middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

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.

The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan

sword of kuromori shield of kuromori

My mum once told me one of the things she really liked about reading fiction was learning something new. Not just in terms of historical fiction, but in any fiction when the author lets slip insights about a place or a hobby or even something you just didn’t realise existed.
The Sword of Kuromori is not only an Alex Rider-style highly visual adventure with pace and passion and wit, but also a subtle lesson in Japanese language and culture. Teen Kenny Blackwood arrives in Tokyo expecting to spend some time during the school holidays with his father, who is residing there. However, even on the plane to Japan some peculiar events occur, and when he is taken aside at the airport and interrogated, things get even stranger. Before long he finds out that he can see mythical creatures that other people can’t, and that he’s been secretly signed up to a life-changing mission that will save America from catastrophic tragedy.
Jason Rohan’s knowledge of Japan sings from the pages of the book. He paints each scene so vividly, be it the expansive transport terminals, the lush landscapes and temples, or the colourful shopping areas – each setting is pitched so that the reader feels they know Japan despite not having been themselves. Moreover, the action never stops – Kenny seems to attract the attention of more than one type of mythical monster, all of which are strikingly hostile, and he has to use his wits and skills to bat them off. He is accompanied on his adventure by a feisty and attractive female sidekick – who becomes more and more central to his journey. She happily reminded me of Bixa from Phoenix by S F Said.
With strong allusions to other tales of masters and apprentices, from The Karate Kid to Star Wars – this book resonated with me by being familiar and yet totally unfamiliar at the same time; familiar in tone to other adventures of self-discovery and awareness, yet unfamiliar with its Japanese language and mythology. The mixture produces the perfect package. And despite the many monsters, this is also a grounded tale of family and friendship, of good versus evil and our ability to master our minds and conquer our fears.
I was particularly glad of the glossary of Japanese words at the back, the subliminal teaching of Japanese numerals, and being immersed in the food and culture of another region. I’m moving swiftly on to reading the just published book two, The Shield of Kuromori.
A highly recommended read. For age 9+. You can buy both books here or on the Amazon sidebar.

Pink or Blue

There’s been much talk of sexism this week, thanks mainly to Nobel scientist Sir Tim Hunt. Gender issues in children’s books are not a new topic though. Much has been written on this, campaigns have been fought, including Let Books be Books, and various lobbyists have asked publishers to refrain from branding books as being for one gender or the other, such as ‘Adventure Stories for Boys’. They have largely been successful – Usborne and Scholastic have stopped this practice, although someone needs to have a word with Ferrero about their Kinder eggs (currently packaged in either blue or pink).

But looking at the statistics of the type of books borrowed by boys and girls in school libraries, there is definitely a trend that cannot be ignored. Boys read books styled for boys, and girls read pretty much anything. What do I mean by that? Let’s have a look.

Archie Hates Pink

Packaging
This definitely influences children’s choice. I tried to find a book with a pink background cover without a girl’s name on the title, and without featuring a girl protagonist. I found just one! It’s a picture book and it’s all about a male cat who hates pink (although he changes his mind at the end). All the chapter books that had pink covers featured a female protagonist, usually with her name in the title – see the images.

wendy quill Princess Disgrace

These books are very rarely borrowed by boys in my library (if at all!).

Wilf the Mighty WarriorHamish and the Worldstoppers

Books which seem to imply from their colour scheme or image that they are for boys, see images above, have been borrowed by girls (but are favoured by boys). How about completely gender neutral covers – they get borrowed by both genders right? No! These other factors come into play too:

Pippi LongstockingSophie Hits Sixslime squad

Title
The boys wouldn’t choose Pippi Longstocking or the Dick King Smith Sophie books – because the title implied they were about girls. Likewise, The Worst Witch – the boys needed persuading. However, girls quite happily borrow Horrid Henry, Claude, and others. The title doesn’t matter to them. This is really the same as my next criteria, which is lead character. Boys tell me they prefer to read about a boy, whereas girls will read about either gender, although The World of Norm and Slime Squad are more typically borrowed by boys, as is any fiction containing dinosaurs! And the girls do tend to gravitate towards stories about schools, girl friendships, animals, and theatre. Fantasy tends to be a more mixed genre.
How about the gender of the author? I’ve mentioned before how JK Rowling was asked to be JK rather than Joanne for the dual appeal, even though her book is predominantly about a boy. Does it matter to library users? The children are very happy to receive author visits from men and women authors equally, and don’t seem to pay too much attention to the gender of the author. Of course, a separate issue is whether women authors write more female protagonists and male authors more male protagonists.
With non-fiction it is difficult to tell whether publishers package some non-fiction for girls as they perceive it to be a girly subject, or whether they did research on it, and so package the non-fiction girls tend to read with more girly covers. (Chicken and egg!) The girls lean towards non-fiction on gymnastics and horses. The boys: geography and football. This is not exclusive and there is far more overlap in non-fiction than fiction.

Pony Care

Exceptions to the rule. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. There are girls who only want to read Tom Palmer football books. There are boys who are obsessed with fairy tales, in which the protagonist is quite often a girl: Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, The Princess and the Pea, The Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, Goldilocks.

Does it matter?

It matters to me if gender choices preclude children from reading a really great book that they might enjoy. This is why many adults join book clubs – to be introduced to books that they wouldn’t otherwise choose themselves. And this is where school librarians come in – to enable the children’s choices, but also to widen their horizon to include books they otherwise might not have picked up. No matter the cover, title, author, or main character!
What I have noticed is the current trend in middle grade fiction (8-13years) for the main character to be accompanied by a strong sidekick of the opposite sex, so that often the protagonist becomes two or three people with different genders. Eg. Phoenix by SF Said (Lucky and Bixa), The Last Wild Trilogy by Piers Torday (Kester and Polly), The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn (Jinx and Tommy), Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty (Finn and Emmy), my book of the week: The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan (Kenny and Kiyomi), and Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (Sophie and Matteo). There are countless other examples.
Is this a shift from what’s gone before? In 2011 Professor McCabe of Florida State University conducted a study of children’s literature published between 1900 and 2000 and found that males are central characters in 57% of the books, compared with only 31% female. Male animals in 23%, and female animals the central star in 7.5%. What’s more they found that it’s the readers’ fault too – gender-neutral animal characters were frequently referred to as male by parents reading to their children. Since 2000 are authors changing who they write about? Are we becoming gradually more inclusive?
I have also found that the female protagonists or accompanying sidekicks portrayed are changing their dynamic to become bolder, braver, feistier, and more independent and often more worldly wise than the male protagonists. In my examples above, it is often the female characters who outshine the boys, even if they don’t start out as the main character. The question remains though – is it because our authors want boys to be equally enamoured by these feisty females as they are by the male leads, and read books that portray females, or is it because our girls are growing up more independent, gutsier and more capable, and our writers are simply reflecting that? I think, a bit of both!
If it matters to you, then one strategy for widening your child’s reading habits, is to probe exactly what it is about the book that they like. They may like The Worst Witch for the fact that it is about friendship, schools and magic, more than that it is about a girl. They may like Football Academy because it is about teams and friendship more than the fact that it is about a boy. More often than not, once they are halfway through the book, the cover itself doesn’t matter. Nor the title, nor the author. It’s about being immersed in the narrative. I recently saw a couple of ten year old boys devour Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, An Island of Our Own by Sally Nicholls, and The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff (all featuring female protagonists). The boys also loved Alice in Wonderland. It can be done – sometimes their choices just need a little guidance.

 

The Boys’ School Girls by Lil Chase

taras sister trouble

There’s a type of book that my readers never seem to tire of; a book based in schools, with issues around friendship, family life, and all the bother of finding one’s place in the world. I am delighted to bring you a new series that does the job so diligently with a clear understanding of 12 year olds, and with writing that sparkles with life. This is just the sort of series I wanted to read when I was young. (I confess I hugely enjoyed reading it this past week and I’m well past childhood!).

Lil Chase has created a fictional boys’ school, Hillcrest High, which has decided to admit girls for the first time. In the first title of the series, Tara’s Sister Trouble, Tara is one of these girls and she’s very excited – not least because she has a huge crush on one of the Hillcrest boys – but also because a new school means new friends, new opportunities and her best friend will be attending too. However, when Tara’s sister also joins the school, things start to fall apart for Tara. There is intense rivalry amongst the few girls at the new school, and her sister seems intent on sabotaging any relationships she does have. It’ll take Tara a fair amount of detective work and understanding to find out what’s really going on with her sister and her friends. There are a few little plot twists in the book – and it deals with some larger issues too – break up of a family, gambling, and jealousy, but Lil Chase always deals with them showing a great deal of compassion and humour. The action rolls along at a good steady pace and the reader is compelled to feel great empathy with the main character.

abbys shadow

There are three in the series, and the next two each focus on a different girl in the set of friends. Lil Chase has handled this cleverly by writing from the first person perspective each time – but the voices don’t blend into each other. Each girl in the series has a distinct voice and personality and this shines through. It’s a clever device and very enjoyable. The next two are Abby’s Shadow and Obi’s Secrets (the last published June 4th), but I’m hoping there’ll be many more. A series your 9-12yr old will devour with relish. You can buy the titles here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

obis secrets