Russia

Nevertell by Katharine Orton

nevertellMany a children’s book has been set in a snowy landscape with chasing wolves and stretching vistas, from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken to Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder, promising the romance of ice crystals and the danger of snapping jaws. Of course, there’s nothing romantic about the punishing Siberian prison camps under the reign of Stalin, which is where Orton has chosen to set her debut children’s book, Nevertell.

Lina, born inside one of these Siberian prison camps, has never seen the outside world, so when the opportunity for escape is presented at age eleven, she grasps it wholeheartedly, despite having to leave her mother behind. However, Lina and best friend Bogdan are soon pursued not by Soviet guards, but by ghost wolf hounds and a dangerous sorceress, who lives in a Frozen-esque ice palace and bears a resemblance to Baba Yaga and The Mistress of Copper Mountain from Russian folk tales.

This is in essence an adventure story across the snowy tundra of a Russian winter, and Orton’s lyrical writing interweaves the magic of the landscape she is describing with the thrilling pace of a chase. Her descriptions of cold are indeed chilling, and the frozen fractals feel both dangerously icy but also wonderfully enchanting, as if the reader is spellbound by the cold as Lina and Bogdan are by the sorceress.

“The sky itself stretched cloudless and pale, like a flawless frozen lake. It all felt upside down, as if the sky had switched places with the earth while they slept and now they were wading through yesterday’s storm clouds.”

As well as the escape to freedom, Lina is on a quest to discover her heritage. She sets out on a path to Moscow to find her grandmother and discover what she is like, all the time wondering who in the left-behind camp is her father. What becomes apparent through the telling is the importance of family – both in their presence and their absence, and how belonging is so key. Separation was a cruel punishment oft inflicted by Stalin.

There are familiar children’s books tropes in Nevertell: a chase across countryside, a fierce and loyal friendship between the protagonist and a sidekick of the opposite gender…but where the novel stands apart is the terrific juxtaposition between the harshness of Russian gulags and Stalin’s reign with local folklore and fairy tales, which conjure a different kind of adventure story.

The idea that creativity was stifled in Stalin’s Russia, that a repressive regime sought to shut down any telling of fairy tales and folk stories is barbaric – after all freedom of thought and imagination are some of the most precious assets of being human. Orton plays with this idea of repression, and of course sets it free by taking Lina and Bogdan away from the harsh realism of a Siberian prison camp and placing them within the magical realms of a sorceress, even if that magic can also be used for harm.

Orton also plays on the importance of objects – again a device taken from native folk and fairy tales, in which one thing can be of such import – be it a house of chicken legs, or simply a stone. Lina wears a stone around her neck that provides pulsing warmth in times of great cold and throbbing heat in times of danger. The sorceress relies on her cape for much, but it is also in the human realm that objects are important: a winter coat, a bag of vegetables, a horse for transportation. These are essential elements of survival: food, warmth, shelter.

At times the magic is complex, at times simple, as are the relationships, but there’s a shining simplicity to the images of growth and gardens that frame Lina’s story. The idea of being able to conjure magic within a garden has been used for decades in children’s literature – a garden showing the flourishing of the heart and soul, the blossoming or growth of a forbidden fruit actually proving to be sustenance and food for thought rather than evil temptation. Orton sets up the magic vibrancy of fruit vines against a Siberian snowy backdrop and it is with strong images such as these that her power as a storyteller glitters most strongly.

The reader is left with an array of visuals – ice crystals frozen from wintry breath, a fluttering moth, a shadowy girl, an ice palace. With a startling cover illustrated by Sandra Dieckmann, interior illustrative snowflakes and more, this is a winter read with staying power. You’ll be as enchanted as if you had been captured by a sorceress. A perfect wintry read. For ages 8+.

With thanks to Walker books for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here.

The Apartment: A Century of Russian History by Alexandra Litvina, illustrated by Anna Desnitskaya

the apartmentNot all good books have to be new ideas. Sometimes the brilliance is in the execution. When I first started working at Dorling Kindersley publishers, one of the big titles was A Street Through Time by Steve Noon, which time travels a street to the Roman times, through history to the industrial revolution and Victorian England. Recently a documentary series on the BBC showed a similar concept – A House Through Time – with historian David Olusoga painstakingly researching a single house through different eras.

So The Apartment is not unusual. Except that this oversize piece of non-fiction for children is exquisitely presented, with so much information and curiosity within its pages that it feels as if it were recreating the concept afresh.

The illustrations and text follow the story of a six-bedroom apartment in Moscow from 1902 to 2002, showing the reader not only who lives there and why, but also their personal stories, political changes and upheavals, and the cultural choices and developments that then rippled from Russia across the world. Events in Russia are documented and remarked upon first and foremost according to their impact on the inhabitants of this apartment, but there is also a wealth of extra material.

A double-page family tree opens the story. This large extended family features the inhabitants of the apartment, and also indicates which pages of the book each person appears on. This handy tool helps the reader to navigate, particularly when some of the names may be tricky for an English readership.

The book opens with Irina Muromtseva in 1902, a young child moving into the apartment with her family and their dog. The cutaway apartment shows the different rooms and belongings, with annotations to characters and objects. There’s a fictional feel to the narrative, a first person introduction citing smells and emotions, but there’s a non-fiction feel to the rest, documenting the type of belongings the family had, the technologies of the time, including here a hot tap, and the inhabitants’ professions and general way of life.

Interspersed between the generational page cutaways – in which the current child of the family gives their impression of what is happening – there are double pages that explain the historical and political landscape, and show the reader smaller illustrations of particular objects and scenarios – from speech bubble vignettes of political or philosophical conversations, to types of pens for letter-writing, tree ornaments for Christmas celebrations, types of money and even recipes. This broad spectrum highlights a whole life – the feelings about war and revolutions, about communism and leadership, but also about the day-to-day: from embroidered school collars to samovars and newspaper articles.

Further on, the apartment is split as more families move in and share the space. Then more lives are documented, and the apartment sees arrests, deaths, a wedding, the advent of a telephone and television, men in space. The text introduces terms such as glasnost and perestroika, documents Stalinism and the Thaw, right up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

There are so many features in the book. There is of course an extensive glossary, timeline, bibliography and more. There’s a search and find game to see which objects survived how many years of change. But my favourite is the Afterword, explaining how much history and social history we glean from mere objects in everyday homes. And how for some of Russia’s history, there were things that could not be talked about. Could not be mentioned. And how books such as this can open these conversations.

We often say that to know who we are, we have to know where we came from. Our personal histories can provide a focus and explanation for how we see the outside world. And this book is a perfect example of how fiction and nonfiction can mesh and explore, can explain and provoke understanding. The text is dense, the pictures intricate, but it is a world waiting to be explored. All within one apartment.

With huge thanks to fellow children’s book blogger ReadItDaddy, without whom I would never have discovered this scintillating book. And proof therefore of the power of the children’s book blogger.

Translated from the Russian by Antonina W Bouis. For curious children aged 9+ and curious adults. You can buy it here.

The Tzar’s Curious Runaways by Robin Scott-Elliot

tzars curious runawaysEarly on in this historical novel, author Scott-Elliot introduces a footnote to a particular scene that simply says, ‘This really happened at the court of Peter the Great’. This tempting piece of information follows the reader throughout this startling novel – did that really happen, could that really have happened, stimulating both interest in the story, but also great intrigue in the historical setting. The reader is bursting to know more.

Good historical fiction not only holds a mirror up to our own times, pointing to similarities, and lessons learned or unlearned, but it also encourages the reader to think more about that period of history and entice them to discover more about it. Scott-Elliot does both these in his first novel for children, The Tzar’s Curious Runaways.

Katinka is a ballerina with a hunchback, part of a collection of people in Peter the Great’s Circus of Curiosities, his Kunstkamera. (The Tzar was particularly interested in deformities, collecting specimens and people (such as dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks and more) as a way to dispel myths that ‘monsters’ and monstrous formations came from the devil. He frequently put them on display and used them as tools for humiliation and cruelty.) On his death, Katinka and the other ‘curiosities’ are to be killed on the orders of the even nastier Tzarina. Together with her friends Alexei the Giant and Nikolai the dwarf, Katinka escapes the palace in St Petersburg and sets off across the snowy Russian steppe to find her parents, from whom she believes she was snatched by the Tzar’s henchmen.

This is, of course, an adventure story as journey, and therefore one of a tide of children’s novels that fits this description. What sets The Tzar’s Curious Runaways apart is not only the historical and geographical setting of 1725 Russia, but most particularly the intense suspense and danger conjured by a plot unfolding in an immensely cruel, violent and unforgiving society.

This Russia is a place of fear: The court around the Tzar, all in fear of being humiliated or worse, being killed; the peasants in surrounding areas fearful of any change or anything different; humans in general scared of wolves and bears and the darker side of nature. And in every facet of this society, Scott-Elliot describes those in power or holding authority as being corrupt, greedy or just cruel, from the adults in the village to the monks in an onion-turreted church, who of course, should provide the moral code. This is a poverty-stricken and cruel society – scenes include prisoners in chains being made to work on The Grand Canal, fearful adults throwing rocks at mere children.

Beauty, in this book, lies both in the endless snowy steppe and the mountains that take the form of animals, but also in children – their innocence, their bravery, their self-belief, and their hope.

Although the book is hugely scenic, with its dense forests, ornate palaces and snowy landscapes, and the plot reliant upon a magical map, this is a story about personalities overriding visuals, about not being judged for one’s physical imperfections, but rather using them to advantage, or overcoming their adversity.

In this way, the book shines a light on our current times – about the possibilities offered in a diverse society and about how people shouldn’t discriminate based on looks or beliefs. Of course our current society isn’t utopia, and has a long way to go for acceptance and tolerance to reign, particularly with regards to minorities, those with disabilities, and even women. But, if anything, Scott-Elliot shows us how far we’ve come.

Despite its use of historical research, this is still a novel, and Scott-Elliot cleverly draws attention to our understanding of history and the past by muddling Katinka’s memories of home. She is a protagonist seeking to belong, seeking a home, and yet her memories of the past are hazy – she isn’t sure whether they’re derived from her actual childhood surroundings, or from story books. And so the novel asks the question: what memories and histories of the past can be trusted? How much are we fabricating and filling in the gaps in our historical knowledge?

Into this mix, Scott-Elliot throws a wise librarian named Johann Daniel, who imparts a great deal of survival knowledge to the children and also gifts them a magical map to guide them on their journey. This light relief from the cruelty and harshness around them gives the children and the reader hope. It is with magic and story that a happy ending can be reached, despite the tribulations on the way.

For those who enjoy historical novels, this is something a little different, a curiosity in the children’s literature canon. You’d be wise not to run away from it.

With thanks to Everything With Words for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here. Suggested for ages 8+.

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.