wolves

Nevertell by Katharine Orton

nevertellMany a children’s book has been set in a snowy landscape with chasing wolves and stretching vistas, from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken to Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder, promising the romance of ice crystals and the danger of snapping jaws. Of course, there’s nothing romantic about the punishing Siberian prison camps under the reign of Stalin, which is where Orton has chosen to set her debut children’s book, Nevertell.

Lina, born inside one of these Siberian prison camps, has never seen the outside world, so when the opportunity for escape is presented at age eleven, she grasps it wholeheartedly, despite having to leave her mother behind. However, Lina and best friend Bogdan are soon pursued not by Soviet guards, but by ghost wolf hounds and a dangerous sorceress, who lives in a Frozen-esque ice palace and bears a resemblance to Baba Yaga and The Mistress of Copper Mountain from Russian folk tales.

This is in essence an adventure story across the snowy tundra of a Russian winter, and Orton’s lyrical writing interweaves the magic of the landscape she is describing with the thrilling pace of a chase. Her descriptions of cold are indeed chilling, and the frozen fractals feel both dangerously icy but also wonderfully enchanting, as if the reader is spellbound by the cold as Lina and Bogdan are by the sorceress.

“The sky itself stretched cloudless and pale, like a flawless frozen lake. It all felt upside down, as if the sky had switched places with the earth while they slept and now they were wading through yesterday’s storm clouds.”

As well as the escape to freedom, Lina is on a quest to discover her heritage. She sets out on a path to Moscow to find her grandmother and discover what she is like, all the time wondering who in the left-behind camp is her father. What becomes apparent through the telling is the importance of family – both in their presence and their absence, and how belonging is so key. Separation was a cruel punishment oft inflicted by Stalin.

There are familiar children’s books tropes in Nevertell: a chase across countryside, a fierce and loyal friendship between the protagonist and a sidekick of the opposite gender…but where the novel stands apart is the terrific juxtaposition between the harshness of Russian gulags and Stalin’s reign with local folklore and fairy tales, which conjure a different kind of adventure story.

The idea that creativity was stifled in Stalin’s Russia, that a repressive regime sought to shut down any telling of fairy tales and folk stories is barbaric – after all freedom of thought and imagination are some of the most precious assets of being human. Orton plays with this idea of repression, and of course sets it free by taking Lina and Bogdan away from the harsh realism of a Siberian prison camp and placing them within the magical realms of a sorceress, even if that magic can also be used for harm.

Orton also plays on the importance of objects – again a device taken from native folk and fairy tales, in which one thing can be of such import – be it a house of chicken legs, or simply a stone. Lina wears a stone around her neck that provides pulsing warmth in times of great cold and throbbing heat in times of danger. The sorceress relies on her cape for much, but it is also in the human realm that objects are important: a winter coat, a bag of vegetables, a horse for transportation. These are essential elements of survival: food, warmth, shelter.

At times the magic is complex, at times simple, as are the relationships, but there’s a shining simplicity to the images of growth and gardens that frame Lina’s story. The idea of being able to conjure magic within a garden has been used for decades in children’s literature – a garden showing the flourishing of the heart and soul, the blossoming or growth of a forbidden fruit actually proving to be sustenance and food for thought rather than evil temptation. Orton sets up the magic vibrancy of fruit vines against a Siberian snowy backdrop and it is with strong images such as these that her power as a storyteller glitters most strongly.

The reader is left with an array of visuals – ice crystals frozen from wintry breath, a fluttering moth, a shadowy girl, an ice palace. With a startling cover illustrated by Sandra Dieckmann, interior illustrative snowflakes and more, this is a winter read with staying power. You’ll be as enchanted as if you had been captured by a sorceress. A perfect wintry read. For ages 8+.

With thanks to Walker books for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here.

The Tzar’s Curious Runaways by Robin Scott-Elliot

tzars curious runawaysEarly on in this historical novel, author Scott-Elliot introduces a footnote to a particular scene that simply says, ‘This really happened at the court of Peter the Great’. This tempting piece of information follows the reader throughout this startling novel – did that really happen, could that really have happened, stimulating both interest in the story, but also great intrigue in the historical setting. The reader is bursting to know more.

Good historical fiction not only holds a mirror up to our own times, pointing to similarities, and lessons learned or unlearned, but it also encourages the reader to think more about that period of history and entice them to discover more about it. Scott-Elliot does both these in his first novel for children, The Tzar’s Curious Runaways.

Katinka is a ballerina with a hunchback, part of a collection of people in Peter the Great’s Circus of Curiosities, his Kunstkamera. (The Tzar was particularly interested in deformities, collecting specimens and people (such as dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks and more) as a way to dispel myths that ‘monsters’ and monstrous formations came from the devil. He frequently put them on display and used them as tools for humiliation and cruelty.) On his death, Katinka and the other ‘curiosities’ are to be killed on the orders of the even nastier Tzarina. Together with her friends Alexei the Giant and Nikolai the dwarf, Katinka escapes the palace in St Petersburg and sets off across the snowy Russian steppe to find her parents, from whom she believes she was snatched by the Tzar’s henchmen.

This is, of course, an adventure story as journey, and therefore one of a tide of children’s novels that fits this description. What sets The Tzar’s Curious Runaways apart is not only the historical and geographical setting of 1725 Russia, but most particularly the intense suspense and danger conjured by a plot unfolding in an immensely cruel, violent and unforgiving society.

This Russia is a place of fear: The court around the Tzar, all in fear of being humiliated or worse, being killed; the peasants in surrounding areas fearful of any change or anything different; humans in general scared of wolves and bears and the darker side of nature. And in every facet of this society, Scott-Elliot describes those in power or holding authority as being corrupt, greedy or just cruel, from the adults in the village to the monks in an onion-turreted church, who of course, should provide the moral code. This is a poverty-stricken and cruel society – scenes include prisoners in chains being made to work on The Grand Canal, fearful adults throwing rocks at mere children.

Beauty, in this book, lies both in the endless snowy steppe and the mountains that take the form of animals, but also in children – their innocence, their bravery, their self-belief, and their hope.

Although the book is hugely scenic, with its dense forests, ornate palaces and snowy landscapes, and the plot reliant upon a magical map, this is a story about personalities overriding visuals, about not being judged for one’s physical imperfections, but rather using them to advantage, or overcoming their adversity.

In this way, the book shines a light on our current times – about the possibilities offered in a diverse society and about how people shouldn’t discriminate based on looks or beliefs. Of course our current society isn’t utopia, and has a long way to go for acceptance and tolerance to reign, particularly with regards to minorities, those with disabilities, and even women. But, if anything, Scott-Elliot shows us how far we’ve come.

Despite its use of historical research, this is still a novel, and Scott-Elliot cleverly draws attention to our understanding of history and the past by muddling Katinka’s memories of home. She is a protagonist seeking to belong, seeking a home, and yet her memories of the past are hazy – she isn’t sure whether they’re derived from her actual childhood surroundings, or from story books. And so the novel asks the question: what memories and histories of the past can be trusted? How much are we fabricating and filling in the gaps in our historical knowledge?

Into this mix, Scott-Elliot throws a wise librarian named Johann Daniel, who imparts a great deal of survival knowledge to the children and also gifts them a magical map to guide them on their journey. This light relief from the cruelty and harshness around them gives the children and the reader hope. It is with magic and story that a happy ending can be reached, despite the tribulations on the way.

For those who enjoy historical novels, this is something a little different, a curiosity in the children’s literature canon. You’d be wise not to run away from it.

With thanks to Everything With Words for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here. Suggested for ages 8+.

The Ice Sea Pirates: A Sneak Peak at Illustrations

I’m delighted to showcase The Ice Sea Pirates by Frida Nilsson, illustrated by David Barrow, on the blog today. Nilsson’s latest book, The Ice Sea Pirates, is a classic children’s adventure story about a girl called Siri who dares to trek the ice seas and face down fearsome leader of pirates Captain Whitehead, in order to rescue her sister. This is a survival story set in a wild landscape of our dreams and nightmares – seas that freeze over with extreme cold and lash ships to pieces with their ice shards – a troop of pirates who capture children to work down a mine – ferocious wolves who wander the ice looking for prey.

But above all, this is a hugely compelling read with a sympathetic, staggeringly brave and wholesome main character, and a gripping narrative. It’s no wonder the book has been nominated for five Swedish book awards, and won three of them. Now, available in English, translated by Peter Graves, and softly and warmly illustrated by David Barrow, this is really a sumptuous read.

Nilsson draws clever parallels between wolf cubs and children, explores boundaries of nature and nurture and protection of the young. She also shows the ability of children to see the larger picture, as well as delving into themes of family loyalty, and the wonder of mythical sea creatures. This is a daring and intelligent tale, sprinkled with humour. More than anything though, it is the imaginary harsh Arctic landscape of small islands dotted in the freezing sea that dominates, and creates an adventure that’s both beautiful and challenging. Frida Nilsson explains the role of nature in the novel:

“The scenery is very important I think, in order to convince the reader that I am “telling the truth”. That doesn’t mean that the description of the scenery most be very long. In fact, I heard a Swedish writer say once: the longer and more thorough the scenery is, the surer you can be that the writer was never there for real. To describe the scenery in a short and vigorous manner is not easy.

The Ice Sea Pirates is a fictional world with, of course, strong impressions from the Arctic. I went to Tromsö (northern Norway) with my mother once. She worked at the hospital there and I had the days all to myself to wander about and go to the local museum, where they had exhibitions about whale- and walrus-hunting. A lot of my ideas for the book come from that trip.

My home town of Mörkö, Sweden, wasn’t a direct influence for this book, but the beautiful scenery is an inspiration for me and my writing.”

Frida’s text is complemented by the softly drawn, mesmeric images from illustrator David Barrow. Below is a selection of the images, which Gecko Press have been kind enough to let me share.




You can buy The Ice Sea Pirates here.

Prisoner of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren: Giveaway

Women may still be under-represented in the FTSE 100 companies, but the number of strong female characters in middle grade fiction continues to rise. Ruth Lauren not only populates her debut novel with a strong female protagonist, a female spy, and a female Head Prison Warden, but also creates a fantasy matriarchal society, in which a queen rules and the line of succession is through her daughter.

This is a pacey first-person text, which reads like a tightly plotted thriller, or a child’s Siberian version of Prison Break. The reader follows Valor in her quest to free her sister, who has been imprisoned for stealing an important royal music box (with diplomatic relevance). The book starts with an action-packed assassination sequence, through which Valor fakes her motive in order to be imprisoned too, and then starts to make plans to break out both herself and her sister.

The novel challenges traditional gender-tropes – Valor is a huntress by trade, taking after her mother – and also challenges traditional softness in children’s books. This may be an easy grammatical read for the 8-12-year-old market, but Lauren doesn’t hold back on the harshness of prison life. Most of the novel is set in prison, after seemingly no real justice system, and there is cruel and hard child labour and even crueller living conditions. Partly because the entire novel is set in a frozen landscape, with roaming wolves and biting cold – so the prisoners remain largely exposed to the cold, and the punishments, when they are doled out, utilise the landscape.

With the ice-cold landscape and the bond between sisters, the novel will bring to mind Frozen, but this is a much darker, grown up option, without an Olaf, and with, one imagines, fuller-waisted girls. The secondary characters remain largely thus, and there is not much time for thought and depth – the novel skates along the surface with all its intents and purposes focussed on escape. This makes it a page-turning read, and a delightful escape novel for the age group. Luckily for you, I have three copies to give away (UK and IRL only), so please find me on twitter @minervamoan to win one. If you’re not so lucky, you can buy your own copy here.

The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill

wolves of currumpaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animals, in particular, wolves

Wolf Wilder

Three weeks ago, I visited the Animal Tales exhibition (open until 1st Nov) at the British Library, which reminded me of the piece I wrote for the Middle Grade Strikes Back Blog earlier this year on the topic of animals in middle grade fiction (books for 8-12 year olds).

What strikes most of us working in children’s literature is the prevalence of the use of animals. Books teach us about our place in the world, who we are, how we live, and about how others live and feel. And animals give us a unique perspective – we only know what it is to be human by way of our relationship to what isn’t human – ie. that which is animal.

Animals in literature provide several opportunities to play with experiences: they can be outsiders (as children are often portrayed in literature – looking in on an adult world); animals are wild – they show us how we once were wild ourselves, innocents – before we were tamed by society. Children are ‘tamed’ into adhering to the constraints of society – no adult lies down in the middle of Tesco’s and has a tantrum about not being bought the Frozen advent calendar (well, not that I’ve witnessed). Black Beauty by Anna Sewell is a perfect example of an animal being shunted around from pillar to post and made to behave – be tamed. And by being wild, and outside the rules of our world, animals and children can have more adventures – Where the Wild Things Are speaks to this. Judith Kerr’s bestseller, The Tiger who Came to Tea, may be set in a home environment, but the introduction of a tiger (the wild) makes it an adventure. One of the most thrilling animal adventures for children, SF Said’s Varjak Paw takes the domesticated cat and casts him off into the wild.

The exhibition also drew attention to literature’s fascination with metamorphoses – humans turning into animals – from Actaeon in Ovid through to that poor family in Roald Dahl’s The Magic Finger. In Dahl’s story it is to teach the Gregg family that hunting is bad, In Beauty and the Beast – the man is punished for not showing kindness and so is turned into a beast. Both the family and the man are transformed back into their human forms in the end – the Greggs for repenting, and the Beast when he finds true love.

Animals are also an accessible way to teach children about the environment. Although fracking and diesel pollution may be topical, for children seeing the damage an oil spill can inflict on a bird holds much more immediacy. The Last Wild by Piers Torday uses animals to ask children to address how we treat the world in which we live, as does Watership Down.

Lastly, animals work as the perfect allegory. The anthropomorphism in children’s picture books allows us to address all those awkward issues which would be harsher and more direct if they were told using people. By using animals posturing as humans they teach us empathy – we see what it is that makes these animals human – they are wearing our clothes, and eating our food, and behaving as we do; their relationships with each other are human. Winnie the Pooh likes his little smackeral of something, and is a loyal and loving friend, The Very Hungry Caterpillar gets a stomach ache after all that delicious human food, The Cat in the Hat is our wild alter ego, the quick thinking mouse uses human cunning and logic to outwit The Gruffalo, and Farmer Duck is the quintessential animal with a human thought process. And I’ve talked previously about using animals to teach very young children about difficult topics such as death.

The Wolf Wilder is the latest book by Katherine Rundell.
Wolves have long been a strong feature of children’s literature – an animal of choice. From the wolf’s threatening posturing yet ultimate comeuppance in Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs (everything is little in comparison to him), to his wry stupidity in Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, to his prowess, strength and bravery in The Last Wild trilogy and Wolf Brother. Children are introduced to the wolf symbolised by the French horn in Peter and the Wolf and can be inspired by White Fang’s menacing yet ultimately tamed wolf.

It is with the wildness and taming that Katherine Rundell starts her book. Feodora and her mother are wolf wilders: people who re-wild a wolf that has been wrongly or cruelly tamed (by the Russian aristocrats). Feo and her mother live in the snowy woods of Russia. When their place in the world is threatened, and when her mother is taken away by the Russian Army, Feo has no choice but to flee with her wolf pack, and set in motion a search and rescue for her mother.

Actually, Rundell’s novel starts like this:
“Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl”
and from the language on the first page the reader is hooked.

Using wolves, Rundell touches on all the aspects of animals discussed – from the relationship between Feo and her wolves – the locals call her the ‘wolf girl’; she understands their needs and desires so much she almost becomes one:
“She could howl, her mother used to say, before she could talk.”

Her childish innocence mimics that of the wolf cub she tries to protect; her feeling of being an outsider like the wolves; and her protectiveness of the environment in which she lives. The wolves behave as the animals they are in the book, and indeed the whole premise is that they should be re-wilded – tuned back to nature – but Feo herself has a relationship with them not unlike a protective loving relationship that one might have with siblings or very close friends.

The characters are fierce and flawed and completely loveable – the reader can’t help but wish them to succeed in their endeavours – from Feo’s hunt for her mother, to Ilya’s fulfilment of his dreams. They stand up for what they believe in, and are ultimately brave in the pursuit of happiness.

But it is the language to which the reader returns. Katherine Rundell’s writing is as close to poetry as prose gets, from her description of ballet, “A kind of slowish magic. Like writing with your feet,” to her descriptive passage about the five kinds of cold including wind cold: “It was fussy and loud and turned your cheeks as red as if you’d been slapped.”
Rundell continues to weave this magic through the book, writing with apparent simplicity, and also wittiness, and yet each word carefully selected for its ability to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind.

It’s the kind of book every child should read for its wonder and magic, and characterisation, and ability to transport the reader to another time and place. It’s only weakness lies in the plot similarities to Rooftoppers, Rundell’s prior novel, but it’s a minor point.

Overall, one of the most beautifully written novels you’ll find for children. The kind of book, as Katherine Rundell says that “makes you feel taller…more capable of changing the world.” Read it to your child, otherwise you’ll miss out hugely! It’s a modern classic. For 8+yrs.

There are some wonderful illustrations too, but I reviewed an early proof copy, which did not have them.
To buy a copy of the book, click here.