Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Where The World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold.

Review: Where The World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold.

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Extract:

I know it’s autumn because it’s the end of October and I am eight weeks into Year Eight, but there are no leaves to colour and fall and in our crowded, clean city the cold never really penetrates too much. The breaks go up if it’s windy, the canopies if it rains.

And every morning I’m waking from my dreams of an altogether different kind of canopy of branches and leaves, and I think I can’t stand it anymore. Another day in this city.

(Where The World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold. P32.)

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Synopsis:

Juniper and Bear live in one of the two remaining glasshouses – the only spaces where plants are allowed within their city. Everywhere else is grey and enclosed. Like a prison. This is how it has been ever since a virus was unleashed to kill humans and save the wild. Juniper is afraid that if her little brother Bear doesn’t calm down, he will end up in the institute. A place from which nobody comes out.

When scientists discover that the siblings’ blood holds the secret to surviving in the outdoors, their lives are endangered. They are left with no choice but to run. They set out for Ennerdale, the half-remembered home of their infancy.

The wild is a beautiful place but it is also a brutal one. It is a place where survival plays out on a daily basis and every living thing is in some danger. Not to mention the drones that follow them from the city. With so much up against them, will they ever make their way home?

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Review:

Dystopia is back and it is tackling bigger themes than ever before. It is also reaching out to a younger audience.

Where The World Turns Wild asks one of the deepest and darkest questions of our time: is sacrificing humans the only way to save the world? If, as an individual, you were given a choice between mankind and life itself, which would you choose? Juniper lives in a world where, fifty years before, a group took the fate of the world into their own hands, and the only humans to survive are the ones who live in enclosed spaces with barely any contact with nature. Children are taught to fear the wild and only the ones born with immunity to the virus can go outside. More to the point, Juniper reckons the ReWilders – the group who spread the virus – did the right thing. It is a view that could get her locked up for life.

It is a massive theme for an older middle grade or teen audience. It is also a question they must surely ask themselves in theory. Because if we don’t change the way we live soon – very soon – it will be too late to save the planet. Juniper knows the ReWild was extreme and that terrible things happened because of the virus. She also knows every living being was going to die if it didn’t happen.

Juniper and Bear are wonderful characters. They are children of nature trapped inside an unnatural city. They remind us that nobody who has seen trees and valleys and life would ever choose an artificial world. This is the other big theme in the book. There are people who have grown up inside cities and have barely seen the world outside. They are complacent about wildlife because they do not know it. This is a sad reflection of our own world. Growing up in London, I met people who stuck their fingers in their ears – literally – if anyone told them what was in their fast food milkshake. What had been sacrificed in the world for their beef burger to exist. They simply couldn’t imagine the damage, or the parts of the world that were being damaged, sufficiently to care. Books provide a safe space to face up to such attitudes. Being challenged can be scary, but books like this allow us to challenge ourselves and come to our own conclusions.

Bear and Juniper are also searching for their parents. Their travels across the landscape are inspiring and terrifying in equal measures. As a reader I wanted them to be safe, but I also wanted them to survive in the wild, because the thought of them going back to that city was terrible.

I also felt a personal connection to the story as a born Londoner who now lives in Cumbria. As much as I miss certain aspects of London, I remind myself how I used to feel returning there after visits to Cumbria. I used to miss the wide open skies and birds and green space so badly that it hurt.

With a fantastic premise and strong characters, Where The World Turns Wild has got the book world talking. It is beautifully written and it is up there with the greatest outdoor journeys of children’s literature. Read this.

Blogmas 2019 · Guest Post

Blogmas Guest Post: An Inventor’s Guide To Christmas by author Holly Rivers.

 

Blogmas Guest Post: An Inventor’s Guide To Christmas by author Holly Rivers.

Holly Rivers

About Holly Rivers and Demelza & The Spectre Detectors. 

One of my very favourite things about putting together a series of Christmas posts is inviting authors to feature on my blog. It is especially exciting, with the New Year around the corner, to invite authors whose upcoming debuts are already on my radar. Holly Rivers has been in my Twittersphere for some time and, more reccently, I was sent a proof copy of her 2020 debut. Trust me when I say you will soon hear loads of great things about Demelza & The Spectre Detectors. 

Demelza loves science and rational stuff, but she also has a very unscientific gift. She can summon ghosts. When her grandmother is kidnapped, Demelza and her friend Percy set out to solve the mystery. 

Holly has written as her protagonist, Demelza Clock herself, who has some not exactly adult-approved thoughts on how inventors can survive Christmas. The first will make you laugh into your hot chocolate … but just you wait until you get to number 10. No cheating!

Many thanks to Holly Rivers for your time and wonderful post. 

 

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An Inventor’s Guide to Christmas by Demelza Clock

Written by author Holly Rivers.

 

1. Suggesting to your teacher that baby Jesus might have appreciated a soldering iron more than Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh is not a wise move (unless you want to spend the last week of term in detention.)

 

2. If you’re running low on pocket money and haven’t finished your Christmas shopping, look to your tool-box for inspiration. Who’s Grandma wouldn’t appreciate a lovely pair of earrings made from 80mm joint connector bolts?

 

3. Christingles definitely don’t make good inventing snacks.

 

4. Forget about gold rings, maids-a-milking and partridges in pear trees, what an inventor really wants for Christmas is a Nobel prize for Physics.

 

5. Always keep your inventing apparatus close at hand on Christmas day — a good quality handsaw is the perfect tool for carving turkey that’s spent one too many hours in the oven, and an electric drill can be useful for blocking out the sound of unwanted carol singers.

 

6. Scientific studies have proven that cocoa is beneficial for the brain — so eating your body-weight in chocolate coins for breakfast every day in December is perfectly reasonable behaviour. (Dipping a mince pie in your boiled egg is equally acceptable.)

 

7. Start perfecting your fake smile in November — your’e going to need it when you receive yet another pair of socks instead of the new Super Screwdriver 700 you’ve been dropping hints about all year.

 

8. Run out of wood-glue during the festive season? Don’t worry, bread sauce works just as well.

 

9. Whatever anyone says, a lab coat is appropriate attire for going to watch The Nutcracker.

 

10. If you’re inventing on Christmas day and planning on using a blowtorch in your workshop, don’t eat too many Brussels sprouts. Gassy bottoms and open flames don’t mix.

 

Demelza & The Spectre Detectors publishes in February 2020 from Chicken House Books. RRP. £6.99.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Pages & Co – Tilly And The Lost Fairytales by Anna James.

Review: Pages & Co – Tilly And The Lost Fairytales by Anna James.

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Extract:

She looked around, searching for the source of the smell, and was surprised to see, through the window, that the train was running through a deep, dark forest. Tilly was sure there weren’t any forests of this size within a twenty-minute train ride of north London, and yet there it was. The trees seemed to crowd in on every side, as if they were trying to reach inside the train with their spindly branches. 

(Pages & Co – Tilly And The Lost Fairy Tales by Anna James. PP. 99 – 100.)

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Synopsis:

Following the disappearance of Enoch Chalk, whose antics caused Tilly and her friends no end of trouble, a new Head Librarian is appointed at the Underlibrary. Melville Underwood’s policies restrict the movements of adult Book Wanderers, and ban children from the practice altogether.

Tilly is alarmed by this appointment but she has other things on her mind. Her Grandmother has forbidden her from book wandering altogether, but strange things are happening with fairy tales and Tilly wants to explore. Should she listen to her Grandmother, or to Gretchen – a lady she meets in Paris whose view is that book wandering should be completely unrestricted.

Feeling the pressure to pick a side, Tilly must figure out the best way forward to protect the beloved stories from the mysterious changes.

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Review:

The sequel to Pages & CO – Tilly and The Book Wanderers is here, and it lives up to the first story. This series turns the magic of reading into a literal world where people can wander in and out of stories and a hidden library monitors their movements and the security of the texts. It is also a brilliant fantasy and the second book sees a new antagonist and a sense of sides building and action brewing.

What is the same? The same sense of a secret bookish community, the references to sweet treats (which adds to the book nostalgia because some of the best children’s classics contain heavy references to food) and the same world of book wandering and underlibraries. We meet some new characters, including the ambiguous Gretchen, and visit some new places (both real and in the bookscape, so to speak).

The story was more complex in that it didn’t move exactly as I predicted. First we were introduced to the new Head Librarian and then the action moved away to Paris and to the fairy tales which Tilly first read and later explored as a book wanderer. I loved how the threads came together and especially the growing sense that something wasn’t quite right within the fairy tales.

Oskar comes out of himself too and claims a bit more of the spotlight. We meet his family in Paris which gives us a deeper insight into Oskar’s life. He’s a wonderful role model as a boy character because he is arty and gentle as well as practical and kind. It is clear that he doesn’t want to let Tilly take all the credit for their adventures, and quite right too.

Tilly is on her own mission too. She wants to know more about the Archivists, god-like beings who most book wanderers stopped believing in long ago.

Pages & Co has gained fans of all ages. It is the perfect nostalgia-fest for adult readers, who want to recapture that sense of being lost in the world of stories for hours on end. Child readers have taken to the series too, and I can’t imagine a more magical way to get acquainted with the classics. It is like an invitation to young people to join the world of reading and stories.

Tilly And The Lost Fairy Tales is a treat to read and it has made me excited about where the series is going.

 

 

blog tour

Blog Tour: The Boy With The Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson

Blog Tour: The Boy With The Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson

Butterfly Mind Blog Tour - Victoria Williamson

We Can All Be Butterflies – by author Victoria Williamson 

‘Is it a book for girls?’

This was one of the most annoying, and surprisingly frequently-encountered questions I was asked by parents and teachers when my debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, was published last year. ‘No,’ I’d reply with increasing weariness, ‘The main characters are girls, but it’s a story that boys will be able to relate to just as much.’ After all, how can you gender human experiences such as war, loss, friendship, hope, and redemption?

This time round, with my second novel, The Boy with the Butterfly Mind, there should be no confusion for adults intent on pushing gender stereotypes and so-called ‘gender-appropriate’ products on children. This is definitely a book for boys too. We all know it is, because it’s got the word ‘boy’ in the title. But wait… It’s also got pictures of butterflies on the cover. And aren’t butterflies a bit, well… girly?

The adult obsession, or more specifically, the marketers’ obsession, with categorising everything from clothes and toys, to animals and inanimate objects as either ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’, results in parents unwilling to buy anything for their children from the ‘wrong’ section of the shop in case their child gets bullied about it in school. Girls may seem to get let off lightly in this respect – a girl with an Avengers obsession, even though all but one of the superheroes in the film are men, won’t face the same amount of taunting in school as a boy who loves My Little Pony. But this is due to a deeper bias, one that still insists that girls, and by extension anything aimed at girls, is ‘lesser’. Films, toys and products aimed at boys still have a ‘prestige’ factor that makes it acceptable, and understandable, that girls should take an interest in them too. When it comes to books, while boys are allowed to turn their noses up at stories featuring female characters as ‘girly’, girls are still supposed to empathise with male characters without expecting anything approaching equal representation in return.

According to research by the Observer:

‘Male characters are twice as likely to take leading roles in children’s picture books and are given far more speaking parts than females, according to Observer research that shines a spotlight on the casual sexism apparently inherent in young children’s reading material.

In-depth analysis of the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017, carried out by this paper with market research company Nielsen, reveals the majority are dominated by male characters, often in stereotypically masculine roles, while female characters are missing from a fifth of the books ranked.’

Children in this country learn from a young age that animals and insects in stories have a gender. More often or not, that gender is male, unless of course that character is seen as ‘pretty’, in which case it’s automatically categorised as female. Butterflies, ladybirds, peacocks and tropical birds are often gendered as female, which makes little sense when in the real world it’s usually the male of the species who has the pretty wings or the beautiful feathers.

It was interesting this summer to see children playing who hadn’t been influenced by Western marketing to the same extent. I spent four weeks volunteering as a reading assistant with The Book Bus, visiting schools in Zambia to run story and craft sessions. One of the books that proved very popular was The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and the children enjoyed colouring in butterflies to take home. At the end of the session, most of them, boys and girls, used the pipe cleaner body and tail to attach the butterflies to their hair. The boy at the bottom of this picture was the first of the children to do this, while the boy on the right had just taken his off to adjust his pipe cleaner.

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No one is suggesting these children aren’t bombarded with gender stereotypes every day of their lives, but with very limited access to electricity, television, films and books, they hadn’t absorbed the marketer’s message that butterflies are considered things that only girls should adorn themselves with. After all, in real life, a butterfly is equally likely to land on the head of a boy or a girl, so why should only girls wear them?

Gendering animals as predominantly male in the stories we tell might not seem like much of a problem, but as Jess Day, who campaigns to end gender stereotyping with the Let Toys Be Toys movement says:

“It is preparing children to see male dominance as normal, so that when women do less than half of the talking, that still feels like too much to some people. And with so few female roles, there’s also not enough space for the female characters to be multi-dimensional. I think the lack of female villains reflects a wider cultural discomfort with women who are not well-behaved and good.”

If girls and boys are to take equal roles in society – in politics, science, management, and in the home – then they have to see all of these roles as open to them from a young age. Gendering books, films, toys, clothes, and even butterflies as ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ limits the choices that children have open to them, and in turn, limits the career paths and opportunities they believe are open to them when they’re older. As adults, we can make all the difference in helping children overcome the pink and blue ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ market that surrounds them, by offering them alternatives to these limited choices.

And next time you see a see a book with ‘girl’ in the title or butterflies on the front cover, just ask ‘Is it for children?’ instead.

 

Thanks to Victoria Williamson for your beautiful article.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold.

Review: The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold.

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Kathryn and her father set out into the Kielder Valley, a place with a history of music and story. Everything they see – every planet, building and animal – is on borrowed time. A great dam is under construction and the valley will soon be flooded. Only the ghosts remain, and memories of the people who once lived in the valley.

The father breaks entry into a deserted house. Kathryn plays her fiddle, her father dances and sings and the room fills with spirits. It is alive with the stories and music of long ago. Kathryn and her father move from building to building, filling each one with music for the last time.

Based on a true story told by Mike and Kathryn Tickell, this story brings to life a beautiful piece of history from Northumberland. It is a story of loss and hope. The buildings in the valley will go, but the music lives on. Art of any form is how we record our experiences, and the little girl in the story grew into a famous folk musician who has played the songs of Northumberland to international audiences.

As someone who is currently grieving, I found reassurance in the story. Places and people are taken away but we can recall their voices and messages through art.

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Levi Pinfold’s illustrations have a dream-like quality to them. They capture the illusory quality of memories alongside the vast reality of the dam. I especially love the colours in the skies. I could stare at them in the same way as real clouds.

The final pictures, of Kielder Water and the forest in the distance, are filled with life and joy and colour. It is impossible not to want to visit the area, or at the very least to find a wide, outdoor space. To explore and laugh and play.

I was lucky enough to see David Almond perform alongside Kathryn Tickell and accordionist Amy Thatcher in 2017. The performance brought music and words together to celebrate creativity and the beauty of Northern England. I left enthused. Touched. It is an evening I think of often because I felt so in tune with its messages. The Dam, too, is impossible to forget. There is something new in every reread and it offers a beautiful starting point for conversations about the past and memories and loss.

A haunting and beautiful story about the triumph of art over change.

 

Thanks to Walker Books for my gifted copy of The Dam. Opinions my own.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett

Review: D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett

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Extract:

But because everything was so smooth, and easy, and obstacle-free, I didn’t even question what was going on, or realise I was skipping into the forest as innocently as Red Riding Hood in Hoodwinked. 

Pretty dumb, really. 

The first sniff I had that something dark was going on was when I got the second act of The Isle Of Dogs. 

(D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett. P74.) 

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Synopsis:

A year on from the events of the Justitium hunt and Greer is focused on getting top marks in her final exams to secure a place at Oxford. Drama students at S.T.A.G.s are responsible for putting on the end of year play, and Greer has taken the role of director. She isn’t certain on which play to perform until an old manuscript is pushed beneath her bedroom door. It is the first act of The Isle Of Dogs,  a work by Ben Jonson hasn’t been seen in over 400 years. It also contains some striking parallels to the social division she has witnessed at STAGS.

Her decision to cast the play puts her relationship with Shafeen on hold, but it may have wider consequences too. As further acts appear, the play leads Greer back towards the Order Of The Stag, and to the place she thought she would never visit: Longcross Hall.

But why does she still question whether Henry might be there? That particular ghost from her past was supposed to be laid to rest over a year ago …

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Review:

STAGS was a triumph of 2017 which both hit the awards list and gathered a legion of fans. My first words when I closed the book were ‘MA Bennett knows how to tell a story’. My second question was ‘Did she mean to write a five-act structure?’ (The author answered this during a Twitter chat. Yes, she did, and to tremendous effect.) When it was confirmed that MA Bennett was the penname of an established writer – and one who studied Shakespeare’s work at masters level – I was not in the least bit surprised.

The influence of historical writers on Bennett’s work comes to the front of the second story, as Greer stages the first playing of The Isle Of Dogs in over 400 years.

This real play saw Ben Jonson imprisoned and almost executed, and this fact is the basis for the events of D.O.G.S. MA Bennett imagines what might have caused Elizabeth the First to react so violently against Jonson’s work in a fictional version of the play. Greer receives this a single act at a time, pushed under her door by a mysterious stranger.

Every act draws her deeper into a world she thought she had left behind.

New characters keep the series fresh. The de Walencourt twins, Cass and Louis, are difficult to read – are they different to the rest of their family, or does the same privileged ambition run through their veins? Ty Morgan a complete star. She’s the new ‘outsider’ to the gilded world of S.T.A.G.S, but she’s sure as heck not going to be made an outsider by the established trio. Ty’s storyline challenges everything readers have come to expect from black characters in secondary roles. Think just about every half-term film from the late 90s or early 2000s. Think about the stereotype of the black best friend. Ty smashes that role to smithereens. There’s also a new staff member whose motives are hard to figure.

D.O.G.S did everything I hoped for. It wasn’t a repeat of S.T.A.G.S, but it built on the themes of social division and an ingrained class system and developed our knowledge about the Order Of The Stag. It brought back familiar locations but allowed us to explore them in new ways, and from new angles. D.O.G.S is as addictive and compelling as its predecessor. MA Bennett sure knows how to write stories which bite.

 

Thanks to Readers First and Hoy Key Books for my gifted copy of D.O.G.S. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone

Review: Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone

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Extract:

The dust around Casper shifted and seemed to glitter in the half-light and it was then – in that hushed moment – that the Extremely Unpredictable Event occurred. 

The key Casper was holding now looked altogether different. Without the layer of dust covering it, he could see that it was not simply a dull lump of metal anymore. It was silver and in its base there was a turquoise gem, which was glowing. 

(Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone. P23.) 

 

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Synopsis:

Casper Tock is allergic to adventure. He lives by a timetable and believes in solid evidence and facts. It is the shock of his life when, first he stumbles into the magical world of Rumblestar and then he is told it is his job to save the world.

Utterly Thankless has lived in Rumblestar all her life. She’s a bottler-in-training, learning to contain the magic which creates weather. Life hasn’t been the same for Utterly since the terrible thing which she refuses to talk about.

Now the evil harpy Morg is awakening and her magic is once more a threat to the magical Unmapped Kingdoms. Can Casper, Utterly and their dragon friend Arlo work together to save the world from Morg and her Midnights?

A magical quest from the master of fantasy Abi Elphinstone.

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Review:

A harpy trapped in a void, a magical grandfather clock and a series of secret worlds where the weather is produced and sent to Earth. No writer should be able to pull all that off in one story, but Abi Elphinstone does so not only with ease but with apparent relish. She’s the kind of storyteller who seems to have a magical bag full of ideas which she ties together into brilliant narratives.

Rumblestar is the first book in the Unmapped Chronicles series, although the prequel Everdark was published on World Book Day. It helps to have read this, as the events of the story are referenced, although it is not strictly necessary.

Landscape always plays a part in Elphinstone’s world, from the Scottish Highland forests and rivers of the Dreamsnatcher trilogy to the icy lands of standalone novel Sky Song. For the first time, Elphinstone has invented her own lands to great effect. The Unmapped Kingdoms are where weather is invented. Each land is responsible for a different weather family, and Rumblestar is where the weather is processed and transferred to the world we know. Casper Tock’s world.

Rumblestar felt like something from Diana Wynne Jones. It is both a place where people live and work, and it is also the central part of a magical system. Reading this story made me feel as if I’d had my eyes shut to an important truth about our world, or maybe just that I should be searching for magic hidden just out of sight. This is the kind of story which makes readers believe that life is big and incredible, and that imagination is a powerful asset on our journey.

There was also an environmental message – one desperately needed given the current crisis. This was not invasive but it is important for readers to start thinking and caring about our world.

A book which is part fairytale and part breathtaking adventure. Another hit from Abi Elphinstone which will leave her readers dreaming of magical worlds.