#KeepKidsReading – Book review #3 – “Heartstopper” by Alice Oseman


My final book review of the week and this one really is about that quest to KEEP kids reading, at the age when their attention spans are shortening and the amount of time they spare for reading is at its minimum, ie the middle teen years. So, I’m finishing with a young author who is a sensation at the moment, Alice Oseman. At the age of just 27 she is already an award-winner for her multiple novels, novellas and graphic novels and her Heartstopper series has been adapted for television by Netflix. The four volumes of graphic novels are all currently in the top six of the WH Smith children’s book charts.

The Heartstopper series is about the relationship between two kids at a boys’ school, Charlie Spring (year 10) and Nick Nelson (year 11). Charlie is ‘out’ as gay but he is in a difficult situation with another boy, Ben, who is abusive and controlling and who masquerades as straight. Charlie meets Nick when the school experiments with ‘vertical form times’, which include kids from multiple year groups, and immediately develops a crush. Nick is lovely, but he is sporty and popular, everything Charlie is not. Everyone assumes Nick is straight – he does not even realise himself that he might not be. But as his friendship with Charlie develops their is a burgeoning attraction between the two. And, yes, dear reader, they kiss! This is where volume 1, which I read, ends, but the television series covers all four volumes.

Graphic novels, or books which explore unconventional formats (Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything is another YA book I love for this reason) are perfect for kids who get bored or switch off when faced with pages and pages of words. This book can be read quickly, or you can savour its warm and expressive illustrations, so it will also appeal to avid readers as well, especially with the TV link.

Highly recommended for teenage reluctant readers, and everyone else besides!

#KeepKidsReading – Book review #2 “Carrie’s War” by Nina Bawden

It’s my #KeepKidsReading week, which means I get to write about some wonderful children’s literature. On Wednesday I posted about a new author, Benjamin Dean, and his first novel, published last year, called Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow. Today, it’s time for something altogether different, one of the classics of children’s fiction, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. First published in 1974, the author drew on her experiences as an evacuee during the Second World War when she was sent to Wales.

The book opens with the central character, Carrie, returning to Wales where she and her brother Nick were evacuated during the war. She was twelve and he was ten years old at the time. Carrie, now widowed, has brought her four children to the small town, and tells them about her time there, about Mr Evans, the parsimonious shopkeeper, and his sister, Aunty Lou, with whom Carrie and Nick were sent to live. Carrie’s friend Albert was sent to the manor house outside of town called Druid’s Bottom, which was owned by Mr and Miss Evans’s sister, the elderly and poorly Mrs Gotobed, who has been estranged from her siblings since she married ‘up’ many years previously.

Carrie and Nick visit Albert and find Druid’s Bottom a much more inviting place than their own accommodation. Mrs Gotobed’s housekeeper is Hepzibah Green, who also cares for Mister Johnny, a simpleton who has limited language and intellectual skills, but a high level of intuition and empathy. Hepzibah tells the children all sorts of stories about Druid’s Bottom, including the legend of the skull of the slave boy. Apparently, when he died, the slave put a spell on the house, that if his skull ever left it, disaster would strike the estate and all those living there. Mr Evans believes Hepzibah to be a witch who is only after his sister’s money.

When Mrs Gotobed dies, Mr Evans, as her only living male relative, will inherit the property and intends to turn out Hepzibah and Mister Johnny. Albert believes the old lady would not have wanted this and that she must have left a will to that effect. When none is found, Albert tells Carrie he believes Mr Evans stole and destroyed it, just to keep his sister’s old housekeeper from living there.

Carrie and Nick are called back to live with their mother, who has moved to Glasgow where she is an ambulance driver. On their last night at Druid’s Bottom, Carrie tosses the slave boy’s skull into the horse pond, wishing ill upon the house, which now belongs to Mr Evans, as she is so angry with him. As the children leave on the train the next morning, they pass the old house, only to see it in flames. She had not expected the spell the be enacted so fast. Carrie has believed her whole life that she is responsible for the fire and that all the residents (Albert, Hepzibah and Mister Johnny) must have perished. She is so sure of her guilt that she never bothers to find out what actually happened.

Early one morning on their visit to Wales, Carrie’s children walk to Druid’s Bottom before their mother wakes up. The house remains derelict, but they find the now very old Hepzibah and Mister Johnny living happily in a converted barn in the grounds. Hepzibah recounts what really happened in the years since Carrie and Nick left and it was not at all like Carrie feared. She laughs at their hints that she is some sort of witch, as their mother had believed (in the nicest possible sense), giving rational explanations for all the seemingly mysterious occurrences, but the ending of the book is ambiguous on this point. It’s fascinating that modern books for children rarely leave this element of doubt, this unanswered question. Are today’s children really less tolerant of ambiguity?

Like Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow this is a ‘middle-grade’ book, and the central character is twelve years old. But, as you would expect from a book written almost fifty years ago, there is a kind of innocence that today’s children may find off-putting. The language and the structure are fairly simple and the setting not too difficult to imagine, so this book would probably suit the 8–10 year-old modern reader. Its themes are perhaps more complex than you might expect though, and it is multi-layered. On the one hand, a younger child could make a very simple reading – there is history of a certain aspect of the war they will be familiar with (I think my son read this in primary school as part of their learning about the war), there are some superficially obvious goodies and baddies, and the story is straightforward. For a more sophisticated reader, however, there is a more nuanced interpretation of the characters – about what underlies Mr Evans’s sadness and therefore his behaviour and attitudes as an adult, about the power of legends, and about the experiences of relatively young children thrust into situations beyond their control which were sometimes frightening.

Nina Bawden’s first novel was actually an adult crime novel, but she then turned her hand to children’s fiction and was hugely successful. Carrie’s War was her third book for children and arguably her best-known. Her other books include The Peppermint Pig and The Robbers.

She was awarded a CBE in 1995 and died in 2012.

This book deserves a place on every child’s bookshelf.

#KeepKidsReading – Book review #1 “Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow” by Benjamin Dean

When you are seeking out appropriate titles for your children and young people it can be quite tricky to select books which pitch at the right level for each individual. The term ‘middle grade fiction’ tends to refer to books for the age group 8-12 years, which means that the vocabulary, themes, subject matter and points of interest are appropriate to most children in that range. It won’t suit all, however; some children may be earlier or later developers and find the books too easy or hard for them at that age. A six or seven year old stronger reader may find some of the content or themes too mature, or likewise a weaker reader in secondary school may find the content too childish. It’s not easy. You can read bookblogging sites (like this one!) or visit others who specialise in children’s books. One of my favourites is librarygirlandbookboy. Subscribe to Caboodle or readinggroups.org for ideas, events and competitions, or ask the advice of booksellers and librarians who will be only too happy to make recommendations. Honestly, it doesn’t matter what your child reads, magazines count too, anything they enjoy, just keep them reading.

Benjamin Dean is getting a lot of attention in the children’s fiction world at the moment. Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow was his debut novel, published just last year, and his follow-up, The Secret Sunshine Project was published in March. His third novel The King is Dead is due for publication this July – busy chap! Ben, as he apparently likes to be called, is a LGBTQ+ writer of colour and his stories touch on these themes, but, let me stress, not exclusively.

Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow tells the story twelve year old Archie Albright whose parents have recently separated. They are both trying hard to maintain a good relationship with their son, but Archie overhears the constant arguments and it is clear that something in their relationship went suddenly and badly wrong, though Archie is not sure what. As an adult reader it was heartbreaking (and should be sobering) when narrator Archie describes his feelings about his parents’ break-up and how when they think they are doing the right thing by him, it is often all wrong. Over-compensating perhaps.

One day, Archie finds a leaflet that his father accidentally dropped, advertising the London Pride event. Archie gets it into his head that if he were to go along to this he would find out something that will enable him to improve the situation with his parents. He expects to find some sort of pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. With the help of his two best friends, geeky Seb and feisty Bell, they make a plan to travel secretly to London to the Pride event (they would never get permission to go if they asked). On the train they bump into Archie’s (gay) babysitter Oscar and his friend Dean, who at first want to take them back home, but are persuaded to accompany them.

When they arrive in London, they are completely unprepared for the scale of the event and the volume of people attending. Almost as soon as they leave the station they lose Seb in the crowd and Archie and Bell also become separated from Oscar and Dean. Archie and Bell are then befriended by a couple of drag queens who are taking part in the carnival and who agree to help them find their friends. Horror strikes again when Archie bumps into his father, who is also attending Pride. Naturally, secrets are revealed and the two manage to open up to one another. Archie’s dad came out as gay and this was the reason for the split with his mother, something that they have had difficulty coming to terms with.

Middle-grade fiction always has a happy ending and the group is eventually reunited with the help of the network of performers. The events enable Archie and his parents to move forward to the next stage of their lives with honesty and love.

It’s a really lovely book, emotional at times, but greatly heartwarming. I loved the characters and I think children will be able to identify with Archie and his vulnerabilities. But Archie is the hero in the end because it is he who enables his parents to find a way through their troubles and to be the family they want and need to be. I would not say this is a book for children who are perhaps questioning their sexual orientation, (though it may be helpful if they are), but it is a book that could help children trying to adapt to changing or non-traditional family structures, or who might be experiencing communication difficulties in their relationships at home. It’s also just a great little story for any kid.

Archie is in secondary school so although the content is probably aimed at KS2 (junior school kids), it might also work for younger or less mature secondary school students. A younger reader might benefit from having a parent read it with them as they may not get all the ironic references or the humour.

Look out for more in the future from this author.

#KeepKidsReading week

It’s been quite a big week in my household: my middle child reached 18, so that is now two reared successfully to adulthood! My eldest went off on his biggest solo travel trip to date, to the other side of the world. That’s been a challenge for me. When I was his age I had travelled often and for longer (without a mobile phone!) and I am only now appreciating what my poor parents must have gone through! And my youngest has this week started her GCSE exams (A levels start for my newly adult daughter next week). It is particularly stressful this year – in the UK it will be the first formal exams sat by students since 2019, the year before the pandemic. This has put enormous pressure on kids and teachers alike and I feel for all of them. If any of you have young people taking exams this summer, I wish them all the best of luck. And if there are any teachers reading this – THANK YOU, you have done an amazing job.

So blogging has taken something of a back seat for the last week or so. But with so much focus on young people it does feel like a good moment for another #KeepKidsReading week. I’ve read a few fantastic books for younger readers in the last couple of months and would love to share them with you. Throughout this week I’ll be reviewing Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow by Benjamin Dean, Heartstopper by Alice Oseman, and the classic Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. So, do look out for my posts if you’re interested in any of those.

As I look at my daughters preparing to sit their exams, I feel blessed to have such great kids. I also realise how lucky they are to have parents who are reasonably well-read and have the time, resources and inclination to have exposed them to books from a young age. Not all kids are so fortunate.

And I am just a tad proud of myself too, for not giving up in the lean years when it looked like they were turning away from books. It is at this point that many parents just don’t know what to do to maintain their child’s interest in books. Keep the faith, they will come back to it. My 21 year old son, who in his teens once declared to me (to my horror!) that he hated books, now makes recommendations to me! Truly, I’m not being smug at all, just showing that they can come back from the brink with books if you just keep chipping away.

When I read some of my kids’ work, their essays, even revision notes, I feel absolutely convinced that the breadth of their vocabulary, their spelling skills and their ability to express themselves come from their having read widely and consistently throughout their young lives. I also know that for all of them, at this point in their lives, reading is a release from the tyranny of revision, it’s the thing they do to switch their brains off at night and help them get to sleep. It can be such a powerful stress-reliever in a world where they are under an obscene amount of pressure.

So, I hope you will find my reviews this week interesting. If you know a young person, there is no greater gift than the gift of reading so think about a book token for their birthday.

Audiobook review: Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka

This was suggested by one of my fellow book club members for our April read. I had not heard of this author before – this is only her second novel – but I feel sure hers is a name that we will all hear about in the future. Danya is an American and is a literary agent in her day job. She published her first novel Girl in Snow in 2017, and Notes on an Execution was published earlier this year, to great acclaim it seems, judging by everything I have been able to glean about the book since finishing it.

Danya Kukafka
Danya Kukafka – an incredible young talent

The novel is set in the US and covers a period of thirty or more years and moves effortlessly back and forth in time. The present day strand is narrated by Ansel Packer, a convicted murderer who is on Death Row in a Texas prison, twelve hours from his execution. He reflects on the nature of life and death and philosophises about right and wrong. He has been writing down his thoughts in what he considers to be a work of philosophy (harking back to his time in college where he majored in the subject but failed to complete his degree) and plans to leave it as his legacy. He has been having a Death Row visitor, Shawna, to whom he grants custody of his manuscript.

Interspersed with Ansel’s narrative is an account of his past. He spent his early years on a remote farm, where his violent father Johnny abused his young wife, Lavender, then only seventeen years old, virtually keeping her prisoner and well away from normal society. Ansel receives no formal schooling and is isolated from other children. When Johnny takes Lavender on a trip, leaving four year old Ansel in charge of his baby brother, Lavender escapes her husband’s clutches at a gas station and manages to call the police to tell them about the children. Ansel is taken into foster care. He is told that his baby brother died.

An account of Ansel’s time in foster care in upstate New York is given by Saffy, another of the orphaned children living in the home. Saffy has had troubles of her own – her Indian father is unknown to her, she is the result of a short relationship her mother had, and her mother was killed. Saffy eventually finds her purpose as a police officer, working her way up to detective. She is put on a case involving three murdered girls whose bodies have been found buried in the woods. Saffy knows one of the victims – it was one of the girls she grew up with in the foster home. A suspect is found, but Saffy knows the homeless man being fingered for the crime is not the real killer. She harbours a private agenda to catch the murderer, which grows into an obsession.

A further narrator is Hazel, the twin sister of Ansel’s wife Jenny. Hazel recalls her first meeting with Ansel; shortly after he and Jenny get together at college, he joins the family for the Christmas holidays. Hazel is strangely attracted to him and jealous of her sister, but there is something about Ansel she does not trust. In the middle of the night she looks out of her bedroom window and sees him burying something in the family’s back garden, an action she cannot explain, but she says nothing.

This is a book about a serial killer; we know the ending, we know that Saffy must therefore eventually get him. This book is not a whodunnit. It is part cat and mouse – the chase, how Saffy will eventually catch up with him. It is also about the women Ansel killed, it tells their stories. It is also about the mind of a killer, how this is cultivated, what part his upbringing and his being left by his mother played in that evolution. Lest we blame his mother for “abandoning” him, the author explores Lavender’s story too – she was a child herself when she was impregnated by Ansel’s abusive father and it was his violence that forced her to take the only course of action possible to save herself and her children. She will carry the burden of that action for the rest of her life.

I was reading this at about the same time as Crime and Punishment and there are some interesting parallels – the brutal murders of women, the lack of remorse shown by the killer, the philosophising on right and wrong by the person committing the crime. The two books, separated by more than 150 years, share some similar characteristics, but Kukafka, makes the victims front and centre even though Ansel is trying to make the story about himself.

This is a brilliant book. It is powerful and interesting in a way that I did not expect and even though we know how it ends, the author still manages to throw in some heart-stopping surprises. I listened to the audiobook and was riveted. The performances were excellent.

Highly recommended.

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