middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

Adventurers

race to the frozen northRace to the Frozen North by Catherine Johnson

Subtitled ‘The Matthew Henson story’, Catherine Johnson has fictionalised the life of ordinary man, yet heroic explorer and adventurer Matthew Henson and created an intriguing, highly readable, gripping novella of the incredible story of how illiterate eleven-year-old Matthew Henson became the first man to reach the North Pole.

Actually there continues to be contention over who really reached the North Pole first, with it often cited that either Dr Frederick Cook or US explorer Robert Peary reached it in the years 1908 and 1909 respectively. Matthew Henson was in Robert Peary’s expedition, and according to Johnson’s story, made it there first. But his name and achievement were suppressed for many years because of the colour of his skin. He was a black man, and people were disinclined to believe that Peary had put his trust in a black man – both at the time and for many years later.

The story reads almost as a rags to riches fairy tale, in that Henson was beaten by his stepmother and ran away aged 11 with nothing to his name. A kindly restaurant owner took him on, then a sea captain who saw potential in him, and taught him to read and write, and thanks to Henson’s extraordinary motivation, his adventures to different lands, and above all his willingness to learn and understand other people, he transformed himself into a daring and intrepid explorer.

Johnson’s story is gripping for both being based on truth, but also for its telling, which has clever pacing to illustrate the passage of time, and simple, yet extraordinary prose (her descriptions of the polar landscape and its dangerous crevices are awesome). It also teaches compassion and respect – Henson’s treatment of others on his travels, especially indigenous people, (his willingness to learn from their expertise rather than treat them as subservient) is part of what made him so successful, enabling him to go from impoverished youth to sailor to navigator, craftsman to explorer. Johnson cleverly inserts subtle parallels here, foreshadowing the plight of the black man with Henson’s freeing of a caged bird, and  contrasting Henson’s deep respect for the ice and the Inuit with the disrespect he was shown in his Western world.

This is both a coming-of-age and an adventure story, but brought to life with evocative descriptions, an understanding of racial relations and social history at the beginning of the 20th century, and yet also the tiny acts of kindness that lead to world-changing events. Although not all plain sailing, Henson’s adventures highlight the importance of determination, patience and friendship. A fantastic story, illustrated with Katie Hickey’s vignettes on the bottom of each page highlighting which section of the narrative you’re in, that brings attention to a well-deserved hero. It just goes to show that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

The title is published by Barrington Stoke, who create readable books for reluctant or dyslexic readers with phenomenal storytelling. Explore it yourself here.

great adventurersAlistair Humphreys’ Great Adventurers, illustrated by Kevin Ward

For those new to adventuring, Alistair Humphreys is an English adventurer whose first big adventure was cycling round the world. It took him four years, and he was the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012. Looking him up, I see that he is just a few days older than me, which puts me to shame as most days the furthest I go is about five kilometres.

Anyway, for those who want to be inspired, or live vicariously through books, you will want to read his stunning children’s book, Great Adventurers, in which Humphreys profiles 20 heroic explorers who have undertaken some of the most incredible journeys and expeditions in history.

The choice of adventurers is certainly broad and eclectic, ranging from Rick Hansen, the Paralympian who wheeled around the world, to Ibn Battuta, the 14th century explorer who visited more countries than Marco Polo, to Audrey Sutherland who paddled the Alaskan coastline on her first expedition at the age of 59.

Each adventurer is treated differently in the book, but with the same awe-inspiring imagination, attention-to-detail and simple storytelling. With full colour throughout, some of their adventures are drawn in cartoon comic-strips, others contain lists of kit equipment with illustrations, others a map of their route, and each is different. Dervla Murphy’s destinations are shown in an array of postcards, Ranulph Fiennes has a page of floating icebergs that give facts about his Transglobe Expedition. Colour pallettes distinguish each adventure from the next – Nellie Bly is illustrated with a delicious traditional sea-mint green, with illustrations and motifs echoing the time period – a distinctive wallpaper, the underwear she packed, a fake newspaper front page.

But I think one of my favourite things is the small box accompanying each adventurer that explains why Humphreys included that person. Some inclusions are for the person’s enthusiasm, others for their message of a slow and simple life, some for bravery and resourcefulness, and others are deeply personal to Humphreys but all model good adventuring in one way or another – even those who suffered terrible journeys.

This is a glorious non-fiction title that explains, explores and fascinates. With cartoon strips, maps, charts, varied layouts, illustrations, points of interest and colour, I was bowled over by the expeditions I read about as well as the production of the book. It seems Humphreys is not only good at adventuring.

Did I mention he’s also rowed the Atlantic, run six marathons through the Sahara, and crossed Iceland by foot and packraft? Although now he’s a pioneer of microadventures – a movement that encourages people to seek short, local adventures. That’s more like it – perhaps even with a book in hand? Take your adventure here.

 

The Afterwards by AF Harrold, illustrated by Emily Gravett

the afterwardsWhen I was at school I studied the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in a couple of different forms – French playwright Jean Anouilh’s version and Ovid’s telling. It’s a love story of the highest order, in which Eurydice tragically dies and Orpheus attempts to bring her back from the Underworld. Even in the versions in which a narrator has tried to imbue the story with some kind of uplifting ending – such as Orpheus’s songs enchanting everyone forever – the tale is still incredibly melancholy. Thinking back, I wonder if my teachers were mad to give such material to fourteen-year-old girls.

And yet modern children’s literature is constantly eking out the darker corners of our lives – the shadowy parts. In the past year I’ve come across many picture books, young fiction and young adult fiction that all show children harsh realities – the horrific plight of refugees, bullies at school, death of close family members. Almost all of them end on a hopeful note in an attempt to show children resilience, forbearance perhaps, and that they are not alone in their tragedy.

When AF Harrold writes ‘serious’, he tends to reach into those dark corners, having dealt with loss in The Imaginary and bullying in The Song of Somewhere Else, amongst other things. He has described The Afterwards as the last of this triumvirate of books (not a trilogy – these are stand-alone titles) but they all link, in their collective other worldly, serious, atmospheric way. For it is the atmosphere they evoke almost more than the plot itself, which disturbs the soul.

The Afterwards is perhaps his darkest yet, melancholy in feel and quietly devastating. Ember and Ness are best friends – Ember lives with her father after her mother left a long time ago, and Ness lives next door. But then Ness dies (rather horrifically by falling off a swing and hitting her head – this is not a book for the faint-hearted child). Ember is left feeling lost and empty.

When Ember finds a way into the Afterworld, she decides she must bring Ness back with her. But the Afterworld is not going to let go of Ness so easily, and Ember finds that the demands made upon her will change how she thinks about things forever.

Any book dealing with the large topics of death, loss, memory and what happens after death is bound to address the darker side, but Harrold’s writing, even in its comic sphere, is full of atmosphere – and here it is dark indeed. The colours of the world are stripped away in the Afterworld – a metaphor used oft before – but here it really packs a punch. For not only has the colour been stripped away but also Ness’s energy, sapping slowly from her to leave her in a frightening, apathetic state – half the person she was, lacking her zest and charisma. An even more haunting premise is the other person that Ember comes across in the Afterworld – a frightening prospect that comes at the climax of the book, leaving Ember with an unbearable choice and the lingering feeling of sadness at mothers who die without seeing their children grow up. What’s more, there is a character in Ember’s real world who is willing to do something so dreadful that you wonder at Harrold’s daring at placing it at the heart of this novel.

This is a powerful book – written so matter-of-factly (and yet with the poise of a poet) that the magical realism of the Afterworld seems palpable and plausible; the characters so neatly drawn that they feel as if they are just around our own corner. But what haunts particularly is the unbearable feeling of loss and grief that permeates all the shadows of this book – even the grief over an animal.

Brief moments of comedic insight come in a wry style in dialogue between Ember and her father, but for the most part this is a deeply disturbing read. That’s not to say it isn’t troublingly good. It is. The story is always compelling, pushing the reader on in a relentless thrust of impatience to make everything right again, to make Ember happy again. And in the end, with a talking cat and the uplift of happy memories, things are, sort of, okay. But any children’s book that ends with a funeral needs to be read with an enormous amount of sensitivity.

This is a story about memory and loss and the power of love, the latter of which exudes with the illustrations drawn by Emily Gravett. At this point I must confess to only having seen an early proof with limited illustrations, but so far for me, they have provided the uplift – the handsome colour of real life – snapshots of Ember’s ordinary life, which both warms and chills once the reader realises what’s going to happen. The image of Ember’s Dad untying her shoelaces, the family photographs around the house, the wonder of friendship giggles over holiday stories, and the sure-fire shared look of best friends across a room. The couple of illustrations provided nearer the middle of the book are of course, darker, but there is a wonderful intimacy to them still – a poignancy and power that goes hand in hand with the text.

This is an extraordinary book, one that will stay in the memory, and one that should be widely read – but with caution. Its haunting quality may be contagious. You can buy it here.

Lollies: An Interview with Liz Pichon, author of Tom Gates

LolliesThe Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (Lollies) is a celebration of the very best and funniest books for children, voted by children themselves after judges choose the shortlist.

The Lollies are a relatively new award in the world of children’s books, started in 2016 as a riposte to the demise of the Roald Dahl Funny Book Prize. So many children rate the value of a book by its comedy, with 63% of children surveyed for the Scholastic Kids Reading Report 2014 indicating that they wanted a book that made them laugh. This was their top priority, the next criteria was identifiable characters.

This year, the four shortlisted titles in the 9-13 years shortlist are Football School Season 2: Where Football Saves the World by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttelton and Spike Gerrell, Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure by AL Kennedy and Gemma Correll, My Mum’s Growing Down by Laura Dockrill and David Tazzyman and Tom Gates Epic Adventure (Kind Of) by Liz Pichon.

I took my own epic adventure and asked Liz Pichon some questions, on your behalf, as a celebration of her shortlisting, and also as part of the Lollies Blog Tour (when many book bloggers each take a different title on the shortlist and celebrate it for a day).

Tom Gates Epic AdventureHi Liz. You’ve won numerous awards for Tom Gates, including the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, Waterstones, Blue Peter Book Award etc. What does it mean to be shortlisted for a Lollies prize – you must be pleased humorous books are being recognised again.

I’m THRILLED! I love the fact it’s a prize for funny books too. It’s a great list so I’d encourage everyone to read them all and have a really good laugh!

Before Tom Gates, you worked on greetings cards with Giles Andreae in his Purple Ronnie days. Are you now happy working as author and illustrator on your own – or have you thought about making a book that’s a collaboration?

That’s right I did. I took my portfolio of designs to the Spring fair in Birmingham where all the companies who make cards and gift items sell into shops. Giles was on one of the stands and he looked at my work and then I got commissioned to do a range of cards which sold pretty well (I think!).

I used to illustrate other people’s work, but now I like illustrating my own stories as it means I can think about every aspect of what the book will look like. But never say never!

The doodling illustrations of Tom Gates are highly distinctive, and you often wear Tom Gates decorated accessories. Do you draw things in other styles any more or is Tom forever in your mind (and hand)?

Yes I do – I’m about to start work on a completely NEW story which will look different to the Tom Gates books – still funny hopefully, but different characters.

Does this mean the end is in sight for Tom Gates? And will Tom ever grow up – like Harry Potter?

Tom will remain the same age for now – like Bart Simpson I think. I have lots of ideas left for Tom and the family still – as long as I’m enjoying it and the readers are too – I’ll keep going. 

Apparently Tom Gates is headed for the stage with a brand new story in 2019. How involved are you in this venture and how different is it from producing a book?

So far I’ve been very involved and it’s SO exciting! I’ve been working a lot on the script which is a brand new story and my husband Mark is doing the music for the play. Some of the songs already feature in the books – but we have new ones too.

It’s The Birmingham Stage Company who’ll be taking the play on tour and Neal Foster – who runs it – has been amazingly collaborative. They already do Horrible Histories and Gangsta Granny – so they are experts at putting on fantastic children’s theatre. It’s going to be amazing I know.

It’s quite different from the books in some ways because this is the chance to find out different things about the characters and bring them to life. I have loved the process so far. It’s on tour all next year – so go and see it!

Are you surprised by the popularity of Tom Gates? Is it particularly pleasing to have Tom Gates books recommended as being for reluctant or struggling readers?

You always HOPE that the books will do well – but until they’re out in the world you really have no idea!

I love that kids who don’t think reading is for them seem to be enjoying the stories and being creative too. That’s been amazing – watching the way children have got into the doodling and making stuff from the back of the books as well. All I wanted to do – was to make a book that I would have loved at that age and every time I start a new book, that’s what I keep in my head.

Lastly, I have burning question from one of my blog readers’ children, who is a big fan of Tom Gates: “Please ask Liz if she used to play the caramel wafer trick on her parents and if not, where did she get the idea for it?

Good question! I used to play this trick on one of my sisters and she’d do it to me too. We’d use club biscuits as well (other biscuits available!). They worked really well because they used to have an outer wrapper that you could slide the EMPTY biscuit back into and then put it on a plate. The other thing that would DRIVE everyone crazy is if we had a box of chocs – I’d pinch the good ones from the bottom layer as well! Ha! Ha!

With huge thanks to Liz Pichon for her time, and good luck in the awards. The winning book in each category will be decided solely by children’s votes, with schools and parents encouraged to help kids get involved and vote via the Lollies website.

The winning books will be announced in January 2019. If you haven’t read Tom Gates: Epic Adventure (Kind of), you can buy it here.

Beetles, Other Creatures and Conservation

For some children, their way into reading is not through love of story but rather through a particular interest, such as beetles, creatures or conservation. I recently had a client who was concerned about her son’s reading and begged me to find books on turtles – it was the only way in. For other children, their concern for their own future and the future of the planet is a key concern and although watching David Attenborough is fascinating and game changing – so is reading a book that teaches about conservation. My headline book this week is borne out of a fiction trilogy, although it very firmly sticks to the facts.

beetle collectorsThe Beetle Collector’s Handbook by MG Leonard, illustrated by Carim Nahaboo
This is an excellent extension of a make-believe world, yet despite the fictional author named in the front and the Beetle Boy characters’ printed scrawlings in the margins, the book is above all a bonafide non-fiction book on beetles, comprehensively written by Leonard and fact checked by leading experts. For those unaware, the Beetle Boy trilogy is a great adventure story about Darkus Cuttle, in which beetles play a large role. This book, The Beetle Collector’s Handbook, is referenced within the text as a key non-fiction handbook, and now Leonard has created her fictional reference as a real book.

Not only does it give further insight into the Beetle Boy characters with their margin annotations, but it gives detailed information on a selection of beetles, complete with annotated illustrations and rather wonderful tables and records of species. The illustrations show the actual size of some of the beetles, and the text supplies facts in a friendly, non-patronising and welcoming way.

The author’s voice comes through loudly and clearly, not only in her (or his, if you go with the fictional author Monty G Leonard) explanation that this is a book for both genders, but also in her instructionals on how to catch, study, but mainly respect these insects. As one would expect from someone who views beetles as insect superheroes with their own costumes and skills, the book is enormous fun, and genuinely encourages the reader to seek out beetles – which luckily for most means simply going to a local garden or park, in which at least fifty different species live apparently. This is an inspirational book, but also highly researched, so that a child will come away with scintillating knowledge but also enthusiasm and enjoyment. The book is packaged in a chapter-book style to sit neatly on the shelf next to the fiction trilogy (if you so desire), but also with a nod to the fiction behind it – it’s hardback with foil embossed cover and pages inside that are tinted so that it feels ‘old’. Clever, attractive and necessary. Like beetles themselves. Add it to your collection here.

survivalSurvival by Louise McNaught and Anna Claybourne, and produced in association with Tusk, is a phenomenal visual warning about the plight of some of the planet’s endangered and vulnerable animals. Some of the artwork in the book is taken from Louise McNaught’s art show, also called Survival, and features the creatures’ energy – some are so stark they seem almost like photographs – but are hand painted with incredible detail. What’s more the animals are fading into or rather out of a bright background, so the image of the tiger looks as though the animal is emerging from the green foliage, at the same time as perhaps being gradually faded out by an invisibility cloak – or rather the threat of extinction.

The book showcases each visual with a reference page that highlights the status of the animal (The Siberian Tiger is endangered) as well as giving key facts about population, Latin name, habitat and location in a small box. A paragraph of text gives context and illuminates the history but also conservation of the animal (action being taken to protect them), and their importance on Earth.

The artwork in the book is breathtaking – quite inspirational. If you hadn’t already worried about the future of the Hawksbill Turtle, you will after seeing its vulnerability portrayed with the upward drips of paint around its vivid, striking body. Age 7+ years. You can buy it here.

turtles, snakes and other reptiles
Turtles! When I spoke to that aforementioned client, there were only a few books around that met her son’s need. Now, there are more and more. I’d start with Turtles, Snakes and other Reptiles by Alice Pattullo and Amy-Jane Beer. This pocket guide with high production quality gives a comprehensive look at all things reptile, despite being quite pocket-sized for a non-fiction title. Full colour illustrations throughout, and mentions for lesser-well known species make this an excellent guide to reptiles. Each creature is given an introductory paragraph but also panels including ‘A Closer Look’ and ‘Did you know’, Latin names and captions and annotations. For the older amongst us, some of the small text is hard to read against the dark coloured backgrounds, but for its readership, this is a fascinating and worthwhile little series, in conjunction with Britain’s Natural History Museum. Age 7+ years. You can buy it here.

hello world animals

Three titles for younger children with an initial emerging interest in animals and seeking further understanding include Hello World: Animals by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by L’Atelier Cartographik. This companion piece to Hello World by Jonathan Litton is a novelty lift-the-flap title that explores the wonder and richness of the world around us. The book divides into the different continents, with maps overlaid by small images of animals, which when lifted give the name and a brief sentence. Brevity is of the essence here. I did enjoy the longer explanation as to where the European wilderness has gone, as well as the oddities of the Galapagos. The book features over 180 animals, pointing out when some are endangered, how some of them feed, and an interesting range of other facts – a good primer for primary school geography and exploration of the life sciences, and great for kids who like to dip into books to glean regurgitate-able facts. Age 7-9 years. You can buy it here.

There’s a Rang Tan in my Bedroom is actually a 90 second animated film narrated by Emma Thompson, but Greenpeace have released an accompanying book, which tells the rhyming story of a baby orang-utan who is homeless because of deforestation – the clearing of natural habitat to make way for palm tree oil cultivation. Sadly, although they sent me a copy, I can’t find one for you to buy, but you can watch the video here.

peek and seek
For a proper book, complete with flaps, full colour illustrations, and interactivity, little ones will like Peek and Seek by Charlotte Milner. At first appearance the spreads look empty – a landscape of houses, inhabitants silhouetted, and a tide of colourful trees behind. When the reader lifts the flap, a flock of birds and information appear as if by magic. The information describes roosting, group epithets, and migration, all on a hardy board book background. Further spreads include wolves, ants (although alliteration has won out over factual accuracy on this spread – using army rather than colony), fish, monkeys and rabbits: an eclectic mix with no apparent reason. There are also charts with things to find in the illustrations – a nice engaging bit of interactivity. A shame to find a spelling error on a key word in the factfile, but perhaps it will be picked up on reprinting. A gentle introduction for exploring eyes. Age 4+. You can buy it here.

 

 

Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer

armistice runnerTom Palmer has been writing books about sport for some time, and combining history and sport to bring each of those subjects to children who wouldn’t necessarily access the other. Armistice Runner is Palmer’s latest book, published in conjunction with Barrington Stoke, and placed perfectly in commemoration of the centenary. But publishing something at an opportune time doesn’t make it a success – it takes a whole host of other factors. Factors that Palmer demonstrates in abundance in his latest book – a gripping story that parallels and contrasts historical and modern, pointing to the individual to bring out the whole, and dazzling the reader with its historical research, compelling descriptions, and mostly, its massively empathetic characters.

Lily is struggling to compete in her fell-running races, often losing to a rival competitor named Abbie. Maybe it’s because Lily has other things on her mind. Her grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and her father is increasingly upset by the disease’s development. When they go to visit, Lily’s running reminds her grandmother of her own grandfather – a fell runner himself, who also served at the Front during the First World War. When Lily discovers her great-great-grandfather’s (Ernest’s) diaries, they help her to make connections with her grandmother, as well as give her the confidence and inspiration to keep attacking her own runs.

The book splits off into dual narratives – the reader exploring the historical diaries alongside Lily, and thus as invested emotionally as Lily herself. When she stops reading because of an incident with her family, the reader feels Lily’s frustration at being unable to dive back into the diaries and carry on, and yet the reader also wants to hear more about Lily’s story. It’s a well-concocted balance of voices.

The parts of the book in Ernest’s voice are evocative of the Front (he was a runner messenger on the front lines) and yet not so gruesome or devastating as to put off young readers – a feat hard to capture. Again, the balance is just right. Descriptions of rotting flesh feel very real, as do Ernest’s emotions and friendships, and it becomes apparent how delicate the communications were during the war at the Front, particularly in the days and hours preceding the Armistice.

This is a good view of the effect of war on the individual, and Palmer draws clever comparisons between the two time periods – Lily’s and Ernest’s – in terms of them both dealing with loss, loyalty, friendship and seeing things from others’ points of view.

Palmer deals particularly sensitively with Lily’s grandmother. It can be confusing for a pre-teen, at a time in which they’re dealing with defining their own identity, to have a close relative mis-remember who they are. And Palmer explores Lily’s emotions in dealing with her little brother and her father with regards to their relationships with the grandmother, and her debilitating disease. It can be upsetting to see one’s parents in pain, at the same time as discovering that they’re fallible creatures themselves who don’t have all the answers. And Lily tries to have the right answers for her little brother.

Ernest’s grief is also portrayed – his struggle with the loss of his brother, and seeing his own parents suffer – but Palmer brings in here the emotional release of physical exercise. Fell running is distinctive in the effort needed to run uphill and the strength of character involved, but also the freefall sensation of running downhill in fell running – the battle against one’s own instincts to hold back and retain control.

The story of Lily’s great-great grandfather’s past and the lessons he learns about reaching across barriers, and loyalty to others, helps strengthen Lily’s confidence in dealing with her own rivalries, and her family issues, showing that the past really can inform the future.

And I can’t help but mention how accessible the text is – both in that it has been written for publisher Barrington Stoke, (specialists in producing books for struggling readers), but also in that Palmer has two genders telling the story, and a female dominating, in the type of story (sport and World War I) usually dominated by men.

If the book stimulates discussion and further study, you’d do well to look at Tom Palmer’s own website with its brilliant range of accompanying resources. And you can buy the book here.

The Plight of the Refugee

the day war cameThe Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
This is a powerful book that works because it touches the ordinary in each of us. Cobb is an illustrator in the ilk of Judith Kerr and Shirley Hughes – she draws her characters and situations with a crayon childlike warmth, summoning a familiar feeling of domesticity, with her children’s faces expressing the wonder and hope so redolent of innocent childhood. Yet, as in her best work, including Paper Dolls and The Something, she manages to create the darkness and uncertainty that can befall a child, whether it be the bittersweet passing of time in Paper Dolls, or the fears that lurk within the depths of imagination in The Something, or indeed war in The Day War Came.

She complements Nicola Davies’ text wonderfully, which itself tells this story with an acute simplicity, stirring the heart because it bears inside it the pang of extreme suffering. There is a superior energy and force behind the text and illustrations’ understatement:

“I drew a picture of a bird.

Then, just after lunch, war came.”

The war itself feels brutal, as does the journey to flee it. The girl is shown in distress, and there are symbols throughout – of domesticity altered, destroyed and damaged – red shoes adrift on the tide, orange flowers echoing the orange flames leaping from the buildings, children’s drawings strewn in a blast.

the day war came
But even more haunting are the images and words afterwards – the internal war that follows the child in the doors shut in her face, the turning away of people. The image of hope comes in the end with an empty chair borne by a welcoming boy.

The picture book came out of a campaign called #3000chairs, after 3000 child refugees were refused entry to the country in 2016. Nicola Davies’ poem started the ball rolling, and artists contributed drawings of chairs. You can read more about this campaign here, but the picture book will have an effect for years to come – changing minds and moving hearts about the plight of children caught up in war. You can buy a copy here, £1 from every copy sold goes to the charity Help Refugees.

boy at back of classThe Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf, illustrations by Pippa Curnick
An empty chair starts this book too, but it is soon filled with a Syrian refugee. The narrator (who remains anonymous in name and gender until fairly near the end of the book) is empathetic towards him, and soon envelopes him within the friendship group. What begins as a mundane look at an outsider fitting into a new school, complete with language barriers, a bullying problem, and sympathetic teachers, turns into an interesting political commentary on the UK’s treatment of refugees, all told within the neat confines of a children’s adventure story.

The narrator and his/her friends pick up on attitudes and information from the grown-ups and news broadcasts around them, and their naivety and misunderstanding leads the group of friends to find a rather far-fetched solution to reuniting Ahmet with his parents (whom it is presumed are waiting to cross the border into the UK to be with their son again).

The differing views on refugees and acceptance dominate the book, and cleverly, by keeping the narrator anonymous, the reader will find their own views challenged in the presumptions they have made about the protagonist, which comes to a head at the climactic point of the novel.

Above all though, this is a neat, well-told story that explores the power of small actions to initiate change – that calls upon the role of the individual in society, and the impact that kindness can have.

There are nods to other children’s books, but what the author has done most wisely is perfect the innocence and openness of the narrator’s voice in encapsulating the simplicity of school life as seen through a nine year old’s eyes, alongside the complexity of issues in wider society. Suitable for 8+ years, and you can buy this novel here.

tomorrowTomorrow by Nadine Kaadan
Another child who has had his domestic routine disrupted is Yazan, a Syrian boy, in this wordy picture book by Nadine Kaadan, herself from Damascus. At first the war curtails his activities and routines, confining him to the house and subjecting him to boredom. Then, it intrudes his confined space – coming into his house in dark poignant watercolour abstract shapes leaking from the loud noise of the TV news. When Yazan escapes outside in the hope of riding his bicycle to the park he sees only emptiness, and buildings that seem to tower over him, confining him in a different way.

There is much to explore in the imagery here, with anxiety and fear portrayed within a deconstructed urban landscape – buildings are blood red and crooked, or grey and strewn with cracks – even Yazan’s parents are drawn with buildings as their clothes as if the destruction outside is eating them up, the war-torn streets projected inside their circle of domesticity.

As Rebecca Cobb, Kaadan looks to the everyday domestic images – a child’s paper aeroplane, the excitement of a red bike and its bell to express an affinity with this ‘everychild’. Kaadan reaches for a hopeful ending, pictured in the illustrations of happy colourful days and the limitless freedoms of nature and the park in the imaginations of mother and child.

A fascinating exploration of how an illustrator can take one symbol of war and use it throughout a book, whilst also showing her characters with sympathy, humanity and depth. You can buy a copy here.

World Mental Health Day

It is World Mental Health Day today, and research from University College London shows that the number of children and young people with long-standing mental health issues is soaring, rising six fold from 1995 to 2014. Whether it’s pressure from school, social media, or the pace of our world, it’s clear that all agencies are interested in building resilience and promoting emotional and mental wellbeing in our children. There’s only so much schools can do (despite the govt promising training for teachers in dealing with mental health issues in the classroom), so much of it is left to parents.

I’ve been listening to Ester Perel’s psychology podcast, and although she’s known for her books on grown up relationships and fidelity, this particular podcast was on parenting. Her advice is stellar; insightful and sympathetic whilst being wise and objective. How do we make sure our children grow up to be happy and confident, yet also thoughtful and good citizens? How do we make sure that they come and talk when they are scared or sad and how do we listen so that we don’t show a matching fear or sadness or disappointment? I think whenever I need help with anything I turn to those closest to me, but I also receive much wisdom from books.

70 Ways to Boost Your Self Esteem70 Ways to Boost Your Self-Esteem by Jenny Alexander
I’ve started with this excellent book for two reasons. Firstly, having good self-esteem is essential to mental well-being. If you love and feel proud of yourself, you will recognise your own value and importance and consequently you will take good care of yourself, make good decisions and have a positive outlook. Don’t we all want that for our children? Secondly, self-help books can be rather worthy enterprises – for author and reader. We read the book and think, hmm that sounds good, but we never actually put it into practice. Especially when it’s an abstract concept. It’s one thing following a recipe in a diet book, quite another thing to improve one’s self esteem. But this book not only explores what self-esteem is, and why it’s good, but sets tasks at the end of each chapter to achieve good self-esteem. And the tasks are fun.

It splits the steps to gaining self-esteem into seven parts – each with its own designated chapter, example, and tasks. For example: being the hero of your own story; getting life goals; recognising weakness; and celebrating oneself. There’s also a chapter about awareness of others and respect for other people, because although this is about the individual, it’s important that each individual can operate within the real world and work in collaboration with others.

What’s more the tone is friendly – certainly not patronising, with a quirky personality shining through, so that you feel as if the author is a real person talking to you. With some quizzes, diagrams and funny cartoons, the book is set out with plenty of breaks in the information flow so that the reader doesn’t feel overwhelmed. There’s good advice on setting goals and addressing failure, but most importantly clarity and perspective on being one’s own person and getting to know oneself. Having listened extensively to Yuval Noah Harari on our changing world, one of the most important qualities a person will need is self-knowledge and awareness. Why not start them young? For 7+ years (I would add, with parental guidance too). You can buy it here or visit Jenny Alexander’s website and buy it there.

the book of no worriesThe Book of No Worries by Lizzie Cox and Tanja Stevanovic
Speaking of Yuval Noah Harari (whose adult books are excellent btw), this book starts with a section on mindfulness. If you have a child who lies awake at night worrying, or who frets like AA Milne’s old sailor: “There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew, Who had so many things which he wanted to do That, whenever he thought it was time to begin, He couldn’t because of the state he was in,” then this book might help.

With full-colour throughout and bite-size chunks of information, Q and A’s and lists, this is an interesting book that aims to dip in and cover lots of subjects with the intent of calming worries. There are so many topics though, that the advice can feel a bit fleeting, the issues skimmed. However, for short attention spans, this might serve well.

Of course the thing about worries is that they can multiply like bacteria – so honing worries is hard. The book addresses surface worries about school, stress, friends, appearance, puberty, family and love. The advice is slim, but picks out the key points – particularly on social media, by explaining that likes don’t measure worth, and when to stop looking at the phone.

I think what I like best about the book is that in almost all scenarios, one of the key pieces of advice is to talk to someone. For a snapshot of dealing with life’s worries for those approaching and going through puberty, this is a good dip-in guide. You can buy it here.

sign hereSign Here by Gabrielle Djanogly, illustrated by Adele Mildred
This intriguing new activity book is what I’d call a self-help book by stealth. Appparently inspired by playing with mini post offices when little, Djanogly has created a book of forms to fill in that encourages a child to express their emotions, albeit surreptitiously through play. Djanogly imagines a new world of bureaucracy, including The Department of Regret, Remorse and Reconciliation, the Union of Childhood Revenue, the Ministry of Dreams and so on, although this is not some Orwellian nightmare of red tape and officialdom, but a neat way for a child to express emotions and thoughts that may not be so easy to articulate. Thus, saying sorry or thank you, and even filling out the form titled ‘Declaration of Sad’ may better hone a child’s feelings and enable them to decipher where they are coming from and even what’s causing them. There is a tick box for ‘I don’t know, I just feel sad’ as well.

There are plenty of forms for happy occasions too, including the Birthday Party form issued by the Board of Celebration, which my youngest has no problem putting into words, but I’m sure she’d delight in this ‘official form’ to hand over requesting which cake etc. All the forms have authenticity stamped all over them, with logos, frames, tick boxes, signatures, a variety of fonts and so on, and each is neatly printed on good quality paper that is easily detached from the book via its perforated edging. The publisher even recommends photocopying the forms so that they can be re-used.

As well as declarations of sadness, fear and happiness, there are also forms to say sorry, to say thank you, to request a raise in pocket money, a contract with a babysitter, a Christmas present request form, a lost property form, a pet request form and a tell me a story form, as well as many more. Because the deeper emotions are sat alongside the everyday requests, it normalises the emotions and helps to make them everyday things to be shared. There are also ideas for making things better – the Acknowledgement of Anger Form includes tick boxes for requesting a hug or stomping around. Both can be ticked! Lots of asterisks in places allows the author to interject with warmth and comfort:

“**sometimes needing a hug is tricky to admit. If you want a hug, make a BIG tick in the box so that it can be spotted quickly.”

A fun way to express oneself. Apply for your forms here.

 

 

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

no fixed addressIf the subject matters weren’t so tough and gritty, readers would float through Nielsen’s stories like a cloud. She writes the kind of books that a child devours in an afternoon, or sneaks a read of in double maths because they just can’t put them down, and even the most reluctant readers will be hooked by her prose. Her words conjure moving images in the head; a full immersion in the text. Her latest, No Fixed Address, is perhaps her best yet, and reaches to a slightly younger audience than her previous YA novels.

Thirteen-year-old Felix and his mother Astrid move into a van, temporarily ‘borrowed’ from Astrid’s former boyfriend, after they are evicted from their shabby apartment at the beginning of the summer. Astrid convinces Felix that it’s a temporary adventure – a summer of being flexible and moving around, but when school starts again and months later they are still living in a van, and Astrid has sworn Felix to secrecy for fear of the Ministry of Children and Family Development taking him away, Felix realises that their situation is rather more desperate than his mother is letting on.

Nielsen deals with Felix’s situation with pathos and skill. She shows when and how Felix is embarrassed, whether it’s from lack of personal hygiene, coping in deteriorating weather, or forming friendships when there is such a huge secret lurking in the background. She portrays Felix with humour and positivity – he’s so likeable that the reader feels his pain and embarrassment as their own.

Her portrayal of Astrid is nicely contentious – she is not overtly evil as Roald Dahl might have written her, nor good and compassionate, but somewhere in-between. This is a nuanced look at parenthood. Astrid is authentic, written astutely; Nielsen shows a damaged view of motherhood and the bad choices a person can make, but also offers a sympathetic look at the effects of depression, and envelopes the whole relationship with a feeling that although Astrid fails in many areas, she does have an overwhelming love for her son. This is inadequate parenting indeed, but not cruelty.

The reader will feel impatient with Astrid – she’s a fly-by-her-pants kind of mother – shifting Felix from four different homes before resorting to the van, which isn’t even hers, and she acts rather carelessly and disrespectfully, lying to authorities and so on. But the book poses questions around motherhood and parenting that will give the reader an insight into moral choices, and when sympathy and empathy are due.

Felix’s two friends are capably written; I particularly appreciated the way in which Felix reacquaints himself with Dylan – a friend from early childhood – showing the circularity of life, as well as juxtaposing Felix’s own life against Dylan’s, and showcasing their witty friendship banter. Their friend Winnie has a shade of Hermione about her, but is a good charming sidekick within the story, and it is the characters on the sidelines who lend the story its ability to impart moral growth and learning – the teacher and shopkeepers who show that small kindnesses can make all the difference.

In fact, what one takes away from the novel, is that despite the grittiness of the subject matter and the exploration of the harsher elements of life, this is ultimately a story about friendship and community. Although Felix comes up with his own solution to his problems through his skill at trivia and his love for quiz shows, Nielsen explores that not every problem can be solved on its own – to help yourself sometimes you need to let others help you.

Nielsen adeptly explores how people often hide their problems either from embarrassment or shame or simply an unwillingness to be open, and even close friends can miss the signs of a problem. She makes the point throughout that it is through sharing problems that they can be solved. This is ultimately a novel about life’s realities, about the power of community, and it should not only grip readers but make them appreciative of what they have.

This is a massively accessible piece of first person fiction that has heart and humour, and is a compelling read. You can buy it here.

Books of Wonder: Information and Knowledge

When I was growing up there was a television series called The Wonder Years, and very often I hear adults talking about a child’s sense of wonder at the world around them. I don’t know who first attributed the wonder quality to childhood, but if a child is less jaded, more open to being amazed or dazzled by the world than adults, then they’ll be even more entranced with this selection of books than I am.

atlas of adventures wonders of the worldatlas of adventures wonders
Atlas of Adventures: Wonders of the World, illustrated by Lucy Letherland, written by Ben Handicott

I first came across Lucy Letherland’s Atlas of Adventures in a school hall in 2014, reviewed it as one of my first books of the week, and since then my blog, and Letherland’s series has gone from strength to strength. The Wonders of the World title, however, is truly awesome, or should I say wonderful. Veering off the path of the traditional wonders of the world, Ben Handicott has picked his own; choosing 30 destinations from as far apart as Death Valley to The Forbidden City.

Introducing his wonders, Ben makes the point of explaining that wonder can be found in the simplicity of a flower blooming in your backyard as much as in the intricacies of the Sagrada Familia, but explains that some wonders are worth travelling for.

Letherland’s full page illustrations of each wonder, drawn from different and intriguing perspectives, and following on from maps of each geographical area, are truly magnificent; each populated with a raft of tourists, indigenous peoples and animals in an imaginative out-of-this-world harmony. And Handicott’s text not only introduces the site with a couple of paragraphs and snapshot information, but illuminates single sentence facts around the illustrations. His annotations on the illustration of Neuschwanstein Castle, thought to be an inspiration for Walt Disney’s fairy tale castle, highlight the modern fixtures and fittings within.

This is a bold book, in the choice of wonders and also in the guilty irreverence of some of the illustrations, (Merlin at Stonehenge, for example), but all provoke fascination in the reader. Maps fix the natural and man-made wonders firmly in their geographical position. Watch for the tourists posing at the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the bears in Yosemite. I found a marathon runner on the Great Wall of China. Can you? Find your wonder here.

welcome to our world
Welcome to Our World: A Celebration of Children Everywhere by Moira Butterfield and Harriet Lynas
With illustrations and theme reminiscent of Disneyworld’s It’s a Small World ride, this is a colourful look at childhood around the world, highlighting differences but above all sending the message of what humans have in common. The first page highlights flags, then the author looks at various ways of saying hello in different languages (with a phonetic spelling for pronunciation), as well as showcasing types of names, foods, homes, pets, and transport in different countries. For any child wanting to see how others live, this is a great introduction. There are quirks, as well as that which is familiar and relevant to children, such as school uniform, musical instruments etc. The quirks include cures for hiccups, phrases, manners and playground games. With their saucer faces and big black button eyes, the illustrations are doll-like and immensely colourful, reminding me of the collection of native dress dolls that I had as a child. Appealing and eclectic, this is a great fact-finder for the very young – kids will enjoy the celebration cakes from around the world. There’s a list of countries featured at the end of the book, and great production values throughout. Age 4+. Welcome to your world here.

one day so many ways
One Day So Many Ways by Laura Hall, illustrated by Loris Lora

Not so dissimilar is this large-size illustrated guide to 40 children from around the world, also looking at a 24 hour period, in which it compares lifestyles and habits, including houses, meals, transport to school, playtime and so on. The illustrations of the children here are slightly less doll-like, but also stylised to look similar despite their differences – almond eyes, simple bodies – they reminded me of Topsy and Tim in that last-century-retro-way. Features that differentiate from the book above include a spread called Quiet Time, which features prayer, reading time and meditation amongst other pursuits, and asks the reader to contemplate their own life features. Weekend jobs, family time, helping out and reading are also explored, as well as the more mundane foods, bedtime, friends and homework. The Highlights page showcases the highlights of some of the children’s days, and it’s clear that weather can play a large part in how children live their lives. There’s a list of countries at the back with flags and facts, and this will be a good addition in showing children the different cultures and ways of life around the world, despite the inherent similarities of childhood. You can buy it here.

wonders of the world
Wonders of the World by Isabel Otter and Margaux Carpentier
Where best to find wonder than in the traditionally designated ‘seven wonders of the world’? This book is much smaller and squarer than Lucy Letherland’s Atlas of Adventures: Wonders of the World and is aimed at younger children, highlighting the Ancient Wonders and Modern Wonders, exploring all 14 in a colourful lift-the-flap informative book. Each wonder receives a full page, with introductory text, and some supplementary information in small paragraphs, such as exploring that the Colossus of Rhodes was the inspiration behind the modern Statue of Liberty.

An interactive wheel displays the plants of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, as well as the features of the Lantern Room on the Lighthouse of Alexandria. This is a colourful dip into the beautiful buildings that defined their eras, and the colour palate matches well with the romance behind each – pink and patterned egg blue for the Taj Mahal, deep orange and yellow for the Great Pyramid of Giza. This cardboard novelty book has a page at the end detailing some natural wonders too. Age 7+. Find a wonder here.

treasure hunt house
Treasure Hunt House by Kate Davies and Becca Stadtlander
Not all wonders are to be found in distant places and time. This book is both a game, in that it’s a literal treasure hunt – readers must lift the flaps to solve the clues – but also a treasure trove in that it gives fascinating facts about the wonders to be found in a domestic realm. Two children go to visit their Great Aunt Martha in her house – this is not an ordinary house though, containing a music room, conservatory, library and hall of inventions. More like a stately home, although many of the items are to be found in every domestic environment, and the book gives the history behind the telephone, fridge, toilet and bath as well as stepping into the more eclectic, such as exploring a Chinese lacquered mirror, platform shoes, Renoir painting and more.

This is exploration and history and activity all in one book. The illustrations themselves are like a treasure hunt – detailed, fascinating and rather intricate – they immerse the reader in the book. The readership is hard to define here – it’s probably something that could span a host of ages – the clues are very easy to solve, but the text in some places feels older. Age 7+. Find your treasure here.

curiositree
The Curiositree: Human World: A Visual Compendium of Wonders from Human History by Amanda Wood and Mike Jolley
A second in this series – the first Curiositree explored the natural world – now we are into human history. Divided into sections – with three colour-matching ribbons to bookmark a reader’s place – each spread is labelled as a ‘chart’. This is down to the fact that the book is remarkably visual. There is a glut of information on each topic, and although the typeface is minuscule, each ‘chart’ is different from the one before and includes many illustrations, infographics and diagrams to showcase the topic.

The three colours of the ribbons, like the colour-coding inside, represent the three strands of discovery in the book: human history, art and culture, science, trade and technology. I expected more page cross-referencing across the topics, but was nicely surprised by the depth of knowledge on individual items, such as the history of metal usage, breakthrough thinking ie in maths, and the over-riding themes of the history of farming and music.
curiositree writing
It’s difficult to showcase thousands of years of human development in a 112 page book for children and the authors do an admirable job. Of course there’s much missing, and I had rather hoped for a little more information on religion and philosophical thought before launching into Stonehenge, ancient temples and tombs, but on the whole this is a great resource, and I suppose why it is a compendium rather than an encyclopedia.

Towards the end there is information on printing and world exploration – because the book travels up to the early 1600s only. Although this is clearly aimed at much older children, in that it introduces complex themes, has a complicated layout (for dipping and researching), and articulates in a non-patronising but technically more sophisticated manner, younger readers will enjoy the detailed and colourful illustrations throughout. Aimed at 8+ years and older. Stimulate your curiosity here.

transport and travelfoods of the world
Transport and Travel Mini Hardback by Sandra Lawrence, illustrated by Jem Maybank and Foods of the World: Mini Hardback by Libby Walden and Jocelyn Kao.
For those who prefer their factual information to be more bitesize and topic-based, these two excellent little companions will be useful for curious children wondering about the world, and useful as classroom resources. Rather than holding an encyclopaedic knowledge of the topic, these dip in with illustrations dominating each page, and a couple of sentences at the top to give background.

The transport book divides nicely into wheels, rail, air and water and picks out where transport has become rather famous – the San Francisco tram, the Shinkansen railway network in Japan. There’s also a nice mix of history – the Viking longboats, and future – the jet pack. Foods of the World is even more random in its choice of information. There are customs and traditions, celebratory food and a strange section called ‘playing with food’, with quirky facts such as competitive eating, food fights and the accidental creation of bubble gum. More fun than fodder for thought, this is a good title to have in the KS1 classroom. Age 5+ years. You can buy them here and here.

The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton, illustrated by Angela Barrett

the restless girls

It’s not hard in today’s modern society to view the Grimm fairy tales as patriarchal in their outlook, some verging on misogynistic, and although I firmly believe that they should be read within the context of their time, it’s easy to see how modern authors might want to write their own versions to realign some of the prejudices expressed within the original tales. Grimm’s original The Twelve Dancing Princesses, published in 1812, bears many of the hallmark tropes of patriarchal fairy tale narratives – the girls are locked up at night by their father, they keep their night-time activities secret, and they are nothing but the prize for the male who solves the mystery of where they go (he may choose whomever of them he wants for his wife). Thus, a father who cannot accept the girls’ transition to maturity (the wearing out of their shoes), girls who act in a duplicitous manner, and princesses who are passive entities and must submit to their fate.

However, the original tale does hold some morals that may be of use today – the idea that parents need to give their adolescents some freedom (otherwise they sneak out in secrecy to who knows where!); and conversely a lesson to young readers that duplicity is always outed in the end. And there are numerous variations on the Grimm’s version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, each pulling out morals according to their era.

Luckily for us, Jessie Burton has re-crafted the story for our times, retaining the key narrative but twisting it just enough to add modern flavour and feminism, as well as her own philosophy and musings on life’s lessons. Enhanced by Angela Barrett’s dazzlingly diverse illustrations (of what I’ve seen so far in early proofs), this finally is a story for the 21st century.

Queen Laurelia’s tragic death in a motor car accident results in the King’s over-protectiveness of his daughters: instead of letting them pursue their passions and talents (everything from astronomy to painting, comedy to botany), he denies them their lessons and belongings and locks them up in a dormitory. The girls turn from despair to hope when they discover a secret passageway behind their mother’s portrait, and take night-time excursions across a lake and through a magical, wondrous silver forest before dancing the night away at a palace filled with talking animals, where a constant party, with feasting and merriment, is in sway. Dance, here, is very much an expression of freedom and happiness rather than an overtly feminine activity.

Burton doesn’t just update the story with modern nuance by including motor cars and telephones; she litters it with her musings on life, philosophies that determine our own age but also future times, and asks the reader to think hard too, whether it be about the role of imagination in our lives, where story meets memory in remembering someone lost, and when darkness can sometimes be kind.

This is a feminist re-telling, so Burton twists the story, overtly judging their neglectful father who encourages strange men to spy upon the princesses, and wryly exploring the teamwork of the 12 sisters, although she also showcases their individuality by naming each, and by having each sister use their different strengths to overcome adversity. In the end, their supreme wit and intelligence reigns as they turn the King’s own words against himself, and seize their future with ferocity. In our time in which girls self-harm, Burton shows how girls can save themselves, forge a sisterhood, look out for each other, and use wisdom to seek positive futures. At the same time, it doesn’t feel ‘anti-men’, because the advisers surrounding the King embrace the future too.

Within the writing itself are sumptuous descriptions – one would be hard pushed to read about the food offered at the palace without salivating – and although richly English, with its hot buttered toast and sausages and mash, there are spices from around the world, and indeed the book feels global in its telling.

This is not just a feminist tale – Burton beguiles the reader with the magic of fairy tales by retaining initial features such as a secret door to a secret world, the lights and twinkling forest treats that the girls find, lush descriptions of food and parties, and she also subverts all political assumptions by populating the night-time party with mysteriously flamboyant anthropomorphised animals.

the restless girls illustrationInitial illustrations (having only seen an early proof) depict the girls as individuals, busy at their own tasks, yet with a collaborative spirit, and indeed their spirit is apparent in the movement and strength demonstrated by Frida, the eldest daughter, shown early on flinging back curtains to let light illuminate the King’s advisers – an illustrative metaphor.

This is a book of freedom and independence; dare I say girl power. Written like a waltz, it dances the reader through the pages with pace and movement, and celebrates laughter and love in swirling pirouettes of plot. You can buy your own copy here.