middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet: A guest post from Martin Howard

cosmic atlas of alfie fleetCharlie Bucket (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl) was the first name that sprang to mind when I started reading this chucklesome new book from Martin Howard about an impoverished boy who follows up a newspaper advert to earn some quick cash doing odd jobs for an unbelievably eccentric man. But then The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet deviates from the world of Charlie Bucket into a world (or worlds) of its own, and I was both intrigued and highly amused by the comic writing, the inventive imagining, and the high adventures and cunning of its protagonist, Alfie.

The eccentric man I mentioned is Professor Bowell-Mouvemont, the president of the Unusual Cartography Club, who shows Alfie a series of worlds unknown to the majority of humans on Earth (too preoccupied with their ordinary lives to care). These worlds range from Brains-in-Jars world to planet Maureen and Outlandish. Together, the Professor and Alfie travel through these worlds as explorers. Quick to spot an opportunity, Alfie takes it upon himself to fend off danger by showing the inhabitants of these strange lands some of our own traditions, and marketing them as a way of progressing on his journey. He explains and sells advertising space in his travel guide, gives favourable reviews to inns and pubs, makes a mark on the map of the atlas he’s drawing to indicate good shops, hospitable peoples, and so on.

For the young reader, this is both highly amusing and yet also cunning – giving a serious nod to travel guides and atlases, as Wimpy Kid does for diaries. Illustrated by the award-winning Chris Mould, this is a great new series from an author with a clearly somewhat strange mind. So I asked him for his inspirations…

martin howardI first had the idea to write a travel guide to fantastical lands about fifteen years ago. I’m a huge, geeky fan of fantasy books and (like Alfie) I’ve always loved exploring the maps you find in them. A travel guide seemed like the obvious next step.

It bubbled away in the back of my mind for years before I came back to it. Stone circles, like Stonehenge, have always fascinated me. You find them in many places around the world – from Australia to Europe – and no one knows for sure why. I decided they were intergalactic portals first used by space tourists and, later, by a secret map-making society called the Unusual Cartography Club, which had a mission to explore other worlds. Having Alfie – the book’s protagonist – write a travel guide along his journey seemed perfect.

And that’s how The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet came about.

When I was young I was bullied all through my school years. In those days no one took bullying very seriously and one or two teachers even joined in. It was difficult to deal with and I found an escape from some pretty horrific verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse in books and comedy. I was lucky to be growing up at a time when some great comedians were making hilarious TV shows and on Thursday nights my parents would let me and my sister stay up late to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sketches like the Ministry of Silly Walks and Dead Parrot changed my life. If I was having a rough time at school all I had to do was say “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition” to myself in a silly voice and I’d be smiling. I can still quote many Python sketches word for word.

As I got older – I found other shows I loved: The Young Ones, Blackadder, French and Saunders, as well as older comedy movies such as The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I saw lots of brilliant comedians perform stand-up, too. Bill Bailey, Jo Brand, Omid Djalili and lots of others. All of those shows, movies and comedians helped shape my own sense of humour.

Comedy is really important to me. It gave me optimism during traumatic times and I don’t understand why some people think funny books aren’t important. Laughter is as much a part of being human as music or love, and just as essential to our happiness. With humour we can laugh at life’s problems; without it the world would be a pretty grim place.

I also grew up during a time when Terry Pratchett was writing. I loved any fantasy books, but because I was so into comedy his had an especially big impact on me. In fact, I went to both the same schools as Pratchett, though he was there years before me. I also shopped regularly in the second-hand bookshop in Penn, Buckinghamshire, on which he based the magical library of the Unseen University. I was lucky enough to meet him once, when he was doing a talk at the local library after his second Discworld book came out, and it’s easy to see in my own writing that he has been a major influence. He introduced humour into fantasy.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy casts a long shadow, too. Like Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams made sci-fi funny. Eagle-eyed readers of The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet might spot I’ve paid a tiny tribute to The Hitchhiker’s Guide! Any book that contains space themes and humour is always going to be compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide nowadays, and I’ve got the travel guide theme running through mine, too, so I was very aware that I was using a couple of the same ingredients as Douglas Adams. I hope I’ve used them to create a dish that has a very different flavour.

PG Wodehouse had a massive impact. I discovered the Jeeves and Wooster books when I was about twelve and his characters and his use of language to create humour are beyond incredible. In sci-fi and fantasy, I owe inspiration to Neil Gaiman, Tolkien, Ursula K. le Guin, Susan Cooper, as well as Joss Wheedon – I usually watch all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at least once a year! There are lesser well-known writers who have influenced me as well, like Jim Butcher whose pulp-fiction Dresden Files books about a detective wizard in Chicago are fantastic.

It’s impossible to write in isolation: all genres are built over time by writers who have made great contributions, and every writer will have favourites who have shaped the way they write, whether it’s Enid Blyton or Jane Austen. But it’s important that writers find their own voice and – I hope – in The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet I’ve written a book that recognises where it came from, but which is packed with fresh ideas and which could only have been written by me.

With thanks to Martin Howard. You can buy The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet written by Martin Howard, illustrated by Chris Mould here

Fiction Books with Birds

Ever since the dove made an appearance in the Bible as a symbol of peace, and ravens whispered news into the god Odin’s ears in Norse mythology, or since Ancient Greece where the goddess Athena had an owl as a symbol of wisdom, or in Ancient India where a peacock represented Mother Earth, birds have been used in religion, mythology and literature symbolically, as messengers or perhaps signs of hope, and particularly freedom. In some of my favourite novels, birds have been used in symbolic ways: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle…. Here are three children’s novels that synchronise with this theme.

larkLark by Anthony McGowan
McGowan returns for a final time to his beloved working class characters, Nicky and Kenny, in this novella for Barrington Stoke. Although the last of a quartet, Lark can be read as a standalone, a self-contained adventure. The teenage boys are escaping their everyday reality, in this case, a visit from their estranged mother, by taking a walk on the Yorkshire moors with their dog. With understated empathy, McGowan describes Kenny (who has cognitive disability), as needing to let out his pent-up energy – ‘he’d punch the cushions on the settee or shout out random stuff in the street’ – and so the brothers seek nature as a release – the perennial theme of this book quartet.

Narrated by Nicky in an authentic teen voice, which is both accessible and yet intensely profound in its own way, the prose starts in the middle of the action, backtracking a little but then ploughing on – not unlike the boys, who are suddenly caught in the middle of a blizzard on the moors.

Danger becomes all too apparent – the problems of home (hunger, cold, poverty) are magnified in the natural expanse of the moors, and yet also reduced to this particular day and this particular time. The boys get into deep trouble, pushing them to the brink of existence.

Nicky’s trademark humour never lets up, lending even more pathos to the situation in its own darkly rich way, and by the end a fair number of readers will be sniffing back the tears. What lingers is the bond between the boys, the exploration of teen masculinity – full of bravado and yet vulnerability – and yet also the ultimate draw of never-ending hope.

Suspenseful, written with immaculate style, and ultimately heart-warming, this is another triumph from McGowan. You can read the review of Rook, the third in the series here, when it looked likely to end as a trilogy. To buy Lark, click here

asha and the spirit birdAsha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
Another book reaching for the symbol of a bird as hope, and with a treacherous journey, is this spellbinding lush book from newcomer Jasbinder Bilan.

Asha lives with her mother in the foothills of the Himalayas, living a rural life and working on the farm, spending leisure time in the mango tree with her friend Jeevan. Her father works away in the city. But when he stops sending money and moneylenders come to collect her mother’s debt, Asha decides to find her way to the city herself and see what’s happened to her father.

As vibrant with the sights and sounds and colours of the landscape on the inside as the cover is bright on the outside, this is a stunning evocation of a completely different way of life, with a filmic quality to the descriptions of flowers and wildlife, food and landscape. The journey is treacherous, the children not only at risk of death from hunger and tiredness, but also in the face of wild animals. Here too, though, nature is a saving grace in the form of a magical spirit bird that guides Asha, giving hope and reassurance throughout.

The book takes an even darker turn with its exploration of poverty and exploitation in the city, but Asha never loses self-belief, and the book drives forward with an unrelenting optimism and moments of kindness, exploring too the role of faith and ancestry, ritual and tradition, in shaping personality and way of life.

But more than this, it’s an immersive experience in a different culture. A glossary gives Hindi and Punjabi words, but Bilan seamlessly blends them into her prose, so that with context it is easy to understand what they mean. The Indian way of life is portrayed with enthusiasm, empathy and energy, and the threads of friendship sew the plot neatly together. You can buy it here

call me alastairCall Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo
Something vastly different in this quirky novel told from three completely distinct points of view, the first of which is Alistair, an African grey parrot. Trapped in an American pet shop, Alistair dreams of freedom and blue skies, but unfortunately for him has two broken wings and a habit of plucking his own feathers out of anxiety. When he discovers eating paper, and delights in the taste of the different types of literature – poetry being his favourite – he soon starts to compose verse himself.

With this sense of the world giving him an extra taste for freedom, he is adopted by lonely widow, Albertina Plopky (Bertie), whom the reader meets through letters to her deceased husband. Add to this eclectic mix, the meticulous record-keeping of pet-shop helper 12-year-old Fritz, (musing also on the recent separation of his parents and the death of a grandparent) and suddenly the reader grasps how the three points of view and stories meet.

The book is about perspective and freedom, but also speaks to the idea of loneliness. We stifle our own freedom if we build cages around ourselves. Unique and idiosyncratic, this is not for everyone, but with a mix of poetry and prose, different narrative voices, and a quest for courage, this is a very unusual middle grade book. You can buy it here. 

 

 

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

ghostThe other day, I was having a conversation with a mixed cohort at our library lunch club. We were discussing sports books, you’ll know the type – those formulaic novels or reading scheme books about a team who overcome an obstacle to triumph by winning the cup or moving up a league. Whether they focus on a less talented player come good, or a star player overcoming his loss of confidence, or an injury-stricken player making it in the end, they do tend to be of a type. There’s a comfort in that – repetition and formulas are a comforting part of re-reading and fixing narrative arcs in the mind, as well as reinforcing good messages about teamwork and attitude.

But it is hugely refreshing when a book that’s ostensibly about ‘sport’ actually stands out from the crowd. On TV, Friday Night Lights did this spectacularly well. Compulsive, gripping and hugely sympatico. Now, Ghost does this for children in book format.

Ghost was published in the US in 2016 to huge acclaim, spending more than 21 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and finally makes its debut appearance here thanks to new publishers on the block, Knights Of.

Running is what Castle (Ghost) is good at. But he isn’t part of a squad or team; he doesn’t see it as a sport. The first time he had to run, it was away from his gun-wielding father. When he inadvertently ends up at an athletics team training session and beats the fastest kid there by running against him on the outside of the track, the coach sees his potential.

But Ghost’s raw energy needs to be harnessed and disciplined in order for him to succeed at life, let alone as part of a running team. And that’s not all that easy.

There are lots of themes running through this book that elevate it to much more than a sports novel. And most encouragingly, it doesn’t follow the formula in plot detail either. There is no grand competition at which Ghost must triumph, no injury to overcome. The focus is very much on Ghost himself, of committing to the training, of learning to get along with the rest of the team (they’re still a way off complete bonding). This is about personal development and circumstances, but all written in such a way that it will appeal to reluctant readers as well as proficient book-devourers.

The main strand here is the father/son dynamic and relationship that springs up between Ghost and Coach, as well as the parallel of Ghost’s troubled and complicated relationship with his absent father. There’s also the class divide Ghost sees around him – where people live, how they dress and the privileges afforded to them; his own single mother working hard, a school system struggling to work with all its pupils.

But perhaps the most endearing quality in this book is the fully rounded, witty, flawed, tempestuous and yet kind protagonist. Written in first person, and immediately identifiable, Ghost first introduces himself to the reader by explaining about his fascination with record-breaking facts, including the man who blows up balloons with his nose. Ghost is believable and fun, with unique traits – spitting sunflower seeds, watching from the bus stop as people bob up and down on the treadmills inside the gym opposite. He notices stuff, he has a great sense of himself, and a great sense of humour.

Of course Reynolds tracks Ghost’s development over the novel, using the model of race training and a no-nonsense coach to turn our hero into a somewhat hero (in the reader’s eyes maybe), delineating his flaws and exploring how the adults around him help him to overcome the obstacles he meets along the way. So there’s that trope of coach as mentor to troubled kid, but by using first person from Ghost’s point of view, Reynolds goes deep inside Ghost’s head – the vehement wish to own proper running shoes and where that takes him, the anger that bubbles inside, his outlet in running, and his need to be guided.

All narrated with easy prose, at times in Ghost’s youthful, naïve and vulnerable outlook, at others with a childlike profundity that bursts through from nowhere, but always spilling over with energy and zest.

Surrounded by a fully-realised team of secondary characters, both in his team track-mates, but also in the local shopkeeper and his long-suffering mother, this is an outstanding story about self-belief and hope. First in a series, you can buy it here.

The Sheep of Fate: Storm Hound by Claire Fayers

storm houndTowards the beginning of Storm Hound by Claire Fayers, the powerful(ish) protagonist, Storm of Odin, (a dog somewhat fallen from grace) is confronted by a flock of sheep, who rather hilariously, mock his seemingly inflated ego.

“If you’re a storm hound,” one says to him, “then I’m Aries, the Ram – get it?”
and they fall about laughing.

Sheep and cats and dogs play a large comic role in Fayer’s new humorous magical and mythological book about identity and companionship. This storming novel, for readers aged 8 and over, is about learning where we fit in, and how home can be anywhere, as long we’re rooted within ourselves.

Storm of Odin is the youngest hound of Odin’s Wild Hunt in the mythological skies. But on his first hunt, he gets lost, falling to earth from the Otherworld and ending up on the A40 about 5 miles from Abergavenny, near a flock of sheep. And in falling, he seems to have transformed from powerful horse-sized hunting dog to loveable cute little puppy. In time, he’s adopted by 12-year-old Jessica, a girl who also feels that her real home doesn’t lie in Abergavenny.

Together, facing a magical world that they don’t quite understand, they slowly learn who to trust, and they form a strong bond that enables them to overcome the fiercest of challenges.

Fayers throws a myriad of hilarious creatures into her novel, with cats and dogs and sheep given not only a voice but also comic interior monologues, incorporating extra depth to an ordinary Abergavenny day.

Here, Claire Fayers highlights the power of sheep in mythology, and why they’re such intriguing characters to insert into a novel:

Hey! Sheep! the stormhound shouted.
The sheep gazed blankly at him, chewing grass.
Eventually, one of them wandered closer. You talking to us?

Wales has a lot of sheep: just under 10 million at the last count, so it won’t surprise anyone that a book set in Wales is going to feature sheep. They form a woolly Greek chorus, standing about the hillsides, watching and commenting on the action, and occasionally leaping out of bushes at people, like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

Writing Storm Hound, I learned a few things about sheep that surprised me. (Disclaimer: these things may not necessarily be true). They have a really bad sense of humour, and make the most atrocious puns. Storm finds that out straight away. They always seem to know more about the world than they’re letting on, and they can give quite good advice sometimes if you know how to ask them.

One thing I had to cut from the book, however, was the secret link between sheep and fate. There wasn’t quite space to include it, and it’s a bit of a side-step out of Norse and Welsh mythology and into Greek.

According to Greek legend, Fate takes the form of three women: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropis. Clotho spins the thread of human fate, Lachesis measures it and Atropos cuts it.

Flemish tapestry c. 1520 Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Fates also appear in Roman myth, where they are called Nona, Decuma and Morta. They are often depicted as old women, inflexible and implacable. You cannot, after all negotiate with fate.

What has this got to do with sheep, I hear you ask.

Well, the Fates spin and measure and cut the thread of life, but what do you think that thread is made of?

My money is on wool. It’s as likely as anything else and, in fact, it makes a lot of sense. Sheep are raised all over the world. They stand about in fields and on hills, staring at anyone who happens by. Watching and waiting. Because life is interesting and someone has to pay attention to what’s going on.

Next time you see a field of sheep, don’t try to engage them in conversation. They’re not allowed to talk to humans, and if they did you’d get tangled up in woolly puns before you knew it. Just give them a wave and say hello. It always pays to be polite to Fate.

Some sheep facts

  1. Sheep have four stomachs. (One for starters, one for main course and two for puddings!)
  2. A sheep’s wool never stops growing.
  3. One pound of sheep’s wool can make up to 10 miles of yarn.
  4. Sheep have rectangular pupils and nearly 360 degree vision, meaning they can see behind without turning their heads. (Further proof that they are the watchers of the world.)
  5. Sheep can recognise up to 50 other sheep faces. AND they can recognise human faces.
  6. The world’s most expensive sheep sold for £231,000 at a sale in Lanark, Scotland.
  7. Sheep feel emotions and prefer smiling human faces to angry ones.
  8. If you put a sheep on its back, it won’t be able to get up again. (Do not do this!)
  9. It is estimated that there are over 1,000 different breeds of sheep worldwide.
  10. A lamb can walk within minutes of being born.

With thanks to Claire Fayers for this guest post about sheep! To buy Storm Hound, click here

It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

I don’t have a pet, which means we often play a hypothetical game: if you had to choose, which would you be – a dog family or a cat family?

the dog who saved the worldThe Dog Who Saved the World by Ross Welford
This is another cracking read from a premier storyteller of our time. Eleven-year-old Georgie befriends an eccentric scientist hiding beneath an old entertainment centre, and becomes a guinea pig in her virtual reality 3D future. But when a deadly disease threatens the life of all dogs, and Georgie’s own dog gets sick, it’s a race to find a cure – a cure which most probably lies in the future.

Welford’s writing is always clever and engaging, rattling through his plots with pace, humour and pathos, and it’s the kind of book you want to devour in one gulp. But to fully appreciate its modern sensibility and its heft as a meaty children’s book, it’s the little details that, when put together, make this an absolute belter of a book. Georgie’s friend is a refugee from ‘Nowhere-stan’ as he calls it himself, a country so decimated and of such  little interest to the people here. But he’s an upbeat boy, with a raft of funny lines, a fully developed character who’s a great friend.

The eccentric doctor is a social media billionaire technologist in hiding, who makes wonderful wisecracks about kids today;  even the bit-part owner of the corner shop is named Norman Twokids by the kids for his ‘no more than two children at a time’ policy. Add to this the moments of sweetness and empathy – the relationship between Georgie and her teen big brother, the small satisfaction that comes from a dog wagging its tail as it greets you – this is a slick, brilliant novel and even if dogs aren’t your thing, you’d be mad to miss it. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

collecting catsCollecting Cats by Lorna Scobie
When I was little I had to learn the poem Cats Sleep Anywhere by Eleanor Farjeon, and recite it in front of an audience. I still remember the first line, and it leads into a rhythmic romp through the places cats inhabit. I think if I had closed my eyes and imagined the illustrations, they would have looked like something out of Collecting Cats, a humorous riot of cat personalities. The anonymous narrator wants to collect cats, and starts with cheese. Cheese leads to mice, which leads to cats. And unfortunately for the narrator, then big cats. As well as a clowder of cats in a vast array of different colours and personalities, there is also a quirky collection of grabby mice. Scobie’s text is simple and logical with just the right amount of toned down humour, and her illustrations are flush with character, story and insight. For cat collectors, or picture book collectors, or simply readers. You can buy it here.

lulu gets a catLulu Gets a Cat by Anna McQuinn, illustrations by Rosalind Beardshaw
An exemplary first experience book in the Lulu series, which showcases the responsibility involved in owning a pet. Lulu’s appeal is not only that her adventures are embedded in the family core, but books about her also highlight those things that are important in small lives. The visit to a library to find out more, a tick list at home giving her life structure and order, a loving and caring relationship with her parents, and a grounding in real life. One or two simple sentences per page, with the main focus being on the colourful illustrations of familiar situations – sitting on a parent’s lap looking at a laptop together, everyday dressing up for the fun of it, helping with shopping, and feeling secure in one’s bedroom. This particular episode in Lulu’s life points up the preparation needed before getting a cat, and its slow integration into the family. Wonderful. You can buy it here.

danny and the dream dogDanny and the Dream Dog by Fiona Barker, illustrated by Howard Gray
Danny’s mother isn’t as easily persuaded as Lulu’s, and Danny’s only dog is a dream dog. That is, until a new neighbour moves in next door who needs help with walking her dog. This seems like a perfect solution until Danny starts walking Maximus and realises that it isn’t as wonderful as he thought it’d be. Especially when it rains, or Maximus pulls on the leash and wants to chase rabbits. Before long though, Danny comes to see that it’s the community he embraces whilst walking Maximus that makes it a dream job, and the cosy chats with his new elderly neighbour afterwards.

In essence, of course, this is a picture book about friendship, being community minded, and neighbourliness. The illustrations are warm and wholesome, creating whole immersive scenes on almost every spread – tea with the neighbour shows her life through a series of family photographs on the wall behind, scenes in the park demonstrate the diversity of the people there and the things they do. There are also many elements of humour wrapped into the book – squirrels threatened by the dogs, dog-shaped slippers. It’s a little dream of a picture book. You can buy it here. 

tiger walkTiger Walk by Dianne Hofmeyr and Jesse Hodgson
There are no domestic pets in this art-inspired picture book, but a tiger who oscillates between tame and wild in order to rid the young boy, Tom, of his fears. Tom visits an art gallery and sees the painting Surprised! by Rosseau. At home, he tries to copy the picture, and at night the tiger springs from the picture, and carrying Tom on its back, takes him on adventures through the jungle. It’s a neat conceit, in that every time the tiger suggests what to do next, Tom is scared – of swimming, of the cold, of the dark, of beasts. The tiger reassures him, and in the end Tom realises that of course he isn’t scared – he’s ridden a fearsome beast all through the night.

Brought to dramatic life by sumptuous illustrations that seem to have burst from the Rousseau painting, the colours are bold and expressive, not only traversing between fear and curiosity, wild and tame, but also real and dreamlike. This is a clever picture book with sumptuous text that bears out the artistry in the illustrations too – moonlight shines, icicles crackle, tigers have swishing tails and flashing eyes.  Aglow with natural beauty, this tiger comes close to winning a top spot in the heart, even if this one doesn’t come into the kitchen and devour all the tea. You can buy it here.

A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison

a pinch of magicThere’s a purposeful foggy dark atmosphere to this magical new adventure from Michelle Harrison, award-winning author of The Thirteen Treasures, which makes it all the more mysterious and adventurous. Set on a series of fictional islands, often enveloped by a ghostly mist, and surrounded by marshes and rocks with the nearest neighbour an eerie prison, this is a tale of curses and sorcery, of magical objects and imprisonment, and yet through the fog, a tale of sisterhood and teamwork, boldness and bravery shines brightly.

The three Widdershins sisters, Betty, Fliss and Charlie, dazzle like a ray of sunshine in the mist, living and working with their grandmother in a busy pub. From the rowdy beginning on the night of Betty’s 13th birthday (unlucky for some), she and Charlie are first encountered galloping down the stairs, Halloween costumes billowing, dancing happily. The sisters are bubbly, proactive protagonists, particularly Betty, the novel’s focus, and she’s an absolute gem of a heroine. On her birthday, Betty learns that her family is cursed, and she endeavours to break the curse and set them all free.

The three sisters each possess a magical object that has been passed down to them through their family heritage – a carpet bag, a set of wooden nesting dolls, and a gilt-framed mirror – all of which they can use to help break the curse. In children’s literature there are many enchanted objects that have a role in directing plot or character, and the more ordinary the object, the more exciting their magic. A wardrobe perhaps (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), a ring (Lord of the Rings), or a mirror (Snow White). Here, the bag feels Mary Poppins-esque, and does indeed go deep. The mirror may be seen to be vain, but holds power, but Betty’s object is the wooden nesting dolls – which have always felt slightly spooky and enchanting to me – the hidden quality, the addictive nature of lining up the seams.

Harrison has great fun weaving the objects’ magic abilities into her narrative, but the bulk of the plot centres around the strangely powerful and dark prison. Believing a prisoner holds the key to breaking the curse, Betty endeavours to bargain his freedom for the answer, only to discover that it’s very easy to make mistakes on a prison break. With a delightful cast of prison villains, shadowy wardens, and suspicious townspeople, the atmosphere simmers with menace.

To embellish the story, and the atmosphere, Harrison has a special attachment to names. The three sisters live in The Poacher’s Pocket on the isle of Crowstone. Their surname, Widdershins, means to go in the wrong direction and is considered unlucky. Crowstone belongs to the Sorrow Isles, among which are the isle of Repent on which lies the prison, and the isle of Lament with its graveyard. These small details punctuate the text providing atmosphere and portent.

But with three intrepid brave girls working together, a rat called Hoppit and a cat called Oi, the darkness of the setting is always going to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the girls’ inner natures – their ability to help others when necessary, pull together in times of conflict, and use their wit and intelligence to break their curse. Harrison writes with more than just a pinch of magic – this is a compelling magical adventure that spellbinds the reader into believing in a whole other world, and understanding that envy, betrayal and prejudice are the real evils, whereas foggy marshes and spooky crumbling prison towers are merely landscapes.

A rich, charming tale for ages 9+.

Cover illustration by Melissa Castrillon

Charlie Changes Into a Chicken by Sam Copeland, illustrated by Sarah Horne

charlie changes into a chickenMassively hyped already, with marketing material yelling ‘for fans of David Walliams’, this first of a brand-new series actually does live up to the hype. 

Aimed at a young fiction readership, aged seven and up, Charlie Changes into a Chicken is a delight. A genuinely funny, pacey adventure story that has a healthy dollop of pathos and heart from a writer who obviously understands and spends time with young children.

Charlie McGuffin worries about everything. He worries about his brother, who is not very well in hospital, his parents, who are worried about his brother, and he’s worried about garnering any attention from the school bully. Then he finds another thing to worry about – when he worries, he turns into an animal. At first, he metamorphosises into a spider (and with far more anxiety about his situation than displayed by Kafka’s protagonist). Before long though, this change is happening more often, and at the most inopportune times. With the help of his three friends, Charlie must find a way to stop the transformations happening, and prevent the school bully from revealing his secret.

One of the best features of this young fiction title is Copeland’s approach to the writing. It reads as if Copeland is telling the story to the reader personally, and with this intimacy comes reassurance, which is exactly the effect wanted. This is not a new device – in fact it’s in part what made Dahl so successful in his novels.

Here, the intimacy inspires confidence in the writer as a storyteller but also as a warm, approachable understanding adult, so important when, deep down, this book is about overcoming and dealing with anxious thoughts.

On the surface though, the story’s a laugh a minute. From the footnotes in which Copeland gets to extrapolate silly facts or simply extend his jokes, to the plot structure itself which gets funnier and more enjoyable the greater variety of animals Charlie turns into and the places in which he does so. The pigeons in the playground incident is particularly amusing, as is Charlie turning into a rhinoceros in his somewhat small bedroom (and needing to go to the toilet). Indeed, there are toilet jokes a-plenty, but nicely packaged within the overwhelming anxiety Charlie feels, so that they are there for a purpose. There are nail-biting moments too – the incident in the Head’s office, for example.

But what many readers will find succour in, is the friendship group. Charlie summons the courage to share his strange ‘superpower’ with his diverse, hilarious friendship group with all their vastly different personalities. My favourite is Flora, who attempts to discover the reasons behind Charlie’s metamorphosis – her theories fail at first, but she perseveres. As well as teaching a valuable lesson, her attempts provide a raft of laughs.  

Even after the book has finished, Copeland continues to address the reader with a series of fake questions from readers and answers from himself, as well as a letter from the publishers. All induced an amused wry smile.

Copeland is certainly a writer with impeccable comic timing, but also one who understands plot structure. Coming from a literary agent (Copeland’s day job), this shouldn’t be a huge surprise, in that he understands how a book works, but what is refreshing is the intimacy formed with the reader, the light touches, and the insightful imagination. Charlie feels real, despite the ludicrousness of the plot, and his group of friends just like yours or mine.

Sarah Horne’s black and white illustrations feature throughout, and are injected with just the right amount of zaniness. Horne excels at quirky and her characters are differentiated, appealing and expressive: the step-by-step transformation into a pigeon particularly funny.

The book works thrice. Firstly, as a good read for the age group with lots of plot, a fun premise and laughs-a-plenty. Secondly, as an antidote to anxiety – it shows how problems are often entangled with embarrassment about sharing them – the fact that Charlie’s anxiety manifests as an embarrassing problem itself is the whole point – and Copeland shows that fiction can be a calming and positive way to highlight mental health issues. And thirdly, as a conversation with the author. Sometimes, under stress or needing escape, books can become friends themselves. And with such a calm and witty author hand-holding the reader’s way throughout the book, this is one novel that children will embrace again and again.

No wonder there’s hype. This is a cracking novel, brilliantly funny, warmly reassuring. You can buy it here

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. So it’s fitting that in primary school library book club this week we were looking at the theme of diaries. My Y6 cohort embraced this with gusto, reading everything from The Wimpy Kid to Artichoke Hearts to Anne Frank’s Diary. Which brings us back to the Holocaust. They spent the first five minutes debating how old Anne Frank would be if she were alive today and where she might be living. It was a memorable and emotional discussion.

peter in perilPeter in Peril by Helen Bate is a graphic novel that aims to show how the people swept up in the Holocaust were ordinary people. This is a tame book for a young audience though, and doesn’t go into any detail on the camps or genocide, but instead illuminates the dangers and changes that one Jewish boy went through during the Second World War, hiding from the Nazi’s. Despite the fear and darkness, Peter is one of the lucky ones. Perhaps why the book is subtitled: Courage and Hope in World War Two.

The story is written in first person by Peter, a young boy living in Budapest, who loves football and cake. Like Anne Frank, he too is forced into hiding, but unlike most Jewish people, he is reunited with his parents and his former home by the end of the war.

Because it is told from a young person’s perspective, there is an ignorance to what is actually happening around him – but from the action the reader will understand that Peter survived round-ups of Jewish people by moving hiding places several times, the only constant being a colouring book; he frequently faces hunger and cold. Despite the removal of the more harrowing elements of the Holocaust, the reader will understand that this was a horrific time, challenging and frightening for even the luckiest child.

The novel is in graphic novel/comic book style, which makes it very easy to follow for the most reluctant reader; in fact the book’s pictures working best when they aren’t annotated with incidental dialogue.

This is a true story, and the background of what happened in Budapest during the war is given at the back, as well as a summation of what happened to the real Peter. Many of Peter’s extended family were killed in the death camps, although miraculously he and his parents and baby brother survived and continued to live in Hungary.

My only wish is that the figures involved in deportation were explained. In March 1944, there were more than 800,000 Jews living in Hungary (as a result of annexations from Slovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia). In May 1944 deportations began and in just eight weeks, 424,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Yad Vashem statistics). 

You can buy a copy of Peter in Peril here

TomiThere are fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust now living, and it’s important to hear their accounts. Tomi Reichental’s Holocaust Story has been retold by Eithne Massey for young readers age 10+. Tomi describes Tomi’s life in Slovakia, at first pretty idyllic, but then it deteriorates rapidly, firstly because of the taunting Anti-semitism from schoolmates, and then from restrictive laws passed forbidding Jewish people to go to school. Then the arrests start, and finally Tomi is captured and sent to Bergen-Belsen. Amazingly, Tomi survived, (although 35 members of his extended family were killed). As above, this is told through the eyes of a child, and so shies away from the absolute horror of Bergen-Belsen, but is still a devastating read, (much more so than Peter in Peril) although Tomi is appropriate for children, in that it explains the Holocaust in a powerful yet simple way.

Told in narrative format, novel-like in its prose, yet with a slight distance to protect the reader, the book describes graphic events – the death in the carriage on route to the camps, the whips of the guards, death and disease within the camps.

There’s a clear balance needed between explaining the truth of what happened – even to young children during the Holocaust – and protecting today’s children from nightmares and fear. And yet, there is also a duty to make sure we and our children ‘never forget’. In a time of rising anti-Semitism again, it is crucial that these true accounts are shared widely, absorbed, and lessons learnt. As Tomi says “I realised that, as one of the last witnesses, I must speak out. I owe it to the victims that their memory is not forgotten.’ We owe it to Tomi to read and understand his story. You can buy Tomi here. 

Mike by Andrew Norriss

mikeThere is something special about this book, and I’m not sure whether it’s the message behind it, the story itself or the style of writing. It could be the combination of all three, although I’m edging towards the last, simply because it’s not often that I finish a book in one sitting – but this hooked me almost by magic.

The prose is so faultlessly lucid, like the cascade of a clear waterfall, and I was spellbound by the fluidity with which the words flowed on the page.

Fifteen-year-old Floyd is training to be a tennis champion – a talented and dedicated sportsman and the star of the under-eighteens circuit. The reader first meets him in the midst of a tennis tournament, and swiftly learns that tennis is his life and that he’s destined to be a professional tennis player. But as we meet Floyd, so Floyd sees Mike again, walking along the top row of tiered seating, his black coat billowing behind him (which rather made me think of Christian Slater in The Breakfast Club, with that haunting yet inviting look in his eyes). At first, Floyd thinks that Mike is a nuisance, an over-eager fan perhaps. But it becomes apparent to the reader, and to Floyd’s great surprise, that only he can see Mike.

Before long, Floyd is seeing a psychologist to try to eke out why he is seeing ‘Mike’ at his tennis practice and during tennis matches.

With straightforward clarity, Norriss and by default, the pleasantly authentic and sympathetic psychologist explore parental pressure, and life choices. There’s philosophy underpinning this story – a sort of moral guide to how we make choices, how we steer our lives through fate or instinct, and an exploration of our conscious and unconscious minds. Most particularly, Norriss touches upon our connections with other people and how that affects our journeys through life. With Floyd and Mike, the reader will come to understand a little bit about their own self – what we are doing for ourselves, or for others, and how to come to an understanding of serving both.

But there is no heaviness to this novel, no preaching, no deep philosophy. Instead, with remarkable pace and with much humour and levity, the reader is steered through Floyd’s path – from tennis through to marine biology, and although written with a breezy simplicity, Floyd’s path is far from easy. Without delving too deeply into the angst, Norriss shows us the difficulties Floyd faces, the lessons he has to learn, the pain that sometimes must be experienced.

Whether this is in part inspired by the movie Harvey with James Stewart (referenced in the text), or in part by Jiminy Cricket or other such fictional guides that give the character a steer through life, this is a fascinating look at finding oneself and one’s true desires and seeking and owning the power and responsibility to make one’s life’s choices.

Norriss’s characters feel real and likeable, the book almost true in its matter-of-factness.

I actually can’t recommend this book enough – it’s now out in paperback and I suggest you all read it – young and old. It’ll definitely make you think, and might turn the most reluctant reader into a reader. If only all books were like Mike. Suggested for age 12+ years. You can buy it here.

Little Bird Flies by Karen McCombie

little bird fliesIt takes a certain amount of bravery, imagination, and sometimes desperation, to want to leave a remote island home that’s been base for a family for many years, and uproot from its rural idyll to the grimy urban streets of Glasgow, or for the new dawn of America – particularly in 1861. But that’s what the Little Bird of the title wishes in this new historical series from children’s books author Karen McCombie.

Bridie is a crofter’s daughter (her father occupies and works a small landholding known as a croft, rented from the landlord, or laird). She lives with her family on the little Scottish island of Tornish, an island that appears almost as a character itself within the novel.

With a wasted arm and leg, a deceased mother, two older sisters and a younger brother, life is hard, but also rewarding. Bridie very much sees the positives in life – not only her island idyll of rough seas and craggy landscapes, cherishing the views and wildlife – but also always working with the positive side of her disability. She doesn’t let it impede her, but rather uses it to her advantage where possible.

But things change in Tornish when the current laird dies suddenly, and a new family take over. Even then, Bridie sees positives in her new friendship with a ward of the new family, and a portrait painter drafted over to paint the new laird, but life gets harder for all the crofters and before long her dream to leave Tornish comes true – although perhaps not quite in the way she had envisaged. At this point the novel speeds up spectacularly – as though McCombie is in a hurry to leave it positioned for book two.

This is quite a unique book, documenting a particular way of life in a particular place, and written with a huge amount of understanding of the time and location, as well as with clear passion. This shines through in Bridie’s own pride in where she comes from.

The book is modern in its telling though – Bridie’s outlook is contemporary – she sees goodness in difference rather than shunning it, she’s up for adventure and exploration, and she feels almost feminist in outlook – the women in this story dominate and are strong risk-takers, working to do good and make their mark. There’s a feeling of class injustice with the portrayal of the privileged and careless wealthy gentry, who can be seen in a way as invaders – destroying the isolated island way of life – and forcing the residents to change how they live, or flee.

And so despite the strong traditions highlighted in the first part of the novel, McCombie portrays a world in flux. Changes come to old ways of life, people move on and move away.

With skill, McCombie presents this tear in the fabric of the crofters’ reality – the striving for modernity and adventure combined with the nostalgia for a simpler and more idyllic way of living. The history of the Scottish isles feels captivating – the landscape rugged and real, forging onwards even when the people themselves are long gone. And although the reader is thrust forwards into Little Bridie’s seagoing adventure, it’s the island that stays behind in the reader’s mind – a timeless sliver of land that feels just within reach. Particularly for little birds that fly, and McCombie gives the reader wings to do just that. You can buy it here.