Tag Archive for McGowan Anthony

Fiction Books with Birds

Ever since the dove made an appearance in the Bible as a symbol of peace, and ravens whispered news into the god Odin’s ears in Norse mythology, or since Ancient Greece where the goddess Athena had an owl as a symbol of wisdom, or in Ancient India where a peacock represented Mother Earth, birds have been used in religion, mythology and literature symbolically, as messengers or perhaps signs of hope, and particularly freedom. In some of my favourite novels, birds have been used in symbolic ways: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle…. Here are three children’s novels that synchronise with this theme.

larkLark by Anthony McGowan
McGowan returns for a final time to his beloved working class characters, Nicky and Kenny, in this novella for Barrington Stoke. Although the last of a quartet, Lark can be read as a standalone, a self-contained adventure. The teenage boys are escaping their everyday reality, in this case, a visit from their estranged mother, by taking a walk on the Yorkshire moors with their dog. With understated empathy, McGowan describes Kenny (who has cognitive disability), as needing to let out his pent-up energy – ‘he’d punch the cushions on the settee or shout out random stuff in the street’ – and so the brothers seek nature as a release – the perennial theme of this book quartet.

Narrated by Nicky in an authentic teen voice, which is both accessible and yet intensely profound in its own way, the prose starts in the middle of the action, backtracking a little but then ploughing on – not unlike the boys, who are suddenly caught in the middle of a blizzard on the moors.

Danger becomes all too apparent – the problems of home (hunger, cold, poverty) are magnified in the natural expanse of the moors, and yet also reduced to this particular day and this particular time. The boys get into deep trouble, pushing them to the brink of existence.

Nicky’s trademark humour never lets up, lending even more pathos to the situation in its own darkly rich way, and by the end a fair number of readers will be sniffing back the tears. What lingers is the bond between the boys, the exploration of teen masculinity – full of bravado and yet vulnerability – and yet also the ultimate draw of never-ending hope.

Suspenseful, written with immaculate style, and ultimately heart-warming, this is another triumph from McGowan. You can read the review of Rook, the third in the series here, when it looked likely to end as a trilogy. To buy Lark, click here

asha and the spirit birdAsha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
Another book reaching for the symbol of a bird as hope, and with a treacherous journey, is this spellbinding lush book from newcomer Jasbinder Bilan.

Asha lives with her mother in the foothills of the Himalayas, living a rural life and working on the farm, spending leisure time in the mango tree with her friend Jeevan. Her father works away in the city. But when he stops sending money and moneylenders come to collect her mother’s debt, Asha decides to find her way to the city herself and see what’s happened to her father.

As vibrant with the sights and sounds and colours of the landscape on the inside as the cover is bright on the outside, this is a stunning evocation of a completely different way of life, with a filmic quality to the descriptions of flowers and wildlife, food and landscape. The journey is treacherous, the children not only at risk of death from hunger and tiredness, but also in the face of wild animals. Here too, though, nature is a saving grace in the form of a magical spirit bird that guides Asha, giving hope and reassurance throughout.

The book takes an even darker turn with its exploration of poverty and exploitation in the city, but Asha never loses self-belief, and the book drives forward with an unrelenting optimism and moments of kindness, exploring too the role of faith and ancestry, ritual and tradition, in shaping personality and way of life.

But more than this, it’s an immersive experience in a different culture. A glossary gives Hindi and Punjabi words, but Bilan seamlessly blends them into her prose, so that with context it is easy to understand what they mean. The Indian way of life is portrayed with enthusiasm, empathy and energy, and the threads of friendship sew the plot neatly together. You can buy it here

call me alastairCall Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo
Something vastly different in this quirky novel told from three completely distinct points of view, the first of which is Alistair, an African grey parrot. Trapped in an American pet shop, Alistair dreams of freedom and blue skies, but unfortunately for him has two broken wings and a habit of plucking his own feathers out of anxiety. When he discovers eating paper, and delights in the taste of the different types of literature – poetry being his favourite – he soon starts to compose verse himself.

With this sense of the world giving him an extra taste for freedom, he is adopted by lonely widow, Albertina Plopky (Bertie), whom the reader meets through letters to her deceased husband. Add to this eclectic mix, the meticulous record-keeping of pet-shop helper 12-year-old Fritz, (musing also on the recent separation of his parents and the death of a grandparent) and suddenly the reader grasps how the three points of view and stories meet.

The book is about perspective and freedom, but also speaks to the idea of loneliness. We stifle our own freedom if we build cages around ourselves. Unique and idiosyncratic, this is not for everyone, but with a mix of poetry and prose, different narrative voices, and a quest for courage, this is a very unusual middle grade book. You can buy it here. 

 

 

A Q&A with Anthony McGowan: Killing Father Christmas

Anthony McGowan, possibly best known for his gritty YA stories including The Knife that Killed Me and the Brock, Pike and Rook series, has published a gorgeous Christmas story for younger readers with publisher Barrington Stoke: I Killed Father Christmas. Although it may sound rather horrific from the title, this is a gentle story about the true meaning of Christmas.

When Jo-Jo hears his parents arguing downstairs, he feels that it’s all his fault and that he has killed Father Christmas by asking for too many presents. To make amends, Jo-Jo feels he must try to do Santa’s job himself. Although McGowan shows Jo-Jo’s frustration here, he also incorporates much humour, and sprinkles more than a dash of Christmas magic across the pages. Cleverly, although the story is sweet and endearing, it does manage to incorporate the darker issues of Christmas time and families – showing how children may fear they are to blame for family arguments, as well as admitting how difficult it can be for some families to afford the excess costs at Christmas time. 

The book is illustrated by Chris Riddell, the former Children’s Laureate, who brings the story to life with both realism, and a clever use of colour. I had the opportunity to ask Anthony a few questions about his writing and Christmas, and this is what he said:

You’ve had huge success, and certainly critics’ acclaim for your series for Barrington Stoke: Brock, Pike and Rook. Is there something special about writing for dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke?

Before I began writing for Barrington Stoke, my books were anything but dyslexia friendly. My style is naturally rather excessive, ornate and fancy and, unless I’m restrained, I tend to show off, letting the reader know just how clever I am. My earlier books tended to grab the reader by the ears and scream into their face. I pulled out all the stops to dazzle, astound, impress, amuse, disgust. Writing for Barrington Stoke taught me that less can be more, that three simple words can do the work of a hundred complex ones, that stories are about characters undergoing trials, and emerging from them changed. And so writing for Barrington Stoke simply made me better at my job.

I was quite surprised when reading I Killed Father Christmas to find out how ‘sentimental’ it was: full of hope and love. It doesn’t seem to fit with the author who writes with such grittiness and cynicism in The Art of Failing and The Knife That Killed Me for example…Is there a softer side to Anthony McGowan that isn’t normally seen?

Well, it’s a Christmas story! Actually, there are quite dark elements in it – it begins with a bitter argument, and tries to hint at how families can struggle with the cost of Christmas. But, yes, the underlying (and overlying) message is that what gets us through is love and kindness. I suppose I also wanted to salvage something from the commercialisation of Christmas – trying to find a core of goodness under all the tinsel.

Was Christmas a big part of your upbringing?

I’m one of five children, so Christmas was always exciting and chaotic. We were pretty skint when I was growing up, so it must have been a struggle for my parents to give us the presents we pestered them for, as well as all the other festive elements; but they made a huge effort to make Christmas special. I suppose it was all quite traditional – both in the wider sense, and in the more particular McGowan family rituals. We had the same decorations every year – the same tinsel draped over the pictures in the living room. There was always a huge tin of Quality Street – hidden by my dad, searched for and plundered by us.  Presents (always from Father Christmas, never acknowledged as being from my parents) were left in pillow cases at the end of our beds. We were allowed to open them at the crack of dawn, in a frenzy of tearing and rending and squealing. Then we’d go off to Mass, then Christmas lunch, that always happened around 4pm. The best part was going out to play with my friends, showing off your new toys – that Action Man, or a new torch, or a bike. I suppose the main thing is that because we didn’t have much money, Christmas felt very different to the rest of the year – it was a time of plenty – enough sweets, enough nice food, the toys …

Can you describe your perfect Christmas now?

For some reason it always makes me feel a little sad. I suppose it’s a very obvious marker of the years passing, of my own aging, of my children growing. But my daughter still gets incredibly excited by Christmas, and that infects the rest of us. There are plenty of family occasions – we go to my wife’s parents on Christmas Day, then travel up to Yorkshire to see my parents on Boxing Day. The McGowans are still mad and chaotic and noisy – quite a contrast to my wife’s very decorous family! As for perfection … well, as a parent all you want is for your children to be happy. The easy route is to buy them the presents they want, but the better path is to fill the house up with as much love as you can – which is what I Killed Father Christmas is all about.

Your writing is incredibly diverse – across genres and markets – do you find you prefer writing on any particular topic (cricket?) or for any particular audience? Presumably they all hold their own challenges..

I probably find it easiest to write for teenagers – those teenage years were very intense for me, and so my mind often drifts back there. And teenager’s lives are just so full of the stuff of fiction – conflict, friendship, love, hate… But there’s a huge joy to be had in writing funny books for younger children. And yet the book I’ve probably most relished is my recent autobiographical book for adults, The Art of Failing … I guess what all this means is that what I really love is the variety, the chance to write for anyone able to read (or be read to).

Do you write more than one book at the same time? And are you disciplined about your writing day?

Often, yes, I’ll have a couple on the go, though that’s more due to necessity than design. I think it’s much better to finish one project before the next begins, but that’s just not possible when you’re a professional writer, having to cater for different audiences. I try to write a thousand words a day, but I’m not particularly disciplined. Almost anything can distract me, a leaf falling past my window, the noise of a road drill, the constant urge to check Facebook and Twitter. Luckily, when I get going I’m quite fast, so I can do my thousand words in a couple of hours, then spend the rest of the day loafing, or fretting, or bumbling around.

What are you reading at the moment? And your favourite Christmas children’s book please?

Just as I often have several books on the go as a writer, I generally find myself in the middle of several as a reader, usually a classic, something frothy, and a work of non-fiction. So, as a slightly trashy pleasure I’m reading The Stand, by Stephen King; my current classic is The Story of the Stone, an 18th century Chinese novel, by Cao Xueqin, and my non-fiction is  The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan. I’m not sure I have a favourite children’s Christmas story, though I do have one that makes me weep uncontrollably whenever I read it – The Little Match Girl, by Hans Christian Anderson.

With thanks to Anthony McGowan for taking the time to answer my questions so fully. You can buy your own copy of I Killed Father Christmas here.

 

 

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.