Kid’s book review: “The Explorer” by Katherine Rundell

I want to tell you about a wonderful book I have just completed which will be perfect summer reading for 9-12 year olds; long enough to last them for a holiday, but with enough pace to sustain their interest and sufficient can’t-put-it-down qualities! Katherine Rundell. This is only her fourth novel, but she has already won two major prizes: the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2014 for Rooftoppers and The Explorer won the Costa Book Award in 2017. Phew!

The Explorer imgThe novel begins with a dramatic event: four children are travelling in a light aircraft across the Amazon jungle, which then crashes. The pilot dies (this is quite gently done, it is not frightening), which means the four children, five year-old Max, his older sister Lila, both Brazilian, and Con and Fred, two Brits, aged about 11-12, find themselves alone. Each of the children has their own back-story and their characters are carefully-drawn: Fred is resourceful, a natural leader who the others look to, but he is also a troubled soul, his mother is dead and he longs for the approval of his remote and uptight father. I should add at this point that the story is set, I would guess, in the 1950s. Con is a feisty and assertive girl, who is also often angry and finding herself in conflict or impatient with the others. She comes across as something of a spoiled brat, but she too is hiding a deeper insecurity. Her secret will be revealed much later. Lila and Max are siblings. Max is very young, vulnerable and afraid. Lila is fiercely protective of him, acts as a mother-figure in the absence of their own family, and has the maturity to bring the group together at times of great stress.

Straight away the children’s survival instinct kicks in and they search for food, are vaguely aware of the dangers of certain plants and creatures, build a shelter and work out how to start a fire. Very soon they find a pouch with a rudimentary map, which they hope will take them back to some sort of civilisation. With nothing to lose they decide to build a raft to take them along the river. They are forced into it in any case when their fire, which they had failed to fully extinguish, catches hold and burns the whole area they were staying in. They have to take to the river to escape.

Once on board their raft they encounter many other hazards, but they are also having the adventure of their lives, far away from the dull and staid lives they normally lead. Even though they know they are facing grave dangers at every turn, they also feel that this experience is life-affirming:

“The next day was a Wednesday. Wednesday at school began with double geography: the most exciting thing that happened on Wednesday was biology with old Mr Martin, who was liable to fart at unexpected intervals.  This Wednesday, Fred woke to a rainforest thunderstorm, and rain dripping through the roof of the den into his ear.”

About halfway through the book the children encounter a man in the rainforest, ‘the explorer’, who lives in a ruined ancient city with his pet vulture. He is initially hostile to them, which comes as a shock to the children as they clearly believe that he, as the adult, will help them in their dire need. He falls woefully short, however, and they find that they must continue their survival efforts. He allows them to stay with him in the ruined city, and, as he gets to know them better, trust develops and he transfers some of his knowledge of the rainforest to help them. Over time, he slowly reveals to them why he has chosen to live alone, rejecting the rest of human society and why it is so important to him that the ruined city remains a secret. He too has a tragic back-story that helps to explain his behaviour.

Spoiler alert: Max becomes very ill and it becomes apparent that without medical help he will die. The explorer reveals to them that he has a small plane, but that Fred will have to learn to fly it to get the children out of the rainforest and to their only chance of safety. They make it to Manaus, landing in a field, and Max gets the treatment he needs in time.

This is a really cracking story with a good balance of peril and positivity. It is both an adventure story and a very touching exploration of humanity. It will appeal to those interested in environmental issues as it is a love story to the rainforest and all that is special about it, as well as an exhortation to tread lightly on the earth. Insensitive human exploration and endeavour has a great deal to answer for and has put places like the Amazon rainforest in jeopardy. The explorer voices a desperate plea on behalf of the planet when he appeals to the children to ‘pay attention’:

“’Do you see all this?’ The explorer held his torch high, casting light on the trees and the sleeping birds. ‘You don’t have to be in a jungle to be an explorer,’ he said. ‘Every human on this earth is an explorer. Exploring is nothing more than the paying of attention, writ large. Attention. That’s what the world asks of you. If you pay ferocious attention to the world, you will be as safe as it is possible to be.’”

Another theme running through Rundell’s work is the resilience and resourcefulness of the young and the error that adults make in trying to ‘protect’ them too closely. Children need to learn to take risks and find their own boundaries and discover meaning in their lives. The four children here learn much more than school will ever teach them as a result of their experience and manage perfectly well without adults.

I loved this book and found myself moved and uplifted by it. Highly recommended for 9-12 year olds. It is augmented with some beautiful illustrations, which younger ones will enjoy.

Have you read any of Katherine Rundell’s books?

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Keep your kids reading this summer

Libraries up and down the UK have launched their summer reading challenge for kids this week as schools break up for the holidays. My local library service (Trafford in Greater Manchester) has launched its challenge under the title Mischief Makers – hmm, a thinly disguised attempt to appeal the more reluctant reader, methinks! The little pack they get looks great so get your kids along to the library.

Libraries always work hard to provide great recommendations for kids so they will have a display of the latest and most appealing titles. Some brilliant kids’ books I have read and reviewed this year have been Kick by Mitch Johnson, A Whisper of Horses by Zillah Bethel, Tin by Padraig Kenny and 36 Questions that Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant.

In addition, there are some great new books around that have caught my eye. Age ratings can be tricky as children reach reading abilities and levels of maturity at different stages, so I’ve defined by key stage. Here are my picks.

For KS1-KS2 (age7-10ish)

The Wild Folk by Sylvia V Linsteadt is a quest story with an eco theme about two young people trying to stop the city taking over the country by completing a series of challenges set by a pair of hares. Migration by Mike Unwin and Jenni Desmond – non-fiction is good, pictures are good, this is a beautiful book. The Creakers by Tom Fletcher – bumps in the night, all the adults gone from the town! Lucy is on a mission to discover the truth.

For KS2, going on KS3 (8-12 ish)

Anthony Horowitz, Derek Landy and Tom Gates, all popular and much-loved, each have new books out this summer. For something a little different try Riddle of the Runes by Janina Ramirez, set in the Viking town of Kilsgard. Alva, our young heroine solves mysteries with the help of her pet wolf Fenrir. This is the first book in a new series which I am sure will go down a storm.

For tweens and teens (11-14)

Push the envelope with some poetry – Everything All At Once by Steve Camden is a series of poems about one week in secondary school and all its trials, tribulations and pleasures. Theatrical by Maggie Harcourt follows the fortunes of Hope, who wants to work backstage in the theatre but whose Mum is a famous costume designer, which is a problem. Oh, and she falls in love with a young actor. Perfect summer reading! Suffragette: The Battle for Equality is an illustrated history of the movement with some stunning artwork. Perfect non-fiction for young people interested in political issues.

I hope that has whetted your appetite – it certainly has mine! Get your kids along to the library or local bookshop and there’ll be loads more to choose from.

What are your suggestions for kids reading material this summer?

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What are your favourite films of kids’ books?

I am currently compiling a list of books that every child’s bookshelf should contain (look out for a future post). There are a lot of kids out there who love to read and the only problem their parents have is keeping up with consumption. But for many of us, keeping our kids reading in the face of so many other assaults on their time is like waging a war on multiple fronts and it’s not always easy to keep them interested in books once they get past 11 or 12 years old.

If you recognise this, then a film adaptation can be a good way of sustaining their interest, supplementing the act of reading with some visual stimulation and sharing the engagement with them (some kids just need more social interaction and books generally mean being on your own). So here are my top picks. They may not be the best film adaptations (such a list would be incomplete without The Wizard of Oz, in my view, but the L Frank Baum book on which it is based would not top most people’s reading lists), rather it is a list where I think both the film and the book complement each other and which may help kids with or lead them to the book. The order is in roughly increasing age appropriateness (my opinion).

  1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  by Roald Dahl – I could probably populate a whole list with Roald Dahl adaptations, but the two films that have been made of this book are both superb and very different, which just goes to show how differently books can be interpreted. Personally, I prefer the 1971 version Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder, but the 2005 version with Johnny Depp is also excellent.
  2.  Matilda by Roald Dahl – the 1996 film stars Danny DeVito and his wife Rhea Perlman as Matilda’s appalling parents.
  3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – there have been many film and television adaptations of this and its follow-up Alice Through the Looking Glass.  I love the 2010 version by Tim Burton which stars Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp.
  4. The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis – again, there have been many adaptations of the five books in the series. I love the big 2005 production which stars Tilda Swinton as the White Witch and Liam Neeson as the voice of Aslan.
  5. How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell – the three films (2010-17) may be rather more well-known than the books, but if your kids liked the films try and get them into the books.
  6. The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith – you can’t not love the 1995 film Babe based on this book.
  7. Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine – Robin Williams is on classic form in the 1994 film version Mrs Doubtfire.
  8. The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DeTerlizzi and Holly Black – my son loved the movie and then went on to read all the books.
  9. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – a classic book, and the 1933 film version with Katharine Hepburn is a classic also. There is also a 1994 film with Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst, among other big names.
  10. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman – The Golden Compass (2007) is based on the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy and stars Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Ian McKellen among others.
  11. Coraline by Neil Gaiman – I haven’t read the book, but I love the 2009 movie. Gaiman will appeal to a certain kind of child who likes dark fantasy.
  12. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett – I love the 2004 film starring Jim Carrey.
  13. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – a challenging book and a challenging film, released in 2013, but well worth the effort. Recommended for 11-13 year olds. Younger kids will need you to watch this with them.
  14. The Fault in our Stars by John Green – my daughters, aged, 12 and 14, love John Green. They love the high emotion! The film is pretty good, but a weepie, so tissues at the ready.
  15. Holes by Louis Sachar – a superb book. The film is rather more comic than the book, in my view, but a good one for teenage boys I would suggest.
  16. Watership Down by Richard Adams – another classic weepie the 1978 film was voiced by a big-name cast and who could forget the score and theme song, Bright Eyes by Art Garfunkel. Written in 1972, teenagers will recognise the issue of environmental destruction.

Have you spotted the glaring omission? Yes, the Harry Potter series. Left out simply because it needs no introduction. Most kids, it seems to me, have read or watched all of them, or both.

Are there any that you would add to this list? I would love to hear of your favourites.

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Kids book review: “Hamish and the Baby Boom” by Danny Wallace

Some kids don’t find it easy to read or don’t find books appealing. I find the 9-12 age group can be a real make or break time when it comes to books; parents often stop reading to their children around the age of eight or nine, reading can become a chore, associated with school and homework and the need to reach certain literacy targets, and it’s often when kids get mobile phones, tablets, gaming consoles, all of which compete for time and attention. Not only that, but some kids find it difficult to concentrate for longer periods and so the more substantial books that are often suitable subject matter for this age group may be just too boring for them.

Hamish and the baby boom imgI am a firm believer that all reading material is good, just keep them at it, and adults should not judge if their kids want to read comics and picture books when they might think they ‘should’ be reading something more mature. If this sounds like a child you know, I’ve found a great little series they might find interesting. Hamish and the Baby Boom by Danny Wallace and illustrated by Jamie Littler is the fourth book in a series. Hamish Ellerby is the central character, a 12 year-old boy and leader of the Pause Defence Force in the town of Starkley. Hamish’s father is some sort of secret agent, ever engaged in defending earth against the evil Scarmash. Hamish has inherited some of his father’s abilities and leads his small group of friends in the PDF against strange and hostile happenings in the town of Starkley.

In this book, Hamish and the PDF uncover a secret plot by Scarmash to create an army of superbabies, fuelled by ‘Formula One’, a powerful food that makes them grow at an extraordinary rate, and develop remarkable strength and skills to overpower their parents and carers. That’s about the sum of the plot! So, you see it’s not complex stuff.

It’s silly, it’s gross (the opening scene is set in the nursery of a hospital where all the babies start weeing simultaneously, traumatising the nurse on duty) and it’s action-packed. The characters in the PDF are diverse, so a wide range of readers should be able to identify with them, and they are at once ‘like us’ but also in a pure fantasy world. There are illustrations on nearly every page so although it’s quite a long book (over 300 pages, so acceptably thick-looking in the playground) it’s a quick and easy read with short chapters. There is a website to accompany the series (worldofhamish.com) so plenty of opportunity for extension activity and to get them hooked on other books in the series.

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Reading this book reminded me of both the Captain Underpants books (which my son and I loved) but also of Tin Tin (although the plots there are more complex I think). Both of those are quite masculine, though, whereas I think Hamish has a wider appeal.

Recommended for 9-11 year olds, especially reluctant readers.

Do you find it a challenge to keep your kids reading?

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What’s new in the children’s library

read-2841722_1920I am a passionate supporter of public libraries, it’s where my reading journey started as child and I have never lost my fascination with them. With so much pressure on local council budgets, our libraries are under constant threat of closure. Many have already succumbed. Those that have survived have had to innovate, and this is great to see, becoming information and community hubs, putting on more and more events even becoming tourist information centres as well, but for me, their role as first-line guardians of our reading lives is foremost.

I love going into my local library and just browsing the shelves; I almost never leave without borrowing another book. I have stacks of library books around the house and I confess I sometimes lose track of what’s due back when. Thankfully for me, Trafford libraries recently abolished library fines (well done Trafford!) – whilst I have always paid my dues, I wouldn’t say ‘happily’ but always with a sense of ‘it’s a fair cop’, a few hefty fines, inadvertently accrued, can certainly dull one’s borrowing appetite. And when you are a busy parent, it is inevitable that you are going to miss renewal dates from time to time. Sometimes, I have paid fines which have equalled the price of a book! There are online renewals of course, so there is really no defence, but….the dropping of fines is great news and takes the shame out of library borrowing.

Children’s libraries are great and even if the most up to date titles are not on the shelf when you visit you can usually go online to reserve them when they are returned or from another branch. What’s not to love? A library card costs nothing (my children all got theirs virtually from birth, not least because baby books can be repetitive so the more variety the better) and if you are on a budget, offer a much more economical way of feeding your kids’ reading habits, fines or not. A library visit is also a cheap half day out during school holidays, especially combined with a walk there and back and an ice cream thrown in (though not in the library of course!)

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Here’s some kids books I picked up from my local library last week, all newly published, and picked out from the ‘What’s New’ section of Trafford Libraries website and reserved online:

Hamish and the Baby Boom by Danny Wallace

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

Could not have been easier. I’ll look forward to reading and reviewing these over the coming weeks, so look out for my thoughts and recommendations.

Support your local library by taking your kids along this half term.

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Half-term literary activities for kids

As another half-term holiday approaches, parents up and down the land will be seeking-out activities to do with their children. Hopefully, the weather will be good, which, when mine were younger, meant picnics in the park, walks in woodlands or county cycle rides. As they get a bit older, these are not always as exciting as they once were and it is often the case that parents have to provide at least one ‘centrepiece’ activity, something that is a bit more special. You could do worse than provide a literary slant to such an outing, so here are a few suggestions:

Hill Top, Cumbria

hill TopFormer home of Beatrix Potter, now in the care of the National Trust. A must for lovers of Peter Rabbit, which may now have added resonance after the release of the film earlier this year.

Haydays Festival, Hay-on-Wye

The annual Herefordshire literary festival runs from 24 May to 3 June and there is as always a packed programme for children and adults alike, with forest schools and crafts, as well as the to-be-expected author talks. Tickets can be booked here.

Edinburgh International Children’s Festival

At the other end of the UK, there will be lots of fun and performance in Edinburgh between 26 May-3 June. See the full programme here.

Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books, Newcastle upon Tyne

seven-storiesI was living in Newcastle when this place opened and I’m thrilled to see its thriving. They have a fantastic programme of events. Take a look here.

 

 

 

roald-dahl-museum

 

Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, Great Missenden, Bucks.

I haven’t met a child who doesn’t love Roald Dahl and so a visit here would be a huge treat. It’s the former home of the author, where he lived for 36 years and they have a running programme of events. Full details here.

 

Harry Potter experience, Warner Bros Studios, near Watford

At the pricier end of the spectrum and tickets need to be booked in advance, so it’s likely to be busy at half term, but a treat for die-hard fans of the young wizard. Details here.

Alternatively, you could visit Alnwick Castle, where much of the action was filmed, or Kings Cross station, and stand at platform nine and three quarters!

 

shakespeare's birthplaceStratford upon Avon

For year 9s and upwards, attention will be turning to GCSEs. A Shakespeare text is compulsory on the English literature syllabus, so a visit to Stratford, the Bard’s birthplace and home, will give some context. You could even take in a play. Details of all the relevant places are here.

I hope that whets your appetites.

I would love to hear your suggestions, particularly any events that may be a bit cheaper!

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