Second World War

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. So it’s fitting that in primary school library book club this week we were looking at the theme of diaries. My Y6 cohort embraced this with gusto, reading everything from The Wimpy Kid to Artichoke Hearts to Anne Frank’s Diary. Which brings us back to the Holocaust. They spent the first five minutes debating how old Anne Frank would be if she were alive today and where she might be living. It was a memorable and emotional discussion.

peter in perilPeter in Peril by Helen Bate is a graphic novel that aims to show how the people swept up in the Holocaust were ordinary people. This is a tame book for a young audience though, and doesn’t go into any detail on the camps or genocide, but instead illuminates the dangers and changes that one Jewish boy went through during the Second World War, hiding from the Nazi’s. Despite the fear and darkness, Peter is one of the lucky ones. Perhaps why the book is subtitled: Courage and Hope in World War Two.

The story is written in first person by Peter, a young boy living in Budapest, who loves football and cake. Like Anne Frank, he too is forced into hiding, but unlike most Jewish people, he is reunited with his parents and his former home by the end of the war.

Because it is told from a young person’s perspective, there is an ignorance to what is actually happening around him – but from the action the reader will understand that Peter survived round-ups of Jewish people by moving hiding places several times, the only constant being a colouring book; he frequently faces hunger and cold. Despite the removal of the more harrowing elements of the Holocaust, the reader will understand that this was a horrific time, challenging and frightening for even the luckiest child.

The novel is in graphic novel/comic book style, which makes it very easy to follow for the most reluctant reader; in fact the book’s pictures working best when they aren’t annotated with incidental dialogue.

This is a true story, and the background of what happened in Budapest during the war is given at the back, as well as a summation of what happened to the real Peter. Many of Peter’s extended family were killed in the death camps, although miraculously he and his parents and baby brother survived and continued to live in Hungary.

My only wish is that the figures involved in deportation were explained. In March 1944, there were more than 800,000 Jews living in Hungary (as a result of annexations from Slovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia). In May 1944 deportations began and in just eight weeks, 424,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Yad Vashem statistics). 

You can buy a copy of Peter in Peril here

TomiThere are fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust now living, and it’s important to hear their accounts. Tomi Reichental’s Holocaust Story has been retold by Eithne Massey for young readers age 10+. Tomi describes Tomi’s life in Slovakia, at first pretty idyllic, but then it deteriorates rapidly, firstly because of the taunting Anti-semitism from schoolmates, and then from restrictive laws passed forbidding Jewish people to go to school. Then the arrests start, and finally Tomi is captured and sent to Bergen-Belsen. Amazingly, Tomi survived, (although 35 members of his extended family were killed). As above, this is told through the eyes of a child, and so shies away from the absolute horror of Bergen-Belsen, but is still a devastating read, (much more so than Peter in Peril) although Tomi is appropriate for children, in that it explains the Holocaust in a powerful yet simple way.

Told in narrative format, novel-like in its prose, yet with a slight distance to protect the reader, the book describes graphic events – the death in the carriage on route to the camps, the whips of the guards, death and disease within the camps.

There’s a clear balance needed between explaining the truth of what happened – even to young children during the Holocaust – and protecting today’s children from nightmares and fear. And yet, there is also a duty to make sure we and our children ‘never forget’. In a time of rising anti-Semitism again, it is crucial that these true accounts are shared widely, absorbed, and lessons learnt. As Tomi says “I realised that, as one of the last witnesses, I must speak out. I owe it to the victims that their memory is not forgotten.’ We owe it to Tomi to read and understand his story. You can buy Tomi here. 

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

our castle by the seaI don’t know what the state of the world will be like this first Sunday of 2019, because I’m writing this review from the depths of Brexit mania in December 2018, but I do know that this historical fiction for readers age 9+ will still be relevant. Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange is set in a lighthouse overlooking the sea – looking out towards Europe from our tiny island – and the book, like the lighthouse, takes a wide perspective on our world – on conflict, family and belonging.

It is 1939 and Petra lives in a lighthouse that dominates a landscape of secret tunnels, sweeping beaches, and ancient legends. Stormy skies above are swiftly being overtaken with enemy planes. To complicate matters, Petra’s mother is German, and before long the police suspect that spying activity is going on within the lighthouse and ‘Mutti’ is interned for being a foreign enemy.

Strange’s attention to detail creates a filmic picture in the reader’s mind – in a visually notable scene the family have to paint the lighthouse green to camouflage it – and Strange also details the lighthouse’s workings and logbooks. There is another fabulously memorable scene in which Petra tries on a gas mask for the first time – the sensory feelings invoked feel authentic as if Strange has experienced it first-hand.

So the book works as an excellent study on the home front during the war – but it also excels in delivering on its themes, not only across the novel but also in small linguistic ways – using imagery of the sea and water in metaphor:

“like water freezing in the cracked surface of a stone, those secrets were growing colder, harder, starting to force us apart.”

Strange also ties ancient legend from the location into Petra’s situation: the nightmare of the legend of the Wyrm, the swirling treacherous waters that devour ships off the coast, comes to life in the danger that stalks ordinary people in wartime.

And yet there is also the extraordinary dichotomy of carrying on life as normal whilst things are clearly not normal in wartime. Strange explores this with her controlled plot and confident writing. There is a clear sense of a family trying to swim when all about are sinking and no one is willing to throw a lifeline.

Historical fiction works best when it gives an accurate portrayal of how people once lived and excavates the social fabric of their lives, and also when it manages to invoke thoughts in the reader about their current situation – and fundamental to Strange’s plot is working out where people’s allegiance lies – and where the finger of suspicion is pointed. Not all is as it seems in Petra’s life, people hide who they are and what they are doing, and as she uncovers the truth, so does the reader, triggering thoughts about the still common practice of attributing labels and stereotypes to people – framing them within a pre-conceived identity. Historical novels can be a great indicator of the present day.

Not unlike Letters to the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll, published for children last year, the landscape is fundamental to the plot, and it provokes thought on what we make of the structures and landscapes we inhabit.

Strange doesn’t hold back on her fiction just because it’s for children, and this is another powerful novel from a skillful writer. Absorbing and truthful, the characters are a far cry from the stony coldness or petrification that the name Petra implies. In fact, they show bravery, compassion and emotional strength – something we could learn from, entrenched as we are in our present political turmoil. You can buy yourself Our Castle by the Sea here, and be transported to its wild coastline and wartime experience.

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com and follow Lucy Strange on twitter @theLucyStrange

The Lost Magician by Piers Torday

the lost magicianWhen I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a child I had no conception of the word ‘allegory’, and certainly hadn’t grasped the idea that I was reading a story that CS Lewis described as ‘supposal’: “Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there.

Piers Torday has taken Narnia to heart in his latest novel, The Lost Magician, writing it he says as an homage to Narnia. And although there is no Christian allegory, there is definitely much ‘supposing’, and a supposition of a world that mirrors our own in presenting conflict and argument and much darkness, except that, in Torday’s Folio (his version of Narnia), there are talking bears and a self-doubting unicorn.

It is 1945 and Simon, Patricia, Evie and Larry have survived the Blitz, despite the scars it has left on their memories. They arrive at Barfield Hall, a country house, where lives a female professor involved in experimentation revolved around imagination. Through a portal in a strange library in the attic they stumble across a world called Folio – an enchanted kingdom of bears and knights and other creatures found in stories, but also of futuristic fluid metallic robots. These two factions are at war, and the children’s learned horrors of their own war teaches them that they must stop this war, the key to which is finding the lost magician – the creator of the library who has been missing for centuries.

On the surface this novel is a good classic adventure story, with a cast of empathetic children who feel far more authentic than the Narnia quartet, with an intrusion of real world scars into their psyche. Simon, the eldest, has his perceived ideas of masculinity on display, wanting to show his prowess to emulate his war-hero father. Evie experienced trauma in the war, whereas for Larry, the youngest, shown still clutching his teddy and bumping him up the stairs (a la Christopher Robin and Pooh), the rubble of the Blitz was merely a grand landscape for exploration. With them all, their witness to the horror of war informs their decision making.

And the world of Folio that Torday has conjured feels as well-drawn as Wonderland. The reader can see the beauty of the green countryside of fairy-tale land – the house of the three bears, the trees, the fields, the wind buffeting the foliage. And yet also, all too clearly, the metallic glint of the oppositional city, with its enduring light glowing like a beacon of future possibility, and the metallic people, strong and upright.

So on one level this is, as Narnia, a simple trip into a new world through a portal in the old, told in gripping, pacey language with tension and pathos and humour, with Torday’s marvellous descriptive language carrying the reader through with a light touch of his magic pen. And yet, there is so much more when one looks beyond the surface enchantment.

Of course there are literary allusions within the text. Nuggets of Narnia are dripped like gold leaves into the novel, and any novel that uses a library as a portal is bound to make use of the literary canon of children’s literature, and a particular action sequence reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark….

But peel further, and the layers of the novel reveal much much more. Whereas Larry enters Folio through the shelves of ‘Read’ books – representing fiction, Evie enters through the UnReads – the books that represent the facts of the future, the non-fiction. And there is still another shelf in the library through which no-one enters, but which poses the greatest existential threat of all – the Never Reads. These represent ignorance.

When the children enter Folio, they discover that the Reads are at war with the UnReads – a clash of fiction and fact, of fairy tale characters and fact-based sci-fi robots. Larry chooses the Reads, as one would expect from the way he treats his teddy as a live being. Evie ‘betrays’ the other children by choosing the UnReads, wanting to believe in the bright shiny future of hard fact. Here, Torday is clever to draw some ambiguity over the ‘truths’ given by the Queen of the Unreads – a shady figure although physically illuminated in bright numbers, with a body that’s essentially fluid – much like her facts. She is mirrored of course on the White Witch.

By casting his war as story vs fact Torday is speaking to the very heart of what is happening in our society today. The battles in the book are ferocious, the sides pitted heavily against each other; a fractious world of polarised arguments in an angry climate. Here truth is twisted to lies, story is laid as propaganda, news is fake, and trust is misguided.

But this is a novel, and so Torday waves his wand to provide some clarity. The children discover that stories, even of one’s own past, are crucial in providing explanation for our world. That knowledge is valuable and true facts worth remembering, that imagination can provide a crutch when dealing with our own reality.

And yet all this is at risk from the fire and fury of the Never Reads – the ignorant. This last ‘shelf’ of books poses a threat to both the Reads and the UnReads. Whether the threat of the ignorant recalls the Nazi book burning, or Trump’s reported lack of reading will depend upon the reader – and this too is where Torday makes another point. This book is about the power of the reader, and particularly the child as reader – again a paean to those Victorian and Edwardian children’s authors, Carroll, Lear, Barrie, Milne, and CS Lewis who understood the deep influence of the literature people read when they were children, and the power of the child to see wonder in the world.

By the hopeful end (this is a children’s book), the reader understands their own power and also how to use it wisely in reaching across the gulf to understand another’s point of view, recognising that humans have more in common than that which divides them.

There is much more here too – the importance of libraries, a clever nod to the evil of numbers in WW2, building the new without destruction of the old, an understanding that not all children are avid readers – Simon in the novel is dyslexic in a time when dyslexia wasn’t recognised. But above all, there is the beauty of Torday’s writing in telling a good story.

The Lost Magician proves that Torday is on top of his game in spinning the storytelling magic – this magician is anything but lost and any reader who picks up the book will be well and truly found. You can buy it here.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally WonThe sequel to the award-winning The War that Saved My Life, published in 2015, this extraordinary book manages to encapsulate a feeling of extreme hope and love despite the many traumatic aspects of the protagonist’s life (and those around her).

It’s easy to understand the background of the novel without having read the first title, although it is so good that I’d encourage readers new to Kimberly Brubaker Bradley to go back and read the first before this one.

The War I Finally Won is set during the aftermath of 11-year-old Ada’s recovery from corrective surgery for her clubfoot. She has been rescued from her abusive birth mother (mainly by the fact that an air raid bomb has killed her mother), and is now living in the countryside with her younger brother Jamie, and her new guardian, Susan. As well as dealing with the fallout of a childhood of abuse, and therefore a distinct lack of ability to trust, Ada has to deal with a world at war.

Brubaker Bradley encapsulates wartime rural life with aplomb; exploring details of the class structure, love for animals, the dangers of disease, anguish for those sent abroad to face combat, and the everyday struggles for survival with rations, blackouts and dispersed families. When a young Jewish German refugee comes to stay, what happened to German Jews during the war is explored gently and sensitively, and there are references to Bletchley too.

Grief is touched upon, with references to both Susan’s loss, and a grief that comes later on in the book, and it is delicately nuanced and sympathetic. With so many conflicted and damaged characters gathered in one place, there is bound to be drama, but Brubaker Bradley never stoops to melodrama to eke out her story.

This is an empathetic, realistic and in the end, joyful story of a young girl coming of age in the most difficult circumstances. However, her courage and empathy pull her through and readers will get lost in the landscape and characters portrayed. A most readable and enthralling story for this age group, this is a thoughtful and wise book, well worth adding to the canon of World War II fiction for middle grade readers. You can buy it here.

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.