#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.

#KeepKidsReading – books out for children

In the last week I have shared a couple of book reviews of children’s books I have read recently. To close off this little series of #KeepKidsReading posts I would like to share some of the children’s books that are either out now or just about to come out and which I really like the look of. Capitalise now on all that ‘World Book Day’ enthusiasm!

Middle-grade books (primary school age/early secondary school)

Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow and The Secret Sunshine Project by Benjamin Dean

The first of these two books sits on my current TBR pile. It’s Benjamin Dean’s debut novel and is the story of Archie Albright who decides to try and ‘fix’ his family and restore their lives to normal after his parents split up. Archie’s father has come out and Archie must learn to come to terms with the ‘new normal’. Looks like a great one for children of same-sex parents, blended families, or separating families. Look out for a future review.

Benjamin Dean does not shy away from challenging themes in his second novel either, it would seem. In The Secret Sunshine Project he deals with the loss of a parent, resilience, sisterly love and the joy of Pride.

The Last Bear and The Lost Whale by Hannah Gold

Another double recommendation, this time two books which deal with important themes of the connection between humans and nature and climate change. The Last Bear was a huge success and widely acclaimed. April’s father is a scientist and his research takes the family to a remote Arctic island where it is said polar bears are now extinct. April comes across one however, starving and desperate, and she is determined to save him.

In The Lost Whale Rio goes on a quest to find a whale he has met on whale-watching trips with his best friend Marina and her father. He has been sent to live with his grandmother in California while his mother recuperates from illness. The children discover the whale but are then distressed when it goes missing. Rio will learn much about his life and the world in his search for the whale.

All of the above titles have wonderful illustrations which I think remain important for this age group.

The Swallow’s Flight by Hilary McKay

Finally, a sadly very topical suggestion. This is a story about the second world war written from the perspective of four children, two in England and two in Berlin. They are all contemplating their future as their countries pursue a war that none of them want or fully understand. A few adults could do with reading this as a reminder of what the senselessness of war looks like through the eyes of a young person.

Teens and younger adults

This is a broad category and some titles deal with mature themes that even very good readers may find challenging so choose your books with care.

You’re Not the Boss of Me by Catherine Wilkins

This title made me laugh as it is an exclamation that one of my children directed at me once! This book may help young teens navigate the thorny topic of sexism. Amy is all set to the be the star of the school show until Harry is put in charge and seems determined to stand in her way. Amy’s sister tells her Harry is being a sexist and she must take a stand. Written with humour by a popular comedian.

Furthermoor by Darren Simpson

Fantasy for young teens. Twelve year-old Bren finds solace from the challenges of his life, where his sister has died and he is constantly bullied, in the imaginary world of Furthermoor where he feels safe and can control events. When the mysterious Featherly enters this world, Bren is forced to choose between fantasy and reality.

Baby Love by Jacqueline Wilson

Another characteristically bold fictional outing from national treasure Jacqueline Wilson. This time she deals with first love and teenage pregnancy in the 1960s when Laura, finding herself pregnant and alone, is sent away to spare her family’s shame.

Blood to Poison by Mary Watson

This looks like a complex and powerful novel. Set in South Africa, its central character is seventeen year-old Savannah who has been identified as a ‘Hella’s girl’, the inheritor of a tradition in her ancient family bloodline where certain young women will die young. This is a story about magic, witchcraft and the courage to defy one’s destiny.

For more suggestions, see the shortlist for this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.

#KeepKidsReading book review – “Pog” by Pádraig Kenny

Time for my second book review of my #KeepKidsReading week and I would like to tell you about Pog, the second novel from children’s author Pádraig Kenny, published in 2019 by Chicken House. It bears similarities to Kenny’s first novel for children Tin, which I loved, with powerful elements of fantasy, a fight between good and evil, and strong characters which young readers will be able to identify with. 

Pog is the name of a furry talking creature who lives in the attic of an old house in the woods. David and Penny and their father move into the house after the death of the children’s mother in an accident; the house had belonged to her grandparents and she spent a lot of time there as a child. The children’s father has brought them to live there as a way of perhaps reconnecting with the mother they have lost.

Pog seems like quite an ancient creature whose role is as something of a protector, not just of the inhabitants of the house, but as guard of ‘the Necessary’, an access point between the civillised world and the dark underworld, out of which destructive and terrifying forces can emerge. Pog has also known loss and tells of his ‘Grandfa’ who went before him and from whom he seems to have inherited his present responsibilities.

David and Penny discover Pog’s existence soon after moving into the house, and quickly become his friends and allies. It soon becomes apparent that creatures from the underworld are threatening the stability of Penny and David’s world. In one battle that takes place in the sitting room of the house, Pog and the children confront a swarm of ‘bloodworms’ that attack and attempt to destroy them. They win that particular fight.

SPOILER ALERT

This is merely a foretaste of what it is to come, however. In a moment of desperation, David makes a deal with the wicked ‘Kipwik’, who promises that he will be able to see his mother again if he opens the Necessary. This is a lie of course, but David is more grief-stricken than he realised and will do anything. A monumental confrontation follows, a straight fight between good and evil, in which Pog comes close to losing his life. Goodness prevails in the end, however, and in a kind of catharsis both Pog and the children begin the process of coming to terms with loss. They have faced down the cruellest of demons.

I enjoyed the book, although I did not think it was as strong as Kenny’s first novel Tin. The characterisation is good and the action scenes are well-written. The character of Pog is sweet but may turn off some readers who see themselves as too old for talking animals. I don’t think Kenny pulls this off quite as successfully as, say, Philip Pullman. On the other hand, some of the themes (death of a parent, good versus evil) may be too intense for some young readers. I would say this is suitable for the 8-12 age group, with the caveat that they need to be mature enough to deal with the themes, but young enough to embrace the concept of talking creatures.

Pádraig Kenny published a third novel last year, The Monsters of Rookhaven, in which he explores the themes of good versus evil once again. It has been been widely acclaimed and both nominated for and won numerous literary awards.

#KeepKidsReading Book review – “Julia and the Shark” by Kiran Millwood Hargrave with Tom de Freston

Today is the 25th annual World Book Day so it seems a very apt moment to have another #KeepKidsReading week – an occasional series where I post reviews about children’s books. My days of creating World Book Day outfits for my primary school age children are long-gone, though it seems like only five minutes ago, and although at the time it felt like a huge pressure to come up with ideas and then scour charity shops for suitable garments, I genuinely think it is a brilliant concept and any initiative that gives out vouchers for children to get a free book, MUST be a force for good.

I’d like to tell you about Julia and the Shark. This book was heavily promoted in my local branch of Waterstones and I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the ‘Signed Exclusive Edition’ sticker and the attractive design. It is a beautiful thing: hardbacked, the cover is in tasteful shades of grey and bright yellow with shiny silver relief. Inside, the grey/yellow/silver theme continues, as do the illustrations of flying birds which decorate the edges of the pages almost zoetrope style. The images, brilliantly done by Tom de Freston, are stunning and a few of them are on opaque pages scattered throughout the book. In terms of design, the book, in my view, follows a trend set by books like The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse a couple of years ago, or even Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl, where the pictures are an integral part of the experience for the reader and convey something important about character or the state of their mind.

But what of the story? The central character is ten year old Julia, the only child of a mathematician father and a marine biologist mother. The story begins with the family moving from their home in south west England to Shetland, in the very northern isles of Scotland, for the summer. Julia’s father has been commissioned to convert a lighthouse, once operated manually, to an automatic system. The family will live in the building for the duration of the project (a few months) and Julia’s mother will pursue an interest of her own, which is to discover the whereabouts of a rarely seen marine creature, the Greenland shark. She is attempting to get funding for a research project to study the shark and learn about its long, slow life in the hope that it can help in the pursuit of a treatment for degenerative dementia, a condition which killed Julia’s grandmother.

Julia has mixed feelings about the trip; she is unhappy about being away from her friends for the summer, but, buoyed by her mother’s enthusiasm and excitement about her own project, she comes around. Julia and her mother get to know a few people in the local village and Julia makes friends with a boy, Kin, whose family owns the local launderette, out of which they also run a small library. Julia and Kin share a love of nature, she for the sea (a passion passed on by her mother) and he for the stars. Julia quickly becomes initiated into some of the problems that dog Kin’s life, most notably, that he is a victim of racist bullying from some of the local lads.

The Greenland shark can live for hundreds of years – https://www.britannica.com/animal/Greenland-shark

SPOILERS BELOW

Julia becomes increasingly worried about her mother. At first, her mother’s spontaneous and outgoing behaviour is presented as a foil to her father’s logical, sensible character, and it is clear which behaviour Julia prefers! However, the behaviour becomes more and more reckless and bizarre; it starts when Julia’s mother purchases an expensive camera she does not really need and the family can ill afford. It peaks when she buys a run-down boat to go on solo expeditions in search of the shark when it becomes clear that the failure of her funding applications means she can no longer go aboard another working vessel as a paying guest. The boat and the solo expeditions prove both hazardous and fruitless.

Events come to a head when Julia’s mother has a breakdown. The nature of the emergency means that Julia is left in the care of a local shop owner the family has befriended, but she escapes during the night. She learns that there has been a sighting of the Greenland shark and Julia decides she will take her mother’s boat out to search for it. This proves highly dangerous and almost costs Julia her life when she sails into a storm that overturns the boat.

It is very tense at the end because it is not clear if either Julia or her mother will survive. The only indication that Julia does is a paragraph in the opening pages where Julia, who is the book’s narrator, tells us:

“This is the story of the summer I lost my mum, and found a shark older than the trees. Don’t worry though, that doesn’t spoil the ending.”

BIG SPOILER

I was worried when I read this – a book where a young girl loses her mother! But rest assured, the mother does not die. She almost dies when she takes too many pills, and is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but there is a happy resolution and Julia is saved from the waves.

This is quite a challenging book. It does deal with death (Julia’s grandmother’s death is referenced throughout), mental illness, bullying, difficult parents (not just Julia’s but it also turns out that the boy who had been bullying Kin had been abandoned by both his mother and father), and less seismic but equally impactful issues for kids like moving home, being an only child, friendship, and dealing with failure and disappointment.

This is a book that will suit quite a wide range of children between 9 and 13 – younger, stronger readers who are also quite emotionally mature will get a lot out of it, as will older kids who may identify strongly with the issues but perhaps need the pictures to keep them engaged. I loved Julia as the narrator, who was able to present complex issues in easy to understand ways. And it is a very compelling story with elements of adventure too. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It would also be a beautiful book to give as a gift. My only concern with it is that the design has made it quite pricey; at £12.99 this will be out of reach of many parents and children. I hope to see it in libraries.

Highly recommended.

Book review – “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This was the September choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a YA novel. I had not heard of either the author or the book despite the fact it has become an international best-seller since its publication in 2012. It’s always nice to discover an author for the first time and I am certainly glad I read this. It is a heartwarming story and covers some very interesting topics.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

I don’t usually have spoilers in my reviews, but when I review children’s or YA books, I do include them as I am assuming that any adult readers of this blog who might want to get hold of the book for a child they know, will also want to know what’s in it. So, you are hereby warned – there be spoilers!

Dante Quintana and Aristotle (Ari) Mendoza are two Mexican-American teenage boys who meet at a swimming pool where they live in El Paso, Texas. Ari cannot swim so Dante offers to teach him. The two are very different characters: Dante is the only child of academic parents. He is bright, quirky, bookish and artistic. Ari is the fourth and youngest child of somewhat more troubled parents. Ari has an older brother whom he has not seen since he was four years old because he is in prison, for reasons he does not know and which his family never discusses. Also, Ari’s father is a Vietnam veteran, a closed man, unable to talk about his war experiences. The novel is set in the 1980s.

Continue reading “Book review – “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz”

#KeepKidsReading…and how this can be a joy for you too

To conclude this series of posts on my #KeepKidsReading theme I would like to tell you about two moments of joy I had last week, one of the head and one of the heart. Last weekend, I sat and read a little book that has been on my TBR shelf for a few months, Why you should read children’s books, even though you are so old and wise by “children’s” author Katherine Rundell. This is a little number that was sitting on the counter when I was in my local bookshop a while back – the literary equivalent of chocolate bars at the checkout! Given my interest in children’s literature I was bound to pick it up, plus I had not long read Katherine Rundell’s wonderful book The Explorer about a group of children stranded in the rainforest when the light plane they are travelling in crashes.

Rundell makes the grown-up case for reading children’s literature not just as a child (or perhaps because of a child) but for its own sake. I have to say that reading it in the middle of the current pandemic and after, frankly, the drama and protracted uncertainty of the US Presidential election, children’s books offer us not so much escapism, as a way of dealing with challenges. Good children’s characters discover a resourcefulness they usually didn’t know they had and develop a resilience which can give all of us an idea of how to ‘be’ in the world. It may not offer us the perfect happy ending but it can show us how to come to terms with reality; in the book review I posted earlier this week of Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom, yes it has a happy ending, but let’s not forget there was carnage along the way – a war, child abuse, a dead mother and baby, a friend killed, and a lost wife and child. But somehow, William, and indeed Tom, learn how to accept and grow from their experiences. Tragedy and loss will, at some point, befall all of us and somehow we need to learn how to cope with it. The best of children’s literature can show us some ways.

So, now for the heart moment. A few months ago I bought a copy of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy, which was heavily promoted in bookshops after it was named Waterstones Book of the Year in 2019. I bought a copy because I’d heard such good things about it and liked the illustration style and the quotes I’d read. Somehow, though, I never got around to reading it, which is a terrible shame because it is magical and wondrous. It’s a gentle and moving tribute to the values of kindness and compassion, and an exhortation to embrace the differences between us. At its heart lies a belief in the magical power of love to lift us out of any darkness. And I can’t think of a sentiment more appropriate to our times than that. It has the power to induce a kind of inner silence, you will smile, and your heart rate will drop. It is also very beautiful to look at and to touch.

If you haven’t already got a copy, please get one and read this extraordinary book. It will take no more than half an hour of your time, although you may find, like me, that it keeps drawing you back. Please give copies of it as gifts this Christmas. We associate this time of year with peace and joy, and this book embodies it.

I can think of no finer book than The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse to endorse Katherine Rundell’s thesis. We should all be reading more children’s books.

#KeepKidsReading book review – “Goodnight Mister Tom” by Michelle Magorian

This book was my October choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a children’s book. I read it during half term, when I also posted one of my occasional #KeepKidsReading series on building a children’s library. This book had been on my radar for years; I think my son read it in school so we have had a copy around the house for some time. It is set around the time of the outbreak of the Second World War and so I imagined it dated from the 1950s or ‘60s, but in fact it was first published in 1981 and won a number of prizes around the world, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. It was made into a film starring John Thaw in 1998 which I am told is excellent – I have just bought the DVD and can’t wait to watch it.

A scene from the 1999 film adaptation starring John Thaw

When you read the book you quickly see how it could not have been written much before the 1980s, although even then it would have been quite ground-breaking; it deals with child abuse, amongst other things, pretty remarkable in a children’s book.

Londoner William Beech is eight years old when he first arrives at the home of ageing widower Tom Oakley. The novel is set in the rural village of Little Weirwold, but the county is not specified. I imagined Sussex or Hampshire – not too far from the capital. War has not yet broken out, though it seems inevitable, and children are being evacuated as a precautionary measure in anticipation of Nazi bombing. William is thin, sickly and covered in bruises, a timid, frightened character with poor literacy for his age. We soon learn why. His mother, a single parent, is an extremely religious woman who has controlled William through severe physical punishment and has kept him from school because she believes it to be a godless place. He lacks any confidence and self-belief because he has been told all his life that he is worthless. Tom Oakley is a gentle, patient man and seems instinctively to know how to deal with William’s problems, such as his persistent bed-wetting, which he handles with calm and grace. He quickly realises how fragile his young charge is and when William reveals, quite innocently, the way his mother has treated him, Tom is shocked but also determined that he will show him a different kind of life.

As William begins to thrive, so we learn a little more about Tom’s fragility too. As a young man, he lost his wife and their baby to scarlatina, a loss that affected him so deeply that he became almost a recluse, living in a small cottage beside the village graveyard with his dog Sam. His growing fondness for William leads him not only back into the arms of the Little Weirwold community, but also to question his continued self-imposed isolation. William is growing in confidence as he catches up academically and, for the first time in his life, makes a group of firm friends, particularly the flamboyant Jewish boy Zach, a fellow-evacuee, whose parents work in the theatre.

Some months into his stay with Tom, William receives a letter from his mother saying that she wants him to return home to London for a visit. William is reluctant and full of trepidation, but Tom persuades him that it is important he sees her, even though he has his own doubts about the wisdom of such a visit.

SPOILER ALERT:

If you want to give this to your children to read, it is important you know what happens in the story, but if you’re reading the book for yourself and prefer the suspense, don’t read any further.

On his return to London, William’s mother behaves strangely and after an initial, encouraging show of slight warmth, she soon returns to her old critical and abusive habits. When they finally return to the house in Deptford William learns that his mother has given birth to a baby girl while he’s been away. While going out to collect William she left the baby alone in the flat with her mouth taped so the neighbours did not hear her crying. It is bleak and upsetting at this point.

Meanwhile, Tom, preoccupied with worry about William, decides, on an impulse, to go to London, sensing the boy might be in danger. It is an arduous journey, but he finally finds William. After a spell in hospital, where we learn that William’s mother has taken her own life, Tom effectively ‘kidnaps’ William after being told that the boy will most likely have to go into a children’s home following his discharge.

There is another sad thread to the plot involving Zach, something else to be aware of, but I’ll save that one from here.

I read the second half of this book in practically one sitting; I could not put it down! It is a tough read, though it does have a happy ending. It is quite dark in parts, but not in a frightening way. It will give young readers an insight into what life was, IS, like for some children, and an idea of the different ways abuse can manifest itself. It also shows that children can develop resilience and hope, and find happiness after even the most difficult start.

For that reason, I would recommend for no younger than 10-11, and to read it with your child, or at least in advance so you can handle any questions they might have. Twelve to thirteen year olds might like it too. It is plainly written with accessible language.

Highly recommended for adult readers!

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