Tag Archive for Torday Piers

Children’s Book Fictional Personality of the Year

The newspapers have been packed with end of year lists since the beginning of December. In my final post of 2016, here is my personal end of year awards list.

Fictional Character Personality of the Year:
So many great characters this year, including bully Betty Glengarry in Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, but the most memorable for me has to be Sam from Alone by DJ Brazier. It’s a brave author who sustains a book for children with only one character throughout, and forgoes the device of having animals talk so that there really isn’t any dialogue, other than the conversations Sam has with himself.

Stranded after a plane crash near the Amazon River, Sam has to summon all his strength and resilience to survive. This gives Brazier the ultimate excuse to show Sam’s development – he starts as a boy just like any other, but by the end Sam has had to grapple with loneliness, despair, injury and failure.

Brazier doesn’t hold back with gruesome detail, but there is also a surprising amount of humour, and lashings of emotion – Sam is a great kid and one I’d love to meet in real life.

Picture Book Character of the Year:

I could easily have plumped for Alison Hubble who doubles and doubles, but instead, my character of the year has to be Nibbles, the Book Monster by Emma Yarlett. This isn’t because I was bribed with a plush toy of Nibbles, but because the character is easy for children to draw, adorable in his mischievousness, and an original book-eating monster with a bursting personality, despite looking like a glorified m&m! The book has been paper-engineered to a high production finish, with lots of interactivity, references to fairy tales, and a wonderful hide and seek of Nibbles in a bookcase.

Cleverest Use of Colour: The Great Fire of London by Emma Adams, illustrated by James Weston Lewis. Finally given the treatment it deserves, this seminal point of British history is given an illustrative makeover in this sumptuous book that absolutely illustrates history to life. No child will find history ‘boring’ with this book glowing into their face.

Most Satisfaction Gained from an Activity Book: Pinball Science (Build Your Own) by Ian Graham, Nick Arnold and Owen Davey. I was never one for paper engineering – when I worked at Dorling Kindersley my absolute nightmare was being involved in the paper model project of the Millennium Dome. However, I made this Pinball Machine one Saturday afternoon, and it gave hours of pleasure to the kids, plus we learned some sciencey stuff.

Most Successful Publicity Campaign (aka bribery): King Flashypants by Andy Riley Not only did this book have me rolling about in stitches, but the kind team at Hodder sent me chocolate, activity sheets, an advent calendar and a bag to accompany my enjoyment (please note this was all sent after I had reviewed the book!). But buy it, because it also wins Funniest Book of the Year. I still read chapter 12 to perk me up during sad frustrating times.

Most Likely to Give Nightmares: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen. I haven’t recovered from this nightmarish yet masterfully written young teen read. Merging dreams and reality, wasps and angels, this wasn’t a book even sent to me for review, but ended up being a book of the week for its lithe ability to sting the mind with thoughts and feelings.

Most Shocking Ending of the Year: Piers Torday rips up all the rules of children’s books with his ending in There May be a Castle. No spoilers here, but tissues at the ready. It’ll make adults think twice too.

Most prevalent animal this year: I’d like to say foxes or wolves, seeing as they have cropped up in so many children’s books from The Wolf Wilder, Wolf Hollow, The Wolves of Currumpaw to Maybe a Fox, The Fox and the Wild, and Finding the Fox, following in the tradition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The Call of the Wild and Fantastic Mr Fox, but actually it’s dogs. There are dogs dotted all around the chidren’s book market at the moment, The Detective Dog, Dogs on Trains, Oi Dogs, Days with Dogs, just Dogs, Claude, Spot, Odd Dog Out, The Great Fire Dogs, Spy Dog, Knitbone Pepper Ghost Dog, Space Dog, not to mention secondary dog characters in stories. However, seeing as dogs, foxes and wolves all belong in the large taxonomic family called Canidae – we’ll leave it at that. Perhaps next year will be the turn of the cats. See you in 2017.

 

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.

There May Be a Castle by Piers Torday

there-may-be-a-castle

Piers Torday shot into the limelight, deservedly so, for his first novel, The Last Wild, which started a trilogy that followed a young boy called Kester in his quest to save the last surviving animals on earth. It was an astounding book (and trilogy); Kester is in my top ten all-time children’s book characters.

There May be a Castle also follows the quest of a young boy, but it is a completely different journey from that of Kester’s.

Mouse, a fairly small eleven year old, is travelling with his mother and two sisters to his grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve. But the snow is falling fast, and visibility is bad, and the car goes off the road and crashes.

When Mouse wakes up he’s in a strange world, with a talking horse who resembles his toy, and an accompanying sheep named Bar. He knows that he has to find his way to the castle, if there is a castle, but he’s not sure why, or what will happen if he finds it.

Torday’s book is a paean to our amazing mind and to ceaseless imagination. Although on the surface this is a simple adventure story, appealing to children with its array of colourful and fantastical characters, from duelling knights out of Mouse’s computer games, to a somewhat sarcastic talking horse, a typically irritating singing minstrel and a brilliantly drawn size-changing dinosaur (reminiscent of Toy Story’s life-imbued toys), there are strong underlying themes, and an emotional poignancy and tension that’s more than gripping.

Even before the crash, Mouse’s character is all about his mind. He’s a thinker, a worrier even. His size may be small, but his imagination is huge – Torday plays up this juxtaposition on purpose – Mouse’s imagination is bigger than he is – Mouse is much more than his physical body. Moreover, Torday is saying that our minds are more powerful than we realise.

Mouse’s stamina – he is on a quest to seek help really – is propelled by the power of his imagination. He harnesses strength by projecting his real journey onto an imaginative quest. This is mirrored by his older sister, Violet. In the middle of Mouse’s imaginative landscape, the reader is drawn back to Violet – in intervening chapters – as she describes waking and seeing her mother and sister in the car, and using her physical prowess to detach herself from the seatbelt to attempt to keep her family physically safe (using the car heater, food, warm clothes). However, she too, uses imaginative play as power – she pretends to be a fierce historical lady pirate – a hero she has learnt about in school – and this make-believe gives her fortitude.

From the beginning of the book, Torday drops clues as to what’s going to happen – the snow carpets the land, “just another block of white in a land of white”, so that once the car crashes, the reader knows that the rescue teams won’t find the car easily. It is up to the two children, Violet and Mouse, to get help. This frightening scenario (all too real in today’s automobile society) is brave territory for a children’s writer. It will resonate with those readers who are drilled into road-crossing, seatbelt-wearing safety, and is truly a tale for our time.

But Torday makes it contemporary in other ways too – Mouse complains that his grandparents don’t have Sky or broadband. He and his siblings are transfixed by the ‘glowing screen’. At one point it almost seems as if authorial intrusion is making a point about modern technology:

“A spellbinding black mirror that floated in your hands and which, with one swipe, revealed to you the whole world. Pictures from underneath the ocean, videos of the planets from outer space. Every film ever made, every song ever recorded, every game ever designed, every book ever written. He could almost see Mr Stanmore’s point. Who needed to make anything up, when it was all here in your hands, just waiting for you?”

The children are part of a generation who navigate the world with technology. Mouse and Violet refer to TV, the ipad, Instagram, the sat nav, apps, both for their entertainment and their way of life, but it is no surprise that Torday’s message is that for all of modern technology’s strengths, this story is about the power of nature – the snow that overturns the car – the power of the basic human elements of survival – seeking warmth, shelter, and food. These basics trump the technology that fails Mouse and Violet in the end – the Ipad smashes, the mobile phone has no signal, the car heater only lasts a short while.

This book hits on many levels. It speaks to children in that it is a simple adventure story and it speaks to children, who like Mouse, don’t enjoy reading. Mouse prefers animation – the swipe of an Ipad to the stasis of a book, but then his daydreaming (his creative inner voice) takes over, and it is more real than any app. It’s the land a reader goes to in their head.

But even more striking is that for much of the book our protagonist doesn’t seem to be in control, despite the adventures coming out of his imagination, formed from experiences in his game-playing world. Which makes the reader question whether our imaginations are controllable. To what extent do we control our own dreams, our own subconscious?

This is daring territory for a children’s book. What’s more daring is its ending (which I won’t spoil) and its meditation on life and death. What is left behind when a person dies, where does the imagination go then?

Children will appreciate the good writing here, the quest within the narrative, and the white-knuckle tension of surviving a car crash and being rescued. But as with all good books there is much more to explore, there is much more to think about – because imagination will take you everywhere.

“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” GK Chesterton

You can buy a copy of the book here. For age 10+ years.

 

Please note this review was written after reading a proof copy of There May be a Castle and quotes may not be wholly reflective of the finished book.

Growing Readers: FCBG Conference 2016 Part Two

Sunday morning’s conversation at the FCBG16 began with a question. Prue Goodwin, doyenne of the dissemination of children’s literature, asked about the title of the conference. Were we growing readers (adjective) or were we growing readers (verb)?

The answer of course, is both. But more than that, because we are promoting reading for pleasure we are actually growing humans. Piers Torday (The Last Wild Trilogy) was keen to point out, in his inspirational lecture, that the benefits of reading for pleasure stretch beyond the educational, social or literary – that the key to books is humanity.

One of the reasons children’s literature retains such a resonance after childhood – the influences of Harry Potter or Aslan or Pooh stretching into adulthood – is that these books are read whilst we are growing our imagination, our cultural heritage, our background, our consciousness, our moral compass. When we were young.

daniel hahn boy top mountain

In Daniel Hahn’s excellent Sunday morning interview with John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), both writers spoke about the moral imperatives growing from Boyne’s war books for children. The posing of moral dilemmas, and the resulting conversations and controversies. Boyne’s latest children’s book, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, investigates the susceptibility of young children to brainwashing – it’s about a boy residing in Berghof with Hitler’s servants. It explores character – that people aren’t born good or evil, but that they can be swayed, and lends itself to a discussion of when bad actions become a personal responsibility. These are big questions for children’s books – but that’s exactly what authors need to be doing – asking children these big questions, while their brains and imaginations are still forming. What better time to develop a moral compass than in childhood?

The Last Wild

Piers Torday’s The Last Wild trilogy also poses some pertinent and tough questions. At what point do we sacrifice our comforts for the sake of the environment? If we know that it’s possible for a creature to become extinct in the next ten years (such as elephants in the real world) what action can we and should we be taking? If we show children a fictional world in which all animals are extremely rare and on the brink, and the world as we know it has changed, then it can be an inspiration that shapes their lives. It can start the ball rolling in their formative years and get them thinking about real world scenarios – as well as entertaining them with a brilliant story, and evoking emotions that they will never forget.

And that’s the key – authors are posing questions to children and growing them into thoughtful people. As someone once said, children who read become adults who think. Children’s literature can start to build a moral compass, and from that children learn to have moral courage.

And it’s not just text that lends itself to this purpose. Once again the topic of illustrations arose with author SF Said and illustrator and author Jane Ray. In an ever visual society, children need to recognise the importance of decoding the visual, just as much as decoding text. Images are given just as much prominence in the adult world as text – in newspapers, websites, and obviously television where the image dominates. Any child watching the news learns to disseminate the information firstly in a visual format, and then with text.

phoenix

SF Said’s Phoenix is a thrilling and captivating science fiction novel, but it is also a story about humanity. It too inspires feelings and thoughts about moral courage, self-sacrifice, fighting for what’s right. But Dave McKean’s images are an integral part of the story – helping to tell the narrative, complementing the text.

urashima

So it’s puzzling to many in the children’s books world that images are dismissed by many adults as being ‘babyish’. The illustrator Jane Ray made the point that unfortunately “when something is expertly and simply done it looks easy – the value is reduced” in the eyes of the adults. Of course anyone looking at Shaun Tan picture books, or even my book of the week today – The Journey by Francesca Sanna – can see that expertly produced picture books can be equally read by adults and can be as influential and challenging as full blown 300 page texts.

In the end, the best children’s books are so influential because they teach empathy and humanity not by instructing but by inspiring. Authors and illustrators nourish children’s imaginations, morality, and ethics by osmosis. All wrapped up in a beautiful story.

 

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 Piers Torday, author of The Last Wild trilogy

Piers TordayPiers twitter avatar

Piers Torday looks a bit like his twitter avatar, which in turn looks a bit like the BFG (Big Friendly Giant). That’s not an insult, in fact he refers to it himself, and I can concur that he’s definitely friendly, and is building up to be a colossus in the world of children’s literature. Winning the Guardian Fiction Prize in 2014 for The Dark Wild, which is part two of his Last Wild trilogy, the third book, The Wild Beyond, was released into our wild on April 2nd, and is a literary tour de force. Read my review here.

I have to admit something. I was in love with Pier’s first book before I had even read it. My son, who devoured only information books, was hooked into fiction by The Last Wild – the first book he read that he really physically wouldn’t put down. Then I read it, and understood why. I read a great many children’s books – this one is destined to be a classic.
The Last WildThe Dark Wilduntitled

Piers Torday grew up in Northumberland – where he claims there were more animals than people. His mother ran a children’s bookshop, and she even had Roald Dahl come visit, which probably gives you a good background if you want to write children’s books (with lots of animals inside!) Piers kindly took time out of his busy schedule ahead of his book launch to answer some of my questions, as I wanted to delve further and find out how the big ideas in the trilogy were born.

The Last Wild trilogy deals with human impact on the Earth. Did you set out to write a book based on the environment? 

PT: Yes, right from the get go, the Last Wild trilogy was conceived as a way of writing about the environment, climate change, humanity’s relationship with the natural world and the “sixth extinction”, for children. I wanted to find a way of asking questions about our role as self-appointed stewards of the planet, our hypocrisy over our sentimental attitude towards some animals (e.g. pets) and our capacity to destroy/consume other species and habitats at a rapacious rate, and ponder how different we really were to other creatures. I didn’t want to lecture children with statistics about sea levels or temperatures, as that kind of high statistical science, whilst pertinent and all too real, still feels at one remove emotionally. I was writing about animals but, obviously, I also wanted to deploy them as a metaphor for the planet at large – giving it soul and identities we could care about. I am an author, not a scientist or politician. I make no claims or have no answers but I do think, especially for the next generation, the questions are worth asking.

Did you always want to write for children specifically?

PT: It was always a possibility but not an overweening aim. I loved reading as a child, and made no distinction between “adult” and “children’s books” before I became a children’s author, gobbling up modern classics such as Harry Potter and Northern Lights as eagerly as the new Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel. But it wasn’t until my first attempt at novel writing contained several talking animals as characters that my agent wisely pointed out it was definitely a children’s book! I am now so happy writing children’s books, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do anything else, and always feel a bit disgruntled when people ask if I will one day write adult fiction. Not that I won’t, but I resent the somewhat condescending implication that writing for older readers is in any way a graduation, rather than simply a sideways shift in genre.

How much did your parents influence your writing? Ie. Your father himself an author and your mother running a children’s bookshop?

PT: I don’t know if they influenced my actual writing directly, other than creating the best possible environment for it to develop. It was wonderful spending my early years on a bookshop floor – that is one of my earliest memories, and to this day I associate bookshops with security, safety and happiness. Which is lovely but bad for my wallet! They read out loud to me continuously, and introduced me to many of my favourite authors – Lewis, Herge, Jansson, Tolkien etc. Tolkien taught my dad at Oxford and his myths always had a special place in our household. I think to a degree my father’s love of that world, combined with growing up in Northumberland, meant that many long walks in hills, dales and forests helped shape my childhood imagination to see a remote rural landscape as one filled with adventurous possibility.

Did you always envisage writing Kester’s story as a trilogy?

PT: I always had images in my head of various scenes with various characters, all of which feature in all three books, but it was only as I was writing them that the trilogy structure became clear. I can only see one book ahead at a time, but I knew the story was always too long for just one book, and the third book became very obvious to me while I was writing the second one.

Your villains are all very distinct, very different. Do you have any precise influences for them?

PT: I always try and make my characters as distinct as possible – I think it’s particularly important in children’s fiction and I also think visualising the characters is key for them – it’s not just about personality, especially with villains. Captain Skuldiss, the animal catcher, was based on the Child Catcher from the film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, who terrified me as a child, but his funny way of speaking is borrowed from my Hungarian great grandmother who was formidable but not similar to Skuldiss in any other way. As a child I always enjoyed villains who had a special gadget or weapon all of their own, which is why I gave him supersonic crutches. Dagger, in The Dark Wild, is based on a family member’s large white dog – who couldn’t be sweeter – but who is visually very striking.  Fenella, in The Wild Beyond, is my attempt to create a female villain in the grand Disney style of Ursula from The Little Mermaid or Mother Gothel from Tangled. I imagined all her dialogue as the lyrics to a big musical number! I wanted her to be scary but also have something of the pantomime about her. But the main villain, Selwyn Stone, I wanted to be as real and normal a person as possible. Because real people do bad things as well as cartoon crazies.

As the books go on, it becomes more frustrating for Kester not to be able to talk to humans. Was it frustrating as a writer to have a main character who didn’t speak to other people?

PT: You bet! I’m never doing that again… and in first person, present tense too. It was a challenge, though, and I enjoyed the pressure of having to reinvent ways round it, and it was a good focus for finding the voice, especially in a debut book. I’m very proud of having survived the experience with my sanity intact but next time, there will be speaking!

In your acknowledgements you mention that the animals didn’t always talk. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

PT: The Last Wild, way back when, began life as a sitcom about growing up on a farm, believe it or not. A TV colleague suggested that it might be better if the animals – cows, sheep, hens – talked, and that got me thinking and re-reading Animal Farm, and then I abandoned the sitcom idea altogether and wanted to write something about animals revolting against human authority. That became The Dark Wild, but it was the seed from which the whole trilogy grew.

If you were an animal, what would you be?

PT: I would be a Koala bear. For one thing they are asleep for 91% of the day, and also, look at them! Who wouldn’t want to be that adorable?

Anthony Horowitz talks about writing a book about a grownup Alex Rider. Would you consider the possibility of writing about a grownup Kester?

PT: Never say never!

Concerned about finding my next great book, Piers tells me that he is writing a new children’s book, but that he is sworn to secrecy. It will be published in October 2016, and will be a stand-alone novel, maybe with illustrations…He’d better not delay. I’ve marked my calendar already.

To purchase Piers Torday’s books, click here for The Last Wild, here for The Dark Wild, and here for The Wild Beyond.

 

The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday

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It’s always hard to review the last book in a trilogy, not knowing if your readers have read the first two. Although not impossible to read as a stand-alone, I would implore everyone to read the first two titles, The Last Wild and The Dark Wild, before coming to The Wild Beyond.

The Wild Beyond matches the magic of the first two books in the series, continuing the adventure story of Kester, his two friends, Polly and Aida, and the animals they have gathered along the way. It is a triumphant and glorious ending to the trilogy, pulling together all the story strands and giving each character a fitting ending. It finishes with an uplifting message of hope, which for a book about how much humans have damaged the world is quite an achievement. Both compellingly written and perfectly pitched for the age group, The Wild Beyond contains equal amounts of fast-paced action, and vivid scenic imagery.

Kester is a boy who cannot speak, except to the animals left behind when environmental catastrophes engulfed the world. He has managed to rescue some of the animals, and save quite a few humans too, but his biggest challenge lies in this new adventure, as he has to make enormous decisions about where and how the human race can continue to survive. When a blue whale delivers a frightening message about the near future to Kester, he realises that he will have to travel a long way to seek the answers to his questions. Torday’s masterstroke is that although the adventures are fantastical, the characters of the children are so rooted and grounded, and their camaraderie with each other so real, that the reader immediately identifies with them. The friendship between Kester and his two loyal friends is magical, brave and provokes humour and hope. It stands out precisely because it is unremarkable. The children find strength in unity and never give up.
What’s more the book has a magnificent villain in Fenella Clancy-Clay, a pale ice-cold woman with a necklace of magical icicles, who captains a ship made out of glass. She’s like a cruel mixture of Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials, the Snow Queen, and Cruella de Ville.
There are many terrific scenes – the introduction of the dolphins and their conversations with Kester was one of the highlights for me, as well as the mass of dense imagery that Torday manages to pack into the novel, from huge seas, to islands, and spaceships, as well as daring action scenes involving planes careering out the sky to engulfing fires and deluging floods. But throughout, Torday’s characters retain a great sense of humour, which makes the book a joy to read.

For me,The Last Wild trilogy is good enough to be an all-time children’s classic. Your children will be enthralled – and when they’ve finished – take it for yourself.

Cover illustration by Thomas Flintham

With thanks to Quercus for sending me a review copy of The Wild Beyond

Buy your own copies here.

Love in the Time of Children’s Books

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I couldn’t resist a small Valentine’s Day post this week. But we are talking kids’ books so I’ll be very gentle.

I love you blue kangaroo

First Love: I Love You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark
This has to be defined by love for a soft toy. Whether it’s a teddy or a monkey, for many of us our first true love was with a ball of fluff. To honour this I have chosen I Love You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark. For those of you who don’t know the series, Blue Kangaroo is Lily’s favourite toy. In I Love You, Blue Kangaroo, Lily receives a stream of soft toy presents from an array of family members who have come to tea, to stay, or for her birthday – and gradually Blue Kangaroo gets edged further and further away from Lily at bedtime as the new toys take over. Then, one night Blue Kangaroo is pushed out of bed altogether and takes refuge with Lily’s little brother. Lily attempts to retrieve him:
“Mine!” cried the baby.
“No!” shouted Lily.
But Lily’s mother is aghast that Lily is pulling Blue Kangaroo from her baby brother’s arms when she has so many other toys. In the end Lily’s choice is easy – she hands over all the other toys to the baby, retaining only one:
“He can have all of these,” she said,
“but nobody can have Blue Kangaroo!”
This picture book reveals the beauty in allowing us to latch onto something special and keep it for ourselves – not everything has to be shared. Sometimes an attachment to one other object or person is what gives us security, passion and self-awareness. With up to 70 per cent of young children in the Western World having some sort of attachment to a toy or blanket, it’s good to see picture books celebrating this.
Age 4+

winnie the pooh

Friend Love: Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by AA Milne
I can think of few other books for young children that teach friendship as well as Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne. In the first story, this is demonstrated by Christopher Robin’s devotion to Pooh – helping him to obtain honey without ridiculing his plans, and assisting the madness by marching up and down with an umbrella in bright sunshine pretending it’s going to rain – Christopher Robin does not lose patience at all. Then, friendship is demonstrated in Pooh Bear’s loving generosity and kindness for Eeyore, as Pooh tries to lift Eeyore’s depression by bringing him birthday presents and building him a new house. In fact the entire population of 100 Acre Wood show their love for each other in their attempts to rescue their friend Eeyore from falling into the river, and their solidarity in their expositions to the pole, and their gradual acceptance of their ‘new’ friend when Tigger joins the wood. The epitome for me though remains the friendship between Pooh and Piglet. In every adventure Pooh attempts to motivate Piglet into overcoming his shyness and timidity, whether it be tracking woozles or tricking Kanga. In fact, it is the thought of helping Pooh that enables Piglet to summon the courage and rescue Pooh and Owl during a blustery day.
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
Age range 5-105 yrs

Danny Champion of the World

Parental Love: Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Of course, before realisation dawns at puberty that our parents aren’t perfect, we may well in some cases idealise our parents, and certainly strive to please them. One of the very best examples of a father/son relationship in children’s fiction has to be the classic Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.
Danny lives with his Dad in a gypsy caravan at the garage where his father is a mechanic. One day he discovers his father’s love for pheasant hunting, and together they hatch a plan to outwit the horrible land-owner, Mr Victor Hazell, who doesn’t permit poaching on his land. Although an adventure story, the essence of Danny, Champion of the World is the relationship between him and his father. Danny almost hero-worships his father, and joins him in somewhat criminal activity which is life-threateningly dangerous, and yet in Danny’s eyes his father can do no wrong. Not only that but they have a strong emotional dependence upon each other, as Roald Dahl has written out the mother figure and any close friends. The story hinges on the moral choices that Danny makes, and the guidance and advice he gets from his father.
“My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”
Age range: 7+ years.

Ballet Shoes

Sister Love: Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Much middle grade fiction focuses on sibling tensions, jealousies and anxieties, but one of the truest forms of sister love is portrayed when the girls have actively chosen their own sisterhood. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield is a classic chidren’s book, slightly dated and old-fashioned, but nevertheless with a great sense of story and theatre. It tells of three orphans, Pauline, Petrova and Posy – adopted by an eccentric fossil collector. They decide to share a surname – Fossil – and thus impose sisterhood on themselves. The three sisters are very different people with different ambitions, and through the book they demonstrate sisterly love by working hard and sacrificing certain things in order that their other sisters can benefit. Pauline wants to work in the theatre, Petrova with cars, and Posy in ballet. The sisters like to insist that they have no family heritage to live up to as they are all adoptees – they have no ties that bind, and each birthday they make a vow to make something of the Fossil name themselves – unfettered. And yet, a clear component of their confidence and achievements is the support network of being one of three. What’s also lovely about this book is that the children are surrounded by adults who take an interest in their lives and want to spend time with them. Noel’s older sister Ruth illustrated the book when it was first published. Age range about 7+yrs.

The Last Wild

Animal Love: The Last Wild by Piers Torday
I wanted to include this book in my Valentine’s Day selection for two reasons. Firstly, because I really do love it – like a friend or like a Desert Island Disc book, and secondly because it fits in well under animal love in an unexpected way. This isn’t a book that is about a boy who loves animals – it doesn’t feature a trusty dog or a cuddly rabbit pet. This isn’t a typical ‘animal’ book – it’s an outstanding adventure story set in a dystopian landscape. It’s about courage and the environment and our relationship to it, and also about communication.
The Last Wild is a highly original story of a boy called Kester who is mute, but realises he can communicate with animals. This is particularly startling as he lives in a time when all the animals have been wiped out by a terrible virus. The Last Wild tells how a flock of pigeons and a particularly confident cockroach lead him to the last surviving group of animals in a desperate attempt to get him to help them save themselves. Kester’s (and the reader’s) love for animals grows as the story progresses. By the end we too love the animals, even the cockroach, because the animals have demonstrated their qualities to us – their loyalty, their strength, their bravery, and their fight for justice. I don’t want to give too much away – it’s a fast-paced, creative, brainstorming triumph. Buy it for every child you know aged about 9 or older.

Romance
There was a discussion this week among several bloggers/authors/interested partners about the place of romance in middle grade fiction. Most agreed that really there was no place for it, and that romantic love belongs in the Young Adult genre, not any younger. In much middle grade fiction, there is a ‘friendship’ that develops between a boy and a girl, or a tag team of boy and girl who attempt to solve the mystery/adventure together. One trilogy that cropped up time and again as one which features a form of romantic love is that of Will and Lyra from His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman, and of course there is the kiss in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (although many would argue that Harry Potter ventures into YA territory and away from MG the further into the books one ventures). Quite often in middle grade books romantic love is introduced when the protagonist has an older sister or brother and it is through them (as an aside almost) that we witness love. But generally the argument is that middle grade is for finding your own identity – your own place in the world. Only once we graduate to young adult fiction do we start to become entangled in that messy web of romantic love.

 

Image: Book Heart from OnlyImage.com