reluctant readers

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.

Fun Younger Fiction

The children’s author, and one time children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, has long been an advocate of funny books for children. He recently announced the winners of the Lollies (see here), but said that “Everyone who is interested in children’s reading knows that for many, many children, the thing that gets them going is a book that makes them fall about laughing. Weirdly, they’re not always that easy to find.” They don’t win the ‘big’ children’s book awards, or get reviewed enough. So here are some very funny titles for newly independent readers:

wilf worrier

Wilf the Mighty Worrier, King of the Jungle by Georgia Pritchett, illustrated by Jamie Littler
Actually the third in the series about Wilf the Mighty Worrier, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book. From the very beginning the author’s self-referential humour kicks in, as she warns you not to read this book – full of scary things and suchlike. Of course it’s as tame as tame can be, that’s half the fun, because Wilf worries about everything…

He has the most evil man in the world (Alan) living next door to him, and when Wilf finds out that he’s going on holiday to Africa, he has even more to worry about – particularly as Alan is coming with.

The text is packed with slapstick, jokes about storytelling, and silly dialogue, as well as the author using funny chapter titles, footnotes, different typefaces and bold text to highlight different comedy aspects of the story. Stuart the woodlouse has a starring role too, told in his own words. It’s highly entertaining, and exaggerated with Littler’s brilliant illustrations, which are cartoon-like and show incidences from different angles (at times from above). Personally for me, the illustrations of little sister Dot win the day.

This is a great book to reassure children who worry a little, featuring a fabulous unlikely hero, and a cast of weird and wonderfuls. Human, fun, and exuberant. You can find it here.

invincibles piglet

The Invincibles: The Piglet Pickle by Caryl Hart, illustrated by Sarah Warburton
Following in the footsteps of such titles as Wigglesbottom Primary with its two tone illustrations throughout – this is another series from the same publishers, and is sparky and bright. Written as if the main character is talking to the reader as a friend, the text is immediately accessible. It also describes everything in a matter of fact every day style – with resonance points for the reader, such as building a den and a school trip.

It’s the school trip that triggers the main plotline – as Nell’s best friend smuggles a piglet home from the farm.

There are some beautiful touches in here, some great characters – the sibling dimension and a super portrayal of a teen is explored with Nell’s older brother Lucas, which is just as well depicted in the illustrations as the text – from his slouching to his brotherly hug.

Twists and turns, and an escaped piglet…the fun continues right to the end. A great new series; taking over the mantle from Horrid Henry’s and suchlike. Available here.

the bad guys

The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey
Another new series on the block, this is part novel, part comic, with far more illustrations than words, and will go down really well with readers who may struggle with longer text books at this stage. It’s also very funny.

Working on the irony of ‘opposites’, the leader of the bad guys – Mr Wolf – decides that their reputation stinks, so they should work together as good guys on good missions. For example, rescuing animals in distress – firstly by breaking 200 dogs out of the Maximum Security City Dog Pound. Of course, with the bad buys including a Mr Piranha, a Mr Snake and a Mr Shark – it was never going to be plain sailing.

It’s easy to read, packed with stupid humour, and told in great comic book style with adult references, such as to Reservoir Dogs – a typical bad boy gang. No child can fail to laugh at Mr Shark dressed up on page 104. This is definitely a read for the cool kids, even if, for this adult, the idea wasn’t exactly original. You can buy it here.

alfie

The Adventures of Alfie Onion by Vivian French, illustrated by Marta Kissi
Perhaps leaning slightly more to an older age group than the other books featured here, and more dry humour than laughs out loud, this is a denser text with fewer illustrations, and less of a tendency to play with italics and bold text, although it still does to some extent. It’s also a standalone title, as opposed to the other books here.

Told by experienced storyteller Vivian French, Alfie Onion mixes together conventional storytelling and fairy tales with a rather unconventional hero. Alfie’s older brother should be the hero of the story – born as the seventh son of the seventh son and with his name Magnifico Onion, but he’s a little bit dumpy and a little bit cowardly. Step in eighth son, Alfie, to save the day and ensure his family lives Happily Ever After.

Navigating through forests, defeating ogres, talking with steadfast animals, and ignoring meddling magpies, Alfie Onion has many obstacles to overcome.

This Happy Ever After tale is as traditional in its story arc and telling as it is unconventional in its hero, characters and ending but all the more refreshing for it. There are tones of Shrek throughout in the anti-hero stance and the humour, as well as the talking animals, but it retains a charm of its own. Well worth plucking from the shelves here.

 

Football Fever

Friday saw the start of the EURO2016 tournament. Cue great excitement in certain households, particularly those that are fed up with talking about the ‘other’ European issue. Although I hate to be gender divisive when talking about books, it does seem to follow that boys who are reluctant readers and prefer to play football can be enticed with a football book. Those of you who follow me weekly will be tired of my anecdote that my son learned to read from the Sky Sports News tickertape – but it’s true. I personally adore football (season ticket holder from the age of 13yrs until it was nabbed by my son), so as a girl into football and children’s books – these newly published titles won me over.

callum new team

Scotland Stars FC: Calum’s New Team by Danny Scott, illustrated by Alice A Morentorn

For a slightly more integrationist blog, this is a book about football set in Scotland – but completely suitable and enjoyable for England fans too (or anyone). This first in the series tells the story of Calum, newly moved to the area and struggling for a place on the school football team. It doesn’t help that another child’s parent runs the team (somewhat unfairly), and that Calum doesn’t have astroturf boots – but these things are soon remedied and it becomes all about the skill.

Written by Danny Scott, who works for the Scottish Book Trust, and is a huge football fan – the love for the game and for literacy shines through the text. It’s easy to read, with a manageable vocabulary and a plot that moves along quickly and realistically.

Interspersed with zazzy illustrations from Alice A Morentorn and complete with trading cards inside, this is a young football fan’s dream story. It touched a nerve here – the things mentioned in the book absolutely happen – which makes it completely relatable. The characters are sympathetically drawn – even Calum’s busy parents. Of course there’s the usual happiness at the end – so many fictional football teams win trophies and beat rivals (in the end) – in real life if you’re a Spurs fan the wait can be a little longer than the time it takes to read a book….

For age 6+ years. A cracking addition to the team. Purchase your copy here. Three titles have been published, and there are more to follow in August.

over the line

Over the Line by Tom Palmer, illustrated by Ollie Cuthbertson

Another brilliant story from Tom Palmer that integrates love for football with historical fiction. Over the Line tells a fictional story about the professional footballers who fought in the First World War. With astute attention to detail and historical research, the story maintains an integrity throughout as it pushes to tell the story of the brave men who fought in the war, but at the same time exploits the passion and drama of the beautiful game.

Jack makes his debut as a professional footballer, but unfortunately for him the year is 1914, and there is huge pressure on the fit young men to sign up for the war effort. Jack bravely does so and shows the same courage and team spirit on the fields in France as on the football pitch. All the time, dreaming of when he can return home to London and play football.

The youth of the boys fighting, the horrors of the front line and the confrontation with death and killing are all embedded within Tom Palmer’s text, but with pathos and tenderness. Jack is a warm and loveable protagonist, and although the reader knows the odds must be stacked against him, the tension is dissipated by the belief in his ability to survive and go on to triumph.

What was particularly compelling was the inner thoughts of Jack, pervading each scene, and giving the reader a good insight into the sights and sounds of war, as well as the feelings behind being picked for a team – even as a professional.

From the team at Barrington Stoke, so it is highly readable and not too long, but also ties in beautifully with Euro 2016 and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. See resources here. Age 8+ years. You can buy the book here.

booked

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Ever since the publication of Crossover, readers have been begging me for a similar title, but about football rather than US-focussed basketball. Kwame Alexander delivers again with this novel in free verse for the teen market, this time with the focus on football rather than basketball.

Twelve year old Nick is the star of the football team, but he struggles to keep his head in the game when things at home start to break down. Add to the mix a school bully and a potential girlfriend, and Nick begins to see that although football may be everything, sometimes it has to take the back foot.

Kwame Alexander’s word play is always fresh and exciting, and this novel doesn’t let the team down – it continues in brilliant free verse, using text messages, dialogue and even t-shirt slogans to move the plot along. There’s a wide-ranging vocabulary, all explained in footnotes, and a mixed relationship with words, as Nick’s Dad insists on him reading a dictionary to better himself, whereas Nick would rather live in the world of texting and football, until the girl he likes explains how wonderful books and words can be.

Alexander’s characters are all well-rounded, even from such sparse poetry – with background stories for them all, and a wonderfully quirky school librarian who plays an integral part in Nick’s story, and a brilliantly depicted best friend.

The emotion is raw, emphasised by the use of poetry, and the blank spaces between the words. Nick’s pain comes across strongly; the poem on page 59 is particularly poignant.

The homage to the poet Langston Hughes is noticeable here in the different strands of poetry; the ‘jazz poetry’ that portrays the physicality of sports in particular. Alexander also integrates the titles of each poem into the poetry itself and utilises the white space on the page, all great examples of how much can be said in the implication rather than the spoken word.

There’s not as much football in here as there was basketball in Crossover, and the love for the game doesn’t come across quite as strongly – the sporty poems don’t have quite the same bounce as in the previous book, but the backstory is so emotive and the characters so real that football fan readers will still appreciate the story, and reluctant readers will soak it up. Age 9+ years. You can buy a copy here.

Young football fans might also like to catch CBBC’s adaptation of the Jamie Johnson football books by Dan Freedman. Starting tomorrow, Monday 13 June, at 5pm.

Fusion Fun

The brilliant thing about reading books with children is that it’s fun. Storytelling can cross genres and create exciting new fusion titles.

Pablo and Jane and the Hot Air Contraption by Jose Domingo fuses comic book with picture book and a Where’s Wally style hide-and-seek to create a madcap colourful wacky adventure story. And Electrigirl by Jo Cotterill and Cathy Brett fuses comic book with novel to create a superhero adventure.

electrigirl

Electrigirl tells the story of Holly Sparkes, an ordinary 12 year old girl, who gets struck by lightning, or so she thinks. But then she starts to notice her new strange electrical charge. It takes her comic-mad brother to recognise that she has electrical superpowers, and that his sister is now a bona fide superhero. Just as well, because her best friend Imogen has disappeared, and someone needs to battle Professor Macavity, head of CyberSky the phone company, to find her.

Although a slim adventure story novel, Electrigirl sparkily packs in a host of elements, from a new feisty female superhero to sibling loyalty, bullying in the playground, and the dangers of mobile phones both to the brain, and also the damage they can wreak on social interaction. As befits any superhero book, there’s also an evil villain at the head of a nasty monopolising corporation.

But this story is perfect for reluctant readers, because the scenes that build tension, and the scenes of superhero action are all depicted by Cathy Brett as graphic comic strips. The book starts, in fact, with Cathy’s comic book portrayals of the main characters, and the illustrations really kick off when Holly gets zapped. There is no lack of explosions in the book – at first Holly can’t control her powers and blows everything up, which is enormous fun.

The author drops in a number of ‘clues’ and intrigue along the way, such as “if only I’d known then what I know now,” as well as some wonderful vocabulary in the comic strips – zaps and tingles and schwumpzz, mixing all the elements of the two genres beautiful in this fusion novel.

The next in the series is out on 1 August this year, and I’m feeling tingly already. Age 7+. You can buy it here.

pablo

Pablo and Jane and the Hot Air Contraption bursts with bright, bold wacky colours, as befits the adventure inside. The picture book starts as comic strip: Pablo and Jane are bored, so decide to explore the spooky old house up on the hill, having hilariously ruled out the ‘abandoned sawmill’, ‘the old graveyard’, ‘the haunted orphanage’ and the ‘tunnel of whispers’! Once there, they are trapped into the Monster Dimension by an evil cat, Dr Felinibus.

There follows twelve double pages of full page illustrations from Lopsided London to Monstrous Moscow, Muerto Mexico and ‘Orrible Outback. In each spread, Pablo and Jane, and the reader must find the correct tools to fix their Hot Air Time Machine, and travel back home, in a kind of ‘Where’s Wally’ scenario.

Each of these luscious spreads is crammed full with detail, colour, mad figures, props and entertainment – in fact the end of the book suggests other things to look for on each spread too including such mischievous elements as “A handsome troll (compared to the others, that is)”, and “2 zombies in rubber rings who can’t swim”. Each time the reader examines the illustrations, there is even more to find, jokes to see, and the ‘finding’ is fairly challenging.

The adventure resumes in comic book style as the children find their way home. It’s perfect for reluctant readers, enormous fun, and there are carefully wrapped narratives in each scene.

The book bursts with energy and flamboyance – and beware – monsters. Also suitable for age 7+ years. You can find it here.