otherness

Enduring Friendships in Story: a guestpost by Melissa Savage

The publishers describe Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage in three words as ‘bittersweet’, ‘quirky’, and ‘adventure’. I wholeheartedly agree, and would add that this is a beautifully written tale, in which the voice of the protagonist, Lemonade, comes across strongly and perfectly – with just enough bite to ensure that her sweet winning personality has a lemony tang to it. It’s a tale set in California during the time of the Vietnam War, and describes how Lemonade fits into her new surroundings and makes new friends after she moves to live with her grandfather. With emotionally astute adults, a sensitivity to loss, and themes of identity and belonging, this is a fantastically enjoyable book, and I am delighted to host author Melissa Savage on the blog. 

I have had the great fortune of meeting many children as I have shared my new debut middle grade novel, Bigfoot, Tobin & Me (Lemons in the United States) and I’m often asked which part of the book I enjoyed writing most. My answer is always the same. Writing scenes between Lemonade and Tobin. I love their unconventional friendship. They are so different in so many ways and they must argue their points until they can come to some type of agreement on how to come to some sort of agreement. Although they are very different, there is so much about them that is also the same. And they soon learn they need one another. They may not know it at the start of the story, but they soon learn that their friendship will be one of endurance because of who they are, what they’ve been through together and what they now share. Doesn’t everyone want that very special friendship that endures regardless of our differences, foul moods and bad choices, and even change?

I remember while growing up, I loved to read about friendships that endure. Some of the most impactful stories that spoke deeply to me included Katherine Paterson’s Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia, Bette Greene’s Beth Lambert and Phillip Hall from Phillip Halls Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, and Judy Blume’s Sheila Tubman and Mouse Ellis from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. What these three duos have in common is their contrasting personalities and how these opposite traits are just the thing that binds them.

Jess and Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia are an unlikely pair and become friends after Leslie moves to town. Jess is a sad and lonely boy while Leslie is outgoing and imaginative. The two are soon inseparable and together form a secret kingdom, which Leslie names Terabithia. One of the lovely aspects to this friendship is that it sustains even in death, as Leslie is tragically killed in a drowning accident and Jess finds a way to accept the reality of her loss and honor her memory.

Beth and Phillip from Phillip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, have what one could describe as a boisterous relationship at times. Beth has a crush on Phillip and the two are in constant competition with one another for being the best in the class. Beth wonders if she is letting Phillip be number one because she thinks he is the cutest boy in school. However, at the end of the story when Beth finally does win a 4-H competition over Phillip, she realizes that even if she is number one occasionally, their friendship will sustain.

Sheila and Mouse from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great is a story I have read countless times growing up. Sheila meets Mouse when Sheila’s family spends the entire summer in upstate New York’s Tarrytown. Sheila is a fearful child, riddled with anxieties, however overcompensates for her fears with boastful inaccuracies to hide her self-perceived weaknesses from others. As she and Mouse become friends, Mouse begins to see through Sheila’s façade and finally lovingly confronts her about her falsehoods. And it is through this honest interaction that Sheila begins to shed her mask and learn to take chances she hadn’t done before, even if she’s scared.

What qualities do these friendships share? Honesty, sensitivity, empathy, and fun.

There are many themes present in Bigfoot, Tobin & Me, but enduring friendship is one very important one. The friendship between Lemonade and Tobin is one that is honest and loyal, and it soon becomes unconditional no matter how many times they disagree on Twinkies, steer, or where to keep the message pad, because of all that they have endured. Enduring friendship continues to be a desired theme in story in childhood and beyond. It is my hope that Lemonade and Tobin’s enduring friendship is one that speaks to kids around the world as the many enduring friendships in my most favorite books growing up have spoken to me.

With thanks to Melissa Savage. Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). It is filled with clever character descriptions, including wise Mrs Dickerson and her “bright pink lipstick that looks like it’s slipping off”, and expert perceptions of child preoccupations such as: “I surf wind waves with my hand out of the window and try to ignore him” on a car journey. The writing is immersive and a pleasure to read, and the tale, although far-fetched, draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. One of the best books for this age group that you’ll read this summer. You can buy it here and I heartily recommend that you do. Ages 8+ years. 

 

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Lauren Wolk’s much anticipated second novel for children, after the phenomenal Wolf Hollow, does not disappoint. Set on the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts, Beyond the Bright Sea also features a young girl coming of age, but in a different time and in a very different way. This is a book about finding out who you are, and what defines the self.

Crow was taken in as a baby by her adoptive father Osh, when she was found in a boat washed up on his island. They live a simple life in a simpler time – the book is set in 1920 – their house is made from assorted remnants of shipwrecks and they spend most of their days in the pursuit of survival – fishing for food, drying their bodies from the sea and sand, keeping warm. Osh also paints, and sells his paintings to the tourists who frequent the islands in the summer months.

But Crow knows that there is much mystery surrounding her origins. Local people shun her, believing that she arrived when her boat was set adrift from nearby Penikese Island, which used to house a leper colony. When she spies a strange fire alight on that long-abandoned island, it sets her on her quest to discover where she really came from, and why she was cast away.

The plot itself unfurls at a steady pace, each chapter posing a new element to the mysteries in question, although all are answered fairly swiftly. But it is the poetic intensity of the prose that fires the reader, as well as the impeccable characterisation of Crow herself – a resolute, vibrant, curious and yet thoughtful heroine – and the two adults who orbit her – Osh (a loner and thinker), and Miss Maggie, who both provide Crow, and by default, the reader, with a library of quiet wisdoms.

“an island is one thing when a man has a boat, quite another when he doesn’t.”

Wolk has a way of crafting her sentences like a balancing scale, they sit calmly on the page, and yet have the slight rhythm and undulation of the sea. Although the book is layered with such phrases, Wolk never stoops to sentimentality or preaching.

“I was learning that some things take time, and worrying wouldn’t change that.”

She writes of simple people living a minimalist way of life by the sea, and she echoes this in her precise vocabulary, which feels of the landscape (and new to an urbanite such as myself), with words such as skiff, bluff, and kettle ponds. But all the time, it is precise and economical and sparse – Wolk pursues specificity, and describes things in just a few words, making the prose all the more powerful for its simplicity, just like Osh’s painting:

“sometimes Osh painted a single yellow flower in a pale green marsh, and it was all the better for being just one.”

The nationality and skin tones of Osh and Crow are unclear, although Wolk shows the reader that they are different from each other and the rest of the islanders, but that is part of the beauty – her vagueness in this matter lends the text a feel of the everyman.

The book does dip slightly in the second half. As Crow’s mysteries were solved fairly easily, I became frustrated that deeper questions I had about Miss Maggie and Osh were left cloudy, but then one could argue that the writer always leaves some gaps for the reader to paint in themselves. I also query the slight overuse of foreshadowing, which tends to interrupt the flow, but these are minor criticisms – if all writers could write half as well as Wolk, we’d have a phenomenal literary party.

There is no moralising in this tale, just a simple message of people and their actions: family is the one you choose yourself, not that which you are born to, in the same way that who you are is what you do, not where you come from. You can buy it here.

The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

This book came out in 2016 and rather slipped under the radar, but despite that, has continued to haunt me since I read it – in the same way that the song from somewhere else haunts our protagonist.

Frankie (Francesca) is out distributing leaflets to try to find her lost cat. But when she is hemmed in by bullies in the park, she is rescued by school outcast Nick Underbridge (the name is a carefully chosen clue to the later events in the story). Nick is ostracised in school, and smells slightly, but Frankie finds herself accompanying him home out of a sense of duty and thanks.

At his house, Frankie is drawn by a haunting and beautiful song, but she can’t locate where it comes from. She starts to spend more time with Nick, despite the worry that she too will be cast out at school because of the friends she keeps.

Gradually, the song exerts more and more influence and pull on her, and the story dovetails into part fairytale/part fantasy other world, as it becomes clear that the song originates from the dimension of another world – a kind of fairy tale world. With fairy tales comes danger and darkness, and Frankie’s friendship with Nick is tested to extreme limits when the two worlds collide.

The duality of the story is what makes it so special. The book is set in a time in which kids get on their bikes and ride to freedom, of lego and drawing, but also the internet and mobile phones, yet Harrold makes it feel sort of timeless. The effect of the everyday objects is to ground Frankie deeply in reality, within a contemporary story about friends and bullying, yet there are clear shadows of another world that seep into this – a fairy tale dimension that echoes the heightened emotions of our main story. There are both intensely dark and frightening emotions, and yet also visionary and pure and light overtones to this ‘magical’ dimension of the story. In this way, Harrold uses the duality of his fairy tale to mirror reality and his contemporary story – we all have the darkness and purity inside us.

Pinfold echoes this in his black and white illustrations – they are realistic in what they depict – the estate, a cat at night, Frankie on a bench, Nick’s Dad opening the front door. And yet, because of the shadows cast, the point of view from which the picture is drawn, the intensity of the pencil lines, and yes, more by what is hidden than what is shown – they are deeply dark and disturbing – mysterious and haunting. They feel slippery and ethereal.

The text too – telling a compelling story of friendship in a lyrical way – there is comedy and poetry mixed with darkness. Its evocative and ghostly. Each word is carefully chosen – it’s minimal, and pure.

But most of all, all this combines to make a text that is easy to read, and scattered with illustrations. In fact, the reader devours the book – identifying with the choices Frankie makes about friendship, and her conflicts within herself – especially when she is drawn to a song but can’t quite work out what it is or what it represents. It implies a feeling of loss and absence throughout, and leaves the reader with a sense of bittersweet sadness, as well as uplifting lightness.

This is a great book for deciphering and picking apart friendships – understanding not only who we choose to be friends with, but also how we demonstrate our loyalty to our friends, and how we come to understand them. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been picked up by award lists…this is a hidden gem – perhaps it needs to come out of its own shadows.

Suitable for 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Can I Join Your Club? A guest post from John Kelly

I run a club twice a week – it’s a library club, in which we read, and do a million book related activities. So, when I read Can I Join Your Club? by John Kelly and illustrated by Steph Laberis, it resonated in so many ways. This is a brilliant picturebook about inclusivity, making friends, and being part of a group. It’s also wonderfully humorous. Bold, positive and topical – this is definitely a book I’ll be using in my club. Author John Kelly has very kindly written his thoughts on the book for MinervaReads.

We puny human beings are sociable animals. We want to like and to be liked. And don’t we just LOVE IT if someone likes the same things we do?

This means we are terribly keen on creating clubs. We have clubs for EVERYTHING! Stamp collecting, sky-diving, and even octopus appreciation (yes, I checked). Now while stamps do need collecting, skies need diving out of, and octopuses do need appreciating, when you form a club with people in it, someone else therefore isn’t. Those are the people who – shock horror – aren’t like you!

Imagine that!

Can I Join Your Club? tries to show children (and any adult who is paying attention) that your friends don’t have to look like you, do what you do, or even like the things you do.

This shouldn’t really need saying. But it’s not at all unusual to hear grown-ups who are completely unable to connect with each other because of their differences. Examples include, support of football team, fashion sense, income, political or religious views, and even something as ludicrously trivial as phone operating system! (IOS and Android fans – you know who you are.)

We puny humans have a tendency to trust those who are just like us (i.e. they’re jolly keen on stamps, jumping out of planes or cephalopods), and mistrust those who are not. In everyday language this translates into: ‘You can’t be my friend because you don’t like EXACTLY the same music as I do!’

There aren’t many advantages to being old and wizened (like me). But one of the few is in realising that your motley collection of best friends are completely unlike you in almost every respect. They don’t share your tastes in food, music, politics, religion, or octopus appreciation. Often they are the very opposite of you. But you love them, and they love you all the same – and are always there for you.

They like you, not the things you like.

The secret to real friendship is in wanting to like others and be liked by them in return. The best clubs are always those full of people who aren’t anything like you at all.

So if you’re a child (or an adult) and looking for someone to be in ‘your club’, then find someone you don’t agree with about something really important. Spend some time getting to know them, and they may just surprise you by becoming your best friend.

With thanks to John Kelly. Can I Join Your Club? is out now. Duck wants to join a club. But he can’t join Lion Club unless he can roar, or Elephant Club unless he can trumpet, and Duck can only quack. In the end, duck sets up a new club, one in which everyone can join. And you can join the club here.

Strange Star by Emma Carroll and Thicker than Water by Anne Cassidy

straange star

Following on from Monday’s guest post by Emma Carroll, I review two recent children’s novels that draw on classic literature. Firstly, Carroll’s own novel, Strange Star, inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A modern day Frankenstein draws together so many elements – from the inspiration of classic literature on today’s contemporary writers, to the teaching and love of science for young people, and in particular, girls (STEM reaching out its tendrils to young females) and also our modern obsession with the treatment of ‘other’, which is something that, believe it or not, has existed since the dawn of time: whether what is different is perceived as monstrous simply by the fact of it being ‘other’.

Strange Star begins in June 1816 with a group of friends gathered at a villa on the banks of Lake Geneva, telling each other ghost stories. It was where Frankenstein was reputed to have been imagined by Mary Shelley as she listened to stories from Byron and Percy Shelley. Carroll uses the scene to build tension and atmospheric chill, when a thudding at the front door reveals a strange, half dead child who, on awakening, proceeds to tell her tale.

She is Lizzie Appleby, a village girl from England who speaks of strange happenings, lightning strikes, the disappearance of animals, and the strange goings-on at Eden Court near her house, where a scientist is experimenting with lightning. By the end of the book, the connection is revealed, but there are spooks and thrills along the way, and some canny plot weaving.

As in Frankenstein, Carroll repeats the narrative within a narrative framework for her tale, but she goes further than simply using the inspiration of ghost stories and internal narratives. She has cleverly played on so many of the themes buried within the original text, from the use of fire, not only in a final denouement, but also in the lightning strikes, to themes of sight and light – light providing opportunity and yet also danger, and a lack of sight providing the most insight.

Carroll’s characters are vividly imagined, and although our first narrator is a boy, the bulk of the novel is Lizzie’s narrative, and she tells of the women who surround her. Throughout the story, the strength of women shines through, despite the historical context and the struggle they must surmount to prove themselves. From women and their relationship to motherhood, to women who are prepared to work hard and sacrifice themselves in the process, to the women of science who need to prove they are as good as their male counterparts. All in some way sympathetic characters – even those, who like Dr Frankenstein, push themselves too far in blind ambition and forget to think of what or who they may be hurting along the way.

The other point of view in Strange Star (in third person) is that of Felix, Lord Byron’s servant, who is also richly portrayed, and intensely simpatico, despite his own difficulties in the face of his ‘otherness’. Carroll draws together the historical implications of all these people with their differences – be it gender or race or disability – and shows how strength of spirit and tolerance can forge through.

The writing flows as with all Carroll’s novels; the descriptions are visceral and explore all the senses, but more importantly the plot is meaty and intense. This is storytelling at its very best, and with a deliciously haunting feel to it that readers will savour long into the night. Age 12+. You can buy it here.

thicker than water

Anne Cassidy attempts to get even closer to her original text, this time Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, by recrafting her take on the story in Thicker Than Water.

George wants to run a record shop, with just enough money to get by. But he has Lennie to look after too, and despite his size, something about Lennie is not quite right and he certainly doesn’t recognise his own strength. So it’s inevitable that before long Lennie will lead them both into trouble, and with the sort of people they’re working for – the trouble will be deep and dangerous.

Of course the problem with tackling such a meaty book by an author such as Steinbeck and condensing the word count so significantly is that there isn’t time for a slow wallowing immersion into the complexity of the characters and their relationships to each other.

Steinbeck spends a large portion of his novel focussing on male relationships; a brotherly connection of protection and idealised friendship. This is what makes his tragic ending so poignant and heartfelt. Although Anne Cassidy’s also feels emotional, I think it’s a stretch to achieve quite such a wrench in a condensed novel.

There’s a languorous world-weariness in the original text, a reality come to bare that the American dream is all but an impossibility. In Thicker Than Water, George also seems to realise that his dream is probably unattainable, but the philosophical life-learning lessons to reach this realisation – anguished over in Steinbeck, is harder to pull off when reducing the age of the protagonists to teens, as Cassidy does in hers.

Although some of the moral ambiguity is stripped out, Cassidy has interpreted Steinbeck’s original thoughts on the economic turmoil and societal breakdown in America beautifully by positioning her own English characters within a pub, where a host of figures explore the lack of opportunities afforded them, and instead wallow in crime and social exclusion. This is clever and effective.

Cassidy also draws out the central premise of loyalty, and maintains some of the original themes, such as the natural world, the premise of loneliness, and the dogs.

This is a good standalone novel, or a companion piece to Of Mice and Men. There’s a quality to the text that’s dramatic, filmic even, and I could happily watch a stage adaptation of Cassidy’s too. Age 12+. You can buy it here.

Whether the reader approaches the books in ignorance of the original sparks of inspiration, or reads them as complementary novels, these are both well written, memorable novels. For me, it bumped the originals back onto the To Be Read Pile. But I’m glad I read the classics while young, for “the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain.” Thanks, Mary Shelley.

 

 

With thanks to Simon Lister for his valuable insight on OMAM.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Wolf Hollow final cover

In a question and answer article this week, Philip Pullman said that “it’s important that the general reader sees children’s books being discussed intelligently.” I fret every week that I am talking intelligently enough about the children’s books I have read, but today’s book of the week definitely deserves intelligent discussion. In fact, it is one of the most intelligent books from any genre that I’ve read this year.

The reason I point to general readers is that sometimes children’s books are looked upon rather scornfully by them – as if children’s books are a sub-section of publishing. But this book, with its clear allusion to To Kill a Mockingbird reminds me yet again that there are some books that deserve a wider audience than the ‘marketing’ placement they are given. The Catcher in the Rye would be labelled as YA by today’s sales teams, Frankenstein as scifi, Wuthering Heights as romance. I’m being flippant, but I want to point out that just because a book is shelved in a particular place in a bookshop, doesn’t mean it should only be read by those who look at that shelf.

Wolf Hollow is a wonderfully evocative and searingly honest coming-of-age story about twelve year old Annabelle, growing up in wartime rural Pennsylvania. This gracefully written, memorable novel will inevitably draw comparisons with To Kill A Mockingbird (the publishers do this on the cover) for its themes of injustice, prejudice and a misjudged recluse, but it stands on its own strength as an outstandingly written story, one that both commands the reader to turn the page, and yet also to wallow in the beauty of the prose.

Newcomer Betty Glengarry invites trouble as soon as she steps foot in town, bullying Annabelle in small ways that shockingly escalate with speed. But when the culprit for the violence is deemed not to be Betty, but blamed upon veteran Toby, a recluse who spends his time walking the landscape with three guns, Annabelle realises it is up to her to face down the accusations and demand justice.

There is much brilliance in this compelling tale. Annabelle is not only believable and likeable, but her voice is strong and distinctive – she is so cleverly written that the reader can draw out the difference between what she says and does with what she thinks. She often mulls over a conversation directly afterwards. Her observations about Toby are empathetic and wise beyond her years, almost as if her thoughts were older than her actions:

“An odd and frustrating way to look at the world, but I was not Toby, and he was not me.”

Wolk draws her as empathetic and sensitive without resorting to any sentimentality. She is the perfect coming-of-age child – aware of her own limitations and aware of the conflict as she strives for independence. She knows when to seek parental help and advice, and when she won’t be heard:

“If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?”

Annabelle’s gradual self-awareness amid the moral complexity of the situation is fresh, alluring and tense. Wolk also demonstrates her prowess in writing understated characters – a quietness exudes from both Annabelle’s father, and from Toby; yet with a few words and expressions their entire personalities are ensnared upon the page.

Her descriptions are exquisite: “the sun somewhat hazy, as if it wore a silk stocking”, and create an atmospheric setting. And the rhythm of the writing is assured too – crafted with attention to the smallest detail in sentence length and phrase, the building of apprehension with shifts in tense – reading the words is like sampling a delicacy.

And yet it is easy to read, and children will relate directly to Annabelle, just as readers did to Scout Finch. It’s a book that works on many levels.

There is the suggestion of raw violence, as well as some real damage wrought, and a growing awareness that the adult world is grey, as opposed to the black and white childlike perception of right and wrong. Trusting the readership to grow as Annabelle does, this is a stunningly intelligent debut novel. It deserves to be read by young and old.

Age 10+ years. Buy it here.

The Journey by Francesca Sanna

the journey

Einstein once said that if you can’t explain something simply then you don’t understand it well enough yourself. Trying to explain the modern world to our children can be hard. Take the refugee crisis – it’s a complex topic about statehood, citizenship, war, conflict, ethnicity, prejudice…and more. Francesca Sanna has boiled it down and made it simple – one journey, one perspective, one angle – one ordinary family.

It’s a picture book that shows the reader, through the eyes of a child, the fears, difficulties, stresses, vulnerabilities and strokes of luck that are part of being a refugee. The author has herself travelled and lived in many countries, and interviewed migrants, and this is reflected in her illustrations, which, at the beginning of the book, give off hints of the Middle East and Asia in their depiction of plants and flowers, landscapes and buildings. Then Sanna shows pictures of animals and images from the land in which the family may end their journey, which are clearly more Western European – reindeer, fir trees, rabbits, foxes and wintry leaves.

On the first pages, the family play happily at the seaside, before the dark hand of war stretches across the page. War is personified – it’s darkness but with encroaching fingers, which plucks away the father, and then threatens the rest of the family group. The mother’s friend talks of leaving, and the family pack and go, starting their treacherous journey.

Throughout the journey there are elements of fear, again portrayed with darkness, or emphasised by size that obstructs or scares or intimidates. There is the darkness of the border with its huge wall, the huge guard with pointing finger, the trafficker both dark and large, yanking the family away from the darkness but into the next fearfulness – the crossing of the sea.

Although there are these elements of fear, there isn’t the stereotypical ‘boo’ of a picture book to frighten young readers. Here, the fear is an implied emotion – an expression of the daunting obstacles that need to be overcome.

“The further we go, the more we leave behind.”

Pages from Journey PDF

And then there is Sanna’s portrayal of the overarching beauty of the mother, which dominates the story. She has exaggerated long dark flowing locks, which almost work as an extension of her arms – embracing the children in times of fear. Her hands are busy too. They also protect her children, or mother them – she reads them a book, packs, shushes them in times of danger, holds their hands, and uses them in a number of ways to perpetuate the journey – driving them in a car, or steering the handlebars of the bicycle.  Until the end on the train, where they are on their way to the new land, and the mother’s hair is driven freely by the breeze, and her hands lie idle on the window, her eyes looking to the future. The portrayal throughout conveys her strength – the reader sees her tears only when the children are asleep.

The journey takes them from car to van to truck to bicycle to boat to train, but this is no simple story of transport. The artworks are exquisite – worthy of their own place on the wall, as the images blend into each other, the imagery cleverly using bottle greens, oranges, reds and blues to define shapes that together assimilate to make a larger picture. The humans and nature are fluid, the transport is modular. The images feel part oriental, part fairy tale, as if telling of a myth painted on some ancient vase. And yet the text is modern, explaining with deep simplicity:

“From the train I look up to the birds that seem to be following us…
They are migrating just like us. And their journey is very long too, but they don’t have to cross any borders.”

There is hope at the end, an uplifting cliff-hanger as the family’s story is, of course, just beginning.

The book has been prepared beautifully – from the extraordinary artworks to the quality of the paper, the thought into the white space on the pages, and then again those pages of darkness where there is no white space. The small touches, such as the cat they leave behind, and the attractive bookcase, all help to detail the picture of a family.

This is a highly accessible book for anyone wanting to understand forced migration. Highly recommended for all schools, all children, and also for anyone who appreciates great illustrations. You can buy it here.

Big Themes for Pre-teens

orbiting jupiter

So I don’t tend to feature YA (young adult books) on my website, having stated my remit as being 5-13 years – I had to stop somewhere! However, a book fell onto my desk a while ago that made me think. It defies categorization, as does its protagonists. It deals with issues that many would consider YA – love, teenage pregnancy and grief. And yet, the narrator is 12, and the boy he writes about is just 14 years old.

Published by Andersen Press, Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D Schmidt is targeted (according to them) at the 12+ age group, so just sneaks into my website review criteria. Although I wouldn’t recommend it without mentioning the themes above. Consider yourself warned.

But, this is a phenomenal book. One of the best-crafted, most heartrending novels I’ve read this year (and I include all the adult fiction I’ve read in that too). It’s a one-sitting read; the prose is stark, impeccable, faultless. No word out of place, nothing superfluous. What’s more, although it features those themes outlined above, it does so from a distance, with subtlety. There is nothing graphic. Sex happened but is not mentioned, a baby has been born, grief is the undercurrent.

Jack and his parents take in a foster brother, a fourteen year old who almost killed a teacher and has a three month old daughter called Jupiter, whom he’s never seen. Joseph is so hurt that he doesn’t show his emotions and won’t be touched – but the pain is there in a tightly woven knot, which his new family struggle to untangle.

In essence, this is a story about fathers. Jack’s father is the ideal – he believes in structure and hard work and shows his love with tenderness and moral rectitude. Joseph is a father, who longs to own up to his responsibilities despite his age, and who feels a love inside despite being unable to project it. And Joseph’s biological father is the last – the antithesis of Jack’s – the villain of the piece.

It’s also about brothers, or friendship, as Jack and Joseph form a bond over working on Jack’s parent’s farm and navigating the sometimes terrifying territory of school together. Gary Schmidt manages to portray those in society who are often overlooked or dismissed, as well as tucking into this slight novel the importance of reading, a sympathetic teacher, and the impact of extreme weather (and how to care for cows).

It’s a magnificent novel, in that although Joseph’s opening up is portrayed as profoundly slow with many setbacks, the novel races from scene to scene with skill and an edgy compulsion.

Not everyone in life is given a second chance, and not everyone grabs it when they are, but this is a beautifully written novel about just that. I cried at the end, for the story itself and also for having finished it so quickly.

In the main, it’s quite easy to distinguish between books aimed at the pre-teen market and those ‘YA’ books that are definitely for fully-fledged teenagers – by the scope of the protagonist (their world view), the language, the content, and the length of the book even. But every so often a book comes along that smudges the lines.

Schmidt has spoken about how the seed for the idea sprung from a news item about a thirteen year old father. And so, because big themes do happen to small people, if authors write stories about them as beautifully, poignantly and sensitively as this, we’d be terrible ‘gatekeepers’ if we held our children back from them.

You can buy it here.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

Hell and High Water

Opening with a filmic scene of main character Caleb and his father staging a Punch and Judy show, this scintillating excellently-written historical novel never lets up momentum. Caleb’s father is shortly thereafter accused of theft and transported to the Colonies. But Caleb knows his father is not guilty, and so he sets off on a journey to both find his only other living family – an estranged aunt, and to prove his father’s innocence.

When a body washes up on the beach near where his aunt lives, Caleb is swept into a world of smuggling and intrigue, mystery and lies, which leads him and his new-found family into terrifying danger.

Landman captures the eighteenth century brilliantly – from the clothes and transport, to the marketplace and food, not to mention the hardships and hierarchies that penetrated society.

In fact, for all that the plot is fast-paced and exciting, Landman also deals deftly with perceptions of race, gender and wealth, and their accompanying inequalities. Caleb has dark skin, and is treated like a leper in places, and mistaken for a slave boy. Meanwhile his aunt’s stepdaughter is given a lovely gender ‘twist’, as although a girl, she takes on all the boy’s roles – rowing the boat, hefting heavy items, even adopting the role of puppeteer, despite the negativity associated with female performers. Tanya plays beautifully with perceptions here – putting a historical setting to good use in exploring how our world has progressed (or in some cases not) in how we view race and gender.

The other inequality that Landman manipulates is wealth distribution – describing the hierarchy of society, and delving into questions of morality and generosity, or the lack thereof. Her descriptions are wry and satisfying:

“Both bonnet and gown seemed designed more to scream aloud their vast cost than to show her face or figure to their best advantage.”

Her key plot hinges on the different types of thievery – the starving petty thief’s need for sustenance versus the morally corrupt landowners who claim tax and insurance in illegal circumstances.

The historical references are rife and intriguing. Set specifically in 1752, Landman has fun playing with the Act of Parliament that lost the country 12 days so as to set the country in time with the rest of Europe. She also explains in the ‘author’s note’ at the end that her tale is inspired by true events of a villainous smuggling landowner and the sinking of his ship, the Nightingale in 1752.

The sea too is a huge inspiration for Landman – her descriptions of the landscape are atmospheric and dark, using tidal rivers to great effect from the sweep of the water, to the mud flats, and water penetrating the land. With many allusions to other literature, exploration of the role of parents and family, as well as themes of loyalty, bravery, and being morally upstanding – this is a work of beauty.

It is so well-written, the words stay even when the story is concluded:

“When Letty moved, she moved quietly, but sound behaves differently in the dark. Each creak of floorboard, each rustle of cloth is magnified. A breath becomes a shout, a footfall akin to the blast of a cannon.”

With descriptions of dead bodies, and an exhumation, moral corruption, and a growing love story, this is for the upper end of my age scale – recommended for 12+ years. You can buy it here.

 

With thanks to Walker Books for sending me a requested review copy.

Gulliver retold by Mary Webb, illustrated by Lauren O’Neill

Gulliver

There are so many versions of the classics tales out there, that it can be very difficult and confusing to pick the right one for your child. As a purist I always like to reach for the original, but for something like Gulliver’s Travels although the story can work for a much younger age group, the original text is more suited to young adults and older.

The poet John Gay wrote to Swift that “it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.” Of course the word Lilliputian even entered the dictionary, but for those who wish to read it firstly as a simple story with simplified satire, an easier version is required, one without Swift’s wordiness.

Mary Webb has retold two of Gulliver’s adventures – his time with the Lilliputians in which he is perceived as a giant, and his time in Brobdingnag where the people are giants compared to him. Mary retains much of the original humour and satire, Gulliver’s remarks on the futility of war – when the Lilliputians fight their neighbours over the correct way to crack an egg, and keeps in much of Gulliver’s disgust at the way humans behave – especially when they are magnified to the size of giants.

It’s always a pleasure for an author to depict the world seen from a different point of view – in this case either as someone very small, or someone very big. Astute observations can be made about the world when it’s viewed at a distance and from a different perspective. Webb has kept in as much as possible – from Gulliver’s perspective of power to his toileting habits.

Lauren O’Neill’s illustrations fit the story very well. A slightly muted grey/blue tinge holds sway over every page, and bold reds illuminate specific features such as flags, sails, capes and arrow tips. There is a good amount of detail, and fabulous drawings of old-fashioned clothes and sail boats, which give clues to the reader as to when the book was written.

The very small introduction to Swift’s book on the contents page is particularly excellent. It describes in the simplest and most concise language what Swift was trying to achieve, and what lessons can be extrapolated from the tales.

This is a lovely edition that can be enjoyed shared with a parent, or read alone. The red ribbon to mark page position is a well-spent printing cost, and makes the book a good gift option. Buy here from Waterstones.