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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.

Butterflies - Book Murmuration Blog

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.

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Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Old Man Of The Sea by Stella Elia and Weberson Santiago.

Review: Old Man Of The Sea by Stella Elia and Weberson Santiago.

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Every line on Grandpa’s face tells a story. One day, he starts to talk about the time he spent at sea. 

From the fairytale castles of Europe to watching the sun in Africa, Grandpa talks his way around the world. Every place has its own magic, and all the world is bound together by the endless seas. 

Even when his tales get a little tall, our protagonist loves to hear them. They set in his heart a desire to travel and explore. 

img_9619This story is accompanied by maps of the continents Grandpa visits, but unlike ordinary map books, these do more than introduce the shapes and boundaries of land. The book is like a whisper in the ear, calling readers to learn navigational skills and to explore the world around them – whether it be the high seas or the land outside the front door. 

Grandpa’s stories also celebrate the guiding voice of a grandparent. He isn’t strictly truthful in the sense that children are taught, but Grandpa’s words contain wisdom. A different kind of truth. Grandparents are often taken for granted when children are small, but not only do they have more life experience, they often have time for games and creativity which working parents are unable to give. 

The illustrated maps and pictures of the sea get steadily more fantastical, but every one is filled with a different kind of magic. The kind which reminds us that maps are more than lines and coloured spaces. That visiting the places they represent enriches our lives. The merfolk and dragons remind me of maps drawn when travel was less common, and details of what might be there was left to the imagination. 

A magical book which fills the mind with seas and ships and mythical creatures. Listen closely enough and you can almost hear the waves. 

 

Thanks to Lantana Publishing for my gifted copy of Old Man Of The Sea. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Time Of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

Review: The Time Of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

Time Of Green Magic

Extract:

The cat thing sunk down, deep and heavy on the bed. The night air from the window was cold, but the cat-thing was warm, and Louis found himself wishing it would purr. 

‘Iffen …’ he murmured, and found the cat-thing’s eyes on his, a direct golden gaze that went straight to his astonished, worshipping soul. 

(The Time Of Green Magic by Hilary McKay. P51.) 

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Synopsis:

Abi is happily growing up with Dad and Granny Grace. Then a chance accident brings Dad together with Polly. Granny Grace moves away, Dad and Polly marry and Abi is forced to share her life with stepbrothers.

Then the family moves to the ivy-covered house, and strange things start to happen.

Abi tumbles into books, Max notices strange things lurking in dark corners, and Louis summons a wild animal into his bedroom. Unless the children come together, they will be unable to change things. Can they figure out where the strange creature came from and send it back?

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Review:

Abi prefers life when it is quiet. She likes to hide away and read, which is pretty difficult with a small step-brother she never asked for grabbing at her stuff. But, over time, an understanding emerges between Abi and Louis. They’ve seen things in the strange new house. Things which should be impossible.

The ivy-covered house is up there among the most memorable of magical houses in children’s literature. It is subtle magic, yet it is one which reflects the children’s’ internal struggles and eventually brings them together. I was especially touched by Louis’s longing for a granny just like Granny Grace, and Abi’s difficulties in sharing the people in her life. Divorce narratives once read like tales of woe. This story is more subtle. It hints at hurt and anger but also shows love and new friendships and recognition which grows over time as new connections grow between the people involved.

The other star of the story is Iffen, the wild cat Louis summons into his bedroom. Exactly what species is he? Where does he come from? Readers will enjoy posing theories as the mystery grows.

Hilary McKay’s writing is a joy. The sentences and words are crafted to perfection so that it is impossible not to whisper certain parts aloud. The experience of reading was almost like listening to a storyteller because the words were beautiful and the story kept me hanging on at every twist and turn.

A gentle and lyrical story from a  master storyteller. This is a wonderful book about the bonds between families, and what it takes to shape them.

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for my gifted copy of A Time Of Green Magic. Opinions my own.

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.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Alice In Wonderland – A Puzzle Adventure by Aleksandra Artymowska.

Review: Alice In Wonderland – A Puzzle Adventure by Aleksandra Artymowska.

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Fall down the rabbit hole and puzzle your way through Wonderland. This beautiful volume presents Wonderland as it has never been seen before. Familiar characters and settings remain, but instead of telling the story it is up to the ready to work through the puzzles and on to the next page.

From counting games to mazes, spotting challenges to pairing games, there is something for everyone. Some of the puzzles are more difficult than others, which ensures that everyone solves something and feels rewarded. Details from the book are cleverly incorporated into the game: finding a key to escape the rabbit hole, spotting a lizard inside the White Rabbit’s house, and spotting the differences between Tweedledum and Tweedledee are among many examples. Part of the delight is in recognising favourite scenes from the story.

Put this on a coffee table or in a book corner and it is bound to be poured over.

img_9790Aleksandra Artymowska has previously constructed puzzle adventures based on the work of Jules Verne, and her experience shows. The pages draw the reader in and maintain their attention, with additional mini-tasks to keep everyone going even when the main puzzle is proving hard.

Minimalist, modern characters are contrasted with a wealth of pattern and detail. The important parts of the illustration – the puzzle – draw the eye while the backgrounds are clean and simple. This ensures the focus remains on the important details, but it also creates a unique and attractive style.

This has proved a big hit in my household, both with Wonderland devotees and people who can’t rest until they figure out the answer. It is a perfect gift for fans of Alice In Wonderland. It is also one of those books which attracts anyone who sees the cover.

 

Thanks to Big Picture Books for my gifted copy of Alice In Wonderland – A Puzzle Adventure. Opinions my own.

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Manhattan by Jennifer Thermes.

Review: Manhattan by Jennifer Thermes

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From millions of years ago, when the island was inhabited by wildlife, to the thriving metropolis we know today, this is the story of Manhattan. It’s geography, it’s history and it’s people. With maps to show how the island would have looked and illustrations of the different eras, this beautiful book is the story of one place through time. 

And what a place. Manhattan isn’t somewhere I have visited, but even so I feel I know its streets. Not only from the photo shows of my sister’s visits but from the multitude of films and television programmes which are set in New York. Before reading this, I knew little of its history, but I recognise so many of the best-known locations. 

Manhattan moves through the earliest settlements, to the American Revolution and then to the Grid Plan of 1811 and the great skyscrapers of the 20th Century. Every era is brought to life through the illustrations, which show not only the place but the people who lived there. History is easier to understand when we realise it is about people like us. Relating to another person’s story makes the past more accessible. 

img_9800The maps are so detailed, and it is fascinating to see how the city built over time, and how different areas were joined together as a result of the grid plan and subway and bridges. With double-page spreads covering different topics, this book manages to provide a detailed account of the area’s growth without overwhelming the reader. There is plenty of breathing space to look at the maps and illustrations. 

Towards the back of the book is a wonderful double-page spread which shows the island in four different eras right next to each other. As I looked over this page, it really seemed to grow before my eyes. There is also a useful timeline which allows the reader to look over the history without reading the whole book. 

As an introduction to or visual history of an area, this is fantastic. The level of detail is impeccable and it is difficult to resist flicking through and comparing the different eras. 

 

Thanks to Abrams Books For Young Readers for my gifted copy of Manhattan. Opinions my own.