Tag Archive for Elphinstone Abi

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

Winter Magic curated by Abi Elphinstone

winter-magic

Since the publication of the Mystery and Mayhem (Crime Club) children’s stories anthology, I’ve been looking for another book of short stories for children that really hits the mark in the same way. Luckily Simon and Schuster publishers, together with the esteemed children’s author Abi Elphinstone, have crafted a truly marvellous collection in time for Christmas.

The collection is magical in many ways, firstly of course, because it is packed with wintry stories, bound in the most beautiful egg blue fabric cover, complete with snowflakes and wintry trees, so that it feels like a Christmas gift, but also because the stories themselves are penned by a distinguished group of children’s authors, from Michelle Magorian – author of Goodnight Mister Tom, to Lauren St John, Berlie Doherty, Geraldine McCaughrean…and so many more.

The anthology kicks off with Emma Carroll’s beautiful historical tale of a Victorian frost fair, incorporating some magical realism, and a beautiful frozen Thames river. Carroll’s writing is always transportative, easily leading the reader into the past and creating a swirling atmosphere of bustle and intrigue. It’s a short story that’s both perfect escapism but also brilliant for teaching – and a wonderful start to the book.

Michelle Harrison takes inspiration from her longer novel, The Other Alice, to write a fairy tale about a stolen voice. Harrison has an immense talent for weaving an emotive atmosphere in the shortest passages, leaving the reader tingling with a sense of magic.

Woodfine borrows from a ballet long associated with the time of year – The Nutcracker, which has its own connotations of darkness and light, sugar plums and Christmas gifts. Marvellously, she evokes the warmth and nostalgia of Christmas, using a Russian setting to take the reader back in history to the first performance of the ballet. It’s a lovely tale, and well worth re-reading with the same zeal with which one re-watches the ballet each year.

Further in, there’s a beautiful poem about snow by Magorian, which pictures a child looking out onto a snowy landscape. Pure childhood delight.

In between there are tales of sneasles: a magical tale of the outbreak of snow measles involving elves; a brilliant boarding-school adventure from Lauren St John; new twists on The Snow Queen and Pied Piper; and a cautionary tale from Piers Torday about Christmas wishes and gifts.

Elphinstone herself brings up the rear with her usual affinity for bravery in the face of adventure, with a magical tale about a snow dragon.

Although there is a winter theme running through the collection, each author has their own unique style and imagination, so the reader really gets a feel for their writing as a whole. In this way, it’s a great sampler for each author, leading the reader to explore more books from the stories they most enjoyed. Personally, I couldn’t pick a favourite – this is a wonderful collection from a talented bunch.

The stories are for confident readers, but for this family time of year, they are also perfect as bitesize chunks to read aloud to a young family. My other delight about bringing together talent in this way, is for teachers to be able to teach a full story text, rather than just an extract. Many of the stories within this collection lend themselves to that.

There are eleven stories in all, each one perfectly crafted, each one a great taster for its author. The overall feel is one of snowy landscapes, magical witches, wishes and wolves, with families, fairies and fireside glows.

Featuring stories by Michelle Harrison, Piers Torday, Lauren St John, Amy Alward, Katherine Woodfine, Geraldine McCaughrean, Berlie Doherty, Jamila Gavin, Michelle Magorian, Emma Carroll, Abi Elphinstone.

You can buy it here.

The Shadow Keeper by Abi Elphinstone

shadow keeper

Picking up the narrative from the end of The Dreamsnatcher (although it could equally be read as a stand-alone), The Shadow Keeper begins with another wildly atmospheric setting – a secret cave by the sea. Hiding from the evil Shadowmasks, far from the forest they love, Moll and her friends are seeking the amulet, keeper of Moll’s mother’s soul, in an attempt to fight the dark magic.

An adventure/fantasy novel, Abi Elphinstone’s writing continues to move at pace. With an almost visceral, physical quality, the characters move forwards on every page – the text is littered with action:

“Siddy held Moll fast and yanked on Jinx’s tethering rope. The cob backed up against the wall, narrowly avoiding an owl’s blades. Siddy struck his knife against another that came close; metal clanged and the impact of the collision was enough to send the owl swerving away.”

It’s an extremely visual text, with dense prose and vocabulary, and an intense quality that puts Abi in the realms of classic writing rather than the pared and stripped back prose that contemporary writers tend to favour.

Threads of bravery and determination run through the novel, both in the writing, which never holds back from dark disturbing imagery (owls with wingspans of “black blades…each edge serrated and sharp”) but also in the characters of the children who hold friendship and loyalty above all else – showing bravery in the face of extreme fear and danger.

One of the book’s most admirable qualities is the juxtaposition of the vulnerability of the children and the childishness of their emotion: “there was a mountain of hurt inside her”, as opposed to the frightening images of the dark magic. Main character 12-year-old Moll wears her heart on her sleeve and states her emotions plainly and simply:

“I’m angry.” Moll muttered, scuffing her boot against the floorboard.”

But it’s the darkness that pulls. From owls with blades grinding, to a girl with her tongue cut out, to walking with bare feet on shards of glass, the danger is everywhere, as the dark magic rises. In fact, the dominant theme of dark magic versus the children and their lighter magic is reminiscent of such ancient fights as The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper – ordinary children fighting an ancient fantastical evil with historical curses and messages from long ago.

Of course, the children in The Shadow Keeper aren’t quite as grounded in reality as Will in The Dark is Rising with his idyllic Christmas in the family home. Moll and her gypsies reside in a hidden cave, and rely on nature to help them hide, and heal and eat. The premise of the children’s gypsy background gives them a terrific freedom to adventure, but Elphinstone cleverly weaves in the vocabulary of a childhood set entirely in nature, from a daemon like wildcat companion in Gryff, to a pet crab, bowls of mussels for dinner, mealtimes round the fire, and healing flowers and herbs.

The characters have developed from book one, all three children protagonists are complex and feel very real, despite the simple vocabulary used to depict their emotions. They continue to develop throughout book two, so that the reader not only feels empathy with them, but really feels that they know them. It’s exactly the sort of story you can live within – complete escapism – about as far removed from urban London as you can get!

It’s also riddled with themes, in particular ‘seen and unseen’, ‘said and unsaid’, as well as bearing echoes and motifs from The Wild Swans so that you feel the magic being woven around you as you read.

The ending is uplifting, and yet shot through with further mystery, so that the reader is left raring for book three. For confident readers, aged 10+ years. You can buy it here (if you dare!)

Top Ten Places I Wrote The Shadow Keeper: a guest blog by Abi Elphinstone

shadow keeper

Abi Elphinstone wrote one of the most exciting children’s books last year, The Dreamsnatcher, which I wrote about here. This week the sequel, The Shadow Keeper, is published. And it’s even better (if that were possible). Abi has very kindly contributed this guest post. 

I want to do a Dodie Smith and say that I wrote The Shadow Keeper sitting in the kitchen sink. I didn’t get all creative amongst the fairy liquid – not this time – but I did end up in some extraordinary places writing my second book. So, here goes for the Top 10 Places I Wrote The Shadow Keeper:

Smoo waterfall

  1. Smoo Cave. It’s located at the eastern edge of a village called Durness, on Scotland’s most northerly coastline. After I’d waded past the KEEP OUT sign I found a hidden waterfall and I wrote the very opening of the book, about the Shadowmasks meeting in a dark cave, here.

Brazil cave writing

  1. Abismo de Anhumas. Another cave. This time in the Brazilan jungle outside Bonito. It was like a journey to Middle Earth – a 72 metre abseil into a cave home to incredible stalactite formations – and I wrote about the very big (and very magical) cave at the end of The Shadow Keeper while I was here – with a head torch.
  1. Iguazu Falls in Argentina. I took my writing pad to the top of the raging waterfalls and wrote while swifts dived into the spray.

Writing shed

  1. My writing shed in the garden. I wrote much of the book by candlelight here, surrounded by books and souvenirs I’ve picked up from my travels (shaman daggers and buzzard-fletched arrows…).
  1. The 316 bus in London. Not quite so magical but because I do a lot of school events I end up writing most of my books on buses, trains and planes.
  1. Clavell Tower, Dorset. I wrote with the sea spread out below the cliffs and the cries of the gulls hanging in the wind. Bliss.

St Cyrus

  1. St Cyrus Beach, Scotland. I grew up building sandcastles and exploring rock pools on this beach and I wrote many of the Little Hollows scenes here.

Norway writing

  1. Engelsholm, a remote island off the Norwegian coast, not far from Kristiansand. I learnt to forage for mussels and oysters here and I wrote for days on end on the jetty looking out over the fjords.

Abi biking Burma

  1. On the back of a motorbike in Burma. I wrote one word ‘the’ (not a classic) then realised it was too bumpy to continue.
  1. On the BA flight home to my Dad’s in Scotland. There is perhaps nowhere as magical to write as up above the clouds.

THE SHADOW KEEPER:

Moll Pecksniff and her friends are living as outlaws in a secret cave by the sea, desperate to stay hidden from the Shadowmasks. But further along the coast lies the Amulet of Truth, the only thing powerful enough to force the Shadowmasks back and contain their dark magic. So, together with Gryff, the wildcat that’s always by her side, and her best friends Alfie and Sid, Moll must sneak past smugglers, outwit mer creatures and crack secret codes to save the Old Magic. With more at stake than ever before and the dark magic rising fast, can Moll and her friends stop the Shadowmasks before it’s too late? Perfect for fans of J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Michelle Paver and Eva Ibbotson.

Shadow Keeper Blog Tour [46971]

www.abielphinstone.com

 

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.

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.

 

 

An Interview with Abi Elphinstone, author of The Dreamsnatcher

The Dreamsnatcher cover FINAL   Abi Elphinstone
Abi Elphinstone’s debut children’s book, The Dreamsnatcher, is a bit special. It’s my Book of the Week this week, and you can read the review here. The Dreamsnatcher wasn’t sent to me by a publisher for promotion or review, I merely stumbled across it when going through the entries for next year’s Red House Book Awards. The blurb appealed and I read it before ‘testing’ it on the children. It had quite a hold. Then Abi and I started tweeting and she kindly agreed to be interviewed on my blog.

MinervaReads: You’re obviously very influenced by reading the works of Phillip Pullman. What other influences would you cite – for me the gypsy qualities in Moll were also reminiscent of The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden?

Abi: Ha! Yes, I adore Phillip Pullman’s books. Northern Lights, together with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, were the books that made me believe in magic and Pullman even wrote me a little note wishing me luck in my writing when I started out six years ago.
Pullman
I learnt how to write action scenes from reading Michelle Paver’s books, particularly the brilliant Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, and The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden inspired me to create a Romany gypsy girl with spirit. Oh, and Moll’s slightly ‘off the wall’ nature comes from reading about truly unique heroines like Mina from David Almond’s My Name is Mina and Sophie in Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers.

MinervaReads: The natural imagery and surrounding landscape are key to your story. Do you see this as a growing trend in children’s literature – and did you purposefully set out to make the setting vague and unknowable so we don’t know which country Moll is from?

Abi: Having grown up in the wilds of Scotland, I think I’m naturally drawn to stories set in remote landscapes – and whenever I go walking in the highlands or swimming in the Fairy Pools on Skye, I can’t help but feel there is so much magic buried away up there. I’m not sure if there is a trend emerging with children’s writers focusing on natural landscapes but I adore any book that does, like The Black North by Nigel McDowell and The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse most recently. I’ve got plans for a series about an Inuit girl called Eska and a grizzly bear cub next but as with The Dreamsnatcher, I won’t give specific place names. I deliberately wanted my setting to be vague (even though I did much of my research in the New Forest) because that way children can dream up the story anywhere.

Abi SkyeAbi at the top of a mountain in Skye

MinervaReads: How did you get published? And did it take a long time for you to write The Dreamsnatcher?

Abi: From the ages of 24 – 28, I wrote three books. I sent each one out to a smattering of literary agents and I think I racked up 96 rejections in total. I guess that’s what happens when you dash out stories that don’t matter that much to you… A few agents said they saw ‘glimpses of brilliance’ and ‘raw talent’ in my work but that my plots were unoriginal and my writing style was amateur. So I kept writing, I went to literary festivals and writing workshops, I read more and more children’s books, and most importantly, I re-worked my ideas and style until they were the very best that they could be. I wrote The Dreamsnatcher over the course of a year and I literally threw everything at it because it was finally a story I wanted to tell: I watched wildcats prowl in the New Forest, carved wooden flowers with a Romany gypsy and wrote every spare second I could until there were literally no words left inside me! Then I sent off The Dreamsnatcher to one agent, Hannah Sheppard – and she signed me. Although the rejection process was painful, it taught me a lot about humility, determination and creativity.

MinervaReads: Some of the imagery (the burning of the hand at the beginning) is quite unsettling and frightening. What’s your view on the use of frightening imagery in children’s books?

Abi: Yeah, I scared myself when writing about Skull quite a few times! But I think that as long as you offer children hope – and virtues like bravery, friendship, tolerance and kindness set against the evil you present – then you can go quite dark. I mean, Tolkien totally terrified me as a child but Frodo and Samwise Gamgee taught me to be brave – and I think that kind of lesson is worth being scared rigid by Black Riders for.

MinervaReads: The character of Moll is so well defined. Have you always had her in your head as a sort of alter ego or did you mould her as you wrote the story?

Abi: Hehe. Moll is basically me: ‘a ball of misdirected enthusiasm’ (that’s how my brothers describe me). She’s energetic and adventurous but hopelessly headstrong and pretty impatient – and she almost always says the wrong thing at the wrong time. But she means well and she’s fab with a catapult. Moll was the easiest character to write because I just kept scribbling down what I’d do and say in the situations she got into. It was a LOT of fun.
Abi as MollAbi, as a child

MinervaReads: One of myy most treasured possessions is a set of the His Dark Materials trilogy signed by Phillip Pullman to my children. What’s your most treasured possession?

Abi: My teddy. It goes everywhere with me. He even went on my honeymoon. Wow, that’s embarrassing seeing that sentence in actual typed letters on my computer screen. Oh well.

You can visit Abi’s author website here and watch the video trailer for her book
For teaching resources on The Dreamsnatcher, click here

The cover for The Dreamsnatcher was designed by Thomas Flintham

 

The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone

The Dreamsnatcher cover FINAL

Lightly straddling the realms of adventure and fantasy, Abi Elphinstone’s debut novel teases out memories of a canon of beautiful children’s literature that has gone before her, as she builds a world of gypsies and dark magic set entirely in woods in a mystery land. Our likeable protagonist Moll is a 12 year old gypsy, raised entirely in a wagon-filled clearing in the woods, unknowing of the world outside (she has never seen the sea or imagined other countries). This landscape allows Abi Elphinstone to explore the wild elements of Moll’s upbringing, filled with animals and birds, and herbs and potions. The oracle foretells that Moll, along with Gryff, her wildcat, will be the sole defenders against the power of the dark magic of the Dreamsnatcher. The author’s energy enthuses throughout the book; she manages to pack action into the story – Moll never seems to sit still for a minute, the book is crammed with some extraordinarily restless vocabulary; Moll is forever springing forward or leaping or unfurling, with her heart hammering. It’s a whirlwhind of an adventure, and pulls the reader along. The scenes of the dark side of magic – Skull and the dreamsnatch – are chillingly portrayed, the imagery is dark and scary, but Moll and her friends are so beguiling that the book balances beautifully between the dark and the light. The author employs devices borrowed from Pullman, Barrie and Rowling in her use of imagery, relationships and evil. This book is highly engrossing, with a dark imagination. I would recommend it for an advanced middle grade reader. Once read, you won’t be able to wait for the next in the series; it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve read since the His Dark Materials trilogy. Published 26th February 2015.
Cover illustration by Thomas Flintham