Carnegie Medal 2017

Review – Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce



– Wow, you really did make it work!

‘I am the Sputnik.’ 

Annabel’s friend swiped at her with her plastic lightsaber. Annabel parried. The friend’s lightsaber exploded in a thick black cloud of stinking smoke. Melted plastic dripped down the handle. The friend squealed with delight. Annabel squealed with even more delight. 

– Oh! Hang on, this could be really dangerous.

‘Yes, it ccould!’ Sputnik said with a smile, as thought really dangerous was the best thing a birthday party could ever be. ‘They’ll remember this for a long time.’ 

(Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce. P37.) 



Prez is spending his summer with the Blythes – a rambunctious family who allow children in Temporary Accommodation to spend summer on their farm. Prez misses his Grandad, who started forgetting things, like whether it might be a good time to show somebody a kitchen knife. Prez is afraid he will remain a ‘temporary’ child. He finds it difficult to use his voice.

One night, Prez opens the door to Sputnik. Prez thinks Sputnik is a boisterous young boy from another planet. Everybody else thinks Sputnik is a dog.

Chaos ensues. Sputnik’s mission is to write a guidebook selling the attractions of earth to beings from outer space. Otherwise Earth might just be destroyed. Nothing personal – there’s just no space for a boring planet.  Chaotic adventure follows chaotic adventure. Hadrian’s wall is rebuilt, the remote control starts working on things other than the telly and a toy light-saber becomes deadly in the hands of a small child.  Every adventure leads Prez closer to the future, and his unknown fate …



Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is the book on the Carnegie list which kids – masses of kids – will love. Cottrell Boyce, like Walliams or Jacquline Wilson, is a brand. Like Walliams and Wilson, Cotttrell Boyce writes well, and writes for his audience. While Sputnik deals with some deep issues, it has a lightness of touch which is absent across the shortlist. Only Reeve comes close.

Prez’s emotions come through before we are told of his circumstances. He refers to members of the Blythe family in a detached way, (‘the mum’ ‘the dad’.) It is clear he is afraid to get too close, afraid they will be gone before he knows them better.

Cottrell Boyce knows his audience. There is plenty of toilet humour, but underpinning this is a solid understanding of the concerns of childhood. Why are the wonders of the world all ruins? What would happen if you rewound a chicken – would you end up with a chicken or an egg? When we talk about ‘the concerns of childhood’, we so often mean the things adults fear children will be anxious about. Sputnik is attuned to the tone of playground chatter.  

The theme of dementia is not hammered into the audience. Over the course of the novel, a picture is built of the circumstances which lead to Prez being taken into care. When Prez returns to the flat in which he and Grandad lived, we learn about the routines he built up in an attempt to keep both their heads above water.  

 Did I enjoy the story? I’m intrigued to see how it fares. The list seems skewed towards books beloved of adult readers of Kid-Lit. (CILIP have given Beck a content warning, with an advisory age of 16+. Is that children’s fiction?) If the prize considers the intended audience, Sputnik is up there with the best.


Carnegie Medal 2017 · Young Adult Reviews

Review – The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard


Carnegie List 3/8


(Manny’s narration) I had never heard of pansies. Flowers do not grow where landmines are buried. I studied the picture on the packet and those flowers reminded me of the faces I saw in my dreams. They had big frightened eyes and no mouths. I dropped the paper on the seat and picked up my singlet. I needed to run again. That was the feeling I had inside me when I thought of the faces. But, before I ran, I saw that there was handwriting on the back of the packet. That is what stopped me from running. 


my desire is

to be understood

my soul is filled 

with songbirds

but when I open my mouth to 

set them free 

they sh*t 

on my lips. 


(The Stars at Oktober Bend, Glenda Millard. P32.) 



Alice Nightingale is ‘forever 12’. She searches inside herself and out for the truth about what happened the night she went counted the stars at Oktober Bend. Words don’t come easily when she speaks, but when she writes they give flight to her thoughts. Thoughts about the mother who left, and the father who died, and the grandfather in prison.

Manny James has memories inside him he would rather forget. Memories of his little sister, and life in Sierra Leone. He finds a poem and connects it to the red-haired girl who stands under the stars and throws her poems to the world. Manny wants to learn more about Alice, but he must contend with the prejudices of people who think the Nightingales are nothing but trouble.

Together, they search for the truth about themselves beyond their circumstances. 



Don’t be fooled by those short sentences – the use of language in The Stars at Oktober Bend is genius. Alice’s voice is superficially childish. She suffers from ‘theasurus syndrome’ – misuse of long words where a short one would do – and repeatedly uses words and phrases she has read in the family Bible. It soon becomes apparent that Alice has a gift for observation, and for crafting apposite metaphors. Alice also has a gift for poetry, and the book is worth reading for Alice’s poems alone. Read carefully – every poem contains a line or an image which tells you something you haven’t yet learnt in the text.

Alice is searching for the truth about what happened on a night when she was 12. The reader gathers clues with her – from her beautiful language, and from the revelations of other characters. This reminds me of stream of consciousness in Modernist literature, where thoughts occur as they would in real life. She questions whether she will, as the doctors say, be ‘forever twelve’. This is interesting in itself – Alice is caught on the cusp of adolescence, the cusp of abstract thought. When Alice meets Manny, she questions to what extent she will be able to enter a relationship.

While Alice searches for answers, the present day is not forgotten. There is Alice’s emerging relationship with Manny, the behaviour of a couple of local boys and their threats towards Alice’s brother Joey, and Manny himself. There is also the question of Gram’s bad lungs, and how much longer the Nightingales can hide away from the world.

   Alice has acquired brain injury. I am sometimes wary of novels which deal with health conditions. There has been discussion about this within the YA Twitter community. There is nothing worse than a novel which invites people to sob over a person coming to terms with their health condition. This is not equal representation. The tone of The Stars at Oktober Bend is spot-on. Alice is a character, not an information leaflet. In terms of Alice’s brain injury and seizures, the reader is told only what the need to know for the plot. Alice’s development as a character is not about her health condition, but her relationship with herself and the world. This does not mean the brain injury plays no part. It means it is one aspect of Alice’s life. It does not define Alice.

Not only does Alice have difficulties with her health, she faces prejudice from the outside world. Millard portrayed this beautifully, from the man who tries to underpay her for her work to the ballet teacher who insists Alice’s seizures ‘disrupt’ the lessons.  

I loved how Alice and Manny had similar development, despite having opposite problems. Alice wants to remember; Manny want to forget. Generally, the book looks at how the world responds to people who ‘with issues’ – be it poverty, bereavement, abuse or anything else you can dream of. The resounding message was we are people regardless of what has happened to us, and this, I think, makes the book both important and memorable.


Old Barn Books

Page Count: 266


Have you read a book in written in poetry or unconventional prose? Did it affect your reading of the story?


Carnegie Medal 2017 · Middle Grade Reviews

Review – Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk


CILIP Carnegie 2017 – 2/9


When I was smaller, I asked my grandfather how Wolf Hollow got its name.

‘They used to dig deep pits there, for catching wolves,’ he said. 

He was one of eight of us who lived together in the farmhouse that had been in our family for a hundred years, three generations tucked together under one roof after the Depression had tightened the whole country’s belt and made out farm the best of all places to live. Now, with a second world war raging, lots of people grew victory gardens to help feed themselves, but our whole farm was a giant victory garden that my grandfather had spent his whole life tending. 

He was a serious man who always told me the truth, which I didn’t want but sometimes asked for anyway. When I asked him how Wolf Hollow got its name, for instance, he told me, even though I was only eight at the time. 



Wolf Hollow – named for the pit where wolves were trapped and shot for fear they would pick off the chickens. The place where Annabelle’s family farm the land, where Toby has roamed the hills since the last war. Toby, who carries three guns on his back but only shoots with his camera.

In the autumn of 1943, Betty Glengarry arrives and Annabelle learns how to lie. Betty is a bully, and Annabelle does not know who to tell. What she does know is Toby is watching the situation from the hills.

Then something serious happens, and fingers point at Toby. Like Scout Finch before her, Annabelle is determined to see justice …



I read this over 24 hours, cover to cover. The character, pace and descriptive writing kept me hooked. In terms of plot, it is like To Kill a Mockingbird, but the metaphor of the wolf pit brings the main character to a different conclusion.

Annabelle is a captivating character. Perceptive about the effect her actions might have on other people, there are also times when she fails to understand why somebody might be different from herself. The novel is narrated by a much older Annabelle. I like how this enables her to reflect on her younger self. She realises, for example, that as a child she did not have a word to describe the difference between her young self and Betty Glengarry. I would like to see a bit more to Betty – I don’t believe all characters need to be ‘rounded’, but we only saw young Annabelle’s perception of Betty as a bully, with some brief discussion of how her Grandparents have blinkers about their grandchild. I would love young Annabelle to learn *something* which makes her think about Betty from a different angle.

The judgement of Betty Glengarry as something dangerous – something which belongs in the wolf pit – seems at odds with the overriding message against prejudice, when we know so little about her background. This may be part of the book’s complexity. Annabelle is faced with contradictory revelations about life: for example, she learns to tell the truth, but finds that lies are sometimes necessary.

Annabelle’s extended family have different views on the situation, which allows her to see the problem from different perspectives. Aunt Lilly also becomes a figurehead for the prejudice exhibited by a large number of characters. This works nicely – it allows us to see how somebody’s view might be formed, what might influence it, and the ways it might change.

The writing is beautiful. Five very shiny stars for pace and suspense – the sentences flow into each other, with regular snippets of information to grab your attention and keep your mind firmly on the story. The descriptive writing is both beautiful and telling – from the girl who is not as beautiful as her name sounds, to the snake which retains the tread of the person who squashed it. Read the description carefully – it tells you where the story is heading.

Corgi (Penguin Random House)

Page Count: 291

Nb. My proof copy came to me second-hand. Many thanks to the person who put it into my hands.


Carnegie Medal 2017 · Young Adult Reviews

Review – The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock


CILIP Carnegie 2017 Shortlist – 1/8


I’ve realised over time that houses with moms in them do tend to smell better. If I close my eyes, I can just barely remember my mother’s wildflowers in their whiskey bottles. The very distant scent of my parents lingers in my brain, as they laugh and twirl around the kitchen. Deer blood on my father’s hands tinges all my memories of them – their skin, their hair, their clothes. They smell too much of love.

I don’t say any of this to Ray, who still has two parents and a house that smells like store-brought everything. I don’t want to scare him away.



Fairbanks, Alaska, 1970.

Ruth and her sister have lived with their abrasive Grandmother since the death of their parents. Now Ruth wants to escape, and she’s found a boy whose house smells of cedar to distract herself from her life of poverty and Catholicism.

Forced to face the consequences of their relationship, Ruth is sent away from Fairbanks to a place connected with her family’s past.

Ruth’s story is given prominence, but three other stories are interwoven with hers. There is Dora, who would rather disappear than return to her family in Fairbanks. Alyce, who has the chance to leave but won’t take it. Then there is Hank, running away from a life elsewhere.

The four stories offer multiple perspectives on teenage life in this wild and far-flung place.



Ever visited another person’s house and noticed instantly how different it seems to yours? That is what the title relates to – that and, as far I could tell, not judging people by the first impressions. A house which smells of fresh cedar may not contain cedar within.

Bonnie Sue Hitchcock’s sentences are beautiful. The sort of beautiful you want to write in fancy ink and stick on your wall. The sort of beautiful you experience with multiple senses.  She sets her story in time and place by use of descriptive writing and regular references to contemporary detail. At times I wished I knew more about the North American references, but realised they anchored the story in time the same way Joanna Cannon used Garibaldis and Are You Being Served to bring 1970s Suburban Britain to life in The Trouble With Goats and Sheep.

The narrative reads like four interwoven short stories. They are set in the same place, over the same time period, but I was waiting for a moment of shared action and epiphany which did not come. The four narrators come together over the last pages, but any development has happened before this moment. Although the four narrators do not come together until the end, one meets another at various points. Instead of sharing one story, they work their way into each-other’s. This offers the reader multiple perspectives on the four main characters, and on some of the secondary characters.

My favourite character is Dora – she comes across as level-headed, yet she has a hang-up about one of the other characters. Her situation is serious – her parents are alcoholics, and her father has a track record for violence. Dora has been taken in by another family in Fairbanks, but is afraid she will have to go back to her father. I would root for Alyce if I read her story separately, but interwoven with Dora’s, Alyce and her ballet try-outs seem trivial, especially because Alyce is less likeable.

There is an interview with Bonnie Sue Hitchcock after the narrative – please, publishers, can we see this more often? The narrative did begin life as a series of short stories, with a larger number of character. This did not surprise me. It reminds me of Alice Munro and Sara Taylor – it certainly deserves an award for literary merit, but in terms of the Carnegie? If you’re looking for action, you might find the novel slow-going, which brings back the age-old discussion of what makes a ‘good’ children’s book – action VS literary merit. As this is the first of the short-listed books I have read, it would be unfair to say whether I think it should win, but my advice if you find it slow-going? Stick with it. It’s beautiful, and defies the conventional structure we see so often in YA.  I suggest reading in one or two sittings, so you can hold the narrator’s voices and stories in your head.


What do you think? To what extent is ‘literary merit’ about a novel’s form? 


Page Count: 254 

Faber and Faber