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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. 

 

Lots by Marc Martin

Quirky and intriguing, Lots is a book about impressions – what do we notice when we go somewhere? How does one place distinguish itself from another? What would we like to explore? Marc Martin has chosen 15 places to illuminate – and they certainly shine. With handwritten text, illustrations reminiscent of William Grill in their intensity and number, this is a vibrant, bold and wonderful new non-fiction book. One for children who want to find out the little known facts about a place, or see it represented in resplendent colour. Check out, in particular, the illustration of the favelas in Rio, or the bawabs in Cairo, the Salema fish in the Galapagos, or the solitary walker in Times Square, New York. This is a beautifully illustrated book that deserves awards for both its quirkiness and illustrations. I’m delighted to host Marc on the blog today, explaining why he chose the places he did. 

It was really difficult to choose which places to include in LOTS – there are so many fascinating destinations with their own distinct character that I would have loved to include, but with only 32 pages, there are only so many places I could pick!

So, I started with a long list and slowly narrowed it down. I wanted to include a mix of iconic cities, such as New York and Paris, as well as places that not everyone might think of, such as Ulaan Bataar and Reykjavík. I also made sure I chose locations from each continent, and tried to ensure there was a good mix of cities and nature.

In terms of focusing on each place, I tried to identify some of the particularities of each destination – some are more colourful, some are busy, some are full of animals, some are really hot and some are quite cold! I asked myself questions such as: ‘What are some of the things you would notice if you were travelling here?’ or ‘What is it about this place that makes it different from other cities?’.

I’d also visited about half the places in the book, so personal experience helped shape my decisions – for instance, in Delhi I was amazed by how many cows there are roaming the streets (and how colourful they can be) – it’s not something you’d see in other cities outside of India!

If I hadn’t been to the place I was drawing, I relied on research and information from people who had been there. Once I started researching a particular location in more detail, it was usually pretty easy to discover some of the more unique things about it. There’s an amazing amount of information on the internet, and you can usually find travel blogs and other websites that give you insights into what makes a place particularly different.

Some of my favourite places in the book to visit are New York, Ulaan Bataar and Delhi. I love New York because of how vibrant and fast-paced it can be – there are lots of people from all around the world and you can always find something to do just by wandering the streets. Delhi can be slightly more challenging for visitors, just because it’s very chaotic and there’s a sense of the unexpected, but it’s a very energetic city with lots to discover. Lastly, I like Ulaan Bataar because it’s a little bit hard to get to, and off the beaten track. The people are extremely friendly, and the vastness of the Mongolian landscape is stunning.

With thanks to Marc for the guest post. You can buy it here

Children’s Books Gifts Round Up Part One

Are you looking for a gifts for the holiday season? Here is my round up of non-Christmassy books, which I’d choose to have in my stocking. Click on the titles to buy the book. Next week, look out for my list of children’s books with a Christmas theme.

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There have been so many good picture books this year, that I had a really hard time narrowing down which to feature. I didn’t want to repeat any I’ve featured so far, so here is my new selection for you. Starting with Odd Dog Out by Rob Biddulph. This author/illustrator can do no wrong – each of his books is equally delightful, although in a different way, and I think this latest is my favourite. A female dog who comes to recognise that one doesn’t have to follow the pack, but that it’s good to recognise and be pleased with your own individuality. Like Steve Antony, Biddulph stuffs his picture books with details so that young children can find rewards in the tiniest things, such as characters from previous books, and hidden motifs. Fun, imaginative, and downright adorable.

Another supremely talented illustrator is Jon Klassen. He concludes his hat trilogy with this spectacular book, We Found a Hat about a pair of tortoises in the same landscape as the previous books, but with a new dilemma. The hat isn’t missing, but there’s only one hat, and two tortoises. With the same devotion to visual literacy as his other books, the reader must pay as much attention to the pictures as to the text to glean the plot. A brilliant, humorous, empathetic book. I can’t get enough of these.

Another sequel, and another talent, Oi Dog by Kes and Claire Gray and illustrated by Jim Field continues the raucous fun of Oi Frog. One of the best picture books around for reading out loud (conversation between the animals) and extending play with rhymes, this is joyous fun. Not only are the rhymes brilliant and unpredictable at times, but the illustrations (see the bears eating porridge) rather wonderful. In Oi Frog the pumas sat on satsumas. Here the cheetahs sit on fajitas. I just love it. The end twist is punchy and hilarious.

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Matt Robertson is an illustrator who’s been creeping under the radar for a while, but should be more widely celebrated. His latest picture book Super Stan is one he’s written as well as illustrated, and it’s fabulous. More about siblings than it is about superpowers, this tracks our everyday jealousy of our siblings, but then ends up showing us the love that lies underneath the rivalry. Bright, colourful, funny, good pacing and a stand-out lesson, this is a perfect family read.

For a more discerning picture book reader, there is The Liszts by Kyo Maclear and Julia Sarda. A play on words, this isn’t about music but about the futility of making lists rather than taking action. Quirky in its artwork, offbeat in its characterisation, this is a book with texture, depth and detail, and a brilliant moral about spontaneity. The family make lists every day except Sundays, “which were listless.” Strange but rather wonderful.

The picks for newly independent and intermediate readers are no less fruitful.

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Witches aren’t just for Halloween, and this sterling start to a new series is one to treasure for fans of The Worst Witch, Bella Broomstick and suchlike. Grace-Ella Spells for Beginners by Sharon Marie Jones, illustrated by Adriana J Puglisi is set firmly in Wales (watch out for those tricky town names), but is a charming tale about a witch who doesn’t need a boarding school to learn her trade; she learns at home with the help of a black cat. Happiness shines out of this book – it is wonderful escapism with terrific characters and a truly delightful protagonist.

Old-fashioned tales abound in both Billy Button by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey and A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy. The former is a Little Gem book, dyslexia friendly, and is an endearing tale for first readers about the old telegram system. Part love story, part Postman-Pat-esque, this is exquisite storytelling from an experienced author. Endless nostalgia for the old-school post office, and love for a bicycle, it definitely hit the spot with this reader and her little testers. The stories from India in A Jar of Pickles are denser, but each tells a little riddle of justice and rewards with a simple solution. Dealing with jealousy, crooks and a miscreant ruler, these tales are great for discussion, great for broadening horizons, and firming up that moral compass. The tone has a whiff of humour and the pace is zingy.

piglet-called-trufflestally-and-squill

Two more for this newly independent readers group are A Piglet Called Truffle by Helen Peters, illustrated by Ellie Snowdon, a delightfully gentle rural story about a girl who rescues a runt piglet and raises her on her own farm. Tones of Charlotte’s Web with pig similarities, and a subtle ‘Some Christmas Tree’ allusion, but the magic in this is the steady drip of animal care and farm information that Peters sprinkles along the narrative tale. Very cute, with cosy illustrations and a wonderful family Christmas ending.

And Tally and Squill In a Sticky Situation by Abie Longstaff, illustrated by James Brown for book-obsessed little ones. With its magical library, a poor orphaned girl and her companion animal, this contains just the right mix of fairy tale, magic and mystery adventure. With nuggets of non-fiction tucked into the text, and riddles to solve throughout, this is a brilliant read, with more in the series to come. It reminded me of Elspeth Hart with its sense of adventure, and yet also Horrid Henry in some of the typified characterisation. A great start to a new series.

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New series for older readers include Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes by Paula Harrison about ten year old Robyn who can see creepy monsters where no one else can. Action-packed, loads of humour, monsters to rival Rowling’s Magical Beasts, and a chaotic background family – this series is  set to be a big success. A newly repackaged series is the Shapeshifter Series by Ali Sparkes, an exciting series from a writer who knows how to spin a scintillating plot. Dax Jones discovers an ability to morph into a fox, and is then whisked away by the government to be with a group of children with amazing supernatural powers (Children of Limitless Ability, COLA). There’s plenty of emotional depth to each character, brilliantly realistic portrayals of the animal instincts and behaviours yet mixed with typical teen reactions – ‘what’s for lunch?’ etc, so that the whole fantastical arrangement comes to life. There’s fast-paced action, great dialogue, and good tension. A cracking read – and a whole series already to devour on Boxing Day.

For a stand-alone piece of historical fiction, grab a copy of Black Powder by Ally Sherrick. England, 1605, and twelve-year old Tom must save his father from being hanged, and yet with Catholics despised and someone playing with gunpowder, things could end up being far more explosive than he could imagine. Bravery, quick-thinking, and massive attention to historical detail make this a sharp, thrilling read.

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And lastly three brilliant non-fiction gifts that didn’t quite make it to my doorstep early enough for National Non-Fiction November. A World of Information by James Brown and Richard Platt is an oversize book with a magically eclectic mix of material, each topic given a double page spread, and each explained in just the right level of detail. One child wanted it for the phases of the moon, another for the organs of the body. A third for the intricately captioned diagram of a bicycle. All the information you could ever need to survive (ropes) and answer questions on University Challenge (periodic table and layout of an orchestra). Beautifully presented too. Knowledge at its most appealing.

NY is for New York by Paul Thurlby will be even more coveted. This A-Z stylised picture book feels luxurious, and is the perfect book to leave out on your coffee table so that your guests know you have style. Each page shows a graphic of a city highlight, and gives a sentence of information – a tidbit that you could hurl at a stranger, such as that G for Grand Central Station has 67 train tracks. If you’ve ever dreamed of taking the kids travelling, this is a great place to start.

Lastly, a mash-up. The V&A museum have teamed with Penguin books to create the V&A Fashion Mash-Up book with styling tips and illustrations by Daisy de Villeneuve. Inspirational quotes from Alexander McQueen, Oscar Wilde, and others intersperse the cunningly presented pages. With photographs from the museum collections, and cut out models and fashions, the idea is to mix and match the illustrations and models with clothes from the V&A, creating an activity where the reader sees the fashion history but can make their own unique ensembles. With gold foil stickers, accessories, and shoes shoes shoes!, and backdrops in which to place your models, this was all the Christmas fun I could want in one book. I have purchased for more than one lucky recipient. Next week, Christmas books about Christmas!

Animal Picture Book Roundup

archie snuffle

Archie Snufflekins Oliver Valentine Cupcake Tiberius by Katie Harnett
A few weeks ago my neighbours’ cat died. I don’t know the neighbours well, but their cat spent significantly more time in my garden than theirs – it was a neighbourhood cat. So this book held a particular resonance.

In Archie Snufflekins, the cat on Blossom Street is named something different by each neighbour and loved by all. When it goes missing, the neighbours are distraught, until they realise that there’s one household that isn’t out searching – and that maybe the neighbours need to visit number eleven themselves.

This book is about loneliness and community, and also about difference. Katie Harnett draws each individual on the street with wonderful uniqueness, exploring each’s personality in their portrait as well as what they are depicted doing and, of course, the name they bestow upon the cat. From the artist to the twins, from Madame Betty to the Hoskins – each family is as different as the next, and yet have love for the cat in common. It’s a simple tale, told exquisitely, and should be cherished by all those who love community, cats, the quietness of ordinary life, and conquering loneliness. A tempered colour palate, which shines with as much personality as the people it colours. You can purchase it here.

bison bouncing

There’s a Bison Bouncing on the Bed! By Paul Bright and Chris Chatterton
The other end of the scale of picture books – this is a bright, rhyming tale of silliness, which does exactly what it says on the cover. A group of animals bounce on the bed with delight, then discover it’s the bed of a Grizzly Bear and this might be troublesome, but at the end find out that the bear is anything but grizzly.

It’s bright and bold – the sound effects are as loud as the animals are large. This is a happy book for toddlers who think it’s funny to bounce on the bed and want a bedtime story with lots of spring in its tale.

There’s rhyming, counting, onomatopoeia, and a raucous assortment of animals from bison to aardvark. This will be a firm favourite, and one that’s easy to read over and again. From the artist behind Supermarket Gremlins (another household favourite), the element of fun and surprise is never far from his pen. Enjoy reading and bouncing. Buy it here.

marcel

Marcel by Eda Akaltun
Fluctuating again from the fun to the conceptual, Marcel is a difficult picture book for a child to adore. Marcel is a dog – the book is narrated in first person from Marcel’s point of view, but the key character is not so much Marcel, as New York City.

Marcel speaks of his ‘human’, a woman seen fragmented – at first hiding behind a New York Times, and then gradually in pieces; a mouth, a hand. The style is Lichtenstein-esque, a pop art, comic book collage of images mixed with the pastel shades of Marcel himself. They traipse New York, walking well-known streets; past typical brownstones, fire escapes snaking down buildings, Central Park and its entertainment – again collaged works of musicians in different collage textured pieces. There are some riffs on places within the city – a bagel place, the American Museum of Natural History with its bones, until Marcel reports that his human meets another human.

Marcel initially feels excluded, until he comes to an acceptance of the new ‘man’ eventually; after a dazzling diamond appears on his human’s left hand. A book that may be used to promote inclusivity – extending families perhaps?

The pastel hues of blue, orange and yellow against white space give the book a distinctive texture, and the collage pop art, almost reminiscent of Mad Men opening graphics will delight some readers. The ending infers that a sequel will be set in Paris.

This seems less a picture book for young children, and more an artsy gift purchase or a stylised experiment for older students to study design. Intriguing nevertheless. You can buy your own piece of New York here.

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Max and Bird by Ed Vere
The third Max book, about the little kitten, following Max the Brave and Max at Night. There is an elegance retained in the simplicity of the Max books. Prior to this one, Max has always been fairly solitary – there are some lovely images in the earlier books of Max alone – saying goodnight to the buildings in Max at Night for example. Here, Max meets a bird, and decides on friendship, although he’s not quite sure what friendship entails because he’s conflicted: he would also like to chase and eat Bird.

The ensuing pages are probably the most comic of the three Max books, as Max decides to teach Bird how to fly – not that he has any idea how.

As always, the book feels like one of those colourful scrap books, each page a vivid background colour, each populated with drawings of Max as the book moves along. There is an abundance of understated humour in the drawings – from Max’s and Bird’s reluctance to ask the tall bird for help in reaching books in the library, to the expressions on the friends’ faces as they practise ‘flapping’ in order to fly.

The book is lively – the characters never stop moving or learning, and their eyes betray their emotions. Vere demonstrates enormous attention to detail – body language of the creatures, and titles of books in the illustrations of the library, and overall there’s a lesson of learning to do something – practising and persevering. Already a staple in this household. Get yours here.

 

My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter

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This book was published last year to loud acclaim, but this week it came out in paperback. It’s a densely packed book; it is historical fiction reminiscent of such great literature as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn, and yet a book that feels contemporary in writing style. My Name’s Not Friday transports the reader to a different time and place; is immersive and evocative, rich and powerful.

Thirteen-year-old Samuel is being educated by a priest in an orphanage for “coloured” boys. When he takes the blame for something he didn’t do, his punishment is to be sold into slavery on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, and he must fight to save his name, his identity, his faith in humanity and his faith in God.

The reader is immersed straight into Samuel’s story – striving with him to understand why he can’t see anything, but can only feel his way through the darkness, believing that he has been taken by God. As Samuel holds onto his faith despite the turmoil through which he lives, all the way through to the end scenes in the dawning of a new age at the end of the American civil war, the reader remains captivated by Samuel’s voice.

Walter writes as if he was divinely inspired himself – the story is narrated in the first person and Samuel is utterly convincing from the first line, utterly compelling, and one of the most memorable and likeable characters in contemporary children’s fiction. He displays infallible courage, yet continually questions himself in the eyes of God; is he acting morally? Is he fulfilling his duty? Samuel’s goal is to be reunited with his younger brother, Joshua, who has been left behind at the orphanage, but first Samuel must make his way as a slave.

The community of characters with whom he lives and works are sketched with uncompromising and loving detail by Walter, from the plantation owner and her son, Gerald, with whom Samuel has a testing relationship, to the other slaves whose trust, friendship and love he gains. It’s something to remember characters in such detail and hold them with such fond regard months after finishing the book – even peripheral characters.

Despite not setting out to write a historical novel – Walter explains in the acknowledgements that he wrote the first passages as a creative writing exercise about not having the sense of sight – the backdrop of the American civil war and the plantations at that time are sensually depicted, so that it’s hard to look up from the book and realise you are still in London, England. From the feel of the cotton plant to the sound of the Mississippi – it all feels real.

The novel flows like a river with its fluid action, and yet there are deeper meanings and messages borne out too. The parallels with Defoe’s Crusoe are a clear intent – Walter mentions the book in his text – Crusoe’s naming of the man Friday and his subsequent quest to teach him Christianity are a key influence, but there are many other facets that surface. Samuel’s dislike of his attributed slave name – Friday – recalls the struggle with identity and what a name means to a man, as so clearly described by Arthur Miller in The Crucible; and yet here the extra emphasis that goes along with identity is that of ownership. How much a man owns another one – how that relationship can be civil or friendly and the consequences of such loyalty and respect, or lack thereof, and the pride and self-worth of a person? The scene of Lizzie and her chickens will haunt many a reader. This all ties in to race and equality – and it’s interesting to look upon this with historical perspective – how each generation writes about slavery within the context of its own time too – Walter uses the ‘n’ word significantly less than Huck Finn for example.

Religion plays a large part in the story, as Samuel has enormous faith – in fact the book opens with him believing that he has been taken from the orphanage by God rather than a slave trader. His relationship with God influences and inspires him in different ways – sometimes he uses it as an excuse for his actions, and it is interesting to see how Walter lets this play out.

There is also an interesting view on gender – again seen historically, and yet so contemporary. The male plantation owner is away fighting in the war, so the master of the house is actually the mistress. Despite her cruelty towards her slaves at times, she is seen as a woman of strength, and also of extreme pride – most often mistreating her slaves to make a point to the men of the district. And Samuel, rather than seeking a mother figure to look after him, constantly seeks out male role models. The son of the plantation owner, Gerald, is equally fascinated with how he will appear to his father, and this dictates so many of his own decisions.

Lastly, and a trope that reappears in so much contemporary children’s literature is the seed authors sow in showing the benefits and freedoms that reading can give. Literacy, it appears, can be as freeing as unlocking a chain.

This is a thought-provoking, gripping story. Multi-layered and yet on the surface a simple story of a boy trying to get home to his brother. It was worth the hardback price – it’s a steal in paperback. Reader, I bought it twice. Age 12+. Buy your copy here.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Wolf Hollow final cover

In a question and answer article this week, Philip Pullman said that “it’s important that the general reader sees children’s books being discussed intelligently.” I fret every week that I am talking intelligently enough about the children’s books I have read, but today’s book of the week definitely deserves intelligent discussion. In fact, it is one of the most intelligent books from any genre that I’ve read this year.

The reason I point to general readers is that sometimes children’s books are looked upon rather scornfully by them – as if children’s books are a sub-section of publishing. But this book, with its clear allusion to To Kill a Mockingbird reminds me yet again that there are some books that deserve a wider audience than the ‘marketing’ placement they are given. The Catcher in the Rye would be labelled as YA by today’s sales teams, Frankenstein as scifi, Wuthering Heights as romance. I’m being flippant, but I want to point out that just because a book is shelved in a particular place in a bookshop, doesn’t mean it should only be read by those who look at that shelf.

Wolf Hollow is a wonderfully evocative and searingly honest coming-of-age story about twelve year old Annabelle, growing up in wartime rural Pennsylvania. This gracefully written, memorable novel will inevitably draw comparisons with To Kill A Mockingbird (the publishers do this on the cover) for its themes of injustice, prejudice and a misjudged recluse, but it stands on its own strength as an outstandingly written story, one that both commands the reader to turn the page, and yet also to wallow in the beauty of the prose.

Newcomer Betty Glengarry invites trouble as soon as she steps foot in town, bullying Annabelle in small ways that shockingly escalate with speed. But when the culprit for the violence is deemed not to be Betty, but blamed upon veteran Toby, a recluse who spends his time walking the landscape with three guns, Annabelle realises it is up to her to face down the accusations and demand justice.

There is much brilliance in this compelling tale. Annabelle is not only believable and likeable, but her voice is strong and distinctive – she is so cleverly written that the reader can draw out the difference between what she says and does with what she thinks. She often mulls over a conversation directly afterwards. Her observations about Toby are empathetic and wise beyond her years, almost as if her thoughts were older than her actions:

“An odd and frustrating way to look at the world, but I was not Toby, and he was not me.”

Wolk draws her as empathetic and sensitive without resorting to any sentimentality. She is the perfect coming-of-age child – aware of her own limitations and aware of the conflict as she strives for independence. She knows when to seek parental help and advice, and when she won’t be heard:

“If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?”

Annabelle’s gradual self-awareness amid the moral complexity of the situation is fresh, alluring and tense. Wolk also demonstrates her prowess in writing understated characters – a quietness exudes from both Annabelle’s father, and from Toby; yet with a few words and expressions their entire personalities are ensnared upon the page.

Her descriptions are exquisite: “the sun somewhat hazy, as if it wore a silk stocking”, and create an atmospheric setting. And the rhythm of the writing is assured too – crafted with attention to the smallest detail in sentence length and phrase, the building of apprehension with shifts in tense – reading the words is like sampling a delicacy.

And yet it is easy to read, and children will relate directly to Annabelle, just as readers did to Scout Finch. It’s a book that works on many levels.

There is the suggestion of raw violence, as well as some real damage wrought, and a growing awareness that the adult world is grey, as opposed to the black and white childlike perception of right and wrong. Trusting the readership to grow as Annabelle does, this is a stunningly intelligent debut novel. It deserves to be read by young and old.

Age 10+ years. Buy it here.

Max Helsing: Monster Hunter by Curtis Jobling

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Okay, confession time. I’m not a big ‘monster genre’ lover. I didn’t watch Buffy (gasp!), or True Blood, or The Walking Dead, but thinking back I did enjoy reading and studying Frankenstein, and I did recently adore reading the Darkmouth series for kids.

So I didn’t think that I’d love Max Helsing: Monster Hunter, quite as much as I did. I should have known really, author and illustrator Curtis Jobling blew me away when he recently turned a drawing of Bob the Builder into a zombie – which is pretty much what my son did when he had me watching the show night after night.

Jobling’s latest book – the first in a new series – caught me with its prologue – an epically depicted piece of writing that pits Max against an adolescent vampire and shakes a teen girl from its hypnotic grip. The vocabulary is electrifying – Jobling’s first description of a monster in the book is tremendous and reels the reader in for more.

Max Helsing, thirteen year old American boy, is descended from a long lineage of monster hunters, and keeps his town safe from demons and prowling ghoulies. However, when he discovers he’s ‘marked’ by the monster world, things turn a little more gruesome and he must escape the curse of an ancient vampire who will do anything to end the Helsing lineage.

This isn’t groundbreaking stuff – Jobling hasn’t reinvented the wheel – and the book fits snugly into the monster hunter genre, yet there’s something about Max Helsing that makes it stand out from the crowd.

It could be the sardonic wit of our protagonist, an intensely likeable laid-back nonchalant teen who chucks wisecracks at the monsters, wins battles mainly through luck and general unorthodoxy rather than great skill, and shows an adorable soft side, wanting to win hearts and minds rather than kill.

Or, his kickass sidekicks – Syd, a girl into engineering, and a boy called Wing Liu, who, surprisingly, after having been made out originally to be a somewhat frightened neighbourhood kid, turns into a deadpan risk taker.

There are some intensely hammy moments – Max’s birthday celebrations where a new monster is born – a teenager – and the explanation of the Grimm brothers as writing a non-fiction manual for the future, but the action scenes are full of gore and fun:

“The severed tendril flailed wildly, oozing green fluid into the air with a sound not unlike a deflating whoopee cushion.”

The setting is slightly wobbly – it’s based in New England, but feels English at times. This is forgivable as the action moves around so seamlessly. A Monster Reference guide complete with excellent illustrations by Jobling himself adds an extra element to the book.

Overall, it feels written with love. They say you should write the book you’d want to read for yourself – I imagine that’s exactly what Curtis Jobling has done. Kids will monster munch it up.

Age 9+. You can buy it here.

The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill

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For all the massively regurgitated history that our children devour at school – Henry VIII and his six wives, the first and second world wars, the Romans, there are billions of little historical stories that deserve to be given the insanely wonderful treatment that William Grill affords his books. Grill’s first book was Shackleton’s Journey – not an unknown story in itself – but one that Grill illustrated with distinction and flair.

Grill’s latest book is an all-round immersion into the little known story of 1892 New Mexico and the British naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton who is employed to hunt down a roaming wolf pack led by legendary pack leader, King Lobo.

This is a sumptuous absorption into the Wild West, with a map at the beginning placing the reader, and a wonderfully depicted opening, ‘The Old West’, with a full page illustration of the vista, in tones of red – smudged trees stretching in zigzags to give the perspective of depth and distance, with a mountain range and a red sky background. In the foreground, a small, almost ant-like pack of wolves roam the landscape. And the reader is transported.

There’s a warmth that emanates from the page because of the earthy tones used, but also from the love that has gone into the storytelling.

The story branches off using Grill’s now distinctive style of telling the narrative with both huge sweeping images, and also sets of tiny illustrations, almost like film stills in crayon, at first with sparse text, and then with image after image after image.

Grill’s brilliance comes from the fact that even by looking at one of his postage stamp illustrations, the reader can tell the character of the man they are reading about – we can see how the European settlers treated the indigenous peoples and animals, and the conflicts they faced. This is especially crucial for children who can visually read ideas and sense emotions that they might not be able to put into words: colonialism, survival, warfare, etc.

Small details abound – the train chugging into the distance, weaponry, deals being made.

As the story grows, so does the text, but the illustrations still bear that same attention to detail and attitude – the pack of wolves is illustrated – each wolf different from the last. The people too. Browns and blues are introduced into the colour palate, especially as the story heads to Seton in New York and gives the man’s background.

By the time Seton arrives in Clayton, the reader understands the type of man he is, the landscape he is entering, and the equipment he uses – all spread out neatly and illustrated item by item on the page – reminiscent of course of Shackleton’s Journey. This is different though in that it is clear to a modern reader that Shackleton was a hero, but here the reader is torn between rooting for our protagonist, but also for the wolf. In fact, Grill’s excellence is in making the reader feel empathy for both the hunted and the hunter.

In the end, of course, the book isn’t about violence, but about love. Just looking at Grill’s full page illustration of a sunrise evokes a deep pull at the reader’s inner emotions. The book quotes Seton and explains the inspiration he wields over such ecologists and writers as Sir David Attenborough and Aldo Leopold:

“Ever since Lobo, my sincerest wish has been to impress upon people that each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children” – Ernest Thompson Seton.

He would certainly be proud of this retelling. Grill has clearly researched impeccably, and succeeds in retelling history for a young generation in both highly illustrative detail and highly edited text. Includes also a glossary and wonderful endpapers.

Reading a Grill book is like immersing yourself in an experience. From the beautifully textured cover to the crayon renderings within, which a reader can’t help but rub their fingers over, as if the feelings and sentiments inside could be drawn up into the bloodstream. This is how history comes alive.

With thanks to Flying Eye Books for my copy. To buy your own click here.

Christmas with Little Women

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Christmas is a lovely time of year. Although sometimes our expectations of it can be too high, and it fails to live up to the hype. For those who are only looking in on Christmas, not celebrating it, Christmases exist first and foremost in storybooks and in the imagination. My idealised version is born from a lifetime of reading about great Christmases. Last Christmas I blogged about The Holly and the Ivy, my favourite Christmas story for younger readers.

But when I was slightly older, it was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women that clinched the deal, and persuaded me that, despite being a Londoner, real Christmas was in the snowy suburbia of Massachusetts.

Little Women’s first word is Christmas:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

And immediately the scene is set, and one of my favourite characters begins to take shape. That first Christmas in Little Women, with its “four young faces on which the firelight shone” paints a dampened Christmas, with ‘relative’ poverty, from which the girls start to learn valuable life lessons, such as sacrifice, generosity and charity. They are rewarded for their virtues by a neighbour with “distracting French bonbons” among other things.

But Christmas means more when it comes as a pause in working – and the work ethic theme runs throughout the novel. That the girls and their mother find meaning through labour, resonates with the Puritan teachings of New England where Alcott grew up. So the holiday of Christmas, when it comes, is even more joyful because of its juxtaposition with the rest of their year.

And Christmas means more than just a break from work in Little Women. The true meaning of Christmas is revealed in the girls’ thoughtfulness for others and most of all in ‘love’, in this case, their love for their family and in particular their mother, whom they surprise with gifts rather than having spent the money on themselves:

“There was a great deal of love done up in the few little bundles,” and

“There was a good deal of laughing, and kissing, and explaining, in the simple, loving fashion which makes these home-festivals so pleasant at the time, so sweet to remember long afterward, and then all fell to work.”

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But it’s the Christmas with which Part One ends that competes with all the cheery Christmas films on TV, with its excess of delights, and a homecoming to rival The Railway Children.

“Now and then, in this work-a-day world, things do happen in the delightful story-book fashion, and what a comfort that is.”

They do have a sumptuous Christmas meal that year, in stark contrast to the beginning of the book in which they sacrificed their breakfast pancakes and muffins for the poor family down the road.

“There never was such a Christmas dinner as they had that day. The fat turkey was a sight to behold, when Hannah sent him up, stuffed, browned and decorated. So was the plum-pudding, which quite melted in one’s mouth; likewise the jellies, in which Amy revelled like a fly in a honey-pot.”

But mainly Christmas is about family reunions, and Alcott pitches it perfectly when Mr March returns from the war just in time for Christmas:

“A sleigh-ride had been planned, but the girls would not leave their father; so the guests departed early, and, as twilight gathered, the happy family sat together round the fire.”

Little Women may be an old classic, but it pushes the boundaries with its challenge to gender stereotyping, and the values it espouses. Moreover, to make modern day authors feel perfectly sick, Alcott apparently only started writing Little Women in May 1868, and the book was published in September (just four months later).

You can buy it here. Have a lovely bookish Christmas.