young teen

Waiting for Callback by Perdita and Honor Cargill

waiting for callback

Whether it’s the inspired pairing of a mother and daughter author team, or simply the authors’ great perceptive insight, Waiting for Callback auditions brilliantly for the part of freshest new voice in young teen fiction.

It tells the story of fifteen year old Elektra, as she struggles to fulfil her dream of becoming an actor, at the same time as she juggles with the everyday dramas a teen faces, from a row with a best friend, schoolwork, a crush on a boy, to frustrating parents and an eccentric grandmother.

The book cleverly portrays the unglamorous world of acting – even when Elektra signs with an agency, it’s mundanely situated above a dentist surgery, and she gets offered bit part roles in advertisements and student films – the part of Dead Girl Number Three, for example – there’s no sudden red carpet or flight to Hollywood.

Accompanying this realistic portrayal of a teen acting career are the fleshed out characters surrounding Elektra. Her parents are a phenomenal supporting cast in the book – their emotional and financial support for Elektra are depicted beautifully, as are their moments of irritation and frustration with their own daughter. Although told in the first person by Elektra, the character of her mother is captured beautifully – the conversations of ‘how did it go’ after her auditions are spot on, as are the hours she spends waiting for her daughter to finish filming some bit part, as well as the father’s detached yet loving interest. Their accurate portrayal induced many wry smiles and snorts of agreement.

There’s incredible detail of the acting classes that Elektra takes too – she finds much of it pointless to begin with, but warms to it, and her enjoyment shines through despite her teenage ‘lack of enthusiasm’ attitude.

The writing is so confident and clear that the reader is pulled along on Elektra’s journey, and roots for every casting with her. Add to this the constant deadpan comedy, and this is a pleasurable and fun read from start to finish.

There are some powerful lessons in here too – that no matter what one’s profession, it takes graft (grit and determination and hard work) to get ahead – that envy of others in the profession gets you nowhere and is often misplaced, and that patience is indeed a virtue. But the story is told in such a light, fun-filled way, that none of these lessons is forced.

It also skims lightly over the idea of introspection and empathy; Elektra falls out with her best friend at one point, and it’s a good lesson on how to handle friendships when interests diverge and boyfriends take up friendship time. Learning to like a friend’s chosen other half is a lifelong skill, as is respecting their passions, whatever they may be.

There’s also Elektra’s crush on a fellow teen actor, which is well handled in a gentle way. There is nothing graphic or risqué about the love interest, which makes it a ‘safe’ read for the youngest teen wannabe. In fact, the title may very well apply to teenage crushes as well as acting careers!

The prose is interspersed with realistic letters back and forwards from the agency to Elektra and her parents, and this gives a good insight into the acting world as well as breaking up the text. There are also plenty of up-to-date references – the use of the internet and mobiles, things that are written rather than said, Buzzfeed, emoticons, quotes from modern actors, celebrity – but also clever allusions to Waiting for Godot and Austen – in ‘waiting and dating’ some things don’t change.

This is a warm, encouraging read for teenagers. Believable characters, a realistic plot and plenty of humour. Highly recommend for 11+ years. Publishes 28 January. You can buy it here.

 

Top Ten(ish) Books Published 2015

I’m not convinced on the end of year lists thing. MinervaReads raison d’etre being that one list of ten books would not suit any two children – different books suit different children. However, this being the time of year when we all go crazy and make top ten lists of absolutely everything, here are the top ten children’s books of MINE for 2015 – simply the books I most enjoyed reading (for review purposes). And by the way, this was ridiculously tricky (which is why I kind of cheated and mentioned 16).

bear on chairplease mr pandaBear and the Piano

There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins
I first saw a copy of this book pre-publication in April when a sample was thrust upon me at a conference. I agreed with the publisher that this was bound to be a hit and subsequently reviewed on publication in June. For me, I like picture books that, as a parent, you are happy to read over and over – as that’s what a child demands. I also like inference – when you have to work out a bit of the story for yourself – and illustrations that elicit a wry smile or an outright guffaw. The text is reminiscent of Dr Seuss, the pictures humorous and warm. This ticked all the boxes and it’s my picture book of the year. A small mention to Please Mr Panda – which just crept into 2015 books, and is probably my joint favourite – Steve Antony is proving to be a master of his trade – and the panda is one of my favourite modern picture book characters, demanding politeness from children in the simplest yet most exquisite way. I can’t wait for him to demand patience from them, as he will be doing in 2016 with I’ll Wait, Mr Panda. One other picture book I’d recommend as a startling debut and one to not be missed from the 2015 publications list is The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield. The messages within the story, and the way the illustrations capture light, make this a totally exquisite book.

tree

Tree by Britta Teekentrup and Patricia Hegarty
Non-fiction is being packaged more and more effectively by clever children’s publishers, and for me Tree stood out as one of the best cross-overs between fiction and non-fiction this year. The text is poetic (it also rhymes) and fictional – but through its illustrations, Tree shows the changing of the seasons, making clever use of die-cuts so that the reader can see inside the tree too. The colour palate in this book is a treasure in itself – as the same tree morphs from season to season – the leaves, creatures and surrounding atmosphere changing, the basic trunk stays the same. This was a book that was pounced on by all children as soon as they saw it, and held wonders within.

the school of art

School of Art by Teal Triggs, illustrated by Daniel Frost
This features as my non-fiction title of the year, as never has a book managed to explain complicated concepts and high-art techniques and subjects to me in such a simple way. Knowing nothing about the subject, I came to this as a child would and was entranced with the wonderful explanations – the introduction of professors who taught different knowledge bases, and the fantastic examples and try-it-at-home sequences – all of which worked exceptionally well. The design of the book was different too – clean, tidy and neatly colourful. In my initial review I found some of the text quite dense, but actually have since dipped in and out very successfully, and love that the book is so comprehensive. A rich overarching story within which the separate sections operate well on their own or as part of a whole. The book imparts great knowledge.

completely cassidy

Completely Cassidy: Accidental Genius by Tamsyn Murray
I have to admit, many books purporting to tell a story from a 9-13 year old contemporary girl’s point of view about her family/friends/school/boys, crop up on my radar. This one stood out for me because I simply couldn’t put it down. Cassidy rang so true, her character was so alive – I demolished this book in a sitting and was laughing out loud. With random doodles, fun graphics and capital letters, this was the most fun I had reading this year.

Mango and Bambang

Mango and Bambang by Polly Faber and Clara Vulliamy
This is the year for me in which illustrated stories piqued the attention like no other category within children’s books – from the phenomenal duo of Philip Reeve and Sarah Macintyre with Pugs of the Frozen North to Squishy McFluff by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad , to Dave McKean’s Illustrations of Phoenix by SF Said, to the ongoing success of Claude by Alex T Smith and Tom Gates by Liz Pichon, and of course our children’s laureate’s wonderful Ottoline. However, Mango and Bambang was like a breath of fresh air in the genre – a tidal wave of happiness – with its two tone colour perfection – its stripes, its worldly setting, its characters. This first book contains four individual stories about a girl who discovers a lost tapir. It is gentle, yet alluring.

untitled

Stonebird by Mike Revell
Although published early in 2015, and one of the first books I reviewed, this story still sticks fast in my memory – its poignant storytelling with a touch of magic about a boy who moves house, so that his mother can be nearer his grandmother who suffers from dementia, both engages and enthralls. The book deals sensitively with the consequences of the move, including the bullying Liam experiences at his new school, as well as the effect on his mother. Liam overcomes some of his problems by seeking the help of responsible grown-ups, and using the magic of storytelling. It deserves to be in every school library, and I hope for more from this author. Later in the year, reading In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll, I was also smitten with a protagonist dealing with the fallout from illness in the family, and some magic in the surroundings – both these titles, for age 9+ yrs struck me as being brilliantly evocative.

An Island Of Our Own

An Island Of Our Own by Sally Nicholls
I was gearing up to interview Sally Nichols for #YASHot in September (although this didn’t quite happen as Sally had her baby – congrats!) but in preparation I read all of Sally’s books. This one stands out for several reasons. Beautifully short chapters that enable even the most reluctant reader to sample small delectable portions of Sally’s writing, and wonderful characterisation – Sally definitely wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Cast, as her secondary characters are so wonderfully defined I know I’m not the only reviewer to have fallen for Jonathan, the protagonist’s big brother. She also weaves a neat mystery plot. Sally incorporates great use of setting from the flat the children live in, to the island they visit, as well as introducing exciting extra information into her books, in this one, the MakerSpace organisation. A great book.

demolition dad

Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
Phil Earle has been writing for a while, but mainly for slightly older children, so it was a blessing that he decided to reach down the age ladder slightly with this terrifically funny, yet also poignant, well-crafted novel. A great plot, sense of community, carefully dealt with emotion, an insight into father/son relationships – this book has so much. The humour is intensified by Phil’s self-referential jokes, as well as Sara Ogilvie’s amazing illustrations. A gem (and also more to come focussing on the same community next year).

The Dreamsnatcher cover FINAL

The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone
Another book I stumbled across pre-publication, and adored. Dark fantasy with such dense imagery, but led by a forcefield in the shape of Moll, our protagonist. Brave, feisty, impetuous, like a younger contemporary Northern Lights Lyra mixed with the determination of Sara Crewe from A Little Princess, and Wonderland Alice’s curiosity, and Elphinstone has drawn quite a heroine. With the darkest prologue I’ve read for a while (I like dark), and a vigorous plot, this was an influential read. Looking forward to reviewing the sequel The Shadow Keeper next year (with some more deliciously dark scenes from Abi Elphinstone’s wild imagination).

The Boy Who Drew the Future

The Boy Who Drew the Future by Rhian Ivory
This was such an enjoyable read, it was another I consumed in a day. Told from a dual narrative point of view, one set historically, the contemporary, the themes and settings danced between the two – Ivory cleverly dropping clues in each to build to a dramatic climax. The characters were intensely loveable, there was clear anguish and conflict, and some brilliantly spooky coincidences. Simple, compelling storytelling.

OneRailhead

Young Teens
Two books that stood out for me in the highest age range I cater for, were One by Sarah Crossan, and Railhead by Philip Reeve. The former for Crossan’s stunning use of free verse to tell her story of conjoined twins – packed with beautiful memorable language, and strung with emotion. The latter for its uncompromising science fiction world-building, to the extent that the reader is pulled in without any misgiving. Intriguing characters, tense, grotesque (I will never forget the hive monks), exciting, scintillating – and the sort of book you wouldn’t just thrust upon your young teen, but also share with all the grown-ups too.

Wolf Wilder

Lastly, (I know I’m already well over ten), my award for most stunning writing goes to Katherine Rundell. I imagine her as a kind of Elsa from Frozen – words flung from her fingertips onto the page with magnificent magical majesty, just as ice flies from Elsa’s fingertips. She writes with meticulous precision – every word well placed, every phrase constructed like dainty decorations on a wedding cake. It is clear, crisp, attractive, easy to read, and highly perceptive.

Long before publication of her 2015 novel, The Wolf Wilder, the enchantment of the first line was on everyone’s lips “Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl” and the images of the snowy landscape, the descriptions of the soldiers, the telling of the life of the wolves suck the reader into the story. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Christmas with Little Women

littlewomen

Christmas is a lovely time of year. Although sometimes our expectations of it can be too high, and it fails to live up to the hype. For those who are only looking in on Christmas, not celebrating it, Christmases exist first and foremost in storybooks and in the imagination. My idealised version is born from a lifetime of reading about great Christmases. Last Christmas I blogged about The Holly and the Ivy, my favourite Christmas story for younger readers.

But when I was slightly older, it was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women that clinched the deal, and persuaded me that, despite being a Londoner, real Christmas was in the snowy suburbia of Massachusetts.

Little Women’s first word is Christmas:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

And immediately the scene is set, and one of my favourite characters begins to take shape. That first Christmas in Little Women, with its “four young faces on which the firelight shone” paints a dampened Christmas, with ‘relative’ poverty, from which the girls start to learn valuable life lessons, such as sacrifice, generosity and charity. They are rewarded for their virtues by a neighbour with “distracting French bonbons” among other things.

But Christmas means more when it comes as a pause in working – and the work ethic theme runs throughout the novel. That the girls and their mother find meaning through labour, resonates with the Puritan teachings of New England where Alcott grew up. So the holiday of Christmas, when it comes, is even more joyful because of its juxtaposition with the rest of their year.

And Christmas means more than just a break from work in Little Women. The true meaning of Christmas is revealed in the girls’ thoughtfulness for others and most of all in ‘love’, in this case, their love for their family and in particular their mother, whom they surprise with gifts rather than having spent the money on themselves:

“There was a great deal of love done up in the few little bundles,” and

“There was a good deal of laughing, and kissing, and explaining, in the simple, loving fashion which makes these home-festivals so pleasant at the time, so sweet to remember long afterward, and then all fell to work.”

little women 2

But it’s the Christmas with which Part One ends that competes with all the cheery Christmas films on TV, with its excess of delights, and a homecoming to rival The Railway Children.

“Now and then, in this work-a-day world, things do happen in the delightful story-book fashion, and what a comfort that is.”

They do have a sumptuous Christmas meal that year, in stark contrast to the beginning of the book in which they sacrificed their breakfast pancakes and muffins for the poor family down the road.

“There never was such a Christmas dinner as they had that day. The fat turkey was a sight to behold, when Hannah sent him up, stuffed, browned and decorated. So was the plum-pudding, which quite melted in one’s mouth; likewise the jellies, in which Amy revelled like a fly in a honey-pot.”

But mainly Christmas is about family reunions, and Alcott pitches it perfectly when Mr March returns from the war just in time for Christmas:

“A sleigh-ride had been planned, but the girls would not leave their father; so the guests departed early, and, as twilight gathered, the happy family sat together round the fire.”

Little Women may be an old classic, but it pushes the boundaries with its challenge to gender stereotyping, and the values it espouses. Moreover, to make modern day authors feel perfectly sick, Alcott apparently only started writing Little Women in May 1868, and the book was published in September (just four months later).

You can buy it here. Have a lovely bookish Christmas.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

Hell and High Water

Opening with a filmic scene of main character Caleb and his father staging a Punch and Judy show, this scintillating excellently-written historical novel never lets up momentum. Caleb’s father is shortly thereafter accused of theft and transported to the Colonies. But Caleb knows his father is not guilty, and so he sets off on a journey to both find his only other living family – an estranged aunt, and to prove his father’s innocence.

When a body washes up on the beach near where his aunt lives, Caleb is swept into a world of smuggling and intrigue, mystery and lies, which leads him and his new-found family into terrifying danger.

Landman captures the eighteenth century brilliantly – from the clothes and transport, to the marketplace and food, not to mention the hardships and hierarchies that penetrated society.

In fact, for all that the plot is fast-paced and exciting, Landman also deals deftly with perceptions of race, gender and wealth, and their accompanying inequalities. Caleb has dark skin, and is treated like a leper in places, and mistaken for a slave boy. Meanwhile his aunt’s stepdaughter is given a lovely gender ‘twist’, as although a girl, she takes on all the boy’s roles – rowing the boat, hefting heavy items, even adopting the role of puppeteer, despite the negativity associated with female performers. Tanya plays beautifully with perceptions here – putting a historical setting to good use in exploring how our world has progressed (or in some cases not) in how we view race and gender.

The other inequality that Landman manipulates is wealth distribution – describing the hierarchy of society, and delving into questions of morality and generosity, or the lack thereof. Her descriptions are wry and satisfying:

“Both bonnet and gown seemed designed more to scream aloud their vast cost than to show her face or figure to their best advantage.”

Her key plot hinges on the different types of thievery – the starving petty thief’s need for sustenance versus the morally corrupt landowners who claim tax and insurance in illegal circumstances.

The historical references are rife and intriguing. Set specifically in 1752, Landman has fun playing with the Act of Parliament that lost the country 12 days so as to set the country in time with the rest of Europe. She also explains in the ‘author’s note’ at the end that her tale is inspired by true events of a villainous smuggling landowner and the sinking of his ship, the Nightingale in 1752.

The sea too is a huge inspiration for Landman – her descriptions of the landscape are atmospheric and dark, using tidal rivers to great effect from the sweep of the water, to the mud flats, and water penetrating the land. With many allusions to other literature, exploration of the role of parents and family, as well as themes of loyalty, bravery, and being morally upstanding – this is a work of beauty.

It is so well-written, the words stay even when the story is concluded:

“When Letty moved, she moved quietly, but sound behaves differently in the dark. Each creak of floorboard, each rustle of cloth is magnified. A breath becomes a shout, a footfall akin to the blast of a cannon.”

With descriptions of dead bodies, and an exhumation, moral corruption, and a growing love story, this is for the upper end of my age scale – recommended for 12+ years. You can buy it here.

 

With thanks to Walker Books for sending me a requested review copy.

Millie vs the Machines by Kiera O’Brien

Millie vs the machines

A fascinating debut book that crosses the realms between science fiction and boarding school fiction, with an eerie atmosphere running throughout that gently reminded me of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Set in 2099, in which each student uses their RetinaChip and index finger to see what everyone else is doing, as well as using it to select the right clothes (what’s fashionable that day) and food (adhering to nutrition guidelines) for themselves, as well as using the chip to gain access in and out of transport, school and shops. Millie appears to be a typical 13 year old girl, she checks what her friends are doing, wears the fashionable clothes of the day, and worries about her impending exams. Told in the first person, the reader feels increasingly on Millie’s side.

Except all is not as it seems, and when students start disappearing from their high-security school, Millie wonders if the robots who serve them are really as docile as they should be.

This is a compelling thriller with a spectacular plot twist towards the end. Kiera O’Brien builds suspense throughout the novel, imbuing the school with a sense of entrapment as well as security. Ever since Millie’s accident, she’s been unable to remember everything in the past, so the reader and Millie are only privy to backstory when she attempts to access segments of her memory through the technology of brain streaming.

Of course, with all this technology comes loss of privacy – beautifully drawn out – and also a reliance on robots. There is a new political structure to this world too – with corporations consuming governments, and a small uprising of people who want rights for robots. A marvellously believable and yet strange world, with a pacey plot and sharp references to what technology could do.

Hugely enjoyable, with oodles of wit mixed in with Millie’s fear, and a good understanding of the teenage psyche – teenagers of the future it seems will also fret about schoolwork, fashion and friends. A great read, and another highly recommended novel. 13+ years. You can purchase it here.

 

Anti-bullying Week

It’s national anti-bullying week. I have wanted to bring these two books to your attention for some time – they are brilliantly written, fantastic stories, which shout to be read. They both feature a group of bullies – one more prevalent in the story than the other, but what shines over and above the bullies is the discovery of true friendship.

storm horse

Storm Horse by Nick Garlick

A page turner of a book, Storm Horse is about 12 year old Flip, an orphaned boy, who is taken in by his aunt and uncle, whom he barely knows, on an island off Holland. At first he spends all his time helping out on their farm, but when a terrible storm engulfs the island, Flip shows immense bravery in rescuing a horse from drowning in the sea. He is allowed to keep the horse, provided that he shows he can care for it himself – but the horse is more troublesome than the storm itself.

Under constant menace from a group of local bullies, Flip and his cousin, as well as a ghostly mute girl, must battle against the bullies and the weather to triumph.

The story isn’t set in a specific time, but the atmosphere of the island is of a time past, in which the island’s lifeboat is launched into the sea by horses, music is played on a record player, and life is set at a slower pace. The wonderful community spirit that pervades the island is magical to read about – with farmers volunteering their services for lifeboat work, and everyone knowing and helping each other. It is very much a depiction of a different time and a different place (particularly for modern urban readers.)

There are many strands running through this timeless story – from the way in which Flip finally overcomes the bullies, to the friendships that develop between himself and his cousin and the strange mute girl. Garlick also explores Flip’s friendship with the horse. Storm, which allows Flip to develop self-confidence, self-awareness, and to find solace in this particular friendship as a way of overcoming his grief. It is common in children’s literature for a child’s relationship with an animal to provide a special type of comfort. The power of nature is also a force within the story.

Moreover, the story deals with grief in many ways – from Flip’s grief for his parents to the mute girl’s grief, and the grief of the islanders for the loss of life and horses in a storm, as well as grief for the way of life that might be lost. It was interesting too to see a book deal with adults who are being bullied – and how they overcome this adversity. For 10+ years. Buy it here from Waterstones

butterfly shell

The Butterfly Shell by Maureen White

There is potential bullying of adults in The Butterfly Shell too – but the main bullying happens at school. Maureen White excels with her depictions of female friendships in the early years of secondary school – she is both perceptive and astute as she describes the delicate hierarchies and shifting friendships at school that can be affected by home life, appearance, and self-confidence.

Moreover, the overarching hook as to why the main character, Marie, feels so hit upon is ingenious. Called ‘other Marie’ by the bullies at school, simply because she is not the Marie who is in the popular girls’ group, the damage goes far beyond school, as it is revealed that her parents named her after her older sister, who sadly died as a baby and was called Marie. Of course the bullies at school have no way of knowing this, but the damage is done.

Told in the first person narrative, the reader feels deeply for Marie, even when she acts wrongly, and messes up. In fact, she starts to self-harm, which is portrayed in the most realistic and sympathetic way I have yet encountered in a book for this age group – beginning with the picking of a scab.

The text is simple and minimal, as is the story – but its effect is long-lasting. It shows the consequences of teen girls’ actions, and the incredibly complex relationship between parents and teenagers – the latter wanting to please, and yet also protect their parents, at the same time as still wanting to be ‘parented’ by them. As in Storm Horse, there is a therapeutic relationship with an animal (a dog) too. However, the cleverness of the writing is what penetrates the reader – the plays on words, superstitions, and the understanding of the psychology of teen girls.

Maureen White also incorporates modern technology into her piece about bullying – from Stella’s phone trick, to the intimidating text messages that reach school girls out of school hours and cause untold misery.

The book ends with a great moral conclusion – that it’s good to talk, that self-confidence stops bullies, and that self-harming is never okay. For 12+years. Buy it here from Waterstones.

 

With thanks to Chicken House and O’Brien publishers for sending review copies.

 

Railhead by Philip Reeve

Railhead

It was apparent from the name of the book (and its author) that this was going to be one exhilarating rollercoaster ride of a book, and the content lives up to its title. Packed with action from the beginning, it’s an adrenaline ride that takes the reader through multiple emotions, with a large cast of engaging characters.

Zen Starling is a petty thief in the future, a place where interstellar locomotives run through the Great Network, passing through K portals – like wormholes – to jump from one planet to another. Mingling with the humans are drones and androids, train maintenance spiders, station angels and hive monks – the reader feels the heaving mass of transit and commuters passing through. When the mysterious Raven sends Zen on a mission to infiltrate the ruling Emperor’s train, in return for safety and riches, Zen is raring to exploit the opportunity of exploring this amazing web of worlds, riding the trains through the Great Network. But in the end Zen has to decide who is fighting for good and who is fighting for evil, and where his loyalties lie.

Philip Reeve’s imagination knows no limits. The world he has built includes trains that come alive, insects that commune together in formations to look like people, robots with whom you can fall in love. It takes a few pages to get to grips with the futuristic terminology that Reeve has created to describe systems and castes in his new world, but before long they become a part of the reader’s language. And each new technology is only a magnified version of our own – the Internet becomes a thing of the past, and the ‘datasea’ Zen’s present. There are algae colonies, breathing out oxygen “seeded in the shallows when the planet was being terraformed”; there are drones galore.

Despite this scintillating world beyond ours, there is familiarity in the age-old narrative devices of following a protagonist as he navigates through good and evil; through the clearly delineated hierarchy of this new society; and on his journey of discovery to find out whom he can trust.

Reeve’s language is chosen carefully – each word lives up to the world he is trying to create, from the ‘flutter-thud’ of rotors, to Zen’s luck, which is ‘glitchy’. But one of the most compelling characters is an android – who mirrors human emotions and reactions in order to seem more human itself:

“Nova sniffed. She had no need to sniff, but she had seen movies, and knew it was something that people did when they’d been crying.” Almost as if Reeve has taken how an author crafts a character’s reaction to things, and has stripped it bare for the reader to see. It’s fascinating, eerie, and wonderful at the same time.

Railhead is sci-fi, thriller, and romance, all neatly tucked into one fascinating book. Although marketed for children aged 12+yrs, it will be a lucky adult who gets to read it too. It’s amazingly filmic – Zen’s world is so otherworldly, and yet conversely seems so real.

You can buy it here.

With thanks to OUP for a review copy.

 

National Poetry Day

The Crossover

It’s National Poetry Day tomorrow. Quite often, we assume that children will be introduced to poetry at school – they will be asked to memorise a poem, write an acrostic poem of their own, or find a poem in a special poetry book. But if we ask ourselves, ‘what is poetry?’ we will discover that our introduction to poetry comes much earlier than school.

Poetry is an art form in which the language displays rhythm or verse. It’s not easy to define, and why so often children are quick to ask if poetry is something that rhymes.

Children also ask this because for some of them the earliest poetry they’re exposed to is the rhyming kind. Nursery rhymes are poems. And they’re important too – research shows that early exposure to rhymes increases a child’s ability in spatial reasoning.

Modern day nursery rhymes can be found in picture books. Whereas old nursery rhymes can be attributed to historical meanings, such as ‘Ring a Ring ‘o Roses’ representing the Black Plague, (although no factual evidence of this is available) our modern day picture books tell us stories in rhymes that can help us make sense of the world. Julia Donaldson’s Superworm is about teamwork, A Squash and a Squeeze teaches a reader to be thankful for what they have. Other picture books use free verse to weave their wonderful narratives.

For many of us, poems of our youth stay in our memory far longer than passages of prose. This may be because the predictability of some rhythm and rhyme narrows down the chances of available choices. The emotions in a poem (and I’m generalising here) are often heightened simply by the brevity of the words. And emotions and attention are linked, so we remember poetry more easily. I can certainly recite from memory many of AA Milne’s poems – particularly Disobedience, but there is much repetition and the rhythm is so perfect that even the verse written only in initials scans perfectly.

For children, poetry in the library is often shelved near the jokes section. Children love the nonsense and breaking of rules in poetry. Nonsense poems are a key entrance point into a love for poetry – I defy you to find a child who doesn’t love On The Ning Nang Nong.

But, lastly, free verse poetry is being used more and more frequently in contemporary narratives for children or young teens, particularly those which deal with difficult or sensitive subjects. I reviewed One by Sarah Crossan on this blog a few weeks ago, which deals with issues surrounding conjoined twins. Another book came my way this week, which is publishing in the UK tomorrow, and it is equally stunning and impressive in its quality and narrative content.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is about 12 year old twins, Josh and Jordan, who are stars of their school basketball team and have hopes of being professional players. The story is told through Josh’s eyes as the twins’ relationship begins to deteriorate when Jordan gets friendly with a new girl. The verse works cleverly – with pulsating bursts of fizzing energy to describe his basketball games, hip-hop in style, the words moving and using the white space on the page as a ball player would use the court:
“Be careful though
‘cause now I’m CRUNKing
CrissCROSSING
FLOSSING
flipping”
and more delicate simplified poetry without as many adjectives or movement of words to describe Josh’s feelings off the court.

It isn’t sentimental, Josh’s feelings come at you from behind the words on the page. Kwame Alexander also uses Josh’s reports of text messages and phone conversations to tell the story, as well as using his vocabulary homework – every so often Josh uses a new word from his school vocabulary test as the starting point for a poem and weaves it into his life. It is clever and effective:
“pul-chri-tu-di-nous
Having great physical
beauty and appeal…
As in : Wait a minute –
why is the pulchritudinous girl
now talking
to my brother?”

Josh is an extremely likeable character, despite his jealousy of his twin, and his family and relationships with them are expertly portrayed. Kwame Alexander also touches on the racial elements of the story – his Dad gets pulled over by the police, but it is subtle and well-handled.

For boys who are reluctant readers and only into sport or music, this may be the perfect way into reading – short bursts of text – ongoing references to basketball (even the book is divided into the four quarters of the game), and yet a crackling narrative underneath. Kwame Alexander told The Washington Post that he wrote it “to show boys and girls that poetry can be cool.” He succeeded. My only fear is that the text is so basketball-led it may put off UK readers. Not that it was a disincentive for me – I devoured it. I wish someone would write a similar one based in football. That would be my perfect children’s book. To purchase a copy, click here or ask for it at your local children’s bookshop.

 

The Boy Who Drew the Future by Rhian Ivory

The Boy Who Drew the Future

Although marketed as a Young Adult book, and about two fifteen year old boys, I would be happy to recommend this for 11+ years. Ivory tells the story of two boys, 100 years apart, who both have a mysterious gift – they draw pictures that tell the future. For Noah in contemporary England this is something of a curse – his parents find his ‘gift’ troubling and try to stop it – he too finds it awkward and embarrassing, yet is compelled to draw. For Blaze, in the 1860s, his ‘gift’ is even more dangerous – the threat of being killed for witchcraft is very real.

In both her tales, Ivory depicts the conundrum of the teenager brilliantly – the dichotomy of the outsider, the teenager who wants to stand out from the crowd and be special and unique, and yet also wants to fit in and be part of the group. Alternate chapters tell the story of Noah and Blaze from the first person narrative perspective, stepping inside the teenagers’ heads. The tension builds throughout the novel as Noah is desperate to share the secret of his gift with Beth, a new friend; and Blaze moves closer to danger with every new fortune he tells. For me, the boys’ gift worked almost like a modern-day superpower – it enables the character to transcend and rebel against the constraints and powerlessness of childhood.

The two stories are linked by geography as well as the boys’ gift, and the reader is left to tie up the strands between the two. The story is sad and poignant and the characters are beautifully drawn. Noah’s burgeoning romance with Beth is told with delicacy, and his relationship with his parents and their past is stunningly depicted – I can’t give away more. Blaze is parentless and friendless, contrasting sharply with Noah, but he has an incredibly moving relationship with his dog.

This is great historical fiction for children. It drips information about the past so that the reader hardly realises how much history they are absorbing. It is subtle and fascinating. The stories of the past tie themselves to the present; remaining relevant, interesting and in some cases life-changing.

A compelling read that works across genders and up the age scale. Some of the dialogue doesn’t ring as true as it should, but the story is so gripping, you’ll be transported to another place and time with ease. To buy a copy, and I recommend you do, click here.

I reviewed an uncorrected proof version of this title.

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

goodbye stranger

Every so often a writer comes along who weaves magic with every book. Rebecca Stead’s books are insightful and compelling, her words flow off the page like cake batter into the tin. Her books are always unputdownable; and always ask questions.

So, it comes as no surprise to find that her latest follows suit. Set in New York, Goodbye Stranger tells three interlocking narratives: Bridge, a girl stepping into seventh grade (Year 7), and navigating her friendships, and pondering the question of life after miraculously living through a terrible car accident when she was eight years old; Sherm, who is coming to terms with the breakup of his grandparents’ long marriage and puzzling the meaning of love; and a third mystery strand told in the rare second-person narrative: “You paint your toenails. You don’t steal nail polish, though”. The three strands build together until all is revealed at the end of the book.

Topically dealing with internet safety, body image and of course the ever-present problems of friendship and peer pressure at this pivotal point of adolescence, Stead handles her young teens with emotional depth, wonderful empathy and adroitness. These are children with whom the reader immediately identifies, and wishes well. The reader waits on tenterhooks to see if everything will turn out alright. The dialogue sits well, and as always, New York springs to life under Stead’s pen.

All in all, this is the quintessential story for this age group – it discusses and makes you ponder what it means to be yourself – it pulls out arguments about identity. How much do we fit in with our peers or strike out on our own? How much of ourselves do we show to our parents or our friends? These are key questions of identity for this age group, and the book handles them responsibly without once becoming patronising.

As mentioned before the prose is idyllic – “Bridge woke to the sound of the cello. Her {mom’s} music reminded Bridge of picking wildflowers – she started with something thin and simple and then kept adding new sounds, all different shapes and colors, until she had something explosive. But in the mornings her mom tried to explode very quietly, so that the people downstairs didn’t get annoyed.”

Stead’s book is a pleasure to read from start to finish. I only wish I hadn’t read it so quickly! You can order your copy here.
For the 11+ years crowd.

Please note the book does contain a narrative about sending selfies of various poses by mobile phone.

Andersen Press very kindly sent me a copy of this book to review.