young teen

Writing for Teens: A Conversation with Jon Walter

nevertheless she persistedJon Walter’s latest novel strikes the gong for women everywhere in this 100th anniversary year since some women were afforded the vote. Nevertheless She Persisted is the story of two sisters in 1913 and their struggle to achieve and succeed in a world dominated by men. Clara and Nancy work in Holloway Prison in a time in which the prison population includes a number of imprisoned suffragettes, some suffering force feeding as a result of their hunger strikes. Seeing their own struggles for independence mirrored in these fighting women, Nancy and Clara must make the decision as to which side to be on.

Walter’s novel gets to the very heart of the suffragettes’ struggle; looking not only at the importance of the role of imprisonment in the suffragette movement, and the Cat and Mouse Act, but also at the political motives and arguments surrounding women at a time in which their roles in life were still dependent upon men.

He doesn’t hold back. There is a graphic description of force feeding, an account of the sisters’ escape from their home, in which it becomes apparent that their father is guilty of incest. So, this isn’t really a book I’d normally recommend on a blog primarily designed to showcase children’s titles. In fact, it’s being published as part of David Fickling Books’ new foray into adult titles, which began with Pullman’s book of essays, Daemon Voices, last year. However, Walter claims that he writes YA fiction, (his previous novel Close to the Wind is suitable for those aged 10+ years, whilst My Name is Not Friday was longlisted for The Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize 2015), and his publisher claims that stories are for all:

Fickling says: Ideally I would really like to publish books that are not strictly for kids or only for adults, but with wide appeal. We’re not trying to muddle things – we’ll always keep story at our heart.”

But this is marketed as for adults, and so I feel that Walter could have pushed even more on the corporeal or visceral feelings that these women suffered – he holds back on the physical and emotional descriptions of childbirth and its after effects and the physical and emotional constrictions that women must have felt at that time, but to his credit he pushes the boundaries on the political instead.

Nancy and Clara are scarcely out of childhood themselves, and indeed at the time many women were made to feel that their childhood continued into adulthood because their independence was so curtailed. However, they occupy an adult world and step into roles of responsibility within the prison system, all the while trying to create their own new world, to forge a new path of a new generation – a world in which women aren’t tied by the patriarchy, and in which they can wear trousers or ride a bicycle and fight for their own freedoms and earn their own money. In this regard, Nevertheless does read like a YA title. Jon Walter believes that all his books are for a YA audience:

Jon WalterChildren’s literature can be a great place for dealing with big questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we belong? How should we live? I write for children because I want to address those questions. And I also write for children because they occupy a place of transition, particularly teens, who inhabit the borderlands between childhood and adulthood. This is extremely fertile territory for fiction writers because it is unformed and unstable. It has friction and is ripe for conflict as the new threatens to sweep aside the old. Basically, I’m more interested in the world young people will create than the world we adults have left them.”

I wonder if the reasons that DFB have cast this as an adult title are twofold. Firstly, the issue of incest – generally one of the last taboos. Walter isn’t sure: “There are no rules that can’t be broken in fiction but there is definitely safe ground and risky ground. With YA it’s certainly not content. Authors such as Robert Cormier, Melvin Burgess, Margot Lanagan, Louise O’Neill, M T Anderson have all put that idea to rest. I think it’s more about the chosen subject matter. YA tends to find itself in the territory where the adult and children’s world collide. Dystopian fiction would be a good example of the convergence, which is probably why so many teenagers walk around with copies of George Orwell or Margaret Atwood. It’s also about the tone of the book and the primacy of plot, though these are not defining features. Is Stephen King YA? Are thrillers or crime fiction?  I could give you a whole long list of books that are relevant and suitable for teenagers but published as adult fiction.”

Indeed, the teenagers I meet definitely read novels that are in the general fiction area of the bookshop – from 1984 to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to Catch 22 (the latter not a novel I’d recommend for adults; it’s best read as a teen when you’re sucked in by the sheer lunacy). In which case, is YA a patronising term? Why does it exist at all? Jon thinks we might be imposing unnecessary age limits on our readers:

There’s a belief in children’s fiction that readers tend to read two years above their actual age. This is because, while they want to see themselves in a book, they also want to see what might be happening to them very soon. They want to do what the older kids do!

But there’s also something that happens to children aged 14 and upwards. They’re looking at the adult world and seeing how they are going to fit. This isn’t just about sex and drugs and rock and roll. It’s about politics, how the world is structured; the who gets what and why. It might even be about the world of work; what will they do to employ their time and will it pay them enough to live independently? These are very adult questions so it’s not surprising that teenagers often prefer to visit the general fiction section of a shop rather than the children’s section.

If you put these two things together, then the age range of YA  narrows considerably. Instead of a wide 13-18, it might more practically be seen as 12-15? And if so, are we failing to market properly to children and adults in the 15 -22 age range? And rather than pulling older readers in, does the notion of a young adult genre patronise them? My children are 19 & 22, one at university, one doing care work and deciding whether he will make a career of it. Like most people their age, both have a tenuous relationship to adulthood. Why are there so few books aimed at ‘kids’ of this age? It’s almost as though they don’t exist!”

And perhaps this is the second reason why Nevertheless She Persisted is classed as an adult title – the protagonists aren’t children, they’re in their twenties:

One of the problems with Nevertheless was that the suffragettes had an age limit (at least for official suffragette activity) of 21. The age limit for prison wardens was 24. I could have circumvented these with a younger character who witnessed the actions of others but I didn’t want to do that because a reader of fifteen upwards doesn’t necessarily need a protagonist their own age. I think the issues that Nancy and Clara deal with are resonant with the lives and decisions of today’s teenagers, despite the protagonists and setting being adult.”

All in all then, we tend to agree. The genres and age levels imposed upon novels are fairly arbitrary – after all how many novels are there that traverse across the genres rather than tidily fitting into one particular category. Is Jane Austen romance? Classic? Literary fiction? Perhaps in the end, it’s really just about marketing:

I think it is but that’s hugely significant. Successful marketing is about putting books into the right people’s hands – it can be the difference between a book being read or passed over.” Walter’s latest novel might be marketed as adult, but it’s an appealing read for any teen looking to discover the women’s suffrage struggle, or to understand the relationship between sisters, or to read social historical fiction that contains those small nuggets of detail that are so fascinating. It’s written with clarity and pathos and as one would expect from a Jon Walter novel, carries the reader at pace with style and poise. Walter appears happy with DFB’s new direction: “DFB are taking a risk with this but it might just be that their new adult list appeals more to teenagers than the books might as YA. If the list also succeeds in attracting adult readers who aren’t engaged with the children’s book world, then that’s even better!”

I’m looking forward to reading whatever might be next – perhaps Jon Walter might try his hand at a picture book next? And those, as we know, are for all ages.

You can buy a copy of Nevertheless She Persisted here.

 

 

Rituals and Community

Although on the surface it would appear that the following three books are vastly different – a historical novel set in the Philippines, the first in a new fantasy quartet, and a dystopian novel published in 1993, I notice that they all rely heavily upon a coming-of-age ritual for their plots. Today in modern society, we still have coming-of-age rituals be they religious such as a bar mitzvah, or secular such as the transition to high school (made into quite an ordeal with end of primary proms, new uniform shopping, perhaps the purchase of a new phone etc.)

Each culture focussed in the three books has their own coming-of-age ritual central to their community – it marks the turning of children into adults and in all three cases gives them their adult role in the community. Each ritual is incredibly different but they retain similarities in design and all are deemed important by the community – indeed these societies are each bound as a community to the rituals, rules and beliefs that they inherit. And questioning of the rituals, rules or beliefs threatens the community…

bone talkBone Talk by Candy Gourlay
Gourlay’s latest novel sees her attempt to give voice, with a first person narrative, to the native Filipino’s view of history as she describes a boy on the brink of manhood in a tribal village in 1899. Although she fictionalises her story, this is a rare view of history in this land, seen before only through the eyes of occupying forces or anthropologists. Samkad is about to undergo the ‘cut’, the ceremony that turns him from boy to man and lets him join the warriors of his tribe who are fighting the headhunting enemy.

Samkad’s innocence is apparent immediately. He has never met anyone from outside his tribe, or been beyond the marked territory of the village’s paddy fields, and he also enjoys his time with his friend Luki, a girl who is also desperate to be a warrior, although held back by the view of gendered roles within her tribe. However, his innocence is not seen as a negative, and Gourlay writes intelligently about how he thrives within his community, and the importance of the community’s ‘innocence’ – the fact that they are undisturbed.

However, it takes more than a cut to make a man, and when Samkad’s coming-of-age ceremony is derailed, and a pale-skinned man, an American, arrives, Samkad and the reader learn that experience, not necessarily ritual, is what changes a person.

Gourlay is terrific at describing the landscape of Samkad’s village, from the mountains of rice paddies to the trees that surround them, but mostly at the intricacies of the customs of the tribe, the hierarchical structure of their community, and the rituals, sacrifices and beliefs that bind them together. Soon, it’s clear that the existential threat to the tribe comes not from enemy headhunters or snakes, but from the Americans, who aren’t as friendly as they first appear when they come bearing sweets as well as guns.

The story is fast-paced and written with an immediacy and visceral quality that immerses the reader in Samkad’s way of life and his emotions. Gourlay tells the story with an immense sensitivity towards the way of life she is describing but also with heat and power. The Americans bring a different kind of knowledge to the tribe – some of which is good and useful, and some of which is highly dangerous. As well as exploring these ideas, Gourlay poses questions about the nature of land ownership and territory, about warfare, and community, about changes that come from within as well as what happens when new people arrive. The story is about culture, belief, loyalty and the meaning of community and is historical fiction at its finest, with a fresh and invigorating outlook. Age 10+. You can buy it here.

storm witchStorm Witch by Ellen Renner
Another child facing her rites of passage ritual is Storm in Storm Witch by Ellen Renner. Now 13, she must undertake the Choosing ceremony to see if she will be claimed by one of the Elementals: Air, Water, Earth or Fire, and this Choosing will determine her course in life – her vocation. This is a fantasy novel set in some distant land at an unspecified time, but it’s clear that inspiration has been taken from a rural life – Storm’s village community lives from the land – pots are fired, food is fished or hunted, and cloth is woven from natural product. This is a place and time in which technology hasn’t been harnessed.

In a highly unusual occurrence, Storm isn’t chosen by one Elemental, but three, turning her into a witch, and one whose powers are not understood even by the village Elders, headed here by a matriarch. When the village is under threat from the Drowned Ones, (a separate tribe who live at sea) will Storm be able to harness her powers to save her community and particularly those she loves?

Renner has built her world around the power of the elemental forces of nature, and throughout the novel Storm’s people either harness the power for their own use, or suffer its dangers. This works cleverly, so that fire is a dangerous element with the power to destroy, but also of course with the nurturing power to bring heat and light. Water too is dangerous if combined with wind, but is useful in providing a way of passage to trade, and also for its fish. The reader feels at one with nature too reading the book, as though the sound of the sea is a constant backdrop to village life.

The magical elements are woven naturally into the landscape and don’t feel too fantastical, more a way of life and part of the rituals and beliefs of the society Renner has created. But what stands out most is the authenticity of her characters. Storm is a great teenager – on the cusp of womanhood but still bound into childhood squabbles and fighting, split between the childhood of her younger cousin and yet wanting to be part of the adult conversations, and desperate for adult wisdom and knowledge. She is modern in her outlook – her haste and impatience showing through, but also her loyalty and love. The other characters are fully fleshed too, from Storm’s patient mother to her guide and Elder, Teanu.

This is another community set apart and cut off from others, and so strangers are unusual, and when one arrives he brings excitement and danger. This novel too is fast-paced and powerfully written – and although I am generally not a great fan of fantasy, I remained gripped and bound to Storm’s world. Age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

the giverThe Giver by Lois Lowry
This isn’t a new book or even a new edition, but rather was a summer read for our family, and intersected with these other two books so neatly that I couldn’t help but mention it. For those of you new to it, The Giver tells of another community – set in a dystopian future, cut off from the rest of society and indeed from history. It follows a boy called Jonas who is also approaching his ceremony of adulthood – when at 12 the children are assigned the jobs and roles they will play within the community for the rest of their lives. However, Jonas is given a rather different job than the rest of his cohort: he is to be the new Receiver.

This is an unsettling futuristic read about a ‘utopian’ world in which all aspects of pain and suffering have been removed, and fairness rules. Each matched couple is given two children, a boy and a girl, whose own adolescent stirrings are repressed with medication. None of the community has memories, and the elderly and those who don’t fit are ‘released’ with great celebration.

Lowry gradually builds up the reader’s awareness of the world as they progress through the book, so that the reader is more and more unsettled,  until the full scale of the ‘utopia’ becomes apparent. When Jonas receives his new job, and starts to be fed memories of what human society used to be like (in order that he can dispel advice and wisdom to the Elders), the reader realises what the community has sacrificed and the path they have chosen, most unwittingly, and the reader’s moral compass kicks in to question which elements make life worthwhile and valuable.

This is a fascinating allegorical book that stimulates questions about how we live, about difference and sameness, about memories and creativity, about beliefs, rituals and community. It’s dark but simply told so that the horrors creep up stealthily. Lowry’s skilfulness in writing is immediately apparent. The prose is disturbingly simple and information is only drip fed until the reader is so immersed with Jonas, so emotionally entangled and engaged that they could not possibly release him without reading to the end.

It’s a powerful and provocative novel and poses many more questions than it answers. Age 11+ years. You can buy it here.

 

Summer 2018 Round-Up

It’s hard to believe we’re at another summer break for MinervaReads. The blog doesn’t operate in August, so at the end of July on the home page I leave a full list of summer reads and releases that you might find interesting. There was such a huge selection this year, I found it difficult to make my pick.

raj and the best day everpetratropical terry

Picture Books

If you’re looking for a picture book that sums up your summer with your pre-schooler, then you’d be hard pressed to find a more endearing, real and funny book than Raj and the Best Day Ever by Seb Brown. Raj and his Dad make a list of what they’re going to do on their day out. But when Dad leaves his wallet behind, they must improvise. With a celebration of a father/son relationship, wonderfully busy cartoon animal illustrations and a sense that fun can be had with a little imagination, this is a funny, up-lit picture book.

Further use of imagination in Petra by Marianna Coppo in this skilfully intelligent, minimalistic picture book. Petra is a pebble with a misguided sense of identity, although gradually she learns she has the potential to be many things thanks to her imagination and her literal journey. The understated-ness of the book lends to its charm, and readers will enjoy exploring Petra’s resilience in adapting to her new discoveries about who she is. Quirky and full of emotion. For a pebble, that’s saying something.

Issues of identity arise in Jarvis’s Tropical Terry too – a picture book fully exploiting the colours and shapes of the sea. Terry is a dull-looking fish, although it makes him excellent at hide-and-seek. But when he dresses up as a tropical fish, he gets more than he bargained for. Being happy with who you are and discovering your strengths, as well as valuing your real friends, is a great message.

the girlsswan lake

Others to look out for this summer include The Girls by Lauren Ace, illustrated by Jenny Lovlie, which celebrates friendship and inclusion between four little girls with joyful light and breezy illustrations, and Swan Lake by Anne Spudvilas, a dark and brooding visualisation of the ballet story that will haunt and delight in equal measure. The illustrations conjure up the movement of the dance; and the zoom into the chandelier and dresses is simply phenomenal. Sure to cast a spell.

hello horse

The summer is a great time to take up a new hobby. I swear my parents only took me riding for the first time in a freezing cold frosty mid-December to put me off the experience, but youngsters with an eye on the horses will be enthralled with Hello Horse by Vivian French, illustrated by Catherine Rayner. Charming, informative and with the most exquisite illustrations, this is a nature storybook that seeks to inform about aspects of horse care whilst telling a gentle story. The watercolours of the fields and wildflowers exude a sense of summer country days, and the texture of the horse is so appealing and nuanced that it will turn the reader’s head.

Young Fiction/Independent Readers

secret sevenknights and bikesbeano

For young fiction readers, Pamela Butchart has updated The Secret Seven series by Enid Blyton, and the first is published in July – Mystery of the Skull. Butchart brings her exuberance and fast-paced story-telling, and although it’s stuck with Barbara, Jane and co, and so lacks a modern diversity, the first adventure is jolly good fun, and just as addictive as the original Blyton tellings.

From new publisher Knights Of, comes Knights and Bikes by Gabrielle Kent, illustrated by Rex Crowle. As anticipated, this is a romping energetic adventure story on bikes that explores the wonders of friendship, with a quest to solve, and mentions of water balloons, frisbees and much more. A bit wacky, highly illustrated, and with a computer game to follow, this should be a well-thumbed mystery.

My own kids adore Saturdays, mainly for the postal delivery of the weekly Beano, so this summer will be fabulous when they discover Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief, as told by Nigel Auchterlounie. Full text interspersed with black and white cartoon illustrations, and a chatty interactive adventure in Beanotown. Perfect for a longer read.

Junior Fiction/Middle Grade/Fluent Readers

boy underwaterplanet staniguana boy

Junior fiction or middle grade readers may not want to read Boy Underwater by Adam Baron, illustrated by Benji Davies, next to the swimming pool, but it’s a compelling, sometimes sad read that will keep children hooked. Cymbeline Igloo has never been swimming, and his first foray into the pool alongside his classmates isn’t pretty. But it has longer-lasting effects upon his mother, and before long, old family secrets are exposed, and Cymbeline’s life will never be the same. Baron explores loss with pathos and empathy, but also adds brilliant touches of humour with his narrator’s wry voice, as well as a satirical look at privilege, and wise words about life in general. No wonder it was a Waterstone’s Book of the Month. Unmissable.

If you’re looking for funny, try Planet Stan by Elaine Wickson, illustrated by Chris Judge. A friendship adventure story packed with space facts and diagrams and charts, and yet also with hilarious survival tips. Or Iguana Boy Saves the World with a Triple Cheese Pizza by James Bishop, illustrated by Rikin Parekh about Dylan, whose superpower is being able to speak to iguanas. Perhaps not the best superpower to own. But if there were no other superheroes, it’d all be down to him. Funny, and with comic-strip illustrations.

the goose road

For a sensuous summer read, historical The Goose Road by Rowena House is set during World War I, and explores France through the eyes of Angelique, desperate to hold onto her farm until her brother can return home from the Front. Packed with detail, and charmingly poignant, this triumphs a girl with ultimate resilience in a desperate time.

YA/Teen

its a wrapthe lost witchmud

For YA, the choice this summer is really fantastic. For an accessible, funny, warm teen read you’ll want to devour the Waiting for Callback trilogy by Perdita and Honor Cargill. The third in the trilogy has just been published – It’s a Wrap. The characters are rounded, real and raw, the situations dramatic and often hilarious, and the prose so readable you’ll forget where you are.

The Daddy of YA is back in town – Melvin Burgess has a new novel out for teens called The Lost Witch. His novels have never been for the fainthearted and this is no different – stark imagery that fixes in the mind, an exploration of the power and manipulation in relationships through use of a well-crafted other world, and a prosaic dance with the natural world in looking to what is wild and tame within ourselves. A master of twists and turns, here Burgess has intertwined an adept hand at fantasy whilst still retaining the grittiness of real life. Exciting, dangerous – for older teens.

Other teens will prefer the more contemporary and reality-based Mud by Emily Thomas, with a teen voice that showcases sophistication. Set in 1979, it explores what happens when Lydia’s father announces he is selling their house and moving Lydia and her three older siblings to live on a barge with his new girlfriend and their family. Filled with complicated relationships, forgiveness and learning to make do, this is a fascinating read.

a boy called ocean
From river to ocean, A Boy Called Ocean by Chris Higgins tells the story of Kai from multiple points of view. Kai has always been best friends with Jen since he moved to Cornwall when he was small. But now Kai’s feelings have started to change, and then he makes a snap decision and finds himself stranded at sea. With Jen on land, and an ocean between them, this is a different kind of romance.

Activity Books

seashore watchercolossal city counthoakes island

If you’re looking for interactive activity-led books then Seashore Watcher by Maya Plass has a summery feel and handily comes in a ziplock bag for practical use. As well as information about identifying different coral and shells, there are activities, factfiles and more. The full-colour photographs are fascinating and wondrous. Colossal City Count by Andy Rowland is like a Where’s Wally with numbers and world cities. Practise identifying clues and counting villains to solve the crimes committed city by city. Have great fun spotting how many Victoria sponges there are in London!

Lastly, and the one we’ll be taking on holiday, is Hoakes Island by Helen and Ian Friel. This puzzle adventure book – a collection of diary entries, maps, notes, puzzles and all sorts, leads to the clue as to where Henry Hoakes has gone – the owner of the amusement park. There’s a red magnifying piece for assistance, a group of talking animals, and letters that aren’t in order. Maths, comprehension, observation skills are all needed to solve the puzzle – but there’s also an intriguing adventure story within. For ages 7-11. (The answers are at the back, but don’t peek. It’s worth the challenge).

Do come back in September. I have the best books of the year to recommend to you – they’re dropping thick and fast for the autumn. You’re in for a cracking reading time as the nights draw in, and the weather cools down!

Robin Hood for a New Generation: A Guest Blog by MA Griffin

paybackOver a week ago, I featured Payback as my book of the week. It’s sharp, political and a very modern take on Robin Hood. Here, MA Griffin describes the influences and ideas that formed the novel.

Every generation has their own version of Robin Hood.

Mine was a BBC adaptation starring first Michael Praed and then Jason Connery. Like all versions, it differentiated itself from its predecessors with a series of idiosyncrasies. This one had a moody Clannad soundtrack over shots of shadowy forests, and a weird stag-headed God called Herne the Hunter.

Two elements of the Robin Hood story have stayed with me ever since. One is the fascination with ensemble casts. The line that runs through Poison Boy, Lifers and now Payback is the assembly of a rag-tag crew of unlikely heroes who spend as much time battling each other as they do the forces of the antagonist. The other is the idea of the sympathetic outlaw – the character whose actions are morally dubious but whose intentions are good, and who finds themselves battling a hierarchical system built to favour those in power.

Payback had both of these elements even in the early stages of planning. When I met the Chicken House team to discuss the book, I had a paragraph of prose describing an organisation called – at the time – Takeback. My opening sentence was, “The richest 1% control half the world’s wealth. It’s time for a new Robin Hood; a company of trained thieves called Takeback.”

M. A. GriffinAs I planned and wrote Payback, I was thinking partly about the Amazon tax scandal of 2016, now being replicated blow-for-blow by Netflix. I was also thinking about an article I’d read about champagne in the House of Lords. As austerity bit, there was a plan to combine the catering services for the House of Commons and the Lords to save the taxpayer money. The Lords rejected it because it would have meant accepting a cheaper vintage of champagne. Their catering budget is £1.3m per annum. Parliament’s bar bill in 2016 was £1.8m. Combined, that’s £12.4m over the course of a four year term that we’re not spending on mental health services, housing, welfare, the NHS, education.

Payback is a masked gang of teenagers who are way too brave and enterprising to accept this sort of nonsense. They plan heists (‘grabs’) stealing money and valuables from corrupt lawyers, luxury goods companies and unscrupulous casinos then arrange ‘drops’, public events where the money is redistributed amongst those less fortunate. They have a YouTube channel of movies shot during their raids. They have fan-forums where supporters share potential targets. City centres bristle with pro-Payback graffiti; newspaper op-eds speculate about the identity of the gang’s masked members. When our protagonist Tom gets to join his idols, he’s thrust instantly into the limelight; famous overnight.

But Payback is struggling. Evading the law month after month is exhausting and one particularly relentless cop is closing in. Then it turns out they’ve made a terrible error. The victim of one of their heists turns out to be vengeful and unhinged; a man ready to do anything to protect his reputation.

What do you do when the law is closing in one side and malicious hoodlums stalk you on the other? Like the blurb says, “Robin Hood never had it this bad…”

Payback by M. A. Griffin is out now in paperback (£7.99, Chicken House), and you can read my review here, and purchase the book here. With thanks to M.A. Griffin, who you can follow on twitter @fletchermoss and find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com

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.