young teen

Struggling Readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Troublemakers by Catherine Barter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing teens’ romances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

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

Petula blames herself for her young sister’s death, and because her anxiety is out of control, she attends an art therapy group with a mishmash of other teenagers who are also experiencing issues with family, sexuality, addictive substances etc. It is here that she meets Jacob, an amputee, who likes to tell stories to cover the real reason for his injury. When the truth comes out about what really happened, Petula is already too far into her relationship with Jacob, and the truth threatens to destroy them.

Nielsen’s deft writing skill is apparent in abundance here. Not only is it a gripping read, but the characters, no matter how minor their part, come across as authentic teens, with agonies and anxieties, which Nielsen portrays with sympathy and sensitivity as well as a clear sense of humour (teen cynicism and sarcasm). She zips around the themes with ease, especially Petula’s anxieties about everything around her, and manages to incorporate a sense of the consequences of the tragedy on Petula’s parents too. Despite the tough subject matter, there is no overdramatisation here – it’s a carefully sewn tapestry of teen angst.

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

 

 

 

Refugee Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From Ant to Eagle by Alex Lyttle

Warning, this review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The State of Grace by Rachael Lucas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Good They Did It Again

Don’t we just love a good series? Box sets are all the rage. And children are no different. They love a series that gives an extra helping of the characters and adventures they liked the first time round. It makes a new book choice easier, perpetuates that reading experience, and develops character even further. Last year I highlighted four great new books, and this year each has a sequel out. And they’re just as good, if not better than the first.

Rabbit and Bear: The Pest in the Nest by Julian Gough and Jim Field

The first Rabbit and Bear book was an inspired mix of great bedtime story with subtle educational facts, dominated by wit and humour. This second in the series is no different.

Bear has woken from winter hibernation, and Rabbit is spring cleaning his burrow. But then various elements in the woods disturb Rabbit’s peace, and it is up to Bear to use his wisdom to educate Rabbit about not getting quite so het up about things, and seeing the disturbances from a different point of view. I could learn a thing or two!

Vastly reminiscent of the character of Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh for this Rabbit’s general grumpiness, but also reminiscent of the Pooh books more generally, in the ability of the characters to demonstrate the finer qualities of friendship – loyalty, kindness and gently educating each other, this is a warm story for newly developing readers.

The writing excels here. Gough has a way with words – which he transposes to Bear, of pointing things out in the most straightforward way possible. Rabbit has issues with things that are both too noisy and too quiet – Bear explains that the only thing in common with these irritations is Rabbit himself.

In this clever way, Gough gently points the reader towards learning about tolerance, and seeing things from a different perspective, but all the time through the gentle humour of Bear and the funny grumpiness of Rabbit, and with a plot that develops at pace.

There are other elements introduced, such as the usefulness of practising something, overcoming fear, and finding happiness.

The illustrations help to exemplify both the gentle message and the humour – different perspectives of the forest and the animals, but also the characters’ brilliantly expressive faces. There’s so much packed into this small book – and wonderfully the publishers have produced it to a high quality – with thick pages and hardback cover, knowing that children will want to revisit it many times. Ages 6+. You can buy it here.

King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong by Andy Riley

This series about a nine-year-old king and his hilarious adventures is suitable for the whole family and has strands that are reminiscent of The Simpsons (mimicking the stupidity of Homer and the mischievousness of Bart), but also the all-out craziness of rulers, and I’d expect nothing less from one of the writers of Veep.

When a huge monster called the Gizimoth stalks a nearby land, King Edwin (Flashypants) decides that in order to prove his kingliness he must go and fight it, but evil Emperor Nurbison has plans of his own, and they include squishing King Flashypants and his kingdom.

The book is packed with illustrations, which always convey wit, and either gently nudge on the story or give an extra emotional depth to the characters. The characters remain consistent from book one, with Nurbison’s evil laugh, Edwin’s penchant for sweet foods, and Jill’s sensibleness, but each develops further with this second book.

There’s the usual amount of silliness – things being too small, or oversized, words being overused, vomit and poo etc., but there’s also a clever wit behind it all, and twists on modern everyday references that children will recognise – such as portions of fruit and vegetables, and talking about what they’ve learned after the adventure (circle time).

In fact, the book is incredibly cartoon-like – from characters falling off cliffs, to breaking their weapons, to my absolute favourite – the illustration of the evil Emperor’s sidekick Globulus on his knees, wailing “Emperooor” as his beloved Nurbison is….(no spoilers here!)

Riley is clever – there is a joke on almost every page, either tucked into plot or character, or poking the reader right between the eyes. It’s almost as if the humour is infectious – you can tell the author must have had a huge amount of fun writing it.

All in all, a preposterous story, but utterly brilliant. Packed with great character, subtle heart, charm, and nods to the history of storytelling and modern culture. King Flashypants and the Dolls of Doom is due in the autumn. Ages 6+. You can buy King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong here.

Dave Pigeon (Nuggets!) by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Whereas in the first Dave Pigeon book humans were friends – keepers of jam biscuits and distributors of bread, in Dave Pigeon (Nuggets!) the new human is most definitely the enemy.

With their normal human and her Mean Cat away on holiday, Dave Pigeon and his friend Skipper need to find another source of food. When they stumble upon Reginald Grimster beckoning them with crumbs, they think they’ve found another patron, but would a man with mini-umbrellas on his shoulders, who keeps other pigeons in cages, really be friendly towards birds, or is he looking to make some nuggets?

This is another fabulously funny tale about Dave, our pigeon with a complete lack of self-awareness, or in fact general awareness, other than for food. Luckily he has a great friend in Skipper, who is a tad more worldly, and manages to keep them both from fatal danger.

The laughs in this story come from either Dave’s lack of self-awareness, or from the fact that all the pigeons featured are so uncompromisingly human in their thoughts and actions, such as putting up one feather in front of their beaks to keep each other quiet.

Also much of the humour comes out of misunderstandings and slapstick – a pigeon called Fienne, pronounced fine, whom none of the others realise is saying his name rather than his state of being, some nervously pooing pigeons, and a pigeon spy agency… Of course the whole premise and plot are so ridiculous that this is what makes it funny, particularly when the enemy this time is a man with a chip on his shoulder about pigeon poo.

As before, the story is punctuated with little speech bubbles from the pigeons arguing with each other about the book they are writing or talking directly to the reader, and these are all funny as well as providing interesting interludes. And because the pigeons are purporting to write the books themselves, there is an added element of self-reference in the writing too.

The illustrations are glorious – particularly as there is a fair cast of pigeons in this book as opposed to the few in the first book, and some particularly enthralling scenes in a supermarket. Never have pigeons seemed quite so appealing. Ages 6+. Buy it here.

Waiting for Callback Take Two by Perdita and Honor Cargill

Picking up more or less where the first book left off, this witty contemporary YA (although suitable for tweens) second book, Waiting for Callback Take Two, tells the tale of Elektra, a young teen wannabe actress. It can be read as a stand-alone though, as book two joins Elektra about to embark on her first film role in a dystopian thriller with some A-list stars. The book follows the trials and tribulations of filming – the delays, the stars, the arguments and the rewrites. At the same time, Elektra is just a normal teen living at home, and the reader sees her juggle her normal life of summer holidays, friendships, studying and boyfriends along with her new career.

As with the last novel, Elektra is a wonderful protagonist. Witty, somewhat self-deprecating, a little prone to peer pressure and manipulation, she is a character with whom to identify. Her supporting cast works well too – a loyal best friend, an ongoing boyfriend (will they/won’t they communicate properly?), an eccentric and loveable grandmother, and of course a home life with an over-wrought mother who struggles to make peace with her daughter’s new found passion for acting. If anything the character of the mother in this second book is slightly overdone compared to the first – less subtly witty and more full-on anxious, but she also becomes more of a minor character here.

The book feels warm and friendly throughout – mainly down to the main character, and has pace and a good evolving plot. There are interspersed gossip columns reporting on showbiz, as well as letters from Elektra’s agent, and the most winning bit for me were the text messages between Elektra and various people, but most particularly her boyfriend. Archie is a phenomenal character – a great teen boy trying to navigate his way in the world, and with women.

It’s a book that hooks the reader right from the beginning, with great dialogue, realistic inner consciousness, and oodles of heart and humour. Age 11+. Take a look here.

 

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

It was with some trepidation that I started reading this novel, advertised for young teens, but I think appropriate for mature nine year olds, because of Laird’s introduction. The novel begins with a foreword from the author, which gives an explanation of why the war in Syria began and poses a question at the end about how history will judge our treatment of refugees.

Literature is there to pose questions and make us think, as well as imbue empathy. And good literature should teach us things too – but above all there needs to be a good story well told, otherwise readers won’t get to the crux of the book. Elizabeth Laird is an experienced writer, and has written many great, distinguished and prize-winning novels. Is this more than just another ‘issue’ book, a book that has written a story around an issue, rather than starting with a story and drawing an issue out of it? This isn’t Laird’s best book in my opinion, and yet this is way more than an issue book, and it certainly makes the reader think, and so it deserves this week’s book of the week spot.

Twelve-year-old Omar narrates the story – in past tense. He lives in Bosra, isn’t keen on school, but makes money selling postcards at a tourist site. His father also works in tourism – but for the government. When war breaks out, the family’s troubles grow – not least because Omar’s father has to move for work, but also because his older sister is being married off (having reached the marriageable age of sixteen). Omar’s older brother Musa suffers from cerebral palsy and starts getting in with a group who are anti-government. It’s a complicated situation and Laird does her best to navigate through the family’s journey. As the bombs fall on the city, they move again, and again, until eventually they have to flee Syria completely and cross the border to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Laird has done her research – she has spent time in the refugee camps and has prior knowledge of living in the Middle East as well as a presenting us with a hefty acknowledgements section that clearly names all the various experts and refugee families who have helped to share their experiences with her.

It’s not a short novel, coming in at over 360 pages in the proof copy, and is fast-paced and hugely enjoyable. Yet, even at this length, it still feels like a skeletal piece. The descriptions of places are somewhat lacking – particularly the urban settings, although there are glimpses of what was once there – the tourist areas boomed, and the ordinary society was buzzy and lively – and yet there wasn’t quite enough description to give that emotional evocation of what has been lost.

The secondary characters too – Omar’s sister is desperate to stay a scholar and not get married, Omar’s brother struggles with his illness that sets him apart as different (just as any boy would anywhere in the world), but neither are portrayed in enough depth to give complexity to their issues. However, other relationships do spring from the page – Omar’s mother’s relationship with her grandmother, and likewise her relationship with her sister – these feel alive and real – with just a light touch. Omar – our protagonist – is likeable despite having many flaws; he comes across as real – that awkward age of boyhood into adulthood that’s particularly difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone in wartime, and when he’s dealing with an absent father and a physically weaker older brother.

Written from a very British perspective, the language used will be vastly familiar to the Western reader – words such as ‘bungling’ and phrases such as ‘ratting on someone’ and ‘I beg your pardon’. Perhaps this is on purpose, to make the readership feel familiar with the family portrayed – to show the readership here that this is something that could happen to anyone. And yet, as with the lack of physical description of Syria, it takes away some of the authenticity of the book.

But overall this book ticks the boxes for me because it’s gripping and fast (the book sprints through the plot) and portrays the Syrian war and the refugee crisis so that an average ten year old in this country could gain some insight and experience some empathy.

The book extols the virtues of bravery and hopefulness. Of learning to look out for your family and put someone else first. And it makes you think – how will we welcome a family such as Omar’s in our country? Who are these people? Are they just like you and me?

You can buy it here. Fifty pence per copy of the hardback book sold will be donated to an international aid agency supporting the Syrian refugee crisis.

The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

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A short story published in 1892 called The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman has long held a grip on my consciousness. It describes the treatment of a woman who is accused of suffering from ‘hysterical tendency’.

Lucy Strange, in her children’s book debut, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, has drawn together some huge issues and themes, including the treatment of ‘hysteria’ in women, the after-effects of the First World War (the book is set in 1919), the loss of sons, and the emotional desperation to hold onto a baby, as well as the equating of women and children as inferior and invisible beings compared with men.

Strange tells the story of the protagonist’s mother, who is undergoing treatment for her near ‘hysterical grief’ and mental disturbance following the death of her son, incorporating an over-zealous doctor who is intent on moving the mother into an asylum and experimenting on her mind with electric shock treatment.

All this may seem far too adult and overreaching for a children’s book, but actually the themes sit well against a magical realism backdrop of a mysterious wood, ghostly apparitions, an empty attic room, a hidden staircase, and a child intent on overhearing the adult conversations around her, using her bravery to steer through the madness of the adult world, and pull her family back from the brink.

Henry (short for Henrietta, but tellingly using a boy’s name), moves to Hope House in the countryside, with her baby sister Piglet, and her parents and nanny. But soon after their arrival, the father leaves for abroad, and other sinister adults interfere more and more with her family set up. Henry escapes into the woods, where she finds Moth, a witch-like woman, who through her wisdom and own experience, guides Henry and helps her to claim back her family from those with sinister intentions.

This book is, at times, as frightening as it might seem, with such intense themes as the loss of a child and the ensuing grief, and a mother blind to the other children in her lives, but it is overwhelmingly the powerlessness that Henry feels that really shakes up the reader. When other adults usurp parental roles, and yet a child knows that these new adults don’t have the children’s best interests at heart, the world can seem a very dark place.

But Henry’s bravery and passion stride a hopeful path throughout the text. In fact, despite all this, Lucy Strange has told a simple children’s historical novel, with all the major tropes one might expect. A sick parent, and one absent, leaving Henry time and space to roam free, eavesdropping on adult conversations she doesn’t understand, discovering a hidden staircase leading to an abandoned attic, a madwoman in the woods, and stimulating enough gumption to seek out her own happy ending.

The writing is lyrical, and yet incredibly light, so that the reader storms a path through the tangled woods and never trips. There’s a limping man who scuttles like a spider, a dark forest like a thundercloud fallen from the sky. The scenes are tangible and vivid. You can feel the wind, smell the food, and hear the voices. It’s a triumph of a book, partly with a classical feel, and partly with an entirely modern perspective on an era in which the female gender was held to be inferior.

Above all it’s about bravery, and finding the courage to change your own life for the better. The plot is pacey, breath-taking at times, and despite harrowing moments – I cried buckets – it’s eminently uplifting. There are lots of references to other classic children’s books, and even if the reader doesn’t pick up on them all, it lends the book the feeling of belonging in a children’s canon – a long succession of sparky, intelligent child protagonists who can change the world for the better. There’s a good reason it was a Waterstone’s Book of the Month. One of a few titles I was recommended by a child, rather than a publisher! Don’t miss out, buy one here.

Halloween Reads

Scared? You should be. Halloween Treats (no tricks) from me.

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Hyde and Squeak by Fiona Ross

It’s amazing how much influence classic tales can wield over modern culture and modern children’s storytelling. Fiona Ross has taken inspiration from Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to draw a story about a mouse with a dark side. Squeak is a cute endearing mouse with oversize whiskers and a bowtie, who lives with ‘Granny’, a rounded, gentle looking elderly woman with purple hair fashioned into a bun.

But when Squeak samples some rather off-looking jelly, he turns into Hyde, a monster-mouse with an all-consuming appetite.

Told in large comic book frames, this is a wonderfully funny picture book, with the cartoon illustrations leading the story – one can almost see the Simpsons-style Halloween episodes in their similar transformation from normal to spooky characterisation. Hyde’s pages have black backgrounds, with many details in grayscale outlines, letting huge Hyde dominate the page. His expression is crazed, one eye in bloodshot swirls, a cobwebby bowtie and protruding vampire teeth.

Of course, every so often Hyde overstuffs himself, and his farts turn him back into Squeak. Towards the end, Granny has to zap the monster-eating-machine Hyde has become to regain her lovable Squeak, which she does mainly using pieces of fruit – never has a banana-wielding grandma looked quite so aggressive.

This is fun from start to end, silly and engaging, and an excellent introduction to literature’s classics! You can buy it here.

the-spooky-school

Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: The Spooky School by Tracy Corderoy and Steven Lenton

Originally in picture book format, Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam are two dogs who started their careers as robbers, but realised that crime doesn’t pay and so turned their skills to cupcake making. Although adept at baking, they also solve mysteries and foil crime.

Now in two-colour chapter book format for newly independent readers, these books combine three stories in one book. The Spooky School is a vibrant two-tone orange and black for Halloween, and starts with a Halloween story as the two dogs help a class of schooldogs make Halloween treats for a midnight feast. But there’s a ghost at large in the school, and Shifty and Sam have to catch it before it eats all the tasty treats!

The other two stories feature power-hungry Red Rocket (a red panda with evil intentions), and some raccoons raiding a museum. In both, the reader cheers on the heroes as they foil both dastardly plans with some rather ingenious baking implements. Our pups ski on baguettes, use walkie-talkie croissants, and thwart villains by firing cream cakes at them.

Each adventure is warm, witty and engaging, and illustrated with fun and panache. The text and pictures marry perfectly and children will devour as readily as if the cupcakes on the page were real. An excellent introduction to adventure storytelling. For newly independent readers, 6+ years. You can buy it here.

horror-handbook

The Horror Handbook by Paul van Loon, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

This is a the ultimate nightmare for all librarians. A fact book about fictional things. Yes, The Horror Handbook does exactly as it describes – it provides information on ghosts, monsters, vampires and all kinds of Halloween-type creatures. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, the book guides the reader through the horror genre, revealing the definition of vampires, how to become a werewolf (should one wish to), and how to protect yourself from witches (should one need to).

But it also contains fact – a section on horror movies that describes the genres within this genre – films about monsters, werewolves, aliens and a host of others, as well as a section on classic horror books, including Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And various factual tidbits are sprinkled throughout the book, such as that vampire bats do exist and what they are.

But as well as the fun, lively tone of the book, there are also the immensely funny illustrations, courtesy of Scheffler, including a brilliant transformation of ordinary bloke to werewolf, the milkman test for werewolves, and instructions for protection against the evil eye. All hilarious, all well worth a look.

Any child who’s interested in reading the book will obviously have a strong stomach anyway, but there are graphic sections on how to kill a vampire (ramming a stake through its heart and nailing it to the bottom of the coffin – meanwhile watching out for spurting blood), as well as instructing your child to google ‘vampire hunters’, so you may wish to talk through things with your child before they devour the book!

This is an immensely fun handbook with anecdotes, trivia, films, and endless references to all the horror one could possibly want on Halloween. Be scared. Be super prepared! Age 9+ years. Have a scare here.

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Tales of Horror by Edgar Allan Poe

If you’ve an older child who can get past the somewhat difficult language, then you should definitely let them be scared stupid by Poe’s Tales of Horror. Or read them yourself. Poe, as everyone knows, had a knack for writing unfailing misery and horror, a sense of insufferable gloom:

“There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart – an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.”

From the tale of the man who buries alive his twin sister in The Fall of the House of Usher to the unreliable narrator and prison horror of The Pit and the Pendulum, to the famous and utterly horrifying Tell-Tale Heart, which keeps on beating and induces the narrator to succumb to his guilt, these are brilliant stories whether you are reading them for the first time, or revisiting.

His stories plunge depths of darkness, immorality and despair, often featuring characters devoid of family. Some are gothic and narrated by unreliable, anonymous narrators who appear insane or unhinged in some way and thus there is no distraction from the tension within. But most of all, they’re great fun – spot the allusions to mirrors, doppelgangers, masks, and returnees from the dead. For teens and adults. Get your Poe here.