Second World War

Eloise Undercover – WW2 and France: A Guest Blog by Sarah Baker

Sarah Baker’s first novel, Through the Mirror Door, is an historical novel with a time-travelling touch. There’s nothing supernatural about her latest book, Eloise Undercover, a historical novel documenting a girl’s assistance to the French resistance during the Second World War. Cleverly, Baker has set her novel in the same area of France as her first, using the same house, Maison de Noyer, as a focal point. This time, though, it is the Nazis who are occupying the space. With a couple of smartly dropped hints to her first novel, this latest is a sensitive and plot-twisting drama following those who were brave enough to stand up to the foreign invaders who persecuted minority groups. With a courageous heroine, luscious descriptions of baking, and a clever use of lessons learned from reading mystery stories, this is a wise and tender read. Here, Sarah Baker explains how it came about.

Eloise Undercover is set in France during WW2. Eloise lives a short bicycle ride away from Maison de Noyer, the house that appears in Through the Mirror Door. The book is a prequel, of sorts, and there are a number of reasons why I decided to set it during the Second World War.

Both my grandfathers and my great-uncle fought in WW2 (Major, Lieutenant Colonel and a Spitfire pilot). My great uncle would tell me stories, which I’d include in school projects, my favourite being the one where he was shot down, escaped from the Germans, was hidden by the French Resistance and then credited with liberating an entire town. Other tales I’d learn later, about Grandfather H wading ashore on D-Day carrying not a weapon, but a violin. His task was to get all the landing craft back to Southampton as fast as possible to bring in the next wave of soldiers. He was due to play a concert that evening, so to ensure he’d make it back, he took his violin to Normandy. Grandfather W, however, couldn’t bear to talk about it, so we didn’t. That led me to read everything I could, to understand why.

War stories are important and the Second World War is a period of history that’s close enough to feel real. It wasn’t that long ago (relatively speaking) and many of us had or have a family member that got caught up. We have excellent records of it, even films and photographs, as well as personal accounts. I think the scale, the magnitude of what happened, the horror, the bravery and the sheer human experience of it all draws us as readers and writers. We remind ourselves, and each other, how important it is not to forget.

It was really important for me to get the research right. I read a lot of middle grade and adult books, either set or written during WW2 (I’ll be sharing my bibliography very soon). I also did a lot of internet research. I work visually so I create Pinterest boards for each book to help me ‘see’ the characters and place settings. It’s really handy to be able to check the correct uniforms, weapons, vehicles and boats used too. I spent quality time at the Imperial War Museum in London and I asked my Dad a lot of questions (he’s a bit of an unofficial WW2 expert). My editor, Melissa, helped too. Any mistakes are mine.

But although Eloise Undercover is set during the war, it’s not simply a war story. It’s a tale of bravery and friendship and how far we’ll go for the people we love. I think, in the end, that’s what drew me to this period of history, a time of such fear, uncertainty and upheaval. I‘m thrilled to share Eloise’s adventures and a little more of Maison de Noyer with readers today.

ELOISE UNDERCOVER by Sarah Baker, out now in paperback (£6.99, Catnip). You can buy it here

 

 

A Visit to The Children’s Bookshow


Was it unfair to split the audience into cats (Judith Kerr) and dogs (John Burningham)?

In actuality, Nicolette Jones of The Sunday Times did point out the similarities between Judith Kerr’s work and John Burningham’s work. They both had huge success with their debut books, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Borka respectively, and Nicolette Jones also showed the audience slides of the little detailed parallels between the two illustrators’ work – depictions of a cat and dog peeing, a baby in a blue romper – much to the amusement of the audience of school children.

This was on September 29th, at The Old Vic Theatre in London, where I was a guest at The Children’s Bookshow, a charity that runs an annual tour of children’s authors and illustrators around theatres and venues in the UK for schoolchildren.

John Burningham set quite a high bar for illustrators back in 1963 when he published Borka. Not only was he the first to win the Kate Greenaway Award for a debut picture book, but his was also the first children’s book that Jonathan Cape published. It wasn’t to be the last. Unique it may have been, but it also depicted a now well-worn trope in children’s literature – that of a child, or in this case a goose, who doesn’t fit in.

Judith Kerr’s Tiger also boasts enormous longevity, with its now familiar warm domestic scenes, and like Borka, shows great sensitivity in the emotions it depicts and elicits.

And whether it was discussing first signs of a promising career, their work, or their travels, both illustrators showed their warmth and zest for life in Friday’s conversation.

Kerr’s childhood has been well documented, most particularly of course, in her own novelised version of her life, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. She speaks about her escape from soon-to-be Nazi Germany, talking about the near-misses in life that dictate how the future turns out:

“I think of the people who didn’t get out who would have given anything to have a small part of the life I’ve had.” Her modesty glimmers through in every sentence as she speaks of the glare her mother gave her for almost giving them away to the passport inspector on the train:

“I wasn’t the most intelligent child,” she says, but she was clearly talented, for her mother had the foresight to save her childhood drawings, bringing them with her in a small suitcase from Germany.

Burningham too, has travelled extensively, although his journeys were mainly contained within the UK. The one place he hasn’t visited is the fictionalised place he references in answer to a well-worn question. As with many children’s authors, he’s often asked where he gets ideas from, and he says his favourite answer to that was the person who said, “If I knew, I’d go there.”

He may not have been to the land of ideas, but it certainly seems as if he has. His latest book shows the quirkiness and specialised way of thinking that many of the top children’s authors and illustrators possess. There is a purposeful naivety to his drawings, but also an idiosyncratic approach to the storytelling which enables him to see things from a different point of view – Mouse House explores the plight of a mouse family when a pest controller is called in by the human parents. The children of the house write a warning note to the mice, enabling them to leave before their execution. Of course, as with many children’s critics, Nicolette Jones reads into this the plight of refugees, perhaps echoing the experiences of Kerr, who is also on stage, recounting her refugee childhood. But it is this very quality that distinguishes Burningham’s work – the ability to read the narrative whichever way one is inclined.

For both illustrators, there is no end to the ideas they have, as proven by their prolific output. Whether inspiration is taken from true-life occurrences, such as Kerr’s father, who for a short time attempted to adopt a seal, retold more kindly in Mr Cleghorn’s Seal, to Burningham’s take on the world around us in such books as Whaddayamean, an exploration of arms control and pollution.

Both infuse their books with their own sense of humour, which comes across in conversation too. Be it stumbling into the illustrators’ world, or failing illustration class at the Central School of Art (Kerr is the latter), they both approach illustration as a privilege and an honour, and are delighted to still be practising the art – Kerr is 94, Burningham, slightly younger at age 81. They are both still working, and still promoting children’s literature, especially to the noisy and enthusiastic audience at the Old Vic, as Burningham says, “I don’t worry about the ideas running out, I worry about time running out.”

 

Writing poetry and prose: Brian Moses


Human beings like to classify and label things – it’s how we distinguish one thing from another, it’s how we name things to be able to convey and signify ideas to each other. One only has to look at John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding to see a grasp of these principles. In writing, we like to clarify the difference between prose – from the Latin meaning straightforward – and poetry. Tomorrow is National Poetry Day, and children in schools up and down the country will be pulling out poetry from their bookshelves, and hopefully reading it and enjoying it. One of our foremost children’s poets is Brian Moses, but this National Poetry Day, he’s also published a prose novel.

Of course sometimes the line between poetry and prose is blurred. Both communicate ideas, feelings, a story; and both play with language, crafting it so that what is said is not only communicated in language but also by the choice of language, the positioning of the words, the use of punctuation. Two authors (Sarah Crossan and Kwame Alexander) immediately spring to mind when crossing the borders between the genres, because most readers think about novels as being written in prose form, whereas these two write some of their novels in free verse poems. There are some who call poetry a form of art, and prose merely communication; but overall I think the distinction would have to be the sound crafted from poetry – the overarching stretch of the meaning by the way the poem sounds. With prose, the meaning is inherent within the text, held within it.

Python doesn’t ring with the same sounds as Moses’s poem, The Snake Hotel, for example (which you can listen to here), but it definitely strikes a chord of fear in the reader, and is written in clear, precise prose.

Daniel lives with his zookeeper father, and also with his father’s pet snake, a python residing in the attic. Unfortunately, Daniel is terrified of the snake and his imagination conjures up the horrors of the snake’s escape from its cage. But added to Daniel’s nightmares is his waking life, in which he is bullied by a girl gang who roam the streets on his way to and from school.

When he starts to study the Second World War at school, as well as taking refuge from the girl gang in his grandfather’s house, the stories of the past start to merge with Daniel’s current fears, and before long snakes, girls and ghosts of the past all converge.

Moses’ prose is certainly more straightforward than some of his poetry, but it still conveys plenty of emotion. A whizz with language, the author uses his prose form to whip the plot at pace, and with economy, so that action is always forefront, all the time managing to eke out enormous authenticity in the characters. From Daniel and his friend Errol and their believable camaraderie, to the relationship between Daniel and his grandfather – the weariness from boys who despair of that generation’s ‘going on about the war’ and so rarely visit, but also seek wisdom and enlightenment and eventually realise that their grandparents are real people with exciting stories to impart.

The book is set in the 1980s with all the freedom afforded to children that this entails – ghost-hunting on their own, and the lack of health and safety implied in keeping snakes in attics, and yet the novel also touches on parental break up and a child returning to an empty house from school – something that feels completely up to date.

An entertaining mix of history, the supernatural, contemporary families, and snakes. You can buy your own copy here.

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis

For Christmas Day, a special classic. This key text in the children’s literature canon is always a delight to revisit, and once it’s been read with the children, it’s always fun when they spot a ‘Narnia’ lamppost when out and about. In fact, it’s the wondrous images created by the book that endure, and is one of the reasons why it’s a classic. From Turkish delight, to a fur-coat laden wardrobe, to a lion (Aslan means lion in Turkish), to Mr Tumnus.

In fact, the book reportedly began as such an image, when CS Lewis pictured a “faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood,” according to his essay ‘It All Began with a Picture’. This, is in fact, a wonderful resource for writers, showing how Lewis wrote, and how a picture that had been in his head since the age of sixteen turned into a novel at the age of forty.

So what’s the book about? Four children, evacuated from London during the blitz, stumble upon a strange new land through a wardrobe in their new house. This land, Narnia, is under the spell of the White Witch, (a spell of eternal winter with no Christmas). But with the help of the four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, soon a new dawn arrives with spring on the horizon. It’s a fantasy landscape, with magical creatures, and yet the normalcy of sibling relationships and rivalries is never far away.

Of course, in children’s literature terms, the blitz was a gift as a literary device – an absence of parents, a new landscape, and a dark threat of insecurity hanging over the children’s lives. Numerous authors made use of this device – Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, and Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian are another two evacuee classics. But Lewis juxtaposes the very real experience of being a wartime evacuee with a fantasy landscape.

Many point to the Christian allegory that they say underpins the book, the seasons of winter and then the spring when Aslan (representative of Christ) arrives, the stone table for the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the temptation of Edmund eating the ‘sin’ of Turkish Delight just as Eve ate her apple. But C S Lewis tended to deny this was the crux of his story – in fact there are many mythologies and fairy tales alluded to within the text, none more obvious than the borrowing of the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Andersen; Lewis transforming her into the White Witch who turns people to stone rather than ice, and who also manipulates a boy from the comfort of her sleigh.

It also features Father Christmas.

But for me, and for many others, this book is simply a great fantasy adventure story with the most delightful images, and speaks to the possibility of the impossible. It’s a feeling the book exudes – like any great piece of literature, which when devoured, lets the reader experience a feeling – just how the name Aslan made the Pevensie children feel:

“At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

You can buy it here.

Animal Welfare and Fostering Friendships

Two starkly different books today, but with common themes. Both would fall under the ‘animal’ genre label, although one is set very much in contemporary times, and one is historical. Both involve caring for animals, and impart knowledge about them, but both are excellent stories in their own right (age 9+ years).

tanglewood

Tanglewood Animal Park: Baby Zebra Rescue by Tamsyn Murray, illustrations by Chuck Groenink

The first of a heart-warming new series about Zoe, whose family runs an animal park. The first book tells of the family’s arrival at Tanglewood as they prepare to take over the zoo and re-open it for the public. With teething problems galore, and new relationships to forge, there is plenty going on throughout the book.

What’s wonderful is the amount of animal knowledge (such as feeding, habitats, endangered species etc) deposited throughout the book, either as part of the story or as dialogue between the characters, so that for the young reader they can absorb the animal information at the same time as reading a cracking story. And it’s not just zoo animals – Tamsyn’s characters rove freely around the zoo so that as well as hearing about penguins and lemurs, there is also information on guinea pigs and the sort of animals that readers might have at home.

It’s not subtle, but the story and characters are written masterfully by experienced author Tamsyn Murray so that the story dominates the information. The characters show that they care for each other as much as the animals – using their own animal instincts to sense emotions and feelings in each other – showing great sensitivity.

The main action revolves around the birth of a new baby zebra, but is also dominated by the relationship between Zoe and the boy who already lives at Tanglewood – Oliver, the son of the vet. This is well explored, as it is frosty in the beginning, Murray showing the hurtful way in which words and deeds can be twisted to wound someone, but also in the way in which friendship can be sought when needed.

Zoe’s parents are naturally preoccupied with the opening and their lack of sleep, Zoe’s baby brother has his own fears, and Zoe’s peer Oliver has dark emotions of his own that are revealed throughout the story. In fact Murray carefully drops mysteries and clues, so there are lots of little subplots to keep the reader engaged. It’s realistic, interesting and a good story. A great new series to explore. You can buy it here.

(For my readers in Hertfordshire, Tamsyn Murray will be at Paradise Wildlife Park this weekend talking about her writing and celebrating this series (first weekend in July).

emergency zoo

The Emergency Zoo by Miriam Halahmy

Another gentle story, but this time involving much darker elements as the backdrop to this story is the breakout of the Second World War. Twelve-year-olds Rosy and Tilly find out that they will be evacuated to the countryside once war breaks out, but unfortunately their beloved pets will have to be put down first. This is based on the true story of the days leading up to the outbreak of war when citizens were advised that pets should be destroyed as they wouldn’t be able to be cared for during the ensuing rationing and bombing. The author has cleverly built a stimulating story from her discovery of letters to the press after the announcement of war, which portrayed people’s regret about destroying their pets.

This little piece of social history weaves into the story of Tilly and Rosy as they build an ‘emergency zoo’ in an abandoned building not far from their homes, harbouring an assortment of pets from an equally interesting eclectic mix of children.

The story is the simple ups and downs of how Rosy and Tilly feed and protect their pets, and eventually whether they find a solution to where the pets will go when Rosy and Tilly are evacuated. However, Halahmy’s cleverness is her historical acuity. Set in a timeline of the week preceding the announcement of war, she draws in children who have arrived from Germany via the kindertransport, the existing social divides in England, parental memories and consequences of the First World War, and the tension leading up to the Second.

Most interesting though is the difference between the lives of the children in the 1930s from their contemporary readers: the conversational etiquette when addressing parents and grownups, the freedom of the children to roam, and yet the respect and help that was demanded from them in return.

This simple story has considerable depth. It is great in today’s world to read a book that encompasses animal welfare, the courage and determination shown by two small girls, and the resourcefulness at times of difficulty. There is an uplifting ending despite it being only the beginning of the girls’ stories – the start of the war and the girls’ evacuation – which makes this a tremendous book for a gentle exploration of one small facet of the Second World War. You can buy it here.

 

Food for Thought

Do you remember food from childhood books? Winnie the Pooh is synonymous with honey, Paddington with marmalade, the Famous Five with ginger beer. The tiger came for tea, the caterpillar was very hungry, and Narnia wouldn’t have been the same without tea with Mr Tumnus. Food functions as a symbol of togetherness. The OECD found that students who do not eat regularly with their parents are more likely to truant, that children were more likely to be overweight if they didn’t eat with their family at least twice a week (European Congress on Obesity 2014). In a topic close to my heart, researchers found that young children learned 1,000 rare vocabulary words at a family dinner, compared with 143 from a storybook reading (Catherine E Snow and Diane E Beals, 2006).

Three authors have cleverly woven food into their recently published family stories. Do have a look at each very different title.

library of lemons

A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill

A sad and touching middle grade story about ten year old Calypso. She lives with her father, and they are both grieving for the death of Calypso’s mother. Her father is suffering so much that his mental health deteriorates and he starts to obsess over lemons for a book he is writing on the History of the Lemon.

Calypso has been told by her father to nourish her inner strength – to show the world a steely exterior rather than exposing her emotions – so she nourishes herself with books and stories. In a compellingly poignant portrayal, Calypso’s Dad is neglectful because of his all-consuming grief, and the cupboards in the kitchen are starkly empty.

Although a loner, and Cotterill portrays this part of Calypso particularly well, leaving the reader feeling that solitude is not a black and white issue – there is loneliness and then there is wanting to be more solitary than others – Calypso does find a friend in Mae, and through her, a family, complete with family meals, and warm, giving parents who expose what is so severely lacking in her own home circumstances. The scenes with Mae shine with affection and are particularly engaging.

Jo Cotterill writes with emotional insight and tenderness in this well-crafted novel. From her clever perversion of the lemons – usually such bright, alluring, wonderfully scented fruits – she twists the metaphor so that the lemons are hidden and grow hard – revealing what happens when fruit is kept in dark places, and when emotions are left hidden in dark places rather than expressed and managed.

By contrasting darkness and light, inner and outer, family/friendship as opposed to loneliness, Jo Cotterill reveals how Calypso can come out of herself and forge a new way forwards for herself and her father. It’s compelling reading and draws on the point that there are always some adults on hand to help a child through such a crisis – from friends to a support network of child carers.

There are some good insights too about children wanting to please their parents and meet expectations, the benefits of writing as a way of venting emotion, and of course, as you will guess from the title, a liberal sprinkling of literary references, and a paean to reading and its comfort.

The characters feel well developed, the ending is not too saccharine – it’s uplifting but with a hint of realism that grief/depression cannot just be turned off like a switch. Easy to read, not too sentimental – this is a bittersweet novel. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

caramel hearts

Caramel Hearts by ER Murray

A slightly older, much grittier read, Caramel Hearts tells the story of 14 year old Liv. Liv resides with her older sister while her mother recovers in a unit for alcoholics. Whilst her mother is away, Liv discovers a homemade book of recipes, written in her mother’s hand, and clearly at a time in the past of love and happiness. Liv endeavours to make the recipes within, in the hope that some of that love will come dripping back into her life. Sadly, at the same time, she has to contend with issues at school, lack of money, and her own anger, which comes flooding out of her at the slightest tension or confrontation.

This is such a character-led book that the reader feels invested in Liv from the start, which is important, as Liv doesn’t behave brilliantly. ER Murray’s portrayal of her – her inability to keep her emotions in check, even when necessary – her spontaneous and often not very well thought out decision making, and her wish to fit in, lead her to make some particularly unwise decisions, and yet she garners intense understanding from the reader precisely because she is so well-defined and so real in so many ways.

ER Murray is good at drawing the distinction between right and wrong, and yet at the same time, giving the reader those grey areas of discovery as teens grow and learn which path to choose.

There are some excellent scenes – and a particularly disturbing case of hardcore bullying, as well as the problems and uncertainty that go with being the child of an alcoholic.

Secondary characters are also nicely drawn – no one is completely good or bad – and, as with A Library of Lemons, there is a lovely supporting cast of adults who can help if given the chance – including a particularly wonderful dinner lady.

A love for food comes through of course – the recipes from the mother’s books are sprinkled throughout the text and seem easy to try, and there are references to music too.

The book is all about learning to stand up for what’s right – doing the right thing, but it makes no claims to provide easy solutions or quick fixes. As with the previous book reviewed, mental health – in this case, alcoholism, is dealt with carefully – it’s a long road, and there are no certainties.

Saying that, the ending is also uplifting – friendships are nurtured and thrive, food can be an equalizer, and forgiveness can be healing.

In the same way that A Library of Lemons toyed with darkness and light, this is sweet and sour – the joy that can come from finding a hobby/skill in the baking, the joy of sharing food with friends and family, and the sweetness of nostalgia for their mother in a more positive light, but also the sourness of doing the wrong thing, bullying, getting into trouble and not knowing how to get out of it. Age 12+ years. You can purchase it here.

Sweet Pizza

Sweet Pizza by G R Gemin

For younger readers, with bite-size chapters, is the tale of Joe, a young boy growing up in Bryn Mawr, South Wales. Joe’s mother runs a café, inherited from her father and his parents – who were Italian migrants before the Second World War. The café is failing to make money, and the book follows Joe’s attempts to discover his Italian heritage and make the café great again.

As with the other books featured, food plays a strong role in this book, with Joe’s fascination with learning to cook, the other youths’ addiction to the unhealthy ‘chicken box’ takeaways over the road, and Joe’s cousin Mimi who visits from Italy, and seasons the town with her good looks, but also her belief in fresh ingredients, healthy eating and the healing power of a good meal.

The tone of this novel is hard to pin down – it’s written so starkly, so matter-of-fact and mainly through dialogue, and yet somehow Joe’s feelings do shine through. For this age group the sparseness of the language works quite well, and moves the plot along quickly, although personally I would have preferred some rounding of the parental figures’ characters and a little more detail and description, but saying that, this is an important book for the following reasons.

The backbone of the novel comes from Joe’s grandfather. During the course of the book he suffers a stroke and is hospitalised, but his recordings of his memories of wartime Wales are played as a backdrop throughout the story, and the warmth flows mainly from these recollections.

Joe learns, as does the reader, not only the facts about Italian migrants in Wales during the war – the terrible cost when they were interned during the war, but ultimately the kindness of the community that surrounded the immigrants in Wales.

The gradual realisation that history can teach us something, that having a thriving immigrant community can lend so much colour and vibrancy to a town, and that the kindness of a community can see people through hard times, is a valuable lesson to both Joe and young readers. It’s an interesting study to compare immigrant experiences then and now, and debate the meaning of patriotism, migrants, heritage, and community.

Gemin weaves food and taste throughout his book – from the Italian food to the Polish supermarket across the road, and the coming together at family mealtimes as well as the community (Joe interacts with bus drivers, the doctor’s receptionist, and a whole host of other figures who make up his town). There are also some well-handled incidences in which Joe’s mum is worried about her son’s weight, and steers him away from the greasy takeaways.

An infusion of opera and its stories pervades the text too, and the mouth-watering descriptions of the coffee aroma and bubbling tomato sauces leave the reader lusting after their own home-made Italian meal. Bravissimo. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

 

 

 

Little People in a Big World

Little people have existed in mythology and folklore dating back through history to the American Indians, whose petroglyphs show them horned, as well as in Ancient Greek mythology where pygmies (from the word pygme meaning the length of the forearm), were written about in The Illiad. In one tale the pygmies bind down the sleeping hero Heracles, a story that was later adapted by Swift for Gulliver’s Travels. Ever since Tom Thumb was published in 1621, purported to be the first fairy tale printed in English, there have been a litany of books about ‘the little people’ for children. The Grimm brothers collected a tale about Thumbling, ‘a child no longer than a thumb’, and as far away as Japan there is folklore about a child called ‘Issun-boshi’, translating to ‘Little One Inch’ – a tale about a miniature samurai with a sewing needle for a sword, a soup bowl for a boat, and chopsticks for oars. More familiar to current readers are Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen, The Borrowers by Mary Norton – which won the Carnegie medal in 1952, and Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen. Little people are a great device for storytellers – they can have crazy adventures in the most mundane landscapes; they can be a mirror into our ‘big society’, or a criticism of it – AN Wilson considered The Borrowers to be an allegory of post-war Britain – weakened people living in a decaying country, using recycled materials.

pocket pirates

A truly delightful addition to the canon of children’s literature about miniature people, Pocket Pirates: The Great Cheese Robbery by Chris Mould shows the author to have an inventive mind and the ability to pack a huge story into a tiny world. From the delightful premise – a story of pocket pirates who live in a ship in a bottle in an old junk shop – to the execution, complete with hugely detailed illustrations on almost every page – this story jumps off the page with excitement and is hugely entertaining. In the first story of the series the ship’s miniature cat is kidnapped and held to ransom by mice. The pocket pirates must steal cheese from the shop’s kitchen fridge to take to the mice and rescue their cat. Chris Mould employs all the traditional tricks of the trade when writing about small people, from the fear of the dog (huge from their tiny perspective), to his adaptation of normal sized objects to work for the pocket pirates – washing up sponges as chairs, shoelaces as ropes, a mustard pot for a bath – as well as magically using the tale of the Trojan Horse and transporting it into his story, replacing the horse with cheese in order to fool the mice. However, Chris’ attention to detail is exceptional – it takes much empathy to write from the position of a tiny person, incorporating practicalities as well as fears and obstacles, and Chris Mould does it with aplomb. This is a fun story – it leaves the reader wanting the next in the series – and is bound to be a huge hit for all small children! Age 6+. You can purchase it here.

blue glass

An old tale, but just translated into English for the first time is The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui, about the little people who depend on the milk of human kindness, literally and metaphorically. The little people, a family of four – Fern and Balbo and their children Robin and Iris, live in a small library in a house in Tokyo. They are originally from England, but have been entrusted to the care of a young boy called Tatsuo in Japan, and then over the years to his family and children, and in particular, his small daughter Yuri. The little people rely on a small amount of milk being placed in the sparkling blue glass goblet for them every day by a human. When the Second World War comes to Japan, who are then at war with England, the humans and the little people become affected by external events, and nothing is the same again. Weaving complicated themes of patriotism, loyalty, cultural and moral identity, Tomiko Inui tells a bittersweet narrative of the impact of war on those behind the battlefields, and the children evacuated during the war effort. There are some wonderful descriptions of life in the Japanese countryside during the war, and much to be extrapolated about loyalty to one’s family, and standing up for what you believe in. There were some interesting similes from this tale written in 1959 about the little people being battered about in their basket in transit, much like migrants on a voyage across the ocean. This book is still relevant in so many ways – although tough to get into for the first chapter or so (which I put down to the translation warming up). The ending comes as rather a shock, but the book works as an eye-opener into another culture, and is an intriguingly different text from the run-of-the-mill contemporary children’s book. For those 8+yrs. Click here to buy a copy.

little girl
The Little Girl and the Tiny Doll by Edward and Aingelda Ardizzone was first published in the 1960’s but wonderfully is still in print and well worth a read. It tells the story of a sad little doll who is accidentally but rather callously dropped into the deep freeze compartment of a small shop. She makes the best of her surroundings, and is helped out by a small girl who shops with her mother and spies her one day between an ice cream tub and a mixed vegetables packet. The book is charming for many reasons. The world that the little doll creates in the freezer is magical – from the packets of food which act as buildings creating a pathway of streets between them, to playing bat and ball with an ice cream scoop and frozen peas (an image which has stayed with me for thirty odd years). The timidity of the little girl who finds the doll (she doesn’t pick her up as she’s been told not to touch things in shops, so merely drops packages of warm clothes into the freezer for her instead), is charming, and contrasts wittily with the sharpness of the shopkeeper, who is adamant that there are no dolls in her shop. The ending, for me, is most touching – the little doll uses her experiences in the deep freeze to tell stories to the other dolls she finally encounters. The story, short and sweet, teaches compassion, kindness and surviving against the odds, as well as, like Chris Mould, using wonderful empathy and inventiveness imagining life as a miniature in a deep freeze. The story was told by Aingelda Ardizzone to her children, and she was persuaded to write it down by her father-in-law, the illustrator Edward Ardizzone who then proceeded to illustrate it in his own magical style. Take particular notice of the illustrations of the haughty shopkeeper – the illustrations convey mood and emotion brilliantly. Age 4+. You can purchase it here.

chillly billy

Lastly, another cold miniature adventure is The Amazing Adventures of Chilly Billy, about the little man who lives in the fridge. Unlike the tiny doll, Chilly Billy’s place of living is no accident. He is the little man who lives inside the fridge and turns the light on when the door is opened, as well as polishing ice cubes, tidying the freezer, and repairing leaks in yogurt containers. The author writes directly to the reader, as if Chilly Billy lives in each and everyone’s fridge. For a small child, this is a magical narrative device and stretches the imagination. During the course of the book, Chilly Billy enters the fridge Olympics, suffers a ‘warm’ instead of a cold, and meets a new friend. Like other authors of little people tales, Peter Mayle has been inventive, imagining the special boots Chilly Billy would need to facilitate travel inside a fridge, as well as a special bike, the chores Billy must undertake, and the sports that can be done inside a fridge. As with the The Little Girl and the Tiny Doll, the images within this book resonate and instill characters that last beyond childhood. The version I have is colour illustrated by Arthur Robins – but I think the edition still in print is only black and white. Age 6+. You can purchase an ebook from Waterstones here or click the Amazon sidebar for the paperback version.

Chris Mould picked out some BIG moments for LITTLE people for the Guardian this week. You can read it here.

 

 

 

 

For Holocaust Memorial Day

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Elie Wiesel

Teaching children about traumatic events in our collective history can be difficult, and when picking a book on the subject it’s more important than ever to judge content more than appearance. There is fierce debate on how old children should be before they are taught about the Holocaust or other genocides. Teaching the historical context of the Nazis, of death and what’s morally right and wrong can all be taught much earlier, but it’s hard to teach the meaning and mechanics of mass murder before secondary school. Even some adults have a hard time grasping the enormity of it. The national curriculum dictates that the Holocaust should be taught in key stage 3 – Year 7, 8 or 9, which is the first three years of secondary school (ages 11-14).

“Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory” – Jane Yolen

Firstly, I’ve chosen three works of fiction. They are all picture books, but that doesn’t mean they’re for small children – in fact they are best for age 10+ yrs. I’ve chosen them for their exploration of the Holocaust from different viewpoints, and as starting points for serious discussion about the Holocaust. None of them should be read in isolation, but rather explored after an initial insight into what did happen to the Jewish people during the Second World War.

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon
This is a cat’s eye view of Kristallnacht. Benno is the neighbourhood cat, who visits Sophie on Shabbat, and is fed schnitzel by the Schmidts after church, and gets titbits from the kosher butcher. All is seemingly well. Then gradually Benno realises that there are fewer scraps, and the neighbourhood people are growing ever more impatient, and that there are now new black boots stomping along the pavement. Then Kristallnacht happens, Benno’s paws are sore from the broken glass on the pavement, and Benno doesn’t see Sophie and her family any more, nor Professor Goldfarb. It’s a simplistic animal tale of a neighbourhood changing, but the masked horror of the Holocaust pervades the story. The implied disappearance of the Jewish people of the neighbourhood leaves it up to the reader to imagine what may have prevailed that night. The Afterword explains Kristallnacht in a little more detail, telling what that night was about and what did happen to the Jews in Germany. However, the last paragraph is a little emotive, which is a shame for a page that should remain factual. However, it is a clever introduction to the build-up of the Holocaust in Germany.

Star of Fear

Star of Fear, Star of Hope by Jo Hoestlandt, illustrated by Johanna Kang
Another simplistic story, which belies the terror underneath, is Star of Fear, which tells the narrative from an old lady’s point of view – looking back on those things that she couldn’t comprehend as a little girl. Helen remembers growing up in France after the German invasion of 1942. She remembers her childhood friend Lydia, and the yellow star Lydia was forced to wear on her clothes. It’s a story about friendship, and how little girls can say things to their friends that they don’t mean – and ultimately live to regret. Helen regrets more than most, as in a spontaneous angry outburst she tells Lydia that they are no longer friends, little knowing it was the last time she would ever see her…it is supposed that Lydia was taken away by the Nazis the next day. The simplicity of the text and pictures adds to the poignancy.

whispering town

The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro
Published last year, The Whispering Town tells the story of the Danish Jews through the eyes of a little girl. The Danish story itself is quite remarkable. As a nation Denmark actively resisted the Nazis’ plan to round up the Jewish people, and managed to smuggle a huge percentage of their Jewish population to safety in Sweden. They relied upon the goodness of their people, and The Whispering Town shows how the shopkeepers and neighbours all helped the hidden Jews in one cellar in Gilleleje to escape by boat from the harbour. The illustrations depict the Nazis as menacing, gun-wielding soldiers and the Danish people with simpatico faces. Cleverly, the Jews hiding in the cellar are simply white pen lines on black – a shadow almost. The colours throughout are muted – pale greens, much black and grey – other than the stark red of the Nazi symbol on the soldiers’ shirtsleeves. This may be a story of hope and salvation, but the events happened in a terrible time. My feeling is that it’s important to teach children that there is hope despite the horror of six million Jews and many other people losing their lives during the Holocaust. It is vital that children understand there are pockets of goodness and humanity. If a whole nation can rise up against the Nazis, then it is possible for goodness to overcome. This link describes the Danish efforts well.

usborne holocaust

After a wealth of discussion of story, it is worth consulting some reference too. One such title that sets things out clearly and easily for children is Usborne: The Holocaust. In a matter-of-fact tone, but with excellently precise vocabulary, Susanna Davidson sets out the narrative of the Holocaust, encompassing the roots of anti-Semitism, the Nazi definition of whom they defined as being Jewish, the treatment of other minority groups, the advancement of Germany through Europe, the increasingly harsh treatment of Jews and minorities, before going on to address ghettos, and the final solution. It also covers small acts of defiance in the face of certain death, both from Jews and non-Jews, which is really important. It’s simple to understand, crams a mass of information into short digestible chunks, and does its very best to explain a seemingly inexplicable event. Despite its conciseness, the book does contain graphic information on the killing of Jews, including shooting at mass graves and the death camps. It also quotes people from the time, and includes graphic images, including the painting ‘Gassing’ by Auschwitz survivor David Olere. There are many photographs too, including those of a survivor at the liberation of Belsen. Be warned, this is not a book for young children, but would do well to accompany those studying the Holocaust at Key Stage 3. The afterword throws up some questions that children may ask afterwards, and doesn’t try to answer them, but instead finishes on the note that the Holocaust is not something that should ever be forgotten.

DK Holocaust

I’ve not included a comprehensive review of DK Holocaust, a title that I worked on myself, as sadly, it appears to be unavailable at most good bookstores. However, if you can get a copy it’s an all-encompassing examination of the Holocaust for older children, which I worked on with the superb writer Angela Gluck Wood. I can self-promote shamelessly as I receive no royalties.

Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th.

 Usborne Holocaust was very kindly sent to me by Usborne Publishing