teamwork

The Dragon in the Library by Louie Stowell, illustrated by Davide Ortu

dragon in the libraryJames Daunt might be straddling the Atlantic by now being both Managing Director of Waterstones bookshop chain and newly appointed CEO of Barnes & Noble bookshop chain, but for those with an interest in books this side of the Atlantic, we seem to be getting something wrong.

The book market is going from strength to strength, but in these lean times of government cuts, the UK is pulling investment from libraries – those most important bastions of a civilised society.

In 2018, about 130 public libraries closed outright, whilst many others (as yet unnumbered) fell into voluntary hands with limited opening hours and services. Most recently children’s authors stepped in to protest against Essex County’s proposed closure of up to 44 libraries.

So it’s incredibly timely to read Louie Stowell’s excellent younger fiction novel, The Dragon in the Library, set in a library that is threatened with closure by a Simpsons’ Mr Burns-type villain, who wishes to turn the space into a shopping centre. He represents those who believe that economics rules over creativity and knowledge, and those for whom moneyed connections are deemed to be more important than empathy and curiosity. Who needs libraries, he says, when there is the Internet?

Our unlikely protagonist is Kit, a reluctant reader, who prefers climbing trees and getting messy outside to time spent inside, particularly in a library. But her two friends are desperate for the latest book in a series of books they are into, and they drag her along to the library. Once there, they stumble on a secret – the librarian is a wizard. What’s more, Kit herself seems to have magical powers, and the library is the most magical place of all.

Stowell goes to town on her magical tropes – there are librarian wizards, hidden creatures in secret stacks, portals from one magic place to another. Nowhere could be quite as exciting as the library, and she excels at extolling the absolute magic of reading and story – books literally take the reader into a different world. She also weaves a wonderful intertextuality in the book – for those who know their children’s literature there are nods to it all over the place from Ursula Le Guin to Baba Yaga to fairy tales and Harry Potter of course. There’s even a nod to the old trope of children drinking lemonade and eating something gingery (memories of Enid Blyton picnics come to the surface). Although the world-building of this magical structure of wizards and libraries seems a little confusing at first, it soon becomes apparent what’s at stake and why.

And it is the characterisation of the three children that makes the novel. Each child has his or her own attributes, goals and motivations, worries and anxieties. Kit and friends Alita and Josh feel very real, and support each  other in a wonderful triumvirate of camaraderie. Although Kit is the only wizard of the three, she’s the least ‘into’ books, and so it takes the help of her friends for her to be able to pursue her wizard path.

Faith Braithwaite is a wonderful role model of a wizard librarian and teacher/mentor to Kit. She is sassy and warm, modern and authoritative, understanding and knowledgeable, in essence, everything a librarian should be. Plus, in the times we live in, brave too.

So Stowell nods to our current preoccupations, not only in the fight for survival of the library, but also with dripped-in truisms about our modern obsessions with risk awareness, knowing what’s real and what isn’t, gender bias and diversity.

And cleverly, above all that, lies the essence of the novel, which is the celebration of the story behind the book. It is rare in a children’s book, particularly one set in a library, to have the protagonist as a reluctant reader, but here, although Kit hates reading aloud, and doesn’t particularly want to sit and read a book quietly either, Faith Braithwaite shows her the magic behind the book – the power of the story – the magic that’s contained within, especially when the reading is pleasurable and not graded or schooled in some way. How a story can teach and explore, delight and entertain, stimulate and encourage.

This is an exciting, pacey book for the 7-9 years (and beyond) readership, with superb neon packaging and a plethora of black and white illustrations throughout, which feel cartoonish and vivacious.

Oh, and there be dragons.

You can buy your copy here. Thanks to Nosy Crow for the review proof.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

ghostThe other day, I was having a conversation with a mixed cohort at our library lunch club. We were discussing sports books, you’ll know the type – those formulaic novels or reading scheme books about a team who overcome an obstacle to triumph by winning the cup or moving up a league. Whether they focus on a less talented player come good, or a star player overcoming his loss of confidence, or an injury-stricken player making it in the end, they do tend to be of a type. There’s a comfort in that – repetition and formulas are a comforting part of re-reading and fixing narrative arcs in the mind, as well as reinforcing good messages about teamwork and attitude.

But it is hugely refreshing when a book that’s ostensibly about ‘sport’ actually stands out from the crowd. On TV, Friday Night Lights did this spectacularly well. Compulsive, gripping and hugely sympatico. Now, Ghost does this for children in book format.

Ghost was published in the US in 2016 to huge acclaim, spending more than 21 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and finally makes its debut appearance here thanks to new publishers on the block, Knights Of.

Running is what Castle (Ghost) is good at. But he isn’t part of a squad or team; he doesn’t see it as a sport. The first time he had to run, it was away from his gun-wielding father. When he inadvertently ends up at an athletics team training session and beats the fastest kid there by running against him on the outside of the track, the coach sees his potential.

But Ghost’s raw energy needs to be harnessed and disciplined in order for him to succeed at life, let alone as part of a running team. And that’s not all that easy.

There are lots of themes running through this book that elevate it to much more than a sports novel. And most encouragingly, it doesn’t follow the formula in plot detail either. There is no grand competition at which Ghost must triumph, no injury to overcome. The focus is very much on Ghost himself, of committing to the training, of learning to get along with the rest of the team (they’re still a way off complete bonding). This is about personal development and circumstances, but all written in such a way that it will appeal to reluctant readers as well as proficient book-devourers.

The main strand here is the father/son dynamic and relationship that springs up between Ghost and Coach, as well as the parallel of Ghost’s troubled and complicated relationship with his absent father. There’s also the class divide Ghost sees around him – where people live, how they dress and the privileges afforded to them; his own single mother working hard, a school system struggling to work with all its pupils.

But perhaps the most endearing quality in this book is the fully rounded, witty, flawed, tempestuous and yet kind protagonist. Written in first person, and immediately identifiable, Ghost first introduces himself to the reader by explaining about his fascination with record-breaking facts, including the man who blows up balloons with his nose. Ghost is believable and fun, with unique traits – spitting sunflower seeds, watching from the bus stop as people bob up and down on the treadmills inside the gym opposite. He notices stuff, he has a great sense of himself, and a great sense of humour.

Of course Reynolds tracks Ghost’s development over the novel, using the model of race training and a no-nonsense coach to turn our hero into a somewhat hero (in the reader’s eyes maybe), delineating his flaws and exploring how the adults around him help him to overcome the obstacles he meets along the way. So there’s that trope of coach as mentor to troubled kid, but by using first person from Ghost’s point of view, Reynolds goes deep inside Ghost’s head – the vehement wish to own proper running shoes and where that takes him, the anger that bubbles inside, his outlet in running, and his need to be guided.

All narrated with easy prose, at times in Ghost’s youthful, naïve and vulnerable outlook, at others with a childlike profundity that bursts through from nowhere, but always spilling over with energy and zest.

Surrounded by a fully-realised team of secondary characters, both in his team track-mates, but also in the local shopkeeper and his long-suffering mother, this is an outstanding story about self-belief and hope. First in a series, you can buy it here.

Sportopedia by Adam Skinner, Illustrated by Mark Long

sportopediaWhen I play trivial pursuit, it’s always the orange wedge I find hardest to win. Orange – sport and leisure. And when I look at the ‘sports shelf’ in my library, I can see our range of football books, a few on gymnastics and some lesser known sports, but there’s rarely an all-encompassing encyclopaedia of sport. Until now.

Sportopedia is going to fill that void and help me win the orange wedge. Featuring more than 60 sports, this is an enjoyable, knowledgeable introduction to sports that is well-organised and easy on the eye.

Split into logical sections – ball sports, racket sports, athletics, water sports and so on – each sport is afforded a single or double page spread with an introduction, a large illustration showing the sport, and then some standard ‘boxes-off’, which highlight the basic rules of the sport, as well as engaging facts. For Diving, facts include the depth of a diving pool and when diving became part of the Olympic Games. For other sports, author Adam Skinner documents famous incidents in sport and celebrates record-breakers.

But there are also quirks. In Diving, there is a section on cliff diving. And in Long-Distance Running, there is a segment on ultra-runners, which made me realise that my measly 8K is no achievement in comparison to Serge Girard’s 27,011 km in 365 consecutive days.

Long’s illustrations really lift the book – it wouldn’t have made sense to choose specific photographs from the millions that exist, and the illustrations strike a perfect balance between showing humour and illustrating the sport. They are also sumptuously bright, with a heavy leaning towards the primary palette, which gives the book a feeling of simplicity and ease. Although, I’m a little concerned that none of the long distance runners look as if they’re enjoying themselves, (the gymnasts certainly are).

Many of the sports highlighted are accompanied by an infographic that lends authority to the book, whether it be illuminating the areas of a tennis court or the scores of a dart board. There is also mention of kit, and how names of sports, and entrants to sports, have changed over the years. What’s particularly pleasing, and necessary of course, is the diversity of all the competitors illustrated and celebrated – male, female, from many ethnicities, able-bodied and Paralympians.

The ‘winter sports’ are considered in the four pages devoted to The Winter Olympics towards the back of the book in the chapter titled ‘Sporting Events’, with skiing, curling and skating among others, but there is less detail about these.

But I think my favourite piece is the introduction. Explaining that sports have always existed, and that competition is part of human life and that anybody can take part. As well as talking about the lack of discrimination exercised by sport, the introduction also explains the benefits of sport – not just in the winning, but the importance of physical well-being, teamwork and discipline. And how big a part sport plays in human history. This is a fabulous book, introducing less active children to sport, promoting the rules and facts of each sport for trivia seekers, and tracking leading figures and sports milestones for enthusiasts.

I might not be able to run for 365 consecutive days, but I know more about Archery and Kabaddi than I did yesterday. You can buy it here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret of the Night Train by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Marco Guadalupi

secret of the night trainI’m often asked, how do I pick a book to be my book of the week? With non-fiction it’s easy to tick off criteria, and then spot the something special about the book. With fiction, it’s almost easier. The books pick me. Within about ten pages I usually suspect if it’s got that hint of magic that makes me want to keep reading, that quality which makes me feel for the characters, the emotion that gives me that tinge of sadness or spark of happiness. Very rarely, with great hope and shining eyes, I pencil in a book that hasn’t even arrived yet. I feel the tingle from afar, based on past novels, or something in the publisher’s email that pulled.

The Secret of the Night Train was pencilled in, but within ten pages I knew it was a dead cert. Sylvia Bishop previously won my heart with The Bookshop Girl, and she has twiddled her pen and made magic again.

Max is on a thrilling train journey across Europe. Her Great Aunt Elodie in Istanbul summons a member of her Parisian family to be her temporary companion, and Max, being the youngest and the least busy, takes the challenging adventure. Except it becomes so much more than she imagines, because the Heartbreak Diamond is missing, and the police think it’s on her train. With her travelling chaperone, a nun, will Max find the will and the way to seek the diamond herself and capture the thief before the train reaches Istanbul?

The book takes the format of the train journey, setting the chapters in different sections of the journey from Paris through Munich, Budapest and Bucharest to Istanbul. And while Max whittles down the passengers to a final list of suspects, she may be closer to the thief than she had imagined.

This is the tale of an ordinary life interrupted, told beautifully and with childlike wonder. Bishop completely nails Max’s feeling of trepidation for her journey – a homesickness before she’s even left, and plays on this subtle combination of wistfulness for home and longing for adventure. Bishop also has impeccable comic timing, and a deliciously wicked insight into being the smallest of a larger family.

Tucked in are a few jokes for adults too, in case this is an adventure the reader is sharing with their child, and I particularly chuckled at Max’s mother’s mannerisms and question avoidance. Bishop has a delightful turn of phrase, which makes an everyday story feel fresh and lively with every sentence:

“Then one day, when December had arrived and iced Paris all over with a slippery frosting, Max skidded-slid-stumbled home from school to find her mother on the phone. She was saying ‘Mm-hmm, of course’ with her voice, and YOU ARE AN UNBEARABLE STRAIN ON MY SAINTLY PATIENCE with her eyes.”

And also tenderly wise:

“That is the trouble with ideas that you have before dawn: they are extra sticky.”

Bishop also plays with expectations: not only in Max’s gender – full name Maximilienne, but also with the suspects and their intentions and motivations – keeping the reader guessing. The narrative feels slightly retro or timeless with parents who don’t helicopter or track their child’s movements, but also a child who has the time to be bored, and thus to seek adventure. But there are still moments of modern sensibility throughout:

“it turned out that even in this strange new country, miles away from her own, all the statues were still of a man-on-a-horse,”

But I think one of the most stellar qualities about this piece of writing is that despite having a gentle rhythm that mimics the chugging of a train, it also feels tense and exciting, mirroring Max’s emotions.

This is a fabulous story with suitably elegant European illustrations, a terrifically authentic heroine (who often takes the naughtier option), and a cast of eccentrics who are beautifully imagined. Don’t miss your own trip on the Night Train, it’s a winning adventure. (I’ve even pencilled in Sylvia Bishop’s next….you probably should too). You can buy The Secret of the Night Train here. Or click here to see how to win a copy.

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year starts today, and this year, 2018, starts the Year of the Dog. These two wonderful new picture books celebrate aspects of the Chinese New Year.

The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes by Ying Chang Compestine, illustrated by David Roberts

This wonderful retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale politicises the fairy tale, while also inverting the identity of the hero of the story. Whilst the hero is still a small boy in this version, he is also the emperor himself.

Rosy-cheeked little Ming Da becomes emperor of China at the young age of nine. But because he is so young, the ministers and advisers around him take advantage of him and steal from the treasury for their own gains. Soon, Ming Da’s kingdom is poor – the people can’t afford to dress, or buy food, but Ming Da is scared that the corrupt ministers will take over if he simply fires them.

With the help of his tailors, the boy emperor concocts a plan, and for the Chinese New Year parade, when traditionally people have dressed in new clothes so that evil spirits won’t recognise them, he tricks his ministers into wearing rice sacks and believing that the sacks are enchanted, and actually appear as the finest garments in the world.

A boy in the crowd does pipe up and shame them, but it is the emperor who has the last laugh, seeing his ministers flee in humiliation, enabling him to restore the riches to his people.

Compestine has bravely taken the origins of the tale together with a folklore element, and twisted them neatly to suit her purpose. In fact, she grew up in poverty during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where food was scarce and Western folk and fairy tales banned.

Her book zings with both righteousness in the morality of the tale, but also in its new cultural identity and contemporary storytelling. David Roberts has created vivid, mesmerising artworks to match the tale, with colour vibrancy pared down so that the colour lives in the detail of the illustrations – the patterns of the silk robes, the intricate designs of ancient China. There is a clever switching too between full page framed illustrations and those that live in free space surrounded by white background.

The subtle colouring indicates a light touch, but also lets light onto the beautiful details of the expressive faces, as well as the sweet insertion of an observing mouse on each page. There is a guide to making your own Chinese New Year Parade robe at the back. You can buy it here.

The Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac by Christopher Corr

A complete contrast in the illustrations here, in which Corr uses his book to explain how the Chinese zodiac came to be. There is colour vibrancy from the outset, and illustrations that take on a looser, less geometric styling than Roberts’ above, but which still carry a fair amount of detail, and feel authentically Chinese, well-researched and lively.

The story begins before the delineation of time, in ancient China when the Jade Emperor decided that he wanted to be able to calculate how old he was, and thus there must be a way of measuring time.

The Great Race begins. The emperor decrees that the first twelve animals to cross the river will have a year named after them. The animals’ personalities come out in their method of crossing, from the rat who is devious to the lucky rabbit. Some of the animals even take to teamwork to get across.

This is such an appealing picturebook. An old folktale told in contemporary language, with breathtakingly colourful images – the picture of Emperor Jade welcoming the tiger across is particularly bright and evocative.

All the animals are ‘male’, which again reiterates the debate made in the Guardian last month, but this may be a nod to how the story was always traditionally told. However, as Compestine has shown above, twisting a tale is perhaps what’s now due.

Despite the male dominance in both books, these are fantastic introductions to the Chinese New Year, and beautifully illustrated. You can buy The Great Race here.

 

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

Eye of the NorthA timeless, icy, steampunk adventure, this is a really interesting and intriguing debut novel.

Arresting from the first sentence, O’Hart tells the story of Emmeline, a girl constantly on her guard, taking ‘always be prepared’ to the next level. So when she is kidnapped, and stolen away on a ship to the far north to be used as a bargaining chip to get her scientist parents to awaken a giant mysterious creature (the Kraken) buried deep beneath the ice, she must use her wits and her anxiety to whittle herself free.

The book is dense, and surprisingly gripping, and positively teems with ideas. Emmeline meets a stowaway on her first sea voyage, a nippy little figure named Thing, as well as an organisation trying to prevent the evil kidnapper from taking further control of the world – this organisation is named The Order of the White Flower (with headquarters in Paris). With tentative allusions to underground opposition groups in World War Two, such as The White Rose, the complexity of O’Hart’s plot begins to show itself here.

The reader learns that this underground organisation has many members who have been working against Dr Bauer (the kidnapper) for a long time, but little detail is given, although the group sound intriguing and each member fascinating; O’Hart keeps the reader completely in the dark (to the end). One member has built an intensely complex flying machine, which Thing endeavours to fly to rescue Emmeline. As with everything within this detailed and wondrous book, my issue is that the contraption sounds so terrific, so fantastical, that it is difficult to envisage in one’s mind’s eye. The same happens numerous times – with the denouement, in which Dr Bauer constructs an engineering contraption to extract the Kraken from beneath the ice, using mirrors  – the idea is so highfalutin, that it is difficult for the reader to picture.

As Emmeline moves through her adventure, so O’Hart throws more and more at the reader. We learn that the world has been submerged in much water (presumably the effects of global warming), and so Paris is much nearer the sea than it is in the real world. As with the characters of The Order of the White Flower, this idea isn’t completely developed though, which is a pity.

At every stage in the adventure, from Emmeline meeting an almost mythological horse, (which sounds as if inspired by the old Guinness advert in which the horses morph into waves – powerful like the gods), to Emmeline meeting the Northwitch, who splinters into ice shards and then re-forms with a spellbindingly cold evil chill, the inventiveness is powerful and spellbinding, and O’Hart smashes the imagery out of the park. The only issue is that the images are so extreme that the fantastical is hard to pin down in one’s imagination.

There are some wonderful touches – the tribal people living on the ice, with their sledges and their fear of outsiders, although again, this is underdeveloped as a concept, which is a shame.

The Eye of the North is a sensational story, but this book alone could probably have been developed into about three volumes – so that each part could be extrapolated more.

It touches on humans’ environmental impact on the world, scientific explorations and contraptions, evil beneath the ice, mythical horses, an evil ice queen, good versus evil organisations, greed and power, as well as anxiety and bravery.

It fits beautifully into the zeitgeist of the moment, with a wintry landscape, a future blighted by our environmental impact on the world, and a protagonist with parent scientists who have high stakes in the action. Blending a timelessness with technology and environment, and featuring children who perpetuate their scientist parents’ ideas by attempting to prevent harmful agents, but taking the best part of the science and seeing it through.

The two children are intensely likeable. They are feisty and free-thinkers. Emmeline’s character is strong at the beginning; she is determined, holds onto her comforts, remains quick-thinking and suspicious, but I wanted even more character development from her. Likewise with Thing, who has issues with his haunting past, yet has a strong determination to hold onto a person with whom he’s made a connection. Because their characters ring so true, the reader wants to stay with them.

This is a storming adventure story for the age group, ambitious and hugely entertaining, and there’s no denying this is a powerful book. I just think it could have been about three. You can buy it here.

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

Elphinstone’s stories whisk away the reader into a fantasy landscape with more than a hint of magic, where nature beguiles the reader and becomes more than a setting, nestling as a fundamental character inside the story.

Her first trilogy, The Dreamsnatcher, told of Moll and her quest against evil. Sky Song also pitches a fiery youngster against evil, but here, Elphinstone has woven elements of the current political and social climate into her book, and borrowed from time old fairy stories and folk tales to excavate a new kind of modern story.

Eska, held captive for her voice by the Ice Queen, breaks free from her musical box prison, but remembers nothing of herself or her past. When she learns her destiny: to journey to the Never Cliffs and sing the powerful song to win back the lands of Erkenwald from the Ice Queen, restoring them to the rightful tribes, she learns that she is also is in a race against time and the Ice Queen, who is desperate to steal back Eska’s voice. But once freed from the music box of the Winterfang Palace, Eska finds it hard to make friends and allies. The tribes are mistrustful of her. She must prove that she too wants to be rid of the Ice Queen forever, and that although she does not have a tribe of people around her, she has a different tribe, filled by creatures of nature, which may be just as powerful.

The power of the voice, (it will give the Ice Queen immortality), and the stealing of it, works powerfully in Elphinstone’s book. Of course there are the inevitable allusions to Philomela, whose tongue was cut out in Ovid’s Metamorphosis to prevent her from denouncing her male attacker, and who was eventually turned into a bird who sings. There are allusions to The Little Mermaid – another feisty young girl who sold her voice for humanity (or so she thought). The book revisits Telemachus’s proclamation to Penelope that ‘speech will be the business of men’ and challenges it wholeheartedly. For the power of a young woman’s voice is still relevant in 2018, a year in which this resonates more than most – being the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. Following the power of Anne Frank’s voice, of Malala’s voice, of #metoo – the rise of the woman’s cry, even against another woman, speaks to the power of speaking up for yourself, for believing in what’s right and fighting for it.

The book is first and foremost an icy adventure, with a journey through shiveringly cold frightening landscapes, magicked by the sorcery of the Ice Queen, where avalanches tumble, and lakes hide monstrous depths. But it is also the story of friendship and bravery, as Eska and her friend Flint, along with his sister Blu, traverse mountains together and use teamwork to overcome adversity, and triumph against the Ice Queen.

Most of all, Elphinstone has shown the reader that belief is important. Belief in oneself and one’s own voice, but also in one’s own talents even if they are scorned by others (Flint is a master of invention – in this case using magic rather than pure science). Although there is no overt religion discussed here, as perhaps the reader saw in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman for example, there is an overarching belief in spirituality – that there is something greater to strive for than one’s own selfish desire. Elphinstone has divided the peoples of her book into tribes, Fur, Feather and Tusk, and initially the society is shown as having lost its belief system, because being cowed by one evil being (the Ice Queen) has made each tribe more inward-looking. Even more than that, The Ice Queen has caused ripples of fear, and so the tribes have turned not only inwards, but against each other, and harbour an intense fear of strangers and outsiders, lest they be spies or intruders.

By the end of the book the message is clearly that tribalism may not work, that strangers do not necessarily have evil intent, and by working together, evil can be overcome.

As well as the large messages within, this book showcases a writer coming into her own. The descriptions are lush and appealing – the flump of snow flopping from a branch, and crack and pop of the river melting – a feeling of Narnia-eque bursting into spring. The Ice Queen brings memories from The Snow Queen, and the fairy tale language of the voice-over prologue lends itself well to the feeling of timelessness and gives an all-encompassing setting to Erkenwald and its various tribes (although less confident readers may wish to get straight into the story of Eska).

There are numerous child-friendly touches within the story – the protagonists are children of course, but there are hideouts and dens lovingly described, and a constant flow of energy and vivacity sending their tendrils through the story. Eska’s oneness with nature is brilliantly evoked – she uses nature to feed and clothe herself – sewing with sinews, learning to hunt without her shadow giving her away. There is also the touching character of Blu, shown with a mild intellectual disability, but it is noticeable that the older children and adults are those least forgiving of this; Blu is easily accepted by Eska, Flint, and those with kind, open hearts.

This is a fantastic story of friendship, nature, overcoming adversity, but most of all acceptance and belonging. Always enthralling and daring, it speaks to our darkest fears and our intrinsic faults, and yet to an ongoing belief in the strength of humanity and empathy to pull us through. You can buy it here.

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.

 

Enduring Friendships in Story: a guestpost by Melissa Savage

The publishers describe Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage in three words as ‘bittersweet’, ‘quirky’, and ‘adventure’. I wholeheartedly agree, and would add that this is a beautifully written tale, in which the voice of the protagonist, Lemonade, comes across strongly and perfectly – with just enough bite to ensure that her sweet winning personality has a lemony tang to it. It’s a tale set in California during the time of the Vietnam War, and describes how Lemonade fits into her new surroundings and makes new friends after she moves to live with her grandfather. With emotionally astute adults, a sensitivity to loss, and themes of identity and belonging, this is a fantastically enjoyable book, and I am delighted to host author Melissa Savage on the blog. 

I have had the great fortune of meeting many children as I have shared my new debut middle grade novel, Bigfoot, Tobin & Me (Lemons in the United States) and I’m often asked which part of the book I enjoyed writing most. My answer is always the same. Writing scenes between Lemonade and Tobin. I love their unconventional friendship. They are so different in so many ways and they must argue their points until they can come to some type of agreement on how to come to some sort of agreement. Although they are very different, there is so much about them that is also the same. And they soon learn they need one another. They may not know it at the start of the story, but they soon learn that their friendship will be one of endurance because of who they are, what they’ve been through together and what they now share. Doesn’t everyone want that very special friendship that endures regardless of our differences, foul moods and bad choices, and even change?

I remember while growing up, I loved to read about friendships that endure. Some of the most impactful stories that spoke deeply to me included Katherine Paterson’s Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia, Bette Greene’s Beth Lambert and Phillip Hall from Phillip Halls Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, and Judy Blume’s Sheila Tubman and Mouse Ellis from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. What these three duos have in common is their contrasting personalities and how these opposite traits are just the thing that binds them.

Jess and Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia are an unlikely pair and become friends after Leslie moves to town. Jess is a sad and lonely boy while Leslie is outgoing and imaginative. The two are soon inseparable and together form a secret kingdom, which Leslie names Terabithia. One of the lovely aspects to this friendship is that it sustains even in death, as Leslie is tragically killed in a drowning accident and Jess finds a way to accept the reality of her loss and honor her memory.

Beth and Phillip from Phillip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, have what one could describe as a boisterous relationship at times. Beth has a crush on Phillip and the two are in constant competition with one another for being the best in the class. Beth wonders if she is letting Phillip be number one because she thinks he is the cutest boy in school. However, at the end of the story when Beth finally does win a 4-H competition over Phillip, she realizes that even if she is number one occasionally, their friendship will sustain.

Sheila and Mouse from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great is a story I have read countless times growing up. Sheila meets Mouse when Sheila’s family spends the entire summer in upstate New York’s Tarrytown. Sheila is a fearful child, riddled with anxieties, however overcompensates for her fears with boastful inaccuracies to hide her self-perceived weaknesses from others. As she and Mouse become friends, Mouse begins to see through Sheila’s façade and finally lovingly confronts her about her falsehoods. And it is through this honest interaction that Sheila begins to shed her mask and learn to take chances she hadn’t done before, even if she’s scared.

What qualities do these friendships share? Honesty, sensitivity, empathy, and fun.

There are many themes present in Bigfoot, Tobin & Me, but enduring friendship is one very important one. The friendship between Lemonade and Tobin is one that is honest and loyal, and it soon becomes unconditional no matter how many times they disagree on Twinkies, steer, or where to keep the message pad, because of all that they have endured. Enduring friendship continues to be a desired theme in story in childhood and beyond. It is my hope that Lemonade and Tobin’s enduring friendship is one that speaks to kids around the world as the many enduring friendships in my most favorite books growing up have spoken to me.

With thanks to Melissa Savage. Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). It is filled with clever character descriptions, including wise Mrs Dickerson and her “bright pink lipstick that looks like it’s slipping off”, and expert perceptions of child preoccupations such as: “I surf wind waves with my hand out of the window and try to ignore him” on a car journey. The writing is immersive and a pleasure to read, and the tale, although far-fetched, draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. One of the best books for this age group that you’ll read this summer. You can buy it here and I heartily recommend that you do. Ages 8+ years.