young teen

Death by Detention by Ali Sparkes

death by detentionThe other week in my school library, I was assigned a year 6 pupil for a day whom I never normally see. He’s not that into books or reading and shies away from the library space unless his friends are hanging there on hot days when it’s the coolest room in the school. So when he was assigned to me, there was a fair amount of reluctance. And yet, by the end of the day, there was a glint of enthusiasm there, a realisation that books aren’t bad. He read to younger students, held a book treasure hunt, and even agreed he’d come back (and not just for the chocolates!) It’s all about changing someone’s mindset.

Prolific children’s author Ali Sparkes is attempting to do the same thing with her latest novel, Death by Detention. It’s aimed at slightly older children than her usual books, aimed at the young teen reluctant readers, and although I don’t quite fit that mould, I’m captivated by a great story well told, and this fits that bill too.

The protagonists aren’t bookish or scholarly; they aren’t misunderstood geniuses but regular, can’t be arsed, worldly teens. Their attention spans are fairly narrow and they’re just the type of troubled teens who sit in detention planning their next game of Fortnite rather than concentrating on the homework in front of them, and they definitely don’t read books.

This book begins with these two teens, Elliot and Shania, in detention. And the book doesn’t hesitate – before the end of the first chapter, Elliot and Shania witness their head teacher shot from an unknown marksman outside the window, and then watch in horror as a laser beam seeks out further targets. They have to use their wits to make their way out of their deserted school before the gunman or men, realise they are there. What’s more, their head teacher looks as if he might be coming back…as a zombie.

For this generation of teens, there will be inevitable comparisons with Alex Rider type novels, but Elliot and Shania have to rely on their quick-wittedness and resourcefulness rather than some James Bond type gadgets in order to survive. And this is where Sparkes (and the reader) have a lot of fun with the novel. By using the precise orientation of the school as the setting for the entire novel, Sparkes is able to explore all the fun hidden spaces within its site – stationery cupboards of course, but also the high windows of a school gym, the maintenance crawl space above the toilet ceilings, the tannoy from the head teacher’s office, reception, and of course the gym cupboard. And as everyone who has read a high school drama knows – there’s plenty of scope to be had in the school theatre space. This meshes nicely with computer games – each action sequence is in a different setting.

Sparkes also captures the extreme physicality of the teens’ situation – they are not just running away or confronting the gunmen, but they feel their cramped limbs from hiding, they vomit in fear and relief, their hearts palpitate and they go into cold shock.

What’s more, as the reader roots for them to succeed, Sparkes alternates between the two protagonists’ point of view – their headspace – seeing not only what’s in front of them, but also thoughts about who they are, how they came to be in this situation, and the resilience and skills they might draw upon to see them through. It’s the clever writer’s way of drip feeding information about the main characters and Sparkes works her magic here, as well as proving her knack of showing character through action – there is no lengthy exposition.

The beauty of the book is that it reads like a computer game – it’s fast, pacey, gripping, and yet in prosaic format – Sparkes has time to give us apt similes – “Normally she attracted cops like a dropped Cornetto attracts ants.” The chapters are super short, ending in gritty cliff-hangers, much like levels in computer games. Her descriptions don’t interfere with the action, but merely enhance it – there is a multitude of sensations giving the text a visceral feel. The reader sees what’s dark and light, where the shadows creep, the sounds of silence and of approach and of violence.

And this perhaps is where readers or gatekeepers may feel a jolt. Sparkes reportedly failed to attract a mainstream publisher for the title – there are so many fears about showing a gunman in schools in a novel for children after the number of real school shootings in the States.

But I would argue that if publishers shy away from novels that may offend, then much of publishing would fall away, and be worse for it. In the same way that computer games don’t shy away from it, in the same way that dystopian novels portray children battling to death, or incidents of terrorism, then this shouldn’t be out of bounds here – particularly when in actuality this story is positioned very far away from what we think of as ‘school shooting’ or ‘act of terrorism’.

In fact, there’s much humour. There are numerous wry asides – the headteacher is positively brilliant at releasing humour into scary situations and is as sharp as a pencil, and the teens fare well in this regard too.

This is a fabulous entry or re-entry into books for reluctant readers. Short, sharp, witty and great fun, the reader will understand that it’s not great to judge someone by the stereotype attributed to them, in the same way that they’ll understand that facing a gunman with a resistance band and a cricket ball from the gym cupboard probably isn’t the best solution.

This up-to-the-minute pacey novel is a match for the screen any day. I’ll take detention – if they’ll let me read stories like this during it. Suitable for 11+ years. You can buy yours here.

Payback by M A Griffin

paybackWith an edgy cover that illuminates shadows of teens wearing fox masks against a stark black background, where the title winks at the reader in foiled gold lettering, Payback draws attention before the reader has even opened the book. Inside, lies a dark, gritty political thriller.

Protagonist 16-year-old Tom has long been a fan of direct action group, Payback – a modern Robin Hood heist outfit who take from the rich and give to the poor, often filming their crimes and screening them on YouTube. When they target the hotel where he works, it’s not long before he’s recruited to the cause and the group, and using his acting skills to assist in their next ventures.

In typical heist movie style, the reader is on board with the perpetrators of the crime, at first seeing what they do as necessary to combat corporate and government wrongs. The so-called victims of the crimes are not victims at all but evil money-grabbers, and the direct action group Payback doesn’t keep the money, but simply redistributes wealth – handing it off to the neediest in society.

But the beauty of the book, which reads as a thriller, gaining momentum job after job like a train rushing through stations with the brakes off, is that it makes the reader re-evaluate the protagonist’s motives, and the moral stature of the group.

Tom comes from a privileged background – something of which is he quite self-aware. And it troubles him at the same time as providing him with a cushy safety net. And Payback’s crimes are not without their innocent victims – even the ones not at the scene, such as the waiter they trick out of having a job, simply by taking his place as a disguise. As the violence ramps up, the reader becomes even more doubtful of the lines of right and wrong.

In the middle, there’s some head scratching for the reader – was Robin Hood right – is stealing from the rich to give to the poor the right thing to do – and how do you work out who should be a beneficiary and who shouldn’t? And are all the privileged evil? There’s some pretty facile arguing from some of the gang, juxtaposing benefit withdrawal with champagne expenses in the House of Lords. All this talk about the balance of wealth in society makes the book current, but what Griffin does magnificently is that he doesn’t present the story as a didactic piece – just as a kind of ‘throwing it out there, think about this’ conversation.

The teenagers read as pretty authentic, with the odd swear word grafted in, and the dialogue pretty spot-on – tidied of course for a prose novel – but they also come across as pretty insular and spectacularly naïve. In fact, at times every move seems more like a game to them – even a computer game – than real life. So when they set some of their money on fire, or badly misread a trap – it’s kind of inevitable that things will start to go badly for them, and that the smart policewoman who’s hot on their heels will piece it all together before they will.

By and by, the reader learns that much of the gang’s motivation isn’t necessarily altruistic.

However, Griffin ramps up the tension so that by the time the policewoman comes across Payback’s headquarters, the reader is in as much of a hurry to find out what happens as Tom and Payback are to get away. The second half of the book is a rip-roaring read, particularly difficult to put down.

The idea of a direct action group making changes in society rather than the people being reliant on the government to effect change is perhaps even more current than the idea of a Robin Hood figure (although Griffin purportedly took some inspiration from Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, a modern Spanish politician famous for his Robin Hood raids). The novel is highly political because it speaks directly to teenagers about how and when they could effect change themselves – and at what point a moral or legal line is crossed.

With a wonderful evocation of a slightly different Manchester, in which teens lurk in spaces under arches and access free climbing walls, and terrific scenes in the dark ‘wild nothingness’ of the countryside, Griffin nails his settings with aplomb. It’s a highly visual novel with teasing chapter endings, moral dilemmas and questions about consequences, trust and justice. But most of all, it’s a thriller of a ride. Invest in this one, and you’ll have swift payback in satisfaction. You can buy it here.

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood

a sky painted goldThere’s always that one book you read over a lazy summer, (maybe whilst swaying in a sun-dappled hammock or sitting at the edge of a swimming pool with legs dangling in the cool water), which is like a drop of sunlight itself, with its long languorous descriptions of hot lazy days and summer evening outdoor parties.

The Great Gatsby is that novel for me. Although I take great pleasure in re-reading it at any time of year, (I view it as the quintessential novel and marvel at its perfect opening and closing, its narrative arc, its unreliable narrator), it always conjures a feeling of sticky heat, of lavish summer nights and heated tension.

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood is another summer novel, and although it’s certainly been smudged with more than a hint of a Gatsby brush, and has more than a touch of I Capture the Castle to it, its narrator seems to be pretty much reliable.

Lou Trevelyan lives in Cornwall with her large family and dreams of being a writer. In search of solitude, she steals away to the large empty Cardew house on an island across the causeway, but when the owners arrive for the summer, her place of abandon is turned into an opulent party house. After gate-crashing one of their Gatsby-esque parties one night, Lou receives an official invitation to the house, and before long she’s swept into the Cardews’ decadent world and captured by their attractive carelessness.

In the same way that Lou is seduced by the brother and sister who own the house, despite them being, at times, careless with other people, so the reader is seduced too by the lush descriptions of parties on summer nights and beautiful people living luxurious lives. There is nothing new about this coming-of-age romance, but it sumptuously immerses the reader in the 1920’s era, with great period detail recounting the hairstyles, art deco, dresses and jazz music of the time as the wild youngsters experience the post-war age.

Wood carefully explores Lou’s transformation into adulthood; the conflict with her country bumpkin older sister, the astute knowingness of her parents that each of their children will grow to have different lives, Lou’s own excitement at seeing London, and her growing sense of freedom and independence counteracted with her wariness of the wider world, the temptations of the time and the wilder morals of the people she encounters.

The mood of change as the world takes breath after the First World War is well captured by Wood; her youth are more daring, embracing different styles of music and dance, and displaying the restlessness and grasping for fun so indicative of the wealthy youth of that time. Wood documents their proclivity for drinking and extravagance, and notes the growing freedoms of women and the emergence of black culture – and in doing so she shows how she has plucked her enigmatic Cardews from that famous ‘lost generation’, as well as expressing her insight into our own times with her glance at that period of history almost a hundred years ago.

And yet, this is a dreamy YA read rather than a satirical criticism of the time. The Cardews may be careless with their money, but they are not as careless as Fitzgerald’s characters: here the Cardews win the readers’ love and sympathy, and pose as victims and heroes in a mesmeric summertime escapist novel. With their increased leisure time, these protagonists have the wherewithal to devote time to sketching and writing, climbing trees and observing. And so the book matches perfectly a reader’s desire for their own pleasurable leisurely summertime read. For ages 12+ years. Publishes 5 July. You can pre-order it here.

But A Mermaid Has No Tears…

girl who thought her mother was a mermaidThe Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was a Mermaid by Tania Unsworth, illustrated by Helen Crawford-White
Not out until 12th July, but well worth waiting for, this middle grade (junior fiction age 9+) mermaid book is another triumph from the dark pen of Tania Unsworth. A master at combining reality with tinges of dark fantasy, and beguiling the reader with intrigues of what is real and what is make believe, Unsworth’s new novel picks up beautifully on the current zeitgeist for mermaid stories.

Stella is terrified of water, yet has a penchant for the ocean and the huge picture of the sea that hangs in the back of her house. Her mother died when she was eight, and left Stella a necklace called ‘the word of the sea’, but no one seems to be able to give her more information on it. When her grandmother, suffering from a form of dementia, gives Stella a hint that her mother may have been a mermaid, Stella follows a series of clues that leads her to a place called Crystal Cove and a mermaid show, where things aren’t always as they seem.

Good, sparse yet engaging text leads the reader, with Stella, into a labyrinth of truths and untruths, as she investigates whether her mother was a mermaid. The book also investigates the nature of friendship – Stella finds this difficult but has made a friend in the flamboyant Cam. There is also a look at the reliance children place upon adults to keep them safe and reveal the truth to them, but in typical Unsworth style, there is a sharp twist, and a fearsome and chillingly real villain.

The book is great at its description of the real world, especially the seaside town to which Stella runs away, but it also has a wonderful handle on depicting Stella’s inner thoughts, fears and motivations. By adding her spin on magical realism in the way of mermaids, Unsworth allows Stella and the reader to ask the bigger questions in life too.

A hugely compulsive novel, with superb characterisation. You can pre-order it here.

the surface breaksThe Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill
Almost all the current books about mermaids are influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, whose protagonist sacrifices her world, tail, and voice for love, but none are quite as sharply or devastatingly reimagined as this feminist retelling. Bringing her trademark biting satirical agenda and fight for gender equality to the tale, O’Neill has written a gripping, terribly dark fairy tale for our times.

Gaia’s world is dominated by men, none more so than her powerful and controlling father. When she spies a human boy on a boat, she falls for him and decides to sacrifice her world, and mutilate her body, in order to be with him. Unfortunately, she has gambled on his looks alone, and the reader becomes more swiftly aware than Gaia how reckless this is. The reader’s awareness of the palpable horror of her situation, a description of her ever-shredding feet that is almost too painful to read, and a mounting frustration at the treatment of women throughout, and Gaia’s hopes in particular which are so much pinned on frivolity and appearance, make this an engaging but demanding read.

O’Neill goes to great lengths here to subvert the original fairy tale so that she can pose an exploration of women as more than just a stereotype – more than just erotic objects, or manipulative shrews, but as multi-layered beings – fallible, abused, powerful, exotic, all at once. The Sea Witch is shown as feisty and motivated, not just a Disney character of pure evil revelling in her own wickedness, but in fact a believable and sumptuous character who is the most free of all the women, by vaunt of being most comfortable with who she is.

In fact, in some places it brings to mind what was really embedded in Christian Andersen’s text, which has been lost to the images in our minds of red-headed Ariel with her big blue eyes. It’s astonishing that so much of the misogynistic cruelty and darkness resides in the original story, and to find that O’Neill hasn’t deviated as much as we might think.

The book also gives a beautiful twist to women above the sea’s surface. They are not as free as Gaia imagines, and the prince is preoccupied and ungrateful – not the fairy tale beau of generosity and unparalleled power. Layers of lust and love, sibling rivalry and power dynamics ebb and flow throughout the book. It doesn’t smash the patriarchy so much as stimulate young women to think about who they are and their position in life. Clever, thoughtful and raging – this is not a soothing or subtle tale. For YA readership. Take a dip here.

bad mermaids on the rocksBad Mermaids: On the Rocks by Sibeal Pounder, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft.
For much younger readers – those aged about seven and up, Sibeal Pounder is an absolute joy to read. Her Witch Wars series is wacky and zany and never fails to raise a smile, and the Bad Mermaids series elicits the same response. On the Rocks is the second in the series about three mermaids accompanied by a talking seahorse.

Pounder’s ultimate strength is her exquisite world-building, in this case, the undersea kingdoms of the mer people. The vocabulary is broad ranging, with many plays on words and satirical digs at our normal world, (Pounder is inventive with transport and fashion) and conjures a playful fun underwater plot that keeps the reader absorbed and extremely entertained. She makes fun of the world as she writes and makes subtle winks to a feminist agenda – mermaids happily burp bubbles, which turns upside down the idea that mermaids are just aesthetic beauties, and give each other plenty of sass in their dialogue. Each mermaid has her own particular and distinctive character traits and it makes for a diverse and fascinating story.

In On the Rocks, the three mermaid heroines from book one are stuck aboard a spooky ship, but a human, Paris Silkensocks, discovers a plot to destroy the mermaid world. Paris must find the mermaids in time and avert a crabtastrophe. Fun and frolicks. With scattered black and white illustrations from Jason Cockcroft. Swim with mermaids here.

LoraliLorali by Laura Dockrill
From zany to zanier, Dockrill’s writing style can be a bit of an acquired taste – veering towards the wacky and unpredictable, so tackling mermaids and the fantastical seems like a good fit. Dockrill has two books published in her mermaid series, the first of which, Lorali, was published in 2015.

Rory finds a naked girl washed up under Hastings pier during a storm on his sixteenth birthday. But even more surprising is where she comes from. Lorali has to get used to some strange things in the ‘walking’ world, but it’s Rory’s gradual awakening to Lorali’s world and why she’s running from the sea that becomes the centrepiece of this intriguing novel.

Dockrill deals cleverly with her convoluted plot, telling the story from three points of view: Rory, Lorali, and the sea – the last of which provides the reader with the background to the world of the mermaids.

But it’s Dockrill’s handling of the teen world that is where she is most adept. The mermaid’s newness to the world is not unlike that of a teenager, exploring themselves and their surroundings for the first time as realisation dawns of the sort of adult they might turn into, and the choices they make.

There is a raw darkness to the book too, jumping from the realism of a seaside town to a world in which strange weather and pirates rule. Dockrill’s words tumble over like the crashing of the waves, and her nod away from fairy tale and to modernity lies in the way in which she addresses feminism and misogyny, but not always in the way in which the reader expects. For a YA audience. You can buy it here.

There are a few adult novels published in the past year or so that also feature mermaids, creatures that speak to our times. Mermaids are regarded as freaks, albeit beautiful ones, and in today’s society, when we are constantly alert to ‘otherness’ and ‘diversity’, the concept of mer-people on land or humans at sea is all about how we fit in, and the similarities and differences between us. Happy swimming.

 

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

how to beeRecently, I’m seeing a great deal of science fiction that’s set in the very near future (mainly in adult fiction, but also in some children’s novels), as if we’re nearing our own dystopian landscape. But generally, this genre works well. It enables the author to envision a future not that different from the present, but tweaking elements to make a specific point. For the reader, it coaxes belief in this imagined world, in that there is a startling familiarity with specific things, despite the larger world being a little different.

In How to Bee, Bren MacDibble goes with the premise that due to widespread use of pesticides, the bees have died out, and to continue growing produce and farming, pollination must be done by children (leaping from tree to tree with special pollinating wands). Based on real practises in Chinese provinces, where humans do actually hand-pollinate pear blossom, and her real-life experience of growing up on a farm, the book feels authentic and disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful.

What shines most from this dazzlingly yellow book is MacDibble’s use of ‘voice’ to tell Peony’s story. Peony is nine years old, a worker on the farm, although not yet a Bee, because to be a Bee a child must be ten and awfully quick. She’s working towards it, but not quite there yet. Her voice, as she tells her story, feels new, fresh, lively, irrepressible but mainly fast, as if she’s scrabbling over the words as she would scrabble across the trees. The voice feels unschooled, unrestrictive, and matches her immense physicality. The play on words of the title sum up Peony’s whole existence. This is a girl bursting with life. She wants to be as much as she wants to bee.

Of course, like all good novelists, MacDibble must throw obstacles in Peony’s way, and this is where things become dark and difficult. Peony is removed to the city, away from her beloved grandfather and little sister and farm, to work with her mother in one of the big city houses. The episode of her removal from the farm is fairly traumatic, and the two worlds – city and country – could not be more disparate.

In fact MacDibble’s vision of the future is fairly bleak. Human rights are eroded – the children of the farm are broadcast ‘lessons’ on loudspeakers in the morning while they work – there is no universal right to education. Once in the city, Peony is a servant rather than merely staff – workers’ rights too seem to have been eroded. What’s more, there is unpoliced domestic abuse and cruelty to children. Poverty is widespread and there is no welfare system net in place.

But for many children, they will not read into the bleakness of this. Peony’s move to the city is an adventure, and she swiftly makes friends with the girl of the house – Peony’s kind nature and selflessness shining through. And there is an uplifting ending with Peony’s love for family and nature winning the day. Mainly because Peony’s voice is so lively and uplifting, and her shining adoration for the farm, her immediate family and nature triumphs against everything dark and evil.

The book is well paced – short sharp chapters, with quick forward movement like the bee pollinators themselves, the reader is propelled forwards on Peony’s adventure. The reader feels an enormous amount of empathy for this small child in a frightening world – having a more all-seeing terrain of her story than Peony does herself.

For all its shortness, MacDibble breathes plenty of life into the book. There are complex dynamics between characters – particularly the mother/child bond, and also an unabashed look at inequalities in society.

MacDibble writes with confidence and ease – the book feels different, atypical, which makes it shine brightly in the field of current children’s fiction. It turns out being is a complicated business, but with books such as this, children will buzz with excitement about their ability to influence their own futures. You can buy your copy here. I would suggest as 9+ years, but beware some of the darker episodes. Young teens who are reluctant readers will love the story’s depth whilst appreciating the brevity of the text.

Positively Teenage by Nicola Morgan

positively teenageI often find that nonfiction books about the teenage years are coated in a light film of negativity. From titles such as ‘What’s Happening to My Body?’ as if maybe an alien force has invaded and implanted, or ‘Survival Guides to the Teenage Years’ as if it’s a time of nuclear holocaust. There’s no doubt that one of my favourite things as a teen was to read the ‘problem pages’ in the magazines, but it’s good to finally realise that we shouldn’t be dealing with teenagers as ‘problematic’, but addressing these years with positivity.

Nicola Morgan has been writing about teens for a long time, winning the School Library Association Information Book Award in 2015 for The Teenage Guide to Stress.

But for many parents, especially those parents who have children just approaching the teenage years, they want a book that doesn’t scream ‘stress, bullies, or problems’ on their cover in reference to teens. It would be better to have something that promotes the empowerment that comes from becoming a teenager – the uplifting moments, the maturation, the joyfulness. That’s not to say there aren’t issues – but they can be dealt with in a calm manner, and Nicola Morgan has acknowledged this in her knowledgeable guide, Positively Teenage, which contains some excellent ideas, as well as an assortment of easy-to-comprehend scientific facts and data thrown in – aimed at the kids themselves, but useful for adults to dip into too.

Morgan has based the premise of the book around the principles in the word FLOURISH – Food, Liquid, Oxygen, Use, Relaxation, Interest, Sleep and Happiness. The only slightly ambiguous word here is ‘use’, by which she means using all areas of the brain for a wealth of activities.

The book guides the reader gently through each area, with the book divided into sections such as Positively You, A Positive Attitude, A Positive Mood etc. The headings encompass large ideas, but actually the text itself is broken down well and is easily digestible. In each section there are paragraphs of text, with emboldened headings, some bullet points etc, but also quizzes to answer questions about yourself (you know, the type of thing they used to have in teen magazines, which were always such fun), a host of weblinks and further research, but also lots of good neuroscience explained pitch perfectly.

Morgan traverses the terrain between general things that are applicable to every generation, such as recognising character strengths including gratitude, honesty, forgiveness and so on, with an acute awareness of modern concerns, such as doctored internet pictures, controlling screen use, mindfulness and what neuroscientists have recently discovered about the difference between the teen brain and the adult brain, in terms of need for sleep, taking risks, temptations, emotions and more.

There are sections on building a growth mindset, developing resilience, eating correctly, sleeping well, exercise, and developing interests and hobbies, as well as cultivating a decent personality – in terms of being grateful for what you have, understanding and tolerating others’ differences and opportunities, helping others, trust and friendship. There’s even a section on reading for pleasure!

One of the aspects I like best is how Morgan suggests the many areas over which teens have control, and suggests taking responsibility for them, (which helps to reduce stress and conflict). We’d all do well to take the advice.

The only slight negatives I could find are that the diet suggestions feel very Western in content, and there’s always a worry that web links printed in books go out of date – whereas lots of the text advice doesn’t date. Morgan also suggests visiting a library to find out about community classes etc, but sadly, many teens will now find a library hard to access.

There are no swishy graphics here – which the book doesn’t need. It’s a handy paperback size for slipping into a large pocket or small bag, and the information feels compact, and yet full.

This is generally a really positive book that I’m happy to push into the hand of any pre-teen in expectation for the great years that they have ahead of them. As Morgan herself says: “The more we know of how we work, the better we can make ourselves work.” With this book, teens will have the knowledge and tools to be the best person they can be. You can pre-order it here. The book publishes on 24 May 2018.

Can We Talk About Fortnite?

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

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

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

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

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

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

books to read if you love fortnite

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

alone

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

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

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

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

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

The Fortnite image is taken from Epic Games.

 

 

A Child’s Best Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

optimists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

YA Shot: An Interview with Sita Brahmachari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

zebra crossing soul song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sita Brahmachari

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

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

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