Tag Archive for Nicholls Sally

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.

 

Children’s Books Gifts Round Up Part One

Are you looking for a gifts for the holiday season? Here is my round up of non-Christmassy books, which I’d choose to have in my stocking. Click on the titles to buy the book. Next week, look out for my list of children’s books with a Christmas theme.

odd-dog-outwe-found-a-hatoi-dog

There have been so many good picture books this year, that I had a really hard time narrowing down which to feature. I didn’t want to repeat any I’ve featured so far, so here is my new selection for you. Starting with Odd Dog Out by Rob Biddulph. This author/illustrator can do no wrong – each of his books is equally delightful, although in a different way, and I think this latest is my favourite. A female dog who comes to recognise that one doesn’t have to follow the pack, but that it’s good to recognise and be pleased with your own individuality. Like Steve Antony, Biddulph stuffs his picture books with details so that young children can find rewards in the tiniest things, such as characters from previous books, and hidden motifs. Fun, imaginative, and downright adorable.

Another supremely talented illustrator is Jon Klassen. He concludes his hat trilogy with this spectacular book, We Found a Hat about a pair of tortoises in the same landscape as the previous books, but with a new dilemma. The hat isn’t missing, but there’s only one hat, and two tortoises. With the same devotion to visual literacy as his other books, the reader must pay as much attention to the pictures as to the text to glean the plot. A brilliant, humorous, empathetic book. I can’t get enough of these.

Another sequel, and another talent, Oi Dog by Kes and Claire Gray and illustrated by Jim Field continues the raucous fun of Oi Frog. One of the best picture books around for reading out loud (conversation between the animals) and extending play with rhymes, this is joyous fun. Not only are the rhymes brilliant and unpredictable at times, but the illustrations (see the bears eating porridge) rather wonderful. In Oi Frog the pumas sat on satsumas. Here the cheetahs sit on fajitas. I just love it. The end twist is punchy and hilarious.

super-stanthe-liszts

Matt Robertson is an illustrator who’s been creeping under the radar for a while, but should be more widely celebrated. His latest picture book Super Stan is one he’s written as well as illustrated, and it’s fabulous. More about siblings than it is about superpowers, this tracks our everyday jealousy of our siblings, but then ends up showing us the love that lies underneath the rivalry. Bright, colourful, funny, good pacing and a stand-out lesson, this is a perfect family read.

For a more discerning picture book reader, there is The Liszts by Kyo Maclear and Julia Sarda. A play on words, this isn’t about music but about the futility of making lists rather than taking action. Quirky in its artwork, offbeat in its characterisation, this is a book with texture, depth and detail, and a brilliant moral about spontaneity. The family make lists every day except Sundays, “which were listless.” Strange but rather wonderful.

The picks for newly independent and intermediate readers are no less fruitful.

grace-ellabilly-buttonjar-of-pickles

Witches aren’t just for Halloween, and this sterling start to a new series is one to treasure for fans of The Worst Witch, Bella Broomstick and suchlike. Grace-Ella Spells for Beginners by Sharon Marie Jones, illustrated by Adriana J Puglisi is set firmly in Wales (watch out for those tricky town names), but is a charming tale about a witch who doesn’t need a boarding school to learn her trade; she learns at home with the help of a black cat. Happiness shines out of this book – it is wonderful escapism with terrific characters and a truly delightful protagonist.

Old-fashioned tales abound in both Billy Button by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey and A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy. The former is a Little Gem book, dyslexia friendly, and is an endearing tale for first readers about the old telegram system. Part love story, part Postman-Pat-esque, this is exquisite storytelling from an experienced author. Endless nostalgia for the old-school post office, and love for a bicycle, it definitely hit the spot with this reader and her little testers. The stories from India in A Jar of Pickles are denser, but each tells a little riddle of justice and rewards with a simple solution. Dealing with jealousy, crooks and a miscreant ruler, these tales are great for discussion, great for broadening horizons, and firming up that moral compass. The tone has a whiff of humour and the pace is zingy.

piglet-called-trufflestally-and-squill

Two more for this newly independent readers group are A Piglet Called Truffle by Helen Peters, illustrated by Ellie Snowdon, a delightfully gentle rural story about a girl who rescues a runt piglet and raises her on her own farm. Tones of Charlotte’s Web with pig similarities, and a subtle ‘Some Christmas Tree’ allusion, but the magic in this is the steady drip of animal care and farm information that Peters sprinkles along the narrative tale. Very cute, with cosy illustrations and a wonderful family Christmas ending.

And Tally and Squill In a Sticky Situation by Abie Longstaff, illustrated by James Brown for book-obsessed little ones. With its magical library, a poor orphaned girl and her companion animal, this contains just the right mix of fairy tale, magic and mystery adventure. With nuggets of non-fiction tucked into the text, and riddles to solve throughout, this is a brilliant read, with more in the series to come. It reminded me of Elspeth Hart with its sense of adventure, and yet also Horrid Henry in some of the typified characterisation. A great start to a new series.

robyn-silvershapeshifterblack-powder

New series for older readers include Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes by Paula Harrison about ten year old Robyn who can see creepy monsters where no one else can. Action-packed, loads of humour, monsters to rival Rowling’s Magical Beasts, and a chaotic background family – this series is  set to be a big success. A newly repackaged series is the Shapeshifter Series by Ali Sparkes, an exciting series from a writer who knows how to spin a scintillating plot. Dax Jones discovers an ability to morph into a fox, and is then whisked away by the government to be with a group of children with amazing supernatural powers (Children of Limitless Ability, COLA). There’s plenty of emotional depth to each character, brilliantly realistic portrayals of the animal instincts and behaviours yet mixed with typical teen reactions – ‘what’s for lunch?’ etc, so that the whole fantastical arrangement comes to life. There’s fast-paced action, great dialogue, and good tension. A cracking read – and a whole series already to devour on Boxing Day.

For a stand-alone piece of historical fiction, grab a copy of Black Powder by Ally Sherrick. England, 1605, and twelve-year old Tom must save his father from being hanged, and yet with Catholics despised and someone playing with gunpowder, things could end up being far more explosive than he could imagine. Bravery, quick-thinking, and massive attention to historical detail make this a sharp, thrilling read.

a-world-of-informationny-is-for-new-yorkfashion-mash-up

And lastly three brilliant non-fiction gifts that didn’t quite make it to my doorstep early enough for National Non-Fiction November. A World of Information by James Brown and Richard Platt is an oversize book with a magically eclectic mix of material, each topic given a double page spread, and each explained in just the right level of detail. One child wanted it for the phases of the moon, another for the organs of the body. A third for the intricately captioned diagram of a bicycle. All the information you could ever need to survive (ropes) and answer questions on University Challenge (periodic table and layout of an orchestra). Beautifully presented too. Knowledge at its most appealing.

NY is for New York by Paul Thurlby will be even more coveted. This A-Z stylised picture book feels luxurious, and is the perfect book to leave out on your coffee table so that your guests know you have style. Each page shows a graphic of a city highlight, and gives a sentence of information – a tidbit that you could hurl at a stranger, such as that G for Grand Central Station has 67 train tracks. If you’ve ever dreamed of taking the kids travelling, this is a great place to start.

Lastly, a mash-up. The V&A museum have teamed with Penguin books to create the V&A Fashion Mash-Up book with styling tips and illustrations by Daisy de Villeneuve. Inspirational quotes from Alexander McQueen, Oscar Wilde, and others intersperse the cunningly presented pages. With photographs from the museum collections, and cut out models and fashions, the idea is to mix and match the illustrations and models with clothes from the V&A, creating an activity where the reader sees the fashion history but can make their own unique ensembles. With gold foil stickers, accessories, and shoes shoes shoes!, and backdrops in which to place your models, this was all the Christmas fun I could want in one book. I have purchased for more than one lucky recipient. Next week, Christmas books about Christmas!

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.

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.