Russia

Lots by Marc Martin

Quirky and intriguing, Lots is a book about impressions – what do we notice when we go somewhere? How does one place distinguish itself from another? What would we like to explore? Marc Martin has chosen 15 places to illuminate – and they certainly shine. With handwritten text, illustrations reminiscent of William Grill in their intensity and number, this is a vibrant, bold and wonderful new non-fiction book. One for children who want to find out the little known facts about a place, or see it represented in resplendent colour. Check out, in particular, the illustration of the favelas in Rio, or the bawabs in Cairo, the Salema fish in the Galapagos, or the solitary walker in Times Square, New York. This is a beautifully illustrated book that deserves awards for both its quirkiness and illustrations. I’m delighted to host Marc on the blog today, explaining why he chose the places he did. 

It was really difficult to choose which places to include in LOTS – there are so many fascinating destinations with their own distinct character that I would have loved to include, but with only 32 pages, there are only so many places I could pick!

So, I started with a long list and slowly narrowed it down. I wanted to include a mix of iconic cities, such as New York and Paris, as well as places that not everyone might think of, such as Ulaan Bataar and Reykjavík. I also made sure I chose locations from each continent, and tried to ensure there was a good mix of cities and nature.

In terms of focusing on each place, I tried to identify some of the particularities of each destination – some are more colourful, some are busy, some are full of animals, some are really hot and some are quite cold! I asked myself questions such as: ‘What are some of the things you would notice if you were travelling here?’ or ‘What is it about this place that makes it different from other cities?’.

I’d also visited about half the places in the book, so personal experience helped shape my decisions – for instance, in Delhi I was amazed by how many cows there are roaming the streets (and how colourful they can be) – it’s not something you’d see in other cities outside of India!

If I hadn’t been to the place I was drawing, I relied on research and information from people who had been there. Once I started researching a particular location in more detail, it was usually pretty easy to discover some of the more unique things about it. There’s an amazing amount of information on the internet, and you can usually find travel blogs and other websites that give you insights into what makes a place particularly different.

Some of my favourite places in the book to visit are New York, Ulaan Bataar and Delhi. I love New York because of how vibrant and fast-paced it can be – there are lots of people from all around the world and you can always find something to do just by wandering the streets. Delhi can be slightly more challenging for visitors, just because it’s very chaotic and there’s a sense of the unexpected, but it’s a very energetic city with lots to discover. Lastly, I like Ulaan Bataar because it’s a little bit hard to get to, and off the beaten track. The people are extremely friendly, and the vastness of the Mongolian landscape is stunning.

With thanks to Marc for the guest post. You can buy it here

History Meets Sports

Two skilled sports’ writers this week who have brought together their favourite sports and combined them with history. This is not revolutionary – merely apt. All sports enthusiasts tend to have a good idea of their club’s or sport’s history – whether it’s when their club last won the league, statistics from last season, or world records. These two stories incorporate ghosts and heritage – because aren’t all sportsmen haunted in some way by the legends who came before them?

wings flyboy

Wings: Flyboy by Tom Palmer, illustrated by David Shephard
The author of Football Academy, among many other titles, Tom Palmer excels at bringing football and reading together. His latest series is called Wings, and cleverly incorporates RAF planes (he wrote the books whilst being the RAF Museum’s Writer in Residence) into his scintillating football stories.

Four children attend a football summer camp near an old airfield, and mysteriously get sucked into the past. Part time-travel, part war-story, part football story, this slim book combines all these elements in a fast-paced action packed adventure.

Jatinder is a great footballer, but a bit lax about taking risks on the field – he prefers to play it safe. But when he starts to read a book about World War I pilot Hardit Singh Malik, he gets sucked back in time and finds himself transported into a cockpit – flying Hardit’s fighter plane in enemy airspace.

Tom Palmer writes with breath-taking ease – pulling the reader right into the action so that the sights and dangers of the situation seem real. With great historical detail, yet modern language and thought, Jatinder is a believable character who learns from this time travelling adventure, and carries his new sense of possibility to the football pitch.

Hugely exciting, and a clever entwining of genres, Tom Palmer’s new series is one to watch. It’s also particularly suitable for struggling or dyslexic readers, and comes with a model aeroplane. Assume those wings and fly into reading here.

rugby flyer

Rugby Flyer by Gerard Siggins
There aren’t many books for children about rugby – and yet, outside of North America, rugby is the world’s second most popular game, behind football (soccer). The 2015 Rugby World cup attracted TV coverage in 207 territories.

And so many sports books fall into the fairy story trap of just delineating an underdog triumphing. Siggins, a former sports journalist, has approached this series with a difference – incorporating Irish heritage, the supernatural and, in this particular book in the series, sportsmanship and rivalry – incredibly good topics to deal with.

The series starts with Eoin at a new school, learning rugby as a new sport. By this title, Rugby Flyer, the fourth in the series, Eoin has been chosen for a special rugby summer camp and is looking to make the team heading for Twickenham, London.

Supernatural elements continue in this book, as Eoin tries to solve the mystery of a Russian ghost figure and his connections to Ireland and rugby.

But the lessons learned during the rugby scenes are particularly poignant – Siggins incorporates the tactics of the game, handling rivalry as Eoin and his friend play on opposing teams, following the progress of Eoin’s character as he learns when winning really counts, and when to be aware of sportsmanship and how you play, but all within an exciting and developing storyline, so the reader doesn’t notice the teaching. The scenes are vivid and fast moving, and yet also woven into the book are subplots and peripheral characters – all very real, and all adding to the general action.

Siggins adds a warmth to his characters, and manages to convey a special relationship between grandson and grandfather. It’s also particularly enjoyable to read the scenes of the teammates off pitch as well – their ability to get along, or not, and in particular, the scene where the squad go bowling adds to the dynamics of competitiveness, rivalry, friendship, loyalty and integral values.

An intriguing series, aged 9+ years. You can try it here.

 

Animals, in particular, wolves

Wolf Wilder

Three weeks ago, I visited the Animal Tales exhibition (open until 1st Nov) at the British Library, which reminded me of the piece I wrote for the Middle Grade Strikes Back Blog earlier this year on the topic of animals in middle grade fiction (books for 8-12 year olds).

What strikes most of us working in children’s literature is the prevalence of the use of animals. Books teach us about our place in the world, who we are, how we live, and about how others live and feel. And animals give us a unique perspective – we only know what it is to be human by way of our relationship to what isn’t human – ie. that which is animal.

Animals in literature provide several opportunities to play with experiences: they can be outsiders (as children are often portrayed in literature – looking in on an adult world); animals are wild – they show us how we once were wild ourselves, innocents – before we were tamed by society. Children are ‘tamed’ into adhering to the constraints of society – no adult lies down in the middle of Tesco’s and has a tantrum about not being bought the Frozen advent calendar (well, not that I’ve witnessed). Black Beauty by Anna Sewell is a perfect example of an animal being shunted around from pillar to post and made to behave – be tamed. And by being wild, and outside the rules of our world, animals and children can have more adventures – Where the Wild Things Are speaks to this. Judith Kerr’s bestseller, The Tiger who Came to Tea, may be set in a home environment, but the introduction of a tiger (the wild) makes it an adventure. One of the most thrilling animal adventures for children, SF Said’s Varjak Paw takes the domesticated cat and casts him off into the wild.

The exhibition also drew attention to literature’s fascination with metamorphoses – humans turning into animals – from Actaeon in Ovid through to that poor family in Roald Dahl’s The Magic Finger. In Dahl’s story it is to teach the Gregg family that hunting is bad, In Beauty and the Beast – the man is punished for not showing kindness and so is turned into a beast. Both the family and the man are transformed back into their human forms in the end – the Greggs for repenting, and the Beast when he finds true love.

Animals are also an accessible way to teach children about the environment. Although fracking and diesel pollution may be topical, for children seeing the damage an oil spill can inflict on a bird holds much more immediacy. The Last Wild by Piers Torday uses animals to ask children to address how we treat the world in which we live, as does Watership Down.

Lastly, animals work as the perfect allegory. The anthropomorphism in children’s picture books allows us to address all those awkward issues which would be harsher and more direct if they were told using people. By using animals posturing as humans they teach us empathy – we see what it is that makes these animals human – they are wearing our clothes, and eating our food, and behaving as we do; their relationships with each other are human. Winnie the Pooh likes his little smackeral of something, and is a loyal and loving friend, The Very Hungry Caterpillar gets a stomach ache after all that delicious human food, The Cat in the Hat is our wild alter ego, the quick thinking mouse uses human cunning and logic to outwit The Gruffalo, and Farmer Duck is the quintessential animal with a human thought process. And I’ve talked previously about using animals to teach very young children about difficult topics such as death.

The Wolf Wilder is the latest book by Katherine Rundell.
Wolves have long been a strong feature of children’s literature – an animal of choice. From the wolf’s threatening posturing yet ultimate comeuppance in Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs (everything is little in comparison to him), to his wry stupidity in Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, to his prowess, strength and bravery in The Last Wild trilogy and Wolf Brother. Children are introduced to the wolf symbolised by the French horn in Peter and the Wolf and can be inspired by White Fang’s menacing yet ultimately tamed wolf.

It is with the wildness and taming that Katherine Rundell starts her book. Feodora and her mother are wolf wilders: people who re-wild a wolf that has been wrongly or cruelly tamed (by the Russian aristocrats). Feo and her mother live in the snowy woods of Russia. When their place in the world is threatened, and when her mother is taken away by the Russian Army, Feo has no choice but to flee with her wolf pack, and set in motion a search and rescue for her mother.

Actually, Rundell’s novel starts like this:
“Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl”
and from the language on the first page the reader is hooked.

Using wolves, Rundell touches on all the aspects of animals discussed – from the relationship between Feo and her wolves – the locals call her the ‘wolf girl’; she understands their needs and desires so much she almost becomes one:
“She could howl, her mother used to say, before she could talk.”

Her childish innocence mimics that of the wolf cub she tries to protect; her feeling of being an outsider like the wolves; and her protectiveness of the environment in which she lives. The wolves behave as the animals they are in the book, and indeed the whole premise is that they should be re-wilded – tuned back to nature – but Feo herself has a relationship with them not unlike a protective loving relationship that one might have with siblings or very close friends.

The characters are fierce and flawed and completely loveable – the reader can’t help but wish them to succeed in their endeavours – from Feo’s hunt for her mother, to Ilya’s fulfilment of his dreams. They stand up for what they believe in, and are ultimately brave in the pursuit of happiness.

But it is the language to which the reader returns. Katherine Rundell’s writing is as close to poetry as prose gets, from her description of ballet, “A kind of slowish magic. Like writing with your feet,” to her descriptive passage about the five kinds of cold including wind cold: “It was fussy and loud and turned your cheeks as red as if you’d been slapped.”
Rundell continues to weave this magic through the book, writing with apparent simplicity, and also wittiness, and yet each word carefully selected for its ability to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind.

It’s the kind of book every child should read for its wonder and magic, and characterisation, and ability to transport the reader to another time and place. It’s only weakness lies in the plot similarities to Rooftoppers, Rundell’s prior novel, but it’s a minor point.

Overall, one of the most beautifully written novels you’ll find for children. The kind of book, as Katherine Rundell says that “makes you feel taller…more capable of changing the world.” Read it to your child, otherwise you’ll miss out hugely! It’s a modern classic. For 8+yrs.

There are some wonderful illustrations too, but I reviewed an early proof copy, which did not have them.
To buy a copy of the book, click here.