war

Dystopia in the Trump Era

It’s not surprising that dystopian futures are all the rage. 2017 has shown us a world in which fingers are poised above nuclear buttons, and angry tweets catapult back and forth. With parts of the world still harbouring ugly tensions, war across many countries, and also the technological advances of artificial intelligence, drones, and robots, there’s bound to be a wealth of material erupting on the subject. Many of the fantasy and science fiction books I’m reading over Christmas for next year combine these elements to give the reader environmental disasters, tribal warfare, and even mind control. But two novels from this year tackle a fictional near future with greater skill than most.

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare by Zillah Bethell

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare by Zillah Bethell

Not much out-and-out dystopian fiction for younger readers drops through my door, and with the exception of The Last Wild by Piers Torday, nothing else immediately comes to mind, but Zillah Bethell has written a really thought-provoking vision of the future in her latest book for readers aged nine and over.

As with all dystopian fiction, the future doesn’t look bright. There’s some sort of unexplained political situation in which it feels as if the people have little say, and leadership has become totalitarian – the authority figures are harsh and intimidating. But more frightening is that the world is at war over water, because it is now an extremely scarce commodity – no rain falls.

Auden Dare, our protagonist, not only has to struggle with this new world, but he has an unusual take on things – because he suffers from achromatopsia, a condition that means he cannot see colour. His mother has become accustomed to explaining the position of items, or the size of them to describe them to Auden, but others view him as a freak.

When Auden moves to a new town with his mother, and meets Vivi, a sparky girl with an interest in space, he finds out that she has a connection to his late uncle, a professor and scientist. When they uncover the project that Auden’s uncle was working on before he died, they discover a robot with advanced intelligence, and more than a glint of humanity. But the robot isn’t the endgame, and Auden and Vivi have to work closely together to figure out exactly what the robot is, and the truth behind their brave new world.

As well as being hugely entertaining, there is an inordinate amount to admire in this novel. Not only does it take the very real problem (for some) of water shortage and expand it to the whole world, but it also uses Auden’s rare condition to expose a different perspective on the world, and explore those current questions of Artificial Intelligence and responsibility, whether it is robots as soldiers, or automaton taking over people’s jobs. In Auden’s world there are many drones, doing jobs that people used to do, and much more surveillance, but also the perpetual problems of humanity – bullying, seeing difference, knowing the difference between right and wrong or black and white, if you like.

And of course, the overriding theme of taking things for granted – whether it’s water, or colour, or the sun rising every day. As children grow up and move towards forging their own futures, it’s going to be interesting to see what natural phenomena will need to be cherished most. You can buy it here.

We See Everything by William Sutcliffe

We See Everything by William Sutcliffe

In contrast, I would argue there are probably more YA books on dystopia. Sutcliffe’s latest reimagines a future in which London is reduced to a mere strip, a closed-off bombed shell of a place where surveillance drones watch the inhabitants’ every move. People seem depressed, weary, closed-off, struggling to survive, with shortages of food and essentials, but as with Auden Dare, there is no background to the current situation, nor any idea of the current political landscape, other than that there is a resistance group, and there is organised crime – the selling of contraband cigarettes, for example. The one constant is the noise of drones overhead, which occasionally strike the enemy targets (the enemy within). Hence the rubble and ruined infrastructure.

The book focuses on Lex, a 16 year old boy whose father is a key operator in some kind of resistance group, although the politics are murky, and Alan, a video gamer, who is recruited by the military to be a drone pilot. The stories converge because Alan’s target of observation is Lex’s father.

Sutcliffe explores some key issues through the character of Alan: the question of masculinity and self-worth, the point of life, the issues around fighting a war through a screen rather than face to face, male role models etc. There are many interesting facets to his situation, including his low self-esteem, his lack of father, and issues within his relationship with his mother, but, and maybe because of all this, Alan isn’t a likeable character.

The chapters in which the reader follows Lex are easier to read – ultimately the boy is suffused with sympathy because of the very fact of where he lives, and his relationship with a girl, which humanises him even more. He is also shown moving through the Strip, and Sutcliffe draws out the sense of claustrophobia, but also shows off his ability to transport London to this future dystopia, in which the British Library’s basements house refugee families between the bookstacks.

In essence, though, this distils into a thinly disguised critique of what’s happening in the Gaza Strip, with the political situation so thinly layered or non-existent that it feels as if Sutcliffe is reducing it to a black and white commentary rather than exploring any shady grey areas. Is it a polemic on modern warfare, about how dropping bombs as if playing a video game is morally wrong and that the lesson is if we knew more about someone or saw their face we might be a little more reticent about taking them out? The whole reads like a metaphor for the stripped down parity of the characters’ lives, but I couldn’t help feel that there might be a bigger novel hidden inside. That this skeleton of a novel could be fleshed out with further characterisation and political nuance and depth, so that the denouement when it comes is even more devastating.

It’s ironic, that although the book is well-written and clever, it feels too distant and cold for the reader to get the message that the future of humanity is about human contact – because the characters are kept too far away from the reader. It certainly gives food for thought, even if just like in the Strip, it gives enough for philosophical thought but not for an emotional response. You can buy it here.

 

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally WonThe sequel to the award-winning The War that Saved My Life, published in 2015, this extraordinary book manages to encapsulate a feeling of extreme hope and love despite the many traumatic aspects of the protagonist’s life (and those around her).

It’s easy to understand the background of the novel without having read the first title, although it is so good that I’d encourage readers new to Kimberly Brubaker Bradley to go back and read the first before this one.

The War I Finally Won is set during the aftermath of 11-year-old Ada’s recovery from corrective surgery for her clubfoot. She has been rescued from her abusive birth mother (mainly by the fact that an air raid bomb has killed her mother), and is now living in the countryside with her younger brother Jamie, and her new guardian, Susan. As well as dealing with the fallout of a childhood of abuse, and therefore a distinct lack of ability to trust, Ada has to deal with a world at war.

Brubaker Bradley encapsulates wartime rural life with aplomb; exploring details of the class structure, love for animals, the dangers of disease, anguish for those sent abroad to face combat, and the everyday struggles for survival with rations, blackouts and dispersed families. When a young Jewish German refugee comes to stay, what happened to German Jews during the war is explored gently and sensitively, and there are references to Bletchley too.

Grief is touched upon, with references to both Susan’s loss, and a grief that comes later on in the book, and it is delicately nuanced and sympathetic. With so many conflicted and damaged characters gathered in one place, there is bound to be drama, but Brubaker Bradley never stoops to melodrama to eke out her story.

This is an empathetic, realistic and in the end, joyful story of a young girl coming of age in the most difficult circumstances. However, her courage and empathy pull her through and readers will get lost in the landscape and characters portrayed. A most readable and enthralling story for this age group, this is a thoughtful and wise book, well worth adding to the canon of World War II fiction for middle grade readers. You can buy it here.

Votes for Women

There are many reasons I’ve wanted to feature suffragette books on the blog for a while now. In a world of current political turmoil, it can be helpful to look to historical fiction for guidance. Women’s rights are still an issue, with recent contention over equal pay, sexual harassment in the workplace, and ongoing struggles within families as to ‘default’ parenting. So, the women’s fight for suffrage has never seemed that far from one’s mind. Next year, attention focusses fully on this again, as Vote 100 aims to bring attention to the 100th anniversaries in 2018: The Representation of the People Act 1918 (allowing some women to vote for the first time) and the Parliament Qualification of Women Act in 1918 (allowing women to stand for election to the Commons) as well as many other anniversaries. However, my compelling reason for bringing you these ‘suffragette books’ is that they’re all so completely brilliant.


Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
One of my favourite authors for middle grade, Nicholls tells a wonderful yarn no matter her subject matter, and here she steps completely into YA territory. This accomplished novel follows three girls, Evelyn, May and Nell, through their fight for the vote at the beginning of the First World War. Each girl is from a different social strata of society, (Evelyn is expected to marry rather than be educated, and Nell is a working class girl just trying to get by), and each has different aims and ambitions, as well as winningly flawed yet determined personas. Nicholls tackles social history with aplomb, as well as LGBT issues and the tangled emotions of suffragette women as their cause became swept up in the war breaking out across Europe.

Both a fascinating historical eye-opener and a scintillating story, readers will race through the different points of view to see how the girls’ stories collide, and where they each end up. The research shines through, but never overpowers the book, and it is the girls who in the end dominate and succeed – through hardship and tears. Characters to remember, prose to devour. Who wouldn’t give these girls the vote? Buy your copy here.


The Making of Mollie by Anna Carey
For a younger readership, but another powerful novel that also includes accurate social history of the time (the author borrows from her own school’s history), with a great story.

Told in letter format to a friend at boarding school, Mollie stumbles into women’s suffrage after sneaking out after her big sister Phyllis and ending up at a suffragist meeting. Mollie empathises with the cause after relating it to small injustices in her own life, such as the free reign afforded to her brother, and the fact that he’s always given the best bits of the roast chicken first. The story strikes a lovely balance between school days (tussles with friends and enemies, conservative teachers and disapproving adults), with the political cause dominating the landscape.

Mollie and her friend take to the suffragette cause in a gentle way; attempting to attend meetings; their most daring venture being the chalking of pavements with notices. It feels real, and practical, and suited well to the age of the protagonist. This novel is set in Dublin rather than England, and also intersperses the politics of suffrage with issues of Irish Home Rule, illustrated by speeches of the time. The book doesn’t shy away from details, but mainly explores a coming-of-age at an interesting political time, showing what it means to stick up for what you believe in, and the consequences for all those involved. Clever, engaging and endearing. You can purchase it here.


Little People: Emmeline Pankhurst by Lisbeth Kaiser, illustrated by Ana Sanfelippo
Part of the series of stylish picture books on women achievers; previous titles have included Frida Kahlo, Maya Angelou, Marie Curie, telling the women’s stories simply and effectively. This one is no different.

Pankhurst’s life is explained with one or two sentences per page, from her childhood in which she first discovered the inequalities between men and women and then her inspirational fight in adulthood to obtain the vote for women. It highlights her leadership skills, the adversity she faced as a single mother after the death of her husband, and her commitment to her family as well as to the cause. Her life is distilled into a simple, harmless yet powerful biography.

With retro colouring, and great attention to detail, the illustrations make the storytelling. There is a find out more section at the back, and photographs of the real Emmeline on a timeline, but the essence of this series is that the books look as good on a coffee table as lining a child’s bedroom. You can buy it here.


Rebel Voices: The Rise of Votes for Women by Louise Kay Stewart and Eve Lloyd Knight
Cheating a little, because this book isn’t out until January, but this beautifully illustrated title celebrates campaigners around the globe who fought for the women’s right to vote. Although suffrage in this country does get a good deal of attention, there are some startling facts and figures from other countries that are worth knowing, and this book aims to highlight them. In fact, the story starts in New Zealand, with Kate Sheppard, who cycled her way around the streets in Christchurch in 1892. Maori women and female settlers in New Zealand became the first women in the world to win the right to vote in a national election in 1893. The book moves chronologically around the globe, charting the rise of women’s rights country to country, and mentions key campaigners and activists, but also points out places in which women were afforded the vote, but the right was not necessarily granted to other minority groups.

Fascinatingly illustrated too, in that the illustrations dominate each page with their bold colours, striking strength and symbolism, and each suits its country well, there is little text for the size of the book – just enough to convey the pertinent points and get the reader thinking. The book ends in 2015 with Saudi Arabia, but also draws some conclusions. The author points out that women have a long way to go in other areas of equality, such as pay, education, and opportunities, and asks the reader to think about the global patterns in which suffrage was granted – often at times of war, revolution, or changes in identity. This is a powerful-looking book for a powerful subject, and well-deserving of a place in every library. You can pre-order your copy here.


Girls Who Rocked the World by Michelle Roehm McCann and Amelie Welden
Lastly, this isn’t a suffragette book, but if you’re looking for inspiration on powerful women, as well as Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo and Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst, you’d do just as well (if you’re looking for something aimed at those a little older) to pick up this collection of biographies.

Featuring women from across the centuries and around the world who have had a remarkable influence, including suffragette Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, Hatshepsut, Florence Nightingale, Anna Pavlova, The Bronte Sisters, Indira Ghandhi and many more. It’s a weird and eclectic selection, including up-to-the-minute influencers, but it attempts to show that women, just like men, have been, and continue to be, shapers of history.

Each person is described in a few pages, highlighting what they have done, but also why they matter. The text style is chatty and informative, but also quite dense – there are very few illustrations here. Perhaps a book to dip into, rather like short stories. There are ‘boxes off’ with quotes from today’s young women, talking about what they hope for their own futures: How will You rock the world? If it’s aimed to get the reader researching further, thinking more and making a difference, it works. You can buy it here.

Eloise Undercover – WW2 and France: A Guest Blog by Sarah Baker

Sarah Baker’s first novel, Through the Mirror Door, is an historical novel with a time-travelling touch. There’s nothing supernatural about her latest book, Eloise Undercover, a historical novel documenting a girl’s assistance to the French resistance during the Second World War. Cleverly, Baker has set her novel in the same area of France as her first, using the same house, Maison de Noyer, as a focal point. This time, though, it is the Nazis who are occupying the space. With a couple of smartly dropped hints to her first novel, this latest is a sensitive and plot-twisting drama following those who were brave enough to stand up to the foreign invaders who persecuted minority groups. With a courageous heroine, luscious descriptions of baking, and a clever use of lessons learned from reading mystery stories, this is a wise and tender read. Here, Sarah Baker explains how it came about.

Eloise Undercover is set in France during WW2. Eloise lives a short bicycle ride away from Maison de Noyer, the house that appears in Through the Mirror Door. The book is a prequel, of sorts, and there are a number of reasons why I decided to set it during the Second World War.

Both my grandfathers and my great-uncle fought in WW2 (Major, Lieutenant Colonel and a Spitfire pilot). My great uncle would tell me stories, which I’d include in school projects, my favourite being the one where he was shot down, escaped from the Germans, was hidden by the French Resistance and then credited with liberating an entire town. Other tales I’d learn later, about Grandfather H wading ashore on D-Day carrying not a weapon, but a violin. His task was to get all the landing craft back to Southampton as fast as possible to bring in the next wave of soldiers. He was due to play a concert that evening, so to ensure he’d make it back, he took his violin to Normandy. Grandfather W, however, couldn’t bear to talk about it, so we didn’t. That led me to read everything I could, to understand why.

War stories are important and the Second World War is a period of history that’s close enough to feel real. It wasn’t that long ago (relatively speaking) and many of us had or have a family member that got caught up. We have excellent records of it, even films and photographs, as well as personal accounts. I think the scale, the magnitude of what happened, the horror, the bravery and the sheer human experience of it all draws us as readers and writers. We remind ourselves, and each other, how important it is not to forget.

It was really important for me to get the research right. I read a lot of middle grade and adult books, either set or written during WW2 (I’ll be sharing my bibliography very soon). I also did a lot of internet research. I work visually so I create Pinterest boards for each book to help me ‘see’ the characters and place settings. It’s really handy to be able to check the correct uniforms, weapons, vehicles and boats used too. I spent quality time at the Imperial War Museum in London and I asked my Dad a lot of questions (he’s a bit of an unofficial WW2 expert). My editor, Melissa, helped too. Any mistakes are mine.

But although Eloise Undercover is set during the war, it’s not simply a war story. It’s a tale of bravery and friendship and how far we’ll go for the people we love. I think, in the end, that’s what drew me to this period of history, a time of such fear, uncertainty and upheaval. I‘m thrilled to share Eloise’s adventures and a little more of Maison de Noyer with readers today.

ELOISE UNDERCOVER by Sarah Baker, out now in paperback (£6.99, Catnip). You can buy it here

 

 

Writing poetry and prose: Brian Moses


Human beings like to classify and label things – it’s how we distinguish one thing from another, it’s how we name things to be able to convey and signify ideas to each other. One only has to look at John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding to see a grasp of these principles. In writing, we like to clarify the difference between prose – from the Latin meaning straightforward – and poetry. Tomorrow is National Poetry Day, and children in schools up and down the country will be pulling out poetry from their bookshelves, and hopefully reading it and enjoying it. One of our foremost children’s poets is Brian Moses, but this National Poetry Day, he’s also published a prose novel.

Of course sometimes the line between poetry and prose is blurred. Both communicate ideas, feelings, a story; and both play with language, crafting it so that what is said is not only communicated in language but also by the choice of language, the positioning of the words, the use of punctuation. Two authors (Sarah Crossan and Kwame Alexander) immediately spring to mind when crossing the borders between the genres, because most readers think about novels as being written in prose form, whereas these two write some of their novels in free verse poems. There are some who call poetry a form of art, and prose merely communication; but overall I think the distinction would have to be the sound crafted from poetry – the overarching stretch of the meaning by the way the poem sounds. With prose, the meaning is inherent within the text, held within it.

Python doesn’t ring with the same sounds as Moses’s poem, The Snake Hotel, for example (which you can listen to here), but it definitely strikes a chord of fear in the reader, and is written in clear, precise prose.

Daniel lives with his zookeeper father, and also with his father’s pet snake, a python residing in the attic. Unfortunately, Daniel is terrified of the snake and his imagination conjures up the horrors of the snake’s escape from its cage. But added to Daniel’s nightmares is his waking life, in which he is bullied by a girl gang who roam the streets on his way to and from school.

When he starts to study the Second World War at school, as well as taking refuge from the girl gang in his grandfather’s house, the stories of the past start to merge with Daniel’s current fears, and before long snakes, girls and ghosts of the past all converge.

Moses’ prose is certainly more straightforward than some of his poetry, but it still conveys plenty of emotion. A whizz with language, the author uses his prose form to whip the plot at pace, and with economy, so that action is always forefront, all the time managing to eke out enormous authenticity in the characters. From Daniel and his friend Errol and their believable camaraderie, to the relationship between Daniel and his grandfather – the weariness from boys who despair of that generation’s ‘going on about the war’ and so rarely visit, but also seek wisdom and enlightenment and eventually realise that their grandparents are real people with exciting stories to impart.

The book is set in the 1980s with all the freedom afforded to children that this entails – ghost-hunting on their own, and the lack of health and safety implied in keeping snakes in attics, and yet the novel also touches on parental break up and a child returning to an empty house from school – something that feels completely up to date.

An entertaining mix of history, the supernatural, contemporary families, and snakes. You can buy your own copy here.

Summer 2017 Round-Up

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

Picture Books:

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


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


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

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

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

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

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King of the Sky by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Laura Carlin


An exquisitely moving picture book for an older age group that displays extraordinary depth in an ordinary tale of a boy moving to a new place and trying to make it feel like home.

Atmospheric from the start, the reader learns that the setting is a place in which the rain falls relentlessly, and the landscape is strange for the narrator – grey, and noisy:

“Little houses huddled on the humpbacked hills. Chimneys smoked and metal towers clanked.”

In fact it is Wales, and an Italian immigrant boy’s interpretation of his new surroundings.

This is a poetic reading, of a place our narrator feels is bleak. The text informs that he feels alone, and the accompanying evocative and dreamy illustrations tell the same story, with an emphasis on work and hollow spaces, faceless houses, and isolation. The boy remembers the contrast of the different smells and tones of the place he calls home – the Italian vanilla smells, yellow backgrounds, ice cream. The boy’s memory of home has been sparked by the sound of the Welsh pigeons cooing. In fact, his ensuing hope and salvation come not from new friends at school, but from a friendship with an elderly man and his hobby of pigeon racing.

This boy isn’t a toddler – again showing that this picture book isn’t for the very young, but for those who are able to fully utilise the given visuals to embellish in their own mind the narrative that is written on the page, and for those who can probe a little deeper into the emotion and meaning behind the text.

There are many layers to explore in the text, such as the boy’s ability to understand a different language through the soft speech of his new friend, the different foods he eats, and the growing friendship with the old man. But the illustrations bring out so much more, not just the contrast between the landscapes, but the change to the landscape as the boy settles; the intimacy between the man and boy that extrapolates the teaching and wisdom being imparted; the industrious town in which the boy has settled and all the different characters who populate it, from the farmer on his wagon to the mother hanging her washing; the memories of fighting in the war;  the different modes of transport and communication depicted; and finally the flight of the pigeons and the warmth that they exude.

This is an unusual story, timely indeed, although the pictures of war and the landscape make it seem historical. It is about memories of war and conflict, the settling of a newcomer in a town, as well as old age, and ultimately hope and friendship.

The depiction of the landscape’s industrialisation creates a nostalgia for a time past, as well as a nostalgia for the glowing images of Rome, as if the sun is just setting across the pages of the book with its orange and pink glow. But it ends with a look to the future, as the boy realises that home is where the heart is. 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. 

 

Refugee Stories

One thing I always knew I had to instil in my own children, and in the children I work with, is a sense of history. Where they come from, from whom they are descended, how they got where they are today. Whether it’s tracking a grandparent’s entry here via kindertransport, or a boat, smuggled on a truck, or simply purchasing a plane ticket, most of us have a story if we look back further enough, and dig deep enough. Not many of us were born and bred where we live today.

But not all children equate their own great-grandparents’ journeys with the stories of refugees and migrants they see in today’s news headlines. How do we make our children see and understand their plight, and how do we explain what we mean when we say ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’? Luckily, there are a whole host of books that can help guide us in this education, teaching compassion and empathy at the same time. In fact, the number of new ‘refugee’ stories being published is quite startling. Here’s my pick…

Three novels that take away the label and instead highlight individual stories – so that we can see the people behind the headlines – are A Dangerous Crossing, The Bone Sparrow and A Story Like the Wind. There’s not just a stark photograph of suffering here, splashed across a newspaper, but fully rounded characters, with hopes and fears, with pasts and futures. They all desire food and shelter, but they all have different ideas of home, of safety, of the kind of future they want. They are all individuals. What they have in common is the need to move from the place they called home.

A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell
When 13 year old Ghalib Shenu is caught in a barrel-bomb explosion in Kobani’s souq in Syria, his family decide enough is enough and they must leave. Together with his siblings, parents and grandmother, Ghalib begins the long journey from Syria to Europe.

The compelling force about this book is that it feels completely real – from the dangers surrounding the family, to the banter they engage upon on their way. The questions posed are real and immediate – what should they take with them – Ghalib is reluctant to leave his belongings behind, but the further into the journey he gets, the more he realises how it is just the essentials that matter. There are other realities – the images of other people living their normal lives even as the refugees are passing through their territory; the stigma attached to refugees, as Ghalib realises how unwelcome the Syrian people have become:

“We look. A cardboard sign in Turkish and Arabic is stuck inside the door. No Syrians. The Arabic is not written properly but the message is clear.”

Because the reader is so involved with Ghalib and his family, the hurt and humiliation sting. Mitchell also allows the reader to dwell on things that we ordinarily might take for granted – the wrench to leave the future you had assumed would be there for you in your home country – the bonds at home – family, friends, a business, books, belongings – all those things which give a person a sense of individual identity – something that’s stripped when you’re labelled as a refugee.

As Ghalib and his family progress further on their journey, the book becomes tenser, at first crossing the border, then leaving the refugee camp, and finally attempting the boat crossing. This last piece causes stomach-churning anxiety – Mitchell’s writing prickles with tension.

Mitchell portrays the family’s powerlessness brilliantly, and although the language is English and written with literary style, using challenging vocabulary such as ‘redolent’ and ‘pulverise’, the reader does get a good sense of the Syrian lifestyle – the smells and tastes of Ghalib’s home, the way of life.

Told in first person, the text feels immediate, but the secondary characters are also fleshed out well, each bringing authenticity to the story, but also highlighting different issues, from the treatment of the elderly, to treatment of women, as well as those who are too young to have experienced any other Syria than one which is at war.

This is a powerful book, well-researched and written, and achieves its aim of encouraging sympathy and understanding, but importantly, telling a really good story.

The publisher recommends the book for 11+ years, but I would wager a fluent reader aged 10+ would be capable of understanding the text too. You can buy it here.

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
This is a gripping story without a physical journey, and tells the story of one boy who was born in a detention centre, and has never known anything different, and highlights a group of people who aren’t brought to the media’s attention very much. Subhi, aged 10, is a member of the Rohingya people of Burma, but has never known his homeland, relying only upon the memories of the older generations. This gives the novel both the grief of the elders for what was known about Burma, but also gives Subhi a grief for all the unknowns too.

Fraillon excels at highlighting the extreme hardships and terrible conditions of the refugee camp without the book becoming too depressing or maudlin, by the fact that Subhi possesses an overwhelming optimism – a sunny disposition no matter how hard things get.

Much of his day is spent in drawing and stories. There is no entertainment, no outside distractions. His height is measured on the diamonds on the wire fencing, there is no school, scarce food.

In a Boy in the Striped Pyjamas allusion, Subhi is befriended by Jimmi, a girl who gets through a hole in the fence from outside and rejoices in Subhi’s ability to read stories to her. In return for his reading, she brings food from the outside. It’s never explicitly stated in which country the camp is, but the reader assumes it is Australia. Both children seem fairly oblivious to the fact that their meeting is unusual, and that the way Subhi is treated is profoundly wrong and must be changed. In fact, it’s not just Australia that isn’t mentioned – Faillon, one must assume deliberately, doesn’t show many traits of the Rohingya people. Also, the gap in the fence, set against the rules and severity of camp life, seems fairly unrealistic so that, as in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the story becomes fairly allegorical.

What does feel very real though is the depiction of the harsh life and treatment within the refugee camp – the terrible conditions, and the references to the horrible scarring – both mental and physical – that the older refugees faced before their arrival in the camp.

The crescendo of the story when it comes is horrible beyond words, and yet because the children have shown how powerful friendship and storytelling can be, there remains a great deal of hope at the end of the book – even if Fraillon’s afterword brims with anger.

Fraillon displays a wonderful lyrical lilt to her writing, a compelling voice with a gripping story, and has been shortlisted for both The Guardian Children’s Fiction prize and for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2017.

The overall message is one of hope, but also the meaning of freedom – it’s more than just being free from the containment of fencing, it’s the entitlement of a future. 10+ yrs. You can buy it here.

A Story Like the Wind by Gill Lewis
This highly illustrated book for seven year olds and over, meshes myth with reality in this storytelling tale about a boy who narrates a story over a night spent adrift at sea, to a boatload of fellow refugees escaping from their war-torn homeland. They carry nothing with them, except their names and their memories. Rami, the narrator, cleverly plays his violin to accompany his storytelling, using music as the universal language to bind humans together. In this way, reminiscent perhaps of The Mozart Question by Michael Morpurgo – which used music to highlight the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing the camps of the Holocaust – Lewis attempts to use the story of how the violin came about to tell a story of hope and freedom in a time of war and injustice.

Rami tells his fellow refugees the story of a young boy who rescues a wild foal from near death and nurtures him to life, whilst refusing to claim ownership of him. When he races the horse against the Dark Lord and wins, the Dark Lord banishes him, and takes ownership of the horse – treating it cruelly – until it escapes and finds its way to the boy in exile, before collapsing and dying. The boy takes the beast’s bones and carves a violin from them.

The story that Rami tells draws connections between the cruelty of the Dark Lord and his harsh treatment of his subjects, to the cruel treatment that the boat’s passengers have endured in their war-ravaged country from which they are escaping, as well as explaining the meaning of freedom and dignity. There is no resolution to the overarching story – the refugees remain floating in their boat with only the beauty of the music against the waves to succour them – but this is an interesting fable to disseminate the big issues that face humanity today.

Beautifully illustrated by Jo Weaver in a dream-like fashion, this is an unforgettable little story. You can buy it here.

Children In Our World: Refugees and Migrants by Ceri Roberts and Hanane Kai is a non-fiction text that seeks to explain gently what we mean when we label someone a refugee or a migrant. Who are they? Where have the come from? In very clear, unchallenging text, this square book – laid out like a picture book – presents a tame factual reality of what we mean by refugee and migrant.

It describes why people move from their homeland, what they have left behind and why they might leave in a hurry, as well as life in refugee camps, what it means to seek asylum, and lastly what the reader can do to help people.

The text is written for a Western audience, explaining to a child to make a new child welcome in their school, as well as repeating the usual rhetoric nowadays that children should discuss with an adult any worries or fears they have, making clear how unlikely it is that they themselves will become refugees. There’s a glossary at the back, and a ‘find out more’ section.

The images seem to imply there are different families and children being shown, although always with the same cat, and although there is clearly a diverse range of nationalities from the clothes and hairstyles, the colour of skin remains the same. The imagery is supposedly generic in tone – pastel colours throughout, and the trees remain the same in all landscapes, presumably putting across the message that we are all the same the world over. The cat brings slight levity to the subject.

It’s a good text to have in a school library for a 6+ age group who may have questions, but I think for greater depth and insight individual stories, highlighting our differences whilst at the same time delineating our common necessities – love, shelter, food etc – will always win out. You can buy it here.

There are so many many more refugee stories, from the obvious, such as Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere, picturebook The Journey by Francesca Sanna, and the everyman refugee story, Close to the Wind by Jon Walter.

 

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

It was with some trepidation that I started reading this novel, advertised for young teens, but I think appropriate for mature nine year olds, because of Laird’s introduction. The novel begins with a foreword from the author, which gives an explanation of why the war in Syria began and poses a question at the end about how history will judge our treatment of refugees.

Literature is there to pose questions and make us think, as well as imbue empathy. And good literature should teach us things too – but above all there needs to be a good story well told, otherwise readers won’t get to the crux of the book. Elizabeth Laird is an experienced writer, and has written many great, distinguished and prize-winning novels. Is this more than just another ‘issue’ book, a book that has written a story around an issue, rather than starting with a story and drawing an issue out of it? This isn’t Laird’s best book in my opinion, and yet this is way more than an issue book, and it certainly makes the reader think, and so it deserves this week’s book of the week spot.

Twelve-year-old Omar narrates the story – in past tense. He lives in Bosra, isn’t keen on school, but makes money selling postcards at a tourist site. His father also works in tourism – but for the government. When war breaks out, the family’s troubles grow – not least because Omar’s father has to move for work, but also because his older sister is being married off (having reached the marriageable age of sixteen). Omar’s older brother Musa suffers from cerebral palsy and starts getting in with a group who are anti-government. It’s a complicated situation and Laird does her best to navigate through the family’s journey. As the bombs fall on the city, they move again, and again, until eventually they have to flee Syria completely and cross the border to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Laird has done her research – she has spent time in the refugee camps and has prior knowledge of living in the Middle East as well as a presenting us with a hefty acknowledgements section that clearly names all the various experts and refugee families who have helped to share their experiences with her.

It’s not a short novel, coming in at over 360 pages in the proof copy, and is fast-paced and hugely enjoyable. Yet, even at this length, it still feels like a skeletal piece. The descriptions of places are somewhat lacking – particularly the urban settings, although there are glimpses of what was once there – the tourist areas boomed, and the ordinary society was buzzy and lively – and yet there wasn’t quite enough description to give that emotional evocation of what has been lost.

The secondary characters too – Omar’s sister is desperate to stay a scholar and not get married, Omar’s brother struggles with his illness that sets him apart as different (just as any boy would anywhere in the world), but neither are portrayed in enough depth to give complexity to their issues. However, other relationships do spring from the page – Omar’s mother’s relationship with her grandmother, and likewise her relationship with her sister – these feel alive and real – with just a light touch. Omar – our protagonist – is likeable despite having many flaws; he comes across as real – that awkward age of boyhood into adulthood that’s particularly difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone in wartime, and when he’s dealing with an absent father and a physically weaker older brother.

Written from a very British perspective, the language used will be vastly familiar to the Western reader – words such as ‘bungling’ and phrases such as ‘ratting on someone’ and ‘I beg your pardon’. Perhaps this is on purpose, to make the readership feel familiar with the family portrayed – to show the readership here that this is something that could happen to anyone. And yet, as with the lack of physical description of Syria, it takes away some of the authenticity of the book.

But overall this book ticks the boxes for me because it’s gripping and fast (the book sprints through the plot) and portrays the Syrian war and the refugee crisis so that an average ten year old in this country could gain some insight and experience some empathy.

The book extols the virtues of bravery and hopefulness. Of learning to look out for your family and put someone else first. And it makes you think – how will we welcome a family such as Omar’s in our country? Who are these people? Are they just like you and me?

You can buy it here. Fifty pence per copy of the hardback book sold will be donated to an international aid agency supporting the Syrian refugee crisis.