young teen

Can We Talk About Fortnite?

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

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

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

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

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

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

books to read if you love fortnite

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

alone

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

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

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

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

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

The Fortnite image is taken from Epic Games.

 

 

A Child’s Best Friend

It is reasonable to assume that a certain number of children’s books will feature a dog. Not so much a man’s best friend, as a child’s best friend, dogs have been found to be perfect listeners to books, and cheering companions on adventures. My first dog was Timmy from The Famous Five, but since then they’ve cropped up in all sorts of literature. In this, the Year of the Dog, it seems fitting to bring some new books to your attention in which dogs are more than just a sidekick, they are integral to the story.

a different dogA Different Dog by Paul Jennings, illustrated by Geoff Kelly
This is a quietly compelling, and with afterthought, immensely powerful tale of a selectively mute boy and his guilt over the dog he forsook. But with a redemptive ending for both himself and a new equally-traumatised dog he stumbles across, as both discover a renewed zest for life.

Using extreme economy of words, and writing with intensity and simplicity, Jennings showcases how effective literature can be in few words and without flourish. This is an accomplished text, which draws in reluctant readers and gets across a plethora of not just emotions, but moral dilemmas and extraordinary situations.

On a dark day, a nameless boy, poverty-stricken and picked-upon by his peers, aims to complete and win a race up a mountain to win a substantial amount of money for his mother. But when an accident leaves a driver dead, and the driver’s dog alone, the boy finds friendship with the dog, and a solace in the bravery and courage it takes to survive lost on the mountain, and finally, in the denouement, to face up to those who marginalise and bully him.

Jennings’s background as a speech pathologist shines through in his dealing with the boy’s selective mutism – he only speaks when alone. But also Jenning’s experience in writing projects itself strongly through the sophisticated text. The reader sympathises immediately with the boy, there is a direct empathy with him, despite and even because of the incident which rendered him temporarily mute, and because the reader is a party to his deepest thoughts and his conversation with the new dog.

The economy of writing lends itself to the reluctant readership, but more than that it reflects the character, so that the minimalism feels fully justified and necessary.

It’s an intriguing study, in that throughout the challenges facing the boy, and there are many, the reader also feels a slight discomfort – not at the challenges, but about the decisions the boy makes. There is a questioning, a fear of what his mother must be thinking, a moral dilemma at every turn. It comes to the fore in a particularly disturbing scene towards the end of the book, but the consequences bear out what the book is all about – belonging, speaking up for what’s right, finding peace in friendships, and how sometimes the strongest communication is that without words.

There’s a resounding line in the book about relationships: “You’re heavy, not a burden” his mother says to the son, and he repeats this to the new dog, but there is much more to think about here: love, guilt, courage, resilience, persistence, bullying, treatment of animals.

For a reluctant teen audience, yet accessible for 10+ years, this is a story that is muted in tone, quiet but astonishingly powerful. I read a proof copy, but the illustrations so far are deliciously obscure too – wooded areas, dark shadows, heavy lines. They emphasise the point – the woods may be deep and dark, but there’s a path out, and the experience may effect wondrous changes in thought and deeds. You can buy it here.

elise and the second-hand dogElise and the Second-hand Dog by Bjarne Reuter, translated from the Danish by Sian Mackie, illustrated by Kirsten Raagaard
Much lighter fare in this quirky story for middle grade readers, which suggested a sort of European Ramona the Brave. Elise lives in Copenhagen, but her mother is away building bridges in the Amazon, and her father plays the violin outside the local department store. Elise misses her mother terribly and finally persuades her father to buy her a dog (although it has to be second-hand for they don’t have much money). The dog she ends up with is not a cute and fluffy pet, but rotund with bowlegged limbs and a whiffy smell.

However, she soon realises that her dog can talk. Together, then go on a series of adventures, from building their own suspense bridge across the Amazon in her bedroom to hunting vampires in Elise’s grandma’s old mill.

The dog, of course, only makes his talent known to Elise, and he’s as quirky as she, explaining that he’s from Tobermory in Scotland, speaking Danish with a Scottish accent and proving knowledgeable about whiskey.

But the book is more than a sum of its parts – what makes it so special is the community that surrounds Elise and her dog. Each character has something to add to the story, and enhances the warmth that surrounds Elise like a loving hug. The cast is diverse and different, each with their own foibles and quirks, but all with good intentions.

The interest also lies in the surroundings being removed from the familiar – not in that the book is Danish as such, but that Reuter doesn’t hold back from mentioning names of lesser well-known composers, as well as exploring life’s adult complexities – alcohol and its effects, the concept of possibly dangerous strangers walking round the town after dark. Elise is innocent, but far less mollycoddled than some in English children’s literature, and she’s all the better for it.

There’s a sense of humour that pervades the whole, and a certainty that there’s nothing more important than having imagination. The book has oodles of it, and is charming, witty and smart. Just like Elise’s talking dog, it speaks to children everywhere. You can buy it here.

Thinker, My Puppy Poet and Me by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Ehsan Abdollahi
This wonderfully illustrated, full colour poetry book is amazingly a first outing for Eloise Greenfield in the UK, despite her having published 47 books for children and having won awards for some of them in her native USA. Thinker, My Puppy Poet and Me is a collection of poems for young children, taking the premise that Thinker, the dog, is a poet, along with his owner, Jace, and together they explore the world around them using free verse.

From the magical illustration on the endpapers, in which Abdollahi portrays Thinker as a carefree happy puppy enveloped by floating flowers, and seemingly following the scent of an exquisite colourful bird, the book explores the wonders and mysteries of the world. The first poem describes Thinker’s arrival in Jace’s house, and his feeling of love and belonging. Before long they are exploring the magic of language, the learning they still have to do (Jace is only seven, after all), and the conundrums of school, all in a gentle cohesive narrative.

The text and illustrations are populated by a truly special group of people, from siblings and neighbours to friends and even a stranger in the park, but there’s a feeling of community that builds throughout. This is a wonderful introduction to poetry, including some haiku, free verse, rap and rhyme, and each poem pulsates with the rhythm of language and life. The poems can be read for pure enjoyment, or to study the shape, repetition, language and rhythm. You can buy your own copy here.

raymondRaymond by Yann and Gwendal Le Bec
A tongue-in-cheek book that toys frantically with doggie word play. Raymond is an ordinary dog until the day he has a big thought about the place of a dog within a family. Before long, he has completely anthropomorphised, and becomes a journalist, or a ‘rover’ing’ reporter at Dogue magazine.

Along with the other dogs in town, he sees things differently on two legs. He enjoys cappuccinos and the cinema; at work he sniffs out deadlines. But a chance encounter with a ball makes him see that things aren’t always that great for humans. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘working himself to the bone’, and sets out to explore that a dog’s life is a great life after all.

In bold bright colours, the detailed illustrations provide a great take on modern life, and promote the message that working too hard without seeing the pleasures of the everyday is a bad thing. Children and adults will chuckle at the two-legged life of all these urban dogs, despite the message being less than subtle. The cartoon-digital feel of the book lends itself well to the glamorous lifestyle of a glossy magazine. A fun book to spark debate about having it all, and all-too-fast modern living. Lead your doggy life here.

 

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

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

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

optimists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

YA Shot: An Interview with Sita Brahmachari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

zebra crossing soul song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sita Brahmachari

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

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

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

 

Two Witchy Reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Charlie and Me by Mark Lowery

charlie and meAt first glance a simple tale of brothers who take a train journey back to the destination they holidayed at the year before, this wonderfully nuanced novel turns into something much more profound and moving.

Thirteen-year-old Martin, and his younger brother Charlie, are travelling 421 miles from Preston to the tip of Cornwall to recapture the wonder and delight they experienced when they watched a dolphin the previous summer.

But travelling unaccompanied has its hazards and pitfalls, and Martin almost stumbles just purchasing the ticket. And Charlie is not a normal child; he was born too early and needs extra care and attention.

There is so much to like about this novel. The detailed compartmentalised journey – each section of the novel separated into the segments of the journey, be they train times or just sitting on a bench on a platform waiting, work brilliantly, because they pace the novel, and set the tone. Each minute is accounted for: visiting the toilets on the platform, taking a train in the wrong direction, and by doing this Lowery captures a child’s anticipation and excitement of a journey, as well as the small details children notice, such as the other people, the atmosphere, the passing landscapes.

Martin takes his notebook along, and encouraged by a teacher at school, he jots down poems as a way to remember what he’s doing, and express his emotions. The physical book reproduces Martin’s poems on lined paper, in between the journey narrative, which is a nice production touch. But the poems also indicate to the reader the journey of Martin’s mind, as his thoughts become more intense and his emotions confused.

There are occasional flashbacks too, to the summer before, when Martin and Charlie first observed the dolphin from the Cornish harbour, and these capture the wonder of nature, the excitement of the dolphin’s leap from the water, and also the local community who track the dolphin’s whereabouts.

Through the present tense journey, and the flashbacks, Lowery cleverly delineates the sibling relationship, expressing Martin’s pride in his responsibility, yet also impatience and frustration, particularly with Charlie, who is unique and vulnerable. There is also plenty of humour wrapped up in the shades of their relationship; the authenticity of sibling kindnesses and annoyance shines through.

This is particularly apparent in the dialogue between the brothers, and in Martin’s thought-process as he spells out his worries and his protective nature. But mainly, the book feels chatty and warm – these characters make you want to journey with them.

Lowery drops clues throughout the story that this journey isn’t all it seems. Four hundred and twenty one miles is a long way to go to revisit a dolphin, and astute readers will work out that something else is awry too. The final denouement is quite devastating, and will be upsetting for many, because in the end this is not a tale of adventure but a story that deals with mental health and loss.

Despite this shattering turn at the end, the story does feel uplifting – exemplified by the care and support around Martin, and kindness of strangers throughout the book. And what’s more the clues and strands tie together neatly at the end, and will provoke thought and discussion.

The style is easy to read, the plot paced beautifully, and yet the book is also emotionally sophisticated. In turns, light and deep, this is an inspiring read. You can buy it here.

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.