young teen

Dumbing Down?

This morning research was published that bemoaned the state of our teenagers’ reading. Apparently secondary school pupils are opting to read ‘easier’ texts. The research comes from Renaissance Learning, who run the Accelerated Learning database in school. This rates books according to their difficulty level and then quizzes children on completion of the books.

Firstly, let’s make a point of stating that if you know you’re going to be quizzed on a book you’ve read, clearly you’d opt for the easier book. I know I’d find it faster and easier to answer a series of questions on the Danielle Steel I’ve just read rather than the Dickens.

Secondly, I’ve just made an assumption here, that the Danielle Steel is an easier read than the Dickens. We have to ask why and how I’ve done this?

Accelerated Reader uses various measures to rate a book’s difficulty – something I’ve written on before, and which the company, quite rightly, then questioned me on. But essentially, they do ‘level’ books according to one criteria at least, which is simplicity of the sentence (vocabulary and syntax). For example, Patrick Ness and David Almond write some ‘easy’ books according to AL, because of their easy-to-read sentence structure. However, any who has read them will know that these are not easy texts. They contain huge themes, promote intertextuality, have complex characters, intense emotions, promote empathy. They are not, to my mind, easy texts.

As the literary agent, Jonny Geller, points out: “It takes a huge amount of experience and self-confidence to write simply.”

But ignoring all that, let’s assume kids are opting to read ‘easy’ texts. After all, David Walliams now commands a huge percentage of the children’s book trade market. He contributed £16m value in 2017 and I would call his books easy texts. The data from Renaissance Learning does show that the popular books for Years 7-9 are by David Walliams and Jeff Kinney. Why are young teens opting for these when there are so many great texts out there with fewer stereotypical characters and more complex plots and themes?

One of the reasons is access. I could point again to the closure of public libraries, which contain a wide range of FREE books, or to the reduction in schools library services at local councils, or the lack of funding to school libraries themselves. Librarians are dying out – more and more redundancies year on year. If we don’t provide access to different books for children, they can’t choose them to read. When Ofsted don’t even count the library as one of the points of inspection, you have to wonder what importance the government put on libraries at all.

Moreover, I could point again to the closure of independent book stores. No wonder children choose to read David Walliams, when the only access to books to buy is the local WHSmith or supermarket, where the book choice is tiny and those bestselling books are heavily discounted. Likewise the algorithms of Amazon, which indicate that if you like reading David Walliams books, then you’ll also like reading more David Walliams books…

Another survey out yesterday from Egmont showed that 48% of parents asked said that they were bamboozled by the choice of children’s books.

Is that because we live in a fast world and want answers immediately? Faced with the bright covers in WHSmith, is it easier to choose the one next to the till, the display of Walliams that are face out, the author you’ve heard of (ie. celebrity)? How do parents find other books?

Yes, there is a golden era in children’s publishing and the choice of books is immense – you only have to look back at my blog for the past couple of years to see the plethora of new amazing books published every month. And yet, parents do find it hard to know what to buy – there is a lack of coverage of children’s books in review sections across all media, there are fewer librarians to ask (see above), fewer teachers having time to read children’s books, fewer good booksellers who know their stuff. (The exceptions to the rule who do exist are awesome, by the way.)

We’re not providing parents with the easy solution of what to choose to buy. According to Egmont, 64 per cent of parents of 14-17 year olds agree that looking at the physical books is better than buying online, but parents find bookshops hard to access, and have little knowledge of where to begin. This leads to purchases of the familiar. Publishers, bloggers, journalists need to make parents more aware of what is out there for their children. It’s what I’m trying to do every day.

But let’s get to the crux of the matter. Some parents will argue with this whole strand of argument. AT LEAST THEY’RE READING A BOOK, they tell me. So what if it’s an easier choice? And I’d tend to agree – for the most part, my aim is to get children reading – to make it a life habit. If a person wants to read Mills and Boon, crime books (apparently we do, just look at the adult bestseller lists), or comics or graphic novels over literary fiction and classics – who are we to judge?

And yet, I would support the nudging of children onto ‘better’, more challenging books, onto those by David Almond, Katherine Rundell, Sarah Crossan – I could go on and on. There are great books out there, and some have simple language despite their huge themes! This should be our aim – in the same way that footballers take time to perfect taking a penalty, not only just kicking it straight at the middle of the goal, but trying different skills and angles, so we should aim to improve our reading too – reading a wide variety of texts and discerning between what we like and dislike, what is hard and what is easy.

What’s stopping children and particularly teenagers reading? Why are only half of all preschool kids read to? The elephant in the room, and the topic that comes up at the end of every article, just like mine, is the evil screen. Our children are opting to watch YouTube rather than read a book.

Are screens vastly more entertaining? They are a more passive form of entertainment for sure, even though you can pick up a narrative and learn new information from watching a decent programme. But I’d argue that we adults are at fault here. Why do we give the screen as an option in our children’s spare time? The second piece of research published(Egmont) explained that parents say that their children prefer to watch the screen – but the question I’d ask is why are we giving them that choice? Why do we let them take their phones into their bedrooms at night instead of a book? Why do we let them fester on the sofa with them? For an easy life?

We don’t ‘let’ them get away with other things. We don’t let them eat chocolate instead of broccoli as a side serving to their protein. We don’t let them go partying until 4am; we insist they come home at a certain time. So why don’t we remove their phones? Why don’t we make reading the go-to option? It won’t make a parent popular, but then parents aren’t supposed to be their child’s best friend, they’re supposed to be their parent and guide. And the best way to do this – lead by example. Put your own phones away, pick up a book, and watch your child do the same. Who knows, you might even discover there’s more to life than Youtube.

Girls Who Code by Reshma Saujani and Sarah Hutt, illustrated by Andrea Tsurumi

I’ve been trying to think about which book would suit my last book of the week for the year 2017. What trends have there been, what news, what good coming out of the year? There’s a lot of doom and gloom with Brexit, Trump, and plastic in the environment, but I wanted to focus on the good things.

One good thing, and slightly closer to home, is the surge of awareness of gender equality. Of society beginning to see women and girls as equal to men and boys and fighting harder for a lack of discrimination, harassment and stereotyping. There have been hugely successful children’s books covered by mainstream media, such as Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, but how do we teach our girls to not only look up to pioneers who went before them, but also to change the world for the better? Technology is a huge part of our modern world – a massive chunk of our children’s waking lives. So, rather than just getting them to use the technology, let’s teach them to understand how it works. You can’t beat an algorithm if you don’t understand it.

Recently, various girls in my school have been learning to code. And one pioneer of this revolution is Reshma Saujani. You can see her TED talk here, which explains why we should be teaching girls bravery rather than perfection – a key message in her book too.

Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World is proving to be helpful in many ways.

It is not just a manual for learning to code – in fact it’s not for beginners learning to code, but a resource to explain coding, and to promote confidence in doing so. The book doesn’t teach a specific coding language – as say Usborne Coding for Beginners Using Python, which is a step-by-step guide and a very useful one at that. Rather, Girls Who Code tries to indicate the logic and theory behind programming, often using cartoons in real-life applications to extricate the meaning of making the code. Although it might sound complex at first, with a little concentration my pre-tween tester completely understood the premise.

There’s also coding history and interviews with women working in programming, all of which give the message that STEM is great for girls, but that also failing and retrying are essential. Wrapped up in these is Saujani’s key message that perfection is not what girls should be striving for, but aiming instead to learn from mistakes. After all, penicillin was discovered by mistake; the first pacemaker was invented by mistake too. As was Coca-Cola – and look how successful that became.

Of course, the fun bit of coding is included in the book too – fun projects with apps, games and art etc. Throughout the book are illustrations in one-tone teal, which show a diverse cast of girls learning to code, with speech bubbles, diagrams and comics – these break up the text and are hugely informative.

In the end, the idea is that as well as understanding what coding is, and how to go about it, girls will understand how useful it is, how accessible computer science is. With a knowledge of programming, girls can go on to solve problems, take control, and in essence, change the world. An admirable book to look forward to a new year. 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.

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.

 

Troublemakers by Catherine Barter

Astute, intelligent, gripping, and thoroughly enjoyable, this is the best YA novel I’ve read this year.

Fifteen year old Alena has been happily brought up by her older brother, Danny, and his boyfriend, Nick, since her mother died when Alena was a baby. But nerves are now on edge as London is threatened with a bombing campaign. Danny starts work for a controversial politician who promises to protect London, at the same time that Alena discovers that her mother was a political activist, and that her history may not be all that it seems.

When she attends Danny’s place of work, and sees something not meant for her eyes, Alena faces a small dilemma, with seemingly huge consequences.

I can’t work out if I loved this book for the fact that it was like no other YA I’ve read, whether the depth of the characterisation is so perfect, or whether the book whips along with clear succinct prose at a lively pace, or possibly just all three.

Alena’s voice is likable, sympathetic, startlingly real and full of emotion without once resorting to melodrama, but it is the fully-fleshed out surrounding cast that blew me away. Danny and Nick are both lovable despite their flaws, both intriguing characters, written with understanding, depth and a clear view of their motivations and desires, so that although the reader only hears Alena’s voice telling the story, we fully understand everyone around her too. This takes some skill.

What’s more, published at the most relevant time – did Andersen Press know about the election before Theresa May? – this is a political novel for our times. It manages to capture a mood of a resilient yet frightened city, constantly threatened by terrorism, as well as delving into the world of politics and journalists – exploring theirs and our sense of morality, and finally looking into the world of activism – questioning the strength of ordinary people – what change can the public effect, what issues matter, and what can one person do about it?

Of course there are insightful touches about Danny and Nick’s relationship – seeing how a parenting partnership works from the teen’s point of view, as well as the prejudices Nick and Danny come across as gay men in contemporary London.

Added to this is Barter’s emotionally intelligent writing of Alena’s investigation into her past. The poignancy of her grief for her mother, and her questioning of whether you can miss something you didn’t have in the first place.

And what Barter does with aplomb is to develop the idea of a mass crumbling of everything that you’ve held dear from one tiny split-second decision. By having Alena’s dilemma buried right in the heart of the novel, the reader already has a bucketful of feelings about the characters, so not only does it explode the text, but also subtly makes the reader wonder what they would do if put into the same situation.

The book made me nod in agreement, sigh with exasperation at some of Alena’s actions, laugh, cry and desperately want the characters as my friends. We all need a Nick in our lives for sure. This is an excellent pertinent coming-of-age book for our times, written with masses of empathy and pathos and, to my delight, sprinkled with a few Bob Dylan references.

Buy it, read it, then give it to everyone you know. This is what reading is for. You can buy it here.

Growing teens’ romances

It’s slightly stretching my usual coverage of children’s books for primary school children, but somebody with teenage children told me that it was really hard to differentiate between age appropriateness in books once their children got to the point of browsing the ‘YA’ shelf. I agreed. It’s so hard to know which books are aimed at the lower teen market, and which for the young adult. Also, as with all these things at all ages, each child is different. One shy hesitant prudish 16 year old may want to read very different things to an outgoing knowing tween.

Interestingly, the younger age is more often defined as ‘teen’ (gentler content), the older books more as ‘YA’, (may include swearing, frank descriptions of sex, more challenging issues).

Three gorgeous romances came through the letterbox this year – all for different ages. Here are my thoughts.

My first teen, tween romance is One Silver Summer by Rachel Hickman. Suggested for 11+ years, this is a gentle story about a burgeoning friendship between a boy and a girl, and the feelings they start to have for each other.

Fifteen year old Sass, grieving for her mother after her sudden death, has moved from America to live with her uncle in Cornwall. She falls for an old grey horse that she stumbles upon in a meadow, and before long also falls for its owner – a young boy bunking from his privileged boarding school after hearing of his parents’ divorce.

Both children are hiding secrets, and both seek consolation in the feeling they get from riding horses against the backdrop of a windswept Cornwall beach and the vast sky over the sea.

Before long it becomes apparent that the boy, Alex, is heir to the throne, and there follows a tumult of trouble that threatens to wrench Alex and Sass apart – from the jealousy of one of Alex’s school friends, to the media attention that follows Alex’s school absence and his parents’ divorce.

The writing is ever evocative of the ranging Cornwall scenery – the coastline, the gossamer-white seeds of a dandelion, the mist off the sea, and even at times falls into poetry as Sass struggles to articulate what Alex means to her.

Hickman navigates the different voices of the characters by dipping in and out of a full cast, but the narrative is weighted so heavily onto Sass and Alex, that it might have been better and more effective to have stuck to a two person point-of-view. However, the whole piece comes across as sweet and endearing, despite the trauma that Sass has suffered, and the high beauty of the landscape eclipses any faults in characterisation. This is a horsey, dreamy, feel-good summery read – great for a first romance.

Please note I read a very early proof copy. Win your own proof copy and chocolate by finding me on twitter. Or pre-order your own copy here.

And Then We Ran by Katy Cannon. Suggested for 12+ years by the publisher.

Despite being about two 17-year-olds, the plot spinning on an elopement, and mentioning losing virginity in the first sentence, this is overall a tame teen contemporary read, which is why it sits comfortably in my 13+ age range.

This gorgeous, lovable narrative tells the story of Megan and Elliot, and takes the format of alternate first person point of view chapters, which works well – Cannon capturing the different voices with distinction, so that the reader can tell who is narrating even without the labels at the beginning of each chapter.

What’s also well-conceived is the entire plot. Elliot wants to study archaeology at University in London, but funding is an issue, especially since his father is serving time for fraud. Megan’s parents, reeling from the recent death of Megan’s older sister, are pushing for her to go to university, but Megan is set on doing a photography course.

When Megan discovers that she will inherit a London flat upon turning 21 or getting married, she hits upon the latter as a way to serve a purpose for both herself and Elliot (even though they’re not even dating!).

The book veers off into a road trip to Gretna Green, with much self-discovery along the way.

The characterisation in the book is what makes it. The reader gets a real feel for the anxieties of these two teens, both on the cusp of adulthood. Their heightened emotions (both of them impacted by the recent traumatic changes in their lives), feel authentic and honest. It’s studded throughout with great humour as well, and the secondary characters – Elliot’s brother, and Megan’s best friend, are both rounded and convincing characters.

Cannon also deals with a theme not much touched upon in YA that I’ve read, of the idea of university and which path to take into adulthood.

But themes and genres aside, this was just a compelling, well-written, and touching story, with fantastic characters and a genuine warmth to the story. Highly recommend. Run away with your copy here.

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

A confession – I veered away from this book to start with, believing it was pitched at just too high an age group for my blog, but then a very highly-thought of children’s books expert told me to read it, and I devoured it in one sitting. Suggested also for the 12+ age group according to the publisher, this book does contain many more references to sex, and the issues are altogether darker.

Petula blames herself for her young sister’s death, and because her anxiety is out of control, she attends an art therapy group with a mishmash of other teenagers who are also experiencing issues with family, sexuality, addictive substances etc. It is here that 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 it a gripping read, but the characters, no matter how minor their part, come across as authentic teens, with agonies and anxieties, which Nielsen portrays with sympathy and sensitivity as well as a clear sense of humour (teen cynicism and sarcasm). She zips around the themes with ease, especially Petula’s anxieties about everything around her, and manages to incorporate a sense of the consequences of the tragedy on Petula’s parents too. Despite the tough subject matter, there is no overdramatisation here – it’s a carefully sewn tapestry of teen angst.

But what the book does that’s really sparkling for a teen audience, is give the reader the courage to face down adversity – showing that other people’s problems may not be apparent but may be larger than one’s own, and that each person can find courage somewhere to overcome obstacles – especially if they speak up and speak out. It’s about trust, and friendship and guilt and grief. I’m optimistic you’ll buy your own copy here.

 

 

 

Refugee Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From Ant to Eagle by Alex Lyttle

from ant to eagle

Warning, this review contains spoilers.

They say write what you know. Canadian paediatric oncologist Alex Lyttle has certainly done that, but this novel is about much more than childhood cancer. It’s a tale of sibling love, and the healing power of friendship.

Eleven-year-old Calvin Sinclair is bored. It’s the summer before sixth grade, and his parents have moved from big city to a small town, leaving him with no local friends, and only his six-year-old brother Sammy to play with. To alleviate his boredom, and to express his sibling dominance, Cal comes up with a series of tests for his brother to pass in order to move up the various levels of a made-up chart – battling from lowly Ant through to the awesome Eagle Level, where Cal sits. The chart is meaningless, of course, and Cal hasn’t done anything to deserve Eagle Level, it’s just a simple display of power. The tests include everything from shooting hoops to disturbing a wasp nest.

Then Cal meets Aleta, a girl of his own age who is also new to the area, and the two of them go off on day long adventures, leaving Sammy at home. Cal gives Sammy a series of tasks to complete in his absence. As the summer progresses, so does Cal’s friendship with Aleta, but also Sammy’s number of sick days. From being unable to keep up with Cal and Aleta on a bike ride, suddenly Sammy is too ill to stray far from the house. When a collapse at school leads to a serious diagnosis, Cal has to re-evaluate whether he himself passes the test of decent big brother; does he himself even deserve the status of Eagle Level, or were the challenges he set Sammy essentially mean-spirited? For now, with a series of real tests in the hospital, Sammy has to show true bravery.

The text is beautifully readable, and the setting highly visual – from the countryside Cal and Aleta explore, to the contrasting confines of the hospital. But the main focus of the book is the sibling relationship – Cal’s feelings of annoyance at his little brother quickly turn into guilt when Sammy gets sick, but also love and protection…something that’s actually been there all along. As well as this, the reader sees how much Sammy looks up to Cal too – something that Cal comes to recognise through gradual self-awareness.

Cal’s voice is honest and direct, which at times of course, is brutal in its direct confrontation of a fatal illness, but also incredibly moving. And through this honesty, the book is admirably empathetic of all characters – doctor, parents, patients and siblings. There are some lovely touches – a fascination with the Goosebumps series of books, as well as the emotional understanding displayed by Cal in gaining the trust and friendship of new girl Aleta.

This book isn’t for everyone – with intensely adult themes, including the death of a six year old, this will be a hard book for some to swallow – yet it’s so honestly written, so tender, that for those willing to confront life’s darker side, it deserves a wide audience. For 11+ years. Please note that this book was initially published by Central Avenue Publishing in North America, and may not be as widely distributed (yet) in the UK. It is, of course, available on Amazon.

The State of Grace by Rachael Lucas

This past week has been Autism Awareness Week. So I step slightly out of my usual territory to review a teen book, one that explores what it’s like to have Asperger’s, but one that is also a sumptuous read. Books are a great pathway to developing empathy, and The State of Grace really opens up readers’ minds to autism.

Grace, 15, has Asperger’s, but she doesn’t let that define her. She has a phenomenal best friend, Anna, and a potential teen romance with newcomer Gabe, as well as well-defined passions, including horse riding and Dr Who. But there’s an undercurrent of tension at home: her father is working away from home as a wildlife photographer, and her mother is not only trying to cope on her own, but is ever aware of her own changing role as her children grow up.

Grace’s mother invites an old friend into their lives, who exerts a certain amount of influence over her – not always for the good of the family – serving to superficially inflate Grace’s mother’s self-confidence whilst denting Grace’s own. Grace fears the changes being wrought on her family, at the same time that she is unwittingly seeking to change her own with a teen romance.

The book is told from Grace’s point of view – she explains her thoughts to the reader as if she’s talking directly to them, explaining what her experiences are like. There’s her everyday reality of living with Asperger’s – when she feels tired from socialising she reaches the point in which:

“the noises in the house have separated and I can hear each one individually. And at the same time I can hear them all together – it’s hard to explain. It’s like I’m trying to process what’s going on and I can’t filter anything and I can’t think at all.”

But there’s also the distinctive moments in life – emergencies, first kisses, fallen horses. What becomes startlingly obvious is that Grace, of course, is just like any teenager: the first kiss, the first date is nerve-wracking. She is constantly preoccupied that her friends will tire of her. She worries about her relationship with her mother, as well as having moments of taking out her anger and stress on her little sister.

Of course this book will be cheered for bringing a girl with Asperger’s to the front of the action – she’s our protagonist and she’s portrayed brutally honestly. Lucas gives her a romance, shows that she can be both good at communicating like any teen, and also clumsy in her romance like any teen:

“And I wonder if dates are supposed to be like a rollercoaster of amazing bits and uncomfortable silences and kissing and not knowing what to say.”

Grace has no ‘special’ quirk with her autism, as is sometimes portrayed in literature, such as an ability to process maths sums quickly. What she does fear most though, is change. Familiarity is key to her stability, so when changes seem to lurk on the horizon, her world comes crashing down.

The book poses lots of questions – about fitting in and standing out, about the lovely awkwardness of a first tender romance, and a teen’s dawning recognition of her parents’ fallibility.

The secondary characters in the book are particularly effective – from the little sister – also struggling through teen hood in her own way – an understanding and sympathetic grandma, and an undaunted ever-loyal best friend.  Wouldn’t we all love an Anna in our lives?

The book feels current and fresh in its references. But what I particularly enjoyed is how readable and relatable the text is, and how well Lucas voices Grace’s feelings – bluntly: extrapolating exactly how she feels, particularly her tiredness after social interactions, and her attempts to force her face out of her ‘resting bitch face’ into something more compassionate to show that she’s listening to the conversation. Lucas should be pleased – her readers will certainly listen.

A sensitive and charming novel. For 12+ years. You can buy it here.