Kids book review – “Splinters of Scarlet” by Emily Bain Murphy

I chose this novel for my Facebook Reading Challenge in April, the theme of which was a children’s book. I was delighted to have this as a theme; regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature and regularly post reviews of books for young readers. It has unfortunately been some time since I read a children’s book, however, so I was keen to get started on this one. Splinters of Scarlet is Emily Bain Murphy’s second novel. Her first, The Disappearances, was a huge success, both critically and commercially, and so her follow-up was hugely anticipated. I read The Disappearances as part of this very reading challenge in January 2018 and absolutely loved it. My elder daughter who I insisted read the book, rates it as one of her favourite novels of all time and has re-read it several times. Every music fan will be familiar with the concept of the ‘difficult second album’, and the same may be said of books, except that books are produced and marketed somewhat differently, and first-time authors rarely achieve huge first-time success in the same way that certain pop performers do. I fear, however, that Emily Bain Murphy has not quite pulled off the ‘difficult second novel’. Don’t get me wrong, it is good, but my expectations were perhaps a bit too high.

The novel is set in Copenhagen in 1866-67, initially in an orphanage and then in the home of a wealthy mining widow Helene Verstergaard. The central character is Marit Olsen, an orphan seamstress. Her closest friend is Eve, a younger fellow orphan with a precocious talent for ballet, who is about to be adopted by the famed former ballerina Mrs Vertergaard. Marit adores Eve, loves her friend like a sister, even as a mother might, and has mixed feelings about the likely adoption. She is happy that her friend is happy, but it will be a poignant outcome for her since her father was killed in a Vestergaard mine and she remains bitter at the callous way she and her sister were treated; Helene Vestergaard’s late husband was the owner of the family mining dynasty and Marit blames him for her father’s death. When her father died, Marit’s older sister suddenly became responsible for the two of them, and Marit believes this burden, in turn, killed her.

What we also learn in the opening chapters is that certain people in the country have magical powers. Marit does for example and uses these in her job as a seamstress, and especially in the costumes she makes for Eve. Marit’s sister did too and ‘over-used’ her magic in trying to provide for the family. The over-use of magic is dangerous for its owner as it can lead to that person’s death if they are overtaken by ‘the firn’.

Eve is adopted and Helene Vestergaard decides that in addition to a daughter she would like a talented seamstress and so decides to take Marit from the orphanage too. Despite her mixed feelings Marit agrees so that she can be with Eve. Her lifestyle will be very different to her friend’s, however, for she will be a servant and live among the staff.

Marit becomes close to a number of the servants, most of whom it seems possess magical powers – Marit realises this is no accident; Helene has chosen her household carefully. A foreboding presence in the Vestergaard household is Helene’s brother-in-law Philip. Marit quickly begins to suspect something sinister is going on in the Vestergaard mines and that Philip is linked to it. She also begins to suspect a link with her father’s death and her quest for the truth drives risk-taking investigations.  

Marit shares her suspicions with the servants she has become close to and they agree to help her. Thus they set about various surveillance operations to try and find out what is going on in the mines and what exactly Philip Vestergaard has to do with it. The remainder of the book concerns Marit’s activities, for which she uses her magical powers extensively, as well as her increasing concerns about ‘the firn’ and whether she will fall victim to it. Philip Vestergaard senses Marit’s interest and begins to see that she and some of the others are a threat. He sets about silencing them, even killing one of the servants. The scene is set for the denouement – a showdown between the two opposing forces in the novel – truth and lies.

This novel has quite a complex plot and wide cast of characters, some of whom I found it hard to distinguish. The Disappearances also has a complex plot and a wide cast of characters and yet the author, in my view, handles it more deftly in that book and with greater imagination and coherence. For me, this novel is sometimes confused, and there are some non-credible twists which seem to be made to serve the plot. It is perhaps unfair to compare this novel to the earlier book, which was so good. If Splinters of Scarlet had been the first novel I would possibly be looking upon it more favourably. As it is, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much. I suspect this book would suit a younger reader, perhaps 11-13 year olds, whereas The Disappearances is more suitable for 12-14 year olds. However, I think it is less good than other books in this age group.

Competent and her fans will love it, but for me it was not as engaging or brilliant as this author’s first novel.

#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!

#KeepKidsReading – Building your children’s library #3 – 6-8 year olds

It’s over a year since I started this series of posts and it seems a particularly good week to be picking them up again. It is half term in my area, as I think it is across most of the country, and with so many entertainment options closed, play dates banned, travel plans abandoned and family visits off the agenda, parents may be at their wit’s end wondering how to entertain their children. Oh, and the weather is not that great either! Books come into their own at a time like this, especially when accompanied by hot chocolate after a walk kicking the leaves or collecting conkers. My kids still love this kind of stuff even though they are teenagers. So, if you are thinking about adding to your children’s library or looking for some classics to get them into this half term holiday, here is my list of suggestions for 6-8 year olds. I have posted previously about books for younger ones.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I am passionate about children’s books and my approach to children’s reading is rather like my approach to parenting – as a parent you are not raising kids, you are raising the world’s future adults (decision-makers, carers, teachers, leaders) – no pressure there then! – and building a good reading habit is not just about entertaining or educating them, it’s about fostering a habit that will serve them their whole lives. The mental health benefits of reading are well-known (and I have written about them on here many times) – it’s relaxing, it reduces stress, helps sleep, etc, etc. There is nothing not to like about reading. And it might just be the cheapest activity your children engage in! Libraries may not be too accessible at the moment, but secondhand bookshops are and, like most retailers on the high street, are crying out for your business.

My last post on this topic looked at books for 4-7 year olds and I emphasised the fact that at that age, there may well be some precocious readers who can cope with chapter books (particularly at the older end of the spectrum), but they still benefit hugely from pictures. By the time we get to the 6-8 year olds they are generally moving out of the ‘infant’ and into the ‘junior’ stages at school (or years two to three in more modern parlance!). They are also taking tests at the end of year two, and moving from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2, so there is a bit of a step change.

Between the ages of six and eight, your child will probably be moving onto wordier books, perhaps with some chapters and definitely still with pictures. You will also notice the books getting slightly smaller and feeling a little cheaper (and hopefully they are a little cheaper!). They are more likely to be books your children read once, rather than repeatedly. They will read much more independently BUT, and this is a big one, they will STILL, yes STILL benefit from being read to – being read to, is not just about the text, the vocabulary and the ability to read, it’s about so much more: one to one time with a loved one, physical closeness and shared interest.

Many books for this age group, as I say, are likely to be read once or a couple of times, but still there are some classics for this age group, which will be ‘keepers’. Please also note that many of these books have some wonderful film and TV adaptations that can supplement the reading. Here are my suggestions:

1. The Secret Seven (1949) by Enid Blyton – the first in a fifteen book series. I know there are plenty of Blyton detractors, but I guarantee this is one that the grandparents will love reading with them!

2. Horrid Henry (1994) by Francesca Simon – the first in a twenty-five book series. NB: the film adaptation of this is possibly one of the worst films I have ever seen, so avoid!

3. The Sheep-Pig (1983) by Dick King-Smith – the book upon which the film Babe was based

4. The BFG (1982) by Roald Dahl

5. Charlotte’s Web (1952) by EB White

6. Pippi Longstocking (1945) by Astrid Lindgren – several books in the series

7. The Worst Witch (1974) by Jill Murphy – first in a series of eight books

8. The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame – surely no children’s library is complete without this book?

9. The Family from One End Street (1937) by Eve Garnett – one of the earliest examples of social realism in children’s literature

10. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) by Judith Kerr

All of the above provide a starting point, of course, and even as I finish typing there are authors and titles popping into my mind that are not listed. But you have to start somewhere!

What would you add to my list of classic books for 6-8 year olds?

Books for kids this Christmas

It’s the second week of December so it must be time for some suggestions for books to buy for the children in your life. I’m almost there with my Christmas shopping, so I’m now on the look-out for the stocking fillers. Books are great for this. My kids are all teenagers so their main gift requests these days are either small or folding (!) so a few books can help to make things look a bit bulkier.

Books for 5-10 year olds

Xmas 19 kids 1The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy £16.99

The much deserved Waterstones’ book of the year and surely the most beautiful book you will come across this Christmas. A wonderful read to enjoy with children of any age. Stunning illustrations. Just gorgeous.

 

 

 

xmas 19 kids 2Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Illustrated edition) by JK Rowling and Jim Kay £32.00

For kids who want to be part of the HP phenomenon, but for whom the books may be a little daunting in their length. This is the fourth book in the series to be illustrated.

 

 

Usborne Politics for Beginners and Usborne Money for Beginners £9.99

If your household is anything like mine, there will have been a lot of focus on politics in the last few years. This can be worrying for younger children when they don’t fully understand what’s going on but pick up on parents’ concerns. This Usborne Politics book will help to demystify some of the issues and the jargon. The sister volume on Money and the financial world introduces foundation concepts which will be important to all children as they grow up. Not for everyone, but there is no doubt these are important topics and some would argue that the earlier we can get kids thinking about them in an unemotional way, the better it is for them long term.

 

Books for 9-13 year olds

xmas 19 kids 5Diary of a Dyslexic School Kid by Alais Winton and Zac Millard £9.99

At last dyslexia is being taken more seriously and I think this is a great book for kids just about to or just starting secondary school. Not just for kids with dyslexia, perhaps your child has a friend with the condition and wants to know what life is like for them. Accessible and fun.

 

Little Leaders: Exceptional Men in Black History & Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison £7.99

Two marvellous books which I hope will redress the balance in some of the coverage of important people in our culture and history and give children of all races some fantastic role models.

The Dog Who Saved the World by Ross Welford, The Lost Tide Warriors by Catherine Doyle, both £6.99

Two wonderful works of fiction here. Ross Welford is a favourite of mine and always delivers a cracking good story – Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy are two favourite children’s books of mine. I loved Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island and this is the second novel in the series.

 

Books for 12+ years

xmas 19 kids 10The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pulman £20.00

Needs absolutely no introduction. The stunning BBC television adaptation of the His Dark Materials trilogy will help to ensure this book is the best-seller it deserves to be. This hardback edition would make a wonderful gift. I would love to curl up with this at Christmas!

 

xmas 19 kids 11No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton £6.99

An important story about the reality of life for child refugees who want the same things as children in any other part of the world. A book with a wonderful story that needs to be told and which will help foster understanding about other people’s lives.

 

xmas 19 kids 12My Hidden Chimp by Steve Peters £12.99

The author of the bestselling The Chimp Paradox, a guide to managing your mind, has written a version for young people. The aim is to help children and teenagers develop good mental health habits, deal with people to get the best win-win outcomes and help them manage both their emotions and their behaviour. Worth a try!

 

xmas 19 kids 13Earth Heroes: Twenty Inspiring Stories of People Saving Our World by Lily Dyu £9.99

Climate change is the number one issue at the top of young people’s agendas today so this book will speak to this age group and provide stories about the role models who engage them, such as Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough, as well as some of the less famous figures, such as inventors in developing countries changing the lives of people in their communities.

 

I hope my suggestions inspire you. I would love to hear about your great finds too. 

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Book Review – “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne

This was November’s book on my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a children’s novel. It has very mature themes and requires a grasp of irony as well as some knowledge of history to fully appreciate, but it renders a difficult and complex subject accessible to a young audience in the same way as The Book Thief, so although it is not recommended for young children, it is entirely appropriate for the early secondary school age group.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgI remember when this book was published in 2006. It was widely acclaimed, but also controversial; there were some questions marks over its historical accuracy (one senior rabbi argued that nine year-old boys were not kept in concentration camps, all were gassed because they could not work and were therefore of no use, though this argument also been disputed) and others have questioned whether such a relationship, between a young inmate and the son of the camp commandant, could have gone on for so long undetected, particularly when Bruno slips under the fence. Whatever its problems, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and was made into a successful film within two years of publication.

 

The central character is Bruno, the nine year-old son of a senior Nazi. He lives happily with his parents, twelve year-old sister, and their maid Maria in a large house in Berlin. Until, that is, “the Fury” comes to visit and shortly afterwards the family is forced to move to a much less nice and isolated house in “Out With”, where Bruno’s father has an important new job. One of the charms of the book is Bruno’s habitual mis-naming and his innocent perspective on events, even though it is clear to the reader what the true facts are. An example of this is Bruno’s observations about changes in his mother’s behaviour, suggesting first her flirtation and possible affair with a young lieutenant, then her depression, and tensions in his parents’ marriage brought about by the family posting.

Bruno’s bedroom window faces the camp, though he has no idea what it is. Arguably, given his curious nature, it is perhaps a little surprising that he is not more questioning about the camp, the fences and the people he sees inside, all of whom wear the same uniform (the striped pyjamas). It must be remembered, however, that Bruno has almost no-one to talk to; his relationship with his parents is remote, he has no friends, he and his sister share a mutual contempt (he calls her the “Hopeless Case”) and the other adults around are involved in a conspiracy of silence that keeps him completely in the dark. The sense of fear, unwillingness to speak up or out, anxiety about the world, and intimidation are palpable.

Lonely and bored, Bruno eventually decides to go exploring and at the boundary of the camp one day he meets another boy of his own age, Shmuel, who is interred at the camp. Bruno is thrilled to at last have someone his own age to talk to and the two boys strike up a friendship. As readers, we are meant to see this friendship as in some ways unlikely, and in others completely obvious – why would two young boys be bothered about such differences as clothing, housing, status? They are just children. The author also comments on the transience of friendship at this age (in Berlin Bruno has three “friends for life”, whom he misses terribly, but after a few months he cannot even remember their names) and I think this helps address some of the credibility difficulties of the plot; friendship between young boys is mainly superficial. Bruno wonders about some aspects of Shmuel’s lifestyle, but Shmuel explains very little, which perhaps would not be surprising if the child was deeply traumatised.

No spoilers here, but there is a brilliant denouement to the story. Although it is a book that has been much discussed, and I have almost watched the film a couple of times, I had managed to avoid knowing the ending as I was determined to read it one day. I am so glad because there is a brilliant inevitability to it – there is a point where you just know what is going to happen and the author places you in this incredible state of suspense and dread, despite Bruno’s innocence. I have said enough!

It’s a short book, and the writing carries you along at a pace that feels like the mind of a child – no real sense of time. I think it’s also a book where you have to suspend the sorts of (adult) questions that would make the events improbable, in favour of the bigger picture, which is a fundamental questioning of the forces that create fascism, terror and discrimination; if only we could see all these things through the eyes of a child they could not exist.

A powerful and engaging novel which pulls off the trick of being both important and highly readable. Recommended for grown-ups and kids of 12+ alike.

How did you feel reading this book?

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#KeepKidsReading week – Building your children’s library #2

It was back in the summer that I published my first post in what was intended as an occasional series on building a library of books for your children. Last time I focussed on the 2-5 age group, mainly picture books and mainly classics. This time I am moving on a little to the 4-7 age group, ie Key Stage 1. This is the age when children are just learning to read, but they still value and need to be read to – the phonics and early reading books are much better than they used to be (I loved reading the Oxford Reading Tree Biff, Chip and Kipper books that my kids brought home from school), but they are designed to expose your children to vocabulary, word order and sentence construction – they are tools designed specifically to aid learning; good children’s literature, on the other hand, fosters joy, builds a bond between child and reader and should inspire.

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Image by saralcassidy from Pixabay

There are some good chapter books now for six and seven year olds: precocious readers who benefit from the challenge of something more complex, but still need age-appropriate themes and subject-matter. I would argue, however, that at this age pictures are still vitally important. Pictures help to build vocabulary organically, they give the child something to look at and focus on whilst listening, as they may not be able to read all of the words themselves, and they help the child develop their imaginative skills as they look at the visions created for them by authors and illustrators. For this age group, the quality of the illustration is just as important as the text; can you imagine AA without EH, or Julia without Axel?

So, for those of you looking to build a library for the child or children in your lives, here are my top ten suggestions. The list is (absolutely!) not exhaustive of course, but these ten will provide the foundation for something wonderful. Nearly all of the books below are just one in a series or the same authors have written similar titles that you can add to the collection.

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  1. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (plus the other 22 books in her classic collection!)
  2. The Mr Men and Little Miss series by Roger Hargreaves
  3. Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne
  4. The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss
  5. The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
  6. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
  7. Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  8. Look Inside – Things That Go by Rob Lloyd Jones and Stefano Tognetti
  9. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  10. The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

I would love to hear your suggestions of books for this age group, particularly any that you have enjoyed sharing with the little people in your life.

I would love to hear your suggestions of indispensable titles for 4-7 year olds.

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “The Umbrella Mouse” by Anna Fargher

I’m finally getting back into my blogging groove after a fairly difficult few months and feel it’s time to revive my occasional #Keep Kids Reading series. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s books and about making sure our young people don’t neglect reading in favour of seemingly more “exciting” (but ultimately less satisfying) pursuits – you know what I’m talking about don’t you?! Every writer and keen reader I know remembers childhood reading with joy – the torch under the bedclothes, a favourite book read over and over, sitting on a parent or grandparent’s lap enjoying time shared. There is a relatively short window in which to foster a love of reading, a love which brings lifelong benefits, and I fear that many youngsters today are missing out on something precious. #KeepKidsReading is all about trying to keep books high up on our childrens’ agendas. Plus I love an excuse to sit down with something from the amazing world of contemporary literature for kids!

The Umbrella Mouse imgI’ve just finished a lovely little book The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher. When I was browsing in my local bookshop a few months ago, one of the assistants recommended it to me and said it had had her in tears. I knew then it was a ‘must-read’! I got my copy secondhand online and it’s signed!

The story is set in 1944 in World War Two and the author says she wrote it because she felt there were not enough books about this period aimed at children. The story is set amongst an animal community that is affected by the war and plays its part in defeating the Nazis. Pip Hanway is a mouse who lives with her parents in an umbrella shop in London. Their nest is inside the prized antique umbrella that sits in the window of the shop. When the shop is destroyed by bombing Pip finds herself alone, her parents and the shop owners seemingly having been killed. All that is left of the life she has known is the umbrella. She decides that her only hope is to go to Gignese in Italy, to the umbrella museum there that her parents have told her about and where she knows she still has family.

She is befriended by a rescue dog, Dickin, who takes her to St Giles, an underground hub for all the London animals, domestic and wild, made homeless by the war, and thence to the Secret Underground Animal Army, an intelligence outfit helping Churchill by mobilising animals across Europe. Dickin believes they will help Pip get to Italy with her umbrella. They agree that she can participate in a mission to get a secret message to the (animal) Resistance in France, and from there will be directed to Italy.

After a perilous journey through a storm, down the Thames and across the Channel, Pip arrives in France with her companions, Hans, a German rat fighting on the Allied side, and GI Joe, a messenger pigeon. She is welcomed by the Resistance animals there and takes part in a further dangerous mission to sabotage a German camp, at which Pip displays bravery she did not know she was capable of. Her commitment to the cause helps her to deal with the grief at the loss of her family and her old life, as she finds new friends, and exposes a traitor in the midst of the Resistance force.

The book did not have me in tears, which is perhaps a good thing! It was a nice little tale that had plenty of action, good characters, a nice solid story and gently introduced ideas about the war, the brutality of the Nazis, the bravery of those who fought against them and the impact the war had on civilians. The standard of writing makes it quite mature but the story and characters (talking animals) suggests a younger age group, so I would recommend it for 8-11 year olds, with the caveat that younger kids will need to be quite accomplished readers, while it would not suit those at the upper end of the age range who have moved on to more mature texts. So, for example, anyone who is on to the Diary of Anne Frank (which I think all my kids did at school in year 6) may find this book a little childish. I hope that helps. This is apparently the first in a planned series about the adventures of Pip the umbrella mouse, so look out for more.

A nice one for me – read on a day when I was ill in bed, and needed something not too taxing!

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “What not to do if you turn invisible” by Ross Welford

This is my third Ross Welford novel. I loved the two others that I have read – Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy – and have recommended them widely. What not to do if you turn invisible explores some similar themes to the other books – a child who has lost a parent and who feels slightly set apart from their peers, childhood fears and worries, dealing with bullies, and choosing to be brave. It is also set in the same north east England neighbourhoods of Whitley Bay and Tynemouth (an area I know well as I lived there for a few years) and the made-up town on Culvercot (sounds rather like real-life Cullercoats to me!).

What not to do if you turn invisible imgThe main character in the book is a girl this time – 12 year-old Ethel Leatherhead; yes, it is an unusually old-fashioned name, but that is significant. Ethel lives with her ‘Gram’, a very conservative, very proper lady who has strong views about things that are ‘common’ or undesirable. We learn that Ethel’s mother died when she was young, and that she is not aware of her father. Ethel also has a great-grandmother, who turns 100 in the course of the novel. Great-gram lives in a nursing home and speaks very little until one day, after Ethel visits her, she grabs her by the arm and says to Ethel, rather mysteriously, “Tiger. Pussycat.”

Something else we learn about Ethel from the outset is that she suffers from severe acne. That fact is key to the story as it is her search for a cure that leads her to try a mysterious Chinese medicine she buys from the internet and an old sunbed. It is the combination of these two potent remedies that causes her to experience bouts of temporary invisibility. Once she discovers this, and comes to terms with it, she and her friend Elliot Boyd (another school outsider, who is teased because he is from the South and because he is overweight) seek to use the invisibility, firstly, to help Elliot in the school talent competition and, secondly, as a means of exposing the bad behaviour of school bullies Jarrow and Jesmond Knight, boy and girl twins who have been kidnapping local dogs and demanding ransoms for their return.

The scene is set for a number of interwoven plot threads – how will Ethel cope with her invisibility and will it have any long term physical effects? Will Ethel and Elliot succeed in getting the incriminating video evidence back from the Knight twins, who become aware of Ethel’s ‘power’? What did Great-gram mean when she said “Tiger. Pussycat.” to Ethel? And who is Great-gram’s mysterious visitor? Finally, what has the late pop-singer Felina, who apparently died from the pressures of fame, the paparazzi and alcohol problems, to do with Ethel?

There is a great deal going on in this novel, and some of it does not seem relevant at the beginning, but things start to come together towards the end, so it rewards patience. There are some brilliantly tense moments of adventure and peril, for example, when invisible Ethel breaks into the home of the Knight twins while they and their father are there, in order to wipe their computer hard drives and mobile phones (to destroy the video), but I found this book a much slower burn than the other two I have read. For that reason, I would recommend it more for the older end of the target age group (11-12 years) rather than say 9-10 year-olds. Also, the themes are quite mature – the problems of growing up, the loss of a parent (there is no miraculous ‘happy ending’ like in Hamster, but there is acceptance and reconciliation, and discovery of her Dad), the nature of true friendship and possible romance.

This is quite a long book, but a relatively quick read, thanks to the shortish chapters. A nice one for travelling with, I would say.

Recommended for 11-12 year olds.

I love having an excuse to read kids’ books – what about you?

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Keep Kids Reading Week – new books for children

Last week I posted a blog with suggestions for new books out this Spring that have caught my eye. This week, since it’s my Keep Kids Reading week for March, I’m doing the same for the children in your life. I’ve been scouring the publishing magazines, websites and newspapers for the new books that are around. The Easter holidays are coming up and with the best will in the world, and I speak from experience, budgetary and time constraints do not allow parents to fill every waking minute of their kids’ days. You probably wouldn’t want to either, frankly! Letting them have some down time away from their devices, getting lost in the pages of a book is an option. Better still, have some family reading time, model the behaviour you would like from your kids and get some reading down time yourself.

I tend to focus my suggestions on the 9-15 age group as I think this is the trickiest. Under 9s are usually a bit easier to please and you can guide their book access easily by reading with them. You also generally have a bit more control over screen time with this age group! Ages 10-13, I think, present the most challenging period in terms of keeping them reading, so here are my suggestions.

Scavengers by Darren Simpson

Spring 19 kids 2This sounds slightly like an up-to-date Stig of the Dump to me. Central character Landfill lives the life of a wild creature. He has contact only with animals and one other human, Babagoo, who says he has brought him up from a seed. Babagoo wants to protect Landfill from ‘Outside’ and from the unpredictable other humans about whom he paints a fearful picture. Landfill goes along with this until one day he spies a she-wolf giving birth to her cubs. He realises that animals do not come from seeds and wonders what else Babagoo may have lied to him about.

 

 

Spring 19 kids 1Kid Normal and the Shadow Machine by Greg James and Chris Smith

I have mixed feelings about recommending books by celebrities, fearing that more talented authors are being pushed out. I also accept, however, that a famous name may get a child reading a book they might not otherwise have done. At least in this, the third book in the Kid Normal series, the co-author gets equal billing on the front cover. With fun illustrations this might be a good choice for the more reluctant young reader.

 

Spring 19 kids 3Work It Girl: Boss the bestseller list like J K Rowling by Caroline Moss and Sinem Erkas

A non-fiction option with some fantastic female role models for young girls. Lots of inspirational quotes and tips from high achieving women to motivate and encourage young girls to aspire to success. Easy to dip in and out of, again, another one for those who might find a full-length novel is not quite their cup of tea.

 

 

When young people start secondary school they can go off reading. There are so many distractions, homework, friendship issues, devices and hormones going on in their lives that reading, when it’s not as structured as in primary school, often drops off their radars. Keep the faith, they often come back, but you might have to keep putting books under their noses in the meantime. Here are some that have caught my eye for the 12-15 age group.

Spring 19 kids 6Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean

There is a growing selection of graphic novels available for this age group, in recognition of the fact that many young people just find pages and pages of text daunting and unappealing. Some also find it difficult to maintain concentration. And, let’s face it, their world is very visual. If that sounds like a young person you know, try them on this. It’s David Almond, so we know it’s quality writing and from what I have seen, the illustrations are vivid and stunning.

Spring 19 kids 5The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James

Described as a dystopian love story this one will suit younger teens who are looking for something more mature but are not quite ready for the YA genre yet, which can sometimes be a little too grown-up. A terrible virus has caused global infertility (climate change themes, Handmaid’s Tale-ish). Lowrie and Shen are the youngest people on the planet. They live in a small ageing community in London, living a largely feral life, until they discover a secret which will force them into making a choice between saving or potentially destroying what remains of the human race.

Spring 19 kids 4How Not to Lose It: Mental Health Sorted by Anna Williamson and Sophie Beer

Any bit of support that our young people can get to help them with the challenges of growing up in the 21st century should be grabbed with both hands. Teaching our children to look after their mental as well as their physical health is vital if we are to head off the epidemic of anxiety, stress and depression that seems to be afflicting the younger population, sometimes with devastating consequences. I like the look of this book and it seems to hit just the right note for the 11-14 age group.

 

I hope there is something here which appeals. Let me know how you get on.

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