young teen

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.

To purchase a copy of An Island Of Our Own please click here or see the Amazon sidebar.

Summer Reading List

I’m not going to be blogging in August. It’s my month to take stock, recharge, and just READ. So, in case you’re wondering which books to pack/download for your children or take out the library for the summer reading challenge (see here), then here are a few suggestions.

i want my hat backoliver and patchwinnie at the seasidekatie mcginty

I recently re-discovered I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. This is a modern classic and as close to picture book perfection as you can get. A bear is looking for his hat and asks a variety of creatures if they have seen it. It’s a simple concept expertly executed, with fabulous dry wit and wonderful facial expressions – the text and pictures complement each other flawlessly. It is fun to do different voices for different characters and good for all ages to discuss what happened to the rabbit and why! Oliver and Patch by Claire Freedman and Kate Hindley is a beautiful story about moving to a new place. Summer can be a transition time for lots of children, and it’s good to read a reassuring story about making new friends and settling into a new place. Phenomenal vocabulary, exquisite illustrations – it also shows the fun you can have in a city. For something more summery try Winnie the Witch at the Seaside by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul. Much loved by children everywhere, this episode takes Winnie to the beach – although will Wilbur the cat stay dry? A good story, well told, with Korky’s distinctive style of illustrations. If you don’t want to rely on old favourites, this summer watch out for Katie McGinty Wants a Pet by debut author Jenna Harrington, illustrated by Finn Simpson, publishing 13th August. Katie wants a very different kind of pet (bet you can guess from the cover!). Although she may end up with slightly more than she bargained for – the writing style is fun and quirky – and captures a small child wonderfully – ‘She wanted it more than Millie Phillips wanted to be able to stand on her head.’

oliver and the seawigsclever pollylottie liptonthe gingerbread star ted rules the worldClaude Lights

My newly independent reading choices are a mixture of old and new too. Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre is a gem of a book, which takes the reader on a seafaring voyage unlike any other. The illustrations are sensational, look out particularly for Iris the mermaid. A classic, which has just been reissued and is well worth a read is Clever Polly and the Wolf by Catherine Storr. With 13 separate stories this is a good starter read. Each story is a play on ‘wolf fairy tales’, but magically don’t seem dated at all – and Clever Polly is remarkably likeable. If you’re doing any museum visiting this summer, or just looking to solve some riddles, a great read is the new Lottie Lipton series by Dan Metcalf, released in conjunction with the British Museum. These are well written little mysteries for growing readers but they have real riddles in them, and activities at the end. I’d love to read one whilst in the British Museum to see if I could follow the trail too. A must for young historians. For new or struggling readers I’m also heartily in favour of the Little Gem series from Barrington Stoke. There are numerous titles by fabulous authors in this list, but recent releases include The Gingerbread Star by Anne Fine, illustrated by Vicki Gausden and Ted Rules the World by Frank Cottrell Boyce, illustrated by Chris Riddell and Cate James. The Gingerbread Star retains the quality of Anne Fine’s longer work, and tells a glorious story of a worm who wishes she was a gloworm (so she can read in bed after lights out). She perseveres yet retains her sense of right and wrong throughout her adventure. Beautifully illustrated too – worms have never been so attractive. Ted Rules the World by high calibre writer Cottrell Boyce also retains the writer’s style – his sense of humour and mischievousness shine through in this hilarious story about a boy whose opinions on politics have a direct line to the prime minister. Far from marking him out as special though, Ted finds that the root cause is rather more uninspiring. It’s extremely funny. This agegroup also adore the Claude series by Alex T Smith, and on the 1st August, the new title is published, Claude: Lights! Camera! Action!. As zany as ever, Claude and Sir Bobblesock discover a film set and when the two lead actors are injured, they are asked to step in. The jokes hit on all levels – both children and adults. And that’s not all…this summer is momentous for the release of the very last Horrid Henry book by Francesca Simon: Horrid Henry’s Cannibal Curse. Although I’ve yet to see a copy of this and hate to review books I haven’t read I’m told it has an answer to the perpetual parental groan that Henry is too horrid…as Henry himself starts to read an interesting book about a girl called Evil Evie…

elspeth hart dara palmerrooftoppersmurder most unladylike
Eight to 13 year olds have a huge choice for their summer reads in this golden age of children’s literature. Firstly, I’d recommend Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs by Sarah Forbes, illustrated by James Brown. The second in the series comes out in September, so wisely use the summer to read the first. It tells the tale of orphan Elspeth, working as a servant in the Pandora Pants School for Show-Offs, sweeping up mouse-droppings, and dodging the horrid students, until one day she realises why she’s there, and how she can escape. Comic fun and a school setting with a feisty heroine. Another show off is the eleven year old main character in Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah. This is a fantastic story about a young adopted girl who desperately wants to be an actress. The story highlights how, through drama, she becomes more aware of herself and her relationship with her friends and family. Dealing with so many issues, such as adoption, diversity “I looked like a chocolate bunny in a room full of snowmen”, Dara’s voice is fresh, funny, and heartfelt. The massively annotated pages (doodles and patterns) entice the reader, as well as Dara’s imagined film script running parallel to her normal life, but Emma Shevah also deals cleverly with sensitive issues. Both an enjoyable read and an enlightening one (about adoption and different cultures). If your child hasn’t yet read Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, then buy it before her new book comes out in September. Rooftoppers tells the story of Sophie’s search for her mother across the roof tops in Paris. Katherine’s gift for storytelling knows no bounds – her writing is exemplary – stylish, fresh, original, and imaginative. It’s a perfect book and I implore you read it, instilling virtues such as love and courage and morality and seeking for the possibles in life. Its timelessness and third person narrative set it apart from other titles for this age group and it is a deserving winner of the Waterstones Children’s and Blue Peter Book awards. For series fans, I would recommend the Wells and Wong Mystery series by Robin Stevens. The first in the series, called Murder Most Unladylike, tells the story of Daisy and Hazel who set up a detective agency at their boarding school to look for missing ties etc, but then discover the body of the Science Mistress lying in the gym, and suddenly have a real mystery to solve. It is Agatha Christie for 9 year olds and over. Robin Stevens captures the innocence and yet vivaciousness of the two girls with all their insecurities and complexities. The book is set in the 1930’s but feels fairly timeless. It’s fun, imaginative, and brilliant for those who love mysteries and school stories. (so most children!). Three in the series have been published so far – an addictive set to devour on the beach, or staring at the rain…once you’ve read one, you’ll want to read them all.

boy in the towerthe executioners daughterbinny for shortphoenix

For slightly older readers, a haunting but utterly absorbing book for those wishing to ignore their family whilst on holiday is Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen. A modern day Triffids, Ade lives with his mum in a tower block, but one day the other buildings start to fall down. Before long the Bluchers have overtaken the landscape – plants that feed on metal and concrete, and give off deadly spores. Suddenly Ade and his mother are trapped. Ade has to learn to survive, figure out why his tower hasn’t collapsed and help his mother through the situation. It’s a tense, exhilarating read with memorable characters. Other stories for those slightly older are The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff– a historical tale, set in the Tower of London, and focussing on the ‘basket girl’, – the child who catches the beheaded heads in her basket. Never a dull moment in Tudor times – as the tale turns supernatural too. Salter, the loveable boy protagonist, is a sparkling creation. The sequel River Daughter, came out earlier this year. Binny for Short by Hilary McKay swings back to modernity, with a coming-of-age tale of friendship that deals with loss, relocation, family dynamics and special needs all in a highly readable, compelling summertime story. Binny is an all-rounded character, with frustration, humour, sympathy and a fantastic sense of childhood adventure. A great read from a prolific author who can clearly observe and articulate what people are really like. The sequel, Binny in Secret, came out in June. For those approaching teens, Phoenix by SF Said is my final pick. It’s something completely different – science fiction superbly written by Said, and ethereally illustrated by Dave McKean. It’s a powerfully ambitious tale of age-old war between Humans and Aliens. Lucky thinks he is an ordinary human boy, but once he discovers his extraordinary power realises that he must harness it to save the galaxy, even if it comes at huge personal cost. Bixa, the alien girl who gets mixed up in his story, is one of the most awe-inspiring characters in children’s fiction: fierce, magnetic and witty. I would definitely choose to dress up as Bixa on World Book Day if I were younger. This book is quite unlike any other in its age range – an epic with clear language, scintillating scenes and huge themes of power and myth, the universe and love, war and sacrifice. It will stay with you long after the summer fades.

Lastly, if you haven’t yet worked through my books of the week from this year, my most memorable reads were Stonebird by Mike Revell, The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone, The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday and In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll.

 

 

Too Close to Home by Aoife Walsh

too close to home

As a child I loved reading about other people’s families. Little Women, I Capture the Castle, and more recently dipping into children’s books as an adult, I felt that same pull with Perfectly Ella by Candy Harper, and the Pea series of books by Susie Day. Then, in April another book landed on my desk that worked the same magic, and pulled me into a new family, whom I adored reading about and was sad to finish. Too Close to Home follows 14 year old Minny, a thoughtful, vivacious, complicated character with an equally complicated, loud and unique family. Told in the third person, which makes a change from so many which are told from the first person point of view, this slants towards Minny, but allows the author Aoife Walsh a little distance from her main character, which helps to give a greater perspective. Minny lives with her mother and grandmother, as well as her older sister Aisling, who is autistic, her younger sister Selena who has her own quirks, and her baby brother, whom she helps to look after. They are a single parent family, yet with much mention of extended family relations, from grandparents and their add-ons, to Minny’s father and his new family. It mirrors many jumbled family situations today, and is both a good insight and good reference into family life that isn’t just two parents plus 2.4 children.
Aofie’s talent is to give her main character a sympathetic and realistic voice, and to have her surrounded with problems, not all of which she can solve successfully, and certainly not on her own, and to push the idea that today’s teens are dealing with so many issues – from helping immediate family with childcare and domestic responsibilities, to friendships and boys, to schoolwork and in this particular case, to protecting her older sister, and learning where her loyalties lie. It also makes the point that young people do need grown-ups to help them make the right decisions, and to give useful advice: grown-ups including grandparents and responsible members of society, not just direct parents. Because there are so many characters, especially those living under one roof, Walsh has used dialogue to punctuate the story and develop the plot, and she clearly has an ear for it – the conversations are realistic and punchy. The book immerses you in the family, the reader feels as if they too are in the middle of the arguments, laughter and dinner table antics; it was like being a fly on the wall of the house down the street.
There’s more than one hint of diversity here, from different social stratas – one of Minny’s grandmothers is giving shelter to a boy whose own mother has substance abuse issues – to different sexualities – Minny’s best friend has two mothers. It’s great that Aiofe Walsh is able to include diverse characters in such a matter-of-fact way – this is not an ‘issue’ book, but simply portrays people from all walks of life with their own different concerns and backgrounds.There are also references that sit the book firmly in modern times – from cultural and food references, to references as to how global our modern world is – people move country so easily. Once engrossed in the book, Walsh’s fictional family loom so large in the mind that it’s hard to believe they don’t really exist. You’ll want to remain in their house for far longer than the book. A thoroughly enjoyable read for ages 12 and up, written in a classic contemporary style. Buy it here from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

With thanks to Andersen Press for a review copy of the book.

The Boys’ School Girls by Lil Chase

taras sister trouble

There’s a type of book that my readers never seem to tire of; a book based in schools, with issues around friendship, family life, and all the bother of finding one’s place in the world. I am delighted to bring you a new series that does the job so diligently with a clear understanding of 12 year olds, and with writing that sparkles with life. This is just the sort of series I wanted to read when I was young. (I confess I hugely enjoyed reading it this past week and I’m well past childhood!).

Lil Chase has created a fictional boys’ school, Hillcrest High, which has decided to admit girls for the first time. In the first title of the series, Tara’s Sister Trouble, Tara is one of these girls and she’s very excited – not least because she has a huge crush on one of the Hillcrest boys – but also because a new school means new friends, new opportunities and her best friend will be attending too. However, when Tara’s sister also joins the school, things start to fall apart for Tara. There is intense rivalry amongst the few girls at the new school, and her sister seems intent on sabotaging any relationships she does have. It’ll take Tara a fair amount of detective work and understanding to find out what’s really going on with her sister and her friends. There are a few little plot twists in the book – and it deals with some larger issues too – break up of a family, gambling, and jealousy, but Lil Chase always deals with them showing a great deal of compassion and humour. The action rolls along at a good steady pace and the reader is compelled to feel great empathy with the main character.

abbys shadow

There are three in the series, and the next two each focus on a different girl in the set of friends. Lil Chase has handled this cleverly by writing from the first person perspective each time – but the voices don’t blend into each other. Each girl in the series has a distinct voice and personality and this shines through. It’s a clever device and very enjoyable. The next two are Abby’s Shadow and Obi’s Secrets (the last published June 4th), but I’m hoping there’ll be many more. A series your 9-12yr old will devour with relish. You can buy the titles here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

obis secrets

Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin

Joe All Alone

This was an unputdownable read, but tough at the same time. Not because the language is difficult, but because it doesn’t reflect well on our society and makes for uncomfortable reading. Thirteen year old Joe is left alone while his mother and her boyfriend go on holiday to Spain during half term. Although initially he seeks pleasure in his freedom – eating what he wants and playing for unlimited amounts of time on his Xbox, it soon becomes apparent that not only has he not been left enough provisions and money, but that he is lonely, ignored and certainly not mature enough to deal with his situation, despite his best attempts. He’s an exceedingly likeable character, and Joanna Nadin has captured the feelings and thoughts of a 13 year old boy very well. Told in day by day instalments, not exactly like a diary, but documenting the passing of time for the reader, Joe eventually makes friends with a fugitive girl, Asha, who’s sheltering at her mock grandfather’s flat across the way from Joe’s. This affords him some contact, and draws the mock grandfather’s attention to his plight.

The story pulls out some modern dilemmas. Joe describes his neighbours to us, but it’s clear that there is no real community among them. He also points out traits about his school – the attempt to explain budgeting to the children, the interested concern of one teacher, the role of bullying outside the classroom, as well as the wider agenda including the perceived implications of going ‘into care’, troubled children, and of course the first spark of feelings with a girl.

Saying that, there are wonderful touches of humour which lighten the atmosphere, and Joe is a reader, which comes across in his references to Huck Finn and fairy tales. From both of these, and Joe’s friendship with Asha, the reader is left with a feeling of hope and uplifted spirits in what can be changed, and what can be imagined.

I would also make one last remark – the cover for me was slightly misleading – it shows a boy seemingly jumping on his bed with joy, and bears the strapline ‘No parents, no rules, no problem?’. Although I can see how this does depict the story, I would be wary that the cover portrays it more as a ‘Home Alone’ type venture, whereas in actual fact this was quite a dark moral tale for our times.

You can buy it here from Waterstones, or see the Amazon side bar.

I highly recommend. For ages 11+

Head Over Heart by Colette Victor

Head over Heart

A common topic of conversation in the children’s book industry is diversity. From authors and illustrators to publishers, publicists and reviewers – are we doing enough to engage all children from all different backgrounds in books? Children aged between 6 and 11 consistently look for books in which they see themselves reflected – characters who look like them. At a recent seminar at the London Book Fair, Inclusive Minds talked about turning that conversation into action. Last year, Chicken House published a book called Head Over Heart by Colette Victor. It’s a lovely coming-of-age tale about thirteen year old Zeyneb who is struggling to juggle her life just like any other teen – schoolwork, family, friends, future, feelings for a boy – but she has another issue, in that as a Muslim girl coming of age, she needs to decide whether to start wearing a headscarf or not.

The thing is, I’m not recommending this novel because it’s inclusive and features a Muslim character. That’s just an added bonus. It’s a compelling well-written read, with a lovely description of a father/daughter relationship, and a beautiful depiction of what it’s like to first fancy a boy. Zeyneb struggles to follow the ground rules that her parents have set out for her, and struggles in her frustration to communicate with her parents. This is a common teenage trait and Colette Victor portrays it adeptly. I warmed to Zeyneb’s character from the first page, and continued to sympathise with her throughout the book. I liked that she is an ordinary, good girl – there’s no dramatic action here or tale of the unusual – it’s an everyday story with believable relationships and simpatico characters, and woven into the story are all sorts of components that form the life of a British Muslim – which meat she can eat at a friends’ barbecue, whether she can see a boy alone or not, the scope of her freedom, and her perception of her non-Muslim friends. This is for my older readers though – definitely recommend for about 11+ years. You can purchase a copy from Waterstones here.

 

With thanks to Colette Victor for arranging for me to see a review copy. Cover and interior design by Helen Crawford-White