning just as toddlers do – from being fed experiences.

As well as using emotion, Hegarty manipulates his readers – making them feel profoundly for, what is, after all, an object. In fact, in a Toy Story reminiscent scene, Boot discovers it’s not unique – there are lots of robots identical to it. Just like Buzz Lightyear, it makes readers think about our own identity. What is it that makes each of us unique, why are we, and how can we use that as a positive, and recognise it as positive in others.

Because Boot befriends so many robots, all discarded or cast aside for some reason, the reader is constantly reminded that they are just machines in this fictional future landscape, and yet by bringing them to life with human characteristics, Hegarty asks the reader to think about them as ‘disposed’ objects. Should we dispose of things so quickly – can we not repair and mend, reuse and recycle? And should we?

In the end, Boot does find Beth, but the ending is more complicated than that. Hegarty builds on his theory of disposability, extending it to humans too. For this is a story about growing old, being discarded, and the value of memory.

Illustrated in black and white throughout by Ben Mantle, with a keen eye on the idea that the robots in the novel seem more friendly than many of the humans, this is a heartwarming, funny, neat little novel with some big ideas, an extending vocabulary and light modern prose, for children aged 6+ .

I don’t know what purpose my memories of ‘Jet Set Willy’ serve, but they definitely make me smile. And if memories make the person in the present happy, then that’s about the best reason of all.

To buy Boot, click here. With thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for the review copy and for sparking an idea for the blog.