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Younger Fiction

There have been some beautiful stories for younger children recently – books for newly independent readers (those comfortable enough to tackle chapter books by themselves).

legend of kevinThe Legend of Kevin by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Reeve and McIntyre, of Cakes in Space fame, bring their zany storytelling to this new magical tale about a rotund flying pony, blown from the outermost West to a tower block in Bumbleford. The over-riding theme is friendship but there’s a pervasive feeling of community throughout, and an understanding of providing solutions for problems, no matter how peculiar the problem (mermaid hair styling), and how outlandish the solution. There’s acceptance of difference, and an emphasis on ordinary heroes.

The success of this author/illustrator pairing, and there are those who wait ravenously for each new book, is that the text and pictures work perfectly in harmony. Gaps in the text are filled by the pictures, humour in the pictures is enhanced by the text. The pair know exactly how to pace the book, when to digress and when to pull back to the plot. With their trademark mermaids and naughty sea monkeys, this is a delight (for slightly younger audiences than their previous books), and marks a determined shift towards reality, as the Outermost West comes to a city not unlike the reader’s, complete with mundane shops, headmasters and mayors. You can buy it here.

sherlock and baker street curseSherlock and the Baker Street Curse by Sam Hearn

Super sleuthing comes to the younger fiction department in this glorious play on the trope of Sherlock Holmes. Transported into a school, the Baker Street Academy, Sherlock is just a school boy solving mysteries. But it’s the use of media that works so well here. The plot is relayed through a series of different text formats – Watson’s diary, comic strip illustrations, notice boards, webchats, emails etc. There’s a mystery to solve of course – and the reader can solve alongside Holmes, Watson and Hudson, as long as they don’t get misguided by a red herring.

In this book in the series, Sherlock and his friends have to solve a ghost mystery, dating back to when the school building was a family home. There is a great warmth that exudes from the text, and the dialogue feels authentic and friendly. A slick introduction to mysteries. You can buy it here.

ivy and beanIvy and Bean: One Big Happy Family by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I had my favourite American characters when I was little – Ramona Quimby and Amelia Bedelia spring to mind instantly. I don’t know if it was their spunky characters or their derring-do adventures, or perhaps the setting – in a school grade system I didn’t understand, with towns boasting large white houses with sweeping driveways, and vibrant lawns with tyre swings hanging from trees. For the next generation, and slightly more down-to-earth, is Ivy and Bean. This delightful friendship between quiet Ivy and rambunctious Bean, two seven-year-olds who live in the same street, is a celebration of old-fashioned values and community America. But mainly it’s just a fun chronicle of two girls and their neighbourhood adventures. What appeals most is the amount of free time the girls have to indulge their passions and make their own fun – rather like The Secret Seven did.

Barrows seems to have an understanding of the limitless possibilities offered by the best childhoods, and she includes all the fabulous childhood obsessions from glitter, to being made to tidy up, to sharing. This eleventh book in the series celebrates being an only child, or rather not being spoiled. You can buy it here.

first prize for worst witchFirst Prize for the Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Another series that should be celebrated for its longevity is The Worst Witch. Not only bearing my favourite character names, Mildred Hubble’s and enemy Ethel Hallow’s images are burned onto my brain – those illustrious illustrations of schoolgirl witches hanging on broomsticks with plaits flailing behind them, dangling untied shoelaces, and the haughty thinness of Miss Hardbroom. The utter enjoyment of seeing Mildred learning from her mistakes continues to this day, with Mildred battling to be chosen as Head Girl, against all the odds. Although the first in the series was published in 1974, this latest (and reportedly last) lives up to the high standard set by the first, and is an utter nostalgic joy for the adult reader, and an excellent gentle introduction to chapter books for new readers – it’s humorous, accessible and still relevant. You can buy it here.

nelly and monster sitterNelly the Monster Sitter: the Grerks at No. 55 by Kes Gray, illustrated by Chris Jevons

Repackaged in August with new illustrations, although the original text was first published in 2005, these hilarious books sit comfortably between Horrid Henry and The Bolds as accessible, funny, highly illustrated chapter books just right for newly independent readers. Nelly likes monsters, and happily takes care of the little monsters in the neighbourhood after school whilst the parent monsters take some time off. She’s in high demand, but has no idea of the type of monster she’ll encounter before she arrives. Each adventure showcases Nelly’s wit and quick-thinking – she’s a brave, down-to-earth and likeable protagonist, and as one would expect from Kes Gray, there is plenty of word play, great visual description (enhanced by the illustrations), and a lively exuberance that permeates the text. The winning formula here is that the monsters’ lives are so mundane. You can buy it here.

oscar and catastropheOscar and the CATastrophe by Alan MacDonald, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Another skilled writer for this age group is the indomitable Alan MacDonald, author of the Dirty Bertie and Superhero School series, among others. His straightforward easy to understand style is great for flourishing readers, and enables them to zip through his books at speed, promoting confidence and fluency. Oscar and the CATastrophe is the third in this series about Oscar the talking dog and his owner Sam. In this latest adventure, Oscar has been shocked to silence by the appearance of a neighbourhood cat and Sam is worried about the jewel thief in town. Gentle humour and basic plotting, but perfect for growing readers. You can buy it here.

Zebras and Lollipops

On route to take my younger children to school, we have to cross four roads. Two are minor, and two are main roads, neither of which two years ago had a zebra crossing. I decided to use my campaigning skills to petition the council and Transport for London to install one on the school’s road. And to my delight, a year later, they did. Now I use it about four times a day, and it serves the local park too.

phantom lollipop manAnother school that has a zebra crossing outside, is Izzy’s school in the Pamela Butchart book, The Phantom Lollipop Man, illustrated by Thomas Flintham. This seventh book in the ‘Baby Aliens’ series continues the exploits of Izzy and her friends and their school. In this title the friends are shocked to discover that their lollipop man has disappeared. Instead, they feel an unsettling coldness even when wearing tights, and start to see wispy clouds in the playground. Could he have died and now be haunting the school? So Izzy and her friends determine to find out.

On the surface, this is another exuberant adventure from brilliant comedy writer Pamela Butchart. The text flows with Izzy’s characteristic breathlessness, driving the reader through the plot and as always staying true to the brilliant friendship group, each member clearly distinguished by their character traits.

But what makes the book so endearing, other than the CAPITAL LETTERS, illustrations and energetic use of dialogue, is Butchart’s complete comprehension of schools. From her understanding about the importance of blu tack through to school office workers’ signs and the attitude of lunch supervisors, this is imperative as young readers feel a sense of familiarity with the world being created.

And although the books are hilarious – this one in particular had me laughing out loud every few pages and is definitely the funniest so far – there is an insightful compassion for the community of a school – the way that each component is dependent on another, and some real truths about what we value in society.

Izzy and her friends point to the lack of value we place upon certain people – lollipop workers included (but also perhaps, the school officer workers, the librarians, careworkers etc) and how important their roles are, and how they should be recognised. It’s a subtle message underlying the hugely comedic text, but a vital one. And Butchart also points out the loneliness that can be experienced in old age – when juxtaposed with the intense intimacy of Izzy and her friends, it becomes even more apparent.

This is a superb book that deals with community, values and society, and rounds off nicely with good use of the library and empathy for other people. A riotous, happy, storming success. A really top series for newly independent readers. I hope they keep coming. You can buy it here.

zebra crossing soul songOn a similar theme, but for teen readers is Zebra Crossing Soul Song by Sita Brahmachari. This is a book published by dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke, and is suitable for a reading age of 8, even though its subject matter is for teens. But it’s an enjoyable read for all.

Lenny has spent most of his eighteen years crossing the nearby zebra crossing, aided by the singing ‘zebra man’ Otis. But when Otis isn’t there anymore, Lenny, who is himself struggling as he sits his psychology A-level, looks back on his memories of them together, through music, and finds a way to move forwards.

Cleverly, the fixed point of the zebra crossing gives a clear focus for Lenny to look back on his school years from nursery to A-Level as he reaches a crossroads in his life. And the shared passion of music gives Lenny and Otis a clear bond, and also a vehicle for Brahmachari to use music as a distinguishing feature in her novel, as the story is written in music memory tracks – music as a recall mechanism, but also as a form of writing in its own right – like a poem.

When Otis disappears, Lenny uses his knowledge of psychology and memory, as well as music to find out what happened in Otis’s past to affect his future, and discovers that not only does music hold a bond with the past, but a vital component of Lenny’s life going forwards.

This is a cleverly woven piece, with a sympathetic bond between two people, and, as in Butchart’s light-hearted book, an awareness that although some people aren’t highly valued by society, they are highly valuable as individuals and in the role they play. Lollipop men and women are there to save lives – and sometimes literally do, and they play a positive role in shaping the community they serve. Sometimes it’s the quiet people who make the difference. You can buy it here.

 

 

Skycircus by Peter Bunzl (Book Three of the Cogheart Series)

skycircusWhen I was reading Skycircus, I couldn’t help but think of The Greatest Showman. The success of that film wasn’t down to critics, who panned the movie on its opening weekend, and I went to see it (somewhat reluctantly and with low expectations) with the children, and now own both the DVD and the soundtrack and secretly play them when the children are at school. Is it the music, or is it perhaps the emotions that circuses inspire that proved it such a great success?

The Greatest Showman is based very loosely upon PT Barnum, remembered for his travelling circus. Ironically the film sets out to show acceptance of difference, despite Barnum being known for his exploitation and sometime racism.

Circuses have long been a source of inspiration and imagination for novelists. Many children’s book characters visit the circus at least once in their series – Pippi Longstocking, Madeline, Doctor Doolittle, Claude, Paddington Bear all went to the circus, and some of my favourite stand-alone literature is set in the circus – The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll, Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfield.

The circus arena is a great site for storytelling. As with theatre there’s the theme of appearance and reality, what’s hidden behind masks and costumes, but the circus also brings a daredevil nature to the stage – acts that seem impossible, daring and courage, excitement and danger. And an inherent subversive nature. Whether it’s the people behind the circus – seen for such a long time as ‘other’ – or the arguments over mistreatment of animals in the arena, the dichotomy of both providing entertainment but also making money, and the long history and argument of exploitative acts versus acts celebrating freedoms.

Peter Bunzl had already incorporated elements of this into his Victoriana steampunk series that  begins with Cogheart, an adventure story that subverts history and science, featuring mechanimals, penny dreadfuls, clocks and cogs, the author supposing that mechanicals were more advanced than they really were – that humans had reached a scientific equivalent to robots and AI but without computing leading the way – instead using mechanical parts.

Skycircus, the third in Bunzl’s Cogheart series, transports the characters from Cogheart – Lily, her mechanimal fox Malkin and her human friend Robert into a circus adventure. With the energy and tone of the prior books, it adds to the atmosphere a circus in which the people are treated more as prisoners, and circus acts that fuse the mechanical with the derring-do of trapeze acts and escape artists.

On Lily’s fourteenth birthday, she receives a cryptic poem inviting her to a travelling skycircus, arrived in the locale. Not being able to resist the clues, she sets off to watch the acts, little failing to realise that it’s a trap and that before long she’ll no longer be the observer in the audience, but the headline act herself.

With references to the past books, and Lily’s own past creeping forwards to haunt her, the book works both as a stand-alone read but also a continuation of the series. Never shy with words, the book is meaty and dense – an imagined world full of science and steampunk and its accompanying vocabulary.

With a keen nod to today’s preoccupations of gender stereotyping (a plot twist for which I fell cog, sprocket and gear), and liberally littered with allusions to Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the leading thinkers of the time in which it’s set, this is a layered book with much to extrapolate. Of course, there’s much about exploitation, and of animals too, but mainly about how we see others who may seem different from us; whether it’s a seen physical manifestation (perhaps race or a disability), or whether its just about seeing things from another’s point of view. Whom do you trust and how far can science take us?

Despite all this, at its heart this is a thrilling, danger-filled adventure story. I particularly enjoy Bunzl’s small touches of humour and detail that imbue each story with depth of character and charm. The clown who speaks in spoonerisms in Skycircus, the magnificent understanding of the rolling out of the circus, and the allusions to ancient myths and the power of storytelling itself.

This is a grand book with a plot as tense as tiptoeing the tightrope, and bold narration that shouts as loudly as the red and white stripes of the circus tent. You can run away to your own circus here.

The Train to Impossible Places by PG Bell, illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino

train to impossible places“Letting people choose their own leaders is wonderful in theory, but they keep making the wrong choices. Better to have someone in charge who knows what they’re doing, wouldn’t you say?”

Is The Train to Impossible Places a post-Trump children’s novel? What started, according to notes from the author at the back of the book, as a made-up-on-the-spot bedtime story for his child has surely picked up political acuity and cultural relevance as it was written down and came to find its place on publishers’ lists and bookshops’ shelves.

At the heart of this fantastic adventure story is a fight between two entities – one who’s just a mean bully with the magical powers to imprison people and commands a huge army of stone statues (who come to life to spy and fight), and the other who has an obsession with spying on everyone with the intention to glean all the information in the world, and thus take his place as the most powerful man on the planet, keen to use knowledge to manipulate and coerce.

The narrative starts with eleven-year-old Suzy, a child character whose adventures begin at night-time, and thus stays clothed in her pyjamas and dressing gown throughout (like Sophie in The BFG, or Tom in his midnight garden, the boy in The Snowman). Bell makes use of Suzy’s dressing gown though – the belt and pockets coming in very handy. She finds a troll building a railway line through her house for the Impossible Postal Express. Too late to un-remember what she’s seen, and far too curious, she leaps aboard the train and becomes the new postie under Wilmot, the troll Postmaster, bound for the Union of Impossible Places – a series of magical worlds.

Her first job is to deliver a cursed package to the rather terrifying sorceress, Lady Crepuscula, but things take a turn for the worse when she decides not to deliver the parcel quite as she should. And the consequences stretch far beyond just one undelivered package.

Suzy is a physics nut, which is useful (or useless depending on your perspective) in a place in which the usual rules of physics turn surprisingly on their head; the trolls introducing her to fuzzics instead. With clever reference to real scientific principles such as energy, velocity and speed, Suzy not only uses her science to save the day more than once, but also battles to comprehend the new fuzzics of the Impossible Places, where wormholes are normal and whole cities hang upside down.

Bell’s knack of plot propulsion, with many twists and turns, ups and downs, and multiple viewpoints, keeps the action fast and fresh in a whizzing adventure story. At the same time he introduces an undercurrent of scientific principles, a clear witty nod to the feminist movement with his introduction of womanly Ursel, (a brown bear who is yellow – she’s a blonde by choice – and has the job of keeping the Postal Express moving by fueling it with fusion bananas), and also an acknowledgement of age-old industries dying and with them both the job market and a population’s sense of purpose.

The Postal Express has been whittled down to just a lone Postmaster, what with the advent of new technologies, and the old manufacturing level at Troll city is in decline. With problems on the railways, including occasional disconnects, some late post and last minute delays, Bell gives a sharp precis of our changing world and diminishing trades.

There’s also a huge dose of British irony, with humour nicely planted throughout the book, and witty allusions to much culture and storytelling of the past – including the chapter heading ‘The Lion, the witch and the war zone’ – parents reading the story aloud will adore the many references, not least the underwater ghost pirates, Lady Crepuscular and her stone army, and many more. I kept jotting down little notes next to the text – Miss Haversham, Dr Who, Harry Potter, Men in Black….

The book is so much more than this though. With clearly defined characters all with motives for their actions, an understanding of the rhythm and flow of a good book, comic flair, and above all a top-notch fast-paced adventure plot, this is a phenomenal new novel.

The publishers thought so too – they have spared no expense. There’s a beautiful cover that sits underneath the dust jacket, and glorious black and white illustrations throughout by Flavia Sorrentino. I particularly appreciated her rendering of Trollville. (turn the book upside down).

Don’t miss this one – it’s a cracker. I’m going to read it again now – this time to a willing listener, and I’m ready for book two (as yet no publication date). You can buy it here.

Lollies: An Interview with Liz Pichon, author of Tom Gates

LolliesThe Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (Lollies) is a celebration of the very best and funniest books for children, voted by children themselves after judges choose the shortlist.

The Lollies are a relatively new award in the world of children’s books, started in 2016 as a riposte to the demise of the Roald Dahl Funny Book Prize. So many children rate the value of a book by its comedy, with 63% of children surveyed for the Scholastic Kids Reading Report 2014 indicating that they wanted a book that made them laugh. This was their top priority, the next criteria was identifiable characters.

This year, the four shortlisted titles in the 9-13 years shortlist are Football School Season 2: Where Football Saves the World by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttelton and Spike Gerrell, Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure by AL Kennedy and Gemma Correll, My Mum’s Growing Down by Laura Dockrill and David Tazzyman and Tom Gates Epic Adventure (Kind Of) by Liz Pichon.

I took my own epic adventure and asked Liz Pichon some questions, on your behalf, as a celebration of her shortlisting, and also as part of the Lollies Blog Tour (when many book bloggers each take a different title on the shortlist and celebrate it for a day).

Tom Gates Epic AdventureHi Liz. You’ve won numerous awards for Tom Gates, including the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, Waterstones, Blue Peter Book Award etc. What does it mean to be shortlisted for a Lollies prize – you must be pleased humorous books are being recognised again.

I’m THRILLED! I love the fact it’s a prize for funny books too. It’s a great list so I’d encourage everyone to read them all and have a really good laugh!

Before Tom Gates, you worked on greetings cards with Giles Andreae in his Purple Ronnie days. Are you now happy working as author and illustrator on your own – or have you thought about making a book that’s a collaboration?

That’s right I did. I took my portfolio of designs to the Spring fair in Birmingham where all the companies who make cards and gift items sell into shops. Giles was on one of the stands and he looked at my work and then I got commissioned to do a range of cards which sold pretty well (I think!).

I used to illustrate other people’s work, but now I like illustrating my own stories as it means I can think about every aspect of what the book will look like. But never say never!

The doodling illustrations of Tom Gates are highly distinctive, and you often wear Tom Gates decorated accessories. Do you draw things in other styles any more or is Tom forever in your mind (and hand)?

Yes I do – I’m about to start work on a completely NEW story which will look different to the Tom Gates books – still funny hopefully, but different characters.

Does this mean the end is in sight for Tom Gates? And will Tom ever grow up – like Harry Potter?

Tom will remain the same age for now – like Bart Simpson I think. I have lots of ideas left for Tom and the family still – as long as I’m enjoying it and the readers are too – I’ll keep going. 

Apparently Tom Gates is headed for the stage with a brand new story in 2019. How involved are you in this venture and how different is it from producing a book?

So far I’ve been very involved and it’s SO exciting! I’ve been working a lot on the script which is a brand new story and my husband Mark is doing the music for the play. Some of the songs already feature in the books – but we have new ones too.

It’s The Birmingham Stage Company who’ll be taking the play on tour and Neal Foster – who runs it – has been amazingly collaborative. They already do Horrible Histories and Gangsta Granny – so they are experts at putting on fantastic children’s theatre. It’s going to be amazing I know.

It’s quite different from the books in some ways because this is the chance to find out different things about the characters and bring them to life. I have loved the process so far. It’s on tour all next year – so go and see it!

Are you surprised by the popularity of Tom Gates? Is it particularly pleasing to have Tom Gates books recommended as being for reluctant or struggling readers?

You always HOPE that the books will do well – but until they’re out in the world you really have no idea!

I love that kids who don’t think reading is for them seem to be enjoying the stories and being creative too. That’s been amazing – watching the way children have got into the doodling and making stuff from the back of the books as well. All I wanted to do – was to make a book that I would have loved at that age and every time I start a new book, that’s what I keep in my head.

Lastly, I have burning question from one of my blog readers’ children, who is a big fan of Tom Gates: “Please ask Liz if she used to play the caramel wafer trick on her parents and if not, where did she get the idea for it?

Good question! I used to play this trick on one of my sisters and she’d do it to me too. We’d use club biscuits as well (other biscuits available!). They worked really well because they used to have an outer wrapper that you could slide the EMPTY biscuit back into and then put it on a plate. The other thing that would DRIVE everyone crazy is if we had a box of chocs – I’d pinch the good ones from the bottom layer as well! Ha! Ha!

With huge thanks to Liz Pichon for her time, and good luck in the awards. The winning book in each category will be decided solely by children’s votes, with schools and parents encouraged to help kids get involved and vote via the Lollies website.

The winning books will be announced in January 2019. If you haven’t read Tom Gates: Epic Adventure (Kind of), you can buy it here.

Bookwandering with Anna James

Pages & CoPages & Co: Tilly and the Bookwanderers by Anna James is the first in a trilogy that tells the story of eleven-year-old Matilda (Tilly) Pages, who has lived with her grandparents above their bookshop ever since her mother disappeared shortly after Tilly was born. If you’ve ever witnessed a child completely immersed in a book so that they don’t even hear their own name being called, then you’ll understand the type of character Tilly is. She loves books, and with good reason. Her grandparents’ bookshop is an idyll – with nooks and hidden corners, chairs to nestle into, and all the time the permeating aroma of hot chocolate and fresh baking from the café.  

But there is more magic to the bookshop than great cakes and good books. Before long, Tilly is seeing characters from books come alive inside the shop – at first they speak to just her grandparents, but before long she meets Alice (from Wonderland) and Anne (from Green Gables). And then, to her surprise, she finds she can accompany them back to their own worlds too – and her book wandering adventures begin.

The premise of the book is delightful for book lovers – to literally escape into the book, and James is brave here – writing words into Alice’s and Anne’s mouths, even writing a tea party scene from Wonderland, in which Tilly meets the Mad Hatter. James pulls this off with aplomb, capturing the essence of the classic characters in both their speech and their mannerisms. She also executes the rules of her bookwandering world with skill – adeptly laying out for the reader (and Tilly) when it’s possible to enter a book, how to exit, and how the whole system is managed.

Tilly discovers that bookwandering doesn’t just happen in her grandparents’ bookshop, Pages & Co, but in many others, and the management of bookwandering happens in the underbelly of The British Library, where she is eventually invited to learn the rules. (A really wonderful scene here, in which Tilly has to learn to bookwander by starting in an early reader, Peter and Jane book, in which nothing happens).

The book leaps into even more adventurous territory when Tilly discovers that bookwandering may explain her mother’s disappearance.

This is a wonderfully engaging and cosy book with adventure, magic and friendship, and may encourage children to venture towards the classics mentioned above (and also A Little Princess). Today, I’m delighted to welcome Anna James onto MinervaReads to tell you about the real places that inspired Pages & Co:

Anna JamesReal life inspired Pages & Co in several ways (and probably in many other subconscious ways I’m not even aware of). I’ve pulled from people, places, and feelings to try and make the world of the book feel as real as possible, despite the magic going on. There’s one place I literally just stole, but several others inspired some of the locations of the plotlines of the book; here are five that had the biggest impact.

  1. My grandparents house

Tilly’s grandparents are hugely important to her, and to the story. Tilly lives with them in their bookshop and they are essentially her parents. While all of the characters are fictional, Tilly’s grandparents are the most directly inspired by real people; my grandparents. Sadly they didn’t live in a bookshop, but they did live in a farmhouse that they converted themselves, in the Scottish Borders. It was a house with a real fire, with Grandad’s emerald velvet armchair in front of it, full of bookshelves, and the kitchen in Pages & Co is basically their kitchen with its pantry, big table and Grandma making gooseberry crumble

  1. Masons of Melrose

Linked to my grandparents house is Masons of Melrose, their local independent bookshop. When we visited we used to walk from their house down the River Tweed to Melrose where we’d visit the bookshop and then walk back to eat and read in front of the fire. This bookshop is also where my Grandad used to choose our Christmas books, and the booksellers there recommended me, via him, to read Northern Lights and Harry Potter when I was 10.

  1. The University of Birmingham

I studied Modern and Medieval History at the University of Birmingham and I specialised in the early modern period; the Reformation and Tudor History, especially the history of printing and the impact it had on the period. The university is a beautiful red brick campus and the Great Hall, where I graduated, was one of the buildings I used when I was creating the British Underlibrary. I also spent a lot of time in the library, which has since been updated and modernised, but the old red brick building that was at the centre of the campus is my library, and the one that influenced the Underlibrary (more on that later).

  1. North London

I’ve lived in north London for just over three years now and I love it. Hampstead Heath, Alexandra Palace, my local high street full of independent coffee shops – when I started writing Pages & Co the only place I could imagine it, was near where I live. It is entirely impossible it could be, with its four floors and architectural dubiousness, but it’s still where it is in my imagination. It’s also, crucially, near to Kings Cross St Pancras which leads me on to the last real place which inspired me.

  1. The British Library

I write mostly at my local coffee shop or at the British Library, whose airy quiet reading rooms are perfect to get you in the right mood for writing. When I needed a location for a secret community of bookwanderers, I knew straightaway that it needed to be concealed somehow at this beautiful library. In the centre of the atrium there is The King’s Library, a tower of very old books, which is not accessible to the public, and it seemed the perfect place to hide a magical, apparently out of order, lift…

With huge thanks to Anna James for mapping her inspirational geography for MinervaReads. You can buy a copy of Pages & Co here.

 

A Chase in Time by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Brett Helquist

a chase in timeSally Nicholls, one of our most assured writers for children, has turned her attention to a new series of time-slip adventures for slightly younger readers (confident 7+ years), and the first novel, A Chase in Time, is a delight from start to finish.

Written in an accessible, abundantly clear and precise style, Nicholls wastes no time in diving straight into her plot, but also writes with one eye firmly on modernity, despite the bulk of the book being set in 1912.

Alex and his sister spend every summer at their aunt’s country house, which also doubles as a bed and breakfast. This summer is to be the last; Aunt Joanna is selling the house because money is short, and things are set to be different in more ways than one. Because this summer, when Alex looks in the golden-framed mirror that hangs in the hallway, he sees another boy in the mirror – and it’s not his reflection. Before long, Alex and his sister Ruby are sucked through the mirror back in time, to the same house in 1912. And the people who inhabit it desperately need their help.

Nicholls’ characters always tend to be strong-willed and confident, and Alex is no different. His voice rings wonderfully true, and he feels authentic and real because of his steadfastness and his quality of being incredibly grounded:

“Alex had never believed in those children in books who discovered secret passageways, or Magic Faraway Trees, or aliens at the bottom of the garden, and kept them a secret…What was the fun of a secret passage if you had no one to boast about it to?”

He and his sister constantly refer to their knowledge of time travel – garnered from books and movies; they are immediately self-aware that they are in this predicament to solve a problem, and once it’s been solved they’ll return to their proper time in history.

In fact, Nicholls is clever here. Not only do we really feel Alex’s character through his authentic voice, but she describes time travel with fresh eyes, all the while referencing those that have gone before her in the literary children’s canon. Once Alex realises where he is, he has expectations about the past – that perhaps the rooms would all look rather like a period piece from TV or The National Trust – but he finds that they are more real, more lived-in. He also describes the rooms and people matter-of-factly, but by pointing out the differences with modern day rather than just having a bland description. And when the children arrive back in their own time, reality dawns about what has happened to the people they met in 1912. This is all brilliantly executed by Nicholls and feels like a new way of dealing with time-slip historical fiction. It’s honest and interesting.

The adults whom Alex and Ruby meet are wonderfully eccentric, and the children they meet are as matter-of-fact as them – refusing to be impressed by the modern mobile phone, which of course isn’t that exciting without a signal in 1912. Equally, Ruby and Alex are impressed with some of the childhood freedoms of their 1912 hosts – the freedom to carry matches, for example.

The host of influences behind Nicholls floats in the background of her novel like benevolent shadows – Blyton and Streatfield in particular – with the plot zinging from a fire in the stables to a dangerous car chase (in a very old-fashioned car, wonderfully described with the fresh eyes of Alex), and some criminal catching.

Illustrated by Brett Helquist, best known for his work on A Series of Unfortunate Events, the text is punctuated with roman numerals clocks, ships in bottles, other artefacts, and pencil drawings of the characters – child readers will note the mobile phone held by Ruby and taken with her through the mirror, which she clasps even whilst dressed in Edwardian clothes. The illustrations help to break up the text, which is in rather large typeface: these elements all combining to make this a sumptuous, satisfying and accessible read.

All in all, it’s a modern classic of a book and my top choice for the summer because, in a most intelligent, perceptive and empathetic way, it portrays people who are generally accepting and kind. What a great introduction to reading for pleasure for new young readers. Published 2nd August, you can buy it here.

Death by Detention by Ali Sparkes

death by detentionThe other week in my school library, I was assigned a year 6 pupil for a day whom I never normally see. He’s not that into books or reading and shies away from the library space unless his friends are hanging there on hot days when it’s the coolest room in the school. So when he was assigned to me, there was a fair amount of reluctance. And yet, by the end of the day, there was a glint of enthusiasm there, a realisation that books aren’t bad. He read to younger students, held a book treasure hunt, and even agreed he’d come back (and not just for the chocolates!) It’s all about changing someone’s mindset.

Prolific children’s author Ali Sparkes is attempting to do the same thing with her latest novel, Death by Detention. It’s aimed at slightly older children than her usual books, aimed at the young teen reluctant readers, and although I don’t quite fit that mould, I’m captivated by a great story well told, and this fits that bill too.

The protagonists aren’t bookish or scholarly; they aren’t misunderstood geniuses but regular, can’t be arsed, worldly teens. Their attention spans are fairly narrow and they’re just the type of troubled teens who sit in detention planning their next game of Fortnite rather than concentrating on the homework in front of them, and they definitely don’t read books.

This book begins with these two teens, Elliot and Shania, in detention. And the book doesn’t hesitate – before the end of the first chapter, Elliot and Shania witness their head teacher shot from an unknown marksman outside the window, and then watch in horror as a laser beam seeks out further targets. They have to use their wits to make their way out of their deserted school before the gunman or men, realise they are there. What’s more, their head teacher looks as if he might be coming back…as a zombie.

For this generation of teens, there will be inevitable comparisons with Alex Rider type novels, but Elliot and Shania have to rely on their quick-wittedness and resourcefulness rather than some James Bond type gadgets in order to survive. And this is where Sparkes (and the reader) have a lot of fun with the novel. By using the precise orientation of the school as the setting for the entire novel, Sparkes is able to explore all the fun hidden spaces within its site – stationery cupboards of course, but also the high windows of a school gym, the maintenance crawl space above the toilet ceilings, the tannoy from the head teacher’s office, reception, and of course the gym cupboard. And as everyone who has read a high school drama knows – there’s plenty of scope to be had in the school theatre space. This meshes nicely with computer games – each action sequence is in a different setting.

Sparkes also captures the extreme physicality of the teens’ situation – they are not just running away or confronting the gunmen, but they feel their cramped limbs from hiding, they vomit in fear and relief, their hearts palpitate and they go into cold shock.

What’s more, as the reader roots for them to succeed, Sparkes alternates between the two protagonists’ point of view – their headspace – seeing not only what’s in front of them, but also thoughts about who they are, how they came to be in this situation, and the resilience and skills they might draw upon to see them through. It’s the clever writer’s way of drip feeding information about the main characters and Sparkes works her magic here, as well as proving her knack of showing character through action – there is no lengthy exposition.

The beauty of the book is that it reads like a computer game – it’s fast, pacey, gripping, and yet in prosaic format – Sparkes has time to give us apt similes – “Normally she attracted cops like a dropped Cornetto attracts ants.” The chapters are super short, ending in gritty cliff-hangers, much like levels in computer games. Her descriptions don’t interfere with the action, but merely enhance it – there is a multitude of sensations giving the text a visceral feel. The reader sees what’s dark and light, where the shadows creep, the sounds of silence and of approach and of violence.

And this perhaps is where readers or gatekeepers may feel a jolt. Sparkes reportedly failed to attract a mainstream publisher for the title – there are so many fears about showing a gunman in schools in a novel for children after the number of real school shootings in the States.

But I would argue that if publishers shy away from novels that may offend, then much of publishing would fall away, and be worse for it. In the same way that computer games don’t shy away from it, in the same way that dystopian novels portray children battling to death, or incidents of terrorism, then this shouldn’t be out of bounds here – particularly when in actuality this story is positioned very far away from what we think of as ‘school shooting’ or ‘act of terrorism’.

In fact, there’s much humour. There are numerous wry asides – the headteacher is positively brilliant at releasing humour into scary situations and is as sharp as a pencil, and the teens fare well in this regard too.

This is a fabulous entry or re-entry into books for reluctant readers. Short, sharp, witty and great fun, the reader will understand that it’s not great to judge someone by the stereotype attributed to them, in the same way that they’ll understand that facing a gunman with a resistance band and a cricket ball from the gym cupboard probably isn’t the best solution.

This up-to-the-minute pacey novel is a match for the screen any day. I’ll take detention – if they’ll let me read stories like this during it. Suitable for 11+ years. You can buy yours here.

Books for Younger Readers

I’m constantly blown away by the quality of books for younger readers, otherwise known as newly independent readers. This, of course, is how it should be. It’s a crucial time to create that love of reading for pleasure. If they actively want to spend time reading at this age and it becomes habit, then their transition to reading longer texts will follow. Here is my round-up of recent texts for newly independents – about age 6-7 years onwards (although each child reads at their own pace and shouldn’t be rushed).

Sam Wu
Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts by Katie and Kevin Tsang illustrated by Nathan Reed
Sam Wu is afraid of many things, but no one likes to admit being a scaredy-cat. After an incident during a school trip to the science museum, everyone, especially the school bully, figures out that Sam Wu is quite scared. To prove his bravery, Sam opts to keep a pet snake. The only problem is that he’s scared of snakes.

This is a new series by husband and wife team and their compatibility obviously pays off in the writing. Never a dull moment, and packed full of laughs, this is an endearing look at different cultures, friendships, and how to be brave. There are particular stellar characters, including a grandmother and a little sister, who delightfully is not stereotypically annoying, but actually a great help to Sam. There’s a fun layout with large typeface, capital letters to emphasise embarrassing and scary moments, and lots of fantastic illustrations from Nathan Reed. A great introduction to chapter books. You can buy it here.

great telephone mix up
The Great Telephone Mix-Up by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey
An absolutely charming tale about the importance of community, helping your neighbours and reaping the surprising benefits. When the phone wires in a sleepy little village get mixed up, the neighbours start to discover things about each other as they receive the wrong phone calls, and then have to pass on the messages.

It turns out that meeting each other face to face not only brings new friendships, but brings awareness of who in the town is struggling, needs help or may need to find love. Nicholls carefully gets over the problem of mobile phones by explaining there is no signal in the town (a message not entirely lost on rural communities), and so everyone relies on their home phone.

The story is simple, the text well-spaced, and illustrations by Sheena Dempsey positively charming. Each character is well delineated and there’s a diverse mix. A lovely addition to the Little Gems selection. You can buy it here.

noah scape
Noah Scape Can’t Stop Repeating Himself by Guy Bass, illustrated by Steve May
An altogether more nightmarish story from Guy Bass, in which the protagonist can’t get what he wants. Noah decides that if everyone in the world were like him, then that would solve the problem- after all the majority rules, right? It starts, as all school problems do, in the school canteen when Noah is served meat pie instead of spaghetti with tomato sauce.

When Noah wakes the next morning and goes to school, he finds himself already sitting in his seat – there are two of him. And each day the number of Noahs double until finally they get what they want. They also share the same opinions like a modern day echo chamber.

Or do they?

When the original Noah is outvoted by his 63 copies, Noah realises he still isn’t getting his own way. This is a brilliant examination of how to get along with others, as well as a great representation of coping in school when a child is having to manage a mental health issue such as OCD, which dictates that routine is of paramount importance to the day. Of course, there’s the numerical element too. Bass hasn’t quite tied up all the loose ends of the story either, so there’s plenty of room for speculation after reading. A fun, and also highly accessible read. You can buy it here.

happyville high
Happyville High: Geek Tragedy by Tom McLaughlin
One of the most hilarious young fiction titles I have read in a long time, I couldn’t stop sniggering, which of course made all the children near me want to read this too. Tyler is too smart for school and has been homeschooled for much of her life. But when she and her Dad move to Happyville, he enrols her in the local school.

This is no ordinary school though, and Tyler realises there’s something inherently wrong, especially when she reads the motto: “The more popular you are, the happier you become!” Being a bit of a nerd means that Tyler definitely isn’t popular, but she does make two friends in the library, who are equally ‘geeky’. Tyler is enthralled when she discovers that one of them has developed an algorithm to decipher which candy bar is best, with the results laid out on a spreadsheet. (Tyler’s excitement at being invited over to see this knows no limits.)

When the popular kids are struck with an affliction – their right arms elongate to enable them to take better selfies – the three new friends have to use their brains to rid the town of this vain disorder. There is much slapstick and silly humour but also a biting satirical look at the way our society ranks people and behaves. Fabulously funny in many ways and incredibly readable. For slightly older readers than the other books on this blog. Self-illustrated too. You can buy it here.

magical kingdom of birds
Magical Kingdom of Birds: The Sleepy Hummingbirds by Anne Booth, illustrated by Rosie Butcher
A gentler start to a series in this book about magical escapism – something we all might need from the world of selfie-sticks and cool school heroes. When Maya colours in the pages of her colouring book, she is whisked into a magical kingdom filled with the most enchanting colourful birds and their small fairy friends.

But, as with all idylls, trouble is brewing, and the evil Lord Astor has a plan to capture the tiniest, most vulnerable residents and put them into cages. Maya has the privilege and great responsibility of being Keeper of the Book, and she must protect the kingdom and its birds at all costs.

An early introduction to the beauty of the natural world, with each book in the series showcasing a different species, this is a wonderful start to early reading. The pages are exquisitely illustrated in black and white by Rosie Butcher, the text in many cases framed by a leafy border, encapsulating the words and the story in this natural landscape. Beautiful descriptions bring the birds and their habitat to life, and Booth hasn’t been afraid to introduce more difficult vocabulary, explaining words such as torpor, tubular and prophesy. You can buy it here.

unicorn academymuddle the magical puppythe spiderwick chroniclesA quick mention to three other series. Unicorn Academy by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Lucy Truman has hitchhiked perfectly onto the current zeitgeist for all things unicorn. With its sparkly covers and more grown-up illustrations, these reminded me of my adoration and loyalty to all things My Little Pony when I was a child. The Unicorn Academy adventures are school stories in which the girls each have their own unicorn, and each book introduces themes such as friendship, loyalty, and independence. The first in the series, Sophia and the Rainbow, introduces ten-year-old Sophia who finds out that each unicorn has its own special powers. The stories are simple, chapters short, but the series has the magical potential to turn reading into a habit. Likewise with Muddle the Magic Puppy and Cuddle the Magic Kitten series by Hayley Daze. Cute illustrations adorn the front and continue inside, with big eyes as a feature. In Muddle the Magic Puppy: The Magic Carpet, Muddle goes on a flying carpet adventure in Arabia. A long-established children’s writer has penned these, and the story is straightforward. Large typography and short chapters make comprehension easy. Lastly, for more advanced readers, the publisher Simon and Schuster have republished The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black in beautifully illustrated hardback editions. This gothic fantasy series is a great choice for fluent readers who want to expand their literary landscape – with a richly imagined world of dark fairies. The Grace children move into the Spiderwick Estate and through secret passageways and hidden doors, they discover that they are not alone in the new house. First published in 2003, with a 2008 movie, the series is well-worth revisiting for a new young audience.

 

 

Are you more Sugar & Sparkle or Fangs & Moonlight?

isadora moonIn 2016, I discovered a phenomenal new series for newly independent readers. The children had read through the Horrid Henry shelf, and the Claude shelf, and were looking for something different. Along came Isadora Moon by Harriet Muncaster. The adventures of a half vampire, half fairy with numerous illustrations in pink or black, and first experiences the children could relate to – starting school, birthdays, a school trip – were, and still are, extraordinarily successful. Here, Harriet has set a summer challenge for you – to discover if you are more fairylike (all sugar and sparkle), or more vampirelike (fangs and moonlight). Take the test and see:

My Isadora Moon series is about a little girl who is half-fairy and half-vampire. Her mum’s a pink, flowery, nature-loving fairy, while her dad is a slick, gothic, night-time vampire. That means she’s a bit of both: she loves doing ballet in her sparkly tutu, but she also loves swooping through the night sky.

Just like Isadora, I too love the look of both glittery pink fairy visuals and sleek black gothic aesthetics. And I especially love mashing the two things together, which is how I came up with Isadora Moon in the first place. But how about you? Are you more on the side of Sugar & Sparkle or of Fangs & Moonlight?

 

isadora moon

This list of my top five picks from each side (in no particular order!) should help you decide!

Sugar & Sparkle No.1

fairy yearBetty Bib’s Fairy Year – Four Whole Seasons of Fairy Magic by Betty Bib (2007)

Presented as handbooks for fairy spotters from the perspective of someone who lives with fairies, the Betty Bib fairy books have always been a huge inspiration to me. As the title suggests, this book follows the lives of fairies over a whole year. I adore the mix of 2D watercolour illustration with photographs of beautifully-dressed 3D models of fairies. As someone who loves to make things, these photographs just captured my attention and I spent hours poring over them when I first discovered these books.

Fangs & Moonlight No.1

pongwiffyPongwiffy and the Holiday of Doom by Kaye Umansky and illustrated by Chris Smedley (1995)

Oh my goodness, I love Pongwiffy! This ‘witch of dirty habits’ lives in a filthy hovel in Number One, Dump Edge, but don’t let that put you off her: she’s hilarious. Kaye Umansky’s world comes to life with a memorable supporting cast of witches and wizards, each with their own distinct personalities. When Pongwiffy takes it upon herself to book a trip to the seaside for her coven, I love seeing them all cope on a British beach holiday for a week with no magic.

 

pookieSugar & Sparkle No.2

Pookie by Ivy Wallace (1946)

Ivy Wallace presents the sort of old-world fairytale charm you almost never see any more with her beautiful paintings of a quaint forest inhabited by various elves, fairies, pixies and, of course, Pookie himself. Pookie is a fluffy white rabbit with little fairy wings that don’t fly. He’s not like the other creatures and has nowhere to belong. This first story is about how he finds someone to love him and how she helps his wings grow so that he can soar through the air.

Fangs & Moonlight No.2

DorrieDorrie and the Birthday Eggs by Patricia Coombs (1971)dorrie and the birthday eggs

The Dorrie books are some of my absolute top favourite books of all time! Dorrie is just the cutest little witch with her odd socks and black cat, Gink. She lives in Witchville with her mother, the Big Witch. In this book, the villainous Thinnever Vetch plots to steal the enchanted eggs of the Egg Witch’s magic hen. I was actually terrified when I first turned the page as a child and saw the picture of Thinnever Vetch spying through Dorrie’s window! Mostly though, I love the creepy yet comforting atmosphere of these books. I also love Patricia Coombs’ use of pencil and crayon to create her soft and wispy illustrations, often only in black and white or with one or two other colours.

Sugar & Sparkle No.3

nursery rhymesDean’s Gift Book of Nursery Rhymes illustrated by Janet and Anne Grahame Jonstone (1965)

Like Pookie, this is another book full of old-world charm. While the text is just the classic nursery rhymes you would find in any similar collection, it’s the lavish full-page illustrations that draw me in. I love the really sumptuous way the two illustrators colour and shade all the clothing, such as the billowing skirt of the old woman who lived in a shoe. Even though the style and fashions are clearly from the 1960s, the illustrations have a timeless quality. My favourite picture is of the anachronistically ‘punky’ fairies on the title page, with their wild pink and green hairstyles.


Fangs & Moonlight No.3

Vampire Boy’s Good Night by Lisa Brown (2010)vampire boys goodnight

I love spooky, gothic children’s books, but I don’t actually have too many about vampires! This one charmed me with its pastel illustrations and warm, comforting atmosphere. It’s a very straightforward story for younger children about a vampire and a witch who set out one Halloween to discover if children are real or not. When they find themselves at a Halloween costume party full of ghouls, zombies, vampires and witches they are confused. Are these real children? It’s all the detail in the pictures though that really bring the story to life.

Sugar & Sparkle No.4

peter panPeter Pan by J. M. Barrie (1911)

Everyone knows Peter Pan from the various film adaptations, including the Disney one. If you’ve only seen the films though, then you’re missing out. My favourite aspect of Peter Pan (of course!) is his fairy friend Tinkerbell. In the book she’s a real character with a clearly defined personality. She’s very beautiful, but also jealous and mischievous and naughty. I particularly love Barrie’s description of fairies being “so small they only have room for one emotion at a time.”

 

Fangs & Moonlight No.4

The Spider and the Fly by Mary Howitt and illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi (2002)

This picture book is about as Fangs & Moonlight as you can get. Every page of this nineteenth century cautionary poem has been lavishly illustrated with elegant and gothic greyscale spreads, often featuring comically macabre details such as the dead ladybird footstool the spider uses. Inevitably the suave top hat-wearing spider succeeds in luring the naïve and dainty fly into his web, but the illustrations are just on the light enough side of gruesome to appeal to its young audience.

 

Sugar & Sparkle No.5

fairy rebelThe Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks (1985)

Like Lynne Reid Banks’ most well-known series, The Indian in the Cupboard, this story is about someone meeting a miniature person who becomes a part of their life. This time, instead of a toy Indian, it’s a denim jeans-wearing fairy. My absolute dream would be to turn myself into a fairy, but my next best thing would be to meet a real, living tiny person. You can see then why this story would appeal to me! In this story, the fairy Tikki makes friends with the human Jan. The one thing Jan really wants is a child, and Tikki has the power to grant this wish. The only problem is that the fairy queen forbids any fairy to do magic for a human.

Fangs & Moonlight No.5

whispering to witchesWhispering to Witches by Anna Dale (2004)

Like The Fairy Rebel, this novel is aimed at older children to young teens. What I look for in my favourite books is a cosy, comforting atmosphere I can get lost in, particularly when mixed with a slightly gothic vibe. This book definitely has that, not least because it’s set around Christmastime. I also love that it’s set mainly in the everyday world from the perspective of a normal boy who happens to meet a witch and get drawn into a mysterious plot involving an evil witch. This book is full of mystery, suspense and magic.

 

Which side are you?

So which side draws you in more? Will you be checking out my Fangs & Moonlight suggestions, or are you more intrigued by the Sugar & Sparkle side? Looking through my shelves to put this list together, it’s easy to see which way I lean: I have far more fairy books than gothic ones. I even went through a fairy obsession as a teenager, collecting up anything fairy-related.

That’s not to say I don’t still have a great love for all sorts of spooky and gothic children’s books though. Even though I love Sugar & Sparkle, my library just wouldn’t be complete without a mix of the two, and I think the way I smooshed them together with Isadora Moon is the perfect expression of my love for both sides.

To buy Isadora Moon, click here. With thanks to Harriet Muncaster for her knowledgeable insights.