Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds.

Review: Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds. Look Both Ways

Synopsis:

Ten stories. Different children. They go to the same school at the same point in time. Other than that, what do they have in common?

They all walk home from school. More to the point they are all walking home from school on one particular afternoon when, or so they hear, a school bus falls from the sky. Children walking home from school in a crowd can appear alike, but Jason Reynolds proves how every person is unique and special by looking closely into the lives of ten main characters.

Just kids walking home. Buying sweets. Dreaming up escape routes. Kids apparently doing nothing interesting at all.

A collection of contemporary stories that celebrate the importance of everyday interactions.

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Review:

There are very few short story collections for middle-grade readers. Even fewer contain stories of everyday life relatable to a middle-grade audience. Imagine how many, given that only 5% of novels contain a non-white main character, contain stories of everyday life relatable to a diverse middle-grade audience. Practically none until now. This does children a disservice. Young readers are fascinated with everyday places. Things that adults take for granted can be new and exciting to younger readers and everybody deserves to picture themselves and their home towns as part of the ‘ordinary’.

It is lucky then that this book from stellar writer Justin Reynolds is so brilliant.

Reynolds is a master at writing characters. Two pages into the first story and I felt as if I had known the characters all my life. There was overconfident, witty TJ, the kid who can’t drop a thing. And Jasmine. Reflective but angry. Not prepared to take any nonsense. The pictures in my mind felt like memories because I was so easily able to visualise them. Except Reynolds was better than that because the rest of the story developed those characters to an even deeper level until, by the end, I understood as a reader what was behind that swagger and that reflective silence.

These are also extraordinary stories for building empathy. The second story, for example, The Low Cuts Strike Again begins by introducing a gang of kids who thieve and then use the money to make even more by selling nostalgic sweets to men in pubs. Every young reader would tell you these kids are breaking rules, and yet, by the end of the story, the reader is forced to question their ideas about right and wrong. More importantly, the story asks whether we judge people too quickly.

It is important for readers to encounter stories about working-class lives that don’t assume a stance of pity or superiority. We are surrounded by these on a daily basis, from news broadcasters playing sad music over items about the working class, to charity television features that forget to address the root causes of poverty (such as poor support and political systems) as well as addressing needs (like foodbank useage). Understanding that working lives are valid and that we need working jobs to cover monthly outgoings have never been more important and stories like the ones in Look Both Ways will go a long way towards ensuring the next generation don’t typecast working-class people.

A collection of stories about life and the wonder of everyday interactions. This is a must-have for every library and book corner.

 

Thanks to Knights Of for my copy of Look Both Ways. Opinions my own.

fairytales · Feminist/Gender Equality

Review: Forgotten Fairy Tales Of Brave And Brilliant Girls (various authors and illustrators).

Review: Forgotten Fairy Tales Of Brave And Brilliant Girls (various authors and illustrators).

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Fairy tales fire our imaginations and they shape our understanding and expectations for our lives. So says Kate Pankhurst in her introduction, which explains how some fairy tales were told less often than others, and so became lesser-known or forgotten. As stories die, Pankhurst says, so do their messages. And why should there only be one version of a tale, when braver, bolder characters can tell us the things which make sense in our lives? 

It is a fantastic foreword to a book that aims to change the narrative on female heroines. Why should the princesses sit around waiting to be rescued when they could ride out into the night and take on the darkness themselves? 

This image, incidentally, comes from my favourite fairy tale. In Tam Lin, included here as Fearless Fiona And The Spellbound Knight, the heroine rides out at midnight to confront an evil faerie queen and prevent a young man from being given as tribute to hell. I came to this story through folk music and something about it felt different from the same-old-same-old stories which I knew from repeated tellings. There was something about Tam Lin which, even in my teens, I was unable to explain. 

And of course, that image says it all. The heroine was brave. Not the wimpy, waiting around without complaint brave, but the kind where she took things into her own hands, faced her fears and remained resolute in her position. She had guts. She had authority as a character. 

Forgotten Fairy Tales Of Brave And Brilliant Girls offers young readers this very thing. Girls need to see themselves at the centre of the action from an early age to believe that their strength and intelligence is equal to that of a boy.

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The stories are retold in a way that is suitable for younger readers. The writing is strong and rich in detail and the book could very definitely grow with the reader and remain a favourite. In fact, these would be lovely to read aloud as a group or to reenact together. Tales included are English, Scottish and European but vary from the best-known stories. This would be a lovely book to help readers think more broadly about fairy tales and folklore and to give them a hunger for more tales. 

The illustrations are bold and colourful and bring the stories to life. I especially love the towering, waving nettles in the illustrations of The Nettle Princess, and the picture of Tam Lin with his armour wrapped in flowers. 

It is always encouraging to see anthologies which aim to challenge outdated narratives. A lovely introduction to the diversity and richness which stories can offer. 

 

Thanks to Usborne Publishing and Rontaler Events for my copy. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Two books about World War One

Reviews: Short titles about World War One. 

img_7515White Feather by Catherine And David MacPhail

The Great War is over but the grief has just begun. Tony’s brother Charlie did not return from the front. Instead of dying a hero’s death, Charlie was shot as a traitor for deserting his post. Tony can’t cope with the shame – something which isn’t helped by the white feathers which people hand to the family.

Charlie’s final letter contains a coded message. Tony sets out in search of answers and confronts the trauma faced by the boys and men on the Front.

This book shows the attitude towards desertion at the time of the war alongside the terrible reality – that men and boys came home traumatised from their experiences. I liked how the story drip-fed facts about the front. It also explored the difference in treatment between average soldiers and those of higher rank and wealth.

This would be a great book to read alongside Private Peaceful because it how the stigma of cowardice extended beyond the men shot to their families.

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IMG_E6956Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer

There’s a lot going on in Lily’s life. She’s struggling to give her best performance at fell running and her grandmother is changing as a result of Alzheimer’s. Then Lily finds the diaries of her great-great grandfather Ernest – a champion fell racer and messenger boy in World War One. On the day of the Armistice, Ernest was tasked with his most challenging run of all – to get a message to a platoon of soldiers in time to save their lives. His story inspires Lily to be her very best – in running and in friendship.

A wonderful story which focuses on a specific area of World War One – the boys who ran long distances to deliver messages when other forms of communication were down. It was a brilliant idea to tie this in with a story about fell running. It made the war narrative more accessible to young audiences – the horror of war is certainly shown, but part of the story takes place in the modern day, meaning that the war scenes don’t become overwhelming. I connected with Ernest more because I could imagine his home life.

The Alzheimer’s, too, was sensitively handled. I have seen grandparents deteriorate to Alzheimer’s and the emotions were spot-on – the frustration mixed with fear. The awareness that other members of your family might one day suffer the same illness. The uncertainty about whether what your loved one is saying is accurate. It was all there and balanced with Lily’s love and pride for her family.

 

Thanks to Barrington Stoke for copies of the books featured above. Opinions my own.