war

The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

skylarks warQuoted in the bibliography as an influence, and reading almost like an homage to Testament of Youth, Hilary McKay’s latest novel The Skylarks’ War is a highly readable, beautifully imagined story of a girl coming of age during the devastation of World War I. Clarry and her older brother are largely ignored by their single parent father, but spend their summers in glorious freedom in Cornwall at their grandparents’, where wonderfully charismatic and free-spirited cousin Rupert rules the roost. But when war breaks out, family and friendships are wrenched apart, and the Skylark summers seem a thing of the distant past.

McKay has a remarkable gift for writing. Her characters are fully rounded, developed people who you want to stay with long after the last page is turned. Clarry reads like a warm hug, Rupert is exactly the heroic soldier one would fall for, and Clarry’s brother Peter is a complicated, sensitive sort – he heart-wrenchingly jumps from a moving train to avoid boarding school and damages his leg, with only the reader fully aware of the consequences of his actions, seeing as war will erupt a few years later.

Also lending heart and soul to the novel is Simon, Peter’s friend from boarding school, who gives the reader a glimpse of the social history of the piece from the knowing standpoint of a more enlightened future. Simon, as much as the reader, is patently in love with Rupert, but of course homosexuality was forbidden then.

As well as character, McKay writes with specificity, elegance and precision in her portrayal of the time, lavishing period detail, but more intelligently, rendering the emotions of the time so clearly – leaving the reader with a sense of the social history without in any way preaching. She shies away from anything too gruesome in her sparse prose about the Front, but there is enough tension and heartbreak to transport the reader to the desolation of that time and place.

McKay concentrates mostly on the home front, managing to include both the suspension of time for women left at home as they waited for news and letters, but also the occupying of that time and the growth of importance of women as they took up roles in society away from the domestic sphere, and become more visible. Above all, what marks the book is the amount of hope and courage portrayed, and the feeling that Clarry’s breathless determination and grit will prevail.

This sort of storytelling is reminiscent of those great classic novels – the gathering of the family around letters from Father in Little Women, the closeness in relationships in Noel Streatfield novels, the insight into women’s feelings in Testament of Youth.

Marking the centenary of the First World War, this is a most beautiful introduction to that time period for children, and an unforgettable classic read. One of the best children’s books this year – do not miss. For 9+ years. You can buy your copy here.

The Lost Magician by Piers Torday

the lost magicianWhen I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a child I had no conception of the word ‘allegory’, and certainly hadn’t grasped the idea that I was reading a story that CS Lewis described as ‘supposal’: “Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there.

Piers Torday has taken Narnia to heart in his latest novel, The Lost Magician, writing it he says as an homage to Narnia. And although there is no Christian allegory, there is definitely much ‘supposing’, and a supposition of a world that mirrors our own in presenting conflict and argument and much darkness, except that, in Torday’s Folio (his version of Narnia), there are talking bears and a self-doubting unicorn.

It is 1945 and Simon, Patricia, Evie and Larry have survived the Blitz, despite the scars it has left on their memories. They arrive at Barfield Hall, a country house, where lives a female professor involved in experimentation revolved around imagination. Through a portal in a strange library in the attic they stumble across a world called Folio – an enchanted kingdom of bears and knights and other creatures found in stories, but also of futuristic fluid metallic robots. These two factions are at war, and the children’s learned horrors of their own war teaches them that they must stop this war, the key to which is finding the lost magician – the creator of the library who has been missing for centuries.

On the surface this novel is a good classic adventure story, with a cast of empathetic children who feel far more authentic than the Narnia quartet, with an intrusion of real world scars into their psyche. Simon, the eldest, has his perceived ideas of masculinity on display, wanting to show his prowess to emulate his war-hero father. Evie experienced trauma in the war, whereas for Larry, the youngest, shown still clutching his teddy and bumping him up the stairs (a la Christopher Robin and Pooh), the rubble of the Blitz was merely a grand landscape for exploration. With them all, their witness to the horror of war informs their decision making.

And the world of Folio that Torday has conjured feels as well-drawn as Wonderland. The reader can see the beauty of the green countryside of fairy-tale land – the house of the three bears, the trees, the fields, the wind buffeting the foliage. And yet also, all too clearly, the metallic glint of the oppositional city, with its enduring light glowing like a beacon of future possibility, and the metallic people, strong and upright.

So on one level this is, as Narnia, a simple trip into a new world through a portal in the old, told in gripping, pacey language with tension and pathos and humour, with Torday’s marvellous descriptive language carrying the reader through with a light touch of his magic pen. And yet, there is so much more when one looks beyond the surface enchantment.

Of course there are literary allusions within the text. Nuggets of Narnia are dripped like gold leaves into the novel, and any novel that uses a library as a portal is bound to make use of the literary canon of children’s literature, and a particular action sequence reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark….

But peel further, and the layers of the novel reveal much much more. Whereas Larry enters Folio through the shelves of ‘Read’ books – representing fiction, Evie enters through the UnReads – the books that represent the facts of the future, the non-fiction. And there is still another shelf in the library through which no-one enters, but which poses the greatest existential threat of all – the Never Reads. These represent ignorance.

When the children enter Folio, they discover that the Reads are at war with the UnReads – a clash of fiction and fact, of fairy tale characters and fact-based sci-fi robots. Larry chooses the Reads, as one would expect from the way he treats his teddy as a live being. Evie ‘betrays’ the other children by choosing the UnReads, wanting to believe in the bright shiny future of hard fact. Here, Torday is clever to draw some ambiguity over the ‘truths’ given by the Queen of the Unreads – a shady figure although physically illuminated in bright numbers, with a body that’s essentially fluid – much like her facts. She is mirrored of course on the White Witch.

By casting his war as story vs fact Torday is speaking to the very heart of what is happening in our society today. The battles in the book are ferocious, the sides pitted heavily against each other; a fractious world of polarised arguments in an angry climate. Here truth is twisted to lies, story is laid as propaganda, news is fake, and trust is misguided.

But this is a novel, and so Torday waves his wand to provide some clarity. The children discover that stories, even of one’s own past, are crucial in providing explanation for our world. That knowledge is valuable and true facts worth remembering, that imagination can provide a crutch when dealing with our own reality.

And yet all this is at risk from the fire and fury of the Never Reads – the ignorant. This last ‘shelf’ of books poses a threat to both the Reads and the UnReads. Whether the threat of the ignorant recalls the Nazi book burning, or Trump’s reported lack of reading will depend upon the reader – and this too is where Torday makes another point. This book is about the power of the reader, and particularly the child as reader – again a paean to those Victorian and Edwardian children’s authors, Carroll, Lear, Barrie, Milne, and CS Lewis who understood the deep influence of the literature people read when they were children, and the power of the child to see wonder in the world.

By the hopeful end (this is a children’s book), the reader understands their own power and also how to use it wisely in reaching across the gulf to understand another’s point of view, recognising that humans have more in common than that which divides them.

There is much more here too – the importance of libraries, a clever nod to the evil of numbers in WW2, building the new without destruction of the old, an understanding that not all children are avid readers – Simon in the novel is dyslexic in a time when dyslexia wasn’t recognised. But above all, there is the beauty of Torday’s writing in telling a good story.

The Lost Magician proves that Torday is on top of his game in spinning the storytelling magic – this magician is anything but lost and any reader who picks up the book will be well and truly found. You can buy it here.

Tin by Padraig Kenny

Tin by Padraig Kenny“Without a knowledge of history to give him [a student] a context for present events, he is at the mercy of every social misdiagnosis handed to him.” So said Hilary Mantel about history. And whilst Tin isn’t a historical novel, it is set in a distorted past, providing an opportunity to open the reader’s mind to thoughts about an alternative future. For this is a book about Artificial Intelligence, cleverly disguised as a Pinocchio style adventure.

Christopher works for an engineer, making ‘mechanicals’: children-shaped metallic figures with magical glyphs, like computer code, which empower them to act like humans. These mechanicals become some of his closest friends and family. But a devastating accident reveals a secret about Christopher’s past, and leads him down a path of self-discovery, and also a glimpse of what mechanicals could really do.

Not only is this an extraordinarily clever novel, but it is also a gripping children’s read, and a social commentary at the same time. The mechanicals are wonderfully written – Kenny showcases them with varying degrees of intelligence, knowledge and sentience – not unlike humans it must be said, but manages to portray each with its own particular personality, as well as consistently showing them to be not quite human. There’s Rob, simple, naïve, excessively loyal and caring. Manda, the small girl with her teddy bear, Gripper – the oversize muscle robot. Each has its own role, and part in the plot, but Kenny cleverly writes them ‘reading’ human interaction by studying humans’ body language and imitating it, not unlike how babies’ read their parents, but this is more stated, more blatant. The mechanicals also spell out how they are deciphering the meaning of words – especially when a word has more than one meaning. In this way, the mechanicals seem slightly less nuanced, simpler in their emotional intelligence, more childlike. And yet, they pulsate with emotion and the reader has endless empathy for them. It’s a clever manipulation of the reader, and by doing this Kenny is also showing how artificial intelligence could indeed manipulate humans.

In fact, Kenny’s point throughout this is to provoke the reader into thinking about what makes us human. With allusions to Pinocchio, who wanted to be a real boy, and was introduced to the concepts of responsibility and shunning frivolity and temptation in order to become real, and also The Wizard of Oz, in which Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man all want various human assets in order to be real, Kenny probes the essence of humanity:

“Rob turned to look in the direction of the sound. If he had a heart it would have skipped a beat -”

But in Tin, the mechanicals discover things about themselves through their interactions with others – both fellow mechanicals and humans. They realise that what makes somebody human is familial ties – the ability to love and mourn. The mechanicals experience loss, and then love to a certain degree, but they are still not completely human – they remain mechanical because they don’t have a soul, some essence of something that can’t be defined. They remain simple without ‘real’ memories.

They also remain mechanical because they can’t experience ‘malice’ or aggression. This is where Kenny steps up the pace of his book, as he explores the idea of mechanicals ensouled in order to work as soldiers. Here, Kenny nods towards The Terminator, and explores the idea of artificial intelligence used for mal-intent. What makes us human, he implies, is not just the ability to love deeply, but the ability to harm deeply too. Humans are all about power. And, most apt, in these times, a human’s ability to distinguish between lies and truth.

By setting the novel in a distorted past (a revised 1930s), in which the Great War has happened with appalling loss of life, and cars are on the increase, although there are still horses and carts, Kenny has inserted mechanicals/robots in a small way – they are chauffeurs and work in retail – although they haven’t completely dominated the landscape – there isn’t an implication of robots taking on all elements of industrialisation, yet.

But what the robots have done, in a roundabout way, is to crush the women’s movement. In Tin, females are vastly absent. There is only Estelle, who works for the engineer Absolom, albeit in an illegal way, as women are forbidden from being engineers/craftsmen. In this way, the reader can assume that if robots are working at certain tasks, the number of jobs available to humans is diminished.

Despite some horrors within the story, this is a positive book, with much humour and many more allusions to other great works. Toy Story yes, but also Willy Wonka – who ran a factory of Oompa Loompas, and was revered as the greatest chocolate maker, just as Cormier in Tin is revered as the greatest mechanical creator:

“He’s in there, behind that gate,” said Sam, pointing in the opposite direction. “No one ever comes out, and no one ever goes in.”

The outcome of the book is vastly upbeat. This is a children’s book after all, and they tend to end in a more uplifting way. But what the reader takes away is a thoughtfulness about humanity – who we are, how we treat others, and what the future may hold. As well as how humans can be better people, how we can overcome malice and aggression and the seeking of power, and look instead to focusing on love and family and connections:

“You don’t have a soul. You don’t need one. You’re not proper. You’re better than proper.” You can buy it here.

 

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.