middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

Summer Reading List

I’m not going to be blogging in August. It’s my month to take stock, recharge, and just READ. So, in case you’re wondering which books to pack/download for your children or take out the library for the summer reading challenge (see here), then here are a few suggestions.

i want my hat backoliver and patchwinnie at the seasidekatie mcginty

I recently re-discovered I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. This is a modern classic and as close to picture book perfection as you can get. A bear is looking for his hat and asks a variety of creatures if they have seen it. It’s a simple concept expertly executed, with fabulous dry wit and wonderful facial expressions – the text and pictures complement each other flawlessly. It is fun to do different voices for different characters and good for all ages to discuss what happened to the rabbit and why! Oliver and Patch by Claire Freedman and Kate Hindley is a beautiful story about moving to a new place. Summer can be a transition time for lots of children, and it’s good to read a reassuring story about making new friends and settling into a new place. Phenomenal vocabulary, exquisite illustrations – it also shows the fun you can have in a city. For something more summery try Winnie the Witch at the Seaside by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul. Much loved by children everywhere, this episode takes Winnie to the beach – although will Wilbur the cat stay dry? A good story, well told, with Korky’s distinctive style of illustrations. If you don’t want to rely on old favourites, this summer watch out for Katie McGinty Wants a Pet by debut author Jenna Harrington, illustrated by Finn Simpson, publishing 13th August. Katie wants a very different kind of pet (bet you can guess from the cover!). Although she may end up with slightly more than she bargained for – the writing style is fun and quirky – and captures a small child wonderfully – ‘She wanted it more than Millie Phillips wanted to be able to stand on her head.’

oliver and the seawigsclever pollylottie liptonthe gingerbread star ted rules the worldClaude Lights

My newly independent reading choices are a mixture of old and new too. Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre is a gem of a book, which takes the reader on a seafaring voyage unlike any other. The illustrations are sensational, look out particularly for Iris the mermaid. A classic, which has just been reissued and is well worth a read is Clever Polly and the Wolf by Catherine Storr. With 13 separate stories this is a good starter read. Each story is a play on ‘wolf fairy tales’, but magically don’t seem dated at all – and Clever Polly is remarkably likeable. If you’re doing any museum visiting this summer, or just looking to solve some riddles, a great read is the new Lottie Lipton series by Dan Metcalf, released in conjunction with the British Museum. These are well written little mysteries for growing readers but they have real riddles in them, and activities at the end. I’d love to read one whilst in the British Museum to see if I could follow the trail too. A must for young historians. For new or struggling readers I’m also heartily in favour of the Little Gem series from Barrington Stoke. There are numerous titles by fabulous authors in this list, but recent releases include The Gingerbread Star by Anne Fine, illustrated by Vicki Gausden and Ted Rules the World by Frank Cottrell Boyce, illustrated by Chris Riddell and Cate James. The Gingerbread Star retains the quality of Anne Fine’s longer work, and tells a glorious story of a worm who wishes she was a gloworm (so she can read in bed after lights out). She perseveres yet retains her sense of right and wrong throughout her adventure. Beautifully illustrated too – worms have never been so attractive. Ted Rules the World by high calibre writer Cottrell Boyce also retains the writer’s style – his sense of humour and mischievousness shine through in this hilarious story about a boy whose opinions on politics have a direct line to the prime minister. Far from marking him out as special though, Ted finds that the root cause is rather more uninspiring. It’s extremely funny. This agegroup also adore the Claude series by Alex T Smith, and on the 1st August, the new title is published, Claude: Lights! Camera! Action!. As zany as ever, Claude and Sir Bobblesock discover a film set and when the two lead actors are injured, they are asked to step in. The jokes hit on all levels – both children and adults. And that’s not all…this summer is momentous for the release of the very last Horrid Henry book by Francesca Simon: Horrid Henry’s Cannibal Curse. Although I’ve yet to see a copy of this and hate to review books I haven’t read I’m told it has an answer to the perpetual parental groan that Henry is too horrid…as Henry himself starts to read an interesting book about a girl called Evil Evie…

elspeth hart dara palmerrooftoppersmurder most unladylike
Eight to 13 year olds have a huge choice for their summer reads in this golden age of children’s literature. Firstly, I’d recommend Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs by Sarah Forbes, illustrated by James Brown. The second in the series comes out in September, so wisely use the summer to read the first. It tells the tale of orphan Elspeth, working as a servant in the Pandora Pants School for Show-Offs, sweeping up mouse-droppings, and dodging the horrid students, until one day she realises why she’s there, and how she can escape. Comic fun and a school setting with a feisty heroine. Another show off is the eleven year old main character in Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah. This is a fantastic story about a young adopted girl who desperately wants to be an actress. The story highlights how, through drama, she becomes more aware of herself and her relationship with her friends and family. Dealing with so many issues, such as adoption, diversity “I looked like a chocolate bunny in a room full of snowmen”, Dara’s voice is fresh, funny, and heartfelt. The massively annotated pages (doodles and patterns) entice the reader, as well as Dara’s imagined film script running parallel to her normal life, but Emma Shevah also deals cleverly with sensitive issues. Both an enjoyable read and an enlightening one (about adoption and different cultures). If your child hasn’t yet read Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, then buy it before her new book comes out in September. Rooftoppers tells the story of Sophie’s search for her mother across the roof tops in Paris. Katherine’s gift for storytelling knows no bounds – her writing is exemplary – stylish, fresh, original, and imaginative. It’s a perfect book and I implore you read it, instilling virtues such as love and courage and morality and seeking for the possibles in life. Its timelessness and third person narrative set it apart from other titles for this age group and it is a deserving winner of the Waterstones Children’s and Blue Peter Book awards. For series fans, I would recommend the Wells and Wong Mystery series by Robin Stevens. The first in the series, called Murder Most Unladylike, tells the story of Daisy and Hazel who set up a detective agency at their boarding school to look for missing ties etc, but then discover the body of the Science Mistress lying in the gym, and suddenly have a real mystery to solve. It is Agatha Christie for 9 year olds and over. Robin Stevens captures the innocence and yet vivaciousness of the two girls with all their insecurities and complexities. The book is set in the 1930’s but feels fairly timeless. It’s fun, imaginative, and brilliant for those who love mysteries and school stories. (so most children!). Three in the series have been published so far – an addictive set to devour on the beach, or staring at the rain…once you’ve read one, you’ll want to read them all.

boy in the towerthe executioners daughterbinny for shortphoenix

For slightly older readers, a haunting but utterly absorbing book for those wishing to ignore their family whilst on holiday is Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen. A modern day Triffids, Ade lives with his mum in a tower block, but one day the other buildings start to fall down. Before long the Bluchers have overtaken the landscape – plants that feed on metal and concrete, and give off deadly spores. Suddenly Ade and his mother are trapped. Ade has to learn to survive, figure out why his tower hasn’t collapsed and help his mother through the situation. It’s a tense, exhilarating read with memorable characters. Other stories for those slightly older are The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff– a historical tale, set in the Tower of London, and focussing on the ‘basket girl’, – the child who catches the beheaded heads in her basket. Never a dull moment in Tudor times – as the tale turns supernatural too. Salter, the loveable boy protagonist, is a sparkling creation. The sequel River Daughter, came out earlier this year. Binny for Short by Hilary McKay swings back to modernity, with a coming-of-age tale of friendship that deals with loss, relocation, family dynamics and special needs all in a highly readable, compelling summertime story. Binny is an all-rounded character, with frustration, humour, sympathy and a fantastic sense of childhood adventure. A great read from a prolific author who can clearly observe and articulate what people are really like. The sequel, Binny in Secret, came out in June. For those approaching teens, Phoenix by SF Said is my final pick. It’s something completely different – science fiction superbly written by Said, and ethereally illustrated by Dave McKean. It’s a powerfully ambitious tale of age-old war between Humans and Aliens. Lucky thinks he is an ordinary human boy, but once he discovers his extraordinary power realises that he must harness it to save the galaxy, even if it comes at huge personal cost. Bixa, the alien girl who gets mixed up in his story, is one of the most awe-inspiring characters in children’s fiction: fierce, magnetic and witty. I would definitely choose to dress up as Bixa on World Book Day if I were younger. This book is quite unlike any other in its age range – an epic with clear language, scintillating scenes and huge themes of power and myth, the universe and love, war and sacrifice. It will stay with you long after the summer fades.

Lastly, if you haven’t yet worked through my books of the week from this year, my most memorable reads were Stonebird by Mike Revell, The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone, The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday and In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll.

 

 

The Other Side of the Story: Dual Narratives – a Guest Post from Author Emma Carroll

in darkling wood  The girl who walked on air frost hollow hall

My book of the week this week is In Darkling Wood – you can read the review here. It’s by one of my favourite contemporary children’s authors, Emma Carroll. The book has a dual narrative structure, so I asked Emma to write about that. Here are her thoughts. Thank you Emma!

“As a reader I’ve always been intrigued by dual narratives. When they don’t work they feel jarring. You catch yourself speed reading back to your preferred narrator’s viewpoint. Yet when they do work, for me, they enhance a story brilliantly. They throw light and shade on characters, are a way of overcoming plot practicalities. And they bring perspective to remind us that people’s experiences, though sometimes similar, are ultimately unique – a ‘fiction’, as it were.

So, eighteen months ago, I decided my next novel would be a dual narrative. As a slow writer on a tight deadline this probably wasn’t my wisest move. But I wanted to stretch myself and try something different. Suffice to say it did make things harder. I’m neither a plotter nor a pantser when writing – I go through moments of being both.

emma work in progressEmma’s notebook (the pink post-its are the 1918 letters planning)

So for a while I wrote the 1918 letters part of In Darkling Wood. Then I stopped, deciding that no, I needed to write Alice’s story to make certain it worked alongside the letters. This was how IDW got written- a sort of stop-start approach. It felt messy and no doubt wasted lots of precious time, but in the end we got there!

Whether it enhances the reading experience or not is, ultimately, a matter of taste. Here are five novels for children and teens that in my view do dual narratives brilliantly.

wonder
Wonder by RJ Palacio more multiple narrator that dual, but in this brilliant story we hear from Auggie, his sister Via, Auggie’s schoolmate/bully Jack – and others. While Auggie’s viewpoint is the main focus, the different voices add complexity to what otherwise might be a black and white situation. We learn of the impact Auggie has on others, and how often he misinterprets this.
You can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

selina penaluna

Selina Penaluna by Jan Page An exquisite dual narrative told from the points of view of WW2 evacuee Ellen, and mysterious local girl Selina. Their differing perspectives highlight how much we misunderstand each other. The changes in voice are wonderful too.
You can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

how to fly with broken wings

How To Fly With Broken Wings by Jane Elson I love Jane’s stories, and in this, her second novel, Sasha and Willem are about as different as two narrators could be. Sasha is emotional, engaging, popular, full of personality, whereas Willem, bullied and vulnerable, has Aspergers. Together, in their very different ways, they find solace in restoring an old spitfire. Again, great voices! You can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

shadow cat

Shadow Cat by Gillian Cross A pacy, skilful story packed with wild cats, rock stars, mental illness… and more – all brilliantly told from the perspectives of Nolan and Feather. Nolan’s narrative – grounded, sensible, yet increasingly desperate – is told in first person past tense. Feather – adopted daughter of a rock star – tells us her story as third person present tense. The change in narrative style flags up the point of view change very well for younger readers.
You can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

Trouble

Trouble by Non Pratt One of my very favourite YA reads from last year, Trouble is told from the perspective of Hannah and Aaron. This works on many levels, not least because it makes us realise that how we see ourselves is not always how others do. And that however big your problems feel, other people often have just-as-big-problems of their own.
You can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.”

Thanks again to Emma Carroll for her guest blog. To purchase one of Emma’s modern classics, visit Waterstones here, or check out my Amazon sidebar. 

In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll

My next book of the week will be published September 6th. For a list of my books of the week to date, scroll down to the bottom of this review.

in darkling wood

Both the narrative structure and subject matter of Emma Carroll’s latest story, In Darkling Wood, are indicative of her own distinct style: quietly modern and yet definitely traditional in application. The novel is told using a dual narrative – in letters dated 1918 from a young girl to her brother in the war, and a modern-day first person narrative of a girl called Alice who is sent to live with her estranged grandmother whilst her brother is in hospital for a heart transplant. By weaving the two very distinct narratives together, Emma Carroll creates a magical story that is both classical and contemporary – just like her style of her writing in all her books.
At first Alice struggles in her stay with her gruff grandmother – her anxiety about her brother shines through the text, as does her frustration with her parents and her grandmother, Nell. She befriends a mysterious girl in the woods bordering her grandmother’s house, and before long becomes embroiled in a battle to save the woods and the enigmatic creatures whom the mysterious girl claims reside within the trees. At the same time, the letters from 1918 reflect another young girl’s anxiety about her own brother, and a preoccupation with some enigmatic winged creatures in the wood. The two stories edge closer together, and the book’s resolution is satisfying and complete.
Emma Carroll neatly references the Cottingley fairies story – a series of five famous photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in Cottingley towards the end of the First World War that came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and created a stir about the existence of fairies.
In Emma’s story, the fairies come to represent hope, and lead Alice to stand up for what she believes in.
The story is told sensitively, and is utterly engrossing. Each character is superbly drawn – the voices drip effortlessly from the page – from the distant yet forthright grandmother with secrets, to the absent father, sick brother, and the cast of characters in the modern school, as well as those from 1918. In fact, Emma’s time as a schoolteacher has clearly been useful – the school environment is one of the most believable I have encountered.
Furthermore her talent as a writer shines through in her description of Nell’s house and the Darkling Woods surrounding it – they remain an image within my head months after reading the book. It’s my last book of the week before the summer. Take it with you on holiday – but be warned – wherever you go, you’ll imagine you’re In Darkling Wood…

With thanks to Faber for the review copy. You can buy your own copy from Waterstones here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

My brother is a superhero by David Solomons
Too Close to Home by Aoife Walsh
The Cake, the Wolf, and the Witch by Maudie Smith, illustrated by Tony Ross
Alfie Bloom: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent
There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins
The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan
The Boys’ School Girls: Tara’s Sister Trouble by Lil Chase
Mad About Monkeys by Owen Davey
The Broken King by Philip Womack
The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford
Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin
How to Write your Best Story Ever by Christopher Edge
Head Over Heart by Colette Victor
Wild by Emily Hughes
Violet and the Hidden Treasure by Harriet Whitehorn illustrated by Becka Moor
The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday
The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn
The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Robot Girl by Malorie Blackman
How to Fly with Broken Wings by Jane Elson
A Whisper of Wolves by Kris Humphrey
The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone
Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: Supermarket Sweep by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad
Stonebird by Mike Revell
Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty
The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley
How the World Works by Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young
I am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz
The Story of Buildings by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by Stephen Biesty

My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons

My Brother Superhero

I was sold on the premise of this book before it even arrived: Luke goes for a much needed wee, leaving his older brother alone in the treehouse at precisely the moment when Zorbon arrives from outer space and grants his undeserving older brother superpowers. And David Solomons has executed his premise wickedly.

From the first sentence explaining Luke’s bad timing, he comes across as a loveable comic-mad 11 year old with oodles of wit, attitude and boyish exuberance. The plot develops at fair pace, with Luke exploring which superpowers Zack has been granted and trying to identify his Nemesis. Then Zack is kidnapped, and Luke has to work with his friends to rescue him in time so that Zack can use his superpowers to save the entire planet.

As the story builds to its climax, David Solomon’s writing becomes more and more filmic – the final scenes in the fake volcano are more than inventive – it’s like every comic book sewn together as one. I could almost feel the evil laugh ‘mwha ha ha ha’. In fact it is one of the most filmic children’s books I have read – the author even imagines that his acknowledgements should ‘zoom out the page at you in massive 3D titles, accompanied by a stirring orchestral score’.

References to comics, superheroes, and films abound, although it is easy to follow even if you aren’t genned up on all of these. There are touching references to Luke’s Dad introducing him to Star Wars, which were particularly enjoyable. The superb cast of characters bring scope for humour in every eventuality – their traits are enjoyable without being forced. A supervillain who wants to be the superhero but is deluded, a girl who wants to be a journalist but gets her vocabulary wrong – especially at inappropriate moments; to the supervillain:

“‘You’re diluted,’ she said scornfully.

He looked understandably puzzled.

‘Deluded’ I explain.”

Luke’s best friend, Serge, is French and obsessed with food – there’s no end to the comedic possibilities. Their use of the vending machine as part of their plan to stop the villain is inspired, especially the children’s research of online discussion forums to find ‘known issues’ with the machine. In fact there are constant references to modern technology and culture (although no one I know in a certain DIY store has ever been that helpful), and references to the younger children’s restrictions with phones, which sits the book squarely in today’s zeitgeist.

It was so funny I laughed out loud on numerous occasions, read out bits with delight to my family, and gulped it down in one read. A fantastic new talent – I fully expect that one day I will see David Solomon’s name blasting out my television George Lucas-esque.

You can buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

The little journos

When I was at school I wanted to be a journalist. Whether it was from watching Press Gang with Dexter Fletcher and Julia Sawalha or from voracious reading of Mizz and J17, I’m not sure. I don’t remember reading any children’s books particularly about journalism, but I liked the investigative side of Nancy Drew. and the diary technique of Z for Zachariah, Adrian Mole and so many others – and it seemed as if the writing buzz was the course to pursue. I worked on the school newspaper, then the university one (where Minerva Moan was born), and finally did a journalism postgrad before reality slapped me in the face and I fell into children’s publishing.

My love for the media buzz never died though, so I’m delighted to bring you three stories that play with ‘journalism.’

completely cassidy

First up, Completely Cassidy: Star Reporter by Tamsyn Murray. The second in this series, the first of which I reviewed here. I don’t tend to review another in the same series within a nine month period, but Cassidy’s voice resonated with me the first time and I was intrigued to see if the second in the series retains the same spark. It does. Cassidy falls into journalism rather than pursuing it, and stays with it to impress other people rather than for her own love of reporting. She starts an online petition in favour of girls wearing trousers to school (mainly to cover up her own mishap with some fake tan), and the editor of the school magazine asks her to join. Of course, with Cassidy things never quite work out according to plan, and before long she’s desperate for a decent story.
The great thing about Tamsyn Murray is she really gets modern school children and their world (there’s a mystery blogger who’s causing havoc/borderline online bullying), and she has a wicked sense of humour, which shines through the text. It’s tame enough to be a light, engaging read, and yet with such a strong voice that the reader just wants to read more and more Cassidy. I liked that her use of journalism in this book invokes the moral dilemmas associated with telling a good story. Being a journalist isn’t that dissimilar from being a young teen – it’s all about deciphering what is the right thing to do. Highlights included Tamsyn mentioning the PTA in a good light, and also to Antonia Miller for her fabulous little illustrations throughout, particularly the poison pen! It’s also refreshing to read about a girl with no big issues in her life – her parents are together, she has annoying siblings, she goes to a run-of-the-mill school – and yet, as for all of us, and particularly children finding their way in the world – even the simplest of lives can be complicated and hard to navigate at times. Age 9+. Click here to buy a copy of the book from Waterstones

.jonny jakes

Jonny Jakes, on the other hand, rather like myself as a youngster, lives for the buzz of the story. Jonny Jakes Investigates: The Hamburgers of Doom by Malcolm Judge, came through the post and I read it without knowing any spoilers, so was hugely surprised with the turn of events. Of course, the title is a great play on words – hamburgers for harbingers, although I’m not sure how many children would understand the joke. Jonny Jakes runs the secretive school newspaper under a pseudonym so that he can craftily write sneaky stories about all the teachers and goings-on at his school without being rumbled. This would be story enough for me, but then, out of the blue, his headmaster quits and is replaced by an alien. Rather than get the scoop of the century though, Jonny is pipped to the post by his new headteacher, and Jonny is determined to investigate exactly what sort of head this alien will turn out to be. Written in diary form, the plot twists and turns and gets wilder and sillier, as befits the title. It turns out the headmaster is hypnotising all the students with his special sweets, and fattening them with hamburgers in order to eat them. Accompanied by gross descriptions of the aliens, and accounts of revolting smells, this book is not for the faint-hearted, but I’m sure will be embraced with much amusement by many children. The denouement is wild and fun and action-packed. There are inspired illustrations by Alan Brown, and it’s as far-fetched and imaginative as you would expect. Children – enjoy! 9+. To purchase, click here.

ivy and bean

The third reason for getting into journalism other than aforementioned peer approval and the buzz of the story, is money. Ivy and Bean: No News is Good News by Annie Barrows is a charming story in the long-running American series about two friends, Ivy and Bean, who, in this particular episode, decide to produce a community newspaper so that they can sell it to raise some money. The funniest element to me about the story is that they want the money to buy cheese. Not that they like the cheese, but they like that red waxy packaging in which the individually wrapped cheese comes…and their mother refuses to buy it for them. During the course of the small story we discover what a subscription to a newspaper is, how to earn money up front, and, just like Cassidy, when publishing a story can be morally ambiguous – especially if the story is embellished, embarrassing or just plain fabricated. Ivy and Bean is a series of books for newly independent readers, and although very American in phrase and tone, strikes a lovely chord here too, as it develops a cute friendship and showcases endearing childhood naivety. Sophie Blackall’s illustrations complement the stories well – it’s a good addition to any young reader’s bookcase. (An interesting fact – Annie Barrows co-wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society – see what a bit of investigating can throw up!). 6+ years. To buy a copy of the book click here.

 

 

A Guest Blog from author Lil Chase

taras sister troubleabbys shadow obis secrets
“I’m so excited about the release of the third book in my Boys’ School Girls series. They look so gorgeous together! It’s about a boys’ only school that has decided to take on girls for the first time, so there are only ten girls in the whole school. Each book is about a different one of the girls – their friendships with the others as well as their home life.

The first book is about Tara when she starts a club to rival her sister. The idea came from a hen party I went to where the sister of the bride brought along the bride-to-be’s club handbook from when she was young: full of favourite colours, boys they fancied, bands they liked, and coded languages. The younger sister admitted to regularly stealing the handbook and copying down her secrets.

Abby’s Shadow is a homage to the film Fatal Attraction. It’ll teach you to never betray your best friend by telling another girl she’s your best friend. This is what Abby does when she goes on holiday, but with Facebook and Instagram the girl from holiday catches up with her, and doesn’t like being second best. Warning: this book gets pretty scary!

The third – only just released – is Obi’s Secrets. Obi has never felt special but for reasons she doesn’t understand, the most gorgeous boy in her school likes her. Like likes her. It’s a heartbreaking story with a love triangle at the centre and a massive choice for Obi: her best friend or the boy she fancies.

People often ask me where I get my ideas from. The truth is: everywhere! I keep my eyes and ears open for inspiration and it finds me. It could be a friend’s anecdote from their childhood, a film I like, or – as was the case with Obi – knowing a character so well that you know the worst possible situation for them. I got to know Obi while writing books one and two and realised that she was loyal, and desperate for a best friend. So I decided to give her the best friend she always wanted, and then do something to test her loyalty.

So where did the big idea come from? The idea for the series? When I was young – about 10 or 11 – my father was made redundant from his job. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before new job offers came in. One was to be a bursar at a boys-only boarding school. The only downside was that we’d have to move and live on site. At eleven years old, I thought this would be wonderful! I would have my pick of all the boys. When he didn’t take the job I was heartbroken from missing out on all the knights in shining armour fighting for my hand.

Years later, I realise the reality of being the only girl in a boys’ school would not have been something out of Romeo and Juliet. Boys that age would at best, ignore me, at worst, tease me. Teenage boys aren’t often very chivalrous.

So the idiom ‘write what you know’ is true. Or, as in this case – write what you almost knew but made a lucky escape from.”

Thank you Lil Chase for your guest blog today.

MinervaReads is delighted to have 2 full sets of The Boys’ School Girls to giveaway. Just send MinervaReads an email with your favourite fictional school, or follow me on twitter @mineravamoan and see my Lil Chase competition tweet. Competition ends midnight 14th July. You can read Minerva’s review of The Boys’ School Girls here. And buy copies of the book here

Why I’m Glad to be Reading Pollyanna

Pollyanna

I’ve been reading classic children’s literature to my children. We’ve done Peter Pan, which was surprisingly hard to read aloud and made me realise that my opinions of Peter and Tinkerbell had been distorted by saccharine cartoons – they are both vile characters in the book. We read Treasure Island, which was fun but intensely male and far more literary than I had remembered. Black Beauty was a triumph, as was The Railway Children, although I’d give full credit to any parent reading it aloud to their children who is stoical enough not to have to stop and mop their own tears to stumble through the ending. Alice in Wonderland remains crazily poetic at every reading – although the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party always takes too long in coming and never lasts long enough.

But now it’s Pollyanna. I retained fond memories of Pollyanna – mainly remembering the letters it contained at the end, and the glass prisms which hung from her windows. But re-reading it this past month has made me inhale sharply at its insight, wit, writing style, characterisation, as well as the effortlessness with which EH Porter has written a simple story that is so easy to read aloud, and continues to give so much joy.

There’s certainly literary depth to her simple story. She highlights her characters with ease and wit – Aunt Polly’s tightly coiffured hair is indicative of her general demeanour. In fact Porter’s characterisation is exemplary, she lays out the different characters so well that when reading aloud it is effortless to imbue them with different voices, as Charles Dickens and then TS Eliot said ‘He do the police in different voices’. Porter layers her plot with imagery and style – images of crutches are prevalent a long time before Pollyanna has her accident that leaves her temporarily paralysed, and she also sets a scene well, conveying the small-town New England scenery of the early 1900s with her nuances of language in how she portrays Nancy and Tom, the servants. Written as an omniscient narrator, the reader is a party to Pollyanna’s naivety as well as her optimism, and also the gradual changes she unwittingly wreaks on all those around her.

Despite being published as long ago as 1913, elements of the book charm a modern day audience, and I would argue, it holds messages that are as important as ever. EH Porter portrayed the importance of a child in the adults’ lives in the book: Pollyanna manages to emotionally heal and better the lives of those around her, mainly by being an unwittingly positive and cheery child – but also by being listened to. Only last weekend Matthew Parris wrote in The Times about how the proportion of children in the population of the UK is now the smallest in history, and we need to sit up and listen to the magic of childhood, and not be treating children as just smaller adults.

For all its slight mocking tones of Miss Polly in the book, Pollyanna’s legal guardian, Pollyanna does hark back to a time when moral ideas of duty and charity were an integral part of society. But mainly, there’s the message of gratefulness. Pollyanna plays the ‘glad game’. She tries to find the goodness in things rather than the negative side, originating in the Christmas when she received a pair of crutches rather than the doll for which she had been hoping.

Pollyannaism has been much distorted since the original publication – often alluding to Pollyanna’s seemingly blind optimism in the face of all that befalls her, and her extreme naivety in simply going for the best possible outlook – she tells Tom, the gardener, that he should be glad his arthritis stoops him over, as he is therefore nearer the weeds he must pull up. However, this is a callous example of her ‘glad game’, and not really where it shines. In this example it feeds into extreme ideas of Pollyannaism as being inappropriate and offensive – after all we can’t go round with permanent smiles on our faces, sometimes we need to face a grief head on.

EH Porter even said that in her lifetime, the principle of the ‘glad game’ had been distorted, and that it wasn’t about smiling through all evils: “I have never believed that we ought to deny discomfort and pain and evil; I have merely thought it far better to ‘greet the unknown with a cheer.’” In fact, what makes Pollyanna resonate for my children and our generation is that it’s simply a way of being grateful for what you have – and for looking for a way of dealing with dark periods. The book itself isn’t preachy, merely sunshiny – it provokes thought about what we can be grateful for, and how we can seek a path out of the darkness. In the text Pollyanna isn’t blindly happy and optimistic – she does grieve for her father and is struck by sadness over his death. She merely uses optimism as a tool to keep going, a skill of determination and grit – in the same way as she deals with her temporary paralysis at the end – she is the ultimate precursor to ‘positive thinking’.

For all that we had a good laugh at Pollyanna whilst reading it – her incessant banging of doors still resonates with today’s children… and despite the tricky vocabulary for today’s eight year olds, the book flows so well that you skate over the difficult words – they are picked up by osmosis as they fit so well into the context – we found Pollyanna to be one of the most enjoyable classics to revisit.

And if I thought struggling through ‘my daddy, oh my daddy’ at the end of the Railway Children was hard, I could barely read past chapter 23 of Pollyanna because of my foreknowledge of what was to come.  It took an immense degree of self-control to stutter through the last few chapters for my children at bed-time. But now, onto the next classic…although I can’t handle ‘Dark Days’ from Little Women just yet. Buy Pollyanna from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

The Cake, the Wolf, and the Witch by Maudie Smith

cake wolf witch

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Actually I’m only going to write this review if you promise not to give away any of the spoilers to your children but just give them the book to read as a surprise. Ready? This is a book set in the land of Ever After, and explores the adventures of Max and his step siblings as they attempt to overthrow the wicked witch and make sure that Ever After remains Happy Ever After.

There are of course massive overtures to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The children travel by accident, not through a wardrobe, but through a cake, to the land of Ever After (rather than Narnia) – they encounter a wolf rather than a lion – and the wicked witch is turning everything to greyness and ash rather than whiteness and ice, but rather than draw some Christian allegory, Maudie Smith is simply having fun, and her creativity shines through the story. The inhabitants of Ever After are all familiar characters from fairy stories, and the author depicts them with cheek and flourish. Little Red Riding Hood has attitude, the troll under the bridge is adorably childish with his pinky promises and appetite for a playmate, and there is even a sneaky eighth dwarf. Max’s search for the witch uses a familiar narrative of age-old quests, including an encounter with a knight, inclement weather, a maze, and finally a daunting castle over a seemingly insurmountable mountain, but the journey is exhilarating and fun for the reader. The danger is never too threatening, the familiarity of the characters is comforting, and there is the growing inevitability that Max and Ever After will have their happy ending.

Maudie’s talent for reinvention blazes a trail here, but her characterisation of her ‘ordinary’ children is what really distinguishes this book and makes it my book of the week. Max, despite being in a fairy tale land, is one of the truest children I have read. His grief over the death of his mother pours through, as does his readjustment to life with a step-family, and his fears and worries. Maudie is assured in her ability to incorporate an aspect of his personality that explains his favourite hobby, (marble runs), why it makes him happy, and how it enables him to complete his adventure. She provides the reader with a character who develops beautifully from the start of the book to the finish, growing in self-awareness and empathy. Through all the fantasticalness of the story, the character of Max and his step-siblings remain very much grounded in reality, and this makes this book a complete winner. With illustrations by the wonderful Tony Ross (of Horrid Henry fame), this is the summer’s must-read for children aged 7+. You can buy it here or purchase from the Amazon sidebar.

Do You Have Superpowers?

Bulletcatcher
If ever you thought authors were dull people who sat in front of a computer or notepad all day – think again! Today I have a thrilling guest post from author Chris Bradford, an author who believes in his stories and characters so much that he does such extensive research – he actually becomes his characters. For his latest book, Bulletcatcher, he embarked on an intensive close protection course, including training in combat, firearms, surveillance to name a few. The first in a trilogy, Bulletcatcher is an action-packed, tense and exhilarating read. It tells the story of Troy, a victim of a terror attack in a shopping mall, who discovers that he has a crucial superpower – he is a bulletcatcher – bullets just bounce off him leaving him unharmed. Here, Chris Bradford explains how even the strangest fiction can be based in fact. Please be aware that MinervaReads is not responsible for external links – some of the following youtube links have unsuitable comments/content for children:

by Chris Bradford, author of the Bulletcatcher trilogy

They say you can’t outrun a bullet. What if you could catch one?
You might think that superpowers – being bulletproof for instance – are a matter of pure fiction. A fantasy of novels, movies and comic books. But they’re not… and I’m going to show you the evidence to prove that superpowers are real.

For my new series, Bulletcatcher, I crossed the concept of Bodyguards with X-Men to come up with a team of gifted teenagers who protect the sons and daughters of the rich and famous in Terminus City. Each of these ‘bulletcatchers’ has a superpower, or ‘talent’ as it is called in the story.

Now these talents – bulletproof, reflex, super strength, recall and blindsight – might all sound like Avenger-style super powers, but I wanted to ensure my story was grounded in reality. So I chose these particular powers because people actually possess them in the real world.

For example, my character Lennox has the “Hercules gene”. This means he has muscles 25% larger and 50% stronger than an average human. A phenomenon known as being double-muscled in the real world and such children do exist, like this boy from Anhui Province in China. Watch the video here.

Another bulletcatcher, Joe, possesses the power of instant recall. He can remember vast amounts of information and visualize scenes he has only glimpsed for the blink of an eye. In fact, there’s an incredible lad called Stephen Wiltshire who can draw complete cityscapes after seeing them only for a few moments. These drawings are 100% accurate and to scale. Witness his astonishing ability here:

My next character, Azumi, is totally blind. Yet she can see without her eyes and has the ability to glimpse into the future – a talent I term blindsight. There are many examples of people who have visions of the future, but what I found more amazing in my research is a blind boy called Ben Underwood, who could cycle, rollerskate and even play basketball, all by using echo-location like a dolphin! See here.

And the more I researched into human superpowers, the more unbelievable the examples became. A boy who was like Magneto from X-Men, a baseball player with super-fast reflexes like my bulletcatcher Kasia and the most incredible yet… a man called John Chang who could set fire to objects using his chi (his inner energy). See the video here.

Bulletcatcher Pg29

The most important talent is the one that my hero Troy has: bulletproof skin. This sounds like a step beyond the realms of reality. But scientists have now created a skin made from goat’s milk packed with spider-silk proteins that can actually stop bullets. You can watch here.

Their hope is that one day they can eventually replace the keratin in human skin – the protein which makes it tough – with the spider-silk proteins. Which means, in the near future, there might actually be bulletproof kids, like my hero Troy. Until then you’ll just have to rely on bulletproof clothing! So the next time you watch a superhero movie (or read my Bulletcatcher book), be aware that someone in the world may possess that power… and it could be you!

See more amazing people with superpowers here.

To read more about Chris Bradford’s research, visit the Barrington Stoke website.

Bulletcatcher is published by Barrington Stoke and has a reading age of 8 years and a content level for 8-12 years. Buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

 

Alfie Bloom: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent

alfie bloom

One of the most readable novels I’ve read in some time, Gabrielle Kent has crafted a finely woven mash-up of some of the best known children’s literature and created her own excellent adventure. Alfie Bloom, poor and bullied, receives a peculiar summons from an even stranger solicitor and discovers that he has inherited an extraordinary castle. Added to this, he appears to be the custodian of a potent magic, part of which allows him to ‘timeslip’ back hundreds of years. Once living in his castle, he realises that there is a dangerous force roaming the fields, trying to take his magic from him, and he must fight it to save himself and the local village.

There are numerous hidden references and allusions in this book to the great children’s writers. The headmistresses of the local school to which Alfie is transferred hail from the realms of Dahl. Named Murkle and Snitch, one short, one tall, yet with Trunchbull-like punishments and glee in issuing them. They are superbly imagined. Alfie’s friendship with his cousins, and their tree house, as well as the sumptuous meals described, hark back to Enid Blyton, and the flying bear rug speaks to many a fantasy author’s imagination – it reminded me of Mary Norton’s bedknob.

The darkness and magic are vividly conjured. Although not a wizard, Alfie’s Harry Potter tendencies mean he can feel the intensity of his powers as a physical manifestation; and the castle itself is a wonderful mixture of modern and ancient, with hidden passages, concealed rooms, rich tapestries and a chandelier in the Great Hall – which works with an electric light switch, but the switch doesn’t light bulbs, it causes a mechanical arm with a flame to individually light all the wicks. It’s well described, pitched perfectly at the intended age group, as are the descriptions of the characters:

“Her nose was sharp, her fingernails were sharp but Alfie soon realised that the sharpest thing about her was her voice.”

This was such a captivating read – it flowed so well – and ticked all the boxes of children’s literature – down to descriptions of food wherever possible, an absent parent, a phenomenal Christmas celebration, and a play within the main drama where all is revealed. If I was a child again, I’d hope for at least ten in the series – it would be my mainstay. Gabrielle Kent has really taken all those tropes and reimagined them into a great little book. This start to a new series is fabulously promising.

Buy it here. For a capable age seven and over.