young teen

International Women’s Day 2019

I’m a keen viewer of University Challenge on the BBC, a quiz show for students. Recently, I’ve noticed more and more questions creep in that refer to women in history, previously unnoticed women composers and artists, those whom the layperson in the street definitely couldn’t identify. I admit, I don’t know enough about women in history either, and my shouting ‘Beethoven’ in answer to most questions just doesn’t cut it! Luckily, on this International Women’s Day, children’s publishers are waking up to these lesser-known important historical figures too. And so today’s collection is a definite celebration of women – from famous sisters in history, to lesser-known scientists and pioneers, to modern celebrity women pushing boundaries.

the bluest of bluesThe Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs by Fiona Robinson
This extraordinarily exquisite picture book is a biography of British botanist and photographer, Anna Atkins, who lived 1799 to 1871, and used the newly-invented technology of cyanotype photography to record her catalogue of plant specimens.

What could be quite a dry biography is manipulated into an aesthetically intimate and touching portrayal of Anna, her enthusiasm and love for her craft – and a meshing of science and art, creativity hand-in-hand with discovery.

The book is cast in an illustrative shade of blue, mimicking the cyanotype’s blue and white tones – with Robinson cleverly incorporating the odd splash of red or yellow to emphasise inspiration – the first poppy Atkins examines, the roses in her marriage bouquet, the red ribbon round the gift of her first camera.

The book explores her life and works, and also the support from those around her, particularly her father, who educated his daughter in science, despite it being unusual at that time. This is good narrative non-fiction, delineating the scientific concepts of photography and botany, whilst remaining true to telling Atkins’ life. You can buy it here. 

the brontesThe Brontes by Anna Doherty
Another picture book that frames the world of important women in a single hue, this time a turquoise minty green. Of course, these sisters are well-known to many, but may be accessed for the first time by readers of this picture book, as it is squarely aimed at a young audience. Illustrations dominate the pages, as Doherty documents the girls’ life story from their childhood through to publication, illness and death.

A family tree starts the book, and individual profiles of the sisters and Branwell come near the end. The story is inflected with the author’s own perspective, clearly infused with feminist undertones as she explains how the sisters first published under male pseydonyms. The text is simplistic but clear, and the author takes the opportunity at the end of the book to articulate further social history, exploring why the Brontes were so fantastically feminist.

The book is marvellously attractive, speaking not only to the power of women, but to the power of imagination and story. An inspirational book that makes the world of the Brontes feel intimate, and fascinating. First in a series. Other titles include Ada Lovelace and Michelle Obama. You can buy it here. 

grace hopperGrace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu
With a rhyming poem on the endpapers introducing the scope of this lively picture book for youngsters, ‘Software tester. Workplace jester. Order seeker. Well-known speaker…’ the reader is immediately engrossed in this enthusiastic exploration of how Grace Hopper discovered computer code and became a trailblazing STEM advocate. What’s intriguing about this book is that it highlights that women’s involvement in computers and tech isn’t a recent phenomena  – Hopper was engaged from the beginning – she was a pioneer.

Hopper developed a ground-breaking way of writing computer code, as much from her understanding of how things work, numbers and logic, as from her intuition and creativity. The book carries that perpetually important message of determination and perseverance, especially in the face of adversity, and ends on a high hopeful note.

The full-colour, almost cartoonish illustrations provide an insight into the zest and energy that powered Hopper, from showing her as a frustrated but determined and curious little girl, to a hardworking, brave and intrepid Navy employee. Her insatiable curiosity and her ability to step away from code to find the answers in life as well, show her as a fully rounded, identifiable human. This is an informative and aspirational picture book – you’d do very well to show this to your sons and daughters. You can buy it here. 

one shotOne Shot by Tanya Landman
Ever since my parents took me to see Annie Get Your Gun in the West End as a child, I’ve had a thing about Annie Oakley. With numbers like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, and ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’, who wouldn’t be inspired by this trailblazing feminist? Landman’s novella on Annie Oakley’s childhood, One Shot, (which is completely fictionalised) is just as powerful and poignant, although in a very different way. Set in the later part of the 19th century, this sometimes disturbing, haunting book imagines Annie’s harsh upbringing – the death of her beloved father, her rejection by her mother, and her abusive treatment by adoptive parents (there are references to rape).

But mainly this is a compelling historical visualisation of the social normalities that Annie had to fight in order to prove her worth as a sharpshooter, to rebel against the constrictions imposed on her because of her gender. Powerfully dressing herself younger so her rebellion looked more excusable to outsiders, and her constant seeking of parental approval, are both markers of the nuance and depth of Annie’s character that Landman has imagined in her novella. Written for a reading age of nine, but with teen content, this is another example of a strong inspirational woman fighting for survival and recognition, and beautifully conjures the landscape and political reality of America at that time. Landman cleverly incorporates Annie’s bravery into her fight to do what feels natural, even though it is classed as unladylike, and also showing her courage in admitting her abuse to her future husband. The chapter in which she steps into the shooting competition with Frank Wilkes made me want to sing again. I’m hoping Landman will bring her own targeted eye to writing the next part of Annie’s life. You can buy it here. 

ariane grandeUltimate Superstars: Ariana Grande by Liz Gogerly
Hot on the footsteps of the wildly successful Ultimate Football Heroes, comes this new series on ‘superstars’, a loose concept, but so far comprising Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. It doesn’t matter how famous a person is for these biographies, it’s the journey to get there or the quirkier achievements that make for a decent life story.

The focus for Ariana Grande is, of course, the bombing at her Manchester Arena concert in 2017, and this is where this life story starts and ends, and is dealt with sensitively, making much of the fans, and also her shock at the time and sympathetic nature afterwards. Grande’s life story has been one of success after success from early days as part of the cast of 13, a ground-breaking all-teenage production on the Broadway stage, to Victorious on Nickelodeon, and then onward to her music career, including performing in front of President Obama at the age of 21.

Success may have heralded success, but the book documents Grande’s tough skin, her hard work and determination, her efforts and affinity with fans through social media, and her supportive family, including her much-loved grandfather. For fans, a must. For others, I’m generally of the opinion that a subject needs to be slightly older to have a truly interesting biography. Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez publications follow in May. You can buy it here. 

gloria's voiceGloria’s Voice by Aura Lewis
A good premise to showcase the influence and achievements of feminist Gloria Steinmen needs more explanation in this picture book for a young audience. Illustrated in throw-back 1970’s oranges and pinks, the text is simplistic and yet in some places rather cryptic – simplistic in the language used that explains how Gloria dreams of being famous, yet cryptic in that it fails to explain the name or influence of her magazine ‘Ms’. However, it does explore the aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and it does draw attention to global inequalities that Steinmen witnessed then, and that persist now. So this is an interesting biographical text that may stimulate further curiosity. Watercolour illustrations range from the fantastical to the strange in showing Steinmen playing unhappily with a dolls’ house, representing her care-taking role in her mother’s illness, to a rather strange portrait of Steinmen flying ‘a la Wonder Woman’ above a suburban neighbourhood. Extra information at the end gives some context, but really the text needs more explanation from the beginning so that young readers understand why Gloria was so influential. You can buy it here. 

The Year I Didn’t Eat by Samuel Pollen

the year i didnt eatI have a distinct memory of reading The Best Little Girl in the World by Steven Levenkron in middle school. It had an arresting cover of a painfully thin girl studying herself in a mirror, the colour washed out, almost all faded to grey. It was an influential work at the time, (published in 1978), being one of the few novels for children that addressed eating disorders. Historical perspective shows that the narrative was more about the psychologist’s view of anorexia, and the narrative bends rather too far towards the male psychologist as saviour of the little girl. It very much speaks to the 1970’s perspective of eating disorders.

In some ways, we have come a long way to understanding eating disorders since that 1970’s viewpoint, although not far enough, and with the growth of science comes the growth of technology, and social media has been shown (for some) to heighten the damage in this area.

Into this torrid landscape steps the refreshing and very modern The Year I didn’t Eat by Samuel Pollen. Part of publisher’s Zuntold new ‘Fiction as Therapy’ resource, this is a powerful, devastating, yet quietly hopeful novel written by someone who has drawn on his own experiences to tell his fictional narrative, and it very much doesn’t speak to the scourge of social media as being at fault. This book comes from a very different place.

Fourteen-year-old Max writes a diary to Ana, short for anorexia, his eating disorder. Privy to these epistles, as well as to the main first-person narrative recording a year in his life, the reader comes to understand the complicated and irrational emotions behind Max’s mental illness. Some days are okay and normal. Readers discover Max’s brilliant relationship with his older brother, Robin, and how Robin introduces him to geocaching, which turns out to be a factor in Max’s recovery; the reader also discovers Max’s friends, and new girl Evie, and see the very authentic everyday situations that arise at school, be it at lunchtime or during lessons, and there’s also, of course, Max’s parents, brilliantly portrayed and heartrendingly pictured from afar – only seen from Max’s point of view, we feel the quiet despair they must feel, but never get too close. This is clever writing.

Then there are the bad days. Pollen writes with excruciating detail and raw emotion about the complexity of anorexia – how it draws the sufferer away from those wonderful friend and family relationships, how it tricks the mind and yet also concentrates it. He explains misunderstood conceptions, without preaching – because this is all through Max’s eyes. He dissects the portrayal of anorexia in the media and online, the fallacy that food is off-putting to anorexics when really it is enticing and causes revulsion at the same time – even anorexics have their favourite foods.

In no way condescending, but written with a natural flair for easy prose, this is a compelling and genuinely fascinating story. Fed throughout with injections of humour – Max is a likeable and funny character – this is a really great YA novel, in the end uplifting and hopeful.

For those who worry that reading about teens with anorexia leads to teens having anorexia, I quite simply explain that in the same way that reading Horrid Henry doesn’t make young children horrid, reading about a mental illness doesn’t make one aspire to be ill. In fact, what the book gives the reader is empathy – in large doses. Whereas travel books might be aspirational, this is firmly off-putting in its portrayal of what anorexia does to body, mind and relationships.  Where it does show hope, is in facing down anorexia, confiding in others, sharing the pain and learning to recover. It’s not an easy journey – Max is a character the reader wills to good health, knowing all the time that he may not make it – and it’s a rewarding novel. And one that makes you thankful for every nourishing bite. You can buy it here.

Fiction Books with Birds

Ever since the dove made an appearance in the Bible as a symbol of peace, and ravens whispered news into the god Odin’s ears in Norse mythology, or since Ancient Greece where the goddess Athena had an owl as a symbol of wisdom, or in Ancient India where a peacock represented Mother Earth, birds have been used in religion, mythology and literature symbolically, as messengers or perhaps signs of hope, and particularly freedom. In some of my favourite novels, birds have been used in symbolic ways: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle…. Here are three children’s novels that synchronise with this theme.

larkLark by Anthony McGowan
McGowan returns for a final time to his beloved working class characters, Nicky and Kenny, in this novella for Barrington Stoke. Although the last of a quartet, Lark can be read as a standalone, a self-contained adventure. The teenage boys are escaping their everyday reality, in this case, a visit from their estranged mother, by taking a walk on the Yorkshire moors with their dog. With understated empathy, McGowan describes Kenny (who has cognitive disability), as needing to let out his pent-up energy – ‘he’d punch the cushions on the settee or shout out random stuff in the street’ – and so the brothers seek nature as a release – the perennial theme of this book quartet.

Narrated by Nicky in an authentic teen voice, which is both accessible and yet intensely profound in its own way, the prose starts in the middle of the action, backtracking a little but then ploughing on – not unlike the boys, who are suddenly caught in the middle of a blizzard on the moors.

Danger becomes all too apparent – the problems of home (hunger, cold, poverty) are magnified in the natural expanse of the moors, and yet also reduced to this particular day and this particular time. The boys get into deep trouble, pushing them to the brink of existence.

Nicky’s trademark humour never lets up, lending even more pathos to the situation in its own darkly rich way, and by the end a fair number of readers will be sniffing back the tears. What lingers is the bond between the boys, the exploration of teen masculinity – full of bravado and yet vulnerability – and yet also the ultimate draw of never-ending hope.

Suspenseful, written with immaculate style, and ultimately heart-warming, this is another triumph from McGowan. You can read the review of Rook, the third in the series here, when it looked likely to end as a trilogy. To buy Lark, click here

asha and the spirit birdAsha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
Another book reaching for the symbol of a bird as hope, and with a treacherous journey, is this spellbinding lush book from newcomer Jasbinder Bilan.

Asha lives with her mother in the foothills of the Himalayas, living a rural life and working on the farm, spending leisure time in the mango tree with her friend Jeevan. Her father works away in the city. But when he stops sending money and moneylenders come to collect her mother’s debt, Asha decides to find her way to the city herself and see what’s happened to her father.

As vibrant with the sights and sounds and colours of the landscape on the inside as the cover is bright on the outside, this is a stunning evocation of a completely different way of life, with a filmic quality to the descriptions of flowers and wildlife, food and landscape. The journey is treacherous, the children not only at risk of death from hunger and tiredness, but also in the face of wild animals. Here too, though, nature is a saving grace in the form of a magical spirit bird that guides Asha, giving hope and reassurance throughout.

The book takes an even darker turn with its exploration of poverty and exploitation in the city, but Asha never loses self-belief, and the book drives forward with an unrelenting optimism and moments of kindness, exploring too the role of faith and ancestry, ritual and tradition, in shaping personality and way of life.

But more than this, it’s an immersive experience in a different culture. A glossary gives Hindi and Punjabi words, but Bilan seamlessly blends them into her prose, so that with context it is easy to understand what they mean. The Indian way of life is portrayed with enthusiasm, empathy and energy, and the threads of friendship sew the plot neatly together. You can buy it here

call me alastairCall Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo
Something vastly different in this quirky novel told from three completely distinct points of view, the first of which is Alistair, an African grey parrot. Trapped in an American pet shop, Alistair dreams of freedom and blue skies, but unfortunately for him has two broken wings and a habit of plucking his own feathers out of anxiety. When he discovers eating paper, and delights in the taste of the different types of literature – poetry being his favourite – he soon starts to compose verse himself.

With this sense of the world giving him an extra taste for freedom, he is adopted by lonely widow, Albertina Plopky (Bertie), whom the reader meets through letters to her deceased husband. Add to this eclectic mix, the meticulous record-keeping of pet-shop helper 12-year-old Fritz, (musing also on the recent separation of his parents and the death of a grandparent) and suddenly the reader grasps how the three points of view and stories meet.

The book is about perspective and freedom, but also speaks to the idea of loneliness. We stifle our own freedom if we build cages around ourselves. Unique and idiosyncratic, this is not for everyone, but with a mix of poetry and prose, different narrative voices, and a quest for courage, this is a very unusual middle grade book. You can buy it here. 

 

 

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

on the come upIt’s hard producing a second piece of art when the first one has been so universally successful. People often talk of second book or second album pain. And after The Hate U Give, it’s no surprise that there was hype around Thomas’s second novel.

I try very hard to ignore hype – if possible I’d read every book without seeing the author’s name first, so that each one comes afresh rather than through Twitter or a publicist, but I live in the real world so obviously that’s not possible. Instead, I quite often try to see patterns in what I’m reading – how books sit together, how trends bear out, how what was written a few years ago and published today reflects on our society.

When I read On the Come Up, I was also reading The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (a book for adults), and I was pleasantly cheered to find parallels in the reading. Winton’s book is about a boy coming-of-age in the Australian outback, running away, and written in first person slang dialect. Thomas’s book is a coming-of-age by an up-and-coming rap artist set in the same fictional Garden Heights neighbourhood as Thomas’s first novel, The Hate U Give. The two books, Winton’s and Thomas’, are distinctively different and physically half a world away from each other, but both tell the story of invisible disadvantaged young people clamouring to be heard.

Bri lives with her mother, Jay, a recovering drug addict, and her older brother, and dreams of being a famous rapper like her father, long since shot dead in gang violence. Once again, Thomas revisits the injustices of growing up African American in the States, but the tone here pushes further than THUG, both in Bri’s first person voice and in plot. There’s much here to admire in Thomas’s characters and themes, but it’s the message behind the story that reaches furthest.

The book is firmly rooted in its background and neighbourhood – Bri and her family have to visit a food bank at Christmas after her mother is laid off (a result of riots in the neighbourhood causing lack of funds at her workplace), Bri attends a school where she’s frisked on the way in, her mother’s first thought on hearing a school emergency is that it’s a shooting, and Bri takes to colouring in her sneakers so that it’s not apparent that they aren’t the real deal. These are themes of poverty, violence and peer pressure that are universal in appeal – they apply equally to inner-city London kids as they do to black Americans, but there’s a sharp undercurrent of exploration of race that is most interesting to read and absorb.

One of the key strands is how Bri is seen by the world as opposed to who she is. An age-old trope in literature of appearance and reality, which becomes sharpened in Thomas’s insightful writing. Bri is labelled very much as the angry black woman (cf the Serena Williams trope) – when she pushes back against injustice she becomes labelled as aggressive, hoodlum, ghetto. Bri has the choice to own that label and act up to it – forging her career as a rapper by climbing into the label and delivering lyrics about guns, drugs and violence, playing to it and being the scary edgy black artist whose songs are downloaded for that reason, or whether she disowns the label and makes it by being who she really is inside, a more nuanced person than a mere label or type.

And by concentrating on Bri’s lyrics as a way for her to define herself, Thomas highlights the power of words. I’ve long argued that lyrics are yet another form of poetry – awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan may have been controversial, but shows I’m not alone in this thought – and Thomas goes the full way in equating the two – “Since hip-hop is poetry, your grades should never drop again.” Bri’s teacher lays on her.

Whether you go with this or not, it’s the power of language and words that sings through the page. From the slang Thomas uses (which again reminded me of Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut with its own very different but Australian words), to the cultural references, this is a book firmly rooted in its background that shows how powerful words can be – and how they can be twisted. Bri’s lyrics are listened to, used, and manipulated in ways she couldn’t have dreamed of when she composed them, but then she’s shown how words can be used for good too. This is about young people speaking out, about using their voices as a force for good, about unconventional poetry and the wonders it can work for freedom of the soul. It’s about labels and when we attribute them and how to lose them.

And above all, this is another reading eye-opener from Angie Thomas. There’s a touchingly instrumental sibling relationship, an interrogation of friendship and loyalty, and what lustful feelings can do to friendships and the bond of family.

This is an edgier read than THUG, it takes a harder line, and maybe for that reason it’s harder to fall in love with than THUG. But On the Come Up pulsates with passionate social commentary and poetry, and maybe Thomas feels that if the message isn’t totally getting through the first time, you have to shout a little louder the second. In a week in which children around the world are using their voices to push across a message, (YouthStrikeforClimate), this seems like apt reading material for them. Age 13+. You can buy it here.

Children’s Mental Health Week

With social media and children’s mental health dominating the airwaves this week in the UK, and statistics released that show, not only the rise in mental health problems among the young, but also a rise in suicide, it’s more and more important to be an active part in protecting and looking after children’s mental health. For me, books are an effective way through any difficulties, providing a de-stress just by reading, but also often having the content show a way forward, to promote empathy, and to calm a troubled mind. Here are three books to help a child navigate through, particularly pertinent in this Children’s Mental Health Week.

my hidden chimpMy Hidden Chimp by Professor Steve Peters (and The Silent Guides)
Which child (or adult for that matter) hasn’t over-reacted to something? Perhaps using anger as a reflex when being told off, or experiencing heightened anxiety about an upcoming test that then manifests itself as an extreme emotion? Perhaps a toddler resorts to tantrums or being unkind to another child when things aren’t going their way. Professor Peters believes that one way of dealing with this is to control one’s inner chimp.

Peters’ first book, The Chimp Paradox, sold over a million copies, but it was a self-help book aimed at adults. Now he’s brought his concept to a children’s book, illuminating how they too can train their inner chimp and learn life-changing habits.

In My Hidden Chimp, Peters suggests that the brain contains two parts: the human rational side, and the irrational chimp side – the part that leaps to conclusions, acts rashly, causes your emotions to rocket, or for a child, makes them feel grumpy, worried, naughty etc.

Written and illustrated in a simplistic comic book style, the book is an eye-opener for adult and child alike. It is also a workbook – so that the child works through the book using exercises rather than just reading and consuming. Peters aims to explain how to keep the chimp under control (although also, and very importantly, recognising those occasions when the chimp might be right – when it’s sending out danger signals). Moreover, he explains that the chimp is not a scapegoat for a child’s actions, nor an imaginary friend – this is a part of the brain for which the child is responsible and it’s about knowing when to tame it, and how to train it.

For example, when confronted with something a child doesn’t want to do – one part of the brain will be accepting of this, the other part is the chimp who will get upset and grumpy. Peters argues that the child always has a choice of which side to be on. And then he gives ten tips for how to help manage the chimp, and choose the positive side – these include smiling, saying sorry, being kind, talking about feelings etc. And always with examples and exercises for how to do this. It sounds almost obvious, but can be really helpful to have everyday emotions and reactions managed in this way.

silent guides

The accompanying book (although marketed as being the other way around with The Hidden Chimp as the companion title) is a hefty book called The Silent Guides, which is aimed at an adult audience, but particularly one that deals with children either in a parental or caring capacity. Peters’ writing style is easy-going and straightforward, and some of the guidance is fairly obvious. His conclusion too, is that the guidance won’t work for every child. But if you’re a fan of the basic concept, or want to learn some habits that will engender a change in irrational behaviours, then this is a good start. You can buy it here.

turn off live onTurn Off Live On by Vincent Vincent
A small pocket book (smaller than an ipad mini), with plenty of graphics, puzzles, and drawing space, this book aims to show how to live some of your life without your mobile phone. It’s a plea to go slow, to look around more, to avoid losing hours scrolling. While acknowledging a phone’s worth and pleasure, the author aims to show the reader how to unleash their creativity, feel better and escape from some of the negativity that the devices can promote, just for a little while.

Seeing a real opportunity here, I sought Teenager One, who was on the sofa scrolling through something on his phone (head down, posture bad – this is another thing Vincent talks about). So I tossed him this book and asked him for his opinion.

To be fair to Teenager One, I’m forever shoving books at him, so he has a high bar on which books grab him. This one did get an extended look in- although it was a step too far for him to dislodge himself from the sofa and find a pen to fill in some of the activities. But it did make him take some time away from the phone. So, full marks.

In each section there are activities to engage the reader. In the chapter on avoiding social media because of its ability to promote negative feelings, the book encourages self-awareness exercises, promoting self-belief and self-confidence, writing attributes about yourself and understanding what you like doing. The chapter on ‘train your brain’ aims to show how we defer to the phone too often, for example on finding somewhere on a map or not memorising phone numbers. There are code and map exercises to help. The book also contains exercises on mindfulness and relaxation, and quotes from current celebrities on positivity etc.

Although I feel that many teens will greet the book with a fair amount of disdain if given to them by a parent when they’re on their phone (as I did!), it could be a good tool to use for all the family to detox, and if slipped surreptitiously into a teen’s bedroom, may well hold some positive truths that they discover gradually.

A good message nicely packaged (black and white illustrations/graphics throughout). You can buy it here.

even superheroes make mistakesEven Superheroes Make Mistakes by Shelly Becker, illustrated by Eda Kaban
For the youngest member of the family, who may not yet be on their mobile phone, this fun picture book teaches a great lesson. That everyone makes mistakes, and what’s important is taking responsibility, saying sorry, learning from the error and moving on (and up!). From the team behind Even Superheroes Have Bad Days, this is a fun rhyming tale about an array of superheroes who make errors but ‘own’ their mistakes.

It’s very American in tone – the superheroes ‘goof up’ and ‘spiff up’ their hair, and some of their errors feel a little tenuous as if only there for the rhyme – they don’t clean their clothes, or get up on time, but the main thrust of the argument here is that they should ‘own’ their mistakes.

“If their rescue attempt was NOT super-clever,
they could stock up supplies and hide out FOREVER.”

My favourite rhyme comes near the end, when the author declares that what makes our heroes super is their ability to ‘fess up their mess-up’:

“Instead they remember perfection is rare,
And they choose super ways to respond when they err.”

The illustrations are great fun though – the superheroes based on ‘real’ ones, zooming through the air with capes a-flying, unleashing threads from their fingers, shooting lasers with their eyes – and making a mess of it. For this alone, it’ll be a winner with very young children who like their superheroes everywhere – even if they are teaching them good behaviours. But I think the rhyming was better in Even Superheroes Have Bad Days. Buy Even Superheroes Make Mistakes here.

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. So it’s fitting that in primary school library book club this week we were looking at the theme of diaries. My Y6 cohort embraced this with gusto, reading everything from The Wimpy Kid to Artichoke Hearts to Anne Frank’s Diary. Which brings us back to the Holocaust. They spent the first five minutes debating how old Anne Frank would be if she were alive today and where she might be living. It was a memorable and emotional discussion.

peter in perilPeter in Peril by Helen Bate is a graphic novel that aims to show how the people swept up in the Holocaust were ordinary people. This is a tame book for a young audience though, and doesn’t go into any detail on the camps or genocide, but instead illuminates the dangers and changes that one Jewish boy went through during the Second World War, hiding from the Nazi’s. Despite the fear and darkness, Peter is one of the lucky ones. Perhaps why the book is subtitled: Courage and Hope in World War Two.

The story is written in first person by Peter, a young boy living in Budapest, who loves football and cake. Like Anne Frank, he too is forced into hiding, but unlike most Jewish people, he is reunited with his parents and his former home by the end of the war.

Because it is told from a young person’s perspective, there is an ignorance to what is actually happening around him – but from the action the reader will understand that Peter survived round-ups of Jewish people by moving hiding places several times, the only constant being a colouring book; he frequently faces hunger and cold. Despite the removal of the more harrowing elements of the Holocaust, the reader will understand that this was a horrific time, challenging and frightening for even the luckiest child.

The novel is in graphic novel/comic book style, which makes it very easy to follow for the most reluctant reader; in fact the book’s pictures working best when they aren’t annotated with incidental dialogue.

This is a true story, and the background of what happened in Budapest during the war is given at the back, as well as a summation of what happened to the real Peter. Many of Peter’s extended family were killed in the death camps, although miraculously he and his parents and baby brother survived and continued to live in Hungary.

My only wish is that the figures involved in deportation were explained. In March 1944, there were more than 800,000 Jews living in Hungary (as a result of annexations from Slovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia). In May 1944 deportations began and in just eight weeks, 424,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Yad Vashem statistics). 

You can buy a copy of Peter in Peril here

TomiThere are fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust now living, and it’s important to hear their accounts. Tomi Reichental’s Holocaust Story has been retold by Eithne Massey for young readers age 10+. Tomi describes Tomi’s life in Slovakia, at first pretty idyllic, but then it deteriorates rapidly, firstly because of the taunting Anti-semitism from schoolmates, and then from restrictive laws passed forbidding Jewish people to go to school. Then the arrests start, and finally Tomi is captured and sent to Bergen-Belsen. Amazingly, Tomi survived, (although 35 members of his extended family were killed). As above, this is told through the eyes of a child, and so shies away from the absolute horror of Bergen-Belsen, but is still a devastating read, (much more so than Peter in Peril) although Tomi is appropriate for children, in that it explains the Holocaust in a powerful yet simple way.

Told in narrative format, novel-like in its prose, yet with a slight distance to protect the reader, the book describes graphic events – the death in the carriage on route to the camps, the whips of the guards, death and disease within the camps.

There’s a clear balance needed between explaining the truth of what happened – even to young children during the Holocaust – and protecting today’s children from nightmares and fear. And yet, there is also a duty to make sure we and our children ‘never forget’. In a time of rising anti-Semitism again, it is crucial that these true accounts are shared widely, absorbed, and lessons learnt. As Tomi says “I realised that, as one of the last witnesses, I must speak out. I owe it to the victims that their memory is not forgotten.’ We owe it to Tomi to read and understand his story. You can buy Tomi here. 

Mike by Andrew Norriss

mikeThere is something special about this book, and I’m not sure whether it’s the message behind it, the story itself or the style of writing. It could be the combination of all three, although I’m edging towards the last, simply because it’s not often that I finish a book in one sitting – but this hooked me almost by magic.

The prose is so faultlessly lucid, like the cascade of a clear waterfall, and I was spellbound by the fluidity with which the words flowed on the page.

Fifteen-year-old Floyd is training to be a tennis champion – a talented and dedicated sportsman and the star of the under-eighteens circuit. The reader first meets him in the midst of a tennis tournament, and swiftly learns that tennis is his life and that he’s destined to be a professional tennis player. But as we meet Floyd, so Floyd sees Mike again, walking along the top row of tiered seating, his black coat billowing behind him (which rather made me think of Christian Slater in The Breakfast Club, with that haunting yet inviting look in his eyes). At first, Floyd thinks that Mike is a nuisance, an over-eager fan perhaps. But it becomes apparent to the reader, and to Floyd’s great surprise, that only he can see Mike.

Before long, Floyd is seeing a psychologist to try to eke out why he is seeing ‘Mike’ at his tennis practice and during tennis matches.

With straightforward clarity, Norriss and by default, the pleasantly authentic and sympathetic psychologist explore parental pressure, and life choices. There’s philosophy underpinning this story – a sort of moral guide to how we make choices, how we steer our lives through fate or instinct, and an exploration of our conscious and unconscious minds. Most particularly, Norriss touches upon our connections with other people and how that affects our journeys through life. With Floyd and Mike, the reader will come to understand a little bit about their own self – what we are doing for ourselves, or for others, and how to come to an understanding of serving both.

But there is no heaviness to this novel, no preaching, no deep philosophy. Instead, with remarkable pace and with much humour and levity, the reader is steered through Floyd’s path – from tennis through to marine biology, and although written with a breezy simplicity, Floyd’s path is far from easy. Without delving too deeply into the angst, Norriss shows us the difficulties Floyd faces, the lessons he has to learn, the pain that sometimes must be experienced.

Whether this is in part inspired by the movie Harvey with James Stewart (referenced in the text), or in part by Jiminy Cricket or other such fictional guides that give the character a steer through life, this is a fascinating look at finding oneself and one’s true desires and seeking and owning the power and responsibility to make one’s life’s choices.

Norriss’s characters feel real and likeable, the book almost true in its matter-of-factness.

I actually can’t recommend this book enough – it’s now out in paperback and I suggest you all read it – young and old. It’ll definitely make you think, and might turn the most reluctant reader into a reader. If only all books were like Mike. Suggested for age 12+ years. You can buy it here.

When Good Geeks Go Bad: A Q&A with author Catherine Wilkins

when good geeks go badIt all started with a pair of trainers. Ever had an argument with your child over their choice of shoes for school? Or about an accessorised piece of school uniform? When I was a child I wore a brightly-coloured coat to school as a clear mark of rebellion against my school’s black coat policy. Today, I see various attempts to challenge authority with hair style, or key rings on bags, or shoes!

When Good Geeks Go Bad begins with Ella’s Dad refusing to buy her a cool pair of shoes or let her stay up late. And yet she’s always been a good girl. So Ella decides to go bad. Perhaps then she can get her own way. But being bad is more than just a few detentions and she’s soon losing control.

In fact, she’s already lost control at home, where her parents are spending time apart. So when her best friend wants to spend time apart from her too, she wonders if it really is best being bad, or if being geeky was good after all.

This highly-relatable, funny read from comedienne and writer Catherine Wilkins is an excellent look at a young teen fitting in at school, and finding her own place at home, as well as working out which identity she’s going to carry through her teen years. Who to be friends with and for what reasons? It poses the sorts of questions many children ask of themselves in Year 8, on the cusp of being full-blown teenage. Wilkins understands how to write funny as well as how to explore the pathos in harder family scenarios, and she creates a highly identifiable character in Ella.

Written in first person, Wilkins captures the wishes and desires, the nuances of Ella’s life and thoughts, almost in diary-style, as well as those of her peers, so that the reader can often see more of their motivations than Ella can herself – giving the reader even more laughs, and also understanding. Here, Catherine Wilkins answers some questions on the book, and her own ‘funny’ life:

Were you Good at school or were you Bad?

A bit of both. I was a slightly mischievous younger child. When I started secondary school I became shy and quite well behaved. Then I eventually rebelled again a little bit. Like Ella, I wore trainers to school. I think there’s something about testing where the line is that all kids do. (Also I really liked my trainers at the time).

In When Good Geeks Go Bad, Ella’s dad refuses to let her have cool shoes. Was there an item you wanted in your childhood that you never got bought? 

There were many, many items I wanted that I never got. From a sooty puppet to a frosty the snowman ice slushie maker. We never had money for crazy purchases, but my parents encouraged me to save up for things, or wait for birthdays, so sometimes I got lucky too. (The downside of this is that when I wanted a shell suit, I eventually got one. And I still have not managed to burn all the photos of it.)

In the book there’s also some serious stuff about separated parents. Do you think all comedy should go dark at some stage?

I would never legislate that all comedy should do anything. I think comedy is subjective and everyone has different taste. I find when things in my life go a bit dark, it can help me to laugh at them, make them less scary, make sense of them and bring them back into the light. But that might not work for everyone. Comedy can be used in many different ways. I like that it can be a coping mechanism, to cheer things along, or satirical beacon shining a light on hypocrisy and corruption. And you can enjoy dark comedy and still like slapstick too.

Also I feel like in this book, there are genuinely serious bits, that we’re not laughing at, but they are then undercut or contrasted with the more funny bits.

You write comedy for kids – does being funny come naturally to you? Are you the funniest in your house?

I live in such a fun house that it unfairly throws off the grade curve. My three-year-old daughter is probably the funniest. She’s always making up jokes and dances and clowning around. She has comedy chops. Then my one-year-son is pretty funny, but more in a cute way. Then my husband is a comedian and writer too, and they all play funny games together. I might be somewhere at the back, just after the cat (who is actually really funny at falling off things and then looking to see if anyone saw).

What’s the scariest thing about doing stand-up comedy?

The profit margin. BOOM. (Jokes). For me, the scariest thing would be never having tried doing it. But lots of people would say performing in front of other people is nerve-wracking. I didn’t find that so much when they were strangers, but as I climbed the ladder a bit, and there’s accountability because the gig matters and you have to impress the next booker or reviewer, that’s when I would get nervous and lose my spark. But when I started, the thrill of testing a new joke and getting a laugh made up for everything.

Which fictional character do you wish you could be (for a while)?

This is a really hard question to answer because there’s so much to choose from. Maybe I’d like to be Alice and check out Wonderland for a while, and have some adventures.

What advice would you give budding comedy writers?

You are probably already a fan of comedy, so keep doing that and consume as much comedy as you can. Keep a notebook about your person to write down your funny thoughts and observations. I think sometimes with comedy it can be ‘spotting’ the joke, as much as making it up, seeing if you can spot something that no one else has connected in that exact way.

If you have a friend who has the same sense of humour as you, sometimes it helps to pretend you are trying to make them laugh. Or even collaborate with funny friends and try and write stuff together. (When I was at school I was often trying to force friends to do comedy with me, but they weren’t always as into it).

But also it’s important to write about what you think is funny, not what you think other people might laugh at, or what’s expected. It’s yours. Your jokes, your voice.

And lastly, is the next book simmering – will we see Ella again? Or is there something new?

There is a new book on the horizon, but it’s something brand new, not Ella. But never say never, it might be fun to see what Ella gets up to next in the future as well.

With thanks to Catherine Wilkins for her time. When Good Geeks Go Bad is published today, 10th January, and you can buy it here. 

Paper Avalanche by Lisa Williamson

paper avalancheThis is a book with a mental health issue at its heart, and although like No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsin, Williamson has clearly taken a ‘theme’ or ‘problem’ she wants to address and written a story on it, the novel in no way feels like an ‘issue’ book. The characters are so well drawn, so likeable and sympathetic and written in such an understanding way, that they could be real, and so it feels more like a character exploration than a focus on ‘issue’. 

Year 9 student Ro Snow spends much of her time at school trying hard to be invisible. She’s one of those children at school who wanders the corridor alone, keeps her head down in lessons, and doesn’t shine in any after school clubs or at any talent because she wants to be un-noticed. She’s a ‘behind the scenes’ kind of person. The reader first meets her at an after-show drama club party where she is shying away from the teenage boy who clearly has noticed her and taken an interest. It feels authentic, and squirmy and also deeply moving.

Ro’s mother is a hoarder, and their house, to Ro, is both highly embarrassing from the outside and an absolute shocker from the inside. Piles of dishes litter the sink, piles of paper line the corridors. Ro can’t see her carpet anymore, and she has to shuffle sideways to make it through her hallway. Her room though, with a lock on the door to keep her mother out, is spotless, clean, minimal. However, she can’t make friends, in case they expect an invite home, so she keeps herself to herself.

Ro feels that her mother’s mental health issue defines her whole life. Until that is, things start to change, as life invariably does. A new family with teenage boy move in next door. And a girl called Tanvi starts at her school who takes an unlikely punt as who’s to be her new best friend – picking Ro. When Tanvi forces Ro into joining the school choir, and Ro discovers how talented she really is, it becomes harder and harder to hide from the spotlight. But with a light shone on her circumstances, things could go drastically wrong…By the end Ro comes to understand that she isn’t defined by her mother or her hoarding, nor limited by it, and it’s through the kindness and caring of people around her that this becomes apparent. 

Williamson is masterful in drawing out the usual trials and tribulations of the teen years into a captivating read, in which the reader feels every emotion with the characters. Her writing is unobtrusive, leading the reader flawlessly from one scene to the next, never breaking the spell of imagination, but managing to show the profound effects of loneliness and shame.

Included in the narrative is Ro’s ever more absent father, who has found a new wife and daughter, and some of the scenes with him are excruciatingly real. With her embarrassment of her home life, her feelings of rejection around her father, and her worries about everyday practicalities, Williamson shows a teenager under huge pressure and anxiety, but still incorporates enough humour, wisdom and kindness from friends and outsiders to make the reader feel that resolutions will come. And they do, but like life, not in all areas, and sometimes they’re still a bit messy.

I particularly enjoyed how Williamson very slowly incorporated into the text Ro’s first experience of having a boyfriend, only at the end revealing how many parallels there are between the pair.

This is a great book from one of the best YA authors around.  Whether it’s showing how secrets are best shared, the small intimate details between mother and daughter, a teen’s frustration at fighting to be in control and yet still wanting a responsible parent, first love that’s not too complicated or angst ridden, or just the emotional pull of engaging characters, this is a book not to be missed.

Paper Avalanche strikes deep, yet remains phenomenally readable. Age 12+ years. You can buy it here.

Cover Reveal: Good Boy by Mal Peet, illustrations by Emma Shoard

In our busy lives, it’s not often that a book arrives and sweeps everything else away – work, washing, worrying. The late Mal Peet had a way with words that was more than immersive – his stories have the power to create not only belief in the authenticity of the story, but a whirlwind of sensation and wonder, a lasting sense of intelligent thoughtfulness. Good Boy is an unsettling novella, published by Barrington Stoke in a slim yet captivating volume that features Shoard’s emotive illustrations, enhancing and emboldening Peet’s text. With content aimed squarely at the YA audience, yet a reading age of 8, this is an accessible story, an examination of fear that leaves the reader ruminating and discussing long after the final page.

Sandie has been battling it since childhood: the hulking, snarling black dog of her recurring nightmare. Although a solution is found during childhood, it is the black dog’s return in adulthood that will test Sandie’s courage to the limit…

I’m delighted to showcase the cover for Good Boy. For me, Emma Shoard’s cover bristles with both menace and vulnerability. What do you think? Read Emma’s view below:

good boy

Emma Shoard says:

Though this cover went through quite a few variations, we always wanted it to show the black dog and for the overall impression to be dark.

I wanted to make something of the juxtaposition between the image of the nightmarish black dog and the title, Good Boy. I like the way that it makes you look again and see his moon eyes and hunched shoulders in a different light, perhaps interpret the posture as protective, curious, monumental even, not just menacing. I needed this to come cross in my illustration so it took quite a few attempts to get him right. The result is a design which I hope reflects the ambiguity of Mal Peet’s story.”

Fear stalks us all in some way or another, and this is a masterful way of exploring where it comes from, how it manifests itself, how we deal with it, and if we can overcome it.

On reading the novella, the reader senses immediately the confidence of the writing, the simplicity of the story, yet the powerful insight of Peet’s observation and reflection. A girl is comforted by ‘the biscuity smell of her mother’s bed-warmth’, a dog has ‘wet black button’ eyes in a patchwork head, a building on an estate is ‘a huge slab of a place jutting rudely up into the sky’. And Shoard’s illustrations run through a gamut of feelings with just a few brushstrokes – a mother’s embrace, a pet dog’s vulnerability, the darkness that lurks in us all. A haunting, captivating, ambiguous story. Don’t miss this one. It’s published on 15th March 2019.