fiction

World War Two Explored

A range of books to explore World War II with any budding historian, including a young adult title suitable for reluctant readers or dyslexics, a middle grade adventure story with a shocking ending, and a non-fiction book that brings the National Archives to children’s learning so that they can see history from actual source materials.

white eagles

White Eagles by Elizabeth Wein
As war breaks out across Europe in 1939, Kristina Tomiak has been called up to join the White Eagles, Poland’s air force. But when the Nazis invade Poland, and reach her town, killing her twin brother, she knows she must use her flying skills to escape. What she doesn’t realise is that there’s a stowaway in her plane, and he wants her to fly further than she thinks is possible.

Wein is a master at depicting a female perspective during World War Two, and this doesn’t deviate, in that she shows both depth of character and the horrors of war all within a small novella. Kristina is based on the true story of Anna Leska, a pilot for the Polish Air Force, and Wein’s passion and in-depth research of this period of history and the female aviators really shines through.

Although this is more character-led than plot led, it gives a good insight into the fears and determination of different people at this time, and inserts tiny details that resonate in the mind and stay with the reader long after the book is finished.  

It may have been written and published with struggling or dyslexic readers in mind, but the relationship within the story, and the authentic descriptions of flying make for an altogether brilliant read. An author’s note at the end gives some extra true detail to her fictional story. You can buy it here

the runaways
The Runaways by Holly Webb
The story begins in London at the outbreak of the Second World War. Molly’s school is being evacuated to the countryside, but her mother refuses to let her go, and so she’s stuck at home, helping her mother in the shop, and watching her older sister go off to join the war effort. When she hears that Londoners’ pets are to be put down, because supplies will be short, she runs away with her beloved dog Bertie. Once in the countryside, she meets other runaways, with even sadder stories, and before long, home seems like a distant memory.

After reading some of Webb’s other stories, I imagined that this book might be fairly animal-led and quite tame, so it was a surprise to read that Webb doesn’t hold back in trying to present some sort of reality of how miserable the war might have been on the home front. It wasn’t all gusto and bravado, and some children (and adults) suffered terribly. The book is an easy read – fast-paced and punchy, but it also bears a depth of loss and grief, which is sensitively dealt with, even if the end comes as rather a shock.

This is carefully written historical fiction that aims to portray the uncertainty of wartime, and show the effect of displacement and family break up. A refreshingly different take on World War Two fiction. You can buy it here

national archives
National Archives: World War II by Nick Hunter
So often, secondary school children are told to look at the source material when writing about history. And yet for many primary school children, source material is a distant object – they are just presented with a list of facts. This lively, colourful, and informative book aims to lay out some primary sources and let children discover them for themselves.

From Hitler’s rise to power to the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, the book uses photographs, artefacts and original documents from the National Archives to bring the history to life. Each spread has a sprinkling of colour as well as a number of black and white photographs and documents, all interestingly laid out to pique a child’s curiosity. To accompany the archive, Hunter includes introductory paragraphs, captions and facts, to provide a fuller explanation of what happened.

Children may read it chronologically, or dip in for information they need. There’s a lovely range of sources and some interesting detail on technological advances, and war on the home front. I’m impressed that it doesn’t shy away from details on the horrors of the Holocaust and Nagasaki, but it also brings the book to a good close with reflections on physical reminders of the war, and the importance of historical documentation and remembrance. You can buy it here

With thanks to Barrington Stoke, Scholastic and Bloomsbury Publishers for the review copies. 

Nevertell by Katharine Orton

nevertellMany a children’s book has been set in a snowy landscape with chasing wolves and stretching vistas, from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken to Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder, promising the romance of ice crystals and the danger of snapping jaws. Of course, there’s nothing romantic about the punishing Siberian prison camps under the reign of Stalin, which is where Orton has chosen to set her debut children’s book, Nevertell.

Lina, born inside one of these Siberian prison camps, has never seen the outside world, so when the opportunity for escape is presented at age eleven, she grasps it wholeheartedly, despite having to leave her mother behind. However, Lina and best friend Bogdan are soon pursued not by Soviet guards, but by ghost wolf hounds and a dangerous sorceress, who lives in a Frozen-esque ice palace and bears a resemblance to Baba Yaga and The Mistress of Copper Mountain from Russian folk tales.

This is in essence an adventure story across the snowy tundra of a Russian winter, and Orton’s lyrical writing interweaves the magic of the landscape she is describing with the thrilling pace of a chase. Her descriptions of cold are indeed chilling, and the frozen fractals feel both dangerously icy but also wonderfully enchanting, as if the reader is spellbound by the cold as Lina and Bogdan are by the sorceress.

“The sky itself stretched cloudless and pale, like a flawless frozen lake. It all felt upside down, as if the sky had switched places with the earth while they slept and now they were wading through yesterday’s storm clouds.”

As well as the escape to freedom, Lina is on a quest to discover her heritage. She sets out on a path to Moscow to find her grandmother and discover what she is like, all the time wondering who in the left-behind camp is her father. What becomes apparent through the telling is the importance of family – both in their presence and their absence, and how belonging is so key. Separation was a cruel punishment oft inflicted by Stalin.

There are familiar children’s books tropes in Nevertell: a chase across countryside, a fierce and loyal friendship between the protagonist and a sidekick of the opposite gender…but where the novel stands apart is the terrific juxtaposition between the harshness of Russian gulags and Stalin’s reign with local folklore and fairy tales, which conjure a different kind of adventure story.

The idea that creativity was stifled in Stalin’s Russia, that a repressive regime sought to shut down any telling of fairy tales and folk stories is barbaric – after all freedom of thought and imagination are some of the most precious assets of being human. Orton plays with this idea of repression, and of course sets it free by taking Lina and Bogdan away from the harsh realism of a Siberian prison camp and placing them within the magical realms of a sorceress, even if that magic can also be used for harm.

Orton also plays on the importance of objects – again a device taken from native folk and fairy tales, in which one thing can be of such import – be it a house of chicken legs, or simply a stone. Lina wears a stone around her neck that provides pulsing warmth in times of great cold and throbbing heat in times of danger. The sorceress relies on her cape for much, but it is also in the human realm that objects are important: a winter coat, a bag of vegetables, a horse for transportation. These are essential elements of survival: food, warmth, shelter.

At times the magic is complex, at times simple, as are the relationships, but there’s a shining simplicity to the images of growth and gardens that frame Lina’s story. The idea of being able to conjure magic within a garden has been used for decades in children’s literature – a garden showing the flourishing of the heart and soul, the blossoming or growth of a forbidden fruit actually proving to be sustenance and food for thought rather than evil temptation. Orton sets up the magic vibrancy of fruit vines against a Siberian snowy backdrop and it is with strong images such as these that her power as a storyteller glitters most strongly.

The reader is left with an array of visuals – ice crystals frozen from wintry breath, a fluttering moth, a shadowy girl, an ice palace. With a startling cover illustrated by Sandra Dieckmann, interior illustrative snowflakes and more, this is a winter read with staying power. You’ll be as enchanted as if you had been captured by a sorceress. A perfect wintry read. For ages 8+.

With thanks to Walker books for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here.

The Lollies 2020: A guest post from author Jo Simmons

lollies


The Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (Lollies) celebrates the funniest children’s books in the UK and Ireland, and is voted for by children. In surveys, children tend to cite laughter as a key reason for keeping reading a book, and so I’m delighted to introduce one of this year’s shortlisted books for 9-13 year olds, I Swapped My Brother on the Internet! by Jo Simmons and Nathan Reed. This book had me chortling away – I would never dream of swapping my own brother of course – but the book let me wonder about what would happen if I did!

Jonny is sick of his big brother Ted, so when he hears about the website, SiblingSwap, he figures he has nothing to lose. But it turns out his new choices aren’t so great either. You can read MinervaReads review here, and below Jo Simmons asks ‘What makes the Perfect Sibling?’

i swapped my brother
When I was about eight years old, having tea with my slightly older brother and a couple of friends, he smashed a Dairylea Triangle against my forehead. The creamy contents burst through the foil wrapper and became stuck in my fringe. The perfect sibling would not have done that to me but, then again, I was not being the perfect sibling when it happened. I was being annoying and provoking and probably deserved a Dairylea Triangle to the face. There was blame on all sides, and outrage. This is not perfect sibling behaviour – but what is?

A quick check list of perfect sibling attributes might read like this: someone who is fun and cool (but not too cool – no one wants to be the square sibling). He or she is ready to defend you against the forces of evil (your parents, annoying relatives, bratty friends) and always has your back, offering rock-solid friendship that can stand the strain of a few petty sibling squabbles. Perfect siblings share their stuff happily – from toys and sweets to bikes and makeup – but give you space. They understand you inside-out but respect your individuality. They keep you company, make you laugh, share adventures.

The perfect sibling sounds really great – like your best friend, only better. After all, siblings understand first-hand all that grubby family stuff, too – how loud your dad blows his nose, or how your mother’s obsession with vest wearing is tough in the teen years. But does the perfect sibling exist? Probably only in moments and flashes, here and there, but not all the time. It’s not their fault. The sibling relationship is under constant pressure; all that sharing of space, toys, clothes and, worst of all, your parents’ attention.

It’s no wonder that most siblings have far from perfect relationships. Instead, theirs are loaded with tension, competition and fury; a blend of love and annoyance, incredible but infuriating closeness. And fights. Always fights. Hopefully just the garden variety bickering and squabbling that gives each sibling a chance to behave in a way that they just couldn’t with friends, for fear of being dumped, and not full-on combat or wrestling (although, inevitably, that can happen, too).

I had a lot of fun in I Swapped My Brother On The Internet with the idea that, via a website that works a bit like a dating app, you could choose a sibling. How might that go? Spoiler alert – not that well. We are stuck with our siblings, but we should take comfort from the fact that some improve with age, like a fine wine or a very bouncy dog. That brother who smashed a Dairylea Triangle into my forehead in the late 1970s is now a lovely friend, who cooks me dinner and goes running with me. So, what makes the perfect sibling? The answer, perhaps, is time.

With thanks to Jo for her guest blog. I Swapped My Brother on the Internet is published by Bloomsbury and is available to buy here. The full shortlisted titles are as follows: 

You can vote for your favourite here until 13th December:

The winner will be announced in early 2020.

The Pearl in the Ice by Cathryn Constable

pearl in the iceSet in 1912 with an impending global conflict, twelve-year-old Marina is the daughter of a Naval Commander and a long-absent mother, so is often left on her own. The book opens with Marina up a plane tree in a leafy London suburb contemplating imminent boarding school. Yet, bound within Marina’s daydreaming and watery metaphors, is the inexorable pull of the sea, and before long Marina is swapping one train for another and heading to Portsmouth to stow away on her father’s ship.

But as with so many stories, all is not what it seems. In any way. This 1912 is a slightly alternate reality, with the enemy of the British the fictional Mordavians, and a battle over codes, transmitters and missing ships being waged near the fictional town of Svengejar near the very real Sea of Murmansk. By cleverly mixing reality with fiction, Constable creates a tangible landscape for her story, and makes sure that mentions of sea beasts and mermaids don’t feel as far removed as they should.

Much of the novel takes place aboard The Sea Witch, where Marina’s father is the captain. Discovered by the crew, Marina quickly earns her place on board, looking after the dogs who will eventually pull the sleds when the ship docks in the Arctic Circle. As well as painting an intriguing picture of life on board a ship, complete with sailors’ superstitions, roles and responsibilities, ropes and rigging, there’s also the tension of imminent war, codes and code-breaking, and the mysteriousness of her father’s real role in the conflict.

By basing her book half in reality and half not, Constable sets up some wonderful tension in her characters; the reader having to guess who is speaking the truth, and who not. Near the beginning, Marina makes fast friends on the train with a Miss Smith, whom she admires for her feminist outlook, her insistence that women are just as good as men. This modern sensibility takes a battering on the ship, where Marina is referred to as ‘Boy, 2nd class,’ as girls do not feature as seamen. But her respect and admiration for Miss Smith doggedly follow her through the story, and by the end her feminist beliefs are restored, although she learns that even the bravest feminist can be on the wrong side.

The main tension in the book though, is not Marina’s seafaring adventure, or the end quest to save her father, but more her understanding of where fantasy meets reality, and the true understanding of why her mother disappeared. This is most clearly borne out in the very frightening and gripping dream/memory sequence at the end of chapter three, as Marina’s earliest memory seems to be that of being nearly drowned in the bath. From this sprout ongoing hints as to who Marina’s mother really is. By the end, the book’s plot – filled with double lives, spies, and codes – bends to encompass a fantasy realm too.

For readers of this age group, there is solace to be found in reading of a girl’s search for greater independence, not just in knowing who she is and where she comes from, but mainly in where she is going as she makes the leap from childhood to adulthood, understanding the premise that not all adults are to be believed and that challenging them can reap its own rewards.

This is a far from watery novel – in fact like the dark shape that follows Marina’s quest across the seas – it has real bite. The characters are well-formed – Miss Smith rather glamorously reminiscent of shades of Mrs Coulter – and the messages behind the story strong and well thought-out. But it is the imagery of the sea and what lies beneath that leaves lingering visions in the mind: the power of a storm, the surging dance of the waves, and the ever-changing colours of the water above the darkness below.

For 9+ years.

With thanks to Nina Douglas and Chicken House publishers for my review copy. Catch up with the rest of the blog tour below. And you can buy your own copy here.

New Detective Fiction

I’m sure there weren’t as many detective novels for children when I was young. For me, my most memorable encounter with the genre was one summer, on our annual trip to Cornwall. We were staying in a hotel with its own giftshop – the height of luxury, I thought. To my dismay, halfway through the trip, I ran out of reading material (despite probably having taken about 10 books for a two week stay). In those days, gift shops rarely stocked books, and certainly not children’s books. But I was in luck. The books they did stock were a collection of Agatha Christie novels, and so, aged about ten, I embarked on a journey on the Orient Express, found a cat amongst the pigeons, and journeyed along the Nile.

Today, the mystery/detective/crime novels for children drop onto the doormat almost daily. Here are three new novels that are everything one could ask for in the genre – gripping, tightly plotted, with excellent characterisation, and all superbly written.

lori and max

Lori and Max by Catherine O’Flynn
With a good eye for giving her characters backstory, introducing first Lori, wannabe child detective with deceased parents living with her grandma, and then Max, new girl in school with too-small clothes, a depressed Mum and gambling Dad, O’Flynn deploys enough wit to stop the book descending full flow into misery.

These girls have gumption and spark, the steel and resolve to see their detecting through difficult areas. When a stack of charity money goes missing from school, and Max is accused of the crime, Lori sets out to prove that her new friend is innocent.

Although contemporary, the characters rely on skilful sleuthing and walkie talkies rather than the Internet or mobile phones, and with lashings of descriptions of food, the understanding of real friendship, and a writer’s keen eye for observation and nuance, this is a well-told, brilliantly executed detective story. One of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t miss it. Buy it here.

trouble in new york

Trouble in New York by Sylvia Bishop
It seems Sylvia Bishop can do no wrong – I’ve loved every single one of her books. In her latest, she turns to an analysis of news and fake news in her crime caper set in 1960’s New York.

Jamie Creeden delivers papers but he wants to be a reporter. When he stumbles into the mystery of a missing actress, he realises he’s stuck fast in the middle of a network of corruption and criminality. Assuming the role of investigative journalist, he sets out to discover the truth, and whether that truth is always what’s printed in the papers.

Bishop writes with an assured confidence, imbuing her characters and her insights with warmth. She has a style that brings the essence of a children’s world into a larger view of right and wrong, so that the reader feels secure in the familiarity of the adventure, whilst at the same time having their horizons broadened. My favourite insight comes early on: in the building of the Yorker, the newspaper featured, there is a statue of a woman in the entrance, to symbolise the motto of the paper – ‘Always punctual, often accurate’. Bishop goes on to say:

“In one hand the woman held a lantern for Truth; and in the other, a Rolex watch, for Punctuality. (She used to hold an hourglass, but the Rolex company paid the Yorker a great deal of money to change it.).”

It’s simple, but effective, bringing our real world capitalism to a child readership, and lightly placing clues for them to question what they see and what they hear.

There’s more of course: two plucky female sidekicks to the protagonist, a tight plot, and a pervasive enthusiasm for the plucky innocence and perseverance of children, the truth, and the beauty in both. Effortless and yet brilliant. Another triumph. Buy it here.

agatha oddly

Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key by Lena Jones
From New York to a detective story set firmly in London, complete with secret comms in the London Eye, and a girl who resides in the groundsman’s cottage of Hyde Park.

Thirteen-year-old Agatha Oddly, named for Agatha Christie, adores detecting, and so when a motorbike knocks over an old lady in the middle of Hyde Park, Agatha is straight on the case. But the lady isn’t who she first appears, and when London’s water pipes are filled with a toxic red algae, Agatha has to join the dots in a relentless adventure around London in order to come up with the culprits behind a dastardly plan to change the way Londoners drink water for ever.

There is so much to love here, from the hidden network of super spies in London’s midst, to the secret tunnels and gatekeepers of London, to the everyday reality of Agatha in school, and dealing with who and who isn’t her friend. Smartly plotted, and hugely enjoyable, this is a fast easy read that zings with character and energy.

Although slightly predictable for those of us with some reading experience, Agatha’s quirks and indomitable spirit lead the way here. It’s fitting that the series bears her name, and for readers age 9+ approaching the book, they’ll find something to love in her slightly obtuse and subversive nature. The plot is key, of course, but it is in her friendships – battling with the popular kids, understanding the needs of her best friend, and coming to see that people aren’t always as they present in one scenario, that this book wins big. Plenty of dialogue, an understanding of when mobile phones can assist the plot and when not, and carefully laid red herrings all make for a perfect crime caper. Highly recommended. The second in the series, Murder at the Museum, has been published too. You can buy Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key here.

With thanks to Firefly Press, Scholastic and HarperCollins for the review copies.

FloodWorld by Tom Huddleston, illustrated by Jensine Eckhall

floodworldDo you ever debate with your friends where you would flee to live if you had to? Maybe because I’m of Jewish descent, this is a question that comes up every now and then. Recently, I explained to someone that this could actually be a pertinent question for many of us, seeing as how the sea levels are rising, and habitable areas of the world will be flooded if climate change continues on track.

Tom Huddleston has taken this idea and run with it in his futuristic dystopian children’s novel, FloodWorld, which opens in a future London in which the rich area is divided from the poorer area by a wall, and most of the poorer area is under water, with residences on floating barges or the upper floors of tall buildings – known as the Shanties.

Kara and Joe live in these Shanties, where Joe makes salvage dives for artefacts long since abandoned in flooded waters, in order to earn a meagre living selling them to crooks. When Joe has a near miss with a Mariner (a supposed terrorist or pirate), who crashes his jetski near him, Joe ends up in possession of a cryptic map, and Kara and Joe become wanted persons – ensconced in a world of criminality, gangsters and corruption.

Initially, scenes of destitute children, a general lack of welfare state, and intense poverty feels increasingly Dickensian, especially as Joe dives for a Fagin-esque type figure called Mr Colpeper, whose dodgy morals ensure the reader isn’t quite sure whose side he’s on. But as the novel progresses, the quickness of scene changes, the escalating tension, numerous cliff-hangers and fast-moving scenes of chases across and under water, bombs, shoot-outs and more, nods more to our modern age of Bond and Alex Rider than to the past.

In fact, our present is more than once referred to as the recent past. With inspiration, wit and an eye for detail, Huddleston has his characters frequently refer back to the Tech Age (our own era), in which there were trains, democracy and cinemas, and everyone was out for themselves. More often than not the characters aren’t sure about these relics from the past – things have become distorted over time, such as references to Olive Twits, and one great scene in which the children stumble across submersibles called Dory and Marlin, and can’t work out why they are named so.

Huddleston’s talent lies in his filmic awareness – he is, after all, a film reviewer. Not only is the landscape believable and highly visual – with floating towns, a deserted flooded world of underground stations and more, but the scenes zip from one thing to the next, the camera zooming in and out and from set to set, with constant thrills – low-level warfare, high-tech submarines and more. The illustrated map helps, and is a delight, but even without, the landscape glows with well-crafted other worldliness that is embedded in familiarity.

Frequent nods to wry humour win favour from the reader. In this brave new world, Canada welcomes any child refugee, Huddleston finds a new use for computer tablets, and a series of climactic endings one after the other give a fine wink to the movie industry.

Without good characterisation though, a thriller is just a shell. Here, Kara feels like a protective older sister to Joe – like a Carrie to Nick from Carrie’s War, and yet, as any protagonist, she’s flawed. Determined and fierce but hot-headed too. Joe is calmer, using his skills of observation, and he brings a sense of nuance to the plot, and together they make a perfect duo.

In the end, Huddleston goes full youth warrior, inspired by the passion of today’s #climatestrikesforschools message as Kara channels her inner Greta Thunberg by speaking truth to power. In his stretched-out ending, Huddleston suggests that a better world can exist through human cooperation, equality and justice, but there’s a long way to go – not only do the kids have to work out which authority is trustworthy (if any), but also how to stop society breaking down and following the same corrupt patterns over and again.

Recommended for ages 10+ according to the publisher, but avid fans of Alex Rider from about 9+ could handle the violence depicted here. With thanks to Nosy Crow for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here.

Fairy Tales for a New Generation

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about fairy tales. In fact, I probably have a fairy tales blog every six months or so. Why is that? Are fairy tales so important? Yes, they are. People have written whole theses on the topic…but essentially fairy tales work because they give us a view of how life is within a set structure. Within this fantasy framework we can formulate dreams and understand our deep-set fears.

Publishers aren’t just reprinting old fairy tales in new editions though. With a sense of our own changing societal rules and preoccupations, they are releasing anthologies that aim to subvert the status quo, or shine a light on forgotten tales, and writers are retelling tales with modern twists.

hansel and gretel
Hansel and Gretel by Bethan Woollvin
is my favourite fairy tale this autumn. With a subversive grin at parents everywhere, Woollvin neatly turns this fairy tale on its head by making the children the villains. In this retelling, Hansel and Gretel are a little entitled, helping themselves to sweets from a strange house. Woollvin pushes this idea, subverting who is good and who is bad, as the children’s naughty antics test the witch, even though she tries so hard to be a good hostess. In the end, of course, even the nicest witch can be driven too far. No stranger to subverting fairy tales, with past titles including Little Red and Rapunzel, Woollvin’s clever two tone illustrations highlight the pertinent points of the story, zooming in and out as if the reader is operating a film camera. Witty and wise. You can buy it here.

secret of the tattered shoes
The Secret of the Tattered Shoes by Jackie Morris and Ehsan Abdollahi
A completely different take on the traditional fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses is illustrated with great intricacy in this slightly melancholic version. Morris plays with themes of love and redemption in her poetic retelling, her soldier ‘a hollow shadow of a man’, her princess with ‘a smile like frost on glass’. Abdollahi matches the depths of Morris’s story with fully detailed illustrations, turning the characters into complex puppets, and inserting golden headpieces that illuminate the page, fruit that tempts the reader to try to pluck it, and a weariness in the eyes of her tired dancers. A supreme and surprising twist makes this a complex but worthy new interpretation. You can buy it here.

reading beauty
Reading Beauty by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt
My last fairy tale picture book retells Sleeping Beauty with a rhyme, transplants it to the future, and gives it a feminist feel. Lex is a booklover, but her parents remove all her books when she is 15. No, not because they feel she’s a fully fluent reader and doesn’t need more help, but because a nasty fairy cursed Lex with the promise of a paper cut, which would put her in a death-like sleep. Of course, a bookworm such as Lex uses knowledge from her books to overcome the curse, and outwit the nasty fairy, who it turns out, has a reason for her evil-nature. A fun, futuristic, humorous retelling with bold, bright, and busy illustrations. You can buy it here.

eight princesses
Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror by Natasha Farrant, illustrated by Lydia Corry
More modernity in this collection of original short stories, which takes eight princesses and gives them modern cause. There’s the princess who saves natural landscapes from urban developers, the princess who discovers being kind trumps being royal. Bookended with the tale of an enchantress and a magic mirror who long to discover what princesses are really like, the stories are told in the rhythm of traditional fairy tales, but with a firmly modern outlook, as the princesses are revealed not to care so much about their looks and future husbands, but more about being brave and determined and independent (even those who do marry). Illustrated in colour throughout by Lydia Corry, each tale feels quite distinct from the next, and yet form a cohesive whole. Perhaps a Christmas gift for Meghan? Age 8+. You can buy it here.

lost fairy tales

The Lost Fairytales, retold by Isabel Otter, illustrated by Ana Sender
It seems not all traditional fairy tales need to be reimagined or repurposed for our new sensibility. This anthology gathers tales from around the world, all of which feature heroines who demonstrate bravery and wit and none of whom needs rescuing. Instead, Isabel Otter has rescued the stories from their precarious position outside the canon of traditional tales. A story map at the beginning helpfully shows where the tales have been rescued from – so we find out that Sacred Waterfall, a fairy tale about Bending Willow, who won’t bend to her fate but shows persistence in what she believes to be right, is a tribal story hailing from what we now know as Canada, and The Shining Dragons, the tale of a fearsome orphan called Thakane who shows both immense bravery and also huge cunning, comes from Lesotho. Illustrated throughout with warmth and spirit, and with sensitivity to the region from which the stories come, this is an intelligent collection. More information in the back about story origin and thinking points. Age 7+. You can buy it here.

forgotten fairy tales
Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls with a foreword by Kate Pankhurst
Although I have qualms with books that advertise ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ on the cover, lest it should be off-putting to others, this collection also aims to firmly reclaim fairy tales with a feminist agenda. These traditional tales haven’t been retold with a twist, but rather are retold as they were, with modern language but the same storyline in order to show that traditional fairy tales featuring brave, determined women as protagonists did, and always have, existed. As attitudes change, so do the stories being told. This anthology sets text against a plain white background, with simple prose, and colour illustrations dotted throughout. The tales feel familiar – goblins, giants and castles, sisterly love and happy-ever-after marriages, but all with strong, agenda-setting female protagonists. For age 7+. You can buy it here.

folk tales for bold girls
Folk Tales for Bold Girls by Fiona Collins, illustrations by Ed Fisher

Lastly, something a little different, in that this is a compact book that concentrates far more on the text – black and white illustrations heading up chapters only. But the illustrations do something clever – they transpose real bold girls (from photographs) into the folk characters (in illustration).

The text too is clever, simply told, and yet with a distinctive rhythm to its plainness. There is no didacticism – the tales are for the reader to disseminate. Tales from other countries abound, even some familiar tales such as Red Riding Hood retold as a non-traditional version. Collins lists her sources at the back, and this too is fascinating, with an emphasis on the reader looking up further tales and retelling them themselves. A sort of pass-it-on telling, which is the very essence of folk and fairy tales anyway. And of course they all feature bold girl protagonists. For age 7+. You can buy it here.

Chessboxer by Stephen Davies

chessboxerThere’s something special about being recommended a book by one’s own children, and this is one such novel. My daughter pressed this into my hands, despite neither knowing how to box, nor play chess, although I reckon she’d be great at both.

I can see why she liked it. This scintillating book pulses with energy. Chessboxer pounds with the punch of a boxer, and yet remains contemplative, with ideas behind the fast-paced plot as thoughtful as a chess player.

Leah Baxter is the quintessential feisty protagonist. She’s a chess whizz, just a few wins away from being heralded a junior chess grandmaster, and yet she’s lost in life…not just over grief for her father, but also in her chosen field – she’s not quite sure that chess is for her.

Davies introduces the spikiness of this seventeen-year-old straight away, as the story is told in a series of Leah’s blogposts. At first, these are public, and with them comes the inevitable array of comments, to which Leah replies with snarky sarcasm and a growing hostility.

After an encounter with one such commenter face to face, Leah turns her blog private, and the comments disappear, but her thoughts remain loud and clear for the reader to see. Davies has a firm grip on character – Leah treads the trembling tightrope between adolescence and adulthood, often making impetuous decisions, sometimes leaning towards self-destructive behaviour, and always with a firm eye on her obsessive nature regarding her passion.

Through the over-curious commenter on the blog, who turns out to be less stalker and more friend, Leah discovers new passions in life, including chessboxing. This strange hybrid sport blends bouts of boxing with rounds of chess, mixing the highly physical with the highly intellectual, and challenging Leah’s strategic thinking. Of course, the reader sees that the boxing is great physical therapy for Leah in the midst of her grief, which doesn’t seem to have been dealt with previously, but the amount of violence may be shocking for some younger readers.

What draws the reader in is the amount of grit, determination and resilience demonstrated by Leah, yet also her capacity for making impetuous and wrong decisions. And although her anger can be alienating at times, the reader stays the course with her, sees her processing the world, finding a way to trust people, and in the end her goodness shines through.

Her new hobby of chessboxing lends itself well to a build up of anticipation throughout the novel, honing a new skill, learning new tactics, and of course being tested time and time again. Davies holds this together well, drawing from extensive research, and also carefully plotting his novel, as tightly as the footwork of a boxer, neat and balanced, keeping the reader on their toes.

The setting is almost another character in the book – the streets of New York throb with an equal energy to Leah, from the green spaces to the donut shops, and even the local police station. Davies has a way of navigating the streets without resorting to description, but just strewing objects and places throughout the text – Washington Square, the fire escapes, tattoo parlours.

This is a novel with a delicate strength, a snarky protagonist, and an interesting presentation of prose. It made me think of that other recent YA with its angry girl protagonist, Furious Thing, featured just a couple of weeks ago on MinervaReads.

With our world as it is, we need lots of these intelligent and angry girls – those with drive and passion, with complexity that feeds their anger but can also quell it, and above all, with their hearts and minds in the right place. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Andersen Press for the advance review copy. A suggested teen read.

Friendship Picture Books

How has the first half term of school been? Has your child made lots of new friends? It’s a perpetual anxiety for a parent – whether their child has made friends at school, and the tricky dynamics of friendship continue long into adulthood. From sharing toys in reception, to peer pressure in the teen years, to sociability as adults, our ability to befriend others can be an ongoing worry:
“Why haven’t they texted me back?”

A plethora of recent picture books show us some of the pitfalls of making friends, some of the benefits of friendship, and the fun to be had in another’s company.

misadventures of frederickThe Misadventures of Frederick by Ben Manley and Emma Chichester Clark
There is so much to love about this book. Emma Chichester Clark has long been a favourite illustrator of mine, ever since Blue Kangaroo got lost on the bus, and this new book shows off Clark’s wonderful depth of expression in her characters, her warming and familiar use of colour, and the positivity that flows through scenes of childhood joy. Add to this a wonderful yet somewhat subversive story about a quirky boy called Frederick who lies in a mansion but is very bored. Emily invites him (in a series of letters) to play outside with her, but he is reticent – what if he gets hurt? Emily’s perseverance pays off, and before long the thrills of nature have made themselves abundantly apparent.

There’s a skill in a good picture book, and this one excels in every way. The growing sense of adventure and wonder of nature creeps slowly into the mansion, poking Frederick with tendrils that seek to disturb and tempt him. Emily lives the idyll of childhood – leaping freely into water (shown mid-air), riding a bike, climbing a tree.

Frederick lives surrounded by stuff, yet in much more muted colours, and all the time his wallpaper, his TV shows, his toys, remind him of what might lie outdoors. The possible bond between the children is the stream of letters (shown in text and illustration) that flow between the two like a rushing stream. There’s even a funny ending. You can buy it here.

the pirate tree
The Pirate Tree by Brigita Orel and Jennie Poh
This slightly more lyrical text reminded me of On Sudden Hill with its imaginative children who turn a simple tree into a pirate ship. At first rejected because he is new to the area, Agu is quickly permitted onto the boat when Sam realises that Agu has useful knowledge, borne from his experience of leaving Nigeria. By the end, the girl and boy have sailed the seas, discovered a deserted island, reefed the mainsail, sparred with rival pirates, and made friends.

A large amount of white space on each page allows the reader to absorb the poetical prose and textured neat illustrations, as well as fill the gaps with their own musings and imagination. Beautiful, with a stunning vocabulary. You can buy it here.

my friends

My Friends by Max Low
With a title as blatant as that, it’s clear what this book is about, but it mainly appealed to me because the illustrations reminded me of Heathcliff and Henry’s Cat (1980’s cartoons). Each page introduces a new character and their characteristics or hobbies, all with a massive dollop of humour. Pepper cooks yummy food, Olga listens to music. The trick is that on each page, the first person narrator describes how he gets involved with this new friend through this shared hobby. There’s even an imaginary friend, and also the virtues of having some time to oneself. Simple, bright and illuminating the benefit of having lots of friends who like different things. You can buy it here.

golden acorn
The Golden Acorn by Katy Hudson
A more pointed message in this longer animal story about teamwork; the book sits firmly in the ‘autumn’ canon of children’s books. The third in the series about Squirrel, Rabbit, Beaver and Tortoise, following Too Many Carrots and A Loud Winter’s Nap, this book highlights Squirrel’s desire to win The Golden Nut Hunt for the ninth time. But this year, the tournament has been turned into a team event, and so she reluctantly drags in her friends – they just don’t have the skillset to win. Of course, in the end she puts her friends before trophies. Great illustrative vignettes showing the myriad of different obstacles in the race make this a winning title – the characters’ expressions match the energy of the race.

flock
Flock by Gemma Koomen
Another celebration of nature in this whimsical picture book from a new author. Sylvia is a Tree Keeper, one of a tiny community of little people who live in trees (their heads are the size of hazelnuts). They ‘nurture and mend, gather and tend.’ Sylvia is a loner, but a chance encounter with a baby bird encourages her to rejoin her flock and find comfort in friendship. The book celebrates community spirit, and will be loved by youngsters who like their picture books full of tiny people from old-fashioned magical lands – the Tree Keepers are pictured playing musical instruments, dancing around the maypole, and celebrating with wholesome homemade food. The main illustrative treat comes not from the Tree Keepers though, but from the flock of birds, the ‘thousands of wings beating as one’. A good guide to nature as well as to neighbourliness. You can buy it here.

humperdink
Humperdink Our Elephant Friend by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Clare Alexander
The illustrations in this young picture book are less intricate, slightly vaguer and more haphazard, which lends well to the playgroup setting. With black outlines and careful choice of colour, the playgroup feels authentic and familiar – a yellow rug on the floor, coloured building blocks, and much role play; the children hail from a variety of different backgrounds. Weirdly enough, the new kid isn’t a kid at all, but an elephant. And he fits in as well as a bull in a china shop, despite the children’s best efforts. In the end of course, they discover how he can contribute to the group.

Like some of the other picture books here, the book has a gentle nod towards the benefits of nature – the children venturing into the jungle with the elephant and finding a plethora of fun activities there. It’s a magical title, adding huge excitement to normal tales of playgroup friendship, and of course giving the message that inclusivity is key. There’s a wonderful exuberance to the illustrations here – children love slides! You can buy it here.

we are together

We Are Together by Britta Teckentrup
Teckentrup has a distinctive style all of her own, and it is easy to spot her books in the library. Inside, the books all sing with a similar rhythm, a lovely rhyming poetry. And many tend to have cutouts within, giving an extra physical dimension to the book. We Are Together has all of these, and here they work particularly well. The message is unity and teamwork – the power of a group, particularly a diverse group who are supportive of each other. With references to needing support in unhappy or difficult times, with an understanding that we are small in comparison to the big world, and an absolute appreciation of nature all the way through, this is a neatly told message. The cutouts provide endless amusement and bring a smile – each page reveals the group to be larger and larger – lots of small people eventually making a circle. It reminded me of the Coca Cola advert of old, teaching the world to sing. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Two Hoots, Lantana Press, Otter-Barry Books, Curious Fox, Frances Lincoln, Words&Pictures and Little Tiger Press for the review copies.

The Tzar’s Curious Runaways by Robin Scott-Elliot

tzars curious runawaysEarly on in this historical novel, author Scott-Elliot introduces a footnote to a particular scene that simply says, ‘This really happened at the court of Peter the Great’. This tempting piece of information follows the reader throughout this startling novel – did that really happen, could that really have happened, stimulating both interest in the story, but also great intrigue in the historical setting. The reader is bursting to know more.

Good historical fiction not only holds a mirror up to our own times, pointing to similarities, and lessons learned or unlearned, but it also encourages the reader to think more about that period of history and entice them to discover more about it. Scott-Elliot does both these in his first novel for children, The Tzar’s Curious Runaways.

Katinka is a ballerina with a hunchback, part of a collection of people in Peter the Great’s Circus of Curiosities, his Kunstkamera. (The Tzar was particularly interested in deformities, collecting specimens and people (such as dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks and more) as a way to dispel myths that ‘monsters’ and monstrous formations came from the devil. He frequently put them on display and used them as tools for humiliation and cruelty.) On his death, Katinka and the other ‘curiosities’ are to be killed on the orders of the even nastier Tzarina. Together with her friends Alexei the Giant and Nikolai the dwarf, Katinka escapes the palace in St Petersburg and sets off across the snowy Russian steppe to find her parents, from whom she believes she was snatched by the Tzar’s henchmen.

This is, of course, an adventure story as journey, and therefore one of a tide of children’s novels that fits this description. What sets The Tzar’s Curious Runaways apart is not only the historical and geographical setting of 1725 Russia, but most particularly the intense suspense and danger conjured by a plot unfolding in an immensely cruel, violent and unforgiving society.

This Russia is a place of fear: The court around the Tzar, all in fear of being humiliated or worse, being killed; the peasants in surrounding areas fearful of any change or anything different; humans in general scared of wolves and bears and the darker side of nature. And in every facet of this society, Scott-Elliot describes those in power or holding authority as being corrupt, greedy or just cruel, from the adults in the village to the monks in an onion-turreted church, who of course, should provide the moral code. This is a poverty-stricken and cruel society – scenes include prisoners in chains being made to work on The Grand Canal, fearful adults throwing rocks at mere children.

Beauty, in this book, lies both in the endless snowy steppe and the mountains that take the form of animals, but also in children – their innocence, their bravery, their self-belief, and their hope.

Although the book is hugely scenic, with its dense forests, ornate palaces and snowy landscapes, and the plot reliant upon a magical map, this is a story about personalities overriding visuals, about not being judged for one’s physical imperfections, but rather using them to advantage, or overcoming their adversity.

In this way, the book shines a light on our current times – about the possibilities offered in a diverse society and about how people shouldn’t discriminate based on looks or beliefs. Of course our current society isn’t utopia, and has a long way to go for acceptance and tolerance to reign, particularly with regards to minorities, those with disabilities, and even women. But, if anything, Scott-Elliot shows us how far we’ve come.

Despite its use of historical research, this is still a novel, and Scott-Elliot cleverly draws attention to our understanding of history and the past by muddling Katinka’s memories of home. She is a protagonist seeking to belong, seeking a home, and yet her memories of the past are hazy – she isn’t sure whether they’re derived from her actual childhood surroundings, or from story books. And so the novel asks the question: what memories and histories of the past can be trusted? How much are we fabricating and filling in the gaps in our historical knowledge?

Into this mix, Scott-Elliot throws a wise librarian named Johann Daniel, who imparts a great deal of survival knowledge to the children and also gifts them a magical map to guide them on their journey. This light relief from the cruelty and harshness around them gives the children and the reader hope. It is with magic and story that a happy ending can be reached, despite the tribulations on the way.

For those who enjoy historical novels, this is something a little different, a curiosity in the children’s literature canon. You’d be wise not to run away from it.

With thanks to Everything With Words for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here. Suggested for ages 8+.