school

Lyn Gardner: An Interview

 

Although my first thought when hearing the name Lyn Gardner is that of Lyn’s role as theatre critic of The Guardian, the children in my library (and home) all know of her as a writer of children’s books, who tells brilliantly dashing adventure/mystery stories linked to the theatre. Firstly, with the hugely popular Olivia series, and now with her Rose Campion Victorian era novels. So, after featuring Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone as my book of the week, I was delighted to be afforded the chance to ask Lyn some questions.

The Rose Campion series marries love for theatre with the Victorian era. Can you explain why you picked this historical period?

It was the golden age of music hall, a period that produced stars such as Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Dan Leno, Little Tich, people who at the height of their fame would be performing at a network of halls and theatres across the country. Every city, and even big town, had its music halls. London was stuffed with them. The stars were the celebrities of their day and the most successful among them were huge earners. At the height of her fame, Marie Lloyd could command almost £1,000 a week, which was a fortune.

The music hall was a way out of poverty for many. Vesta Tilly was just one who made her family’s fortune by performing as a child. In Rose Campion and the Stolen Secret, the first book in the series, when Campion’s is in desperate straits and failing to attract an audience, Thomas Campion employs Aurora, otherwise known as the Infant Phenomenon. Such child performers were hugely popular.

The story packs so much into one book: foundlings, thievery, Holloway prison, and of course magicians and the bullet trick. What research did you do in order to write the novel?

I’m not a historian, and this is a work of fiction not fact. I’ve taken some liberties, particularly around the justice system and the way it operated. But I did want to write a novel that genuinely gives a sense of the sights and smells of Victorian London, and what it would be like to live there. Also what it would be like to be a working child during that period.

Of course I did some research and read books about the period, but I reckon that it’s easy to get bogged down in research and forget that you are trying to write a really rollicking good mystery story. So I tend to write and then check afterwards. I was fascinated by the bullet trick as a child, and when I was writing Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone I was determined to incorporate it into the action.

A main theme running through the Curse of the Doomstone is what’s seen and unseen – trickery of magicians and thieves, and being observant. Is this something you’ve picked up from years of watching theatre productions as The Guardian’s theatre critic?

I don’t think I am a particularly observant person. What happens in theatre a lot of the time is exactly what happens in a magic show: the audience is directed to look at one thing that is happening so they don’t see something else that is also taking place.

It’s all part of the suspension of disbelief that makes us fall through theatre’s rabbit hole into a new world, even though we know that it is only actors on a stage playing a role. Of course if you go to the theatre as much as I do, you start noticing the way a show works, and its mechanics, but even when you do know, I’m interested in the way you still succumb to the magic.

The theme also allows for lots of exploration of identity and the way people present themselves to the world: how they appear and how they really are, those everyday deceptions that we all practise to some degree.

In Curse of the Doomstone these become magnified as people pretend to be something they are not or—like Rose—are trying to find out who they are. Or in the case of Aurora, trying to adjust to the fact that she is not the person she thought that she was, and if she is going to be happy she needs to learn how to straddle two very different worlds.

The book highlights the class divide that separates theatre goers into different theatres/areas of London. Do you think a class divide still exists in theatre?

Theatre certainly has a problem with diversity. It is easier to become a theatre-maker today if you come from a background where there was enough money for theatre trips, and if you have parents who help you get a good education and can support you in the early stages of your career. So yes, I do think that class is an issue in theatre not just in terms of theatre-goers, but also around who makes theatre.

One of the things that spurred me to set the story in a music hall was that while the late Victorian era was one of rigid class divides, the music hall was a place where rich and poor rubbed shoulders together. That was true for the performers as well as the audience, which lends itself to fluid social situations and some very vivid characters.

I was interested in writing a novel set in a music hall in the late Victorian period because I wanted to write a book that was full of the joy of performance, but which doesn’t shirk the realities of Victorian life. From the pea-soupers, to the fact that the streets were full of horse dung, that thousands of children lived on the streets, that landlords took advantage and charged high rents for appalling housing, and life could be short and brutal for those at the bottom of the pile. In fact very much like life is today in the UK (one of the richest nations in the world), if you are one of the 3.7 million children living in poverty.

But I hope that it’s also a book full of warmth and laughter that reminds us how much the Victorian music hall has influenced popular entertainment today. The annual pantomime in your local theatre, and TV shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, are the direct descendants of the music hall. So while the period I’m writing about may seem very long ago, there may be more connections and parallels than immediately meet the eye.

And more generally, is there a play that you would say is essential viewing for children?

There is so much brilliant work out there from big musicals such as The Lion King or Matilda, to small scale shows made for the very young, including babies. Reading fires the imagination and so does theatre.

What is your favourite children’s book?

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It’s so psychologically accurate. Whenever I read it, it takes me straight back to the feelings of rage and impotence I had as a small child when I was thwarted by my parents or had behaved badly, and I imagined ways of exerting power. Such a brilliant, brilliant book.

There have been some brilliant stories adapted recently for the London stage – Lord of the Flies, Running Wild, Treasure Island. Is there any children’s book in particular that you would like to see adapted for the stage?

There are so many great books out there. But what I would really be interested in seeing is more original plays for children and young people, rather than page to stage adaptations.

What is your favourite play? Or best production you’ve ever seen?

That changes all the time.

With huge thanks to Lyn Gardner for taking the time to answer my questions. You can buy the latest Rose Campion novel here

The White Tower by Cathryn Constable

I once had a giggle with a fellow children’s books reviewer about the number of books we reviewed in which the main character had to move house or school in order to start their adventure. But sometimes an old trope works a treat in a new book.

Livy, a young girl struggling with her grief that her best friend has died, is moved to a new private school, and her family to a house within the grounds, when her father lands a job in the school’s library. Her new attic bedroom nestles among the spires and domes of the school, and Livy is strangely drawn to the statues on the rooftops. When the headmistress shows more than a passing interest in her and her little brother Tom, Livy must work out what her connection is to the school, and how it will help her to overcome her grief.

With echoes of the lost boys of Peter Pan, and the contemporary adventures within Rooftoppers, this is a book that lingers in the mind long after the final page is turned. The story itself is old-fashioned – not only the setting of an old private school, but the unfurling of a mystery about ancient science experiments, a wish to fly, and a dream-like reality where ghosts stalk rooftops and nothing is as it seems.

The reader pelts through the story, as keen to solve the mystery as Livy herself, and as unsure of the motives of the old librarian and the headteacher as Livy. But as things begin to fall into place, the reader remains a little unsure as to whether all the links completely tie up.

A trance-like atmosphere pervades the book: stained glass shatters, and spires and statues create connotations with the dreamy spires of Oxford. This imagery haunts at the end, but it almost seems as if the book could have been drawn out into a trilogy – there was scope for the links between the dropped clues and the final dénouement to be extrapolated further. The wonderful setting of the school library and her father’s work within could have been stretched out too.

There is a wonderful juxtaposition between the everyday normality of a school; Livy has modern problems with friendships and distracted parents, and there is much made of friendship groups, fitting in, and flirtations with the opposite sex. And then the dreamy, almost fantasy landscape of Livy’s night-time wanderings, as she seeks to find out the mystery behind an ancient science that makes claims of human flight, and the link between gravity and being grounded – science and pure magic.

Emotions are pulled too – Livy’s little brother is used as a pawn in the villain’s game, and there are frequent references to the science that couldn’t help Livy’s best friend recover from leukemia – so Livy is grieving too.

This is a good book, and it certainly deserves to be read. I’m not sure if it was so good that I wanted more, or just did not satiate satisfactorily, which left me wanting more.

Make your own mind up here.

What I Was Like At School by Karen McCombie

I’m feeling rather excited about 2017. An excellent start to the year with some children’s book gems falling onto my doormat. St Grizzles School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys by Karen McCombie, illustrated by Becka Moor is a madcap caper with a rather whizzy headteacher, triplets on stilts and a head-butting goat.

When Dani’s Mum lands a job looking at penguins’ bottoms in the Antarctic, Dani is signed up for St Grizelda’s School for Girls. But when she arrives, she discovers that this rather strict looking girls’ boarding school has had a change of headmistress…and direction!…

But through all the madness, this is the tale of a girl trying to overcome her angst at settling into a new place with its new rules – something with which almost all of us can identify. Karen’s writing is always springy, endearing and genuine – and this book is no exception. So I’m delighted to have her writing for MinervaReads about what she was like at school: 

Try to picture Beaker from the Muppets, all googly-eyed with shyness, only a panicked “meep!” coming out of his mouth when expected to talk. That is ME, practically the whole way through primary school.

It didn’t help that we moved from Scotland to Australia to Scotland again, traversing five schools in all. Oh, the total non-joy of being the new girl x 5!  (How to reduce a naturally shy kid to a trembling kid-shaped jelly…)

(Karen at school)

It also didn’t help that I had an undiagnosed hearing problem for a year when I was little, and fell massively behind in class. (Shy girl blinks at everything going on around her, doesn’t have a clue what’s happening.)

But things improved once…

  1. my hearing issue was spotted and addressed
  2. I got help catching up
  3. I found out I was a bit good at this writing lark.

One teacher in particular spotted some sparkiness in my writing – hurrah! But in an attempt to have an eye-dabbing, heartstring-tugging moment where she cured me of my shyness and helped my confidence blossom in one fell swoop, Miss Thomson asked me to stand up and read my ‘excellent’ short story aloud to my classmates.

Sadly, all my classmates could make out was an alarmingly trembly girl who squeaked “Meep-meep-meep-meep!” at top-speed and then flooped into her seat before she keeled over…

Luckily, secondary school was a BIG improvement. For a start, there was only the ONE secondary school, rather than multiple options. Things got better with the discovery of a vast library, cool art rooms, drama club, fab friends and lashings and lashings of black eyeliner.

(Karen with her black eyeliner)

Secondary school was also the time I had a Very Stern Talk with my shyness. I explained to it that I understood where it was coming from, but from now on, I wasn’t going to let it stop me from doing what I wanted to do. Of course, it sulked, and still liked to trip me up from time-to-time (as it does now), but at least it just moped in the wings instead of taking centre stage and spoiling all my fun.

So I suppose Beating the Lurking Shyness Monster was one major thing I accomplished during my years at school. If only there was a GCSE in that; I’m sure I’d’ve got an A+…

Thanks so much to Karen McCombie. You can buy St Grizzle’s School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys here. It’s suitable for age 7+ years, and contains lashings of fun.

Back to School First Readers

It’s September. Back to school time in the UK, and a new school year. Sometimes that means a new school, sometimes a new teacher, and sometimes a new book series. Three new finds for newly independent readers:

isadora moon

Isadora Moon Goes to School by Harriet Muncaster


This utterly charming and totally irresistible new series follows the adventures of Isadora, half vampire, half fairy. Illustrated throughout in pink (for fairy) and black (for vampire), the book is a delightful twist on the current crop of first readers, which often feature fairies, but not like this one, which comes with extra bite (a fairy with fangs!).

Isadora is both cute and quirky, and struggles to decide whether she would rather attend fairy school, in the daytime, like her fairy mother did, or vampire school, at night, just like her vampire father did when he was young.

Despite being a combination of fantastical characters, Isadora is hugely relatable for her feelings of being ‘different’ to everyone else, and her attempt to make sense of the world. Of course the experiences at the two different schools dominate the book, but it’s the little touches that make the story stand out – mentions of Isadora’s favourite food (peanut butter on toast), the mistake of taking along one’s soft toy on the first day of school, managing parents on different time schedules and trying to please them both.

The illustrations of Isadora and her peers make this truly exquisite. The page dedicated to Isadora trying to dance at fairy school is hilarious, with tiny vignettes of her moves – it turns out colour does matter for Isadora! With plentiful wit throughout, and mischief and magic, this is a wonderfully unique and sparkly new series. My test readers already want the rest in the series (Isadore Moon Has a Birthday, Goes to the Ballet and Goes Camping), and in my opinion this is definitely a series to rival Claude. Well-conceived, well executed. A triumph. For ages 5-7 years (and fun adults too!) Find Isadora here.

the new teacher

The New Teacher by Dominique Demers, illustrated by Tony Ross, translated from the French by Sander Berg

Newly available in English, although first published in French in 1994, this is an adorable tale of what a good teacher – one who doesn’t necessarily follow the rules – can do for a class.

Mademoiselle Charlotte, who doesn’t even walk or look like the other teachers, talks to a rock. She doesn’t write her name on the board, and she asks the class what they want to do. And so begins the class’s foray into a new type of learning. Narrated by one of the children in the class, this is a delightfully subversive, humorous and endearing story, wonderfully illustrated by Tony Ross (of Horrid Henry fame).

It’s always cheering to see books for young children with exemplary vocabulary, and this oozes it with abundance – I’m sure it is there in the original French too, for there is the odd quirky phrase that might be more familiar in the original language, but retaining it still makes sense, and gives the book its own distinct flavour:

“And as far as schools are concerned, let’s just say I know my onions. My dad and I have moved house loads and I’ve been to tons of schools!”

Embedded within Miss Charlotte’s teaching is daily storytelling, and this love for storytelling shines out from the story. Added to this is the children’s growing attachment to their teacher, so much so that they put on a performance to illustrate the fact. However, like all great fictional teachers and Mary Poppins figures – they go where they are needed most, and so by the end of the story, our protagonist is left to get used to another new teacher. A gentle persuasive story for age six plus (confident reading alone, or shared with parent). Buy it here.

grandma bendy

Grandma Bendy and the Great Snake Escape by Izy Penguin

One of the most popular and talked about elements of primary school education in the UK today has to be ‘show and tell’. Stories of ‘who showed what’ and ‘what was said’ roll from the tongues of little ones on the walk home from school.

So it’s no great surprise that with the launch of publisher Maverick Children’s Books Junior Fiction titles, comes a tale about what can go wrong with show and tell. When Lucy reaches to extract her show and tell item from her schoolbag, she pulls out a snake instead. Bully Mike Grimace has put it there, but when it escapes and everyone blames Lucy, she must find it and reveal the real culprit.

With a cast of zany characters, and exuberant dizzy text, this story zooms along with pace. Grandma Bendy implausibly zigzags and twizzles her super stretchy twisty limbs around the town, getting Lucy and her brother into all manner of places, and mischief, but in doing so helps them search for the snake. There is an inept policeman, a nosy journalist and some other typical characters, but the author has added some nice modern touches, such as Grandma adding broccoli to the children’s ice cream floats so that she doesn’t get told off by their mother for not giving them enough veggies.

The illustrations match the text – a lovely map at the beginning displays the layout of the town with the same crazy aplomb – random sheep, a tree that looks a bit like a sheep etc, which is all the sort of thing that makes a child chuckle. The characters too look like their personalities, and there’s plenty of chaos to behold.

Other titles launching in the junior fiction range include Letter to Pluto by Lou Treleaven and Rickety Rocket by Alice Hemming. They’re not short at 128 pages each, but highly illustrated with different text formats, and might be a good stepping stone from learning to read to reading chapter books alone. You can find Grandma Bendy’s snake escape here.

Back in the Day 1980’s

Time travelling is a well-used trait in fiction, particularly in children’s books from A Wrinkle in Time by Madileine L’Engel to A Traveller in Time by Allison Uttley and the timeslips in Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillippa Pearce.

back in the day

Jess Bright’s latest novel, Back in the Day, probably has more in common with Freaky Friday or Back to the Future than those mentioned above, as her heroine, Daisy falls through the back of a PE cupboard and ends up in 1985.

For today’s young reader, 1985 may seem like a long time ago, but for me the timehop in the book spelled nostalgia with a capital N. Jess Bright’s incidental details brought it all flooding back, from mentions of Impulse spray (if I close my eyes I can still smell it), to the fashions of the time:

“She was in her uniform now carrying some trendy neon-pink army type bag plastered with all sorts of cool badges and key rings, rammed with folders and books. You could tell she was a fashionista, even with bad Eighties hair.”

Bright also happily refers to the pop songs of the era (she uses 1980’s song titles as the chapter headings of her book, and I can sing every one!) as well as Daisy searching her brain for which Eighties group she likes (she mistakenly thinks ABBA would be hip, when of course Wham or Duran Duran would have fitted the bill). There are ra-ra skirts, pen pals (snail mail), as well as a lack of mobile phones, and the absence of health and safety and ice packs. Daisy’s friend hurts herself in 1985 and yet the reaction to her suggestion of ice packs is laughter from the teacher:

“Normally if anyone fell and hurt themselves there was a huge fuss…No one batted an eyelid this time.”

In the 1980s there was also more freedom, and certainly no Google:

“Outside the gallery I checked the photocopied A-Z map Mrs Northwood had given us (Googlemaps for the Eighties!)…Back in the future, there was no way any kid would be allowed to sneak off into the surrounding area without at least two adults, a satellite tracking system and an embarrassing day-glow school tabard!”

But what did those roaming children read in the 1980s? In the days before Jacqueline Wilson, David Walliams, and even before The Gruffalo or Harry Potter, children weren’t starved for fiction. In fact, I remember a large children’s section at the local library, and remember reading voraciously, yet not running out of titles. We started with classic picture books that are still around today, such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr, as well as Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. These titles didn’t look dissimilar from how they look today. We pored over the pictures in Brambly Hedge, became obsessed with scratch and sniff books – only a step up from sniffable erasers, stickers and a doll called Strawberry Shortcake who smelled of synthetic strawberries – and we were enraptured by terrible narratives just because they had our names in them – personalised books with names spelt backwards were all the rage.

sleeping beautyameliacarries war

There was no such category as ‘middle grade’ back then, but we progressed onto our stock of Ladybird books – and yes, my Sleeping Beauty looked nothing like Chris Riddell’s latest rendering of her – as well as reading The Worst Witch, My Naughty Little Sister, The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse, and then American imports such as Amelia Bedelia and Ramona Quimby, who turned eight a few years before I did. Of course we consumed all the adventures of the Famous Five and Secret Seven, progressed to boarding schools including Malory Towers and the Chalet School, and sauntered through the classics, all still read today, from titles such as I am David to Carrie’s War, The Silver Sword and many many more, although the covers looked a little different then. More American stuff filtered through with Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys Mysteries, and for a school which had far more boys than either St Clare’s or Trebizon, we turned to Sweet Valley High.

that was thenforever

YA didn’t exist as a separate category either, but there was plenty of subversiveness and fear for the future in Z for Zachariah, and it was a brilliant time to be reading teen, as SE Hinton had published The Outsiders and That Was Then, This is Now, in the late sixties and Judy Blume was churning out books in the seventies so that they were readily available for us.

stranger with my faceskin deep

But with the 1980’s came the arrival of the Pan Horizons imprint – a brilliantly marketed array of teen titles that had a distinct look and distinct content; seductive and exhilarating, with the publishers realising that sex was now a key component for the 1980’s teen. With Richard Peck exploring rape in Are You in the House Alone?, Lois Duncan exploring guilt, murder, the supernatural and so much more in her haunting stories, such as I Know What you Did Last Summer and Stranger With My Face, as well as Liz Berry’s tales of the rich and reckless in Easy Connections and Easy Freedom, and authors ME Kerr and many others, Horizons was a huge hit with 1980’s teens.

easy connections

homecoming

Personal favourite authors of the time included Cynthia Voigt, Jill Paton Walsh, Jean Ure, Robert Cormier, oh and don’t worry – we still had Roald Dahl.

Jess Bright has captured the time hop in her book, Back in the Day, without delving so far into the past that the modern reader feels neglected. Daisy falls through a portal (in the PE cupboard – the perfect messy place for a time portal), back to 1985, so she’s at school with her teenage Mum. But what will she do in the 1980’s that will impact her present day – and will she warn her Mum that she’s going to die when Daisy is aged four? Would you?

The book is full of tension, emotion, and drama as Daisy battles with the moral dilemma of what to do, and how to get back to the future, and a future that might be changed by her actions – for everything has a consequence. It’s a great rollercoaster of a story, with lovely ‘historical’ details. I enjoyed my trip down memory lane, but I think today’s children will adore this fun book about what would happen if they met their parents when they were children themselves. Buy a copy for your 9+ years child here.

If I’ve missed out any great kids’ books that you really enjoyed in the 1980s, tweet me @minervamoan

And check out the rest of Jess Bright’s book tour.

Blog tour (1)

 

Jolly Hockey Sticks

First Term at TrebizonSecond Termsummer term

Did you go to Malory Towers? St Claire’s? The Chalet School? Perhaps you spent a spell at Hogwarts or visited Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches?

This week the Trebizon series by Anne Digby are being republished as paperbacks and e-books, freshly illustrated by Lucy Truman. Starting with the first three this week, all fourteen titles will be re-released by autumn 2017.

The books follow the events in the life of Rebecca Mason – starting the boarding school in the second year, when she is about 12 years old. In First Term at Trebizon, Rebecca suffers typical newbie’s anxiety over forging first friendships, but soon settles into a popular sporty crowd. However, her trouble begins with a piece written for the school magazine, and ends with accusations of plagiarism, and expulsion. The plot is slight, but winning, and there are some lovely touches about ambition, telling the truth, and loyalty.

Lucy’s illustrations are a joy – the depiction of the headmistress’s blouse, desk lamp and clock on the shelf behind her, in the illustration of her study give an immediate sensation of the period, as well as displaying extraordinary attention to detail. And the last illustration – of a joyful victory – seen from above – is one to relish.

The books are fairly short, and all follow a similar format – establishing a central problem which Rebecca and her friends must work through by the end of the novel, most of the character development spread over the series rather than being contained within one book. As with other school stories, there is a mass of detail on the rules and timetables of the days, as well as arrival by train, a division of girls into sporty and non-sporty, and the formation of close friendships.

It’s more contemporary than Malory Towers etc, being set in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and features a beautiful seaside setting, which of course is ripe for adventuring.

What’s interesting is that, despite the old-fashioned vernacular and setting of most of the girls’ boarding school books – the Chalet school of the 1920’s and 1930’s in particular, girls today still enjoy them, although no longer being able to relate to unpacking trunks in dormitories, midnight capers and classroom pranks. The Trebizon books are the most contemporary of these all girl settings, with the last being published as recently as 1994, although reading First Term at Trebizon, the reader will be grinning at the excitement over a typewriter! (Antonia Forest’s books about the Marlow family, including their time at Kingscote, the boarding school, were first published in the late 1940’s, eg. Autumn Term, but distinguish themselves from the other boarding school titles by their characterisation – they are slightly less formulaic.) At the end of the 1970’s though, it seemed the market turned, and from the 1980s sprung a raft of series set in American high schools rather than British boarding schools, such as Sweet Valley High, mirrored in the television of the time too – with programmes such as Saved by the Bell. The difference of course, was the introduction of a fair few boys, the beginnings of which started in Trebizon with the introduction of the boyfriend in Boy Trouble at Trebizon, first published in 1980.

In today’s market, schools are making something of a comeback in children’s publishing – although with a twist. Of course there’s Harry Potter, which is essentially based around the boarding school Hogwarts, but more starkly, Robin Steven’s wonderful Wells and Wong Mystery series, the first being Murder Most Unladylike, which subverts the genre by introducing murder into the school environment – a sort of Agatha Christie meets Malory Towers.

Of course schools feature in some way in much children’s contemporary ‘realism’ fiction, as that’s where children spend much of their days – and for this reason it’s a comforting environment to read about – the familiar yet extended – a more exciting version of their own reality. Children respond well to rules and structure, and boarding school books deliver this in droves – with attention to detail on timetables, grounds layout, teaching staff, uniform, regulations – each book in the series increases the readers’ familiarity with the school. Formulaic yes, but madly comforting.

But series in which the school dominates as the protagonist, whilst the pupils change or progress through the years, seem to have been relegated to something in the past. So the republishing of the fun Trebizon series is a welcome return. It’s not profound literature, but definitely has its place in a youngster’s reading – where would I be without having ploughed through a huge percentage of the 50+ Chalet School titles/Sweet Valley High/Trebizon/Blyton etc?

You can buy the first Trebizon book here.

Waiting for Callback by Perdita and Honor Cargill

waiting for callback

Whether it’s the inspired pairing of a mother and daughter author team, or simply the authors’ great perceptive insight, Waiting for Callback auditions brilliantly for the part of freshest new voice in young teen fiction.

It tells the story of fifteen year old Elektra, as she struggles to fulfil her dream of becoming an actor, at the same time as she juggles with the everyday dramas a teen faces, from a row with a best friend, schoolwork, a crush on a boy, to frustrating parents and an eccentric grandmother.

The book cleverly portrays the unglamorous world of acting – even when Elektra signs with an agency, it’s mundanely situated above a dentist surgery, and she gets offered bit part roles in advertisements and student films – the part of Dead Girl Number Three, for example – there’s no sudden red carpet or flight to Hollywood.

Accompanying this realistic portrayal of a teen acting career are the fleshed out characters surrounding Elektra. Her parents are a phenomenal supporting cast in the book – their emotional and financial support for Elektra are depicted beautifully, as are their moments of irritation and frustration with their own daughter. Although told in the first person by Elektra, the character of her mother is captured beautifully – the conversations of ‘how did it go’ after her auditions are spot on, as are the hours she spends waiting for her daughter to finish filming some bit part, as well as the father’s detached yet loving interest. Their accurate portrayal induced many wry smiles and snorts of agreement.

There’s incredible detail of the acting classes that Elektra takes too – she finds much of it pointless to begin with, but warms to it, and her enjoyment shines through despite her teenage ‘lack of enthusiasm’ attitude.

The writing is so confident and clear that the reader is pulled along on Elektra’s journey, and roots for every casting with her. Add to this the constant deadpan comedy, and this is a pleasurable and fun read from start to finish.

There are some powerful lessons in here too – that no matter what one’s profession, it takes graft (grit and determination and hard work) to get ahead – that envy of others in the profession gets you nowhere and is often misplaced, and that patience is indeed a virtue. But the story is told in such a light, fun-filled way, that none of these lessons is forced.

It also skims lightly over the idea of introspection and empathy; Elektra falls out with her best friend at one point, and it’s a good lesson on how to handle friendships when interests diverge and boyfriends take up friendship time. Learning to like a friend’s chosen other half is a lifelong skill, as is respecting their passions, whatever they may be.

There’s also Elektra’s crush on a fellow teen actor, which is well handled in a gentle way. There is nothing graphic or risqué about the love interest, which makes it a ‘safe’ read for the youngest teen wannabe. In fact, the title may very well apply to teenage crushes as well as acting careers!

The prose is interspersed with realistic letters back and forwards from the agency to Elektra and her parents, and this gives a good insight into the acting world as well as breaking up the text. There are also plenty of up-to-date references – the use of the internet and mobiles, things that are written rather than said, Buzzfeed, emoticons, quotes from modern actors, celebrity – but also clever allusions to Waiting for Godot and Austen – in ‘waiting and dating’ some things don’t change.

This is a warm, encouraging read for teenagers. Believable characters, a realistic plot and plenty of humour. Highly recommend for 11+ years. Publishes 28 January. You can buy it here.

 

First Witches

What is the appeal of witches for young readers? When I started the idea for this particular blogpost, the titles of ‘witchy’ series of books for little ones kept spilling off my tongue – there are so many. And more are being produced. The main hook of featuring witches in children’s literature is of course magic – witches can wave a wand and solve a dilemma – or in a well-used twist – use their wand badly and create a bigger problem.

Unlike fairies, witches appeal because they are human. They don’t have wings – they don’t have to occupy a different world (although some do). They are also edgier than most fairies – witches can have a mean streak whereas most fairies tend to be good (other than Tinkerbell from Peter Pan).

Witches are also usually accompanied by an animal – in fact looking at my list below, they are all in a close relationship with a ‘pet’, or animal friend, and this feature is a well-used device in children’s literature. So, where to start…..

hubble bubble monkey

Hubble Bubble: The Messy Monkey Business by Tracey Corderoy and Joe Berger
This series was first published in 2011 as picture books, but then quickly morphed into a series of young fiction titles for newly independent readers. There are three picture books for aged 3+ years with rhyming text, and then a series for 6+ years, each containing three stories. New titles published last year were The Wacky Winter Wonderland and The Messy Monkey Business. Delightfully enticing covers draw the reader into the story, with two-tone illustrations inside. The stories are about Pandora, an ordinary girl, whose grandmother happens to be a witch – she’s not alone in this, in Messy Monkey Business the third story reveals that many of the children also have grandmothers with witchy powers.

Messy Monkey Business features three stories including a school trip to the zoo, a babysitting disaster, and a camping trip. With ‘trouble’ and ‘chaos’ in the titles, it’s not long before Pandora’s Granny’s magic goes wrong, but in each story she does her very best to rectify the situation. She certainly means well. The stories zing with quick dialogue, and some lovely phrases:

“the children dived into the leaves like five excited little hedgehogs.”

The zoo adventure contains all the necessary elements – smells, mess, escaping creatures and a sea lion show – but all with a touch of magic in both text and illustration.

In all the Hubble Bubble books the short stories bounce along, there’s an element of ‘fairy godmother’ about Granny – she tries to be helpful by using her magic, but her results often lead Pandora and her friends astray. With wonderful names, such as Mr Bibble the schoolteacher, and Cobweb the cat, there’s plenty for a young reader to discover. The stand-out factor about the Hubble Bubble books though is the warmth that exudes from them. Despite mishaps and mayhem, the characters are loveable – the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter delightful, the humour spritely and the text pitched perfectly – some lovely expressions and adjectives, but all easy enough for first readers. You can purchase Hubble Bubble The Messy Monkey Business here.

worst witch

The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
This series is still an absolute favourite with all – from old to young. The books remain fresh and lively. They tell the adventures of Mildred Hubble and her best friend Maud at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. It’s hard to believe that the series is over 40 years old…but when re-reading you can see Jill Murphy’s original witty inventions – lessons on flying a broomstick, potions classes, creepy corridors and invisibility spells.

Jill Murphy originally pitched Mildred as a fairy, unfortunately attending the wrong school – but then changed her to a witch who’s just not very capable. From her tabby cat instead of a black one, to her long enmity with Ethel Hallow, and her even stronger friendship with Maud, this is a school story to treasure. Names are used cunningly here too – who can forget Miss Hardbroom – a precursor to Minerva McGonagall I should think. The black and white illustrations depict the greyness of the school as well as the hilarious friendship between short round Maud and long tall Mildred. Jill Murphy is both author and illustrator. Meet Mildred Hubble here.

titchy witch

Titchy Witch by Rose Impey, illustrated by Katharine McEwen
Perhaps our least famous witch here, Titchy Witch inhabits a world in which only her family are witches – her classmates at school vary from goblins to princesses, and her teacher is an ogre. She is also looked after by a particularly grumpy Cat-a-Bogus, a sort of au-pair/nanny. Full colour illustrations throughout add to the charm of this compelling world. Titchy Witch is different from the other witches, in that she is only seven, and acts as such. She finds some witchy things hard, has difficulty keeping her temper, and is very mischevious. The text is suitable for first independent readers and these children will recognise themselves in Titchy Witch.

Titchy Witch and the Frog Fiasco is typical of the stories. When Gobby-goblin at school pokes Titchy one too many times, she has her revenge by putting a spell on him. The teacher catches her and Titchy is blamed, and decides she no longer wants to go to school. Cat-a-Bogus shows her why she should attend when it turns out she cannot read or practise magic perfectly just yet. There is an adorable twist at the end, only understood by studying the illustration. You can conjure Titchy by purchasing here.

winnie the witch

Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul
Another aging witch, Winnie is more than 25 years old. She has a beloved black cat, the prickly Wilbur. The wonderfulness of Winnie is the amount of colour Korky Paul throws at the books, in fact our standout title is the original story in which Winnie colours her world. There are some beautifully unique traits to Winnie – she has a crooked hat because Paul found that drawing it straight didn’t always fit on the page, she is not the most attractive witch to look at, and yet her personality is adorable. Wilbur’s personality is as acutely drawn as any human’s – his laziness, his addiction to a certain level of comfort, his weariness with Winnie’s adventures. The attention to detail is present in both the meticulously drawn illustrations, as well as the scope of the adventures. Each book is very different – from Winnie’s trip to the seaside, to her birthday celebrations. There is much to admire in each, and much to look at. Winnie also seamlessly moves with the times – see for example Winnie’s New Computer.

Like Hubble Bubble, there are both picture books and young readers, so that the books grow with the child. No library is complete without Winnie on a shelf somewhere. Wave your wand here.

meg and mog

Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski
Another 1970’s invention and catering for the youngest readers out of the books featured, I couldn’t write a blogpost about witches and not include my favourite. It is the simplicity of the words and pictures that is Meg and Mog’s unique selling point. The repetition, the sound effects and the rhythm make this a treat to read-aloud. The sentence describing Meg going downstairs perfectly sums up the clomping noise she makes:
“She went down the stairs to cook breakfast.”
as each word of text is positioned underneath each stair, enticing the reader to pronounce the sentence in a particular way. The drawings are iconic – each of the five witches portrayed almost as stick figurines, and yet all distinguishable by their different hair squiggles and noses. The colours are bright and bold, no white spaces in this preschool colour block delight. But the best thing about the original book is that it doesn’t conclude neatly. When Meg changes the witches into mice, she leaves them like that until the following Halloween – there is no happy ending. Edgy and mischievous. Just how witches should be. You can purchase Meg and Mog here.

Look out for my forthcoming blog on witches for slightly older children…

 

 

 

Millie vs the Machines by Kiera O’Brien

Millie vs the machines

A fascinating debut book that crosses the realms between science fiction and boarding school fiction, with an eerie atmosphere running throughout that gently reminded me of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Set in 2099, in which each student uses their RetinaChip and index finger to see what everyone else is doing, as well as using it to select the right clothes (what’s fashionable that day) and food (adhering to nutrition guidelines) for themselves, as well as using the chip to gain access in and out of transport, school and shops. Millie appears to be a typical 13 year old girl, she checks what her friends are doing, wears the fashionable clothes of the day, and worries about her impending exams. Told in the first person, the reader feels increasingly on Millie’s side.

Except all is not as it seems, and when students start disappearing from their high-security school, Millie wonders if the robots who serve them are really as docile as they should be.

This is a compelling thriller with a spectacular plot twist towards the end. Kiera O’Brien builds suspense throughout the novel, imbuing the school with a sense of entrapment as well as security. Ever since Millie’s accident, she’s been unable to remember everything in the past, so the reader and Millie are only privy to backstory when she attempts to access segments of her memory through the technology of brain streaming.

Of course, with all this technology comes loss of privacy – beautifully drawn out – and also a reliance on robots. There is a new political structure to this world too – with corporations consuming governments, and a small uprising of people who want rights for robots. A marvellously believable and yet strange world, with a pacey plot and sharp references to what technology could do.

Hugely enjoyable, with oodles of wit mixed in with Millie’s fear, and a good understanding of the teenage psyche – teenagers of the future it seems will also fret about schoolwork, fashion and friends. A great read, and another highly recommended novel. 13+ years. You can purchase it here.

 

Silly School Stories

There are some writers who excel at what I call ‘slapstick writing’ – the sort of silliness that ties the reader in knots, makes them laugh out loud, then chortle delightedly, and declare the story ‘nonsense’ in the best possible way.

Two school stories for you this week, which are ludicrously ridiculous. But, deep down, underneath all the mayhem, there lurks a subtle dig at our education system.

uncle gobb

Firstly, Michael Rosen’s Uncle Gobb and the Dread Shed, illustrated by Neal Layton.

Malcom’s school tries to make anything that could be remotely interesting appear boring, and has a penchant for worksheets, particularly the ‘filling in the gap’ kind. His Uncle Gobb (who lives with him) has a soft spot for homework, and when Malcolm doesn’t give the correct answers, or even ask the correct questions, Uncle Gobb decides to place Malcolm and his friend in the Dread Shed as a punishment.

But Malcolm is already querying why his uncle has his name stamped all over the school worksheets, and when a genie appears, and then another, and the way out of the Dread Shed is found simply by opening the door, things start to become even more peculiar. Add in some chocolate bars, chapters that go nowhere, and wacky illustrations, and suddenly you have a book of nonsense, with a subtle rebellious message about schemes of learning, and a book that elicits giggles at every opportunity.

Michael Rosen’s casual approach is brilliant – there are blank chapters, barmy explanations of non-fiction, plays on words, and references to writers and readers, and he even points out the central conflict in his book with capital letters. Neal Layton executes his illustrations in perfect tune with the text – messy, humorous, nonsense. A laugh a minute book for 6+ years. Click here to purchase.

mad iris

Or you could visit Puddling Lane Primary, the scene of Jeremy Strong’s Mad Iris series. Jeremy Strong was himself a headmaster, so there’s an added pathos and depth reading his school stories, a truth running through the middle. Like Michael Rosen, Jeremy manages to poke enormous fun at education – in Mad Iris and the Bad School Report by Jeremy Strong, illustrated by Scoular Anderson, it is the school inspectors who take the brunt.

Pudding Lane Primary has a mascot on the grounds – the ostrich Mad Iris. But Ross and Katie have to keep her under control because not only is there a new boy who is allegedly allergic to ostriches, but also the Ofsted inspectors are visiting.

Jeremy Strong is particularly good at naming his characters, from Mrs Fretting to Miss Cactus, and the dialogue is spot on too. He also likes to poke fun at the school system – when the inspectors ask one of the teachers for the point of the lesson, she answers that she thought the children might enjoy it. The ensuing horror from the lead inspector is terrifically written.

There’s a huge amount of humour running through the story, from the relationships between fellow pupils, to those between pupils and staff, and lots of slapstick mayhem with the ostrich. Kids will fall about laughing – with Jeremy Strong it’s pretty much guaranteed. This book is also superbly illustrated throughout in black and white. Published by Barrington Stoke, it’s suitable for dyslexics, but will appeal to anyone from age 7+ years. Buy it here.