siblings

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.

 

Prisoner of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren: Giveaway

Women may still be under-represented in the FTSE 100 companies, but the number of strong female characters in middle grade fiction continues to rise. Ruth Lauren not only populates her debut novel with a strong female protagonist, a female spy, and a female Head Prison Warden, but also creates a fantasy matriarchal society, in which a queen rules and the line of succession is through her daughter.

This is a pacey first-person text, which reads like a tightly plotted thriller, or a child’s Siberian version of Prison Break. The reader follows Valor in her quest to free her sister, who has been imprisoned for stealing an important royal music box (with diplomatic relevance). The book starts with an action-packed assassination sequence, through which Valor fakes her motive in order to be imprisoned too, and then starts to make plans to break out both herself and her sister.

The novel challenges traditional gender-tropes – Valor is a huntress by trade, taking after her mother – and also challenges traditional softness in children’s books. This may be an easy grammatical read for the 8-12-year-old market, but Lauren doesn’t hold back on the harshness of prison life. Most of the novel is set in prison, after seemingly no real justice system, and there is cruel and hard child labour and even crueller living conditions. Partly because the entire novel is set in a frozen landscape, with roaming wolves and biting cold – so the prisoners remain largely exposed to the cold, and the punishments, when they are doled out, utilise the landscape.

With the ice-cold landscape and the bond between sisters, the novel will bring to mind Frozen, but this is a much darker, grown up option, without an Olaf, and with, one imagines, fuller-waisted girls. The secondary characters remain largely thus, and there is not much time for thought and depth – the novel skates along the surface with all its intents and purposes focussed on escape. This makes it a page-turning read, and a delightful escape novel for the age group. Luckily for you, I have three copies to give away (UK and IRL only), so please find me on twitter @minervamoan to win one. If you’re not so lucky, you can buy your own copy here.

Summer 2017 Round-Up

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

Picture Books:

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


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


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

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

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

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

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ethan I was Before by Ali Standish and Truth or Dare by Non Pratt

It’s funny how books bucket together. In the past two months I’ve read three books with ‘dares’ as their theme – I Dare You by Reece Wykes, a picture book for the young at heart with a wry sense of humour, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt, a most excellent YA novel with some hard truths at heart, and The Ethan I was Before, a middle grade novel with a dare at its core.

In The Ethan I Was Before, twelve-year-old Ethan is moved with his family to live with his grandfather in Georgia, a far cry from the Boston he is used to. Allegedly the move is to help his grandfather, although it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather is an independent soul, and the move is to remove Ethan from an uncomfortable incident in his past.

Ethan’s relationship with his angry older brother, his new relationship with Coralee (an enigmatic girl he meets at school), and the exploration of his new town make up the bulk of the novel, but all the time the reader is aware of a past secret that Ethan is hiding.

Standish’s prose pulls in the reader from the beginning. There are some key phrases that show flashes of great writing, her similies are excellent and create an authentic sense of place: she describes the air at one point with “humidity like a wet fleece blanket”. Her characterisations too are neat and winning, from her portrayal of forthright and keenly intelligent Mack, who runs the local store, to Ethan’s Mum, who tends to burn food because she forgets having put it in the oven in an endearingly absentminded preoccupation. Standish also has a handle on the unsophisticated twelve-year-old way of trying to describe in words the complex emotions of guilt and anxiety. She also focuses on what Ethan’s therapist has told him to do, extrapolating the way Ethan is feeling without laying it too bare for the readership:

“It’s almost funny, that everything that would make a normal person happy is what makes me feel the most sad.”

And yet, it’s the not laying it bare that holds this book back from being as good as it should be. The ‘secret’ in the past is too often alluded to by Ethan’s family, and himself, and yet doesn’t feel real. Because they are all holding back so much, the constant nudges that there is something else going on, or something big that happened in the past, feel too contrived. Although in real life, we all do keep back parts of ourselves, even in some cases from ourselves, one feels that Ethan’s family would talk more frankly – particularly his brother – or that Ethan, who narrates the story in first person, would be slightly more honest with himself and with the readership. It doesn’t sit well that he hides the past from himself, because it doesn’t fit with his character.

On the whole this was a really enjoyable book; I just felt that it could have been bigger. With slightly more depth and more subtlety, the past could have been explored in more detail and led to a weightier novel. So the denouement, when it comes, feels half-hearted, and I wanted the ‘dare’ to be more dramatic. But for glimpses of what Standish can do, and with the possibility that there is better to come, this is an intriguing debut. It will fit the bill nicely for a summertime coming-of-age novel, and gives a great sense of small town America. You can buy it here.

For meatiness I’d go to the YA coming-of-age title, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt. Although the production at first seems gimmicky, in that the first part is narrated by main character Claire Casey, leaving the story on a cliffhanger, with the second part physically flipped over so that the reader has to turn the book upside down and start from the other end to read the other main character, Sef’s narration continuing the plot, the story itself is far from contrived. In fact, it becomes swiftly apparent reading part two that this consecutive narration adds depth and substance.

Kam Malik suffers a life-changing injury after a stupid stunt goes wrong. Claire, shy and unobtrusive, volunteers at his rehabilitation clinic. When she gets to know Kam’s brother, Sef, together they come up with a scheme to raise much-needed funds to maintain his rehabilitation. It’s a Truth or Dare YouTube campaign, but before long their truths collide and their dares take things too far.

Non Pratt has a magnificent turn of phrase that enables description without the reader feeling they’re reading any. The plot is deft and agile – the book skips along punctuated with accurate and authentic dialogue, and a look into the innermost thoughts of her narrators, which is, at times, devastating.

What shines through is the depth of characterisation, as at first the reader, through Claire’s eyes, really likes Sef Malik, but what soon becomes apparent through his point of view in part two, is that no one shows their true self to everyone, and that people aren’t kind or unkind throughout. Everyone has their motivations, demons, and selfishness. Pratt wheels through a host of issues including prejudice, fame, guilt, and love without once making this an issue novel. It’s a gripping read, as tumultuous as Claire’s relationship with Sef, and deeply satisfying. You can buy it here.

 

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.

 

Dragons to Light Your Fire

Dragons have generally been tarnished with the evil/badass brush for most of their mythological lives. Western mythology certainly paints dragons as evil beings designed to be fought by brave knights. But in the East, dragons are favourable creatures. They can bring good luck – and can even be helpful. Three excellent dragon books flew into MinervaReads recently…and although they did not battle, they certainly set MinervaReads on fire.

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
This silky smooth, deliciously alluring middle grade novel, about a young dragon who gets turned into a human with a penchant for chocolate (making, crafting, and eating), was devoured like a smooth cup of hot chocolate in the middle of a harsh winter.

I’m generally not that keen on fantasy stories, but this brilliantly-told adventure tale navigates the fantasy realm and yet also manages to stay rooted firmly in the friendship/adventure book stable, completely twisting up that ‘new girl moves into school/village’ premise.

Aventurine the dragon decides to prove to her family (including her ridiculously talented older siblings) how fierce and tough a dragon she is, by leaving the safe mountain cave, and venturing out to capture prey all by herself. However, the first human she meets tricks her into eating enchanted chocolate (who could resist the aroma?), and she is turned into a human.

The bulk of the novel follows Aventurine as she moves into a human town and tries to make something of herself – most particularly as a chocolate maker’s apprentice, for she cannot resist the allure of chocolate.

There are some stand-out qualities to this novel that take it from the realm of the fairly mundane fairy tale about transformations and dragons, into a really excellent novel.

The characters are all wonderfully drawn, with just a hint of mystery behind them. Silke, Aventurine’s ally and friend, is as feisty as a dragon herself, yet also wily, loyal, and brimming with emotional intelligence. As is the owner and chef at the chocolate shop who employs Aventurine (notice how they’re all female). Each character comes across as startlingly real and three-dimensional – they lose their tempers and metaphorically breathe out fire occasionally, but they are also graceful in their presentation, and fierce in their passions.

There is, of course, much love for chocolate. It’s hard to read the book and not want to eat some, which shows how well the descriptions work, but also there’s some interesting detail on cocoa nibs etc.

But I think my favourite quality is the excellent use of observation. Aventurine comes into the human world without having a clue about it, and it’s her witty ignorance that fills the book with humour – from the hair on people’s faces, to the clothes they wear, the things they value, and the similarities in family structures between her dragon family and human families. Much is made of class, greed and hierarchy in the book, and it works well, and can easily lead to further discussion. Patronage, corruption, bureaucracy and blame are addressed too.

Of course the overall message is not to judge by appearance. Aventurine has the same personality whether she wears a dragon skin, or inhabits a human skin. There’s also a great message about fear of failure – how failure can destroy confidence, and yet above all what’s needed is grit and determination. Hard work pays off. Loyalty is rewarded.

For a contemporary audience, I loved how the images of chocolate fit with today’s taste for spicing up chocolate with flavours, such as chilli chocolate etc. It’s a sweet and flavoursome book, which you’ll devour like a dragon. For ages 9+ years. You can taste the book here.

Build the Dragon by Dugald Steer, illustrated by Jonathan Woodward and Douglas Carrel
Part activity, part book, this is great for all dragon enthusiasts.

A comprehensive guide to dragons frames this Build the Dragon kit, which includes 46 pieces that are easily slotted together to make your own 3-D model. The dragon comes with moving parts – a jaw that opens and shuts with a lever, and a windup motor that makes the dragon’s wings flap. Once the model was built (taking an eleven year old child just over an hour on their own, with only a slight struggle with the motorised wings), we set to exploring the accompanying text.

my dragon (which went down a treat in the school library)

This is a 32 page large full-colour exploration of everything dragon, from a definition, to legends, habitats, anatomy, diet and reproduction. The author has split the world of dragons into Western and Eastern, highlighting the extreme differences between the two, and then used tales of dragons from mythology to highlight their various characteristics as if they were real.

Each paragraph of information is accompanied by an illustration or diagram, some captioned, and the text is neatly written – easy to understand and containing a dense amount of information in bite-size chunks.

There is much to learn here – from the Guardians of Flaming Pearls to the Venom Spitter, a dragon that didn’t breathe fire, but was referenced in a London pamphlet in 1614, which explained that the dragon had used its violent poison to kill both men and cattle. Other highlights include the map of the world showing global myths, and the dragon scales chart.

The book ends with a sumptuous colourful dragon guide, highlighting earliest representations of dragons, which vary from written references in AD 680, to depictions on Egyptian bowls in BC 4000.

It is excellent and thoughtful of the publishers to provide duplicates of the delicate wings in case they tear, because the motorised wings were fiddly to build and we didn’t think would hold up to much play once built, but the rest of the model is constructed from robust cardboard. I also would have loved to know the authors’ key sources for their information.

Invest in your dragon model here.

The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook by Katie Haworth, illustrated by Monica Armino
Another comprehensive tome that takes the premise that dragons are real. This is fiction masquerading as non-fiction, a guide to looking after dragons – almost like a ‘bringing up baby manual’ – with fabulous full-colour illustrations that both give information and lend a comedic element to the book.

The opening letter of the text talks to the reader as if they have succeeded in applying to look after the dragon, and this book is the starter guide – at this point I began to have palpitations in much the same way as I do opening Ikea furniture instructions.

However, the instructions here are much better written, more informative, and massively more fun. There is a wonderful sense of humour pulsating throughout the book from the suggested equipment at the beginning – such as oven gloves for handling anything the dragon has set fire to – to the advice on where learn to fly the dragon – several hundred miles from human habitation.

As well as the fun in the text, the book is hugely interactive. Spinning wheels, flaps to lift, pop up flying dragons, books within the book, and the ultimately hilarious happy/fierce face flip dragon towards the end.

There is a huge amount of information taken from dragon-lore, such as famous paintings that portray dragons, popular stories, and the different types of dragon from around the world. Brilliantly, it would perfectly complement the Build the Dragon book reviewed above, if your child (or you) have a particular penchant for dragons.

This is a book to make you smile and give much pleasure. By the end I felt competent to look after and even attempt to fly my own dragon. Get yourself a similar skillset here.

Me and Mister P by Maria Farrer, illustrated by Daniel Rieley

Arthur is frustrated with his family. Living with his younger brother Liam isn’t easy, and Arthur feels left out and overlooked. Until, that is, he opens the front door to find a polar bear called Mister P. The bear doesn’t talk, he’s pretty big and clumsy, and enormously scared of spiders, and yet somehow, through a great talent for keepie uppies, dancing, and hugs, he’s able to lend some help to families that need him.

Liam seems to be on the autistic spectrum, although this is never spelt out – the story is told from Arthur’s point of view. In this way, Farrer has managed to portray Liam sympathetically but also realistically, showing all the ways in which Liam annoys Arthur. Arthur moans about the restrictions on his life, such as the limited volume when watching football, the mode of transport to school etc, although the reader can see that these restrictions are only imposed by his parents because they simply want to protect, and do what’s right, by Liam.

This is a simplistic story for the seven plus age group – it’s blatantly obvious that Mister P’s arrival is to show Arthur how lucky he is, how to manage his family situation, that patience is a virtue, and that Liam is one of Arthur’s biggest fans. Some strange quirks come across – there’s a total lack of surprise or reaction by the rest of the world to the fact that a polar bear has arrived and can play football, and there is a slightly over-extended section in the middle of the book on a football game, but altogether this adds up to the book’s charm.

It’s the little moments that draw Arthur and Liam together, which pull on the heartstrings. Children at this age do often need reminding that for all their annoyances, their siblings are their friends – and will be loyal and dependable, as well as mainly, awfully good fun.

There’s nothing startlingly new about this of course. Animals, teddy bears, created ‘other’ personas or imaginary friends, have long been used in children’s literature to bring siblings together, from Aslan to Paddington; or they have been employed to help a child deal with a tricky situation until they’re no longer needed, from Brigg’s The Bear (another polar) to Skellig, and Mary Poppins. I still retain warm memories of George by Agnes Sligh Turnbull, a now out-of-print book, that tells of George, a talking rabbit who helps Milly and Tommy – especially with their arithmetic!

But there’s a warmth and naturalness that oozes from the writing in Me and Mister P, as well as scenes that are punctuated in a wonderfully low key way by Rieley’s illustrations. A full double page is awarded to the illustration of Mister P in the back of a truck on his way to the football, complete with headphones and team scarf. Rieley has been set quite a task here – a polar bear adept at football – and it works both humorously and with pathos.

It’s a fun book, massively endearing, with much heart. There are even a few scattered facts about polar bears at the end of the book – perhaps to encourage readers to find out more about them, and learn to protect them. For although of course we’d all love to snuggle up with a glossy furry bear who solves our problems, we need to make sure that polar bears don’t become imaginary creatures, but rather remain a plentiful species that inhabits the Arctic.

For newly independent readers, but also great to share with little ones at bedtime. You can buy it here.