middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

The Girls of Year 7

completely cassidyperfectly ella Dog Ears

I have three excellent books for those children facing, with some trepidation, the start of secondary school. Each book has its own distinct qualities and themes, but the one aspect they all share is demonstrating that with support from friends and family the upheaval and newness of Year 7 can be conquered: from dealing with a new faculty of teachers, juggling different subjects and homeworks, meeting and making new friends and keeping old ones, and other people’s expectations of a Year 7’s greater personal responsibility. Year 7 can be daunting and tough, so three great protagonists with whom young readers will identify are Cassidy from Completely Cassidy, Ella from Perfectly Ella, and Anna from Dog Ears.

completely cassidy

Completely Cassidy: Accidental Genius by Tamsyn Murray, illustrations by Antonia Miller
This book had me chuckling from the outset, and kept up the humour and pace all the way through. I devoured it in one sitting and highly recommend it. Tamsyn Murray captures the essence of what it means to be a tweenager in this endearing new series about a girl called Cassidy. Written in the first person, Cassidy is just starting secondary school and intensely worried about looking right and fitting in. Her mother is pregnant with twins, and her big brother is annoyingly at the same school, and just generally annoying! In the first in the series, Cassidy’s test results get muddled with someone else’s, and the school mistakenly place her in the Gifted and Talented group, as well as putting her on the school quiz team. Overnight she’s the school genius! At the same time she’s juggling her old friends, one of whom has a crush on her older brother (much to her annoyance), her transformation from little girl to bigger girl – from still wearing fairy knickers to dying her hair – and her changing family situation. Tamsyn employs the use of CAPITAL LETTERS to accentuate her tweens’ intonation, as well as random doodles and squiggles, and graphics showing ‘torn out’ to do lists, extracts from diaries, and lists of facts that Cassidy attempts to learn to keep up her genius status. But above all, what shines through is the realism of Cassidy’s voice, in her deepest thoughts, her squabbles with her brother, and her conversations with her friends. I can’t wait for the next book. This one was fantastic. (and there’s a website www.completelycassidy.co.uk). You can purchase it from Waterstones here.

perfectly ella

Perfectly Ella by Candy Harper
Although this book also opens by talking about knickers, it’s not meant to be as comical as Completely Cassidy. The voice of Ella, also in the first person, seems slightly more imbued with the author’s voice, with a more serious sensibility and worldly awareness. Ella’s family situation dominates the novel, for although Ella is also starting Year 7, she is still dealing with the breakup of her family:
“I don’t think their divorce will ever really make sense to us”
Her weeks are split between time at home with her teacher mother and three sisters, and time with her sisters at her Dad’s place with his new partner and new baby. Ella is also dealing with a sharper case of insecurity – she struggles to define herself against her other sisters, all of whom appear to her to have much more distinctive characteristics. They also deal with the outcomes of the divorce in different ways; her eldest sister bottling up the emotions but releasing a drip of anger and resentment; and her littlest sister wanting her whole family to live together under one roof. Ella herself counts the exact days since the divorce, and tries to make an effort to get everyone in her family to be happy, no matter the cost to herself. The accuracy of the situation is heartrending and I particularly loved that Ella prized her time alone with each parent more than anything. Ella is also contending with the dynamics of bringing two old friends of hers together at school and attempting to make them like each other – and then realising that a threesome of girls can be tricky. It’s a well-crafted book, and the writing shows that the author herself comes from a large family. She picks up the dialogue superbly. For her readers, there’s the added delight of craft activities, recipes and quizzes at the back of the book. You can also read my Q&A with Candy Harper here, and buy Perfectly Ella from Waterstones here.

Dog Ears

Dog Ears by Anne Booth, cover by Pip Johnson, illustrations by Anne Booth
This author shot to critical acclaim with her debut novel, Girl With a White Dog, in 2014. It gently introduced the topic of Nazi Germany to a young audience and makes for compelling reading. Her new book, Dog Ears, also uses the device of a dog to bring a much bigger topic to life. Anna, halfway through the autumn term of Year 7, finds that she can’t easily talk to anyone in her family, so relates her day to day thoughts and feelings to her dog. This works well, as the reader is the dog and therefore privy to Anna’s struggle as she tries to balance the hectic life of a Year 7 schoolgirl with problems at home. Her father is away, her mother dealing with an ill premature baby, and so Anna is left to pick up the pieces, dealing with domestic duties and the increasing stress of her home environment. Anne Booth wants to draw attention to the multitude of children who suffer the pressures of being young carers at the same time as dealing with schoolwork and friends and growing up. She manages to strike a fine balance here between bringing an issue to light and making this a fun read. Through the telling of the story we gradually realise that Anna is finding it harder and harder to keep up with not just her schoolwork – but also to remember things for school such as ingredients for food technology, costumes and musical instruments for school performances. The extent to which Year 7 can be overwhelming is patently laid bare here. Anna is also under pressure from her Gran to be more helpful at home, and all of this is set against the backdrop of an exciting talent competition at school. There’s the fluctuating emotions of her mother because of the situation with her sick baby brother, as well as frustrating Skype conversations with her absent father. By the end she has realised that she is not alone in her predicament, and also that once her feelings are properly aired, she has a huge support network around her. Anne Booth manages to pack a great deal into this slim manageable book. It’s a complex situation dealt with simply and deftly, and an enjoyable read. Buy it here.

 

With thanks to Usborne Publishers for sending me a copy of Completely Cassidy for review, and to Simon and Schuster for sending me Perfectly Ella for review.

 

Candy Harper Q and A: The Perfectly Ella Blog Tour

perfectly ella
Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing three books that feature Year 7 girls as protagonists. One of them is Perfectly Ella by Candy Harper, a new witty and enjoyable coming-of-age tale about Ella, who is the fourth of five sisters. Ella has to deal with family break-up, shifting friendships, and being part of a large family of girls. Author Candy Harper is herself the fourth of five sisters, so I wanted to quiz her on her fabulous family.

MinervaReads: I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a Jo from Little Women, or Saffy from the Casson series of books. Who are your favourite fictional sisters?

CH: Ooh, loads. The Conroys in Hilary McKay’s The Exiles series. The Fossil sisters in Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes. Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and BeezusThe Penderwicks. Laura and Mary from Little House on the Prairie (I love it when Laura pinches Mary because she can’t stand what a goody-two-shoes she is.) The Bennets in Pride and Prejudice (When people hear that I’ve got four sisters they ask me if we’re like the Bennet sisters, I tell them actually growing up with a load of sisters is less about helping each other do your hair for a ball and more about learning to eat with one hand guarding your plate.)

Are any of your siblings also writers – like an Emily to your Charlotte Bronte?

CH: No, but my 10 year-old daughter, Lyra, is a brilliant writer and illustrator. Her latest picture book ‘The Day All the Pets at the Pet Show Died’ is a heart-breaking work of staggering genius and I’m sure we’ll see it in bookshops soon.

Many groups of siblings have formed some kind of group act – Jackson Five, The Von Trapp singers, etc. Does your family have a special talent?

CH: We can’t sing, dance or play the ukulele, but we do know how to put on a rollicking good row. During which, two sisters are usually blisteringly angry, and the other three are convulsed with laughter. Seeing my littlest sister (who is actually quite tall) grab my middle sister (who is Kylie Minogue sized) by her collar and pin her up against a wall is a special memory I will treasure forever.

candy harper sistersCandy (second from left), and her four sisters (when they were little)

You have four sisters. Did you miss not having a brother?

CH: When my mum was pregnant with my little sister I really hoped she’d be a brother. When she was born, my parents bought me a boy doll to make me feel better. For the next three years I spoke to the doll more than I did my little sister. Then I discovered she was small enough to sneak under our back fence into the neighbour’s raspberry patch, and all was forgiven. Ever since then, as long as people bring me something nice, I don’t mind which gender they are or whose garden they’ve stolen it from.

What is the best and worst thing about having four sisters?

CH: Growing up, the worst thing was that they were EVERYWHERE. We were a family of seven living in a three bedroom semi. I used to climb into the airing cupboard to get some peace and quiet. But on the plus side, there was always someone to play with.

You are the fourth of five sisters. Did you ever get bought anything new?

CH: Ha! You sound like a younger sibling yourself. The short answer is no. I was always optimistic about the whole hand-me-down process; I used to admire the new things my big sisters got and imagine how great I’d look in them years later, ignoring the fact that they’d be covered in felt tip stains and bobbles by then. It took me a while to consider the impact of changing fashions, too. I remember looking at my eldest sister’s mint green court shoes and thinking ‘One day those babies will be mine.’ When they finally reached me in the ’90s, everyone was wearing Doc Martins and I was a lot less keen on them.

With huge thanks to Candy Harper for being so honest and sharing her stories of sibling rivalry with me. Look out for my review of Perfectly Ella here. To win one of five giveaway copies of Perfectly Ella, find me on twitter @minervamoan and follow and retweet. If you’re not lucky enough to win, you can buy your own copy in the shops here.
Perfectly Ella blog tour bannercandida harper photo

Ivy Pocket Character Development: A Very Lofty Opinion of Herself

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I’m delighted to host a guest post from John Kelly, the illustrator for Anyone But Ivy Pocket on my blog today:

Ivy in cake

I love designing characters.
My favourite thing about being an illustrator and writer of children’s books is the bit at the beginning of a project where you get to decide what a character looks like. To be honest, I’d be happy just doing that, and not bothering with any of that messy story business. So, back in November last year when I got an email from Bloomsbury asking me if I wanted to illustrate, Anyone but Ivy Pocket I didn’t even wait to find out if I had time in the schedule to do it. I just read:
“Ivy Pocket is a 12-year-old maid of no importance with a very lofty opinion of herself.”
‘Perfect’, I thought. I know exactly what she looks like. So I drew a quick sketch and sent it to the designer.
It was Ivy standing by the broken pieces of a priceless vase, with a dopey expression that said, “I’m afraid it was an escaped panther, M’Lady.”
IVY rough 1

And that, with a few tweaks of expression, was pretty much how long it took to design Ivy.
IVY rough 2

That’s not normal. Usually there’s loads of versions and roughs. Lots of furious scribbling, curses, and rubbing out before the character starts to slowly appear. So, just for form’s sake, I did a few more doodles of Ivy, and a simple character pose. But she pretty much stayed the same. And the character pose I did even ended up as the cover of the book. I credit the writer, Caleb Krisp, with writing such perfectly described characters. And he was brilliant at offering feedback when I got it wrong. For example, my first attempt at the beastly Matilda Butterfield wasn’t right at all. Her description read:
12 years old. Very pretty. Dark hair, hazel eyes, red lips and an olive complexion. Looks like a doll. Lovely, but somehow unreal.
For some reason I gave her bubbly blonde curls and an expression of worried angst. Caleb put me straight and pointed out that she was supposed to be a selfish, malevolent, spoilt brat. I gave her long dark hair and a vicious little expression.

Matilda wrong
The hardest character to pin down was the enigmatic (and villainous) Miss Always.
Prim-looking young woman (aged 25-30) with mousey brown hair. Wears a brown dress and matching gloves. She has unremarkable brown hair pulled back from her face. Round spectacles. Excellent teeth.
She’s supposed to look harmless, uninteresting, and unthreatening. It’s really hard to draw ‘unremarkable’ and make it interesting. Anyway, it took me a while to get there. At first she was too silly, then too scary, then a teensy bit prim, then too friendly, then stern, then sappy.

Ms Always (1)

Good grief! Eventually I somehow combined them all and got it right.

Ms. Alwats final

So, I do love designing characters, but give me a massive evil beard, a villainous octopus juggling a cutlasses, or a giant alien robot every time. Much, much easier.

With thanks to John Kelly. The illustrations, as you can see, do enhance Caleb Krisp’s characterisations and further bring the story to life. You can read my review of Anyone But Ivy Pocket here, and purchase it here

The Unreliable Narrator

Some of my favourite literature has unreliable narrators, The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – the latter of which clearly reaches into the children’s literature genre. For children, it can be fun to spot an unreliable narrator and makes for great discussion.

Some narrators are unreliable simply by being young – the story is told from their first person perspective and they are too immature to appreciate everything that’s happening around them. In many ways the reader can see through this and may appreciate that they themselves have a greater understanding of the narrative than the person telling them the story. Diary form novels fit easily into this genre – Wimpy Kid, Emily Sparkes, Dork Diaries. We can see the author’s intent where the first person narrator of the story is playing catch up with the reader.

Then there are more subtle unreliable narrators, perhaps those who are lying to us, to themselves, deliberately or not. I wanted to review two books with unreliable narrators, both of which are for the middle grade readership (9+yrs.) but the two books couldn’t be more different. These are both highly recommended by me.

ivy pocket

Anyone But Ivy Pocket by Caleb Krisp, illustrations by John Kelly
Twelve year old Ivy Pocket is a maid, sacked by her employer at the beginning of the novel, and left destitute in Paris. She is summoned to the bedside of the Duchess of Trinity and asked to deliver a very precious jewel, the Clock Diamond, to Matilda Butterfield in England on the occasion of her birthday for the reward of £500. Ivy agrees, and starts her adventure of gothic charm, ghosts, catastrophe and murder.
The brilliance of the novel though, is not so much the somewhat violent action scenes, twists and turns, and great characterisation, as the way in which the story is told. Ivy Pocket is swamped with the most extravagant case of delusional self-belief, believing herself to be above her station, and brilliant at everything. She is hilariously quirky; ebullient, tongue-in-cheek, absurd and captivating.
She reminded me at times of that long-ago American heroine Amelia Badelia, who does everything she is told completely literally from making sponge cakes with sponges to stamping on letters, but with the best intentions. Ivy too believes she is constantly in the right, and all those around her are ridiculously wrong. She insults, misconstrues and acts dumb in turns, but in the most winning and humorous way, that you love her despite everyone else in the book finding her deeply irritating. The language is deeply satisfying – Kaleb Crisp employs delightfully tongue-in-cheek vocabulary throughout from ‘carbunkle’ and ‘stupendously’ to ‘claptrap’ and ‘bunkum’. Her insults are luscious:
“Lady Elizabeth, there is no great crime in being a dried-up bag of wrinkles. In fact, I’m not even sure it would be kinder to drag you outside and shoot you.”
and
“A great big slug of a woman – part goddess, part hippopotamus…her enormous body spread out on every side like an avalanche”
I wanted to read aloud parts to everyone I met whilst I was mid-read. Ivy Pocket also has stock phrases that she repeats throughout the book, giving her great characterisation, added to the fact that almost everyone else in the book is highly satirical, and you have one of the most fun books I have read in a long time. I’m imagining that a child will have to be quite sophisticated in order to appreciate all the nuances within, but once hooked, they’ll devour this and every sequel that follows. It’s reminiscent of Lemony Snicket’s books, and yet highly distinctive.
You can buy a copy here, the book is published on 9th April 2015

Liar and Spy

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Where Ivy Pocket is playful and verbose, Liar and Spy is realistic, modern and minimalist. Set in New York, the story is mainly told through dialogue. Liar and Spy is narrated by Georges, a young boy whose family is suffering from financial difficulties. Georges tells us about himself, the difficult time he is having in school, and the family he befriends when his family downsizes into a new apartment block. Georges’ Dad pushes him into joining a ‘spy club’ that they stumble upon in the building, and before long Georges is playing at being a spy on his neighbours in the building.
The humour within this novel is observational. Rebecca Stead has managed to capture the dialogue, worries, and thoughts of young boys particularly well, and it soon becomes apparent to the reader that everything is not as it seems. The cleverness lies in working out, from the small clues that Stead drops throughout the narrative, whom is lying to whom and whether our narrator can be trusted. In the end, it’s for the reader to understand that if our narrator is living under a delusion, then by default, so are we, the readers. It’s a small, clever book that betrays some youngsters’ fears and anxieties in a subtle, non-threatening and understanding way.
Liar and Spy also brings into play how other people live – not just a view of American life for those of us reading it in the UK, but also how different families operate in different ways. It also opens our eyes to some deeper thoughts – what matters in life – how our small actions every day build up to create a bigger picture. It’s a great book, a terrific story, but also makes for interesting talking points as children grow towards the teenage years. Buy your copy here.

An Interview with Piers Torday, author of The Last Wild trilogy

Piers TordayPiers twitter avatar

Piers Torday looks a bit like his twitter avatar, which in turn looks a bit like the BFG (Big Friendly Giant). That’s not an insult, in fact he refers to it himself, and I can concur that he’s definitely friendly, and is building up to be a colossus in the world of children’s literature. Winning the Guardian Fiction Prize in 2014 for The Dark Wild, which is part two of his Last Wild trilogy, the third book, The Wild Beyond, was released into our wild on April 2nd, and is a literary tour de force. Read my review here.

I have to admit something. I was in love with Pier’s first book before I had even read it. My son, who devoured only information books, was hooked into fiction by The Last Wild – the first book he read that he really physically wouldn’t put down. Then I read it, and understood why. I read a great many children’s books – this one is destined to be a classic.
The Last WildThe Dark Wilduntitled

Piers Torday grew up in Northumberland – where he claims there were more animals than people. His mother ran a children’s bookshop, and she even had Roald Dahl come visit, which probably gives you a good background if you want to write children’s books (with lots of animals inside!) Piers kindly took time out of his busy schedule ahead of his book launch to answer some of my questions, as I wanted to delve further and find out how the big ideas in the trilogy were born.

The Last Wild trilogy deals with human impact on the Earth. Did you set out to write a book based on the environment? 

PT: Yes, right from the get go, the Last Wild trilogy was conceived as a way of writing about the environment, climate change, humanity’s relationship with the natural world and the “sixth extinction”, for children. I wanted to find a way of asking questions about our role as self-appointed stewards of the planet, our hypocrisy over our sentimental attitude towards some animals (e.g. pets) and our capacity to destroy/consume other species and habitats at a rapacious rate, and ponder how different we really were to other creatures. I didn’t want to lecture children with statistics about sea levels or temperatures, as that kind of high statistical science, whilst pertinent and all too real, still feels at one remove emotionally. I was writing about animals but, obviously, I also wanted to deploy them as a metaphor for the planet at large – giving it soul and identities we could care about. I am an author, not a scientist or politician. I make no claims or have no answers but I do think, especially for the next generation, the questions are worth asking.

Did you always want to write for children specifically?

PT: It was always a possibility but not an overweening aim. I loved reading as a child, and made no distinction between “adult” and “children’s books” before I became a children’s author, gobbling up modern classics such as Harry Potter and Northern Lights as eagerly as the new Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel. But it wasn’t until my first attempt at novel writing contained several talking animals as characters that my agent wisely pointed out it was definitely a children’s book! I am now so happy writing children’s books, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do anything else, and always feel a bit disgruntled when people ask if I will one day write adult fiction. Not that I won’t, but I resent the somewhat condescending implication that writing for older readers is in any way a graduation, rather than simply a sideways shift in genre.

How much did your parents influence your writing? Ie. Your father himself an author and your mother running a children’s bookshop?

PT: I don’t know if they influenced my actual writing directly, other than creating the best possible environment for it to develop. It was wonderful spending my early years on a bookshop floor – that is one of my earliest memories, and to this day I associate bookshops with security, safety and happiness. Which is lovely but bad for my wallet! They read out loud to me continuously, and introduced me to many of my favourite authors – Lewis, Herge, Jansson, Tolkien etc. Tolkien taught my dad at Oxford and his myths always had a special place in our household. I think to a degree my father’s love of that world, combined with growing up in Northumberland, meant that many long walks in hills, dales and forests helped shape my childhood imagination to see a remote rural landscape as one filled with adventurous possibility.

Did you always envisage writing Kester’s story as a trilogy?

PT: I always had images in my head of various scenes with various characters, all of which feature in all three books, but it was only as I was writing them that the trilogy structure became clear. I can only see one book ahead at a time, but I knew the story was always too long for just one book, and the third book became very obvious to me while I was writing the second one.

Your villains are all very distinct, very different. Do you have any precise influences for them?

PT: I always try and make my characters as distinct as possible – I think it’s particularly important in children’s fiction and I also think visualising the characters is key for them – it’s not just about personality, especially with villains. Captain Skuldiss, the animal catcher, was based on the Child Catcher from the film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, who terrified me as a child, but his funny way of speaking is borrowed from my Hungarian great grandmother who was formidable but not similar to Skuldiss in any other way. As a child I always enjoyed villains who had a special gadget or weapon all of their own, which is why I gave him supersonic crutches. Dagger, in The Dark Wild, is based on a family member’s large white dog – who couldn’t be sweeter – but who is visually very striking.  Fenella, in The Wild Beyond, is my attempt to create a female villain in the grand Disney style of Ursula from The Little Mermaid or Mother Gothel from Tangled. I imagined all her dialogue as the lyrics to a big musical number! I wanted her to be scary but also have something of the pantomime about her. But the main villain, Selwyn Stone, I wanted to be as real and normal a person as possible. Because real people do bad things as well as cartoon crazies.

As the books go on, it becomes more frustrating for Kester not to be able to talk to humans. Was it frustrating as a writer to have a main character who didn’t speak to other people?

PT: You bet! I’m never doing that again… and in first person, present tense too. It was a challenge, though, and I enjoyed the pressure of having to reinvent ways round it, and it was a good focus for finding the voice, especially in a debut book. I’m very proud of having survived the experience with my sanity intact but next time, there will be speaking!

In your acknowledgements you mention that the animals didn’t always talk. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

PT: The Last Wild, way back when, began life as a sitcom about growing up on a farm, believe it or not. A TV colleague suggested that it might be better if the animals – cows, sheep, hens – talked, and that got me thinking and re-reading Animal Farm, and then I abandoned the sitcom idea altogether and wanted to write something about animals revolting against human authority. That became The Dark Wild, but it was the seed from which the whole trilogy grew.

If you were an animal, what would you be?

PT: I would be a Koala bear. For one thing they are asleep for 91% of the day, and also, look at them! Who wouldn’t want to be that adorable?

Anthony Horowitz talks about writing a book about a grownup Alex Rider. Would you consider the possibility of writing about a grownup Kester?

PT: Never say never!

Concerned about finding my next great book, Piers tells me that he is writing a new children’s book, but that he is sworn to secrecy. It will be published in October 2016, and will be a stand-alone novel, maybe with illustrations…He’d better not delay. I’ve marked my calendar already.

To purchase Piers Torday’s books, click here for The Last Wild, here for The Dark Wild, and here for The Wild Beyond.

 

The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday

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It’s always hard to review the last book in a trilogy, not knowing if your readers have read the first two. Although not impossible to read as a stand-alone, I would implore everyone to read the first two titles, The Last Wild and The Dark Wild, before coming to The Wild Beyond.

The Wild Beyond matches the magic of the first two books in the series, continuing the adventure story of Kester, his two friends, Polly and Aida, and the animals they have gathered along the way. It is a triumphant and glorious ending to the trilogy, pulling together all the story strands and giving each character a fitting ending. It finishes with an uplifting message of hope, which for a book about how much humans have damaged the world is quite an achievement. Both compellingly written and perfectly pitched for the age group, The Wild Beyond contains equal amounts of fast-paced action, and vivid scenic imagery.

Kester is a boy who cannot speak, except to the animals left behind when environmental catastrophes engulfed the world. He has managed to rescue some of the animals, and save quite a few humans too, but his biggest challenge lies in this new adventure, as he has to make enormous decisions about where and how the human race can continue to survive. When a blue whale delivers a frightening message about the near future to Kester, he realises that he will have to travel a long way to seek the answers to his questions. Torday’s masterstroke is that although the adventures are fantastical, the characters of the children are so rooted and grounded, and their camaraderie with each other so real, that the reader immediately identifies with them. The friendship between Kester and his two loyal friends is magical, brave and provokes humour and hope. It stands out precisely because it is unremarkable. The children find strength in unity and never give up.

What’s more the book has a magnificent villain in Fenella Clancy-Clay, a pale ice-cold woman with a necklace of magical icicles, who captains a ship made out of glass. She’s like a cruel mixture of Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials, the Snow Queen, and Cruella de Ville.

There are many terrific scenes – the introduction of the dolphins and their conversations with Kester was one of the highlights for me, as well as the mass of dense imagery that Torday manages to pack into the novel, from huge seas, to islands, and spaceships, as well as daring action scenes involving planes careering out the sky to engulfing fires and deluging floods. But throughout, Torday’s characters retain a great sense of humour, which makes the book a joy to read.

For me,The Last Wild trilogy is good enough to be an all-time children’s classic. Your children will be enthralled – and when they’ve finished – take it for yourself.

Cover illustration by Thomas Flintham

With thanks to Quercus for sending me a review copy of The Wild Beyond

Buy your own copies here.

Another Revamp Hits the Shelves: Alex Rider

1Stormbreaker2Point Blanc3Skeleton Key

Yeah yeah, I thought. I know why the kids like it: boys’ toys and gadgets, action scenes, mystery, slick dialogue, bam bam. Dismissing them out of hand in the same way I dismiss grown men’s love for 007, gladiator movies, Bourne identities, etc. Then my son went to hear Anthony Horowitz talk at the Southbank centre and came back inspired, and Walker Books contacted me about their relaunch for the brand, and I thought okay it’s time I read Alex Rider myself.
Wow! Tightly plotted, niftily written, the first book in the series, Stormbreaker, zooms along like a rocket to its target. I felt compelled from the first sentence. It’s as exciting and unrealistic as you could ask for in this genre. I loved our hero, and how clever and skilful and cool he is. I loved the machinations of the ‘MI6’ set up and the elusive villains. It made me smile, and admire Horowitz’s skilful storytelling. For someone usually disdainful of such spy thrillers, this one was more than a pleasure from start to finish. In this first adventure, Alex Rider is employed by MI6 precisely because he is a schoolboy, and can infiltrate the headquarters of Sayle Enterprises as the winner of a computer magazine competition to discover if there’s anything suspect about the line of computers, the Stormbreakers, which Sayle Enterprises are rolling out free to every school in the country. Of course, there is something highly suspect about Mr Sayle, not least his penchant for keeping a Portuguese Man ‘o War as his pet, and Alex Rider has to stop his deathly plan before it’s too late.

4Eagle Strike5Scorpia6Ark Angel

What’s so pleasing is that the Alex Rider books are exactly what they say on the tin! From the corny filmic staplines on the back cover…”His first assignment may well be his last” to the spy gadgets bestowed upon Alex (the zit cream that melts metal), to the chapter headings, “Double O Nothing” and the exhilarating non-stop action – these are all the right ingredients for this genre of pacey thriller. But it’s the flawless perfection that Anthony Horowitz brings to the genre with his taut writing style and seemingly effortless imagination that make this a powerful and exemplary series. I fully intend to now read the rest.

One keen fan has helped me out this week with my blog – here are his comments. His name is Samuel and he’s 10 years old:

Alex Rider is a good series, which I really like because it is fun and exciting. It follows an orphaned teenage spy, recruited by MI6. Alex was brought up by his Uncle Ian and his housekeeper, Jack Starbright. Jack kept on living with him after Uncle Ian’s death. Alex later discovers that his parents and his uncle were all secretly spies and were all assassinated.
One of my favourite books in the series is “Eagle Strike”. Alex is certain that Damian Cray, pop singer has got an evil plan after finding his phone number on an assassin’s mobile. MI6 don’t believe him and Alex sets out on his own to investigate. He travels to Holland to find Cray’s game console factory and finds out what ‘Eagle Strike’; Cray’s plot; is all about. I like it because it is exciting and there are lots of unexpected turns in the story. My favourite part is when Alex finds himself inside a deadly video game… in real life!
What I like most in this series are the gadgets. They are fun and exciting to have. The gadget maker Smithers is a bald, fat, friendly man who is my favourite character. My favourite gadget is a calculator which can be used to contact MI6 and can also jam CCTV cameras. Gadgets play a big part in the books because they add excitement and help make them interesting and full of suspense.
I love the Alex Rider series and hope to finish reading them all.

 

7Snakehead8Crocodile Tears9Scorpia Rising

For those of you who are yet to discover Alex Rider, luckily for you the whole series has been rebranded with covers designed by a video game designer, Two Dots, the studio who designed the packaging for Ubisoft’s video games Assassins Creed and Far Cry, and they suit the stories well. Clever spines highlight the number in the series, as well as spelling out Alex Rider when they are lined up on the shelf. To buy Stormbreaker, click here.

There is also a new Alex Rider website, www.alexrider.com and you can even go on ‘spy training’ camp with the Youth Hostels Association.

Thank you to Walker books for a review copy of Eagle Strike

10Russian Roulette

An Interview with Tatum Flynn, author of The D’Evil Diaries

The Devil Diaries TatumFlynn (2)

Tatum Flynn is darn witty on twitter. I always feel that twitter users should be witty – the word wit is in the name – but Tatum and her avatar stand out in particular. And then I noticed that she’d written a book for children too – with a deeply compelling title, The D’Evil Diaries, and I knew I had to read it. The book has an intriguing premise – it is set in Hell, features the Devil himself, which is fairly subversive for a children’s book aimed at the 9 yrs+ audience, and even contains conversations between the Devil and God. I realised this was one debut children’s author whom I had to interview. I first asked Tatum if she had set out to do something different by writing her rather rebellious yet highly inventive novel.
I’m not sure if​ any writer sets out to write something different on purpose, we just all *are* different, we all have uniquely odd internal universes. Writers just let the cat out of the bag by putting those internal universes onto the page. I simply set out to write a story that would entertain me, with an eye to eleven-year-old me, and that story happened to be a funny version of Hell because that type of subversion and unlikely juxtaposition is the kind of thing that tickles me.
In the novel there are two very likeable and well depicted children – Jinx, the son of the Devil, and Tommy, a dead child who seems to be in Hell by mistake. Is Tatum more of a Jinx or a Tommy?
All my characters have a bit of me in them – I think they have to, to come alive – but honestly the character that I most identify with is Loiter. [Jinx’s pet sloth] I would happily spend most of my days lounging in a hammock drinking margaritas and reading Calvin and Hobbes. But if I had to choose between Jinx and Tommy, I’d say I was more like Tommy as a kid – I didn’t have her talents for gymnastics or knife-throwing, but I was pretty bouncy and chatty and a crackshot with a pistol.”
Devil Diary illustration2
Pistols aside, there’s some wacky stuff in the book, with superb action scenes from a carousel where evil horses come to life, to woods with dead witches hanging from trees. Above all, there is oodles of humour, and not just common slapstick, but witty intellectual humour, which is so refreshing and wonderful to read in a children’s book:
Humour doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me. Sometimes it does, but sometimes I go back and say, Hmm, this chapter isn’t funny enough, let’s have someone fall on a hellhound and squish them. But that’s the joy of writing – it’s easier to be funny when you have time to think about it! Esprit d’escalier and all that. Humour generally, though, is super important to me. Laughter is the physical manifestation of joy, there should be more of it around. It’s one of the reasons I write kid’s books, because there’s far more humour in them than adult books. Humour is also a great way to take pretention down a peg or two, or mock terrible things happening in the world. I think humour keeps the human race sane, and that’s not an exaggeration.”
Tatum’s book is funny, but also controversial, as Tatum features God as a character in The D’evil Diaries. I wanted to know if she’d hesitated before including Him, as I imagine there may have been consternation among some publishers:
Yes, a little, though probably not for the reasons you might think – I mean, once you set a kid’​s book in Hell you’ve already pushed all your chips in the middle.”
Tatum’s chips reference brings her past as a professional poker player into play. Maybe this helped her look at things from different points of view in the book as well. It is written in first person, from Jinx’s point of view, but Tatum also has scenes between God and Lucifer.
I was unsure about having too many different points of view.​ The first section from His point of view was something I wrote early on, but I took it out. Then I was encouraged by various people to enlarge the Lucifer sections and interstitials, so I put it back in. One of my favourite lines in the book is ‘God was in his pyjamas’, so I’m glad He crept back in, plus I’m fond of the dynamic between Him and Lucifer, where the King of Hell reverts to being a sulky teenager around his Father.”
Devil Diary illustration
I stopped short of asking Tatum about her religion but did venture to query her opinion on the existence of Heaven and Hell:
The epigraph at the beginning of my sequel is:
‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’​
​from Paradise Lost​. That’s the type of heaven and hell I absolutely think exists. I’ll leave the possible existence of other types to the theologians.”
Something that particularly tickled me in the book was Tatum’s imaginative use of chapter titles from chapter 10 ‘Blah Blah Secret Plots Blah Blah’ to chapter 11 ‘Library Cards at Dawn’ but also her references to songs, chapter 14 ‘If You Go Down to the Woods Today’ to chapter 23 ‘Just Another Brick in the Wall’. Which song would Tatum prefer of the two?
Woods, definitely, I always think there’s something slightly deliciously creepy about the teddy bears’ picnic…
Lastly, I asked Tatum which book in the world she wished she had written. Jokingly, she replied…”the new one I’ve just started,” but then proceeded to tell me her favourite influences:
Molesworth, the Addams Family, Tankgirl, Calvin and Hobbes – but I couldn’t have written (or drawn, interesting how they’re all illustrated) those anyway. I’m just glad that they’re out in the world for me to be inspired by. I think most people become writers because the book they want to read doesn’t exist, at least that was partly ​the case with me. So I think the book I wish I had written is one of my own that’s yet to come, one that will be as near to perfect as I can clumsily make it.”
Self-deprecating, witty and clearly talented, I’m delighted to have interviewed Tatum Flynn about her debut children’s book. I’m sure I’ll be talking to her in years to come about how much more she’s achieved.

You can purchase The D’Evil Diaries here and find out more about Tatum Flynn here, including her vagabond past of piloting lifeboats in Venezuela, shooting rapids in the Grand Canyon and almost falling out of a plane over Scotland.

 

 

The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn

The Devil Diaries

Once in a while a children’s book comes along that is so inventive, and witty, and different, that you want to hug it whilst reading. Twelve year old protagonist Jinx D’evil is just like any other school boy apart from the fact that he is a demon with bright red skin and wings, lives in Hell and is the son of the ruler there, Lucifer. His problem is that he is too angelic – he is no good at being devilish, and runs away from his father after disappointing him one too many times. Whilst on the run, in the outer circles of Hell he meets Tommy, a dead girl, and together they discover a coup to overthrow his father, and finally Jinx has a chance to prove himself a worthy devilish son. The ensuing adventure is fast, furious and fun. The story is gripping, the writing compelling and the jokes clever and witty, so that you can appreciate them as an adult and as a child – it’s not just silly slapstick:
“Now, now, you really needn’t worry. I happen to know that Tafrac, the Patron Demon of Wrath, isn’t home right now. I believe he’s down on Earth, busy making people angry with a new scheme, something to do with website comments.”
Even the chapter headings are well conceived, from ‘A Rare, Lesser-Spotted Dead Girl’ and ‘Blah Blah Secret Plots Blah Blah’ to ‘How Grim Was My Valley’. Throughout the book these chapters are interspersed with scenes of Lucifer himself – sometimes on holiday – sometimes chatting with God. Tatum Flynn’s writing oozes effortless humour, but she manages to deftly mix it with a great plot and loveable and realistic characters. The friendship between Jinx and Tommy is nicely observed and develops well during the novel. This is a great debut book from a new talent. I recommend it both for its irreverence and its crafty humour. There will be high expectations for the sequel.

Illustrations by Dave Shephard

Publishes 2nd April. You can buy the book here.

Thank you to Hachette publishers for sending me a proof copy of this title for review.

Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2015

Blown Away
This evening, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize was announced. Another book prize? I hear you moan. But actually book prizes can be really helpful in identifying book recommendations for your children, as most awards tend to be judged by experts in the field – those in the industry or children themselves! The shortlist for this year’s Waterstones prize was particularly strong – you can scroll down and see them at the end of this blogpost. The categories are split into three: illustrated book, fiction 5-12 years and teen. Then an overall book is chosen as the winner – and tonight it was Blown Away.

I did review Blown Away by Rob Biddulph in my Christmas penguin blogpost last year, but wanted to revisit it to explain why I think it’s a worthy winner. It tells the story of Penguin Blue, who flies his brand new kite, but gets swept away and taken on a journey far away from his native land. Those animals who try to rescue him are also taken along for the ride. The text rhymes, which makes it good to read aloud, but it’s the multitude of small detail that wins it for me. The animals from Antarctica are amazed when they stumble upon a jungle island, because, as Rob points out, green is not a colour they’ve seen before. The ending of the story also sits well: Rob explains that after his long journey away – this penguin isn’t made for flying. It’s a superbly neat ending for a penguin picture book.

There are great small details on each page – you’ll have to buy a copy to see the insides – but they include the seal’s washing (and the surprise post in his postbox), the numerous signposts, the numbered clouds in the sky, the name on the ice cream van, the texture on the sea – and even the endpapers. You can buy a copy here.

murder most unladylike

The book that won the 5-12 years fiction category was Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens, described as an Enid Blyton/Agatha Christie mashup. It’s fabulous, and one I have recommended on a individual basis many times. I fully intend to blog on the appeal of this new series and Robin Steven’s fantastic writing and characterisation when I get a minute. You can buy a copy here.

Best Illustrated Book:
The Queen’s Hat by Steve Antony
The Dawn Chorus by Suzanne Barton
Blown Away by Rob Biddulph
Where Bear? by Sophy Henn
Atlas of Adventures by Lucy Letherland, words by Rachel Williams
The Sea Tiger by Victoria Turnbull

Best Fiction for 5-12s:
Girl with a White Dog by Anne Booth
Cowgirl by G R Gemin
Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
Violet and the Pearl of the Orient by Harriet Whitehorn, illustrated by Becka Moor
A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson