young teen

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The historical references are rife and intriguing.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.

Sister Love

“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands” Christina Rossetti

Whatever Happened to My Sister

Whatever Happened to My Sister? By Simona Ciraolo
This is a brilliantly touching picture book for any younger sibling whose older sister has started on the transition out of childhood. It portrays the shift in relationship, the changing family dynamic – and Simona Ciraolo does it with great skill. From the beauty of the front cover, in which a little sister forms camaraderie with the cat outside the perceived locked door of her older sister’s room, the narrative flows through the book visually as well as verbally. The first two pages show the younger sister alone, looking through photographs in the family album, with suspicions that “someone had replaced my sister with a girl who looked a lot like her”. The following spread erupts with sensitivity and pathos as the reader sees the younger sister staring at her older sister – the teenager now resplendent with small shorts at the top of her exceedingly long legs, her midriff bare as she stretches into a high cupboard: “My sister was never so tall. Did it happen overnight?”
The colour palate is muted – the background of the house in shades of warm beige, blues, greys, with vibrant orange for detail – a modern landscape dotted with homely paraphernalia: the younger sister’s tea party, Halloween outfit, skipping rope, scooter, set against the older sister’s secret diary, computer, phone, and guitar. But it’s the positioning of the sisters that pulls at the heartstrings – the younger child’s peeking through a doorway, or locked out completely (reminiscent of ‘Do you want to Build a Snowman?’ from Frozen), as opposed to the older sister with her feet up on a desk, lounging reading a magazine, sprawled across a sofa, painted nails, chats with friends. Simona Ciraolo has captured both a small child’s stance and a teenager’s with flair. The illustrations are in soft crayon, and beautifully accomplished.
The book resolves itself with joy – as the older notices the younger’s tears and invites her to join in with dress up and music, with beautiful phrasing on the last page, which I won’t reveal. For a younger sister there is solace in this new relationship – for a mother reading it – it’s heart-breaking. A very clever picture book. To purchase, click here.

One

One by Sarah Crossan
This is another book that tugs on the heartstrings about sisters, but aimed at a teen audience, and about a completely different type of sisterly relationship. Sixteen year olds Tippi and Grace are conjoined twins, their bodies are meshed together at their hip, although they have separate hearts, heads and each has two arms. The book tells of what happens the year they start attending main school rather than being home educated (for financial reasons), and also explores the impact as their health begins to deteriorate. Sarah Crossan’s extensive research about their situation and emotions shines through the story, but what separates this book from other teen novels about serious health issues is the author’s use of free verse to tell the story.

By being so sparing with words, and by utilising not only words themselves but their positioning and spacing on the page, Sarah creates a pacey plot alongside deep and moving emotion. No word is superfluous. She integrates the rare situation the girls are in with the normalcy of teen love, friendships, sibling relationships and school. The language is so spectacularly beautiful and well-crafted that the reader melts even before the heart-breaking ending.

“We’ll just have a smoke today
and die that way,” Jon says,
and
takes such a pleasurable drag
from his cigarette you’d think he was
sucking up gold.”

to even such simple but effective similes as describing apples after a storm lying on the grass:

“like forgotten billiard balls on green felt.”

Sarah uses the same pared down power to eke out superb character portraits with just a few simple phrases. The reader’s breath is taken away before they even reach the final denouement. Highly recommended as a heart-rending read, but also to show what can be done with poetry. To purchase click here or see the Amazon sidebar.

Both these books make it into my top ten reads so far this year. Please note that Whatever Happened to My Sister? was kindly sent for review purposes from Flying Eye Publishers.

 

A Tiny, Bookish Island of My Own

YAshot
As part of YAshot bloggers tour, Sally Nicholls, author of Ways To Live Forever, Close Your Pretty Eyes, and most recently An Island Of Our Own, guest posts on MinervaReads. Sally is a Waterstones Children’s Book Prize winner and a Carnegie Medal nominee, and I am delighted and proud to host her writing today.

Ways to Live ForeverClose Your Pretty EyesAn Island Of Our Own

A TINY, BOOKISH ISLAND OF MY OWN

You could say the idea for An Island of Our Own begins in a library.

It is 1996. I am twelve years old, and a student at a small, failing, private school in North Yorkshire. There are ten other children in my class. There are probably lots of educational advantages to being in a class of eleven children, but as far as twelve-year-old me is concerned, they are all outweighed by a more pressing disadvantage; namely, that there are five other girls in my class, none of them are very similar to me, and they all have a best friend already.

Our class are supposed to hang out in our form room at lunchtime, but if there’s one thing worse than not having any friends, it’s not having any friends publicly, so I don’t. I go and hang out in the library instead.

As an author, I visit a lot of school libraries. They are, generally, large, bright, well-stocked places, full of computers and new books and children. The library at the school I go to at 14, when my small, failing private school finally fails, and I am moved to the local comp, is like that; cheerful, well-run and extremely well-used.

This library is not.

This library is two small rooms, full of books, most of which are look at least thirty years old, some much older. There is no full-time librarian, just a notebook, in which you write your name, when you took a book out, and when you return it. There are very few children’s books, in my memory at least, although in my school’s defence this is partly because each English classroom also has one of those bookcases on wheels full of more recent purchases. The library is not where the Anne Fines and Beverley Naidoos and Robert Westells live. It is where the old books retire to gently moulder. And it is, almost always, completely empty, except for me.

I don’t get most of my books from this library. At twelve, I am obsessed with science fiction and fantasy, Terry Pratchett and Isaac Asimov and Anne McCaffery, whose books include a lot of children, as though she’s half aware that a lot of her readers, like me, aren’t quite ready for the world of adult fiction yet. I get most of my books from the local library, who have been ordering in complete series for me free of charge since the day I discovered Enid Blyton. I lug enormous hardback Tad Williams books around in my schoolbag, and occasionally attempt to read them under the table in Biology, with mixed results. But I do borrow some books from this library. It’s here that I first read 1984 and Animal Farm. It’s here that I discover that the woman who wrote The Secret Garden wrote another book about a little princess in a garret, one of the few children’s books in the place. And it’s here that I hit a goldmine; a whole shelf of hardback Nevil Shutes.

I had discovered Nevil Shute some years earlier, when my mother mistakenly allowed us to watch the TV adaptation of Pied Piper, believing it to be a children’s story about rats in Hamelin, discovered her mistake when we were far enough in to be interested in the children in the story, regretted it when we were treated to a shot of a roadside littered with corpses, and decided – knowing the book – that the best thing to do was keep going until we got to the happy ending. My mother lets me read anything I want, but is quite strict in what I am allowed to watch, so this – quite mild – brush with Nazi interrogators and dead bodies stays in my memory. And when I find the book while staying with one of her friends, I read and enjoy it.

So I trust this shelf of Nevil Shutes, and I read them, despite the lack of elves and robots. Some rather bore me. I am a lot less interested in aeroplanes than Shute is. His rather melancholy portrayal of mid- and post-war Britain depresses me – it is a melancholy I am not yet old enough to understand.

But what I love is the ordinariness of his heroes, especially when he dumps them in hair-raising life-or-death dramas. The shy, ugly, socially inept aeronautical engineer who finds himself, mid-Atlantic, on a plane whose tail is about to fall off, and can’t persuade anyone else to believe him. The typist from Perivale who not only saves a collection of female POWs from the Japanese, but goes on to turn an Australian outback village into a town like Alice, pretty much solely because she wants somewhere nice to live. And the elderly fisherman in Pied Piper who rescues twelve children from occupied France, more-or-less by accident.

And Keith in Trustee From the Toolroom.

I love Keith. Keith is exactly the sort of hero you want when you are twelve, and shy, and keep failing at basic tasks like Wearing The Right Sort of Shoes. Keith has a nice life designing model engines in a nice little two-up-two-down with his nice wife. He is middle-aged and balding and completely unequipped for the plot Nevil Shute forces on him; rescuing some illegal diamonds from a desert island in Polynesia. But he gives it his best shot, because he’s nice, and because it’s important. And, rather wonderfully, he succeeds, not by derring-do and bravado, but because people all over the world remember small acts of kindnesses that he’s done for them (he’s much better at replying to fan mail than I am), and want to repay him.

Trustee From the Toolroom is a book about the kindness of strangers. Like all of Shute’s heroes, Keith succeeds because he’s kind, and conscientious, and a bit dorky, not despite it.

An Island of Our Own is my homage to that book. It’s a homage to heroes who are ordinary (several bloggers said shy, geeky Jonathan was their favourite character, and I love that), and who achieve their (slightly fantastical) goals because of their ordinariness, not despite it. It’s about using technology and the internet to solve problems, partly because I live on the internet, and I think it gets a bad rap, and partly because Shute would have loved it even more. And it’s a love letter to the kindness of strangers, something that, when the internet gets right, it is glorious at.

Kindness. Libraries. Ordinary people. That’s three of my favourite things right there.

Sally Nicholls

For more information on YAshot please click here. With special thanks to author Alexia Casale, who put me in touch with Sally Nicholls. To purchase any of Sally’s books, please click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.

An Island Of Our Own by Sally Nicholls

An Island Of Our Own

Sally Nicholls’ An Island Of Our Own has been longlisted for this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, with good reason. Thirteen year old Holly and younger brother Davy have been left in the care of their elder sibling, Jonathan, since their mother died. Told in Holly’s authentic first person voice, the book recounts the year Holly was twelve, in which her Great Aunt suffers a disabling stroke, and although unable to speak, gives Holly clues to finding what might be a much-needed family inheritance. With the kindness of strangers, some savvy Internet usage and her own unflappable competence, Holly sets about solving the mystery of the missing inheritance.

Not only is this a compellingly crafted family mystery, but there are many other elements that combine to make this a joy to read from start to finish. Lacking any kind of morbidity or sentimentality, Nicholls manages to portray a family struggling with their circumstances with pathos and wit. Jonathan is beautifully drawn out by Holly’s voice, a portrayal of an older brother shouldering responsibility with dignity, sacrificing his own path for the sake of his siblings. Even though Holly has a normal twelve year old’s view of her sometimes irritating elder brother, the reader is cleverly shown how patient and loving he is. For me, he was the stand-out character of the book. By showing some of the fun that can be had without parents around, as well as illuminating those moments when the absence of parents is heartrending (eg., Holly’s shopping trip to buy a first-time bra with an older brother instead of a mother in tow), Sally Nicholls affords the book the reality of the circumstances.  Bringing in meetings with social workers, extended family complications, school, work and money issues, everything is encompassed within this accomplished book.

And yet the plot is neat, the chapters bite-size, suitable for even reluctant readers. There are numerous other wonders to be explored within the story, too, such as Jonathan’s refuge at makerspace, and the family’s adventure to the Orkney Islands, all of which is clearly well researched so that the details lend the book authenticity. Sally Nicholls set out to write about family, generosity, the goodness of the Internet and the wonder of everyday ordinariness. She has succeeded – and her characters live on in the mind. For readers aged 9 and over.

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