young teen

We Played with Fire by Catherine Barter

we played with fire
Quite often, when I’m running through the benefits of reading with a group of children, the first answer they come up with is that reading gives you knowledge. And although primarily I don’t read to gain knowledge, so much as for pleasure and immersion in a good story, I do appreciate that much of the time, knowledge is being absorbed anyway. Catherine Barter’s last novel, Troublemakers, was a pleasure to read. The characterisation was strong and the plot compelling, and this second novel plays to both those strengths, whilst also giving an insight into a part of history of which I was unaware.

We Played With Fire toys with the story of the Fox sisters, a trio who inspired the creation of spiritualism in late nineteenth-century America, by holding public seances. The book starts with sisters Maggie and Kate in a remote farmhouse, apparently driven from town by Maggie’s strange tales of ghostly sightings and interference. The sisters play tricks on their parents at night by making strange sounds, but when the house starts to join in, seemingly all on its own, the neighbours believe that someone or something is trying to speak to them from beyond the grave. Before long, the girls are believed to be mediums, and with the help of their elder sister Leah, transport their business to New York.

Barter plays with the reader as much as the sisters toy with their audiences, so that one is ever quite sure how much is fabricated by the sisters and how much might have been truly felt by them to be real. Barter focuses in on Maggie as the protagonist, weaving the story from her point of view, and the character fluctuates ambiguously between naïve and scared child, and all-knowing young woman, with hints of Abigail Williams from The Crucible. She is an innocent young teenager, manipulated by her older sister. In fact, the dynamics of the family are as much at play here as the spirits, and as alliances change and split, Maggie becomes more and more sympathetically seen by the reader.

Barter is brilliant at bringing history to life, making the characters sing from the page, and providing just enough detail of 19th century New York with its food and fashions and décor. She also brings history up to date with her modern interjections that dissect the stifling restrictions of the patriarchal society in which the sisters lived. Maggie’s friendship with a woman called Amy infuses the story with a sense of injustice, as Amy is involved with the underground railroad, smuggling slaves from the Southern States to freedom.  Through this prism, the reader sees Maggie’s conflict with the influences all around her – from those who would change society, decrying even the church and its patriarchal hold over women, to those who would call her a witch for her sacrilegious dalliance with the dead.

But mainly, readers will be spellbound by the spookiness of the telling. The raps and knocks, the falling of a picture frame, the ghostly figures in the dark. Each chapter hinges on a cliffhanger, as the reader waits in suspense to see which plot turns are the girls’ doing and which are the ghosts, and who or what will scupper them. And of course, when does fame turn into notoriety, and what does a girl really want from life anyway, and what is she permitted to want?

A fascinating character and period piece, as well as a gripping little historical ghost story – this is a wonderfully told second novel. As I said with Troublemakers, I can’t wait to see what this author does next.

With thanks to Andersen Press for granting me permission to read a review copy.

What We’re Scared Of by Keren David

what we're scared of
For a very long time, I’ve struggled to find representations of Jewish children in children’s literature who aren’t, as one child I work with puts it “all bundled up with the Holocaust.” And of course, Holocaust literature is extremely important, and for Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow I’ll highlight some recent examples. But I work with children in a Jewish school, and although we stock a breadth of titles and I want them to be able to read about any child anywhere, and empathise with their plight, I do, on the odd occasion want to show them that they too exist in children’s literature. A modern British Jewish child.

There have been periphery characters, side entities who occasionally display some kind of Jewishness. In Tender Earth by Sita Brahmachari, the main character’s friend is planning her bat mitzvah. But they are few and far between. So, it was with great expectations that I waited for my pre-ordered copy of What We’re Scared Of by Keren David, published last week.

Fourteen-year-old twins Evie and Lottie are far from identical. Evie is outgoing and fun and wants to be a comedienne. Lottie attends a different school – is quieter, studious and a dreamer. And religion doesn’t play a role in who they are. Until their mother takes on a new role hosting a radio breakfast show, and not only professes her Jewish heritage to the world, but takes a stance against anti-Semitism too. Before long, both twins are embroiled in their own battles in their own way.

This is an excellent portrayal of modern anti-Semitism in its different guises, and a gentle description of what it means to be a traditional Jewish family in London (as explained to Lottie by her new friend Hannah), but above all this is a book about navigating friendships and family relationships when young teens are on the verge of finding their own identities and breaking free from their childhoods.

Elegantly written, David manages to make this a gripping page turner for any young teen, whilst also grappling with some intense modern issues and problems – addressing the Charlie Hebdo killings, trolling on social media, conspiracy theories about hidden rulers of the world, and the lazy everyday anti-Semitic tropes of ‘rich’ Jews. And all these deep difficult issues are tied into a well-crafted story of twins – and alternating chapters told from their different points of view. There are boys too, a group of mean girls, and a wonderful Muslim best friend.

Particularly impressive is David’s weaving of Hannah’s life into the twins’ story. Lottie makes friends with Hannah at school, and is interested in finding out more about her modern orthodox Jewish life. To that end, she attends a bat mitzvah with her, goes to synagogue at Purim and learns about the festival, and experiences the beauty of a family Friday night meal – a Shabbat dinner. This is all gently introduced, with a wonderful teen perspective by Hannah (who also struggles with some of the gendered aspects of her religion), and very neatly juxtaposed with the things that can turn scary – the very necessary security outside synagogues and Jewish schools, anti-Semitic leaflets that brainwash, and even the small scuffles of violence that can turn serious.

And towards the end, the twins experience the true story of a Holocaust survivor – true because it is the only part of the book that David hasn’t fictionalised. Mala Tribich’s story is kept intact and unembellished – because survivors’ stories are scary and empowering and astounding and essential in their true form. It brings home the idea that Jewish people can’t be separated from such a people-defining event as the Holocaust, and yet it isn’t the only defining factor. Jewish people have a culture, and a religion, and live modern lives, and thrive, assimilated or not, in modern Britain. And this very life-affirming story speaks to that fully and boldly. I can’t wait to give it to my children, and show them that they can be proud of their identity – after all, now it’s even in a book.

For age 11+. Published by Scholastic.

Friend Me by Sheila M Averbuch

friend me
Do you have children with phones? Silly question really, as Ofcom’s 2019 survey found that 83% of 12 to 15 year olds in the UK owned a smartphone. So, it’s only fitting that some of the contemporary literature for this age group features interaction with a digital device. Yet, writers of fiction have argued for some time that phones get in the way of plots. It’s harder to go missing and have an adventure if your parents can text you every two minutes. It’s easier to solve mystery clues if you can just ‘Google’ the answers. And far less interesting for the reader.

But Averbuch has discovered a cruelly satisfying way to lend interest to the digital device. It can, as she says in the book, become an easy way for a loner to look busy or popular – they can just look down at their phone.

Friend me is a cautionary tale. Roisin, recently moved from Ireland to America, and struggling to fit in, is bullied in school by Zara. Happening in person, but exacerbated online, Roisin finds herself unable to confide in her parents (her mother is a workaholic, her father back in Ireland), or her older brother. However, she finds a true friend in Hayley, online. Someone who lives at an inaccessible distance in real life, but who online, not only sympathises with Roisin’s experiences, but has shared similar, and completely agrees with Roisin on pretty much everything.

But then Zara, busy taking selfies, has a dreadful and shocking accident, and when Roisin thinks about it, it’s not that shocking in regards to private conversations she has had with Hayley.

The book almost pivots at this point, from a contemporary tale about a new girl, into a scintillating, positively filmic thriller, in which Roisin must race against time to discover who Hayley really is, what impact she may have had on Zara, and perhaps while Roisin’s doing her detective work, discover a bit more about who she is herself and what true friendship means.

What could seem unrealistic towards the end, never quite reaches implausible limits, simply because the premise is so simple – when we get sucked into our phones, it can have an effect on our real lives, and friendship can be a messy business.

Grippingly tense in the second half, and nicely built in the first, this is an exciting new read for tweens and young teens, and an excellent warning about phone over-reliance. As we know in our Covid times, there really is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, and friendship in person.

Roisin is a well-rounded character, with identifiable weaknesses and immaturity, and yet possesses a good moral compass and firm grounding. She is easy to know and like, and the reader is rooting for her all along, even when perhaps wincing at some of her text messages.

The prose-style lends itself well to the subject matter – this is an easy, absorbing read, with enough incident and drama to keep readers fully engaged, and most thrillingly it doesn’t dictate the rights and wrongs of the situation, but lets the reader find their own way through the dilemmas and trials so common to this age-group. The author clearly has a great grip on tech, and young people’s use of it, and the story feels authentic and apposite.

A good read, highly recommended. Put one in the teen’s Christmas stocking!

(An American text, this was sent to me by the publicist in exchange for an honest review). Published by Scholastic, and  currently available in hardback and kindle.)

The Wolf Road by Richard Lambert

wolf road
Fifteen-year-old Lucas survives the car accident that kills his parents, but amid the horror and devastation, the image that floods his memory is of the wolf on the road, the wolf that he believes caused the accident. Uprooted, and moved to the Lake District to live with his estranged Nan, he discovers that there too roams a wolf, killing sheep in the hills and, now, coming for him.

Lambert’s poetic prose skips between the lyrically descriptive and the pace of an action thriller in his boldly imagined tale of loss and grief, with just a hint of magical realism. He possesses the mind of a teenager with lithe agility, fully empathetic of Lucas’s mood swings, his reticence, his taciturn manner, and his truculence, enhanced even more by the dreadful grief from which he suffers. Yet this protagonist is unfailingly easy to sympathise with, even when he makes his glaring teenage errors.

Lucas grows ever more maniacal in his obsession with the wolf, but this is set against his growing affinity with nature and the hills that surround his Nan’s cottage. As time passes, the characters in his peripheral vision – the bullies at school, a girl and her father on the neighbouring farm, all grow more familiar, and set the scene for a dramatic climax.

In the end, though, Lucas’s restraint spills over into the plot, and the denouement is less visceral than one might imagine – the ending more inclined towards the realism of grief rather than the neat winding up of the storyteller. This is grief both profound and buried, like lost wildlife under the snow-clad mountain. The book’s quiet and intense main thread is both powerful and eerie, lingering in the mind long after the turning of the final page. A filmic book with a poetic undercurrent.

For ages 14+. The Wolf Road is published by Everything With Words and is available from all book stores.

A Dystopian Landscape

“Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”
― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

I go through phases with the current situation. There are moments of pragmatic acceptance when I believe that all will be well in the end and there will be an afterwards to this mayhem. At other times, I spiral into complete anxiety, in which I believe we are at end-times, and it’s only a matter of months before the electricity and water supply run dry. In this scenario, my family will perish because although we read a lot and play a lot of sport, we lack basic survival skills such as foraging, hunting, or making fire. The nearest we’ve come to building a shelter is stringing blankets between cupboard handles and calling it a ‘den’.

My far-fetched imagination of #endtimes stems from reading too much dystopic fiction. In normal times, we read dystopic narratives as a warning to what might come to pass, for example, if we continue to destroy natural animal habitats, then the animals will die out. If we continue to take risks with artificial intelligence, then the robots might take over.

What about if you’re already living in a dystopian reality? The children’s fiction highlighted below may deal with frightened people living in terrible times, but they all offer more than a glimmer of hope – they’re positive affirmations of the kindness of humanity, our willingness to build decent communities, and the belief that good will come again. Perfect for age 9+ reading lists right now.

the last wild
The Last Wild by Piers Torday
Possibly my favourite children’s book of the last decade, The Last Wild is the first in a trilogy about a boy called Kester. Opening with Kester locked in a home for troubled children, it tells of a world in which animals no longer exist. When a talking cockroach approaches him, he thinks he’s gone mad, until he sees that maybe there is a last wild – a last group of surviving animals, and he could be the one to save them. The Last Wild explores the concept of another large extinction, but also holds underlying tones of how humans are guardians of the planet. It’s written with such a complete lack of condescension that adults will identify with Kester just as much as children. My go-to page-turning children’s read.

boy in the tower
The Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen
A modern day Triffids for children, Ade lives with his mother in a tower block. Then one day, the buildings around them start to fall. Before long the Bluchers – plants that feed on metal and concrete and give off deadly spores – have overtaken the landscape. Ade is trapped. But why hasn’t his tower block fallen to them yet, and how will he get his mother out before it does?

outwalkers
Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
England has closed its borders, not following a virus, but following the ‘Faith Bombings’, and Scotland is now entirely an independent country. Individuals are chipped to enable government tracking, and there are even clearer distinctions between class groups – your microchips dictate whether you can enter a department store or a food-bank. The story follows twelve-year-old Jack, who plans to break out of his state institution, find his dog, and escape to his grandparents in Scotland. This is a fascinating thriller, with political currents and a filmic dystopian landscape. For older readers.

the giver
The Giver by Lois Lowry
A community cut off from all others, and more importantly, cut off from any form of history. Jonas is approaching adulthood and must be given a role in the community. Unlike his peers though, his role is as the new Receiver. In a world in which all pain and suffering have been removed, someone has to remove the painful memories. This dystopian vision of a future way of living reveals itself by slowing peeling back the layers of this community, but ultimately leads to Jonas and the reader questioning the value of life. Powerful and provocative.

the middler
The Middler by Kirsty Appplebaum
If birth order dictates your role in society, would you want to be first born or last born? Applebaum takes the point of view of eleven-year-old Maggie, a middler, and therefore one with a lack of expectations upon her. And yet, when she meets a wanderer – someone who is deemed even lower in society, she begins to question all the things she’s ever been told. A novel that explores a child testing her very literal boundaries, and how going against the grain is difficult, but sometimes necessary, in order to find the truth. Exceptionally crafted.


The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
First published in 1962, this alternative version of England, in the early 19th century reign of King James III, explores a time in which wolves from Europe and Russia have entered Britain via a channel tunnel, and prey upon and terrorise inhabitants in rural areas. Focusing on two cousins, Bonnie and Sylvia, it is in essence a triumph of good over evil, as they combat the dastardly plans of their evil governess Miss Slighcarp, and their boarding school teacher, Mrs Brisket. A tale of children doing the right thing, and corrupt adults getting their comeuppance, told in simple engaging prose.


Z for Zachariah by Robert C O’Brien
If you were a child in the 1980’s, then your fear was not a global pandemic but nuclear annihilation. Capturing the zeitgeist, this novel written in 1974 was actually one I studied at school (just so we were more terrified of global events that we could not control). Set in America, it’s a diary-form first person account of Ann Burden, who has survived a nuclear war, and believes she is the only survivor. A year after the war, a stranger approaches her farm. This is for an older teen, and brings up a host of intriguing issues, including the morals behind science, and individual freedoms.


Floodland by Marcus Sedgwick
More pertinent than ever as the flood waters subside (for now) in parts of England, this short book is set in a near future in which many parts of England are permanently underwater, and people survive by living in gangs on raised patches of land, fighting over food and territory. Zoe has been left on an island that used to be Norwich, and when she discovers a boat, decides to try and escape for a better land, and to find her parents. Although concise, Sedgwick’s future dystopia feels very real, and explores how societies form and disintegrate, as well as alluding to William Blake in a ruined cathedral setting.

floodworld
FloodWorld by Tom Huddlestone
Another flooded future, with sunken cities ripe for scavenging, this is a gripping thriller following Kara and Joe, who forage for a living in their new dystopian ruins. But when they find a much-wanted map, they too become much wanted. This may be a dystopian world, but familiar elements come to the surface – pirates, gangsters, hi-tech submarines. It’s a good versus evil action story, with excellent characterisation and a look to a better future with cooperation, equality, and justice.

how to bee
How to Bee by Bren MacDibble
The bees have died out, and so children are used for pollination. Peony is nine years old and works on the farm, although she is not yet a ‘Bee’. With her unschooled, unrestricted voice, she tells of how she is moved to the city before she can become a Bee, to work with her mother in one of the big city houses. This is another tale of a future dystopia in which society is even more starkly delineated by class and money. This future is bleak. Human rights have been eroded; there is no right to education, poverty is widespread. However, though dark, there is an overwhelming sense of light through Peony’s prose, and readers will come to consider how they want their future world to be shaped. It’s also worth looking at The Dog Runner by the same author, another dog-eat-dog future, in which food production and energy sources have dried up, and society is once again in huge peril.


Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari
Once more, a society in which the divide between rich and poor is strongly felt, and children are used as labourers on farms, pollinating by hand. Following the story of Shifa and her brother Themba, the book explores the treatment of people who don’t quite fit the mould, as well as how we cultivate and protect nature. A journey story, and one not for the faint-hearted, Brahmachari weaves her lyrical prose in such a way that the words show the beauty of nature, and freedom is seen to be the most coveted concept. For slightly older readers.

All available to purchase through Waterstones for home delivery. No need to venture out!

 

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: A Retelling by Tanya Landman

jane eyreI first came to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte as a naïve impressionable teenager, and like many before me, read the book as an exciting gothic coming-of-age, willing Jane on, admiring of her ability to use her intellect and shrewd judgement to succeed, and feeling desperately that I wanted her to have a happy ending. ‘Reader, I married him,’ was a pivotal and satisfying point in the novel.

It was only a few years later, when I realised Jane Eyre was simply the first stepping stone on a reading footpath that led to the literary exploration of giving the madwoman in the attic a voice.  An understanding that the shut-away first wife, Bertha, was in fact representative of both the treatment of women, and a symbol of colonialism, and from there it was a swift leaping across the stones to The Yellow Wallpaper, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and of course Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. But above all, it was Bronte’s hauntingly dark gothic draw, the story of Jane’s development, the appealing beginning with Helen’s tragic death, and the consequent love for a dark dangerous brooding man that pulled me in and made the biggest impression.

Unfortunately, the Victorian prose of Charlotte Bronte can be a barrier to some, particularly those who are reluctant readers or struggle with dyslexia. Not usually one for abbreviations, adaptations or deviations from the original, with this retelling I sensed that Tanya Landman is actually opening up the text to a group of readers who otherwise wouldn’t have seen it through.

What’s more, the reader and purist is in safe hands with Landman. She understands how to condense the prose of the original, whilst staying true to the plot, although of course picking the key elements and components and having to lose others. But images of import remain: Jane reading on the window seat behind the curtain, the fire at night in Rochester’s room, the laughter emanating from the attic, the fortune teller, the desperate ruins of Thornfield across the moors.

And despite the brevity of this new text, the characters shine through. Helen is good and true, Adele frivolous and actually slightly more endearing than in the original, Mr Rochester cool and aloof, yet prone to mood swings. Landman also captures the vanity and privilege of Miss Ingram, seen through Jane’s eyes, and cleverly gives clues of plot and character to the reader through use of repeating images (the window seat), and the understanding of how people present differently depending on who they are with.

What Landman does particularly well though is convey the character and emotions of Jane herself. Jane Eyre has an impeccable self-awareness, and it’s this sense of self that comes through and reaches a modern audience. Jane is ever-aware of her own identity, her shortcomings, her desires, and Landman keeps all this within the text in her first person narration, with tiny inflections of simile and metaphor to guide the reader through.

Virginia Woolf expressed Jane’s sense of self as: “some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently.”

Jane is a character of unflinching agency, moving with passion through the novel, seeking newness and adventure, acting upon her curiosities – and Landman captures this sparky energy, this spirit, and makes her seem historically accurate yet presciently modern too.

Of course not everything can be transplanted to this retelling, but an essence of wisdom remains – Jane recalls the wise words of Helen Burns as she visits her Aunt’s deathbed, albeit in a different way from the original, and some of the maturity of Jane’s perspective of looking at her childhood through adult eyes does surface. Landman keeps to the same pace as the original – in interrupting Jane’s love infatuation with Rochester by taking her away to her childhood home, and thus creating the same suspense, and also introducing the idea of a closure of her childhood and an advent into adulthood.

For greater depth, the original must be studied – the darkness of the slave trade, the evocation of Thornfield, the gothic genre, and the idea of religious forgiveness, but overall this is a smart and endearing version, eliciting the same emotions as the original, in all the same places. The prose sits well in its historical time period, and the story is as immersive as ever.

Jane Eyre is a novel that may have brought about a trail of other stories that gave voice to the madwoman in the attic, but it first and foremost gave a voice to that other visible and yet invisible woman – the plain woman, the orphan, the disinherited, the mere member of staff. And Landman does the original full credit by capturing much of the passion and understanding that Bronte gifted her heroine.

Reader, I enjoyed it.

With thanks to dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stoke for my super-readable advance copy. You can buy yours here.

FloodWorld by Tom Huddleston, illustrated by Jensine Eckhall

floodworldDo you ever debate with your friends where you would flee to live if you had to? Maybe because I’m of Jewish descent, this is a question that comes up every now and then. Recently, I explained to someone that this could actually be a pertinent question for many of us, seeing as how the sea levels are rising, and habitable areas of the world will be flooded if climate change continues on track.

Tom Huddleston has taken this idea and run with it in his futuristic dystopian children’s novel, FloodWorld, which opens in a future London in which the rich area is divided from the poorer area by a wall, and most of the poorer area is under water, with residences on floating barges or the upper floors of tall buildings – known as the Shanties.

Kara and Joe live in these Shanties, where Joe makes salvage dives for artefacts long since abandoned in flooded waters, in order to earn a meagre living selling them to crooks. When Joe has a near miss with a Mariner (a supposed terrorist or pirate), who crashes his jetski near him, Joe ends up in possession of a cryptic map, and Kara and Joe become wanted persons – ensconced in a world of criminality, gangsters and corruption.

Initially, scenes of destitute children, a general lack of welfare state, and intense poverty feels increasingly Dickensian, especially as Joe dives for a Fagin-esque type figure called Mr Colpeper, whose dodgy morals ensure the reader isn’t quite sure whose side he’s on. But as the novel progresses, the quickness of scene changes, the escalating tension, numerous cliff-hangers and fast-moving scenes of chases across and under water, bombs, shoot-outs and more, nods more to our modern age of Bond and Alex Rider than to the past.

In fact, our present is more than once referred to as the recent past. With inspiration, wit and an eye for detail, Huddleston has his characters frequently refer back to the Tech Age (our own era), in which there were trains, democracy and cinemas, and everyone was out for themselves. More often than not the characters aren’t sure about these relics from the past – things have become distorted over time, such as references to Olive Twits, and one great scene in which the children stumble across submersibles called Dory and Marlin, and can’t work out why they are named so.

Huddleston’s talent lies in his filmic awareness – he is, after all, a film reviewer. Not only is the landscape believable and highly visual – with floating towns, a deserted flooded world of underground stations and more, but the scenes zip from one thing to the next, the camera zooming in and out and from set to set, with constant thrills – low-level warfare, high-tech submarines and more. The illustrated map helps, and is a delight, but even without, the landscape glows with well-crafted other worldliness that is embedded in familiarity.

Frequent nods to wry humour win favour from the reader. In this brave new world, Canada welcomes any child refugee, Huddleston finds a new use for computer tablets, and a series of climactic endings one after the other give a fine wink to the movie industry.

Without good characterisation though, a thriller is just a shell. Here, Kara feels like a protective older sister to Joe – like a Carrie to Nick from Carrie’s War, and yet, as any protagonist, she’s flawed. Determined and fierce but hot-headed too. Joe is calmer, using his skills of observation, and he brings a sense of nuance to the plot, and together they make a perfect duo.

In the end, Huddleston goes full youth warrior, inspired by the passion of today’s #climatestrikesforschools message as Kara channels her inner Greta Thunberg by speaking truth to power. In his stretched-out ending, Huddleston suggests that a better world can exist through human cooperation, equality and justice, but there’s a long way to go – not only do the kids have to work out which authority is trustworthy (if any), but also how to stop society breaking down and following the same corrupt patterns over and again.

Recommended for ages 10+ according to the publisher, but avid fans of Alex Rider from about 9+ could handle the violence depicted here. With thanks to Nosy Crow for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here.

Furious Thing by Jenny Downham

furious thingAre you angry? Is it justifiable anger? And when is it appropriate to express it? This is an even harder question when you’re a woman. Just ask Serena Williams.

It was difficult to listen to the radio interview with Sally Challen a couple of weeks ago, the wife jailed for her husband’s murder and subsequently released after it was established she had suffered from coercive control. Emotional abuse is often hidden in plain sight.

For a child, it is even worse – how can children distinguish correct behaviours in relationships if they have only ever experienced the bad? In a time of fake news and half-truths, of increasing polarisation and threatening language, it’s more important than ever that young adults can dissect the truth, can learn to trust their instincts, and can distinguish between right and wrong, between whom to believe and whom not to believe.

Fifteen-year-old Lexi has always been told she has a problem with anger. In fact, if she just learned to control it, apparently, all would be well. Lexi lives with her mother, her mother’s fiancé John, and younger half-sister Iris. As her mother’s wedding draws near, Lexi can’t seem to help erupting, especially in scenarios involving her soon-to-be stepdad.

And then it spills over at school, at first in small incidents, and then culminating in violence. When she throws a chair through a window at school, she realises that her rage is out of control, and quite probably misdirected.

Of course, this isn’t her only preoccupation. There’s school, and romantic interests. At school, Lexi auditions for The Tempest, and Downham weaves an intelligent dissection of the play and its characters into her novel, as well as exploring the interactions between staff and pupils. Lexi’s romantic issue is more complicated, seeing as she has confusing feelings for John’s son from his first marriage. This is handled with great sensitivity in the novel, Lexi to-ing and fro-ing on whether feelings are returned, and Downham evokes a lush confusion from both parties as to what they feel when.

And all the time, threaded neatly throughout the story, is the slowly dawning realisation for the reader, and also more slowly for Lexi, that Lexi herself isn’t the problem in the family dynamic, John is. This is abuse, albeit not physical, just a slow grinding-down of self-awareness, confidence and trust.

Each piece of dialogue feels authentic, from the manipulative language John uses, to the timidity of Lexi’s mother, depending on whom she is speaking to, and the dialogue of all the youth, which feels fresh, spikey and young. Where Downham excels is in the gaps between the words – the pauses and silences, the loud unspoken.

Beautifully observed, this is particularly established in how the novel captures the confusing metamorphosis as the fifteen year olds morph from innocence to sexual beings, both in how they view themselves, and also in how they are viewed. In a party scene, Downham captures the essence of this with deep understanding in its complexity – exploring the scents of the bar, nitrous oxide, the whiff of sexual power, particularly in that although sexual allure leaks from the girls, they often don’t understand it themselves. And therefore it’s even harder to avoid it being abused.

This is a masterfully written novel, as one would expect from Downham. The sort of YA that the industry should be aiming for – with depth and nuance, and still holding extraordinary pacing, as well as pulsing with energetic prose. There is an intense subtlety in the slow deterioration of Lexi’s sense of self, made even more compelling as the reader discovers that not even everything Lexi says can be trusted – she may be narrating the story, but she’s not entirely reliable.

There are some lovely periphery characters, especially well-meaning adults, who also feel conflicted and don’t have all the answers, from John’s ex-wife to Lexi’s mum’s friend.

In the end, Lexi uses her anger as a force for good, and sees what’s really important in a family dynamic – as does the reader.

At times this is an uncomfortable read. Lexi makes bad decisions time and time again, and the people around her don’t help. But by the end, there is immense growth and understanding. For those who want more nuanced YA, and a better grasp of what constitutes a healthy relationship, this is an excellent and dynamic read.

With thanks to David Fickling Books for the early review copy. You can buy it here.

In the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido

in the key of codeDid you catch the GQ picture storm in June of this year? The magazine published a photo of about 20 top Silicon Valley executives, including the founder of LinkedIn, on a trip to Italy. Then, someone spotted that the only two women in the picture had been Photoshopped in. Without them it would have been an all-male photo. As it happens, those two women did actually attend the trip, but the story has been taken as a metaphor for the tech industry as a whole.

The world still seems to be failing in its attempts to attract women into STEM jobs. (Let’s not discuss yet the myriad of ways in which the world is failing women in other areas). Apparently, girls tend to lose interest in future tech jobs at about age 11, and the reasons stem from lack of adult support, to peer pressure about girls’ roles, and an impression that tech careers are lacking in creativity.

Does Aimee Lucido know this? A software engineer as well as author, she’s produced a wonderful free verse novel, In the Key of Code, for age 10+ that meshes music, poetry, and coding to tell the story of twelve-year old Emmy, starting a new school in San Francisco, but feeling isolated and invisible. When she starts computer science classes, she begins to see patterns between her musical background and coding, and inspired by her new teacher, Mrs Delaney, and a burgeoning friendship, she comes to accept her new home, and find a new passion.

Lucido cleverly interlaces her themes both through her text and also in the way she writes her text. The novel is written in free verse – each chapter a piece of poetry with a firm rhythm. In first person narrator voice, Emmy writes her story in fairly typical teen book free verse (see Kwame Alexander books, for example), explaining her move to a new city, her parents’ love for music, and her feeling that she just doesn’t quite fit.

Even in these first poems though, there is a thread of musical tuning running through them; metaphors and similes in the text, rhythms and rhymes stylistically. When Emmy starts to learn to code at school, Java programming language starts weaving its way into the verse, and before long computer code, poetry, and music are all fusing together to create startlingly emotive free verse poems, which create tension and anticipation in the writing:

“The semicolon is the period at the end of a line-
of code.

It’s the space between one perfect moment;”

and on the next page:

“whatever comes next.”

Lucido’s book doesn’t break out into unreadable Java code, even though terminology is gradually introduced. A novice can easily read it, and learn, and through the rhythms and timbre of each poem, and the collective accumulation of them, they form into an entire narrative structure with a dramatic arc and a great storyline.

The characters zing off the page – there’s Emmy, shy and struggling to find her voice, and her new friend Abigail, also struggling to find her voice, despite seemingly being popular with the ‘in-crowd’ of kids.

Most inspirational to Emmy and Abigail, is the character of the computer science teacher, Mrs Delaney, who manages not only to inspire and impart knowledge, but to embed herself in their hearts.

By writing code-poetry, Lucido mixes science and creativity – producing something that’s exactly what tech companies need – that crucial fusing of imagination and know-how in order to spark innovation. The arts play a key role in our advancement of technology.

And Lucido produces Java script full of humanity. The book is inherently about finding out one’s real self and about friendship – human connections being the driving force in learning, attainment, creativity and tech.

Readers can be music or code novices, and still see a beauty in the poetry, with lots of emotion to keep them gripped, and intelligence to steer them through. The use of white space within and between the poems is as much a pause to breathe and absorb as it is to express and articulate and keep to rhythm. And there is a huge differentiation between the poems, depending on plot, and mood of narrator.

This is a great read – showing the importance of collaboration in life and in tech, the power of inspirational teachers, the purpose of friendship, and searching for one’s own true voice. It brings humanity into tech, and tech into humanity. A rich, absorbing read, and a lovely story to boot.

With thanks to Walker Books for the early review copy. In the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido publishes on 3rd October in the UK. You can buy yours here.

Summer 2019 Reading Recommendations

I always like to leave a list of great new children’s books on my main page at the end of July, because MinervaReads doesn’t blog in August. And, usually you’d find a small selection of picture books, nonfiction, novels etc. This year THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS. Narrowing down my summer reads for you has become increasingly difficult. So without further ado, I’ve tried to sum up each book in a concise way in order to feature as many as possible. Flick to the heading for the correct age group.

picture books

Picture books

Falling below the threshold of the age group for whom I normally review, but too adorable to ignore, is a new series of lift-the-flap board books called Treacle Street by Kate Hindley. From following Marcel Trunkmore delivering parcels in Marcel’s Parcels, to the star ballerina bunnies in Prima’s Missing Bunnies, the books are tightly plotted with intricately detailed illustrations for curious minds.

Stylistically arresting, Grandma Z by Daniel Gray-Barnett is a curiosity in itself. Coloured orange and blue, it not only explores the dynamism of a grandparent/grandchild relationship and the power of imagination, but adds retro dimensions and quirky elements to stand out from the crowd. Wild, exuberant, full of energy.

In the holiday spirit, Clem and Crab by Fiona Lumbers is cognitively dissonant as it feels both traditional and completely fresh. Clem explores the beach, and rescues a crab stuck in plastic. If ever a book made you wish you were at the seaside, this is it. And with an environmental message. Illustrations are expressive and wholesome – a whole story encapsulated in each vignette.

Also by the beach is The Tide by Clare Helen Welsh and Ashling Lindsay. Slightly more linear illustrations with harder colouring, this also captures the sensual nature of the seaside, but deals with dementia too. A heartwarming grandfather/grandchild relationship with clever analysis of memories and making memories.

For fun, The Big Stink by Lucy Freegard will capture hearts from the cover, just as mouse is captured by cat in this heist adventure. Nods to Mission Impossible, among other references, this mouse-led caper will have adults chuckling along with captivated children. Who could escape arrest with ears like that?

young fiction

Young Fiction (ages 7-9 years)

Newly independent readers are well served nowadays. Ariki and the Island of Wonders by Nicola Davies and Nicola Kinnear is pure summer adventure. Shipwrecked to a paradise island, Ariki and Ipo are initially struck by the wonder of nature they encounter, but then realise there is a darkness to paradise. With conservation overtones, and textured black and white illustrations, this is an immersive text that sparks a real sense of purpose and love for nature.

It’s not a new premise, but My Babysitter is a Robot by Dave Cousins, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri is neatly executed. A grandma inventor, twins, swimming pools, football and more, this is a fun and funny new series.

Fairy tales remain high on the list of starting points for stories, and Cinders and Sparks by Lindsey Kelk, illustrated by Pippa Curnick is another twist on the Cinderella story. A talking dog, an unreliable fairy godmother, and neighbours called Jack and Jill combine in a modern deviation and continuation of the traditional fairy tale. Fun, neat and magical.

middle grade

Middle Grade (Novels for 9+ years)

Abi Elphinstone’s new novel Rumblestar is possibly her best yet, and that’s saying something. She writes with a keen intelligence, a fiery spark, and a wisdom that infects the fantasy she writes, so that the reader feels there is an importance to the story being told. And she sweeps the reader away with engrossing, action-filled storytelling. In this first of the Unmapped Chronicles series, Casper accidentally stumbles into an unmapped kingdom in danger, and finds out that the peril is tied to his own world.

More peril in Peril En Pointe by Helen Lipscombe, described as Ballet Shoes meets Murder Most Unladylike. The novel has a relatable protagonist and a surprising reveal. A series to watch.

The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike delves deep into fantasy, as main character Rayne discovers more about the magic that keeps her village safe. A wholly original idea with a great mother/daughter dynamic, and a sense that magic and darkness pervade everything. Well crafted.

Ben Davis often makes me laugh, whether it’s a one line tweet or a whole novel. What’s That in Dog Years? is a tender book about losing a dog but gaining perspective. Part narrated by owner, part by dog, this is a heartfelt and touching book about friendships and families with a mystery at its heart, and a bucketful of humour. Makes the reader laugh and cry.

Stewart Foster’s Check Mates offers a surprising twist and marries ADHD, chess and the Stasi. It’s a longer, slower read, but merits rewards to those who stick the course with superbly drawn characters and a great reveal.

Halo Moon by Sharon Cohen is an easy read, but the short sharp chapters belie a degree of profundity in its message. Blending two disparate cultures – Ageze in Ethiopia and Halo in Yorkshire, Cohen uses the stars to navigate her protagonists towards each other and avert a disaster. Told with aplomb, this is a hope-filled, inspiring story.

Fleur Hitchcock’s The Boy Who Flew has an explosive opening and immerses the reader in Bath during the Georgian era. It’s dark and inventive, and leads the reader in a twisty mystery involving flying machines and shadowy villainy.

A much more down-to-earth mystery in A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths, also set in the past, this time the 1930s, in which the heroine is sent to boarding school, where crimes and misdeeds need investigating. From an experienced adult crime writer, this is a delight, with common room gossip, games in the rain, and a Christmas play, and although the ingredients feel old, the result is fresh and lively, and will be devoured in one day by competent readers.

Scavengers by Darren Simpson is for those looking for something completely different. It’s a coming-of-age that’s gritty, clever and brave. With a sort of wild abandon, this novel shows how far an imagination can go, and there’s a terrific undertone of tenderness and empathy.

I was blown away by Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm last year, and this year Wildspark: A Ghost Machine Adventure is another success. A sort of steampunk mechanical adventure, reminiscent of Tin by Padraig Kenny and Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart, this has a particular focus on dealing with grief, and the things that drive us. Hardy is most adept at creating new worlds and absorbing the reader with superb detail.

As climate change dominates the young generation’s thoughts, Sita Brahmachari’s timely Where The River Runs Gold explores a dystopian future of rations and compounds, in which children labour to pollinate the crops. But of course, there is hope amid the inequality and deprivation. Dense and thoughtful.

If you’re just after some short stories – the Return to Wonderland anthology brings some of the very best modern children’s writers together in a mission to re-imagine Alice and her Wonderland.

YA

YA (novels for 12+ years)

It’s rare for a book to catch the attention of both my older children – but William Sutcliffe’s The Gifted, the Talented and Me was whipped through by both, each stopping only to roar with laughter. Light and humorous, this satire of a modern middle-class family who go to live in Hampstead hits all the right spots.

Slightly darker but also an accessible read is Because of You by Eve Ainsworth, a dyslexia-friendly story about family dysfunction and learning to live with a parent’s new partner. Ainsworth excels at getting inside the head of a teen, particularly a victim of bullies, and this is an emotionally astute short novel.

Rose Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence is another tale that invokes social media, so important to today’s teens, but it explores it from a different angle, as Rose and brother Rudder have escaped from a religious sect and are coming at it anew. How do you navigate this new world where everything is so alien? A coming-of-age that uses a new approach to show us the perils of modern life, and how we work out who we really are.

Lastly, The Boxer by Nikesh Shukla is a brilliant exploration of the psyche. Told over the course of the rounds of a boxing fight, with flashbacks, this is a fantastic read about a seventeen-year-old who feels disengaged, but finds a community and a purpose. With themes of radicalisation, violence and belonging, this is an essential teen read.

non fiction

Nonfiction

Three completely different reads here. Be a Super Awesome Photographer by Henry Carroll gives 20 photo challenges for the budding photographer, with real photographs to illustrate and inspire, and ideas for tasks to make different and interesting photos. We’ll be using it on our summer holiday.

Incredible Journeys by Levison Wood, illustrated by Sam Brewster is an informative and inspirational large-size book about famous explorers. With illustrated maps and full page illustrations, this book travels from The Silk Road to Zheng He, and all the way to Nellie Bly and into space.

Watched too much Love Island? A modern and relevant book for teens is Body Brilliant by Nicola Morgan. It takes the reader through the steps to embracing a positive body image. Morgan provides data, encourages taking challenges to make her points and inspire confidence, and aims to change mindsets. Common sense goes hand-in-hand with examples and explanations.

glitchLastly, a graphic novel for you – the only one that dropped in my mailbox this summer, but anyway, Glitch by Sarah Graley would be a good choice. Ever since Aha’s Take On Me, we’ve dreamed of entering into our own comic. Here, 14-year-old Izzy, the protagonist, is depicted in a comic, but enters into her video game. But what happens when she gets Game Over? Great bright visuals, humorous too.

Well that should keep you busy reading over the summer! Come back in September for ballerinas in Russia, furious teens, prison camps, 1870’s opera houses, shadows in the woods and frosty hearts.