siblings

The Middler: Exploring birth order in dystopia

the middlerDoes birth order affect one’s personality? One’s success? There have been numerous scientific studies aiming to explore the effect of being a firstborn or a middle child or the youngest, and also of course an ‘only’. Even in The Bible, the firstborn inherited double that of other siblings, and was the new head of the household. Our royal family decide the line of succession by order of birth. Studies have shown that US presidents and science nobel laureates have been overwhelmingly first-borns, as were 21 of the first 23 NASA astronauts. But Charles Darwin, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King Jr, Bill Gates are all middle children. Does it really have a bearing on personalities, achievements, or is it down to parenting? Or nature?

Kirsty Applebaum has written a fascinating dystopian novel for children based around this very premise, that birth order dictates one’s role in a society. In her timeless setting, communities live in closed villages, and the firstborn is revered and idolised for fourteen years until each is sent away on the important mission of fighting in the Quiet War (never to return).   

Told from the point of view of a Middler, eleven-year-old Maggie resents the lack of expectations on her simply because she was born second in her family. But then she meets a wanderer – a girl who is living outside of the village boundary, a person whom Maggie has been warned against  – wanderers are ‘dirty’ and outside of civilised society. But gradually Maggie strikes up a friendship with wanderer Una, and before long she is questioning authority and the way of life she’s been used to.

Reminiscent of The Giver by Lois Lowry, Maggie is a strong-willed character who is willing to push against the physical and psychological boundaries placed around her – sensing that not all barriers between places and people are strictly necessary. Like Maggie Tulliver in Mill on the Floss, who subverts gender expectations by racing ahead of her big brother, Maggie here subverts expectations of her birth order, and goes against established duties and rules to summon her instincts and pursue what she feels to be right. She shows compassion and understanding for the wanderers, and a sense that all she has been taught about The Quiet War might not be completely true.  

Applebaum neatly explores what it is like for a child to test boundaries, to realise that authority is not always correct and that what she and the village are being fed is propaganda not truth. But at the same time, understanding the sense of disquiet going against the grain creates, and how difficult it is for a child (particularly a middler) to push against accepted rules and customs.

The book feels fresh and timeless, and speaks to our current zeitgeist of children standing up and questioning ‘received truth’, and then making a difference in the world. Here, Kirsty Applebaum explores the role of birth order in writing her novel:

Kirsty Applebaum: pic credit Donna Slater

It’s said that middle children often feel overlooked and unimportant – and Maggie Cruise is no different. She lives in an isolated community where only the eldest children are considered brave and special – like her older brother Jed. And her younger brother, Trig, is sweet and vulnerable – people can’t help but love him. So Maggie’s pretty fed up with being in the middle.

When I first began The Middler, I wrote from the viewpoint of an eldest child. The book was completely different, with a different title – and it wasn’t working. Then, in a flash of inspiration, I remembered an exercise I was given at school, to re-write a Greek myth from a particular character’s point of view. It was The Judgement of Paris. I chose the messenger Hermes, tasked with escorting three goddesses to the mortal Paris, so he could judge which one he thought the most beautiful. But afterwards, I realised I’d missed an opportunity – I should have chosen one of the losing goddesses. Surely they were the most interesting characters – the ones who lost out, the ones on the sidelines? I was annoyed with myself for weeks.

I decided to change my novel to the viewpoint of the middle child – the one who’s not special or brave or heroic. I re-wrote the opening lines, and The Middler sprang to life.

Maggie, though, is based very much upon myself – and I’m not a middler. But I often felt overlooked and unimportant, in spite of a happy childhood. Could it be that we all feel these same things to a greater or lesser degree? Eldests, youngests and middlers alike – and single children too? That we’re not always special? That we’re on the sidelines sometimes?

The good news is, from my conversations with friends and their children, many middlers find a lot to like about their position in the family. There’s nearly always someone to play with, for example. And a middler can be their ‘older self’ or their ‘younger self’, depending on how the mood takes them, and still have a suitable buddy to join them.

In The Middler, Maggie finds the brave, special hero that was inside her all along, ending up proud to be a middler. I hope all children can relate to her, regardless of their birth order, and be inspired to live as the courageous, unique person they already are inside.

With thanks to Kirsty Applebaum for her guest post. You can buy a copy of The Middler here.

Unstoppable by Dan Freedman

unstoppableI sometimes look at the lives of the children around me and marvel how they fit so much into each week. Whether it’s keeping up with friends, schoolwork, celebrity gossip, world news, or the myriad of hobbies, sports and activities they all seem to undertake. As well as copious hours on Insta of course (and reading!).

But it’s not just physical time and energy these activities consume, it’s also copious amounts of mental space. And with this busyness comes pressure.

Dan Freedman (author of the Jamie Johnson football novels) has tapped into this busyness, and also into the zeitgeist, by writing a pertinent YA novel for our times about pressure on teens, and linked to this, about the causes and motivations behind the rise in knife crime. Combining his knowledge of sports, and real-time information gathered from conversations with children during his school visits, Freedman has penned a gripping novel about how life for these children can seem unstoppable, how pressures build up and can lead to the difficult choices that may set them on the right or wrong path in life.

Covering a range of hugely contemporary issues, from alcoholism, first love, knife crime, gang warfare, poverty, parental and school pressure and the meaning of sports, Freedman keeps his novel fresh and spikey.

Fourteen-year-old twins, Roxy and Kaine, used to be close. But recently, their pathways have diverged – both are excellent sports players, Roxy training to be a tennis champion, Kaine good enough at football to be scouted for the Premier League.

But the path to success isn’t easy. As well as the hard work that needs to be put in, the teenagers face a daunting series of barriers – from their father’s joblessness and alcoholism, parental pressure to succeed, poverty, and, seeing as they live in London, the ongoing gang recruitment on their doorstep. It’s only a matter of time before knives are involved.

Highly readable, and with as much pace as a professional tennis serve, Freedman’s prose is in the ilk of genre writing – concise and tight, going for the simplest words but still managing to convey a depth to both setting and character. The writing is particularly astute on the sports field, and it is here that Freedman excels, making the reader believe that they are learning about two future sports stars.

There’s also the continuing issue of the teens’ mental health. Written in third person, but alternating between the points of view of Roxy and Kaine, this is a close up view of the pressure both children are under, but in different ways. What the book does, very cleverly, is point to the issues that are occupying today’s children and try to disseminate them within the narrative arc.

Supplementing the main prose are diary entries, flashbacks, old-fashioned notes!, and also text messages – with plot points turning on photos that come up on people’s social media feed. It might sound overwhelming to the reader, but is actually straightforwardly packaged, so that the reader is empathetic to Roxy and Kaine, (despite their differences), without feeling the pressure him/herself.

It’s interesting that there is equal emphasis on the internal and external for the twins. Their own determination and grit to succeed, their interior struggle with mental wellbeing, but also the sphere of their family and its wellbeing, and finally the exterior of peers and the dangers of the community in which they live.

A tribute to Freedman must go to his understanding that it is through individual acts of kindness (one person seeing employment potential in Roxy and Kaine’s Dad), and trusted adults (a teacher consistently rooting for Kaine; the memory of an unfaltering grandparent relationship) that the youngsters come good.

Despite the many issues, this is in essence about sibling rivalry and sport, and the story zings through the teens’ potential to their ultimate triumph, despite the hurdles in their way. For a rattling good read, and a dissection of how we live today, even unbookish sporty readers will be tuning in. And with an equal balance in having both gender protagonists, the book looks set to be Unstoppable. You can buy it here. 

A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison

a pinch of magicThere’s a purposeful foggy dark atmosphere to this magical new adventure from Michelle Harrison, award-winning author of The Thirteen Treasures, which makes it all the more mysterious and adventurous. Set on a series of fictional islands, often enveloped by a ghostly mist, and surrounded by marshes and rocks with the nearest neighbour an eerie prison, this is a tale of curses and sorcery, of magical objects and imprisonment, and yet through the fog, a tale of sisterhood and teamwork, boldness and bravery shines brightly.

The three Widdershins sisters, Betty, Fliss and Charlie, dazzle like a ray of sunshine in the mist, living and working with their grandmother in a busy pub. From the rowdy beginning on the night of Betty’s 13th birthday (unlucky for some), she and Charlie are first encountered galloping down the stairs, Halloween costumes billowing, dancing happily. The sisters are bubbly, proactive protagonists, particularly Betty, the novel’s focus, and she’s an absolute gem of a heroine. On her birthday, Betty learns that her family is cursed, and she endeavours to break the curse and set them all free.

The three sisters each possess a magical object that has been passed down to them through their family heritage – a carpet bag, a set of wooden nesting dolls, and a gilt-framed mirror – all of which they can use to help break the curse. In children’s literature there are many enchanted objects that have a role in directing plot or character, and the more ordinary the object, the more exciting their magic. A wardrobe perhaps (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), a ring (Lord of the Rings), or a mirror (Snow White). Here, the bag feels Mary Poppins-esque, and does indeed go deep. The mirror may be seen to be vain, but holds power, but Betty’s object is the wooden nesting dolls – which have always felt slightly spooky and enchanting to me – the hidden quality, the addictive nature of lining up the seams.

Harrison has great fun weaving the objects’ magic abilities into her narrative, but the bulk of the plot centres around the strangely powerful and dark prison. Believing a prisoner holds the key to breaking the curse, Betty endeavours to bargain his freedom for the answer, only to discover that it’s very easy to make mistakes on a prison break. With a delightful cast of prison villains, shadowy wardens, and suspicious townspeople, the atmosphere simmers with menace.

To embellish the story, and the atmosphere, Harrison has a special attachment to names. The three sisters live in The Poacher’s Pocket on the isle of Crowstone. Their surname, Widdershins, means to go in the wrong direction and is considered unlucky. Crowstone belongs to the Sorrow Isles, among which are the isle of Repent on which lies the prison, and the isle of Lament with its graveyard. These small details punctuate the text providing atmosphere and portent.

But with three intrepid brave girls working together, a rat called Hoppit and a cat called Oi, the darkness of the setting is always going to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the girls’ inner natures – their ability to help others when necessary, pull together in times of conflict, and use their wit and intelligence to break their curse. Harrison writes with more than just a pinch of magic – this is a compelling magical adventure that spellbinds the reader into believing in a whole other world, and understanding that envy, betrayal and prejudice are the real evils, whereas foggy marshes and spooky crumbling prison towers are merely landscapes.

A rich, charming tale for ages 9+.

Cover illustration by Melissa Castrillon

The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton, illustrated by Angela Barrett

the restless girls

It’s not hard in today’s modern society to view the Grimm fairy tales as patriarchal in their outlook, some verging on misogynistic, and although I firmly believe that they should be read within the context of their time, it’s easy to see how modern authors might want to write their own versions to realign some of the prejudices expressed within the original tales. Grimm’s original The Twelve Dancing Princesses, published in 1812, bears many of the hallmark tropes of patriarchal fairy tale narratives – the girls are locked up at night by their father, they keep their night-time activities secret, and they are nothing but the prize for the male who solves the mystery of where they go (he may choose whomever of them he wants for his wife). Thus, a father who cannot accept the girls’ transition to maturity (the wearing out of their shoes), girls who act in a duplicitous manner, and princesses who are passive entities and must submit to their fate.

However, the original tale does hold some morals that may be of use today – the idea that parents need to give their adolescents some freedom (otherwise they sneak out in secrecy to who knows where!); and conversely a lesson to young readers that duplicity is always outed in the end. And there are numerous variations on the Grimm’s version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, each pulling out morals according to their era.

Luckily for us, Jessie Burton has re-crafted the story for our times, retaining the key narrative but twisting it just enough to add modern flavour and feminism, as well as her own philosophy and musings on life’s lessons. Enhanced by Angela Barrett’s dazzlingly diverse illustrations (of what I’ve seen so far in early proofs), this finally is a story for the 21st century.

Queen Laurelia’s tragic death in a motor car accident results in the King’s over-protectiveness of his daughters: instead of letting them pursue their passions and talents (everything from astronomy to painting, comedy to botany), he denies them their lessons and belongings and locks them up in a dormitory. The girls turn from despair to hope when they discover a secret passageway behind their mother’s portrait, and take night-time excursions across a lake and through a magical, wondrous silver forest before dancing the night away at a palace filled with talking animals, where a constant party, with feasting and merriment, is in sway. Dance, here, is very much an expression of freedom and happiness rather than an overtly feminine activity.

Burton doesn’t just update the story with modern nuance by including motor cars and telephones; she litters it with her musings on life, philosophies that determine our own age but also future times, and asks the reader to think hard too, whether it be about the role of imagination in our lives, where story meets memory in remembering someone lost, and when darkness can sometimes be kind.

This is a feminist re-telling, so Burton twists the story, overtly judging their neglectful father who encourages strange men to spy upon the princesses, and wryly exploring the teamwork of the 12 sisters, although she also showcases their individuality by naming each, and by having each sister use their different strengths to overcome adversity. In the end, their supreme wit and intelligence reigns as they turn the King’s own words against himself, and seize their future with ferocity. In our time in which girls self-harm, Burton shows how girls can save themselves, forge a sisterhood, look out for each other, and use wisdom to seek positive futures. At the same time, it doesn’t feel ‘anti-men’, because the advisers surrounding the King embrace the future too.

Within the writing itself are sumptuous descriptions – one would be hard pushed to read about the food offered at the palace without salivating – and although richly English, with its hot buttered toast and sausages and mash, there are spices from around the world, and indeed the book feels global in its telling.

This is not just a feminist tale – Burton beguiles the reader with the magic of fairy tales by retaining initial features such as a secret door to a secret world, the lights and twinkling forest treats that the girls find, lush descriptions of food and parties, and she also subverts all political assumptions by populating the night-time party with mysteriously flamboyant anthropomorphised animals.

the restless girls illustrationInitial illustrations (having only seen an early proof) depict the girls as individuals, busy at their own tasks, yet with a collaborative spirit, and indeed their spirit is apparent in the movement and strength demonstrated by Frida, the eldest daughter, shown early on flinging back curtains to let light illuminate the King’s advisers – an illustrative metaphor.

This is a book of freedom and independence; dare I say girl power. Written like a waltz, it dances the reader through the pages with pace and movement, and celebrates laughter and love in swirling pirouettes of plot. You can buy your own copy here.

Writing for Teens: A Conversation with Jon Walter

nevertheless she persistedJon Walter’s latest novel strikes the gong for women everywhere in this 100th anniversary year since some women were afforded the vote. Nevertheless She Persisted is the story of two sisters in 1913 and their struggle to achieve and succeed in a world dominated by men. Clara and Nancy work in Holloway Prison in a time in which the prison population includes a number of imprisoned suffragettes, some suffering force feeding as a result of their hunger strikes. Seeing their own struggles for independence mirrored in these fighting women, Nancy and Clara must make the decision as to which side to be on.

Walter’s novel gets to the very heart of the suffragettes’ struggle; looking not only at the importance of the role of imprisonment in the suffragette movement, and the Cat and Mouse Act, but also at the political motives and arguments surrounding women at a time in which their roles in life were still dependent upon men.

He doesn’t hold back. There is a graphic description of force feeding, an account of the sisters’ escape from their home, in which it becomes apparent that their father is guilty of incest. So, this isn’t really a book I’d normally recommend on a blog primarily designed to showcase children’s titles. In fact, it’s being published as part of David Fickling Books’ new foray into adult titles, which began with Pullman’s book of essays, Daemon Voices, last year. However, Walter claims that he writes YA fiction, (his previous novel Close to the Wind is suitable for those aged 10+ years, whilst My Name is Not Friday was longlisted for The Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize 2015), and his publisher claims that stories are for all:

Fickling says: Ideally I would really like to publish books that are not strictly for kids or only for adults, but with wide appeal. We’re not trying to muddle things – we’ll always keep story at our heart.”

But this is marketed as for adults, and so I feel that Walter could have pushed even more on the corporeal or visceral feelings that these women suffered – he holds back on the physical and emotional descriptions of childbirth and its after effects and the physical and emotional constrictions that women must have felt at that time, but to his credit he pushes the boundaries on the political instead.

Nancy and Clara are scarcely out of childhood themselves, and indeed at the time many women were made to feel that their childhood continued into adulthood because their independence was so curtailed. However, they occupy an adult world and step into roles of responsibility within the prison system, all the while trying to create their own new world, to forge a new path of a new generation – a world in which women aren’t tied by the patriarchy, and in which they can wear trousers or ride a bicycle and fight for their own freedoms and earn their own money. In this regard, Nevertheless does read like a YA title. Jon Walter believes that all his books are for a YA audience:

Jon WalterChildren’s literature can be a great place for dealing with big questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we belong? How should we live? I write for children because I want to address those questions. And I also write for children because they occupy a place of transition, particularly teens, who inhabit the borderlands between childhood and adulthood. This is extremely fertile territory for fiction writers because it is unformed and unstable. It has friction and is ripe for conflict as the new threatens to sweep aside the old. Basically, I’m more interested in the world young people will create than the world we adults have left them.”

I wonder if the reasons that DFB have cast this as an adult title are twofold. Firstly, the issue of incest – generally one of the last taboos. Walter isn’t sure: “There are no rules that can’t be broken in fiction but there is definitely safe ground and risky ground. With YA it’s certainly not content. Authors such as Robert Cormier, Melvin Burgess, Margot Lanagan, Louise O’Neill, M T Anderson have all put that idea to rest. I think it’s more about the chosen subject matter. YA tends to find itself in the territory where the adult and children’s world collide. Dystopian fiction would be a good example of the convergence, which is probably why so many teenagers walk around with copies of George Orwell or Margaret Atwood. It’s also about the tone of the book and the primacy of plot, though these are not defining features. Is Stephen King YA? Are thrillers or crime fiction?  I could give you a whole long list of books that are relevant and suitable for teenagers but published as adult fiction.”

Indeed, the teenagers I meet definitely read novels that are in the general fiction area of the bookshop – from 1984 to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to Catch 22 (the latter not a novel I’d recommend for adults; it’s best read as a teen when you’re sucked in by the sheer lunacy). In which case, is YA a patronising term? Why does it exist at all? Jon thinks we might be imposing unnecessary age limits on our readers:

There’s a belief in children’s fiction that readers tend to read two years above their actual age. This is because, while they want to see themselves in a book, they also want to see what might be happening to them very soon. They want to do what the older kids do!

But there’s also something that happens to children aged 14 and upwards. They’re looking at the adult world and seeing how they are going to fit. This isn’t just about sex and drugs and rock and roll. It’s about politics, how the world is structured; the who gets what and why. It might even be about the world of work; what will they do to employ their time and will it pay them enough to live independently? These are very adult questions so it’s not surprising that teenagers often prefer to visit the general fiction section of a shop rather than the children’s section.

If you put these two things together, then the age range of YA  narrows considerably. Instead of a wide 13-18, it might more practically be seen as 12-15? And if so, are we failing to market properly to children and adults in the 15 -22 age range? And rather than pulling older readers in, does the notion of a young adult genre patronise them? My children are 19 & 22, one at university, one doing care work and deciding whether he will make a career of it. Like most people their age, both have a tenuous relationship to adulthood. Why are there so few books aimed at ‘kids’ of this age? It’s almost as though they don’t exist!”

And perhaps this is the second reason why Nevertheless She Persisted is classed as an adult title – the protagonists aren’t children, they’re in their twenties:

One of the problems with Nevertheless was that the suffragettes had an age limit (at least for official suffragette activity) of 21. The age limit for prison wardens was 24. I could have circumvented these with a younger character who witnessed the actions of others but I didn’t want to do that because a reader of fifteen upwards doesn’t necessarily need a protagonist their own age. I think the issues that Nancy and Clara deal with are resonant with the lives and decisions of today’s teenagers, despite the protagonists and setting being adult.”

All in all then, we tend to agree. The genres and age levels imposed upon novels are fairly arbitrary – after all how many novels are there that traverse across the genres rather than tidily fitting into one particular category. Is Jane Austen romance? Classic? Literary fiction? Perhaps in the end, it’s really just about marketing:

I think it is but that’s hugely significant. Successful marketing is about putting books into the right people’s hands – it can be the difference between a book being read or passed over.” Walter’s latest novel might be marketed as adult, but it’s an appealing read for any teen looking to discover the women’s suffrage struggle, or to understand the relationship between sisters, or to read social historical fiction that contains those small nuggets of detail that are so fascinating. It’s written with clarity and pathos and as one would expect from a Jon Walter novel, carries the reader at pace with style and poise. Walter appears happy with DFB’s new direction: “DFB are taking a risk with this but it might just be that their new adult list appeals more to teenagers than the books might as YA. If the list also succeeds in attracting adult readers who aren’t engaged with the children’s book world, then that’s even better!”

I’m looking forward to reading whatever might be next – perhaps Jon Walter might try his hand at a picture book next? And those, as we know, are for all ages.

You can buy a copy of Nevertheless She Persisted here.

 

 

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.

What’s the Big Idea?

Christopher Edge has written many great children’s books over the years, but his latest series of science-related fiction has been phenomenal in its ability to tell an engrossing story whilst encapsulating some of the big scientific ideas. His latest, The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day, was a MinervaReads book of the week in early April, and here he explores writing the science into the story:

A few years ago, when I started writing my novel The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, I remember a friend asking me what it was about. “It’s kind of like the film It’s A Wonderful Life,” I replied, “but with quantum physics.” A frown furrowed my friend’s face. “Quantum physics?” he said. “And it’s a children’s book?”

I don’t think I write children’s books. I think I write stories. And stories are for everyone. But from the moment The Many Worlds of Albie Bright was first published, young readers have demonstrated to me their appetite for the big ideas of science.

At school and literary festival events I’ve carried out live-action demonstrations of Schrödinger’s cat and now as I get ready to start talking about my new novel The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day I’m busy working out the logistics of building the biggest-ever Möbius strip in the world!

Science explores the big questions about life, the universe and everything – the same questions that can underpin the very best stories. Why are we here? What makes us human? How do we know we really exist? Young readers are eager to grapple with these questions and children’s literature can provide the medium to help them to do this.

As YA has grown as a genre in recent years, there’s been increasing discussion about what the difference between children’s and YA fiction actually is. Some talk about the age of the protagonist, whilst others point to the themes and issues tackled, but for me I think of children’s fiction as looking outward at the world, whilst YA books look inward. I’m aware that there are lots of examples that contradict this distinction and I think the best books do both, but this sense of inquisitiveness is what fuels my fiction.

maisie dayMy latest novel The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day is about a girl called Maisie who’s a bit of a science whiz. She passed her GCSE Maths and Science exams at the age of seven, her A Levels when she was nine, and, as the story starts on her tenth birthday, is now studying for a degree in Mathematics and Physics at the Open University. But when Maisie wakes up in an empty house with no sign of her mum, dad or elder sister, Lily, and then opens the front door to see a dense, terrifying blackness outside, Maisie quickly realises that her birthday isn’t going to be any ordinary day.  Trapped in an ever-shifting reality, she has to use the laws of the universe and the love of her family to survive. And as Maisie pieces together the puzzle of what’s really happening, she discovers that reality is not what it seems…

Science and stories both help us to make sense of the world and I hope The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day can feed the insatiable curiosity I find in the children that I meet at school and literary festival events. Through fiction we can inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts, and use science to hook a new generation of children on reading too.

With thanks to Christopher Edge. You can buy The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day here

 

The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge

maisie dayAre you real? It was a question sparked by the picture book There’s a Tiger in the Garden by Lizzy Stewart that started our primary school library club thinking about their own existence. And then Steven Hawking died, and it was time to revisit questioning the universe and the role we play within it.

So Christopher Edge’s latest book seemed ideal as the next book to watch out for. Coming after Albie Bright and Jamie Drake, Maisie Day is the newest addition to Edge’s range of books that deal with complex scientific questions and weave them into a children’s story. And perhaps, not just the newest, but the most sciencey and yet mystifying of the three so far.

Maisie wakes on her tenth birthday busting with excitement and anticipation. But this child genius finds herself in an empty house. Not only have her family vanished, but outside the window what should be a sunny garden soon turns into an all-consuming blackness that is gradually expanding, and even entering into the house, swallowing the materials around it as it does so. Nightmarish doesn’t do justice to the sheer terror of this.

And yet, alongside this horror story (in alternating chapters) is the somewhat happy story of what does happen on Maisie’s birthday – the food preparations for the party, a normal family life revolving around her.

Luckily, Maisie is not only insightful, but a scientific whizz, and so she must use her knowledge of the laws of science to outwit the blackness, and return her state of being to the Maisie in the ‘happy birthday’ chapters.

This is an intelligent and challenging book with oodles of science written into Maisie’s thought process. For some, perhaps even a little too much, and this is hard science. Luckily, Christopher Edge has a good handle on it, and manages to convey most of it in an easy to understand and genial way.

There’s a terrific plot twist near the end that tries to explain, or rather question, the reality of all that we see around us. What it means to be human, to be real, and what our lives really are all about. Involving virtual reality, and the means by which we understand our universe and place within it, this book holds difficult concepts, but within short bitesize chapters, and an easy-to-understand narrative.

Gratifyingly, the book features not just a female lead in Maisie, but also an older sister who is crucial to the plot, and so fits well into the current ambition to pull more girls into science and computer related subjects.

This is an unusual book, very different to other novels for this age group (8+ years), and is short and accessible. This helps the reader to absorb the science whilst not getting lost in the plot, and this is some achievement. From black holes to expanding universes, sibling rivalry and electric endings – this is an intriguing and accomplished book.You can buy it here.

Charlie and Me by Mark Lowery

charlie and meAt first glance a simple tale of brothers who take a train journey back to the destination they holidayed at the year before, this wonderfully nuanced novel turns into something much more profound and moving.

Thirteen-year-old Martin, and his younger brother Charlie, are travelling 421 miles from Preston to the tip of Cornwall to recapture the wonder and delight they experienced when they watched a dolphin the previous summer.

But travelling unaccompanied has its hazards and pitfalls, and Martin almost stumbles just purchasing the ticket. And Charlie is not a normal child; he was born too early and needs extra care and attention.

There is so much to like about this novel. The detailed compartmentalised journey – each section of the novel separated into the segments of the journey, be they train times or just sitting on a bench on a platform waiting, work brilliantly, because they pace the novel, and set the tone. Each minute is accounted for: visiting the toilets on the platform, taking a train in the wrong direction, and by doing this Lowery captures a child’s anticipation and excitement of a journey, as well as the small details children notice, such as the other people, the atmosphere, the passing landscapes.

Martin takes his notebook along, and encouraged by a teacher at school, he jots down poems as a way to remember what he’s doing, and express his emotions. The physical book reproduces Martin’s poems on lined paper, in between the journey narrative, which is a nice production touch. But the poems also indicate to the reader the journey of Martin’s mind, as his thoughts become more intense and his emotions confused.

There are occasional flashbacks too, to the summer before, when Martin and Charlie first observed the dolphin from the Cornish harbour, and these capture the wonder of nature, the excitement of the dolphin’s leap from the water, and also the local community who track the dolphin’s whereabouts.

Through the present tense journey, and the flashbacks, Lowery cleverly delineates the sibling relationship, expressing Martin’s pride in his responsibility, yet also impatience and frustration, particularly with Charlie, who is unique and vulnerable. There is also plenty of humour wrapped up in the shades of their relationship; the authenticity of sibling kindnesses and annoyance shines through.

This is particularly apparent in the dialogue between the brothers, and in Martin’s thought-process as he spells out his worries and his protective nature. But mainly, the book feels chatty and warm – these characters make you want to journey with them.

Lowery drops clues throughout the story that this journey isn’t all it seems. Four hundred and twenty one miles is a long way to go to revisit a dolphin, and astute readers will work out that something else is awry too. The final denouement is quite devastating, and will be upsetting for many, because in the end this is not a tale of adventure but a story that deals with mental health and loss.

Despite this shattering turn at the end, the story does feel uplifting – exemplified by the care and support around Martin, and kindness of strangers throughout the book. And what’s more the clues and strands tie together neatly at the end, and will provoke thought and discussion.

The style is easy to read, the plot paced beautifully, and yet the book is also emotionally sophisticated. In turns, light and deep, this is an inspiring read. You can buy it here.

A Light-Hearted Start to the New Year

Sometimes we just want a good laugh. In fact, a 2015 Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report found that 63% of children aged 6-17 wanted a book that made them laugh more than any other criteria. But humour doesn’t work on its own in a story – that would just be a series of jokes – a joke book in fact. Recently, the adults in my household have been watching The Marvelous Mrs Maisel on television about a woman who turns comedienne. What’s clear from the start, is that although there are many laughs and jokes, the story has to have pathos too, and character, and plot, because if you aren’t invested in the person, you aren’t invested in the laughs either.

I Swapped My Brother on the Internet
I Swapped My Brother on the Internet by Jo Simmons
Who hasn’t wanted to swap their brother at some point in their lives? (I really hope my brother isn’t reading this blog). When Jonny finds a website called SiblingSwap.com he thinks he’s found the perfect solution to his irritating obnoxious older brother issues. But he pays little attention to the form he’s asked to submit for ‘swaps’, and the company send him a replacement that’s even less human than his real brother. Before long he’s returning and exchanging, but none seem quite right.

Along with the obvious hilarity from the premise, there is zaniness and wackiness aplenty in this tale of sibling replacements who happen to include the ghost of Henry the Eighth. But below the surface is more than a touch of what it means to be a sibling – the loyalty, the tenderness, the protectiveness, the responsibility. And what’s more, there’s a lesson about false advertising on the Internet, and being careful what you wish for.

Jonny is a likeable main character with his own quirks, but real enough, with his friendships, and penchants for Xbox, doughnuts and pasta. Add in a girl geek to the mix (everyone needs a good coder in their lives) and an extremely absent-minded carefree mother, and the comedy is set. This is a good laugh, with happily comedic illustrations, and a great ending. You can buy it here.

Stand By Me
Stand by Me by Judi Curtin
Not a ‘comedy’ as such, but with oodles of humour and light-hearted fun, this is a book that squeezes many different emotions into a story and features inter-generational relationships, and a look back at personal histories.

A sequel to Time After Time, although it can be read as a stand-alone, Stand By Me follows the adventures of friends Molly and Beth, who have found a way to time travel. These best friends are slightly different though, in that they live together – their two families joined together, and although there was some tension at first, by this book the two are firm friends.

Molly and Beth travel back to the 1960’s to discover what happened to an old friend of their favourite uncle, and to try to exonerate their uncle from a misdemeanour that he feels he committed long ago. Once back in the 1960’s, the author shows what fun can be had writing ‘historical fiction’. Everything seems different and unusual to the modern girls, from the hair styles to the phone boxes, to pre-decimalisation and the lack of technology (mobile phones), and Curtin cleverly interweaves all these things into the plot – as well as showing changing attitudes to disabilities over time. It’s good to see the not-so-distant past represented in this way for modern children – an eye opener to the world of their grandparents.

Rather than out and out ‘historical fiction’, the idea is to explore the recent past: the time of parents (1980’s in Time after Time), and grandparents (1960’s in Stand By Me).

The book delves into feelings of guilt and blame, but is mainly about friendship – how we deal with adversities with friends, and how friendships last or break up, but overwhelmingly the feel of the book is light-hearted, with much fun, humour and liveliness.

Music is prevalent too, not only in the book titles, which are taken from song titles, but in scenes in the book, and the illustrations throughout. It’s interesting how quickly we define eras by the music created during the time. A fun look at friendship and fixing the past. You can purchase it here.