middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

Starfell, Magic and Dreams

starfellMagic. It’s a key ingredient of some of the most pervasive children’s books, from The Worst Witch through to Harry Potter, and a tool that ‘literally’ opens a thousand doors. Characters with wands can change their plot with a flick of the wrist, they can take control over a world without any, they can make what’s unfair fair, and push the rules and boundaries of normal society. They can even conquer villainy with a mix of natural ingredients. However, what happens if your own brand of magic is a bit well, rubbish…

In Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day by Dominique Valente, Willow Moss is the youngest in a magical family, but her own particular magical attribute is rather lacking: she can find lost things. When most people are just looking for their glasses or their socks, the skill can feel a little mundane. Especially when one’s family members have rather more exciting magical skills: Willow’s mother can hear dead people, and her big sister can move things with her mind.

But when an entire day is lost, and the most powerful witch in the kingdom summons her for a mission, Willow discovers that finding lost things is of extreme import. And the reader, on the quest with her, also finds out that each individual day may feel humdrum, but actually the things that happen on a particular day have consequences, have knock-on effects that reach far beyond boring Tuesday…

Valente sprinkles her easy-going prose with a liberal dose of rainbow magic – there are quirky creatures galore, twinkling colours, and eccentricity. She plays on the idea of a Magic 8 ball beautifully, and conjures such delights as Wisperia the magical forest, and of course, ‘there be dragons’. Reading it is to be immersed in a magical land, in which the dangers aren’t too great, the quest is fun, and there are delightful inventions – such as a travelling cloak having a portal to a kitchen pantry (useful when on a journey).

But behind the enjoyment lurks a strong message of teamwork, courage, and above all the importance of everyday, an appreciation for what you have, and a really strong understanding of loss and its impact.

A lively read for 8+ years, Valente has a deft humour and a light touch, which will enthrall her readers. Illustrated throughout by Sarah Warburton, who accentuates the quirks and comedy. Below, Dominque Valente explores what she dreams about when deadlines loom, and times get tough:

Becoming a hobbit. I have active fantasies about having my own hobbit house, second breakfasts, a fully stocked pantry and just spending time in the Shire. Gandalf would be welcome to visit, but he could keep saving Middle Earth for the others.

Taking a year off just to read. I have this photograph of a book-lined cottage by the sea and I often just stare at it and sigh. I’ve never taken off more than three weeks of work before, but the idea of a year’s sabbatical spent beachcombing and reading, sounds like bliss.

If I could choose my own magical ability it would be to eat whatever I want and not put on weight. I have spent a long time thinking about this, and really this would be the ideal superpower for me… of course when children ask me this question, I tell them it’s flying.

One of my oldest daydreams is about packing it in and moving to Provence. I fell hard for Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. The only trouble was that I was sixteen at the time, and so was the only teenager I knew, dreaming of retirement, sleeping in hammocks and going truffle-hunting. I still dream of this edible Shangri-La on cold days in Suffolk, when summer seems like a distant myth.

Going on a narrowboat adventure with Prunella Scales and Timothy West. I’d quite like to be the grandchild they never knew about, and I feel like I could write plays for them to perform when we aren’t exploring the water ways and drinking wine …

Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day by Dominique Valente, illustrated by Sarah Warburton, is out now in hardback (£12.99, HarperCollins Children’s Books), and you can buy it here. With thanks to HC Children’s books for the advance review copy.

Malamander by Thomas Taylor

malamanderSometimes a story lures you in like a beckoning finger, and as you step over the threshold, what seems familiar turns gothic and dark, and you are swept away on a tide of imagination and character.

Malamander is one such story. In Cheerie-On-Sea (the letters c and h fall off the sign every winter), Herbert Lemon, the lost-and-founder of the Grand Nautilus Hotel, finds a lost girl one snowy winter evening. She too is sweet, named Violet Parma, and she’s an orphan, looking for her parents who disappeared one night twelve years ago when she was just a baby staying in the hotel.

Together they form a formidable duo, as they roam the coastal town looking for clues as to where Violet’s parents might have gone, and also learning more about the legend of the unctuous sea-monster who stalks the town in winter, hiding in the rolling sea fog, and waiting for its mate on the longest night of the year. This, of course, is the Malamander.

Taylor’s writing is both highly gothic, and laced with a fine dose of humour. The plot whips along at 100 knots, and the tantalising descriptions of the familiar turned dark make this story hugely appealing. The seaside town at close-season is sensually described; it may be without ice cream and sandcastles, but it is imbued with the warmth of fish and chips that steams up the café and gives comfort, and also the horrific sounds of the sea-monster’s shrieks, the frightening foggy sands, and the sea mist that makes the town more than live up to its wintry name of Eerie-on-Sea. The tangible salty fishy smell almost seeps from the pages itself.

But it is the way Taylor has populated his book that makes it so special, drawing on familiar tropes and yet giving it a twist of his own. Every name in the book is joyfully Dickensian, from the sweetie-named children to the villainous slippery Sebastian Eels (a writer with dubious motives), and a very Famous-Five-ish, Scooby-Doo-type villain in Boathook Man. (Some of the names are decidedly creepy. Jenny Hanniver may seem like a nice bookshop lady but, if one looks up what a Jenny Haniver actually is, one may not sleep well that night.) The hotel owner, a reclusive Lady Kraken (think Miss Haversham) holes up in her tower with her claw-like hands and her cameraluna – (a camera-obscura-magic looking-glass) – spying on those below.

What’s more there is a kind bookshop owner, a talking cat, a beachcombing forager, and a mechanical mermonkey who spits out book references to where the correct book for each individual is stored in the bookshop – reminiscent of all seaside towns and their strange magical arcades (think the movie Big).

As Herbet and Violet’s quest for her parents turns into a quest for the egg of the Malamander, so they traverse the town and meet its people, and here Taylor excels in his use of dialogue, which is full of dramatic tension, slowing down in the right places, pausing, leaving gaps, all weaving in and out of his tale with its gothic mystery slant.

The denouement is like an action movie, set in a tide-filling shipwreck just off the coast, with Taylor even managing to make the reader as sympathetic to the Malamander as to the children.

By threading his coastal novel with ancient legend, and misleading the reader with red herrings, mysteries and untrustworthy adults, Taylor has shown he can write with flair, embedding hidden depths into the plot. He himself has hidden depths too – he illustrated the first Harry Potter editions. No wonder the map at the beginning of Malamander is as atmospheric as the prose itself.

This is a novel to hook you in from the first word. It’s cunning, clever, manipulative, deliciously dark and fun, and also holds delightfully old-fashioned storytelling. Don’t miss it. For ages 9+. You can buy it here.

Cover artwork by George Ermos. With thanks to Walker Books for a review copy.

The First Novel: Branford Boase Award

BBA 2018 winners

Branford Boase Award 2018 winning author Mitch Johnson with his winning editors Rebecca Hill (left) and Becky Walker (right).

The Branford Boase Award is given annually to the author of an outstanding debut novel for children. Uniquely, it also honours the editor of the winning title and highlights the importance of the editor in nurturing new talent.

The novel that won the Branford Boase Award 2018 was Kick by Mitch Johnson, and this year he is serving on the 2019 Award Panel. Below, he introduces the 2019 shortlist and explains what makes each of the books so special:

I think for many authors, the publication of their first novel can be an ambivalent experience. On the one hand, all the hard work has paid off, your dream has come true, and finally (FINALLY) your book is out in the world. But on the other hand, what if no one reads it? Or what if people read it and hate it? Or what if there’s been some mistake, and it actually belongs under the bed with all the other unpublished novels you’ve written, rather than on a shelf with proper books written by real writers?

kickNeedless to say, publishing your first novel can be a jittery time. Luckily, the Branford Boase Award is here to help.

It’s difficult to express just how important an award celebrating debut authors – and the editors who bring their books into print – can be. For me, being recognised by the Branford Boase Award gave me renewed confidence in my writing, and encouraged me to pursue projects that I might otherwise have considered too ambitious to attempt. Even now, the trophy reminds me, on the bad days, why I sit at my desk and risk another bad day. And that is to say nothing of the prize money and the financial lifeline that it offers.

Participating as a judge on this year’s panel has been great fun, and to think that Kick survived the process is really quite humbling. (I’ve just about stopped wondering exactly what last year’s panel said about my book.) This year’s shortlist showcases the quality and diversity of publishing for younger readers, and it’s fantastic to see publishers investing in new talent. From imaginative adventures to stories of war-torn Europe to novels tackling contemporary issues, there really is something for everyone on the shortlist. Each deserves a wide readership, and together they form a worthy list to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the award.

And so, in alphabetical order by author, to the books we shortlisted:

house with chicken legs
The House with Chicken Legs
by Sophie Anderson is a wonderful retelling of a Slavic folktale about – you guessed it – a house with chicken legs. The writing is dreamy and magical, the characters feel like old friends, and the book is beautifully packaged. But my favourite thing about The House with Chicken Legs has to be the way it handles death. Death is so often portrayed as a thing to be feared and avoided in storytelling (and for good reason), but The House with Chicken Legs repaints it as the destination that makes life’s journey so special.

train to impossible places
The Train to Impossible Places
by PG Bell is a wildly imaginative adventure that hurtles along at breakneck speed. As I read it, I found myself desperate to know where the next stop would be (my favourite was the Topaz Narrows), and Bell’s wonderful way with words brings each impossible place to life. It also contains one of the best chapter titles I’ve ever seen. The only downside to The Train to Impossible Places is that it will make any future Interrail trips across Europe seem a bit tame by comparison.

rosie loves jack
Rosie Loves Jack
by Mel Darbon was a surprise package for me. I was completely disarmed and wrong-footed by the unique voice, and what I expected to be a fairly predictable love story quickly evolved into something much darker and more complex. The protagonist, Rosie, has Down’s syndrome, and you really feel her frustration as she is repeatedly underestimated and misunderstood by the people she meets. More than anything else, this novel reminds you of how underrepresented some voices still are in fiction, and how desperately we need writers like Darbon to create some balance.

the goose road
The Goose Road
by Rowena House is a real treat to read; the writing is wonderfully evocative, and right from the first chapter – when you learn of the protagonist’s relief that her father has died in battle – you just know that you’re in safe hands. I’ll admit I was initially sceptical about the premise of herding geese through war-torn France, but the writing absolutely blew me away. It was refreshing to read a story from a French civilian’s perspective, and for a time defined by bombs and bullets, the danger in this novel is chillingly subtle.

i am thunder
I Am Thunder
by Muhammad Khan tackles a highly emotive, heavily politicised subject: the radicalisation of a young Muslim girl. Khan does a brilliant job of exploring the tensions that can arise when cultures clash and allegiances are tested, and the sensitivity with which he handles such a volatile subject is astounding. I think it would be easy to underestimate just how difficult this book must have been to write, but Khan’s prose is as subtle and seductive as the grooming it depicts.

orphan monster spy
It’s hard to think of anything more terrifying than being a Jewish spy in Nazi territory, but that is the prospect faced by Sarah, the protagonist of Orphan Monster Spy (by Matt Killeen). Killeen’s novel grabs you by the throat on page one and doesn’t let go: it’s an irresistibly compulsive read. The Second World War may be well-trodden terrain, but this novel brings something fresh and dynamic. The stakes are high, the characters are delightfully flawed, and the result is just as tense and twisty as an espionage thriller should be.

boy at back of class
The Boy at the Back of the Class
by Onjali Q Rauf has already received heaps of recognition, and I was similarly impressed by Raúf’s tale of a young Syrian refugee trying to find peace in the UK. It’s so heartening to see a novel for younger readers tackling the refugee crisis, and books like this one make you hopeful that the next generation will be a more tolerant and understanding one. It’s the kind of book that everyone, young and old, should read.

So there we go. Seven brilliant titles, and I have no idea who is going to triumph when the judging panel reconvenes to discuss the shortlist. It could be any one of them.

With huge thanks to Mitch Johnson. The winner will be announced on Thursday 27th June. 

Football School Q&A and Competition

football school star playersWhen I was about four, my Dad took me to White Hart Lane (home of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club). There was no game on, but he was choosing his season tickets. (Things were different in those days!) I remember being very scared of the height of the steep bank of seats as I walked along the empty Upper West Stand.

Many years and games later, football continues to rule my life. The fixtures go into the diary before anything else, family meals are allowed to be interrupted only for football, and the garden isn’t a garden, it’s a pitch. So, it was great pleasure to interview two footballing greats – not footballers so much – as experts in their field: maths and football writer Alex Bellos, and football journalist and writer Ben Lyttleton, authors of the Football School series.

The Football School series aims to explain the world through football, and the latest in the series, published last week, is Football School: Star Players, a collection of fifty inspirational lives from the world of football, and is full of facts, inspiration, and Alex’s and Ben’s unique blend of humour, fun and personality. 

Here, Alex and Ben answer my questions:

The more I read Football School, the more enamoured I become with using football as a way to teach all kinds of things from podiatry to metaphor! How did you form your collaboration and come up with the idea?

Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton

Alex: Ben and I met at a football conference more than ten years ago. When we discovered we lived very close to each other we kept in touch and became friends. We would often meet for lunch and chat about collaborating. We became aware that lots of children stop reading around the ages of 7-13 and we thought that one way to get kids reading would be to provide them with a book about a subject they felt passionate about. We also wanted to use football to open up the curriculum. Football is a great way to show how everything in life is connected. That’s how the idea of Football School began – as a way to get children to develop a love of reading and a curiosity about the world.

Is much of your own life dominated by football? Do you play/watch/involved with fantasy football etc.

Ben: I would say so, yes!  I write and talk about football every day as part of my job which is lucky because I LOVE the game! I used to go to around 40 games every season but now I have a young family, I’d rather play with them and watch them play. My daughter has just joined her first team which is a brilliant girls’ team that play in a league. I still go to some live games, just not as many, and I now take my daughters to a few as well.

I have played in a Fantasy League with the same people for over 20 years. Last season I lost out on the title by one point when Bournemouth scored a last-minute goal against Burnley! But in 2007 I won a trophy for the highest Fantasy League score in the whole country! A proud moment! I enjoy playing the game because it’s another way to connect with people through our love of football.

football schoolAlex, you’ve spent much time studying futebol – the Brazilian way of life. What’s the difference between English and Brazilian football?

Alex: Yes, I lived in Brazil for five years. I think that the key difference is Brazilians are much more technically skilled, on the whole, than English players. My opinion is that this is because of geographical and cultural factors, as we write in Football School Season 1. Brazilians do not learn to play on grass, because in Brazil grass doesn’t grow very well. Brazilians learn to play on the beach, on tiny concrete pitches, and indoors with a small ball: the challenges of these surfaces makes them overdevelop their technique.

Why is the English premier league so popular worldwide?

Ben: There are a few reasons for this. The game is so exciting in England, and has some of the best talent in the world. Players such as Mo Salah and Kevin de Bruyne are great to watch and capable of pure brilliance. The league is competitive and you never quite know what will happen next. In 2012, Manchester City won the league title with the last kick of the season, when Sergio Aguero scored a dramatic winner against QPR. You can’t make up that kind of drama!

The coaches here are among the best in the world – top guys such as Guardiola, Klopp, Pochettino and Mourinho. But the league is also really well-organised – we know in advance what time the games will kick-off, and the lunchtime games often suit an audience in Asia or North America. Something as simple as that can make a big difference – in Spain, for example, they change the kick-off times at quite short notice so you often never quite know when the game will be taking place.

You’ve managed to bring all subjects into football – biology, history, languages, geography. But does maths play the biggest part in football?

Alex: Ha! My stock response is that maths plays the biggest part in EVERYTHING! Of course it does! Imagine a world with no numbers…we’d be back in the Stone Age. When it comes to football, I think that the links between maths and football are perhaps more obvious – score lines, data, numbers on shirts – than the links with other subjects. But this is not to say that maths plays the biggest part. We take a holistic view: all the subjects are interlinked.

Can you tell me a bit more about Football School Star Players?

Alex: Star Players is a book of 50 profiles of football players who are inspirational role models on and off the pitch. We chose famous footballers with amazing life stories, but also lesser known players who have changed the game – or the world – in some way. For example, there’s the player who became president, the one who invented a new football boot and the one who survived the Holocaust to become the best coach in the world.

Alex, do you have an emotional relationship with numbers and football?

Alex: Of course! When I look at league tables I feel all warm and gooey: there is nothing more satisfying that looking at lists of numbers, especially when they represent important facts!

football school season 3Ben, can you switch off when you watch football, or is it always ‘work’?

Great question! Football used to be my passion and my hobby, and even though now it is still work, I can still sometimes switch off to enjoy some matches – especially when my children are playing. I am actually pretty good at not commentating on what they are doing and still able to see the game as a tool for pure enjoyment and a chance to get some exercise with good friends, which is essentially what it is.

If someone says to you – football’s just a game. What is your response?

Ben: I agree – it is a game and we mustn’t forget that above all else, that’s exactly what it is. But it also has a wonderful way of emotionally connecting with people, which means it can have an impact beyond just the winning and losing of a game. It can bring people together, like it did when the Ivory Coast ended its civil war after the national team qualified for the 2006 World Cup for the first time.

It can be a lovely way for families to spend time together, cheering for the same cause. And footballers themselves have a unique connection with the communities in which they play and a lot of them make huge charitable contributions – by giving their time and support – to people, often children, who are less fortunate than themselves and need some help. So football is a game, but it can also be used as a force for good. That’s what we hope to do with Football School – take the game itself and use it to help children discover a love of reading and a curiosity about the world.

Can you really explain the whole world through the prism of football? What about Brexit?

Alex: Of course we can! We could write a whole book on football and Brexit! For example, we could write about immigration, such as foreign players in our leagues, and our players abroad, and how this will change with Brexit. We could talk about the history of the Champions League. We could write about footballers who became politicians. Once you start looking, you will find many links.

What is your view on women’s football?

We are passionate about women’s football and incredibly excited about the women’s World Cup this summer. We’re not that old but we know that around 1920, women’s football was more popular than men’s football in England. One team, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, would regularly sell out huge stadia like Goodison Park (whose capacity was over 50,000). The men who ran the FA sadly – and unfairly – banned women’s football in 1921. It’s an important part of history as it coincides with the suffragette movement and it’s something we explore in detail in our History lesson in Season Two.

We have been inspired by stories of parents and educators who have told us of the book’s positive effect among their children, and that includes girls. Ben has two daughters who love to play football and he loves hearing them talk about their favourite players and goals to their friends. There are many more opportunities for girls to play football now and coverage of the women’s game is improving, with matches on TV and newspapers giving regular coverage to the women’s league.

At all the school talks we do, the girls are just as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the game as the boys; at our first event, when we invited a few children up to invent their own goal celebrations we were blown away when one of the girls did six back-flips across the stage! That was impressive! Since then, we have done lots of school talks – many at all-girls schools – and found the same enthusiasm for the sport, even if we have yet to meet such another talented gymnast!

Football School Star Players includes many stories of inspiring women players, such as Nadia Nadim, who escaped from a brutal regime growing up in Afghanistan to play for Denmark and Manchester City, and Brandi Chastain, the US player whose dramatic penalty won the 1999 World Cup final. She has promised to donate her brain to scientific research after her death.

With huge thanks to Alex and Ben for answering ALL my questions. And you can buy Football School Star Players here.

Would you like to be a sportswriter like Alex and Ben? The Guardian and Football School have teamed up to launch a competition all about sports writing. To enter, you need to write a 600-word match report on any sporting event, or a 600-word profile about a sports person. You can enter here for a chance to win ‘an opportunity to watch a Premier League football game as a journalist in the press box’, your entry published in The Guardian, or a signed bundle of Football School books and goodies. You need to be aged between 7-12 yrs, and enter before 19th May.

The Words That Fly Between Us by Sarah Carroll

the words that fly between usLanguage is important. Of course it is, it’s one of the ways in which we communicate, and as a reader and writer it’s my primary source of information, and of huge value. But one of the things new writers are taught is the importance of words that are left unsaid. In dialogue, what’s underneath the words, what lies in the silence, which emotions are left hanging in the air – the words that are never spoken but which fly away. Listen carefully to the next conversation you have – who isn’t saying what?

Carroll delves into the world of examining language, secrets, lies, manipulation and communication in her emotionally deep novel, The Words That Fly Between Us

Lucy lives in a large house with her parents, seemingly all privileged and happy. Yet, Lucy lives in a state of heightened awareness; attune to the words that aren’t being spoken, and the manner in which those words that are shared are spoken. Her father uses words to bully and manipulate, and although Lucy is a talented artist, her father’s words hinder even this form of expression. Her confidence is chipped away, her place of safety gone. What’s more, the abuse towards her mother is teetering from just verbal towards the physical.

Lucy takes consolation in the loft space above her room, but she discovers that it links to the attic space of all the other houses in her street, and before long Lucy’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she finds that other people have unspoken secrets in their houses too. But she comes to realise that knowing other people’s secrets can create even larger dilemmas.

In today’s world, the language we use seems to take on an even greater import because quite often it is not accompanied by body language or pitch. Many people today communicate more by written word than spoken word – in text, online comments, direct messages. Carroll touches on this too, with her depiction of Lucy’s friendship with Megan, who writes a blog, but starts to receive unwelcome and bullying comments online.

And incorporating a diary into the novel as part of the plot, means that the reader can start to understand the power of secrets, the power of the written word, and the lies we tell ourselves, or portray to the world. Communication is a powerful tool.

By weaving together these strands, as well as incorporating a homeless girl with a distinct message, a reclusive neighbour who isn’t all she seems, Carroll forms a multi-layered story that mirrors the multi-layers of her characters. Because the bullies in the stories aren’t simple two-dimensional fairytale villains – these are complex characters with deep flaws and insecurities that manifest themselves in harmful ways. By portraying them as humans too, Carroll portrays an ever greater emotional depth to her already heart-wrenching story.

In fact, it is the very appealing first person voice of Lucy that pulls the reader in. And just as Lucy sees the menace behind ordinary words, so the reader begins to see the depths behind the simplicity of the voice, and that although this is an easy read in terms of accessibility, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Carroll deftly imbues her main character with a talent for drawing – a way of expressing her feelings beyond words. And although the book isn’t illustrated, the author shows enormous talent at describing Lucy’s drawings, so that we can see them in our mind’s eye and extrapolate the emotion they are depicting.

This is a powerful book for a 10+ age audience. With compelling, confident writing, a clear understanding of relationships, and a good illustration of how language works and can be manipulated.

Carroll shows what it is for a child to feel safe, to find their voice, and then develop the confidence to use it. Again, what’s key is the kindness of strangers, true friendships and an empathetic heart. You can buy it here.

Runaway Robot by Frank Cottrell-Boyce: the humanity in artificial intelligence

runaway robotIan McKewan caused a bit of a stir the other week over claims that his new novel, Machines Like Me, about artificial intelligence (ie robots) was not science fiction, remaining firmly in the genre of literary fiction. He also claimed that future writers might look at the ‘human dilemmas’ posed by artificial intelligence.

As readers know, writers have long-looked at robots or artificial intelligence as a way of examining our own humanity, starting perhaps with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley…and spinning onwards through HG Wells to Margaret Atwood and beyond. But the snootiness over whether something is sci-fi just because it contains robots luckily doesn’t infiltrate children’s fiction. What’s always rather startling, and somewhat refreshing, is that despite holding a market-share of about a third of print books, the children’s book shelves are still arranged by age rather than genre. Thus Enid Blyton’s adventure capers sit neatly next to Tony Bradman’s historical fiction, Holly Smale’s contemporary fiction sits next to SF Said’s science fiction, David Walliam’s comic mass market books sit adjacent to Robert Westall’s fiction.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce, shelved under C for those in doubt, is a master of comic fiction, and his latest adventure for children, Runaway Robot, definitely speaks to the humanity in us all.

Alfie, very much human, but with a bionic hand, discovers a robot with a missing leg in his local Airport Lost Property. The robot happens to be a giant robot called Eric, with manners as good as a butler, and a demeanour as chivalrous as a knight. The only problem is that he takes instructions quite literally, and is rather large. Alfie and Eric have much in common. Alfie is boyishly charming, Eric is gallant almost to a fault. Both have a missing body part, and both are missing the memory of how they lost their missing parts. Together, they try to solve the clues without leaving too much destruction in their wake.

Cottrell-Boyce writes with confidence and flair, spilling his story into the reader’s head with artistry and comedy, so that readers are equally amused and enthralled, but also touched with a large brush of heart. He has a keen eye for human quirks, and seeing them play out both robotically as well as in humans, is rather fun. And Steven Lenton’s illustrations create that extra dimension of humour.

It is Alfie’s distinctive voice that propels the fiction forwards – written in first person it is as if Alfie himself is telling the reader the story, perhaps sitting next to you or by your bedside, with modern phrases slung in, such as ‘oh my days,’ and the specific brand of truisms that children see when adults don’t – such as the scene in which Alfie is surrounded by his old schoolmates wanting to look at his new bionic hand, and he describes one of them as ‘one of those people who thought the news always understated things so you had to exaggerate to get the truth’. There is also a spectacular twist on how Alfie is telling the story towards the end, which took even this experienced reader by surprise.

What’s more, Alfie is surrounded by a super cast of characters, both in the Limb Lab, where other children with missing limbs are helped by a super scientist and a 3-D printer, including in particular, Shatila, a girl who suffered the loss of her foot by stepping on a mine in Bosnia, and who speaks with extra punctuation. She’s a fantastic character, clearly thought-out, and an attribute to the human feel of the book.

There’s a specific passage in the book about the different ways of walking, which is clever as it speaks to how a good writer depicts character: everything from a person’s walk to their speech and mannerisms forms their character, and the more detail there is, the more authentic the character.

The adults are well drawn too, maybe because Cottrell-Boyce has a knack of depicting adults from a child’s perspective. Alfie sees his Mum through the prism of comfort – food, routine, boundaries and unconditional support. He sees the woman who runs Lost Property through her badge and demeanour – ‘Happy to Help’ – a complete misnomer judging by her expression.

The only flaw I found in the entire book was the profession of Alfie’s mother – in this automated world they live in, it came as a surprise that they still have postwomen.

For although the world Cottrell-Boyce has created will be familiar to readers, with schools and buses and airports, there is a sense that automation has taken over many jobs – the buses are self-driven, there are robot street cleaners and robot pizza delivery ovens, but the most comedic fun for me was Alfie’s house itself, which greets him upon arrival, tells him if he has a high heart rate (‘have you been running?’), and turns all lights and devices off at 10pm.

As with all good fiction, it is the way it makes us look within ourselves that sets this novel apart. Setting a novel in an imagined future where things can be slightly uncomfortable causes us to look at our own present and see the direction we want to go in. Do we want everything to be automated? When there’s an accident, is human error more or less acceptable than machine error?

Although Cottrell-Boyce writes with a deft touch and a comic heart, there are themes pushing up against the reader all the time – with artificial body parts, and thinking chivalrous robots, what makes us human? What possibilities are there for a machine-led future, and how much do we want it? What do we project onto the machine that tells us more about ourselves than it does about the machine?

This is a confidently written, pacey novel with a beating heart in the middle of it. Warm, funny, enjoyable – a great children’s book, whichever genre you think it is.

For age 8+ years. You can buy the book here. And I have one copy to give away. Just comment on my Facebook page below the review.

What My Pupils Have Taught Me About Writing: A Guest Blog by Catherine Bruton

no ballet shoes in syriaA couple of weeks ago my book of the week was No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton. An astute, moving novel about a refugee, drawing on influences from Noel Streatfield to Pamela Brown, it publishes today, at a time when the media is talking about how many adults are reading children’s books, and why. One of the reasons, of course, is that we adults can learn so much from the children around us – their views are fresh and often untainted, their hope more sustained, their outlook less jaded. Many children’s authors start as teachers, reading other children’s books and picking up dialogue or character traits from the children populating their classrooms. Catherine Bruton is one such author: teaching and writing. Here, she outlines what her pupils have taught her about writing:

Being an English teacher is a great privilege. I get to spend all day talking books and writing with young people. Ok, sometimes we have to do grammar and learn how to jump through GCSE exam hoops and write timed A Level essays, but the rest of the time we read and write and talk about stories and poems and words and ideas.  And for everything I’ve managed to teach in over 20 years at the chalkface, my pupils have taught me a hundred times more. Here are three of the biggest lessons I have learned.

  1. Never underestimate young readers.

Reading books together means we end up talking about  all the important stuff – love and hate,  death and despair, loss and longing, family and friendship and freedom and growing up – books cover it all. And my pupils show me daily how open-minded, how thoughtful, how receptive young people are – often much more so than adult readers. I learn so much from the way they react to books and characters – from their openness to new ideas – from the new and changing perspectives they bring to texts each time we read them.  Which is probably why I don’t shy away from big topics in my books (terrorism and Islamophobia in We Can be Heroes; family breakdown and reality TV in Pop!; urban poverty and institutional racism in I Predict a Riot; refugees and most recently the migrant crisis in No Ballet Shoes in Syria) My pupils teach me never to underestimate my readership – and that’s a great lesson as a writer.

  1. Go with the flow!

Teaching creative writing to young people has taught me so much! The youngest writers I teach bring an energy and excitement to writing tasks that I wish I could bottle and imbibe (or sell – I’d make a fortune!) Whatever prompt I bring, whatever idea I suggest, they are immediately fizzing with ideas – ideas which pour out of them unfiltered, uncensored, unquestioned.  They don’t second guess themselves, they don’t question their right to tackle a particular topic, or their ability to realise their vision – you certainly don’t hear young writers  debating what the market predicts for publishing trends!  They trust their imaginations, they enjoy their ideas, they are playful, unfettered and free – and it is glorious to behold. As you get older and more self-conscious/ self-critical that joy is incredibly easy to lose, but my pupils remind me how central it is to the process. Writing is work but it can also be like play – and a degree of abandonment is necessary to get into the state of ‘flow’ which is when the best ideas come pouring out. So I try to remind myself that there will be time to edit later, time for apostrophes and self-doubt later, time to interrogate the concept later (time to dust later!) – sometimes you need to go with the flow and allow yourself to enjoy it!

  1. Learn to love your internal critic.

As my students get older I witness the arrival of their ‘internal critics’. It’s a stage all young writers go through, which tends to hit around adolescence, and it leads them to question themselves, to doubt their creative impulses, to fear failure, to worry about how their writing will be received. Sadly, for many young people this is the moment when they stop writing – and many adult writers find themselves paralysed by similar sentiments! But as I try to explain to my pupils (and remind myself!)  it means they are coming of age as a writer, because the ability to be analytical, critical, objective about your work is absolutely necessary to the editing process. As Dorothea Brande explains in ‘Becoming a Writer’ an author needs two heads – the creative head and the editing head. They need to be kept apart as much as possible but they are BOTH necessary to crafting a successful piece of work. I advise pupils to put work aside for a period before returning to it with an objective critical frame of mind and I try to follow my own advice and learn when to shut out the internal critic – and when to invite her in. It’s not always easy though!

So, a huge thank you to all the wonderful young people I have had the privilege to teach over the years – and who have taught me more than they can ever know! Mrs B (or Miss P!) loves you all!

With thanks to Catherine Bruton. No Ballet Shoes in Syria publishes today and you can read my review here, and buy the book here

The Dog Runner and Climate Change

the dog runnerBren MacDibble’s latest book for children is set in a dog-eat-dog future, in which food production has failed and energy sources have dried up.

Ella and her big half-brother Emery live in a future dystopian Australia, where a fungus has wiped out grass and led to worldwide famine. They live in the city, but when Ella’s mother fails to return from her job trying to restore the solar power grid, and then their father fails to return home, they gather their dogs, make a dry-land dog-sled and set off across the open countryside to make it to Emery’s grandparents’ farm.

This is a journey novel – an adventure story about two children making it across rough terrain. But MacDibble gently nudges the reader into deeper thought about the way we treat the land, our food, our future, and each other.

In the wake of famine, societal norms have broken down. Cities, and sometimes houses themselves, are enclosed by security guards as much to keep people out as keep people in; there are checkpoints and rogue gangs, empty promises by the government of food distribution. For a society starving to death, behaviour disintegrates. The children learn to trust no one – not even a mother with her pushchair and crying toddler. Gangs roam on solar-powered motorbikes, trigger-happy with guns and eager to find any food – even dogs, and willing to shoot children who get in their way.

In a particularly difficult scene, the children come across a farm that has been razed to the ground, the farmer killed, presumably for the meat they were harboring, for the few fruit trees they had left.

As Ella relates, the news tells them that there is no rice in Asia, no maize in Africa, no corn in America. The book explains the importance of grass for all food production.

With her idiosyncratic prose, MacDibble sets to show how over-production and inattention has wiped out the consideration that must be given to the land we harvest. She gives voice to indigenous cultures in the form of Emery, who is of Afghani/Aboriginal ancestry, and whose grandparents are attempting to re-utilize the old ways of storing grain – working on the land with people who have garnered knowledge about it over time.

In fact, what MacDibble shows is that respect must be given equally to other people and to the land we care-take, and in the absence of both, people die.

The children’s relationship is highly reminiscent of Scout and Jem from To Kill a Mockingbird: the younger feisty sister, and an older protective brother, but in circumstances that dictate it is Ella, the younger sister, who must summon all her courage, step up and take the lead after Emery is hurt.

Above all though, this is a fast-paced adventure novel, about adaptability, the importance of kindness, and a showcase for children’s hope in the future of the planet.

Bren MacDibble

Issues of climate change surface in MacDibble’s novels, firstly in How to Bee and now in The Dog Runner. Here, she gives her top tips for everyday changes we can all make to fight against climate change:

What can I do about climate change?

Walk, cycle or take public transport

Plant trees or volunteer to help reforest an area

Eat what is grown locally

Cut back on red meat, especially save beef for special occasions

Stop using pesticides

Plant wildflowers

Leave some areas wild as a haven for insects

Create a bug hotel

Reduce single use plastic bags, cups, bottles, straws and packaging

Pick up litter to prevent it entering waterways

Turn lights and switches off when you’re not using electrical items

Write to your local government about creating more forested or green spaces

Bren MacDibble was raised on farms all over New Zealand, so is an expert about being a child on the land. After 20 years in Melbourne, MacDibble recently sold up, and now lives and works in a bus travelling around Australia. In 2018, How to Bee – her first novel for younger readers – won three major awards in Australia. The Dog Runner, her second children’s novel, publishes 2nd May. You can buy it here.

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.