YA

Trees, Treehouses and the Spaces Inbetween

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to understand the importance of trees as a metaphor or literary device in children’s literature. Their growth from seed to giant is in accordance with the growth of knowledge or imagination, they represent the wild within urban areas, they are a liminal space between ground and air. We use them in all manner of ways to talk about family trees, with all the various branches. We refer to a ‘tree of life’, a force that connects creation. Trees are affirmative – they give life by releasing oxygen, they provide food and shelter, they cover about 30 per cent of the world’s land area. No wonder I can rattle off ‘tree’ books in an instant – The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, The Thirteen Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, The Magic Treehouse books by Mary Pope Osborne…and so many more.

But these three recent ‘tree’ books are something special.

everything you need for a treehouseEverything You Need for a Treehouse by Carter Higgins and Emily Hughes

There’s something about a treehouse – that arboreal space that’s also domestic, a meeting of urban and wild, a place where imagination lets loose. This is sumptuously captured in this highly detailed picture book published earlier this year. Lyrical text leads the reader into the book – explaining that what you need for a treehouse is time and imagination. The text then branches out into poetry, using extended metaphor and alliteration, comparing trees to an army, but then calming into more natural imagery – sun speckles seen close, boxes for begonias, and of course elements of play. And the treehouses imagined in this book invoke all sorts of play, from swinging tyres to bookshelves and boats.

There’s practical advice about building treehouses too: proposing a child starts with a plan, or wears a hard hat, and remembers snacks and socks for cold overnight stays. The beauty of the language, of course, is that this is not a set narrative, but a bundle of suggestions, a plethora of ideas. And so illustrator Emily Hughes is let loose with her imagination – just as the child would be, with passion for adventure and creativity.

There are numerous children in this book – a whole school perhaps or a village – each with their own identity, using brains or brawn or humour to play their part. One girl does another’s hair while she lies in a sleeping bag, some children are telling ghostly stories with shadow movement, others listen to music or watch the stars. They play pirates, or direct others with drills and measuring tape. And each page holds a different kind of treehouse – one over water, one as a pirate ship, one as a palm house, and one with a helter skelter staircase. These are treehouses from the imagination and they are fully realised on the page – detailed, wondrous and fantastical. Because of course, not all children have the adult help, time, resources or space to build a treehouse, but Hughes shows that even with just imagination, the most fanciful treehouses can be built in the mind or on the page. Like castles in the sky. You can buy it here.

a good day for climbing treesA Good Day for Climbing Trees by Jaco Jacobs, illustrated by Jim Tierney

Jacobs is a prolific and popular author, with more than 120 books published, although mainly in Afrikaans. This novel, translated into English, is a light book about serious issues. Marnus feels invisible, stuck in the middle of a teenage older brother and a genius entrepreneur younger brother. So when Leila knocks on his door with a petition to save a tree, an opportunity presents. Before he knows it, he’s climbing a tree to stop the bulldozers, and then remaining there in case the bulldozers return.

As well as showing the reader how activism develops – from kindly neighbours and friends, to local journalists, and student protestors, the book explores a thirteen year old’s friendship with a child of the opposite sex, particularly one he’s just met – Marnus’s awkwardness round Leila is drawn with pathos and understanding, and quite a bit of humour too.

A cast of eccentric characters who gather round the tree and their activism makes the text warm and quirky, but Jacobs does more than just populate the story with colour – each character has their motivations and backstory, each character is fully developed and cleverly drawn. But it is Leila’s motive to save the tree that draws the book to a satisfying close – and leaves the reader feeling both fulfilled and uplifted. (Age 8+ years). You can buy a copy here.

the family treeThe Family Tree by Mal Peet, illustrated by Emma Shoard

Another well-known and hugely admired author, Mal Peet’s emotive and evocative novella, The Family Tree, has been given loving treatment by publishers Barrington Stoke after his death. Peet’s succinct, intuitive and astute writing tells the emotional story of an unnamed narrator who returns to his childhood house, looking back with nostalgia but also adult realism, as he recalls the breakdown of his parents’ marriage and the pivotal treehouse in the garden, which provided a childhood adventure but also eventually the sanctuary for his father’s breakdown.

Stunningly told, the publishers have pared the perspicacious prose with Shoard’s impressionistic full colour illustrations – their light smudging a beautiful counterpart to a story going back into the past. Features are slightly indistinct, the green and greys lend a fluidity to the scenes, and the treehouse is both a loving object and a place of menace as it becomes the father’s home and the cause of much angst and pain. Shoard’s illustrations bring an almost sensory element to fill the white spaces left in between Peet’s words – the body language of the three family characters is both poignant and brilliant.

Rarely does one come across a children’s tale written quite so hauntingly, leaving one drained and emotional but also strangely hopeful, nostalgic and understanding of human nature, and in particular fatherhood. I read in one sitting – as will you – and yet it will stay with you much longer than the hardiest of treehouses. (YA title, not suitable for younger readers). Unmissable. Buy it here.

 

Can We Talk About Fortnite?

fortniteDo you have a child who dons a headset every night after school, shouts through it to their friends at an unbelievable volume, and has to be physically dragged away from the machine at bedtime?

For those of you that don’t, Fortnite is a multiplayer shoot-em-up game, played via a variety of consoles, computers, and even phones, that involves the child playing a team game in which 100 players on a small island kill each other until only one remains. Sort of like The Hunger Games or Survivor, with weapons including crossbows and rifles, and a Minecraft element in which players can build themselves things (shelters) out of resources lying around.

Unbelievably, it’s even popular to watch other people playing it, and there are various Youtube resources to do this.

Many parents are decrying it – I recently had some parents complain that the kids were hurriedly completing all homework during break time at school so that home time was strictly reserved for Fortniting. Yes, I did just make a verb out of the name.

Of course it’s irritating for both parent and child when they’re in the middle of one of the twenty minute games and you call ‘dinner’, but actually I’m rather liking it: it’s possibly the most social thing my son has done for some time. (Please note my son only plays with his friends not strangers – see the link above for safe internet guidance).

But more than the social element, and here comes the books bit: the game is a narrative. In fact, it grew out of an apocalyptic zombie game, and what’s more, one clever librarian, UK School Librarian of the Year 2017 Lucas Maxwell has put together a phenomenal list of books for ‘if your child loves Fortnite’, including Survivor by Tom Hoyle. The list covers a spectrum of age ranges – because the children playing are anything from 8 years to 99 years, so do ask if you’re unsure of content.

books to read if you love fortnite

but I’d also add to the list: Alone by DJ Brazier, Runner by Tom Bowler, Lifers by MA Griffin, River of Ink by Helen Dennis, Blame by Simon Mayo, Urban Outlaws by Peter Jay Black, and Bullet Catcher by Chris Bradford. For a classic, try Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

alone

bullet catcherHowever, to step back to the game for a minute, I love the storytelling aspect of it. Unlike FIFA for example, which is hours of fake football, Fortnite is part of our storytelling world. Storytelling is how we make sense of the world around us. We even structure our own lives into stories to have our lives make sense – sometimes with huge embellishments (take any CV). Through family stories and fiction (including narratives on screen), children develop the ability to tell a story. And this is important because they learn the ability to identify how one thing leads to another – casual coherence, as well as thematic coherence – how ideas and tropes repeat and recur throughout stories.

By telling these stories – by children bouncing the narrative of their Fortnite games off each other – they make connections between different points of information in the story. They strengthen their ability to tell a story, and build their sophistication in narrative, for example, building anticipation.

In fact, there are a whole host of Youtube and gamers’ narratives around Fortnite – in which people become engrossed in their avatar’s behaviour and story during the game – you can seek certain storylines such as ‘a story of revenge’ and so on. Even more fascinating is the bigger narrative surrounding the game. There are theories that the game makers have layered in different elements – such as that the idea that the island is like a map of Poland, and if you superimpose one onto the other then there are parallels between the two. Other theories include the idea that random vibrations on the console itself are a kind of Morse code, conveying messages to the player. Whilst I’m not proposing to spend a great deal of my time investigating these stories, it’s fascinating to hear gamers discuss the different options and opinions – forming their own stories around the way they play and what they think is happening. The game makers are having fun with the story, in the same way that an author sews patterns and rhythms into their novels, laying clues and narrative threads. Gaming can give you a similar immersion in a narrative as books.

I’m not advocating that children refute books for the thrill of Fortnite. However, if they use the game in moderation, and we make it a gateway to understanding narrative – then we can feel slightly better when they disappear for hours in front of the screen. All you need to do is promise them one more game, if they then go and read a book for 20 minutes. And now you have a book list that fits the purpose.

And while some are playing Fortnite, there is another cohort of children playing with slime. Some great stepping stone books for them would be Home Lab by Robert Winston, including a recipe for slime, but also using rubber bands to build a Solar System, ideas for wind catchers and more. Or This Book Thinks You’re a Scientist, Rosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers, the Self-Destructing Science Series, and How to Make a Universe With 92 Ingredients.

The Fortnite image is taken from Epic Games.

 

 

2018 FCBG Children’s Book Award Blog Tour: Optimists Die First

Some of you will know that I keep my publishing fingers in several pies! As well as advising and recommending children’s books here, one of my pies is looking after the blog for the FCBG. This charity runs a wonderful book award, the Children’s Book Award, which is as it says – it’s the only national award voted for solely by children from start to finish. And at the end of the voting year, the books (nearly 12,000) are donated to hospitals, refuges, and disadvantaged schools. The aim of the FCBG being to make books accessible and available to all children, and helping to create readers for life.

This year, one of the titles shortlisted for the CBA Top Ten is Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen.

optimists

Optimists Die First is the story of Petula, who blames herself for her young sister’s death. When her anxiety spirals out of control, she is sent to attend an art therapy group, where she meets a group of other teenagers who are also experiencing their own difficult issues: some with family issues, grappling with their sexuality, and addictive substances. In this group, she meets Jacob, an amputee, who likes to tell stories to cover the real reason for his injury. When the truth comes out about what really happened, Petula is already too far into her relationship with Jacob, and the truth threatens to destroy them.

Nielsen’s deft writing skill is apparent in abundance here. Not only is Optimists a gripping read, but the characters, no matter how minor their part, come across as authentic teens. Nielsen writes of their agonies and anxieties with pathos and sensitivity, as well as demonstrating their clear sense of humour, be it cynical, sarcastic or just straight funny. She zips around the darker themes with ease, especially Petula’s ongoing anxieties, and manages to incorporate a sense of the consequences of the tragedy of the death of Petula’s sister on the parents too. Despite the tough subject matter, there is no over-dramatisation – this is a carefully sewn tapestry of teen angst.

Moreover, the book gives the reader the courage to face down their own adversity, whatever it may be. And it also shows that although another’s problems may not be as apparent, they may be larger than one’s own issues. Each person can find courage to overcome obstacles, especially if they speak up and speak out.

The novel is about trust, and friendship, guilt and grief. The children of the FCBG have voted Optimists into their top ten for a good reason. It’s an excellent read. It’s in the older readers’ category, age 12+ years, because it contains references to sex and more adult themes.

Susin Nielsen is thrilled to be shortlisted, saying: “I’m delighted that Optimists Die First has been shortlisted for an award that is voted on entirely by young readers. Awards like this have extra-special meaning, because it means the book is connecting with the very people it was meant for. It’s also wonderful that so many books are donated to worthy organizations.”

And now two things. Firstly pop over to twitter to win one of three exclusive SIGNED HARDBACKS of Optimists on my twitter account (@minervamoan). And secondly, do vote for your favourite title on the shortlist here. Any child up to the age of 18 can vote for their favourite books.

You can see the Blog Tour schedule here and keep up to date with all of the FCBG Children’s Book Award news on Twitter.

 

 

 

YA Shot: An Interview with Sita Brahmachari

ya shotYA Shot 2018 (an author-run books festival) is human rights themed this year, which makes it a perfect opportunity to interview Sita Brahmachari. Sita’s novel, Tender Earth, has been nominated as one of the UK Honour Books by IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People).

The characters in Tender Earth are diverse in both their backgrounds and their outlooks, and Amnesty International has endorsed the book as illuminating the importance of equality, friendship and solidarity. But it’s not just Tender Earth that eschews these qualities. Sita’s books cover a range of topics, from refugees in Worry Angels and Artichoke Hearts to dealing with divorce in Red Leaves, to the rights of a lollipop man, music, and dealing with loss in her latest for Barrington Stoke, Zebra Crossing Soul Song.

But although they cover so many issues, each book always includes a diverse range of characters. Sita has been the online Writer in Residence for Book Trust, discussing finding a voice and being engaged in current affairs, and Writer in Residence at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, and is an Amnesty Ambassador championing Universal Human Rights. So I asked her the following:

How much of an impact can storytelling for children have on changing the world/on influencing human rights?

Tender EarthI read I Know Why The Caged Bird’s Sings by Maya Angelou when I was twelve years old. I forgot that I was reading. I had stepped into the life of another human being.  I was walking with the young Maya through all her struggles in a time and a country that I had never visited. Reading this book opened a portal in my mind and heart. My reading journey really started there and it has led me to explore so many territories and realities that I would never get to visit in one life time. I love that (if libraries and specialist librarians are properly supported) all books can find their way into the hands of all children. Access to books is perhaps the greatest indicator of equality. In Tender Earth Laila is partly inspired to become an activist by reading I am Malala. This is close to my own experience and I hope young readers might be inspired to empathise with many people through my stories and that their empathy might lead them to act, as Laila does to show her support for what she believes in.

Your books are often about identity, whether it be our cultural identity, heritage, nationality. How important is it for children to know their family background?

I’m interested in all kinds of different identities. There is the identity that we grow up with which we may be comfortable with or not. I’m also interested in the identities we choose.

zebra crossing soul song

I think of it this way. When I was a young child my parents made choices on my behalf – nothing unusual there – But as we grow we gather our own tastes and interests, as well as strong feelings about the identities and  beliefs we should be free to choose. In Jasmine Skies Mira is interested in tracing her family history. It gives her a sense of belonging to a wide diaspora family. However, In Red Leaves Aisha, a young girl who is a Somali refugee, is deeply connected to the family she has had to leave behind, but she must forge a new identity in a new land. We all have several identities depending on context. I think I’m really interested in how identities inform character. In my latest story for Barrington Stoke Zebra Crossing Soul Song Lenny is shocked that Otis his friend would stare at his dads as they stand kissing on the doorstep.

Many children like Aisha or Lenny are adopted or fostered and their early stories may be very unknown or unlooked for…what I’m interested in is depicting communities that are open to allowing us to explore all of who we are and can become, including who we love, how we love, what we believe, our cultures, where we come from, where we travel to.

For me, exploration of identities is a rich seam for storytelling… I would say most human beings do seek places where they feel a strong sense of belonging whether that be in stories or life.

I’ve noticed lots of inter-generational relationships in your novels. Is this something drawn from your own experience?

I find the way we structure and segregate a society through age to be limiting.

I often find that young people in mixed age groups are more open to widen their horizons and listen to each other. In Tender Earth Dara, who was a Kindertransport refugee, has much to share with Laila about her first-hand experience of being a refugee. I am fascinated in the relationship between oral history and storytelling. Whenever I meet young people I encourage them to ask members of their family about their histories. My first novel Artichoke Hearts explores the idea of what we inherit from people who come before us. In Brace Mouth, False Teeth on work experience in a nursing home, Zeni discovers a whole world in the mind of Alice a woman with dementia. I try to paint many different kinds of families in my stories… there is no one size fits all, but in all the kind of families I depict they quite naturally include members of every generation.

Many of your books deal with refugees and the global diaspora.  Do you think we are getting better at welcoming refugees in this country, or worse?

worry angelsWe are at a moment in history where the politics of migration rages through every media discussion. Some of the language used de-humanises. We are also at a moment when our children are growing up with images of children their own ages drowning at sea and making terrible journeys to find safety. Many unaccompanied children have been denied their legal right  (UDHR) to join families who already live in this country. In Tender Earth Dara (who arrived here as a refugee on Kindertransport) cries as she watches the news. But Laila (12 years old) and Pari (the child of Iraqi refugee parents) become best friends. Since Jide in Artichoke Hearts, my stories include refugee children as part of the narrative…Aisha, Janu, Rima, Amir, Pari…they are part of all our stories. How we welcome children in stories matters deeply. Amy May’s and Grace’s welcome of Rima and her family in Worry Angels is the welcome I would like to see in stories as in life. It’s the welcome that I think is just as important for Amy May as it is for Rima in order for all of us to live in a more empathetic society.

I’m glad you mentioned empathy. Can you tell me a little about your involvement in Empathy Lab

I am delighted that Empathy Lab have picked Tender Earth as one of thirty stories that can help young people feel more empathy. I had early discussions with Empathy Lab about the kinds of activities I do in schools and the strongly empathetic responses young people have to my stories.

Writers must fully enter into the worlds of so many different characters. I will often engage in thorough research to get under the skin of situations. The process of having empathy for characters and people who may on the surface feel unapproachable is a valuable one as a storyteller and a reader but also in life in general.

I would go so far as to say that it is perhaps the most important ability we can learn as human beings whatever we choose to do.

For me empathy is active … it creates stories and characters but it also leads me to act differently eg. my discussion about refugee people above led me to work as writer in residence in a refugee centre for several years along with Jane Ray. It also led me to become an Amnesty Ambassador.

I’ll be joining six other writers to work in libraries with inter-generational groups to explore how empathy in stories and life can help us to connect and feel more deeply for each other. In Worry Angels Rima tells her friend Amy May to ‘feel about it.’ Her translator corrects her English to ‘think about it’ but I want my stories to go beyond thinking to make readers ‘feel about it.’

Do you think it is necessary to portray life’s difficulties and sadness in books for children?

kite spiritChildren experience every human emotion just as adults do, and they are often experiencing them intensely for the first time. If we don’t include the full range of human emotion in stories we deny access for children to explore their own emotional worlds.

Stories offer a place for us to explore difficulties as well as mysteries and wonders. Very often they allow us try on different ways of being, paths to avoid as well as those to take.

Just as Nana Josie in Artichoke Hearts involved Mira in all aspects of her planned funeral, I think it’s vital that children and young people are given access to all that impacts on their lives. In Kite Spirit I explore the impact of ‘not speaking’ and ‘ staying silent’ about the pressures faced. I am very happy that this story has been taken up by The Reading Agency as a story that helps young people explore their own mental health, and PHSE resources will be created around the story.

 

Reading your books, it always feels as if they are very much character led. What comes first for you as a writer – the character, the plot or the setting?

Characters always come first for me. They often lead me to their stories in unexpected ways. This is the adventure of writing …characters, like people, won’t be confined and limited by conscious thought, list making and planning….they grow best when you give them space to dream, imagine and expand and then they can take you places in a story and landscape you never plotted out for them. It’s in the space between what you think you might be writing and what you actually write that the magic and mystery of writing lies. Being free to explore in that space allows the imagination to flourish and the possibilities for your stories to open up.

Landscape is also a character in my stories. The Kolkata in Jasmine Skies is perhaps one of the biggest most vital character in that story and its human characters grow out of the landscape. In Kite Spirit I draw heavily on the Lake District landscape of my childhood. Similarly the North London Woods in which Red Leaves is set provided the inspiration for the character of the homeless ‘Elder’… whose skin resembles a gnarled tree trunk in that wood. I find plot from placing my characters in juxtaposition with each other, with landscape and situation and seeing what they say and do! In many ways plot is what comes to me through improvising with my characters.

We have symbols for religion, countries etc. There are also lots of symbols that leap out from your books. How important is it for you to attach a symbol to a story – for example – the artichoke charm in Artichoke Hearts?

artichoke heartsI’m one of those people who likes to collect things! It’s not only Nana Josie in Artichoke Hearts who collects random things like ‘holey stones!’ I have to admit that my bookshelves need cleaning and sorting as much as Uma’s do in Tender Earth. In her keenness to throw out some old objects that have been kept on the shelves because they originally meant something Uma almost throws away the most important symbol in the story. The charm that chimes back to Nana Josie in ‘Artichoke Hearts’ is only saved at the last minute because of Laila’s inquisitive nature. Most children I know like to collect things… shells, pennies, books…

These unifying metaphors often come to me in quite a random way… the artichoke was a vegetable on my table before it was a charm… but it was perfect as a way of drawing together what I was writing about…the complex layers of a life…and what’s at the heart of it.

Often these symbols have a deep personal meaning for me and by planting them in the story they act as a story hearth hidden deep in the centre of the book and giving warmth… it’s these symbols that keep the core of the story alive.

Does it irritate you to be asked about diversity in your books or is it cheering? Do you think we’ll ever get to a point when it’s a given and not an asked question?

We’re not at a point where the children we write for and the characters in the stories are representative of the diverse, global, economically unequal world we live in, so quite simply I see it as part of my job to talk about this and where I can promote change I do. For me it’s not an agenda… all those who love stories want more diversity of stories.

As a child I needed them and didn’t find them, as an adult and as a parent of three young people ranging from early twenties to thirteen years of age, I was shocked to find how little things had changed. Over the past decade the debates around diversity including BAME, LGBTQ and disability representation, and also the need for global stories to be translated into English, have become greater and there is activism and the realisation that outreach is needed in many areas of the children’s publishing world. However, this takes place at a time when there are cuts to library services and in the roles of professional librarians. There is little point writing stories with diverse heart and souls if all young people don’t get access to them.

In my stories, I believe I normalise diversity by populating my books with a diverse cast of characters and stories… this goes far beyond including names from different cultures. It’s about deep engagement with different people…with difference and with similarity…and it’s about a joy in the mystery of travelling a wide, diverse universe of cultures, histories, languages, experiences and beliefs. This is the normal of how we humans live in the world and increasingly so with technological connectivity. It’s the world our children are growing up in but it’s not the norm in books yet. Until it is, everybody’s horizons are limited. Many children will feel their absence in stories and this can have a deep impact in them finding their presence valued in all aspect of their lives.

Can you tell me a little about your route to publication?

Sita Brahmachari

I was late to learn to read. I lived in my imagination for a long time. I was a doodler and a daydreamer like Mira! When I was ready I became a voracious reader and got a reading chair at the age of thirteen – no one else was allowed to sit there! I travelled to new galaxies on that chair!

I studied English at Bristol University. I was in a community theatre play and discovered I loved working with young people on creative projects. My first work was at The Royal Court Young People’s Theatre where I was lucky enough to work on the National Young Writers Festival. Over the next years I wrote plays with and for young people and worked for many different theatre companies.  At the heart of my work I have always felt the importance of young people’s voices being heard. I was writing novels and poetry before I started reading but never showed my work to anyone. In 2005 I finally plucked up courage to send my story Artichoke Hearts to agents. It was miraculous to me that Macmillan Children’s Books published it and it won The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Since then I have been commissioned to write four futher books for Macmillan Children’s Books, four for Barrington Stoke Publishers, short stories in anthologies for Amnesty International and Walker Books and Stripes Publishers (Crisis at Christmas) and a theatre adaptation of Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival. In September I have my first illustrated novella published by Otter Barry Books, illustrated by Jane Ray. I am currently under commission to write two new novels.

With many thanks to Sita Brahmachari. She will be on the ‘Family, faith and identity panel’ at YA Shot on 14th April at 5pm. 

 

Two Witchy Reads

Witches aren’t just for Halloween, as my primary school book club recently reminded me. We look at books by theme rather than all reading the same title, and when we chose witches, the children and I were quite overwhelmed with the breadth of novels available. Witches make a great topic in literature – ‘witch’ books often portray women as ‘other’, and invite the reader to assess why that is, why women have historically been cast as mysterious or outside of normal morality. They look into ideas of good and evil, delve into societal fears, utilise magic, and can bring to the fore how witchcraft was viewed historically.

how to hang a witchThe author, Adriana Mather, has more inclination to write about Salem witches than most, being descended from Cotton Mather, one of the men responsible for the gruesome Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Her novel, How to Hang a Witch, tells the story of fifteen-year-old Samantha Mather, an alter ego almost, a fictional descendant of Cotton Mather, who is moving back to Salem to live in her deceased grandmother’s house.

The setting of the book is enormously well-crafted, from the spooky empty streets in which it feels as if a ghost lurks at every corner, and the various nooks and crannies the characters inhabit, as well as the haunted house in woodland, a cemetery and other ‘witchy’ tropes. The book starts in autumn of course, with the crispness in the air and leaves, and the aura of Halloween that pervades the shops and houses.

Mathers sets out to parallel modern-day school bullying with the bullying behind the Salem witch trials. To some extent she does do this, by casting a popular group at school as the Descendants of the witches on trial, and by introducing a love triangle between a ghost of a boy from the seventeenth century with Sam’s contemporary cute boy-next-door. So far, so contrived, but once the reader suspends all disbelief, and throws themselves into the various elements of the paranormal that occur, this is a fun, romance-filled romp of a YA novel, perfect for those who suck up box sets on Netflix of pretty looking teens with darkness bubbling beneath.

To her credit, Mathers introduces a fair amount of historical detail of the Salem Witch Trials, although those really interested would be wise to fact-check what they’ve consumed. The history in the book piques the interest. You can buy it here.

begone the raggedy witchesFor younger readers (10+), and more magical and far more literary, is Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan, the first in The Wild Magic Trilogy. This beautifully written fantasy adventure begins with a spooky car journey home, in which Mup feels that she is being watched by witches in the trees. She is not wrong, and when they come for her Mam, and take her back to Witches’ Borough, a suppressed magical realm accessed through the forest, Mup has no choice but to follow.

With the ghost of her newly deceased aunt never far removed, and the shapeshifting that overtakes her baby brother, as well as the creatures she meets in this new witchy realm, this is fantasy of the highest order. This gripping tale is told from the third person point of view of a protagonist, Mup, who is vastly grounded, and practical – making the fantasy seem incredibly real.

With richness in vocabulary, some impinged-upon characters who may only speak in rhyme, and a spooky atmosphere to rival the darkest of Frances Hardinge’s novels, this is a treat.

The true delight though, comes from the position in which Kiernan has placed Mup. Although heroine of her own adventure, in reality, the adventure belongs to her parents. Her mother has been spirited into the other realm because she is in fact, heir to the witchy throne, and Mup’s father has been kidnapped as a bargaining tool to entice her mother. Mup’s grandmother is the evil queen, and Mup is largely cast as ‘in the way’; asked to look after her baby brother whilst the grownups battle over the kingdom.

This gives the opportunity for vast amounts of humour, pathos and real insight, as children will read and sympathise greatly with Mup – children so often told to wait while the grown-ups deal with the big issues.

Add to this a witchy world in which there is a matriarchy across all tribes, and a complicated relationship between Mup and her mother anyway, and this is a fascinating and compelling read. Even more satisfying is that despite being first of a trilogy, the ending to this first novel does not feel like a cheat – it wraps up nicely and yet leaves the reader wanting more. Not to be missed. 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.

 

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.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

the lost words
This week, out of curiosity, and stemmed from my admiration of a heartfelt and well-crafted newspaper article on the attempt to reconnect children with words to describe nature, I ordered one of the largest, most beautiful books I’ve ever seen from my local bookshop. The publishers are at pains to point out that it’s not just for children, but for all, and I would concur. This week’s book of the week is for you as much as for your child.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is an oversize book of ‘incantations’ or poems, highly illustrated in full-colour, laid out as an ABC of nature, featuring such words as fern, heron, kingfisher, newt and willow. Publishers often talk about whether a pairing of author and illustrator works – Dahl and Blake, Simon and Ross. Here, the force of the words matches the force of the illustrations in the most exquisite way.

Perhaps Morris set out to create a work of paintings to rival the beauty of nature itself – a paean at least. And indeed the artwork is literally breath-taking – I gasped at the first spread on which I opened the book – the branches and leaves stood out as if in 3D. The capture of light on a glowing conker is mesmerising. The layering of the artwork, the exquisite capturing of nature in flux and flight is simply stunning. And there is a thread of gold running through the book – gold foil on the cover – and gold within that marks the book as a ‘treasure’, as something more than mundane. Macfarlane points out that it is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and indeed it implies that what is contained within is to be held in reverence – as with nature itself.

The book runs through an ABC (although some letters are used more than once) of acrostic poems, ‘incantations’, all related to nature. Each subject is attributed three spreads – an illustrated word lost, the poem and illustration, and then a spread depicting the subject within a landscape. Or, in more poetic language – the word slipping away, the summoning poem, and the word being spelled back.

When Macfarlane speaks, (having heard him on the radio), it’s like a tumbling bubbling river running over rocks; he speaks fast as if the words are so numerous he is desperate to give them voice. This is one way of reading the ‘incantations’ held within the book, just hearing the sounds the words make, like a playful witch’s spell, an inner prayer to nature, a chanting even. Indeed, it is anticipated that these ‘incantations’ are to be spoken aloud. Yet another way of reading these acrostic poems is to savour every chosen word – for chosen they most certainly are. The individual vocabulary, the way the words meet each other in phrases, the space around the words on the page.

The poems reflect diversity in their literary artistry. The incantation to the bluebell uses the metaphor of water when thinking about the blue of bluebells. On the next page the picture shows the woodland floor awashed in blue, looking almost like the sea – only the fox prowling through and an owl in flight keep the image grounded among the trees.

The fern breathes with alliteration on the ‘f’ sounds, and Macfarlane uses consonance with the ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. The heron incantation explores the relationship between urbanity and nature with its steel metaphor.

There is a duality to the given title of the book. Partly, Morris’s and Macfarlane’s inspiration came following the news in 2015 that around 50 words connected with nature were being cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary because they had fallen out of use. Almond, blackberry and crocus made way for analogue, block graph and celebrity as long ago as 2007. Naming, as Macfarlane points out, is essential: “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name.” This naming returns the lost words to our vernacular. But, the words of the landscape speak not only to knowledge, but also to the history of the land, the cultural and rural identity of the words we use to describe things.

I would argue that the title also speaks to the reader who will get lost within the book, because the words and artworks are so powerful, so intoxicating. It has the power both to immerse the reader but also to enthrall the reader and entice them to look around them at the outside world.

It’s a big and heavy book, quite difficult to shelve, but that’s probably because it’s not meant to be shelved. It’s meant to lie around the house or garden or field, open and inhaled. At this size and potency, it certainly won’t be lost. You can buy it here.

 

The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy


I’m a big fan of the television programme The Leftovers. Initially based on the Tom Perotta novel, it addresses the issue of what happens to those left behind when two per cent of the population simply disappears. Perotta apparently came up with the idea as a reaction to 9/11, ie the exploration of our emotions when people we love simply vanish. One day they’re there, and the next day they’re gone. Bain Murphy’s book doesn’t disappear people; even more startling in a way, is that abstract things disappear, and no one knows what’s going to be next. At first it’s sense of smell, then reflections, then colours and so on.

In The Disappearances, the absences are limited to a few towns, and only occur every seven years. When Aila and her younger brother, Miles, return to live in one of these towns after the death of their mother, they must come to terms with the absences, but also seek to discover their mother’s possible involvement with them, and a series of clues she inadvertently left behind.

There’s another story within the whole, that of a diary written by a separate character, as yet unknown to the reader, which crops up every few chapters. It’s another mystery for the reader to attempt to solve, and is written with a spooky turn of phrase. This mystery is perpetuated for a long way into the novel, and all the time the reader is still grappling with the clues Aila keeps dropping about her own mystery. Add to that a sort of fantastical historical setting – rural Connecticut in 1942, a love story, and am intriguing set up of teen friends and jealousies, and this is one dense novel.

Aila’s main key to solving the mystery is a collection of Shakespeare plays, annotated by her mother, from which she draws links to the ongoing disappearances. Herein, sadly, lies the flaw in the story, for although she does pull out quotations that somewhat link to the mystery, generally the quotations are tenuous, and one can’t help thinking that there must be a Shakespeare quote to fit almost any situation. What’s more intriguing are the references to different bird behaviours dropped into the text by the mystery diarist, which add another element to the whole.

Bain Murphy also feeds into the story a current trend among many young teens, that of creating ‘potions’, in this case ‘variants’, which add an extra level of curiosity, and she is adept at her ‘other world’ creation of introducing certain traditions and small character ticks, such as inscribing skin with quotations or illustrations, taking part in moonlit dreamlike competitions and so forth. All of which adds to the general romance of the text, and gives it extra layers of character and place.

So despite the slight tenuousness of the mishmash of clues and hints, this is a gripping and highly enjoyable novel with believable characters and flowing prose. In fact, the reader goes along with the clues happily because the plot and pace are so intense and riveting. Aila is flawed but believable, as is the family with whom she stays, and the other characters who punctuate this small-town America. The disappearances are well-developed and described, and there’s a great balance of reality/fantasy. Thoroughly memorable, and highly original, although marketed as ‘teen’, this could be read happily from 12+ years. You might even pick up the odd Shakespeare quote. It’s certainly one of the most inventive and lovingly crafted novels I’ve read recently. You can buy it here.

The Ethan I was Before by Ali Standish and Truth or Dare by Non Pratt

It’s funny how books bucket together. In the past two months I’ve read three books with ‘dares’ as their theme – I Dare You by Reece Wykes, a picture book for the young at heart with a wry sense of humour, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt, a most excellent YA novel with some hard truths at heart, and The Ethan I was Before, a middle grade novel with a dare at its core.

In The Ethan I Was Before, twelve-year-old Ethan is moved with his family to live with his grandfather in Georgia, a far cry from the Boston he is used to. Allegedly the move is to help his grandfather, although it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather is an independent soul, and the move is to remove Ethan from an uncomfortable incident in his past.

Ethan’s relationship with his angry older brother, his new relationship with Coralee (an enigmatic girl he meets at school), and the exploration of his new town make up the bulk of the novel, but all the time the reader is aware of a past secret that Ethan is hiding.

Standish’s prose pulls in the reader from the beginning. There are some key phrases that show flashes of great writing, her similies are excellent and create an authentic sense of place: she describes the air at one point with “humidity like a wet fleece blanket”. Her characterisations too are neat and winning, from her portrayal of forthright and keenly intelligent Mack, who runs the local store, to Ethan’s Mum, who tends to burn food because she forgets having put it in the oven in an endearingly absentminded preoccupation. Standish also has a handle on the unsophisticated twelve-year-old way of trying to describe in words the complex emotions of guilt and anxiety. She also focuses on what Ethan’s therapist has told him to do, extrapolating the way Ethan is feeling without laying it too bare for the readership:

“It’s almost funny, that everything that would make a normal person happy is what makes me feel the most sad.”

And yet, it’s the not laying it bare that holds this book back from being as good as it should be. The ‘secret’ in the past is too often alluded to by Ethan’s family, and himself, and yet doesn’t feel real. Because they are all holding back so much, the constant nudges that there is something else going on, or something big that happened in the past, feel too contrived. Although in real life, we all do keep back parts of ourselves, even in some cases from ourselves, one feels that Ethan’s family would talk more frankly – particularly his brother – or that Ethan, who narrates the story in first person, would be slightly more honest with himself and with the readership. It doesn’t sit well that he hides the past from himself, because it doesn’t fit with his character.

On the whole this was a really enjoyable book; I just felt that it could have been bigger. With slightly more depth and more subtlety, the past could have been explored in more detail and led to a weightier novel. So the denouement, when it comes, feels half-hearted, and I wanted the ‘dare’ to be more dramatic. But for glimpses of what Standish can do, and with the possibility that there is better to come, this is an intriguing debut. It will fit the bill nicely for a summertime coming-of-age novel, and gives a great sense of small town America. You can buy it here.

For meatiness I’d go to the YA coming-of-age title, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt. Although the production at first seems gimmicky, in that the first part is narrated by main character Claire Casey, leaving the story on a cliffhanger, with the second part physically flipped over so that the reader has to turn the book upside down and start from the other end to read the other main character, Sef’s narration continuing the plot, the story itself is far from contrived. In fact, it becomes swiftly apparent reading part two that this consecutive narration adds depth and substance.

Kam Malik suffers a life-changing injury after a stupid stunt goes wrong. Claire, shy and unobtrusive, volunteers at his rehabilitation clinic. When she gets to know Kam’s brother, Sef, together they come up with a scheme to raise much-needed funds to maintain his rehabilitation. It’s a Truth or Dare YouTube campaign, but before long their truths collide and their dares take things too far.

Non Pratt has a magnificent turn of phrase that enables description without the reader feeling they’re reading any. The plot is deft and agile – the book skips along punctuated with accurate and authentic dialogue, and a look into the innermost thoughts of her narrators, which is, at times, devastating.

What shines through is the depth of characterisation, as at first the reader, through Claire’s eyes, really likes Sef Malik, but what soon becomes apparent through his point of view in part two, is that no one shows their true self to everyone, and that people aren’t kind or unkind throughout. Everyone has their motivations, demons, and selfishness. Pratt wheels through a host of issues including prejudice, fame, guilt, and love without once making this an issue novel. It’s a gripping read, as tumultuous as Claire’s relationship with Sef, and deeply satisfying. You can buy it here.