middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

Father’s Day

Sometimes the best presents are those that you share. For Father’s Day – and I’m posting this early so that you have time to buy the right gift, here are some books about dads that fathers can share with their children. For me, and many others, the quintessential father in children’s books features in Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World: “My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”

But I’ve found some other marvellous and exciting fathers for you in children’s literature. First, picture books:

superhero dad

Superhero Dad by Timothy Knapman, illustrated by Joe Berger
A simple idea, astutely executed. To the narrator (the small boy) of the picture book the boy’s Dad is a superhero – everything he does is super. Of course to anyone else, he is a normal Dad. Although, clearly an excellent modern Dad who spends a considerable amount of time with his son, cooking for him, telling him jokes, and playing with him. An exuberance pitches the reader headlong into the book and the rhyming text and joyful rhythm continue to the end. The illustrations match perfectly, so that our rather comical fairly skinny ordinary Dad in glasses is seen holding the tiny dog Jumbo above his head in an extraordinary pose:
“His jokes are Super Funny…
…and his laugh is Super Long.
He can pick up our dog Jumbo
so he must be Super Strong.”
Every word is taken tongue-in-cheek, every picture matches. And yet the tone is loveable, warm and enchanting. The punchline is simplistic yet apt – the father denies he is a superhero, insisting instead that he knows of a superhero – his superhero son. There is also playfulness with the layout of the text – using bold and larger letters to convey emphasis and differentiation. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

my dad beard

My Dad’s Beard by Zanib Mian and Laura Ewing
This was published last year by a new publisher, Sweet Apple, which continues to grow their list. Although slightly niche, in that it appeals obviously to those whose fathers have beards, it is both cute and original. For younger children than those I usually cater for, each page draws on an example of why the child loves his Daddy’s beard – and how it defines him. It draws on our sensory perceptions from describing the look of the beard – how it is different from other family members’ beards – to the feel of it in different situations, and finally to what the child imagines lives in it (spoiler: a teeny tiny cat). It also manages to draw in the rest of the family as the child witnesses their perceptions of what the beard means to them. This is clever in that it highlights the important place the father has within this family – as a protector, and a person whom they trust and look up to. It draws on Islam in that it explains why this particular Dad has a beard, and so works as a picture book that reaches out to a diverse audience. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

my dad birdman

My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
Many children’s authors absent one or both parents so that the children of the story can go on an adventure without parental restrictions. What’s beautiful about David Almond’s writing is that so often (as with Roald Dahl), it is the adults themselves who bear the idiosyncrasies that make the story so appealing. Although one parent is absent here – the death of the mother is an overriding concern throughout this short tale – the consequences lead to a strengthening and developing of relationship between the daughter and the father. Lizzie’s Dad wants to enter a Human Bird competition, and believes he needs to adopt the characteristics of a bird to be able to fly. He encourages Lizzie to join him in this mad venture, despite the protestations of her adorable Aunt Dotty. The premise is barmy, the characters eccentric – but illuminated by Polly Dunbar’s flamboyant illustrations, the book manages to soar. Highly original, imaginative and everything a children’s story should be. Wonderfully typical David Almond. Age 6+. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

demolition dad

Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
Phil Earle’s fictional father comes about as close to Danny the Champion’s Dad as I can find. However, as with much children’s fiction I’ve been reading recently, this is a depiction of a modern Dad who fits right into our current world. Jake and his Dad love to spend every Saturday together pursuing their hobby in common – wrestling. Jake’s Dad George knocks down buildings as a day job, and at the weekend takes part in wrestling matches – knocking down other men – and he’s really good at it. So good, that Jake thinks he should go public, and so secretly enters a video of him in action in a pro-wrestling competition. When George wins, he agrees to travel to America for training and a headline fight, mainly for Jake, but unfortunately things start to unravel, and it’s not quite the dream venture they had all planned.
There were so many things to love about this book. As a refreshing change from much of the ‘humorous’ fiction in the marketplace for this age group – this book wasn’t full of silly jokes and slapstick happenings. It is extremely funny but the humour is carefully woven into the story; there are many wry laughs here, not fart jokes. Also, the wrestling is a major factor but doesn’t dominate. What comes across and leaves quite an impression is Phil’s adeptness at portraying the hidden emotions of parents, the sense of a community in a town, friendships, and most importantly father and son relationships. It’s clever, has emotional depth, and packs quite a punch. Touches I enjoyed – how the mum’s past career influences her behaviour, Phil’s capturing of the small town landscape complete with the ‘house that was stolen’ mid terrace, and Jake’s wonderful innocence and naivety – and his gradual responsive awareness. There are some stunning illustrations from Sara Ogilvie – the cover itself betrays this – but there are even better ones inside (the fight scenes are spectacularly hysterical). Moreover Phil Earle’s self–referential authorial musings are brilliant – see chapter 17. If you buy your Dad just one book this Father’s Day – make it this one. (then keep it for yourself). Age 8+. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

a boy called hope

A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson
On the other end of the spectrum from Danny Champion of the World’s Dad is the Dad in A Boy Called Hope. That’s mainly because he’s absent, having left his family and remarried. This is heartbreaking for Jake Hope, the boy in the story, especially when his Dad appears on the television in his role as a journalist – the first time that Jake has seen him in four years. Sadly, this speaks to so many children today. But despite the sadness of the situation, this is a poignant and uplifting story. Jake comes to see that he is surrounded by a loving family – especially as his Mum has met someone new, Big Dave, who actually turns out to be a terrific father to Jake.
Lara Williamson has magic on her side – she imbues the novel with a myriad of symbols and devices from sky lanterns to glow-in-the dark statues and stars that lift Jake’s situation from the humdrum of normality to the wonder of childhood – she lets us see things through Jake’s eyes that we would never normally capture in our vision.
There is humour too – Jake frequently misinterprets situations which leads to some trouble, but in the end, much laughter, and there are some splendid characters too – from his friends Christopher, who has his own troubles, to Jo, who is obsessed with the saints. It was also hugely enjoyable to read about Jake’s teenage sister through his eyes – older siblings can seem so detached from the family until you dig beneath the surface a little.
This is a wonderful book – fantastically true characterisation, and great writing. Be prepared for tears to accompany the laughter though – as in real life – sometimes you have to make the best of what you’ve got. You can buy it here from Waterstones or see the Amazon sidebar.

The Broken King by Philip Womack: The Darkening Path Trilogy

the broken king

Enthralling and all-encompassing, this is a fantasy novel that reaches into the depths of our modernity and triumphantly mixes it with legends of old to create a stunning new adventure. Although I wouldn’t ordinarily offer up as Book of the Week a book that’s the first in a trilogy, and ends on a cliffhanger when book three hasn’t been published yet, I am on this occasion making an exception, because book one is exceptional, and book two ends on a satisfactory note, leaving you wanting more but not disappointing.

Philip Womack takes his extensive classical knowledge and moulds it into a story that features our current world full with modern references of Sainsbury’s, mobile phones, and rock music, but then splices it with a fantasy world of shadows, murderous swans, and golden deer with wings.

Simon’s sister is taken away, kidnapped by a dark force, and with his parents and own world held in a kind of suspended time, he must venture into the kingdom of the Broken King to retrieve his sister. Along with him is sixteen year old Flora, whose brother has also been taken. The plot follows the traditional line of a journey into the unknown, with riddles to solve and dangers to avoid. However, the dark imagery is startling, refreshing and bold – Womack uses the loneliness of teenagers and weaves it into their fears and nightmares of the dark other world, he dips into territory as yet unexplored in children’s fiction – maps made from human skin.

I loved that he imposed physical scars on the two teenagers, so that the pain from their scars reminded them of their quickness to anger at their siblings, and how selfish they had been; how the kidnappings were their own fault. He touches on a subplot of a power struggle in the other world, as well as references to the troubles the teenagers have in their real lives – something that rounds their characters and keeps rooting the fantasy in reality.

There are numerous references to classical literature, the golden bough, Greek gods, Arthurian legends and comparisons of Womack’s writing have been made to Alan Garner, but this is a series firmly planted in our own times – with skyscrapers in the fantasy landscapes, portals in supermarkets, and tourists at the British Museum who aren’t what they seem.

I devoured it in one sitting – your children will doubtless do the same.
9+ years with strong constitutions.

The King's Shadow

You can purchase it here, or buy on the Amazon sidebar. The second in the trilogy, The King’s Shadow is out now and is available here .

The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford

The Imagination Box

This is one of those multi-faceted novels that delivers on every criteria. Our main character, Tim, lives in a hotel and has to create his own entertainment because his parents are busy working and he has no friends and no siblings. Then he meets one of the guests, a professor in a white lab coat, over a tray of forbidden cakes, and before long they are working together on the professor’s project – an imagination box that creates anything from your imagination. Tim seems to be the only one who can help the Professor to actually get the box to work – and before long Tim is conjuring all sorts of scientific magic. However, there are people who are willing to do anything to get their hands on the device, and Tim becomes embroiled in a race against time to keep the box in the right hands.
Throughout his pacey adventure, Tim has to navigate the adult world, determining who is to be trusted and who isn’t, as well as experimenting with the laws of science. Of course the science in the book is completely unrealistic, but there are roots in the imagination of what we could do with science, and Martyn Ford cleverly employs space-age gadgetry and technology, as well as teleporting, to ensure that young readers are excited and motivated by futuristic scientific imaginings. The book also poses some questions. What would you create if you could create anything? What would you create if you were hanging off the edge of a ten-storey building? What would you create from your dreams? Or nightmares?
Beneath all the adventure and excitement, Tim is a lonely little boy, who has to confront his deepest fears. What’s interesting is that at the start of the book we learn that Tim is adopted, and also friendless. There are deep-seated insecurities about himself here, and his relationship with his adoptive parents is barely scratched in this book – although perhaps this is to be explored in the other titles (the book is set to be the first of a trilogy, although this one works fine as a stand-alone title too).
There are also themes of burgeoning friendships, and loyalty, as Tim cultivates the friendship of the professor’s granddaughter, and also befriends a pygmy monkey (although the latter he conjured from his own head). These two characters imbue the novel with laughter, which sits well against the backdrop, so that none of the story is too dark or threatening.
I fully enjoyed it. It’s meaty, well-structured, and contains the right mix of elements for a sciencey adventure with humour and depth. One of those books that shows youngsters that an imagination is for stretching. For readers aged 9+.

Pranking Both Sides of the Pond

prankenstein yankenstein

I’ve never been one for pranks. I did get a fright recently when my son left a plastic spider in my kindle cover, and yes, I did get him back (although somewhat lamely). Then I read Prankenstein vs Yankenstein by Andy Seed, illustrated by Richard Morgan – and although it was snatched off me by the pesky children not long after, I’m now brimming full of new prank ideas. I just hope they don’t enact them first. The first described prank is that of prying apart an oreo biscuit, eating or discarding the cream, then squeezing toothpaste in its place and remaking the sandwich biscuit. For an inexperienced pranker, this sounded great, and made me want to read more! This book is the second in the Prankenstein series by Andy Seed, and it is an extremely funny read. It describes how Pugh, otherwise known as Soapy, wakes up to find himself handcuffed to a toilet seat. A master prankster himself, he decides it must be the work of his visiting cousin, Topazz and therefore he must wreak his revenge. The added twist however, is that both cousins, if they eat the wrong foods, turn, by night, into prank monsters, Prankenstein and Yankenstein, and perform outrageous tricks and inflict chaos and damage throughout their town. The plot races along with tit for tat pranks, mystery and intrigue, before coming to a climactic Butch Cassidy and Sundance ending – both pranksters trapped in a barn and facing their comeuppances. Add to the mix the Estonian ‘twince’ as Soapy calls his twin friends, and you have a hilarious cast of characters in a stupendously silly story. One for kids who like to laugh! Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

tapper twins go to war

Things reached tipping point though when I read The Tapper Twins Go to War (with each other) by Geoff Rodkey. This had me chortling from the get-go – I nearly snorted cornflakes up my nose. My son also massively enjoyed it, although I have the feeling we were laughing at completely different things. This is a realistic situation, as opposed to the fantastical scenarios presented in Prankenstein vs Yankenstein, and is a highly visual read – the twins’ world and their apartment remain fresh in my mind. For an older audience than Prankenstein and by a US author, it tells the story of 12 year old twins, Reese and Claudia, and the pranks they played to get each other back over a missing pastry. Told as a reported ‘history’ by Claudia, using friend’s witness statements, Reese’s arguments, and the parents’ text messages, it documents (with pictures too) the pranks and their consequences. It’s both witty and clever – I particularly liked the parents’ text messages to each other discussing the twins, whereas my son enjoyed reading about the pranks they played as well as the small handwritten comments in the margins, as if added later to amend text and correct mistakes. We both enjoyed Claudia pranking Reese in an online gaming situation as well, and the moral dilemmas it presented to her. It’s well executed, in that both twins do learn something from their experiences without the book descending into morality or preachiness, and Geoff Rodkey has pinned down their separate distinctive voices expertly. The setting is New York, and for children in the UK, it draws a good picture of Manhattan life. It’s modern and relevant, using a wealth of different narrative structures, text devices and points of view. I highly recommend and will be buying the next in the series. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

terrible two

Lastly, for budding or experienced pranksters, there’s The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John, illustrated by Kevin Cornell. A mixture of the above, in that it doesn’t descend too much into farce and the fantastical, as in Prankenstein vs Yankenstein, but it is also not as realistic as The Tapper Twins. It does, however, contain plenty of laughs. Miles Murphy is known for his pranking. But when he moves to a new school in a new town, and realises that the new school already has a master prankster, he has to decide whether to go it alone in the war of the pranksters, or team up in order to pool strengths. The beauty of this book is threefold. The characters Miles meets in his new town are pretty much all caricatures, enhanced hugely by the illustrations, so that his eventual partner in crimes, Niles, gives off the appearance of the quintessential class ‘goody’. The headmaster comes from a long inherited line of headmasters and is struggling to live up to the family reputation. He comes across as an overarching fool. The pranks themselves and their consequences are delightful – from a car parked across the school entrance so that every child must clamber across the backseat to get into the school, to the ‘fake’ birthday party in the town square, resulting in a standoff between Miles and Niles. There are some fun extras, such as facts about cows interspersed throughout the story – they become an essential part – as well as chapter 6, which is written as a list. The chapters are all short and bite sized, sitting comfortably with reluctant readers, and Kevin Cornell’s illustrations truly accentuate the text. Another heartily recommended prankster book. I’m not having you on! Buy it here from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

With thanks to Fat Fox Publishers for the review copy of Prankenstein vs Yankenstein, and to Orion for The Tapper Twins Go To War.

 

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

ABIPCOVER

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

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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.
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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.