politics

Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

sofia valdezI have a soft spot for the Questioneers, the series of picture books that includes Rosie Revere, Iggy Peck and Ada Twist. They started a STEM revolution all of their own, and their now distinctive look, complete with graph paper background, is a constant presence in any good library or children’s bookcase.

With the latest in the series though, Beaty has captured the zeitgeist, deviating slightly from science and focussing on politics. Here, she points to the hope that children can provide, especially in the face of poor management and inept leadership by adults. With a nod to inclusivity and equal rights by both author and illustrator, Sofia Valdez’s first policies focus on the environment, namely waste management and green spaces.

Sofia is quite rightly disturbed by the landfill site in her neighbourhood, especially when she sees its dangers. She decides it’s time to replace it with a park for her community, but finds that facing city hall is harder than she thought. It takes determination and the support of her neighbours to see it through.

Of course there are repeating themes here from the former picture books on Rosie Revere and crew, including determination and putting in the hours, but there are new themes springing up all the time. Sofia walks to school with her Abuelo, and this cross-generational relationship is of the utmost importance. Moreover, bureaucracy reigns large at City Hall, and author Beaty and illustrator Roberts have both had great fun exploring the humour and ridiculousness of sprawling officialdom and red tape. Of course, the book rhymes, as per the rest of the series, and Beaty plays on the idea of having different departments in different rooms, with silly names and fun numbers.

The most galling aspect for Sofia is the clerk’s quick dismissal of her as ‘only a kid’. In our current times of Greta Thunberg, this is clearly highly ironic. Sofia doesn’t turn away from this, and in an insightful way asks the clerk what she would do if she were in Sofia’s shoes.

After a daunting presentation, a plethora of ideas, a march and a petition, surveys and budgets and more, Sofia’s dreams become a reality. Her diverse community receives a much-wanted green space.

This is a feel-good picture book. It demonstrates the power of the individual to make a difference, but also the power and meaning of a community. And it pulls together the strands of science and creativity – change is brought about only after an individual has a vision.

Beaty impressively keeps the tight rhythm and rhyme that gave her such success with her other picture books, and Roberts’ expressive illustrations add humour and bite to each scene. As well as the blatant message, and the plot-driven text, it’s worth a longer linger over the illustrations. Sofia’s bedroom betrays her character, the mountain of trash is telling in itself, but most of all the community is portrayed in all its glorious differences and similarities. Children will love spotting Rosie, Iggy and Ada. Definitely one to add to your collection. Who knows, books such as these may inspire a better calibre of leader in the future.

With thanks to Abrams books for the review copy.

Vote Sofia Valdez, Future Prez here.

Prisoners of Geography: Our World Explained in 12 Simple Maps by Tim Marshall, illustrated by Grace Easton and Jessica Smith

prisoners of geographyThere’s much book reading in my house. But my husband is the one who consumes the most non-fiction: a range of topics from tech, feminism, history, sociology and more. One day a few years ago, he came in from his commute raving about his latest read – an intriguing look at our world called Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. And although the ideas in the book are set out with supreme clarity, it was never going to make it onto my nine year old’s bedside reading pile.

And then, to my huge delight, Simon and Schuster advertised the fact that, with Tim Marshall, they were publishing a children’s version. And it’s now available from all good bookshops.

This book magnificently stretches across the curriculum, pulling together geography and history to explain why countries might act aggressively towards others, where the world’s resources lie, why borders and access to seas are so important, and how our human expansion across the globe has precipitated wars and hostility, peace and collaboration. An introduction and explanation of geopolitics for children.

The maps aren’t to scale but that’s not what they’re for in this book. In fact, some of the ideas of the maps work better when toyed with – one of the most intriguing maps in the book is ‘the true size of Africa,’ in which Marshall, Easton and Smith illustrate the actual size of the continent, cleverly fitting other countries into its space for relativity.

With other maps the idea is to offer a fresh perspective on their use and influence – a range of mountains may look pretty, but it also provides a barrier from one region to another, sometimes useful and sometimes not. Large coastlines may prove useful for trade but difficult for security. Huge resources may grow a country’s wealth, but leave it vulnerable to exploitation.

Marshall writes and explains these issues with lucidity and a greatly assured calmness. The text is accessible and coherent, even when dissecting the thorniest political moves. And in short chunks or paragraphs surrounded by numerous illustrations, so that the brain is kept busy, engaged, and informed.

The book deals with all major areas of the globe region by region, starting with Russia, and moving on through China, USA, Canada, Europe, Africa and beyond, looking at their geology and how this affects politics and economics. There’s a great caveat at the start of the book explaining how this book contains abridged ideas from the adult version and can’t cover everything, and for me, it worked in covering the major geopolitical issues of our time, (even though the paragraph on the reasons for European cohesion may make some Remainers wince in acknowledgement). This is, after all, a point of view rather than an out-and-out fact book.

This Illustrated children’s version adds a simplicity and accessibility to Marshall’s prose explanation. Each map has small graphics depicting major symbols and landmarks, such as The Great Wall of China, the Mojave Desert, the Amazon Rainforest, while the prose and captions explore why these are significant both geographically and politically. Rather marvellously, our understanding of the USA as a global superpower is illustrated by a map of military bases across the world, as well as the geography of its own country. And as well as maps, there are large full page illustrations to highlight key distinctive factors of a region. Africa is beautifully portrayed with a thriving city as an example, as well as a stunning illustration of the Victoria Falls. But there are smaller vignettes too – Europe’s industrial revolution, China’s navy.

Every page holds interest and provokes thought. Of course there are territorial lines, disputed areas, gas pipelines, oil refineries, raging waterfalls that hinder transport, and a dissection of how crucial pathways were opened up – the Panama Canal, the Northwest Passage.

Country names are written across the map in a kind of handwriting scrawl typeface which makes the image feel familiar and personal, and this touch matches the prose, which reads as if it is written by a great storyteller – slotting into that narrative non-fiction genre, which is so popular. The informality of the chosen typeface for place-names also emphasises the somewhat arbitrary nature of the countries – borders and names often imposed by faraway strangers, particularly in the case of Africa and the Middle East.

Marshall highlights the incredible importance of transport, from rivers to access to seas and therefore global trade, as well as land rich in resources and land fertile for farming. These are all things that are and will be affected by climate change, and the impact is there to see – floodplains and regions hit by fires, melting polar ice and more. But also, by pointing to these land attributes, Marshall pinpoints the geographical ties that bind humanity despite any cultural differences. We all need food, shelter, security, community and trade, and that’s why the world we inhabit is both small and large, and such a topic of massive import.

Why is Tibet important? Why is Bangladesh poor? Why is America a superpower?

This is one of the most important children’s books published in the past few years. Buy your curious children a copy, and entreat them to try to understand others. It’s a definitive tome for how we think about the world, and will open up their compassion to people from around the world – why we move where we move, how we use the world’s resources, and an insight into how the world’s geography might change with climate change and how we might have to adapt because of it. Fascinating, educational, vital reading.

With huge thanks to Simon and Schuster for the early review copy. Credit also to adapters Emily Hawkins and Pippa Crane.

Buy your own copy here.

We Are All Greta

Held up by many as a symbol of hope for the future, Greta Thunberg and her #ClimateStrikes have become a familiar occurrence. Children’s publishers have a difficult task – they need to promote worthy causes, and provide a moral standard, and yet also make money – they are businesses after all. To cash in on the Greta phenomenon seems like good business sense, but at the same time, they can inform children about climate change, and show them how to be their own individual force for good.

we are all gretaWe Are All Greta: Be Inspired to Save the World by Valentina Giannella, illustrated by Manuela Marazzi
This book was first published in April in Italy, and quickly sold out of its first print run of 10,000 copies. Now translated into English, We Are All Greta hits the bookshelves here. The book is actually less about Greta herself, and more about the science behind the climate crisis and the impact that the individual can have, once they have the knowledge behind them.

And this knowledge is provided in this wonderfully concise yet informative book, which explains how long the science about climate change has been around (since Fourier discovered that CO2 can warm the atmosphere and the surface of the planet in 1824!), and the important fact that the solutions are there, if only we would put them into effect.

Of course, much collaboration is needed – across countries – but Giannella is also quick to point out how each individual can help. This really is empowerment for youth – with this slim book children will have the facts at their fingertips to convince others of the climate emergency.

The book is divided into neat chapters: sustainable development, drinking water, waste, cities, biodiversity and much more. I was ‘green’ before I read this book, now I’m armed with knowledge and intent.

It also doesn’t provoke anxiety – some have been worried that teaching children about the devastating effects of climate change promotes anxiety in the young. Quite the contrary here – told in distinctly calm prose, it simply lays out the facts and provides insight for how to act. And much of the science and data is absolutely fascinating.

Illustrations appear between chapters – but there are three or four full pages of text to each chapter. For less able readers, I would recommend reading with an adult.

All in all an excellent and massively important resource. Save the world here. For other bloggers providing extracts and giving away copies, see the links below.

gretas story
Greta’s Story: The Schoolgirl who went on strike to Save the Planet by Valentina Camerini, translated by Moreno Giovannoni, illustrations by Veronica ‘Veci’ Carratello

This slim book is much more of a biography of Greta Thunberg. Of course, Greta is still only 16, and so readers might wonder what there is to learn about her so far. In fact, the book spends much time trying to explain how Greta negotiated and persuaded. For any children learning persusasive language as part of their primary school literacy curriculum, this book is quite an eye-opener. From having science and truthful information as evidence, to being able to use your voice in a powerful way and in the right places at the right times, the author talks about what makes Greta so successful in carrying her message. Of course there’s the impact of social media, but more than this the book highlights Greta’s determination, her resilience, and her passion, as well as her supportive family.

At the back, the book lists ways in which the reader can make a difference, and has a glossary of difficult words, but I imagine most readers will be able to learn about the power of an individual, and what that takes, just from reading Greta’s story. Be empowered here.

kids fight plastic
Kids Fight Plastic by Martin Dorey, illustrated by Tim Wesson
Veering away from Greta herself, but keeping very much on message is this lively and colourful little guide to fighting the scourge of plastic pollution. Subtitled, ‘How to be a #2minutesuperhero’, the book is written by the founder of the Global Beach Cleaning Movement, and he wants children everywhere to eschew plastic at home, school, and on days out, choosing alternatives instead. Packed with colour illustrations, and laid out with colourful boxes of text, cartoons, annotations and more, this delves deep into the anti-plastic revolution.

There’s information at the beginning about why plastic is harmful, then a handy and comprehensive guide to the different types of plastic, before some incredibly well thought-out and refreshing ideas on how to combat plastic – not just recycling or reusing a water bottle.

There’s fighting plastic at the park, at theme parks, at the cinema and more, as well as information on what we should really be flushing down the toilet and why, and the impact of washing clothes. There’s even a fight-plastic party. Each ‘mission’ is labelled with how many points children could accrue by achieving these plastic-fighting missions. Fight your superhero battle here.

Reading Brexit for Kids: Outwalkers

outwalkersAt the end of last week, someone wrote on twitter about how unproductive she’d been. As with many of us, she had been consumed with checking the news every few minutes for the latest in the Brexit debacle, although at the same time rueing the fact that it was so all-consuming, when really there were so many more important issues on which to concentrate the mind.

So it was with full fervour that I threw myself into the latest read from David Fickling Books after being promised by their publicity agent that it was a post-Brexit novel for children. Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw is indeed a post-Brexit novel, dystopian and political, with a warning that makes you realise we are only a few steps from our own dystopia. Or are we living it already?

Outwalkers imagines a time long after Brexit in which England has closed its borders, following the mass murder of the ‘Faith Bombings’, and imposed a wall between itself and Scotland (now an entirely independent country). What’s more, individuals are chipped to enable government tracking and citizen identification, and there are clear distinctions in the way different classes are treated – those whose microchips enable them to enter John Lewis, as opposed to entering the foodbanks, for example. On the good side, citizens are looked after and protected, the propaganda says.

In this mix, the reader is introduced to twelve-year-old Jake, currently in a state-sponsored Home Academy after his parents die in a car accident. He escapes this prison-like institution to find his dog, Jet, and plans to flee England (it is illegal to leave the country) to join his grandparents in Scotland. Before long, he meets a group calling themselves Outwalkers, also bound for the border for various reasons, and all self-de-chipped. But as their journey progresses, they become more and more important for the government to find, and more entrenched in danger.

Shaw has created a thrilling read, essentially a chase novel through England – and it’s her details that bring it to life both politically and visually. The scenes in John Lewis and in the London Underground, particularly the visit to the postal museum in Kings Cross, are superbly rendered, as is the use of the Angel of the North as a rather battered landmark. More than this, she delves into the future with old posters for ‘Brexit the Musical’, and endless Star Wars sequels, as well as the constant news streaming, and of course citizen tracking.

The message behind the book is definitely anti-Brexit: that closing the borders is short-sighted, insular and ultimately devastating for the people inside, but it really pushes its message about the loss of democracy. Although England is ruled by the ‘Coalition’ in government, a seemingly harmless and democratic-sounding compromise government, they actually work more like a dictatorship, duping their people and ruling behind a veil of secrecy. There’s commentary on ‘group’ rule too – or perhaps on our current government cabinet and the whip:

“But when it’s something that’s really wrong, really terrible: then I don’t think there’s any excuse. Doesn’t matter if someone else orders you. Doesn’t matter if your team all agree.”

The group of Outwalkers are well-delineated and strikingly different from each other. At the beginning they induct Jake into the group by asking him for his contributing skill, but it soon becomes apparent that they have different hidden skills too – not just the obvious of navigation, climbing, cooking etc. Some are empathetic, some nurturing of the little ones, some motivational, others optimistic. All are brave and savvy, and it is this courageousness and loyalty to each other that sees them through. In a society in which people are encouraged to spy and report on each other, this ancient attribute of loyalty and love is particularly poignant, and these attributes grow with the novel so that by the end the reader is fully invested in both the chase but also the fate of each individual.

Shaw also delves hard into the idea of class – something so inherently British – and, in the novel, so divisive. There are the forgotten people – lowlifers – who dwell mostly underground, away from prying government eyes – and there is a futility in their existence, and yet heartrending humanity. Implicit in the novel is a clear message of how we treat others dependent on who they are – something as simple as the sound of a ‘posh’ voice has different consequences from those without that accent, and the amount of money people have and their standard of living makes a huge difference to their societal choices. The privileged work high up in the government, and remain privileged.

So, yes, Outwalkers feels very much of its time – a Brexit novel for children. But as with the government in the novel, this is a skewed view. And this view veers massively towards Remain. There is little nuance, and far too much unexplained at the end of the novel. There’s no examination of right or wrong – the morality is very straightforward.

Some critics have complained that the harshness of the dystopian society Shaw has created feels out of kilter with the normality and sanity of the people depicted, but judging by past oppressive regimes, what’s happening in China at the moment, or even judging by our own political madness, who knows how far and how quickly things can spiral out of control – despite the seeming normality of the everyday?

This is a sharp critique of people’s acceptance of what they are told, what they are fed by the news or government and what they believe, and in the end saviour comes in the form of a member of a religion in a seemingly faithless landscape (interesting in itself). But also the real saviours are the children themselves – bringing about a resolution of their own stories but also a resolution for the dystopian England they grew up in – and perhaps this is where Shaw is most accurate in her portrayal of our politics. The real change is going to come from our youth – striving for the government to listen to them about climate change, when all around them politicians and leaders are ensconced in this political hiccup in time called Brexit. You can buy Outwalkers here.

Vote for Effie by Laura Wood

vote for effieWhen I was at school I was voted most likely to be prime minister when I grew up. Looking at the haggard face of Mrs May I’m very glad I’m not, but I have pursued my own little political activism agenda. When the council demolished my local playground for fears it was unsafe, I lobbied them to build another. They told me if I wanted one, I needed to do it, so I secured a lottery grant and did so. When I wanted my local primary school to build a library, they said if I wanted one, I should do it, so I did.

And I was ready to paint black and white lines on the road outside the school, until the council said that installing a zebra crossing was actually something they’d do themselves. I’ve even tried lobbying my son to play less Fifa and do more homework, but it turns out he’s more stubborn than the council, and that’s saying something.

Anyway, to local acts of political activism in fiction and Vote for Effie by Laura Wood is a welcome addition to the canon. Effie joins a new school and instead of quietly observing how she could fit in, sees an injustice on day one, jumps straight in and fights to become Student Council President.

Effie is an exuberant, outgoing and forthright character, who speaks from the heart and wins the reader’s vote straight away, although it takes a bit longer for her to convince her peer cohort.

Wood’s breezy prose – the story is told in a wonderful first person narrative that is purposefully and woefully unself-aware – lends passion and conviction to Effie, who wants to change perceived ideas of sports and gender, bring awareness to student body about the benefits of recycling and libraries, and shake up the status quo.

There are wonderful moments of comedy throughout the novel, (pasting her face onto the body of Emmeline Pankhurst on a campaign poster, for example) but serious undertones too, not only in the issues that Effie addresses within her school, but also the gentle sidebars to her story – the loneliness of the elderly as exemplified by her interested next-door neighbour, the benefits of immigrants to society.

The text veers off prose too – interspersing the story with newspaper articles, notes, and minutes from the school council meetings to further the plot and beautifully twist points of view. Wood has a deft touch in children’s comic writing – she understands fully that the most important element of school life is not academics, or team sports or even gender equality, but FOOD.

In all seriousness, this is a great novel showcasing women’s leadership, youth political engagement, and the hope that springs from children that they can make a difference, that they can make the world a kinder and better place – and don’t we need that at the moment! 

You can read Laura Wood’s thoughts on writing the novel here and buy the book here.

Laura Wood: A Q&A about Vote for Effie

laura woodLaura Wood has certainly made her mark in the world of children’s literature. From the Poppy Pym series to last year’s triumphant YA title, A Sky Painted Gold, Wood can plot an adventure, create a dreamy 1920s landscape, and make the reader laugh. Vote for Effie (review coming tomorrow on MinervaReads.com) is a laugh out loud look at school council elections, with a bold exploration of female leadership. Here, Laura explores what made her turn from 1920’s Gatsby parties to present day school room drama:

What inspired you to write VOTE FOR EFFIE?

There were a few things that inspired me to write Vote for Effie. In my job I’m so lucky that I get to go into different schools and meet loads of brilliant students, and something I was noticing was how incredibly politically engaged and switched on these young people were. I think that when I was eight years old I would have struggled to tell you who the Prime Minister was, and yet even the youngest children I work with know so much about what’s going on in the wider world – about Brexit, and Trump and the refugee crisis. And not only do they know, they CARE. This was really crystalised for me when the first Women’s March took place in 2017. Seeing so many young people taking part, hearing the stories of young activists, made me feel hopeful during a dark time. I wanted to write a book that was about that, about a character who is an optimistic force of nature, one who sees things that need changing and does something about it.

vote for effieWere you like Effie when you were at school?

There are definitely bits of my personality in Effie, and we share a love of musicals, Disney films and glitter glue, but I think Effie is a lot braver than me. We didn’t have student council, but I don’t think I could have handled the high-stakes rollercoaster of an election campaign… I’m much more of a behind-the-scenes person!

If you could join Effie’s campaign team, what role would you want?

I’d love Angelika’s job as campaign manager. Running the campaign, organising things, and owning lots of colour coordinated post-it notes and shiny ring binders would be ideal!

Do you have any tips for young people who want to make a difference at their school?

I think the first thing is to make a manifesto, to think about the things that you want to change and why. Once you have a practical, manageable list of issues you want to tackle then it’s much easier to start taking action. At first Effie finds it difficult to narrow down her list of issues, but talking things over with her friends always helps her to make sense of things.

With thanks to Laura Wood, and publishers Scholastic. To buy a copy of Vote for Effie, click here, and to read my review, come back tomorrow! 

Robin Hood for a New Generation: A Guest Blog by MA Griffin

paybackOver a week ago, I featured Payback as my book of the week. It’s sharp, political and a very modern take on Robin Hood. Here, MA Griffin describes the influences and ideas that formed the novel.

Every generation has their own version of Robin Hood.

Mine was a BBC adaptation starring first Michael Praed and then Jason Connery. Like all versions, it differentiated itself from its predecessors with a series of idiosyncrasies. This one had a moody Clannad soundtrack over shots of shadowy forests, and a weird stag-headed God called Herne the Hunter.

Two elements of the Robin Hood story have stayed with me ever since. One is the fascination with ensemble casts. The line that runs through Poison Boy, Lifers and now Payback is the assembly of a rag-tag crew of unlikely heroes who spend as much time battling each other as they do the forces of the antagonist. The other is the idea of the sympathetic outlaw – the character whose actions are morally dubious but whose intentions are good, and who finds themselves battling a hierarchical system built to favour those in power.

Payback had both of these elements even in the early stages of planning. When I met the Chicken House team to discuss the book, I had a paragraph of prose describing an organisation called – at the time – Takeback. My opening sentence was, “The richest 1% control half the world’s wealth. It’s time for a new Robin Hood; a company of trained thieves called Takeback.”

M. A. GriffinAs I planned and wrote Payback, I was thinking partly about the Amazon tax scandal of 2016, now being replicated blow-for-blow by Netflix. I was also thinking about an article I’d read about champagne in the House of Lords. As austerity bit, there was a plan to combine the catering services for the House of Commons and the Lords to save the taxpayer money. The Lords rejected it because it would have meant accepting a cheaper vintage of champagne. Their catering budget is £1.3m per annum. Parliament’s bar bill in 2016 was £1.8m. Combined, that’s £12.4m over the course of a four year term that we’re not spending on mental health services, housing, welfare, the NHS, education.

Payback is a masked gang of teenagers who are way too brave and enterprising to accept this sort of nonsense. They plan heists (‘grabs’) stealing money and valuables from corrupt lawyers, luxury goods companies and unscrupulous casinos then arrange ‘drops’, public events where the money is redistributed amongst those less fortunate. They have a YouTube channel of movies shot during their raids. They have fan-forums where supporters share potential targets. City centres bristle with pro-Payback graffiti; newspaper op-eds speculate about the identity of the gang’s masked members. When our protagonist Tom gets to join his idols, he’s thrust instantly into the limelight; famous overnight.

But Payback is struggling. Evading the law month after month is exhausting and one particularly relentless cop is closing in. Then it turns out they’ve made a terrible error. The victim of one of their heists turns out to be vengeful and unhinged; a man ready to do anything to protect his reputation.

What do you do when the law is closing in one side and malicious hoodlums stalk you on the other? Like the blurb says, “Robin Hood never had it this bad…”

Payback by M. A. Griffin is out now in paperback (£7.99, Chicken House), and you can read my review here, and purchase the book here. With thanks to M.A. Griffin, who you can follow on twitter @fletchermoss and find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com

Payback by M A Griffin

paybackWith an edgy cover that illuminates shadows of teens wearing fox masks against a stark black background, where the title winks at the reader in foiled gold lettering, Payback draws attention before the reader has even opened the book. Inside, lies a dark, gritty political thriller.

Protagonist 16-year-old Tom has long been a fan of direct action group, Payback – a modern Robin Hood heist outfit who take from the rich and give to the poor, often filming their crimes and screening them on YouTube. When they target the hotel where he works, it’s not long before he’s recruited to the cause and the group, and using his acting skills to assist in their next ventures.

In typical heist movie style, the reader is on board with the perpetrators of the crime, at first seeing what they do as necessary to combat corporate and government wrongs. The so-called victims of the crimes are not victims at all but evil money-grabbers, and the direct action group Payback doesn’t keep the money, but simply redistributes wealth – handing it off to the neediest in society.

But the beauty of the book, which reads as a thriller, gaining momentum job after job like a train rushing through stations with the brakes off, is that it makes the reader re-evaluate the protagonist’s motives, and the moral stature of the group.

Tom comes from a privileged background – something of which is he quite self-aware. And it troubles him at the same time as providing him with a cushy safety net. And Payback’s crimes are not without their innocent victims – even the ones not at the scene, such as the waiter they trick out of having a job, simply by taking his place as a disguise. As the violence ramps up, the reader becomes even more doubtful of the lines of right and wrong.

In the middle, there’s some head scratching for the reader – was Robin Hood right – is stealing from the rich to give to the poor the right thing to do – and how do you work out who should be a beneficiary and who shouldn’t? And are all the privileged evil? There’s some pretty facile arguing from some of the gang, juxtaposing benefit withdrawal with champagne expenses in the House of Lords. All this talk about the balance of wealth in society makes the book current, but what Griffin does magnificently is that he doesn’t present the story as a didactic piece – just as a kind of ‘throwing it out there, think about this’ conversation.

The teenagers read as pretty authentic, with the odd swear word grafted in, and the dialogue pretty spot-on – tidied of course for a prose novel – but they also come across as pretty insular and spectacularly naïve. In fact, at times every move seems more like a game to them – even a computer game – than real life. So when they set some of their money on fire, or badly misread a trap – it’s kind of inevitable that things will start to go badly for them, and that the smart policewoman who’s hot on their heels will piece it all together before they will.

By and by, the reader learns that much of the gang’s motivation isn’t necessarily altruistic.

However, Griffin ramps up the tension so that by the time the policewoman comes across Payback’s headquarters, the reader is in as much of a hurry to find out what happens as Tom and Payback are to get away. The second half of the book is a rip-roaring read, particularly difficult to put down.

The idea of a direct action group making changes in society rather than the people being reliant on the government to effect change is perhaps even more current than the idea of a Robin Hood figure (although Griffin purportedly took some inspiration from Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, a modern Spanish politician famous for his Robin Hood raids). The novel is highly political because it speaks directly to teenagers about how and when they could effect change themselves – and at what point a moral or legal line is crossed.

With a wonderful evocation of a slightly different Manchester, in which teens lurk in spaces under arches and access free climbing walls, and terrific scenes in the dark ‘wild nothingness’ of the countryside, Griffin nails his settings with aplomb. It’s a highly visual novel with teasing chapter endings, moral dilemmas and questions about consequences, trust and justice. But most of all, it’s a thriller of a ride. Invest in this one, and you’ll have swift payback in satisfaction. You can buy it here.

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

ghost boys‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ is a question most children’s authors face at some point in their career, or on every school visit. I’ve noticed that some of the best stories spring from tiny news items hidden away on the side columns – little quirks of human misadventure. But sometimes a book springs from a really big news item. Ghost Boys is a story that is meant to bring to mind the shooting of Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy shot by a police officer in Ohio in 2014.

It’s a powerful story upon which to set a children’s book, but seeing as it involved a child itself, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be the subject of a book for this age range, especially when the author deals with the subject so sensitively, making it accessible without hiding or covering up.

Parker Rhodes has moved her story to Chicago, where twelve year old Jerome walks to school, does his homework, looks after his little sister, and tries to keep his head down. But when new boy Carlos moves to the school from San Antonio, he shows Jerome that having a toy gun can keep away the bullies. And the police officer mistakes it for a real gun, and shoots Jerome dead.

Half the story is told after the event, as Jerome’s ghost looks at what is happening after his death, and half is the recap of what happened up until Jerome was shot. It’s a compelling way to tell the story and lets Parker Rhodes introduce her ‘ghost boys’, all the other boys who have died as a result of prejudice, including the famous Emmett Till.

The case of Emmett Till is well-known in America for being a huge influence on the civil rights movement, and what happened to him is explained thoroughly within this book, and although graphic, is dealt with sensitively and honestly, bringing history to life by letting Till tell his own story to Jerome’s ghost.

But it is the one living human in Jerome’s story who can see his ghost that brings the story up-to-date and literally breathes life into it. Sarah, the daughter of the police officer who shot Jerome, is able to see Jerome’s ghost, and through their dialogue, they come to understand the impact of the incident on both families. It is through this interaction that the reader is able to explore racism and prejudice, and come away with the author’s plea that the readers learn from history.

Written in short, sharp, fairly graphic chapters, this is an engaging, fast-paced book, which is also wise and authoritative. Jerome’s death is explored within a context of racism, but also within the context of his own life – exploring his relationship with his sister and grandmother, his hopes and dreams, encounters with the bullies at school, and the significance of his place in society, his upbringing, his schooling. All are factors that make up the boy, and Parker Rhodes skillfully interweaves all the elements that divide Jerome and Sarah, as well as the basic human traits that unite them.

In the end, a young reader will come away with a greater understanding of the consequences of ingrained prejudice, the divisions in society that need to be healed, and the importance of life itself. You can buy it here.

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year starts today, and this year, 2018, starts the Year of the Dog. These two wonderful new picture books celebrate aspects of the Chinese New Year.

The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes by Ying Chang Compestine, illustrated by David Roberts

This wonderful retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale politicises the fairy tale, while also inverting the identity of the hero of the story. Whilst the hero is still a small boy in this version, he is also the emperor himself.

Rosy-cheeked little Ming Da becomes emperor of China at the young age of nine. But because he is so young, the ministers and advisers around him take advantage of him and steal from the treasury for their own gains. Soon, Ming Da’s kingdom is poor – the people can’t afford to dress, or buy food, but Ming Da is scared that the corrupt ministers will take over if he simply fires them.

With the help of his tailors, the boy emperor concocts a plan, and for the Chinese New Year parade, when traditionally people have dressed in new clothes so that evil spirits won’t recognise them, he tricks his ministers into wearing rice sacks and believing that the sacks are enchanted, and actually appear as the finest garments in the world.

A boy in the crowd does pipe up and shame them, but it is the emperor who has the last laugh, seeing his ministers flee in humiliation, enabling him to restore the riches to his people.

Compestine has bravely taken the origins of the tale together with a folklore element, and twisted them neatly to suit her purpose. In fact, she grew up in poverty during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where food was scarce and Western folk and fairy tales banned.

Her book zings with both righteousness in the morality of the tale, but also in its new cultural identity and contemporary storytelling. David Roberts has created vivid, mesmerising artworks to match the tale, with colour vibrancy pared down so that the colour lives in the detail of the illustrations – the patterns of the silk robes, the intricate designs of ancient China. There is a clever switching too between full page framed illustrations and those that live in free space surrounded by white background.

The subtle colouring indicates a light touch, but also lets light onto the beautiful details of the expressive faces, as well as the sweet insertion of an observing mouse on each page. There is a guide to making your own Chinese New Year Parade robe at the back. You can buy it here.

The Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac by Christopher Corr

A complete contrast in the illustrations here, in which Corr uses his book to explain how the Chinese zodiac came to be. There is colour vibrancy from the outset, and illustrations that take on a looser, less geometric styling than Roberts’ above, but which still carry a fair amount of detail, and feel authentically Chinese, well-researched and lively.

The story begins before the delineation of time, in ancient China when the Jade Emperor decided that he wanted to be able to calculate how old he was, and thus there must be a way of measuring time.

The Great Race begins. The emperor decrees that the first twelve animals to cross the river will have a year named after them. The animals’ personalities come out in their method of crossing, from the rat who is devious to the lucky rabbit. Some of the animals even take to teamwork to get across.

This is such an appealing picturebook. An old folktale told in contemporary language, with breathtakingly colourful images – the picture of Emperor Jade welcoming the tiger across is particularly bright and evocative.

All the animals are ‘male’, which again reiterates the debate made in the Guardian last month, but this may be a nod to how the story was always traditionally told. However, as Compestine has shown above, twisting a tale is perhaps what’s now due.

Despite the male dominance in both books, these are fantastic introductions to the Chinese New Year, and beautifully illustrated. You can buy The Great Race here.