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Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

sofia valdezI have a soft spot for the Questioneers, the series of picture books that includes Rosie Revere, Iggy Peck and Ada Twist. They started a STEM revolution all of their own, and their now distinctive look, complete with graph paper background, is a constant presence in any good library or children’s bookcase.

With the latest in the series though, Beaty has captured the zeitgeist, deviating slightly from science and focussing on politics. Here, she points to the hope that children can provide, especially in the face of poor management and inept leadership by adults. With a nod to inclusivity and equal rights by both author and illustrator, Sofia Valdez’s first policies focus on the environment, namely waste management and green spaces.

Sofia is quite rightly disturbed by the landfill site in her neighbourhood, especially when she sees its dangers. She decides it’s time to replace it with a park for her community, but finds that facing city hall is harder than she thought. It takes determination and the support of her neighbours to see it through.

Of course there are repeating themes here from the former picture books on Rosie Revere and crew, including determination and putting in the hours, but there are new themes springing up all the time. Sofia walks to school with her Abuelo, and this cross-generational relationship is of the utmost importance. Moreover, bureaucracy reigns large at City Hall, and author Beaty and illustrator Roberts have both had great fun exploring the humour and ridiculousness of sprawling officialdom and red tape. Of course, the book rhymes, as per the rest of the series, and Beaty plays on the idea of having different departments in different rooms, with silly names and fun numbers.

The most galling aspect for Sofia is the clerk’s quick dismissal of her as ‘only a kid’. In our current times of Greta Thunberg, this is clearly highly ironic. Sofia doesn’t turn away from this, and in an insightful way asks the clerk what she would do if she were in Sofia’s shoes.

After a daunting presentation, a plethora of ideas, a march and a petition, surveys and budgets and more, Sofia’s dreams become a reality. Her diverse community receives a much-wanted green space.

This is a feel-good picture book. It demonstrates the power of the individual to make a difference, but also the power and meaning of a community. And it pulls together the strands of science and creativity – change is brought about only after an individual has a vision.

Beaty impressively keeps the tight rhythm and rhyme that gave her such success with her other picture books, and Roberts’ expressive illustrations add humour and bite to each scene. As well as the blatant message, and the plot-driven text, it’s worth a longer linger over the illustrations. Sofia’s bedroom betrays her character, the mountain of trash is telling in itself, but most of all the community is portrayed in all its glorious differences and similarities. Children will love spotting Rosie, Iggy and Ada. Definitely one to add to your collection. Who knows, books such as these may inspire a better calibre of leader in the future.

With thanks to Abrams books for the review copy.

Vote Sofia Valdez, Future Prez here.

New Detective Fiction

I’m sure there weren’t as many detective novels for children when I was young. For me, my most memorable encounter with the genre was one summer, on our annual trip to Cornwall. We were staying in a hotel with its own giftshop – the height of luxury, I thought. To my dismay, halfway through the trip, I ran out of reading material (despite probably having taken about 10 books for a two week stay). In those days, gift shops rarely stocked books, and certainly not children’s books. But I was in luck. The books they did stock were a collection of Agatha Christie novels, and so, aged about ten, I embarked on a journey on the Orient Express, found a cat amongst the pigeons, and journeyed along the Nile.

Today, the mystery/detective/crime novels for children drop onto the doormat almost daily. Here are three new novels that are everything one could ask for in the genre – gripping, tightly plotted, with excellent characterisation, and all superbly written.

lori and max

Lori and Max by Catherine O’Flynn
With a good eye for giving her characters backstory, introducing first Lori, wannabe child detective with deceased parents living with her grandma, and then Max, new girl in school with too-small clothes, a depressed Mum and gambling Dad, O’Flynn deploys enough wit to stop the book descending full flow into misery.

These girls have gumption and spark, the steel and resolve to see their detecting through difficult areas. When a stack of charity money goes missing from school, and Max is accused of the crime, Lori sets out to prove that her new friend is innocent.

Although contemporary, the characters rely on skilful sleuthing and walkie talkies rather than the Internet or mobile phones, and with lashings of descriptions of food, the understanding of real friendship, and a writer’s keen eye for observation and nuance, this is a well-told, brilliantly executed detective story. One of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t miss it. Buy it here.

trouble in new york

Trouble in New York by Sylvia Bishop
It seems Sylvia Bishop can do no wrong – I’ve loved every single one of her books. In her latest, she turns to an analysis of news and fake news in her crime caper set in 1960’s New York.

Jamie Creeden delivers papers but he wants to be a reporter. When he stumbles into the mystery of a missing actress, he realises he’s stuck fast in the middle of a network of corruption and criminality. Assuming the role of investigative journalist, he sets out to discover the truth, and whether that truth is always what’s printed in the papers.

Bishop writes with an assured confidence, imbuing her characters and her insights with warmth. She has a style that brings the essence of a children’s world into a larger view of right and wrong, so that the reader feels secure in the familiarity of the adventure, whilst at the same time having their horizons broadened. My favourite insight comes early on: in the building of the Yorker, the newspaper featured, there is a statue of a woman in the entrance, to symbolise the motto of the paper – ‘Always punctual, often accurate’. Bishop goes on to say:

“In one hand the woman held a lantern for Truth; and in the other, a Rolex watch, for Punctuality. (She used to hold an hourglass, but the Rolex company paid the Yorker a great deal of money to change it.).”

It’s simple, but effective, bringing our real world capitalism to a child readership, and lightly placing clues for them to question what they see and what they hear.

There’s more of course: two plucky female sidekicks to the protagonist, a tight plot, and a pervasive enthusiasm for the plucky innocence and perseverance of children, the truth, and the beauty in both. Effortless and yet brilliant. Another triumph. Buy it here.

agatha oddly

Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key by Lena Jones
From New York to a detective story set firmly in London, complete with secret comms in the London Eye, and a girl who resides in the groundsman’s cottage of Hyde Park.

Thirteen-year-old Agatha Oddly, named for Agatha Christie, adores detecting, and so when a motorbike knocks over an old lady in the middle of Hyde Park, Agatha is straight on the case. But the lady isn’t who she first appears, and when London’s water pipes are filled with a toxic red algae, Agatha has to join the dots in a relentless adventure around London in order to come up with the culprits behind a dastardly plan to change the way Londoners drink water for ever.

There is so much to love here, from the hidden network of super spies in London’s midst, to the secret tunnels and gatekeepers of London, to the everyday reality of Agatha in school, and dealing with who and who isn’t her friend. Smartly plotted, and hugely enjoyable, this is a fast easy read that zings with character and energy.

Although slightly predictable for those of us with some reading experience, Agatha’s quirks and indomitable spirit lead the way here. It’s fitting that the series bears her name, and for readers age 9+ approaching the book, they’ll find something to love in her slightly obtuse and subversive nature. The plot is key, of course, but it is in her friendships – battling with the popular kids, understanding the needs of her best friend, and coming to see that people aren’t always as they present in one scenario, that this book wins big. Plenty of dialogue, an understanding of when mobile phones can assist the plot and when not, and carefully laid red herrings all make for a perfect crime caper. Highly recommended. The second in the series, Murder at the Museum, has been published too. You can buy Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key here.

With thanks to Firefly Press, Scholastic and HarperCollins for the review copies.

Chessboxer by Stephen Davies

chessboxerThere’s something special about being recommended a book by one’s own children, and this is one such novel. My daughter pressed this into my hands, despite neither knowing how to box, nor play chess, although I reckon she’d be great at both.

I can see why she liked it. This scintillating book pulses with energy. Chessboxer pounds with the punch of a boxer, and yet remains contemplative, with ideas behind the fast-paced plot as thoughtful as a chess player.

Leah Baxter is the quintessential feisty protagonist. She’s a chess whizz, just a few wins away from being heralded a junior chess grandmaster, and yet she’s lost in life…not just over grief for her father, but also in her chosen field – she’s not quite sure that chess is for her.

Davies introduces the spikiness of this seventeen-year-old straight away, as the story is told in a series of Leah’s blogposts. At first, these are public, and with them comes the inevitable array of comments, to which Leah replies with snarky sarcasm and a growing hostility.

After an encounter with one such commenter face to face, Leah turns her blog private, and the comments disappear, but her thoughts remain loud and clear for the reader to see. Davies has a firm grip on character – Leah treads the trembling tightrope between adolescence and adulthood, often making impetuous decisions, sometimes leaning towards self-destructive behaviour, and always with a firm eye on her obsessive nature regarding her passion.

Through the over-curious commenter on the blog, who turns out to be less stalker and more friend, Leah discovers new passions in life, including chessboxing. This strange hybrid sport blends bouts of boxing with rounds of chess, mixing the highly physical with the highly intellectual, and challenging Leah’s strategic thinking. Of course, the reader sees that the boxing is great physical therapy for Leah in the midst of her grief, which doesn’t seem to have been dealt with previously, but the amount of violence may be shocking for some younger readers.

What draws the reader in is the amount of grit, determination and resilience demonstrated by Leah, yet also her capacity for making impetuous and wrong decisions. And although her anger can be alienating at times, the reader stays the course with her, sees her processing the world, finding a way to trust people, and in the end her goodness shines through.

Her new hobby of chessboxing lends itself well to a build up of anticipation throughout the novel, honing a new skill, learning new tactics, and of course being tested time and time again. Davies holds this together well, drawing from extensive research, and also carefully plotting his novel, as tightly as the footwork of a boxer, neat and balanced, keeping the reader on their toes.

The setting is almost another character in the book – the streets of New York throb with an equal energy to Leah, from the green spaces to the donut shops, and even the local police station. Davies has a way of navigating the streets without resorting to description, but just strewing objects and places throughout the text – Washington Square, the fire escapes, tattoo parlours.

This is a novel with a delicate strength, a snarky protagonist, and an interesting presentation of prose. It made me think of that other recent YA with its angry girl protagonist, Furious Thing, featured just a couple of weeks ago on MinervaReads.

With our world as it is, we need lots of these intelligent and angry girls – those with drive and passion, with complexity that feeds their anger but can also quell it, and above all, with their hearts and minds in the right place. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Andersen Press for the advance review copy. A suggested teen read.

In the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido

in the key of codeDid you catch the GQ picture storm in June of this year? The magazine published a photo of about 20 top Silicon Valley executives, including the founder of LinkedIn, on a trip to Italy. Then, someone spotted that the only two women in the picture had been Photoshopped in. Without them it would have been an all-male photo. As it happens, those two women did actually attend the trip, but the story has been taken as a metaphor for the tech industry as a whole.

The world still seems to be failing in its attempts to attract women into STEM jobs. (Let’s not discuss yet the myriad of ways in which the world is failing women in other areas). Apparently, girls tend to lose interest in future tech jobs at about age 11, and the reasons stem from lack of adult support, to peer pressure about girls’ roles, and an impression that tech careers are lacking in creativity.

Does Aimee Lucido know this? A software engineer as well as author, she’s produced a wonderful free verse novel, In the Key of Code, for age 10+ that meshes music, poetry, and coding to tell the story of twelve-year old Emmy, starting a new school in San Francisco, but feeling isolated and invisible. When she starts computer science classes, she begins to see patterns between her musical background and coding, and inspired by her new teacher, Mrs Delaney, and a burgeoning friendship, she comes to accept her new home, and find a new passion.

Lucido cleverly interlaces her themes both through her text and also in the way she writes her text. The novel is written in free verse – each chapter a piece of poetry with a firm rhythm. In first person narrator voice, Emmy writes her story in fairly typical teen book free verse (see Kwame Alexander books, for example), explaining her move to a new city, her parents’ love for music, and her feeling that she just doesn’t quite fit.

Even in these first poems though, there is a thread of musical tuning running through them; metaphors and similes in the text, rhythms and rhymes stylistically. When Emmy starts to learn to code at school, Java programming language starts weaving its way into the verse, and before long computer code, poetry, and music are all fusing together to create startlingly emotive free verse poems, which create tension and anticipation in the writing:

“The semicolon is the period at the end of a line-
of code.

It’s the space between one perfect moment;”

and on the next page:

“whatever comes next.”

Lucido’s book doesn’t break out into unreadable Java code, even though terminology is gradually introduced. A novice can easily read it, and learn, and through the rhythms and timbre of each poem, and the collective accumulation of them, they form into an entire narrative structure with a dramatic arc and a great storyline.

The characters zing off the page – there’s Emmy, shy and struggling to find her voice, and her new friend Abigail, also struggling to find her voice, despite seemingly being popular with the ‘in-crowd’ of kids.

Most inspirational to Emmy and Abigail, is the character of the computer science teacher, Mrs Delaney, who manages not only to inspire and impart knowledge, but to embed herself in their hearts.

By writing code-poetry, Lucido mixes science and creativity – producing something that’s exactly what tech companies need – that crucial fusing of imagination and know-how in order to spark innovation. The arts play a key role in our advancement of technology.

And Lucido produces Java script full of humanity. The book is inherently about finding out one’s real self and about friendship – human connections being the driving force in learning, attainment, creativity and tech.

Readers can be music or code novices, and still see a beauty in the poetry, with lots of emotion to keep them gripped, and intelligence to steer them through. The use of white space within and between the poems is as much a pause to breathe and absorb as it is to express and articulate and keep to rhythm. And there is a huge differentiation between the poems, depending on plot, and mood of narrator.

This is a great read – showing the importance of collaboration in life and in tech, the power of inspirational teachers, the purpose of friendship, and searching for one’s own true voice. It brings humanity into tech, and tech into humanity. A rich, absorbing read, and a lovely story to boot.

With thanks to Walker Books for the early review copy. In the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido publishes on 3rd October in the UK. You can buy yours here.

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

good thievesFairy tales were often told as warnings or instructions on how to behave. Don’t play with the forbidden spinning wheel, don’t wander alone through the dangerous woods (even if you’re wearing a bright red cape), don’t break into someone else’s house and eat their porridge… Today’s tales are different. Children can do naughty, even bad things, if they are fighting evil or battling for the greater good. In essence, they can be good thieves – not good at thieving (although that too), but both good and a thief.

Set during the Prohibition in New York, during the 1920s, Vita (meaning life itself), has come over from England with her mother in order to set her grandfather’s affairs in order so that he can return home with them. It turns out, he has been cheated out of the ancestral home by an unscrupulous villain, Victor Sorrotore. Whereas her mother is all for signing paperwork and leaving swiftly, Vita is determined to win the house back for her grandfather, and recruits a pickpocket, and two apprentice circus performers to help her.

Set in a time well before house alarms and mobile phones, when picking locks is an asset for any thief, and children are left to their own devices, Rundell cleverly weaves period detail into her heist novel. Bootleggers and speakeasies, beautiful brownstone buildings and the intricacies of Carnegie Hall, as well as the specific grid system of New York, all provide a compelling and different backdrop for her children’s novel. And gender and race attitudes of the time are dropped into the story with deft awareness.

But it is the characters who win over the reader. They are bold and brave and keen to make their mark upon the world, always active, strong and memorable, but above all passionate about something, whether it be finding an emerald long since hidden in the ancestral house, or pursuing their vision of their future circus act, or simply surviving the mean streets of 1920s New York. They are fierce in their love for those they care about, and inspire a fierce loyalty from the reader.

Vita is slowed in movement by an episode of polio when younger, (a limp), and this hampers her throughout, although Rundell is keen to show the other children’s compassion, yet not pity for her. Vita is also a determined child with distinct attributes, which Rundell brings to life with little touches – Vita has ‘six kinds of smile, and five of them were real’, and she owns a supremely active way of thinking about things – Vita wears ‘a skirt you can kick in’.

Vita’s accomplices are well-drawn too, most particularly the circus apprentices, and this is where the story picks up zest and flair. Flying through the air, being an escape artist, understanding animals or throwing knives are all prized skills in both the ring and in life itself, and Rundell imbues her descriptions with colour and artistry, bringing the acts and performers to life.

As always, Rundell’s writing is swift and breathless, propelling the reader through the text like a glider through air, swooping and diving in and out of the plot, with short paragraphs and snippy dialogue. She uses simile and metaphor with the precision of a knife thrower. She cuts through excess, landing each word with specificity and wisdom. It is this apparent confident knowledge of the world, of higher truths, such as that ‘sometimes it was sensible not to be sensible,’ which gives her text its gravitas in the middle of scintillating storytelling.

With themes of loyalty and friendship, righting wrongs and clever thinking, this is a smart, pacey heist novel, with an inherent sense of wit throughout. Reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives in its wise way of children working together and outwitting evil adults, yet with the Rundell idiosyncrasies that mark her stories as being a cut above the rest. A must read. For 8+ years.

The Good Thieves publishes on Thursday 13th June, and you can pre-order it here. With special thanks to Jade at Bloomsbury Publishing for my review copy.

Fiction Books with Birds

Ever since the dove made an appearance in the Bible as a symbol of peace, and ravens whispered news into the god Odin’s ears in Norse mythology, or since Ancient Greece where the goddess Athena had an owl as a symbol of wisdom, or in Ancient India where a peacock represented Mother Earth, birds have been used in religion, mythology and literature symbolically, as messengers or perhaps signs of hope, and particularly freedom. In some of my favourite novels, birds have been used in symbolic ways: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle…. Here are three children’s novels that synchronise with this theme.

larkLark by Anthony McGowan
McGowan returns for a final time to his beloved working class characters, Nicky and Kenny, in this novella for Barrington Stoke. Although the last of a quartet, Lark can be read as a standalone, a self-contained adventure. The teenage boys are escaping their everyday reality, in this case, a visit from their estranged mother, by taking a walk on the Yorkshire moors with their dog. With understated empathy, McGowan describes Kenny (who has cognitive disability), as needing to let out his pent-up energy – ‘he’d punch the cushions on the settee or shout out random stuff in the street’ – and so the brothers seek nature as a release – the perennial theme of this book quartet.

Narrated by Nicky in an authentic teen voice, which is both accessible and yet intensely profound in its own way, the prose starts in the middle of the action, backtracking a little but then ploughing on – not unlike the boys, who are suddenly caught in the middle of a blizzard on the moors.

Danger becomes all too apparent – the problems of home (hunger, cold, poverty) are magnified in the natural expanse of the moors, and yet also reduced to this particular day and this particular time. The boys get into deep trouble, pushing them to the brink of existence.

Nicky’s trademark humour never lets up, lending even more pathos to the situation in its own darkly rich way, and by the end a fair number of readers will be sniffing back the tears. What lingers is the bond between the boys, the exploration of teen masculinity – full of bravado and yet vulnerability – and yet also the ultimate draw of never-ending hope.

Suspenseful, written with immaculate style, and ultimately heart-warming, this is another triumph from McGowan. You can read the review of Rook, the third in the series here, when it looked likely to end as a trilogy. To buy Lark, click here

asha and the spirit birdAsha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
Another book reaching for the symbol of a bird as hope, and with a treacherous journey, is this spellbinding lush book from newcomer Jasbinder Bilan.

Asha lives with her mother in the foothills of the Himalayas, living a rural life and working on the farm, spending leisure time in the mango tree with her friend Jeevan. Her father works away in the city. But when he stops sending money and moneylenders come to collect her mother’s debt, Asha decides to find her way to the city herself and see what’s happened to her father.

As vibrant with the sights and sounds and colours of the landscape on the inside as the cover is bright on the outside, this is a stunning evocation of a completely different way of life, with a filmic quality to the descriptions of flowers and wildlife, food and landscape. The journey is treacherous, the children not only at risk of death from hunger and tiredness, but also in the face of wild animals. Here too, though, nature is a saving grace in the form of a magical spirit bird that guides Asha, giving hope and reassurance throughout.

The book takes an even darker turn with its exploration of poverty and exploitation in the city, but Asha never loses self-belief, and the book drives forward with an unrelenting optimism and moments of kindness, exploring too the role of faith and ancestry, ritual and tradition, in shaping personality and way of life.

But more than this, it’s an immersive experience in a different culture. A glossary gives Hindi and Punjabi words, but Bilan seamlessly blends them into her prose, so that with context it is easy to understand what they mean. The Indian way of life is portrayed with enthusiasm, empathy and energy, and the threads of friendship sew the plot neatly together. You can buy it here

call me alastairCall Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo
Something vastly different in this quirky novel told from three completely distinct points of view, the first of which is Alistair, an African grey parrot. Trapped in an American pet shop, Alistair dreams of freedom and blue skies, but unfortunately for him has two broken wings and a habit of plucking his own feathers out of anxiety. When he discovers eating paper, and delights in the taste of the different types of literature – poetry being his favourite – he soon starts to compose verse himself.

With this sense of the world giving him an extra taste for freedom, he is adopted by lonely widow, Albertina Plopky (Bertie), whom the reader meets through letters to her deceased husband. Add to this eclectic mix, the meticulous record-keeping of pet-shop helper 12-year-old Fritz, (musing also on the recent separation of his parents and the death of a grandparent) and suddenly the reader grasps how the three points of view and stories meet.

The book is about perspective and freedom, but also speaks to the idea of loneliness. We stifle our own freedom if we build cages around ourselves. Unique and idiosyncratic, this is not for everyone, but with a mix of poetry and prose, different narrative voices, and a quest for courage, this is a very unusual middle grade book. You can buy it here. 

 

 

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.

Halloween Murder and Magic

There’s nothing like a Halloween night to bring out the ghosts and ghoulies and spooky horror stories. But there’s also plenty of room for fun and frolics. When I first starting stocking murder stories in the primary school library, a parent queried the content. Murder? For children? Indeed. Murder, monsters, howling winds, dark nights, swamp creatures, are all perfect fodder for little ones (age 9+). Here are two I particularly like.

what manor murderWhat Manor of Murder? by Christopher William Hill
“It looks like the sort of place where bad things have happened,” whispered Master Oliver Davenport.

The author of the Tales from Schwartzgarten series is back with a new book called The Bleakley Brothers Mystery: What Manor of Murder? Spoofing traditional murder mysteries with a good helping of homicide, one-by-one elimination of suspects, a dollop of old country house, and a smigden of regurgitated legend, Hill tackles his topic with aplomb, dropping gothic clichés and hints throughout in the build up to the crime (the family’s Latin motto, mors cum Laetitia, means death with joyfulness). In the approach to the old manor house, there is an old man surrounded by clouds of smoke telling superstitious tales of gloom and doom, an ominous howling wind, a rickety bridge, and the looming towering walls of Bleakley Manor itself.

Posh twins Horatio and Eustace, freshly released from their boarding school, accompanied by Poor Unfortunate Oliver Davenport, arrive at Bleakley Manor for Michaelmas Eve with their extended family. Things are rather out of sorts though – with the butler and footman gone and replaced by inferior staff – and then a body is found in the study…

Hill assembles his eccentric characters; including cousin Loveday, a rather winning know-it-all who brandishes a jolly lacrosse stick and excitedly relays her new venture writing a school magazine entitled ‘Murder and Mayhem’, a Great Aunt who writes crime novels (and explains to Oliver Davenport that the poor unfortunates in her books always die), and an uncle who happens to be a roving explorer and Egyptologist.

Murder is discussed continually in the most off-hand manner, the children are desperate for mystery, and so it isn’t long before they get what they deserve. The author flourishes his deft wit on every page, playing with the readers as he assembles his cast and then eliminates them, all with fantastically posh period detail – from pineapple cubes and aniseed balls to roast goose and roly poly pudding (there is a lot of food).

If there’s an occasional clunker (insects sent scuttling more than once), the reader either excuses it as being part of the hammy style or overlooks it because the rest of the book is so much fun. I wanted to read it aloud in a plummy posh accent and revel in the quirky dark humour. It’s deliciously wicked. You can buy it here.

witch girlMore macabre goings-on in Witch Girl by Jan Eldredge, titled Evangeline of the Bayou in the States, which gives much more of a clue to the contents. The book is set in the swamps of Louisiana and stars twelve-year-old haunt huntress apprentice Evangeline Clement. (Haunt huntresses are on call to protect everyday folks haunted by supernatural creatures).

Evangeline Clement lives with her witchy grandmother, learning how to keep the locals safe from the monsters of the Bayou, including such nasties as banshees and terrebonnes. Evangeline and her grandmother rely on various herbs, potions, talismans and spells for their trade, which all tie nicely into the scenery – Eldredge borrowing from Cajun culture and the plant life of the American South.

The book plunges the reader into the action, showing Evangeline attempting to prove her worth by tackling a number of supernatural monster invasions on her own, although much to the reader’s amusement, she makes rather a mess of it.

Then, she and her grandmother are called to New Orleans to investigate the rather peculiar case of Mrs Midsomer who transforms into a rougarou (a werewolf). Fully immersed in the setting with its white wedding cake houses and aroma of coffee and chicory, this is a transportive novel brought to life most magnificently with the superstitions and local folklore tied into Evangeline’s witchcraft and voodoo. There is much monster-fighting action, and more than a hint of wit and sass.

In the end, the reader understands that trusting one’s gut is as important as knowledge, although a UK readerships’ knowledge will be greatly enhanced with the glossary of Cajun folklore creatures at the back of the book. Paranormal in abundance, creepiness indeed, but no outright horror. This is a nod to bravery in the face of creepy old mansions and terrifying monsters that make the dangerous alligator seem like a fluffy pussycat. Try it here.

 

American Big Hitters

Two picture books that snuck into the publishing schedule last year, but which have recently come to my attention are both by big hitting American authors, who both dabble in the children’s book market, as well as writing adult fiction. Here, their individual writing styles shine in two profoundly different takes on the picture book and what it can do.

the bad mood and the stick
The Bad Mood and the Big Stick by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Matt Forsythe
There’s nothing new in the idea of a child in a bad mood who passes it on (see my 2015 blog here), but Lemony Snicket is a master at putting his own spin on a premise, especially adding a tongue-in-cheek quirk. What’s more, the illustrations are sensational – from the cover onwards. The little girl on the cover, holding her stick, looks so mad and grumpy, one really feels as if she might wield it at the reader. But it’s the grumpy cloud above her (with matching facial expression) that appeals to the reader too – like the grey cloud above Eeyore, this one looks hard to shift.

Curly is the grumpy girl, and she has her reasons. The bad mood has been with her since she saw an ice cream shop, but was not given an ice cream. The reader sees her with her arms crossed, the bad mood hovering above, and her mother and brother strolling happily ahead. Of course, within pages, Curly has passed the bad mood to her mother (Yes, you’ve guessed it, she poked her brother with the stick, giving her momentary delight and causing her parent stress). The book continues as the bad mood passes from person to person.

Except that’s not the whole story. Snicket uses the catchphrase ‘You never know what is going to happen’, as the book veers off into completely different territory – with the stick as a catalyst, and one particular person breaking the bad mood chain. In the end, Curly gets an ice cream, but the bad mood seems to be hovering again.

The illustrations work well – a multi-coloured bad mood that sets the colour palette for the book, infusing everything with a candy-hued blend and a dominant pastel orange. The cast of characters are shown with a range of emotions – even the animals. This means that the moodiness isn’t isolated; it can spring upon somebody suddenly, but it can also mix with other emotions, providing a contrast, or be diluted itself. Emotions are complex things, but also fleeting…You can buy a copy of the book here.

her right foot

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris
A second title from the end of last year, also American, also by a big-name author. But this, as Dave Eggers explains, is a factual book about the origins of the Statue of Liberty. The pace is fast, the author chatty and self-referential, addressing the reader using the second person ‘you’ as he assumes the reader has a basic knowledge of his topic while he quickly documents how the statue was conceived and built.

But the main thrust of the book, reached halfway through, is the foot of the title, which is shown to be walking. At this point, Eggers wants the reader to use their knowledge to think about the meaning behind this. Why is the Statue of Liberty mid-stride? The story leaves the factual behind and crosses into the territory of extrapolation and discovery. If the statue is for freedom, and she is walking, then she is continuing the fight for freedom, for liberty.

Embracing the culture of immigration, of building a nation for freedom, Eggers has created a picture book manifesto for how he views the United States. In our current political climate, this is a pertinent point well made, and the second half of the book shows the mix of immigrants to the States since the Statue of Liberty was constructed, and the ongoing fight for tolerance and acceptance.

The illustrations throughout show a myriad of peoples, as well as places, but feel poster-like in their construction, and display a sense of humour that matches the author’s. Although the book feels a little preachy in places, it’s a good jumping off point for discussion. And remains timely in 2018. You can buy it here.

 

 

Shapes, Colours, Music and Mystery

One of the wonders of reading is being able to sew threads through the most unlikely of book pairings, and knit them together. Intertextuality is the relationship between texts: common links and themes, references and allusions, and working out how these make the books stand together or apart.


The Cranky Caterpillar is a new picture book from artist Richard Graham and ostensibly shows a young child, Ezra, trying to cheer up a cranky caterpillar who is stuck inside a piano. Graham utilises a great deal of humour and pathos in his tale, as Ezra tries everything from introducing fresh air to concocting beautiful meals, and buying a new hat. Graham’s artistry comes to the fore here in his depiction of a little girl employing all the schemes to cheer up the caterpillar that she would enjoy herself, and this shows on her sympathetically expressive face. But there are also clues as to where the depths of the story lie in her design – her legs, for example, are shaped like musical notes, which becomes more obvious as the book continues, and there is a growing abundance of tranquility in her face when she hears music.

Because although on one level the book is about learning to articulate emotion, showing kindness to another who is unhappy, and the importance of friendship, on another level the book introduces the world of synaesthesia – how one sensory stimulation leads to automatic secondary stimulation, such as the colour of music, or the music of colour. Here, Graham takes inspiration from Kandinsky, who believed that he could hear music when he saw colours – and the illustrations halfway through the book are a paean to Kandinsky’s abstract phase. Kandinsky, who believed that colour itself is an art form, that it isn’t always necessary to show the recognisable shape of something. The Cranky Caterpillar does have a recognisable story shape of course, with a happy ending, as with most caterpillars in storybooks – but there’s a wondrous depth and craft to this picture book too – making it work on many levels. Graham’s use of colours in geometric shapes sings through the pages of the book, at the point when Ezra gathers a band to play joyful music to the caterpillar, in a moving anticipation of his eventual flight of happiness.

In the same way in which graphic shapes work as a key component to uncovering the mystery in Robin Steven’s The Guggenheim Mystery. This new middle grade novel has, at its heart, the mystery of the theft of the Kandinsky painting, ‘In the Black Square’.

The Guggenheim Mystery tells the story of Ted, a boy with a form of autism, who is visiting his aunt and cousin in New York, when a painting mysteriously disappears from the Guggenheim art gallery, of which his aunt is the curator. When the spotlight falls firmly on her as culprit, Ted and his cousins set off on an adventure to clear her name, and by doing so learn about the value of art. (Wonderfully, the author has borrowed from an episode in her own mother’s past for this – her mother worked at the Ashmolean in Oxford when a Cezanne painting was stolen.)

The book’s sense of place is vital, as Ted and his cousins move through the subway, Times Square, Brooklyn and Central Park to follow up leads to their detective work. Having been to NY many times, and most recently last month, I can attest to the accuracy and authenticity of the settings – as well as confirm that the painting is firmly in place in the museum (and there’s a wonderful children’s audio commentary which is well worth the visit!). But reading the book, whether you have been to New York or not, certainly calls to mind the excitement and uniqueness of this incredible city.

What’s more, one gets the feeling that Steven’s protagonist, Ted, sees the world more like Kandinsky than the rest of us:

“I noticed that the tilt of the Earth and the position of the sun meant that its light was passing through more air to reach ground level in New York. Each air molecule it bumped against made it scatter more and more, so that by the time it reached our eyes it was red and yellow instead of blue.”

Of course, his autism makes his senses more acute – accentuating sounds, colours, shapes. In fact, it’s Ted’s difference in seeing things that enables him to see things that others miss, and thereby solve the mystery. He wants to find patterns and logic in what he sees, which contrasts beautifully with his absorption of the chaos and noise of New York. But it also brings into play Kandinsky and the Guggenheim itself. He transforms the chaos into a theory and finally solves the jigsaw, with much help from the shapes and patterns of the Guggenheim itself – the whorls of the ramps, the triangles of the stairs, the curvature of the exterior.

This too links back to the Kandinsky painting, which shows the order and clean shapes of the weather, as well as depicting an expressiveness of the abstract.

The power of the book is in the very fact that Stevens distils this all into logical simplicity for Ted and for the reader – each chapter fastidiously traipses through the facts of the case, eliminating the impossibles. It’s easy to follow, but intriguing to read – I didn’t guess the culprit. It also follows on from Ted and his cousins’ appearance in The London Eye Mystery, and, cleverly maintains their distinctive personalities and relationships (despite having been written by a different author, the late Siobhan Dowd).

Both The Cranky Caterpillar and The Guggenheim Mystery are stellar examples of artistic endeavours coming to fruition. Richard Graham is an upcycling artist, and took his inspiration from not only Kandinsky, but from the hammers inside a cast-off piano. Look carefully at the detail in the illustrations and you’ll see how the caterpillar is crafted, as well as the most carefully crafted illustrations – taking inspiration from great artists, but also from the visuality of music. Stevens was asked to write the mystery as a sequel to late author Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, having been left with just the title to go on. With both books there is a pattern to their work, a pattern through shapes and colours and imagination. Perfect books for exploring children’s own creative endeavours.

You can buy The Cranky Caterpillar by Richard Graham here and The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens and Siobhan Dowd here.