Tag Archive for St John Lauren

The Snow Angel by Lauren St John, illustrated by Catherine Hyde


Writers love to inflict great harm on their characters – the more dramatic their downfall, the more a novel can pack a punch. And Lauren St John’s latest novel certainly puts her main character to the test. Sadly, it was the all-too-real plight of orphaned and abandoned children in Zimbabwe (those who have lost parents, become war children or refugees), which inspired St John to pen The Snow Angel. However, like all good children’s literature, it not only reflects the world but strives to find a positive note, an optimistic resolution, showing the goodness that can be found too.

Eleven-year-old Makena lives happily in Nairobi with her mother and father, and like her father (who is a mountain guide), she adores the mountains, and she hopes that one day, with his help, she will climb Mount Kenya. But, as can sometimes happen in life, one day everything she knows turns upside down, and she is orphaned and alone, and St John shows the reader just how far children can fall in a flash.

Although Makena is taken in by a family member, she is treated abhorrently, and runs away, managing (just) to carve a life for herself in the Nairobi slums. Here, surprisingly, St John changes perspective briefly to a third person adult point of view, an unusual proposition in a children’s book, to explore the narrative from a rescuer’s viewpoint. Makena, seemingly, is in too much danger and too weak to view what happens next. The introduction of an adult’s perspective here (Helen, a woman rescuing children from the slums) gives the reader a new insight and, then, once switched back to Makena, shows how redemption can come, although slowly, and happy endings abound.

The issues within this book are many and layered, and yet the reader never once feels as if they are reading an ‘issue’ book. The book touches upon ebola, famine, child soldiers and the like, explaining the reason for the multitude of children living alone in the slums, but far stronger than the issues is St John’s evocation of the setting – the beauty of the African mountains, the colour of the fruits and scents of food at roadside vendors, the wonder of flowers and plants, and the overriding sense of the healing power of nature.

Lauren St John keeps eking out pockets of hope even in the midst of Makena’s deeply despairing situation. From the friendships she forges around her, to the talk of inspirational people, to the optimism she encounters that shows her a way forward. This is mainly down to a character called Snow, another child all alone, who teaches Makena how to find the good in things – how to have ambition and believe in a future, and to see the magic in everything.

There is, in fact, not a blatant magic in the book, but a subtle undercurrent of coincidence, folklore, superstition and in the end, an animal that seems to be able to show Makena the right path, physically and spiritually. As with real life, there is wonder in the world if you look for it. This is brought to life not only by the story, but by Catherine Hyde’s subtle interspersed black and white illustrations, which increase the idea of magic, nature and this sense of wonder.

But overall, and what drives the narrative, is not just the goodness and kindness pointed out by St John, but the vivacity of the characters. Each child, in their struggle to survive, shows believable tenacity and courage, and each adult is rounded and real – not completely selfless, not completely faultless, and when it comes to the ‘baddies’, not completely evil. The characters are as diverse and vibrant as the settings.

Not every book is written for a reason, other than that there’s a great story to tell – but beneath the story the reader can tell that St John is attempting to influence her readers – getting them to see changes that can be made for a better future. The hardback copy comes complete with a ribbon bookmark, and you’d do well to bookmark the acknowledgements too, in which St John mentions a few ways in which children too could try to have a positive impact on the world, even if they don’t write their own novels. It’s an inspiring list, which I think Makena would try hard to complete. A great story, easy to read, and swiftly devoured. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Please note that I carried out some paid work for the publisher on the above title, but this is no way influenced my review of the book.

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.

Mystery Stories

We start solving mysteries from early on. Most toddlers play with some kind of shape sorting – working out that the square block fits through the square hole. Perhaps then moving onto jigsaw puzzles – at first the large ones with sticking up handles, and then finally the traditional puzzles, creating pictures of Disney heroines or maps of the world. All this goes towards child development in developing the gross and fine motor skills of course, but solving puzzles enables a child to hone memory, use logic and refine observation skills, and to sort the red herrings from the real clues.

Then eventually, putting pen to paper, children may tackle a spot the difference, a wordsearch, a crossword, a su doku.

What’s satisfying about these tasks is that by solving the problem, a child is restoring order at the end – bringing closure to the problem, much in the same way that authors end children’s books – with uplifting closure.

And the same applies to reading a detective or mystery story. Enid Blyton used to be the doyenne of such spiels – her Secret Seven and Famous Five solving mystery after mystery. Scooby Doo followed on TV, and we became a nation of child detective experts. Mysteries force the reader or viewer to hold information in their head, whilst following the story and working out critically where the story is headed – analysing characters for motive and honesty.

In contemporary children’s literature the depth and breadth of mystery stories is quite astounding; more and more of these land on my desk every day.

detective dog

Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
In picture books, the most recent is Julia Donaldson’s The Detective Dog. Not her strongest, but this time she’s paired with illustrator Sara Ogilvie, whose illustrations are bright, comic and refreshing. The Detective Dog’s mission is to see where all the books from the school have disappeared to. Despite some rather tenuous plotting, the book celebrates love of libraries (if only I knew of a real library that looked like the illustration in here – every booklover’s dream), but the story is sweet and the illustrations exquisite. There’s no doubt Donaldson is our queen of picture book rhyme:

“Thousands of books, from the floor to the ceiling.
The books gave the thief the most heavenly feeling.
He gazed in amazement. “Where am I?” he said,
And Peter replied, “In the library, Ted.”

You can buy it here.

dotty detective

Dotty Detective by Clara Vulliamy
For newly independent readers, Clara Vulliamy’s offering, Dotty Detective, fits the bill beautifully. Filled to the brim with illustrations, capital letters, italics, and written in a clearly paced diary format, this is the story of Dot, a little girl with more personality than doodles in the book. The text reads breathlessly – Dot talking to the diary – and soon she forms a detective agency with her school friend and faithful dog. There are some lovely ideas tucked in here, from the pink wafer code to homemade periscopes – lots of references to what’s important to this age group – sparkly red lucky shoes and yummy dinners, and enough dropped clues that the young reader can solve the mystery ahead of Dot. This is a perfect step up from picture books – the number of maps, illustrations, fake photographs, notes and even word searches mean that this is a story that lends itself as much to visual literacy as to textual. Seek the first in the series here.

nancy parker

Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection by Julia Lee
Another diary format, and more mysteries in this historical book from Julia Lee. It is the 1920s and Nancy Parker has been employed as a housemaid for her first job. She has a penchant for reading six-penny thrillers, and wants to be a detective, so she seeks our mystery where she can. And luckily for her, there does seem to be some strange activity from her new employer – she has lavish parties, a murky past and a cook with a secret. Add to that a spate of local burglaries, and Nancy’s detective skills are put to use.

There’s a lovely rounded cast here, from the boy next door – Quentin Ives who wishes he was a dashing undercover spy called John Horsefield, but is really rather a nincompoop, and Ella, the brave and daring daughter of a local archaeologist. The three children are thrown together in solving the mystery, and although reluctant at first, realise that they are stronger together.

This book is full of wry comic fun, and great characters. Each child is so well painted, so thoroughly flawed and yet likeable that the reader will never tire of reading of their adventures (albeit there is no massive mystery to solve in the end). Partly written as Nancy’s diary in stunning handwritingish typeface, and partly in third person prose from the different children’s points of view, this was a really enjoyable read with great historical detail. Highly recommend. For 9+ years. Buy it here.

alice jones

Alice Jones by Sarah Rubin
Far more contemporary, Alice Jones is presented as a bit of a whizz kid. She excels at maths, and has a reputation for solving mysteries before the story begins. When a famous scientist goes missing after reputedly inventing an invisibility suit, Alice has to work out how to find him, at the same time as protecting her friends.

Alice is a great character, not merely a Nancy Drew who only solves mysteries, but someone with a life outside, including school, friends and family. She is clever but displays dry humour, and develops well during the novel, realising that classroom troublemaker Kevin Jordan may work as a good ally in problem solving. She also has to deal with her home life – a family that needs some problem-solving too.

The story is set in Philadelphia and there are definite Americanisms throughout, but the hardest task was solving the mystery – readers will need to be steered thoroughly by Alice – there is none of the blatant clue-dropping as in the titles above, where the reader learns more than the protagonist. However, it’s great to see a heroine deciphering clues with her intelligence rather than random flashes of intuition, and it makes for a gripping read. Age 10+ years. Buy it here.

There are so many more mystery stories for this 9+ age group, that it’s hard to cover them all, but here are some of my favourites:

mmu

The Wells and Wong Mysteries, starting with Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens is one of my favourite series. Set in the 1930s, it mashes Agatha Christie mysteries with Enid Blyton boarding schools. In the first in the series, Daisy and Hazel set up a detective agency in their school to look for missing ties and suchlike, but then stumble across the body of the science mistress lying dead in the gym. Suddenly they have a real mystery to solve. A brilliant story, complete with boarding school rules and regulations, but also the twist of a murder to solve. Great gentle fun; if you haven’t discovered them yet, you’re in for a treat. Seek it here.

marsh road mysteries

The Marsh Road Mysteries, starting with Diamonds and Daggers by Elen Caldecott. This series, all set in the same street with the gang of children who live there is reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives simply because the setting is almost as much a part of the story as the mystery itself. Caldecott is a very skilful writer, and hops from head to head in the narrative, so that each child’s viewpoint is seen. The first book in the series tells the story of a missing diamond necklace – a famous actress comes to the local theatre, but when her necklace goes missing, the prime suspect is one of the local children’s dads. Piotr has to fight to find out who really did it to avoid being sent ‘home’ to Poland with his security guard Dad. Each character is well defined; and the readership will adore the familiar territory of friendships and loyalties as the series progresses. Compelling and really vibrant – a modern day Famous Five (but better!). Buy it here.

cover

Mystery and Mayhem anthology
This is one I have featured before here, when Helen Moss kindly guest-posted. This is a sumptuous book of mini-mysteries from many of the authors featured today, so the reader can have a sample of small mysteries (which are easy to solve by the reader) and find out which author’s style they like. My favourite, The Mystery of the Green Room by Clementine Beauvais.

Try also Helen Moss, The Adventure Island and Secrets of the Tombs series, Lauren St John, The Laura Marlin Mysteries, and Katherine Woodfine, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow.

 

Animal Conservation

The world can be a boggling place for a child. There are so many difficult topics swirling around. How do we introduce and explain them? I talked about First News newspaper on Sunday and its ability to draw difficult things to our attention, such as war, refugees, poverty, and the environment.

But if we want to go one step further and find the reasons behind things, the whys and hows, what we can do about these topics, and how we feel about it, then we can turn to fiction. Books are a great way to discover things about our world, and our place within it.

Two stalwarts of children’s literature tackle the very tricky topics of animal poaching, child guerrilla soldiers, mining, deforestation and more, in two compelling books for children.

operation rhino

Operation Rhino by Lauren St John
Although book five of the White Giraffe series, this can equally be read as a stand-alone book, because St John beautifully summarises past happenings throughout the book, and the characters come across just as strongly as if you had read all the prior books. Of course it can also be read in sequence as part of this vibrant series.

Martine lives in Africa with her grandmother, on a game reserve. When their white rhinos are attacked by poachers looking to take the rhinos’ horns, Martine and her friend Ben accompany the surviving baby rhino to a sanctuary in the National Park. Whilst there, they try to play detective and work out who the poachers are, only to realise that they might have stumbled right into the poachers’ lair.

Martine grew up in England, which affords St John the luxury of comparing things in Africa to things here – such as a train ride for example, which is particularly useful for her UK readership to draw parallels between the two environments and to see the differences. Her youthful protagonist also has a child’s outlook so can draw on a simple view of animal and human rights, which again, for her youthful audience means that complex arguments can be explained in a simple way or pared down.

Most importantly though, despite the author’s huge amount of fantastic detail about animals on the reserve, and plants and flowers of the region (St John grew up on a farm and game reserve in Africa), she is an experienced writer and manages to keep the pace light and the plot moving forwards.

Delightfully, the characters are warm, and intensely likeable, Martine in particular, as the reader is inside her head and can empathise with her guilt when she feels she has done wrong, and experience her intense emotions for both the animals and humans around her.  It’s very apparent that the animals surrounding her give her enormous release, and pleasure – just as in reality friendships with animals can be a useful way for helping troubled children to heal.

The subject matter is serious, and St John describes the length poachers will go to (including shooting at children), but also describes the goodness of those who will do their utmost to save endangered animals – and how important this is.

This is confident and assertive storytelling that ekes out a message at the same time as telling a compelling story. You can buy it here.

gorilla dawn

Gorilla Dawn by Gill Lewis

This is an wonderfully powerful book, dealing with an incredibly difficult subject matter for anyone, let alone children – but Gill Lewis pulls it off with some masterful storytelling and acute characterisation, pulling the reader through a quagmire of emotion from the beginning.

Told from three different perspectives, Gill Lewis weaves the story of a group of guerrillas and their child soldiers as they firstly storm villages for supplies, and then settle in the mountains of the Congo to mine for coltan. During their time there they capture a baby gorilla.

The first, and most powerful perspective is that of Imara, a girl captured by the guerrillas, and now a powerful entity within the camp as the soldiers believe her to be a spirit child. Gill Lewis depicts her inner turmoil brilliantly – the power she holds over the men, a power that she is scared to relinquish, and which is held in battle with her underlying conscience – fighting for what is right. When she starts to care for the baby gorilla, her love for it threatens to put her own life in jeopardy.

The second perspective is that of Bobo, son of a missing mountain ranger, who infiltrates the camp in order to discover the truth about his father. Through his many years of connection to the gorillas in the mountains, he also positions himself as one with power in the group, hoping to use it in the right way.

And the third perspective is that of the baby gorilla. Basic needs and desires, which as Gill Lewis cunningly depicts, are not that dissimilar to ours.

The background of the lush mountains of the Congo is intensely described, especially when the men start to pull it apart in order to mine for coltan, that precious mineral that has unique properties for storing electrical charge and so is used for our phones and computers.

Despite the harsh and stark message that the book delivers about our environment and our source materials, this is a gripping read and one of the most compelling stories I have read in children’s literature this year. Definitely Gill Lewis’s grittiest novel, children will be bowled over by the action, the moral argument, and inspired with a new understanding of our place in the world. Expect depiction of some gun violence, and kidnap, but it is tame enough and certainly relevant for 9+ years. Buy it here.