middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

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.

Sportopedia by Adam Skinner, Illustrated by Mark Long

sportopediaWhen I play trivial pursuit, it’s always the orange wedge I find hardest to win. Orange – sport and leisure. And when I look at the ‘sports shelf’ in my library, I can see our range of football books, a few on gymnastics and some lesser known sports, but there’s rarely an all-encompassing encyclopaedia of sport. Until now.

Sportopedia is going to fill that void and help me win the orange wedge. Featuring more than 60 sports, this is an enjoyable, knowledgeable introduction to sports that is well-organised and easy on the eye.

Split into logical sections – ball sports, racket sports, athletics, water sports and so on – each sport is afforded a single or double page spread with an introduction, a large illustration showing the sport, and then some standard ‘boxes-off’, which highlight the basic rules of the sport, as well as engaging facts. For Diving, facts include the depth of a diving pool and when diving became part of the Olympic Games. For other sports, author Adam Skinner documents famous incidents in sport and celebrates record-breakers.

But there are also quirks. In Diving, there is a section on cliff diving. And in Long-Distance Running, there is a segment on ultra-runners, which made me realise that my measly 8K is no achievement in comparison to Serge Girard’s 27,011 km in 365 consecutive days.

Long’s illustrations really lift the book – it wouldn’t have made sense to choose specific photographs from the millions that exist, and the illustrations strike a perfect balance between showing humour and illustrating the sport. They are also sumptuously bright, with a heavy leaning towards the primary palette, which gives the book a feeling of simplicity and ease. Although, I’m a little concerned that none of the long distance runners look as if they’re enjoying themselves, (the gymnasts certainly are).

Many of the sports highlighted are accompanied by an infographic that lends authority to the book, whether it be illuminating the areas of a tennis court or the scores of a dart board. There is also mention of kit, and how names of sports, and entrants to sports, have changed over the years. What’s particularly pleasing, and necessary of course, is the diversity of all the competitors illustrated and celebrated – male, female, from many ethnicities, able-bodied and Paralympians.

The ‘winter sports’ are considered in the four pages devoted to The Winter Olympics towards the back of the book in the chapter titled ‘Sporting Events’, with skiing, curling and skating among others, but there is less detail about these.

But I think my favourite piece is the introduction. Explaining that sports have always existed, and that competition is part of human life and that anybody can take part. As well as talking about the lack of discrimination exercised by sport, the introduction also explains the benefits of sport – not just in the winning, but the importance of physical well-being, teamwork and discipline. And how big a part sport plays in human history. This is a fabulous book, introducing less active children to sport, promoting the rules and facts of each sport for trivia seekers, and tracking leading figures and sports milestones for enthusiasts.

I might not be able to run for 365 consecutive days, but I know more about Archery and Kabaddi than I did yesterday. You can buy it here.

Bookwandering with Anna James

Pages & CoPages & Co: Tilly and the Bookwanderers by Anna James is the first in a trilogy that tells the story of eleven-year-old Matilda (Tilly) Pages, who has lived with her grandparents above their bookshop ever since her mother disappeared shortly after Tilly was born. If you’ve ever witnessed a child completely immersed in a book so that they don’t even hear their own name being called, then you’ll understand the type of character Tilly is. She loves books, and with good reason. Her grandparents’ bookshop is an idyll – with nooks and hidden corners, chairs to nestle into, and all the time the permeating aroma of hot chocolate and fresh baking from the café.  

But there is more magic to the bookshop than great cakes and good books. Before long, Tilly is seeing characters from books come alive inside the shop – at first they speak to just her grandparents, but before long she meets Alice (from Wonderland) and Anne (from Green Gables). And then, to her surprise, she finds she can accompany them back to their own worlds too – and her book wandering adventures begin.

The premise of the book is delightful for book lovers – to literally escape into the book, and James is brave here – writing words into Alice’s and Anne’s mouths, even writing a tea party scene from Wonderland, in which Tilly meets the Mad Hatter. James pulls this off with aplomb, capturing the essence of the classic characters in both their speech and their mannerisms. She also executes the rules of her bookwandering world with skill – adeptly laying out for the reader (and Tilly) when it’s possible to enter a book, how to exit, and how the whole system is managed.

Tilly discovers that bookwandering doesn’t just happen in her grandparents’ bookshop, Pages & Co, but in many others, and the management of bookwandering happens in the underbelly of The British Library, where she is eventually invited to learn the rules. (A really wonderful scene here, in which Tilly has to learn to bookwander by starting in an early reader, Peter and Jane book, in which nothing happens).

The book leaps into even more adventurous territory when Tilly discovers that bookwandering may explain her mother’s disappearance.

This is a wonderfully engaging and cosy book with adventure, magic and friendship, and may encourage children to venture towards the classics mentioned above (and also A Little Princess). Today, I’m delighted to welcome Anna James onto MinervaReads to tell you about the real places that inspired Pages & Co:

Anna JamesReal life inspired Pages & Co in several ways (and probably in many other subconscious ways I’m not even aware of). I’ve pulled from people, places, and feelings to try and make the world of the book feel as real as possible, despite the magic going on. There’s one place I literally just stole, but several others inspired some of the locations of the plotlines of the book; here are five that had the biggest impact.

  1. My grandparents house

Tilly’s grandparents are hugely important to her, and to the story. Tilly lives with them in their bookshop and they are essentially her parents. While all of the characters are fictional, Tilly’s grandparents are the most directly inspired by real people; my grandparents. Sadly they didn’t live in a bookshop, but they did live in a farmhouse that they converted themselves, in the Scottish Borders. It was a house with a real fire, with Grandad’s emerald velvet armchair in front of it, full of bookshelves, and the kitchen in Pages & Co is basically their kitchen with its pantry, big table and Grandma making gooseberry crumble

  1. Masons of Melrose

Linked to my grandparents house is Masons of Melrose, their local independent bookshop. When we visited we used to walk from their house down the River Tweed to Melrose where we’d visit the bookshop and then walk back to eat and read in front of the fire. This bookshop is also where my Grandad used to choose our Christmas books, and the booksellers there recommended me, via him, to read Northern Lights and Harry Potter when I was 10.

  1. The University of Birmingham

I studied Modern and Medieval History at the University of Birmingham and I specialised in the early modern period; the Reformation and Tudor History, especially the history of printing and the impact it had on the period. The university is a beautiful red brick campus and the Great Hall, where I graduated, was one of the buildings I used when I was creating the British Underlibrary. I also spent a lot of time in the library, which has since been updated and modernised, but the old red brick building that was at the centre of the campus is my library, and the one that influenced the Underlibrary (more on that later).

  1. North London

I’ve lived in north London for just over three years now and I love it. Hampstead Heath, Alexandra Palace, my local high street full of independent coffee shops – when I started writing Pages & Co the only place I could imagine it, was near where I live. It is entirely impossible it could be, with its four floors and architectural dubiousness, but it’s still where it is in my imagination. It’s also, crucially, near to Kings Cross St Pancras which leads me on to the last real place which inspired me.

  1. The British Library

I write mostly at my local coffee shop or at the British Library, whose airy quiet reading rooms are perfect to get you in the right mood for writing. When I needed a location for a secret community of bookwanderers, I knew straightaway that it needed to be concealed somehow at this beautiful library. In the centre of the atrium there is The King’s Library, a tower of very old books, which is not accessible to the public, and it seemed the perfect place to hide a magical, apparently out of order, lift…

With huge thanks to Anna James for mapping her inspirational geography for MinervaReads. You can buy a copy of Pages & Co here.

 

Magical Mythological Maps and Monsters

Why are myths still relevant to us, and why do we explore them so much in children’s literature?

One reason that we still buy stories of myths from long-ago cultures or faraway places is that they hold within them certain universal truths or explanations of our natural world and our human behaviours. Myths hold messages that stretch across barriers, which reach down through generations and connect people across time and geography.

But at the same time they can also teach us about different cultures, show us how people once lived, or how they live now in different societies. Japanese myths often refer to mythical creatures in the sea, which makes sense for an island nation. The Yoruba believe that before people and animals existed, there was the realm of the deities, and an empty realm filled with nothing but sky and marshy water – which makes sense when you realise that the Yoruba live in Western Africa under beautiful African skies.

In myths told as stories for children, the reader learns alongside the characters; they follow that journey with them, make decisions with them. They forge their own identity whilst learning of another’s. Children feel the pain of Icarus wanting to fly; they wonder if they too would have survived the twelve labours of Herakles.

Two books that bring myths to children in an exciting, spellbinding and aesthetically beautiful way are Myth Atlas and Myth Match.

myth atlasMyth Atlas by Thiago de Moraes is one of the most beautiful books for children I’ve seen this year. Each of the twelve cultures covered is illustrated and explained within a map that shows how that culture viewed the world. For example, The Greek world shows a flat Earth surrounded by a large sea, with the heavens above and Hades beneath. De Moraes idea of Hades is brilliant, kind of hanging upside down under a ridge of the main world, and populated of course by Cereberus and Charon, and showing Persephone and Orpheus there too – explained with simple text how their stories led them there. The Yanomani World is shown as four planes shaped like discs, stacked on top of one another – the upper sky, middle sky, earth and underworld. De Moraes excels in his depictions of people and creatures – both the people of the culture, and then creatures that exist in their mythical tellings, such as the Brooribe, the ghosts of dead Yanomani, and the Oineitib, the dwarves of the underworld.

This book will educate, elucidate, stimulate and inspire wonder all at the same time. I couldn’t stop looking through it. The illustrations are painstakingly detailed, and use colour in an intelligent and colourful way without being garish or overstated. And each has a very simple number key to show the reader the accompanying text, which is simply but well told. In between the maps of each culture, there are a few chosen stories highlighting particular myths. In the Slavic World there is the story of Vasilisa and the Magic Doll, in the Aztec World, the story of the Five Suns. Each is highly illustrated with full colour spreads, and with extra boxes of information about monuments or temples. Each ‘world’ is given their own introductory page explaining the culture, the map and where the people were originally, and each ‘world’ ends with details about creatures and artefacts. This is an all-encompassing enthralling journey, with a clever navigation guide at the beginning and a wonderful introduction explaining how this is just a taste of the mythical world, and can’t, of course, cover every culture and every myth.

But what a taste! It’s a gastronomic feast for the eyes and brain, and I’ll be sampling it again and again. You can buy your own copy here.

myth matchThe second book, Myth Match by Good Wives and Warriors, follows in the tradition of the hugely popular Mixed Up Fairy Tales books by Hilary Robinson and Nick Sharratt. Here, instead of Goldilocks falling into Red Riding Hood’s story, we have an information book of mythical creatures that turns into a clever mash up of blending one mythical creature with another.

The reader can read it straight by encountering some weird and wonderful creatures from around the world, each sumptuously illustrated with masses of detail and colour. The trick though is to flip the front half or back half and pair up different parts of the different mythical creatures, hence creating your own – after all, myths are all about imagination and evolution. What’s more, the accompanying descriptive text (just a few lines) matches up too, whichever parts you fit together, giving a whole new description for the new creature. For instance a unicorn and a phoenix could become a uninix or a phoecorn! Good production, unlikely to rip with frequent usage. Buy yours here.

The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

skylarks warQuoted in the bibliography as an influence, and reading almost like an homage to Testament of Youth, Hilary McKay’s latest novel The Skylarks’ War is a highly readable, beautifully imagined story of a girl coming of age during the devastation of World War I. Clarry and her older brother are largely ignored by their single parent father, but spend their summers in glorious freedom in Cornwall at their grandparents’, where wonderfully charismatic and free-spirited cousin Rupert rules the roost. But when war breaks out, family and friendships are wrenched apart, and the Skylark summers seem a thing of the distant past.

McKay has a remarkable gift for writing. Her characters are fully rounded, developed people who you want to stay with long after the last page is turned. Clarry reads like a warm hug, Rupert is exactly the heroic soldier one would fall for, and Clarry’s brother Peter is a complicated, sensitive sort – he heart-wrenchingly jumps from a moving train to avoid boarding school and damages his leg, with only the reader fully aware of the consequences of his actions, seeing as war will erupt a few years later.

Also lending heart and soul to the novel is Simon, Peter’s friend from boarding school, who gives the reader a glimpse of the social history of the piece from the knowing standpoint of a more enlightened future. Simon, as much as the reader, is patently in love with Rupert, but of course homosexuality was forbidden then.

As well as character, McKay writes with specificity, elegance and precision in her portrayal of the time, lavishing period detail, but more intelligently, rendering the emotions of the time so clearly – leaving the reader with a sense of the social history without in any way preaching. She shies away from anything too gruesome in her sparse prose about the Front, but there is enough tension and heartbreak to transport the reader to the desolation of that time and place.

McKay concentrates mostly on the home front, managing to include both the suspension of time for women left at home as they waited for news and letters, but also the occupying of that time and the growth of importance of women as they took up roles in society away from the domestic sphere, and become more visible. Above all, what marks the book is the amount of hope and courage portrayed, and the feeling that Clarry’s breathless determination and grit will prevail.

This sort of storytelling is reminiscent of those great classic novels – the gathering of the family around letters from Father in Little Women, the closeness in relationships in Noel Streatfield novels, the insight into women’s feelings in Testament of Youth.

Marking the centenary of the First World War, this is a most beautiful introduction to that time period for children, and an unforgettable classic read. One of the best children’s books this year – do not miss. For 9+ years. You can buy your copy here.