#KeepKidsReading Book Review #2 – “Into the Sideways World” by Ross Welford

Going on holiday can play havoc with your writing goals so my July #KeepKidsReading week has turned into a #KeepKidsReading fortnight, my second book review being a full ten days after the first! So I am writing this from a very sunny south-west France where I am holidaying with my family. We escaped the heatwave in the UK last weekend, but exchanged it for very high temperatures in Paris, where nobody seemed particularly bothered. We spent a lot of time doing indoor things like enjoying the shops and visiting museums. It is very hot here in the Gironde today so I have chosen to stay inside for a couple of hours, fair-skinned English woman that I am. Thankfully the terrible fires that afflicted this part of France (and indeed Spain and Portugal) seem to be largely under control, or extinguished, and although it is hot here today, the termperature is set to drop to the (still very hot in my opinion) mid-twenties from tomorrow.

Preparations for my trip meant that I did not manage to write my review of Ross Welford’s latest book for children. Published earlier this year, it is his seventh and he has quickly become one of the leading authors for children in the 8-12 age group. I read his his first novel, Time Travelling with a Hamster (published in 2016), with a primary school book club I was running at the time and all the kids loved it. It was the first book we read in the club and I’m afraid they found every subsequent book a disappointment! I read Welford’s next two books, What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible and The 1,000 Year Old Boy, and loved those too, but he has written a further three books in the meantime that I have not yet caught up on. So, his latest novel felt like a good opportunity to dive back into Welford’s world.

Welford’s world is one that is familiar to me, the north east of England, the coastal area to the east of Newcastle upon Tyne, Whitley Bay, to be precise. Welford sets his books in the fictional area of Culvercot, equivalent to Cullercoats. I lived some happy years in Tynemouth, the next town along, and so I know the area well. I also love the fact that Welford’s character are really ordinary kids – they are not super clever with perfect lives. In Into the Sideways World, the narrator and main character Willa, who is twelve, has wonky teeth, is teased at school, her parents are stressed by their business problems and bicker constantly, and she is generally unexceptional. Wonderful! Kids can see themselves in this character without feeling they are somehow wanting.

Willa’s parents run a holiday camp in Whitley Bay that was set up by Willa’s grandfather, but which is now in decline. One of Willa’s closest confidantes is Maudie, on-site general handywoman and ageing hippy with a passion for learning and for chocolate. Maudie has worked on the site since it was opened and her main claim to fame is that she met briefly President John F Kennedy before he was assassinated and told him about her vision of a World Without War. The novel is set some time in the 2030s. Maudie’s vision seems even more poignant given that there is the threat of a third world war looming. References are made to “the great pandemic” that killed thousands, including Willa’s grandfather, and climate change is wreaking ever greater havoc.

Willa’s life seems mostly pretty dull and occasionally difficult, with more than a little sadness, until she meets Manny Weaver, a new boy at school who has spent his short life to date moving from one foster home to another. Manny is bolder and more confident than Willa and while he is not exactly delinquent he is more willing to push boundaries. When he learns about the Whitley Bay cog, a mysterious and shy sea creature, having been spotted in a cave on the beach at Culvercot, he encourages Willa to go searching for it with him.

Once inside the cave, Manny and Willa, experience a violent meteorological event and when they emerge, they do so into a very different world. The date is the same (this is not quite time travel), but it is most definitely a parallel universe where everything is different, where President Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and, influenced by the great and distinguished Lady Maud Fry, led the world to make different choices. In this new “sideways world” the worst effects of climate change have been averted, science has devoted itself to finding alternatives to fossil fuels and meat consumption, world leaders choose dialogue over conflict, and everyone is happy.

Once they have arrived in the sideways world, Willa goes “home” and finds the environment very different: firstly, she is now Mina, not Willa, she no longer has an older sister, rather her older brother Alex, who in her own world died as a baby from cardiac abnormality, has survived. Her parents are (embarrassingly!) still very much in love, their business is successful, and there was no pandemic so her grandfather is still alive. Cars as we know them have gone, rather there are strange floating scooters that run on some advanced hydrogen/solar technology. It is a utopian vision. Crucially, Manny’s longed-for mother, who in their own world disappeared for many years and has been tracked down to a psychiatric facility in Scotland, is getting well and they are about to be reunited.

Manny and Willa do not know what to make of the new world. It turns out that Manny is one of a very small number of people with a hypersensitivity to the moon and tides and who can switch between these different worlds at certain times. At the time of the novel, the moon, a Supermoon, is closer to the earth than it has been for decades or will be again for many years, which enables Manny to take advantage of the conditions to transport himself, and Willa, to an alternative reality.

The rest of the novel follows the two children as they try to make sense of what has happened to them. They make a couple of journeys back and forth and it becomes clear that, although the sideways world is, in countless ways, better and happier than her own world, Willa comes to the conclusion that the world she knows is where she belongs. She also realises that she has switched places with her doppelganger, Mina, who will be finding the old world extremely challenging compared to what she has been used to. For Manny, the decision is less clearcut – the old world has nothing to offer him, but he has a life with his mother to gain in the sideways world.

Thematically, the book is similar to the other Welford novels I have read, although I love the way he has incorporated climate change and the pandemic into this one. At this difficult stage in history, I also love the way he is showing children that things can be better, change is possible, they can be hopeful of a better world in the future, and the power will soon be in their hands to make it so. Welford achieves this without being preachy though, because he wraps it in yet another brilliant story with great characters, adventure, action, a chase (of course!) and all the little references that will draw children in, the social media and technology references, sibling rivalries and relationships with parents.

Highly recommended, brilliant summer reading for kids, and for me too!

#KeepKidsReading book review #1 – “The Fire Cats of London” by Anna Fargher

I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour accompanying the launch of Anna Fargher’s latest book The Fire Cats of London, which was published just a week ago. This is Anna’s third children’s book; I reviewed her first book The Umbrella Mouse (published in 2019) on here and thoroughly enjoyed it. The follow-up, Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue, came out in 2020, reprising the same central character and historical period (the Second World War).

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS SINCE IT IS MEANT AS A GUIDE FOR PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS

Anna’s latest book introduces us to a new, feisty central character, Asta, a wildcat, and explores a different historical period, the 17th century and specifically the Great Fire of London. Asta is a young wildcat living in the forests on the outskirts of London with her twin brother Ash and their mother, when hunters capture the young pair (killing their mother in the process) and sell them to a shady London apothecary, Rathder. He plans to use the wildcats to harvest their whiskers, blood and fur, which are rare and valuable ingredients in the potions he makes and sells to his customers. Rathder has his own pet cat, a wily British Blue named Beauty, who flirts with Ash and wins him over, convincing him that he will be safer in captivity with Rathder than in the outside world. Asta refuses to be drawn in, however, and maintains a strong desire to escape back to the wild.

The Great Fire occupies only the last quarter or so of the book. In between the wildcats’ capture and the Fire, Asta is used as a fighting cat at the Bartholomew Fair, where she makes friends with a bear and her young cub. The bear, Tilia is also desperate to escape captivity, most especially for the sake of her cub Lipa. Asta and Tilia plot a daring escape, aided and abetted by their raven friend Jet. Jet lives with Miriam, a wealthy widow and a herbalist, protege of the famous Culpeper, whose mission is to free animals that are used for human sport and quack remedies. She hears about Asta and the bears and determines to help them in whatever way she can.

Asta and Lipa do escape the Fair, though sadly Tilia dies in the attempt, and they make it to Miriam’s. She is a sworn enemy of Rathder and his accomplice Moore, both of whom suspect that she is behind the chaos caused at the Fair and the escape of the animals. This has had a direct financial impact on them both and they are determined to make her pay.

Miriam hides Asta and Lipa and plans to take them to Epping Forest (in Essex) to release them. Their plans are thrown into jeopardy however, when the Great Fire begins in Pudding Lane and they are forced to make a much more hasty departure. All the while, Asta has never forgotten her brother Ash and wants to free him from Rathder and Beauty’s clutches. This leads her to make a bold and high-risk move at the very last minute when she is close to safety.

Anna Fargher is a clever writer and as with The Umbrella Mouse has created a charming cast of animal characters in the tradition of Charlotte’s Web and The Wind in the Willows. Asta is a powerful central character, brave, loving, principled who, when faced with adversity, rises to the challenge and emerges triumphant, all good characteristics in a role model! I think she also weaves in some brilliant history lessons, about the period in London, the Great Fire and the various social tensions between different religious factions and races.

There is a lot of peril in the book – at the beginning when the wildcats are hunted, at the Fair, where the animals are brutally treated, and at the end with the Fire itself. There is also the fact that two mothers die! (Tilia the bear, and Ash and Asta’s mother). Younger children might find aspects of it challenging, or indeed triggering. There is something to be said for not sugar-coating the world for our children, especially our history, but some readers may need a bit of support.

The author has brought in some fantastic contemporary themes – the unequal and controlling relationship between Ash and Beauty, showing children that not all friendships are good ones even when someone seems to be nice to you. The importance of true friends and family, filial love, the importance of believing in yourself and standing up for what you believe is right. The impact of humans on the environment, the animal world in particular, is another powerful theme and one which is clearly close to the author’s heart. She has spoken of the decline of biodiversity in the British Isles, and the plight of Britian’s wildcats in particular seems to have captured her imagination.

Wildcats are Britain’s rarest mammal. They are now found only in Scotland. On the brink of extinction, only 30 native cats remain. The decline began with Henry VIII’s and Elizabeth I’s Vermin Acts, where Bounties were paid for culling animals believed to pose a risk to livestock and grain.

No wildcats have roamed England and Wales for at least 150 years, and although the current numbers are woefully low, there is hope. Rewilding programs are in motion, and the more we know about them, the more we can fight to preserve them.

Anna Fargher, 2022

There is much in this book for children to learn about, as well as a cracking good story for them to enjoy. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for an advance review copy of this title.

#KeepKidsReading

Summer is here and school is almost out so it must be time for another #KeepKidsReading week. Many parents and teachers know all about the phenomenon of ‘learning loss’ and after two years of disruption to school this may be a very acute problem this year more than ever. The rigours of school life can also bring pressures so many children need and deserve a break from formal studying.

The long summer holiday can be an opportunity for many kids to discover the joy of reading for pleasure. Choosing a book because they like the look of it and not because their teacher tells them to. I have long been a fan of the summer reading challenge for children that is run every year by council libraries. When they were young my children always loved the weekly visit to the library to choose a new book, getting stickers and tracking their progress on a chart. Oh for the simple pleasures! A visit to the library is free and therefore even more attractive with pressures on family budgets as they are at the moment.

The theme of this year’s summer reading challenge is ‘Gadgeteers’, which will appeal to youngsters with an interest in science and technology, who may perhaps think they are less interested in books! Kids can sign up at their local library, which may also be running tandem events, and if they have internet access there are various online activities they can do too.

If you are looking for ideas for books, I have a couple of reviews for you to look out for this week. On Friday I will post a review of Anna Fargher’s new book The Fire Cats of London. My review will be part of the book tour this week.

At the weekend I’ll have another suggestion for you, the latest from one of my favourite children’s authors writing at the moment, Ross Welford.

So, if you have any children in your care this summer, do get them along to the local library (they need our support, use them or lose them, not everyone can afford to buy books), get them signed up and #KeepKidsReading.

#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.

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