Kids book review: “The 1,000 Year Old Boy” by Ross Welford

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature and regularly post about kids’ books I have read. I would encourage all adult readers to dip into children’s literature from time to time. For many of us the love of reading was fostered in childhood, and it can be a lovely experience to rediscover that innocent joy. For some, that might mean going back to old favourites (for me it was Enid Blyton, Lewis Carroll and Puffin Books, and it was wonderful to re-read these with my children when they were younger) but I would also urge you to explore current authors and titles. If you have school-age children or grandchildren it can be a great way of understanding what their priorities are, their hopes and fears, and the challenges they face, which may be rather different to our own.

As you may know, I set up a Facebook Reading Challenge at the start of the year, with a different theme for each month. September was a children’s book and I chose Ross Welford’s The 1,000 Year Old Boy. This was Welford’s third book, published earlier this year. I loved his first novel Time Travelling with a Hamster which I read with a book group I used to run at my youngest daughter’s primary school. The children all loved it too.

The 1000 year old boy imgThis book, like Welford’s others, is set in North Tyneside (where I used to live, so it resonates with me for that reason too), on the coast east of Newcastle. Alfie Monk is over 1,000 years old, having been born at the time of the Danish invasions of Britain. When he was young, his father was custodian of some ‘life pearls’ within which were stored an elixir of eternal life. To access the elixir the life pearls had to be smashed and the liquid consumed. Alfie’s father was involved in a fight with someone who tried to steal the life pearls, and he was killed. Alfie (unfortunately?) smashed two of them accidentally; he and his mother (and their cat!) drank the liquid, meaning they will never age and therefore never die of natural causes. The curse can only be lifted by drinking another dose of liquid, but there is only one life pearl left. This is hidden on a remote island off the Northumberland coast.

Alfie and his mother live a quiet and discreet life in a secluded cottage in the woods. By moving around every few years they have managed to avoid discovery and the authorities. Alfie’s existence is awkward though; if he makes a friend they soon become suspicious of the fact that he does not grow up like them, and it is the betrayal of one former friend in particular which leads to a fire at the cottage which destroys Alfie’s home and kills his mother. Alfie finds himself in the care of the local authority and is unable to reveal anything about himself, fearing the consequences. Fortunately, Alfie makes two good friends, Aiden and Roxy, both of whom live on the estate close to Alfie’s cottage. He reveals his secret to them and they set out to help him.

Roxy is a feisty young girl, and a wonderful character. Shrewd, able, quick-witted and intelligent, she has a resourcefulness which no doubt comes from her being the sole carer for her disabled mother. Aiden is less sure of himself and is a thoughtful young boy, whose family moved onto the estate after running into financial difficulties. His parents argue a lot and his friendship with Roxy and Alfie helps him get away from his problems at home. All three main child characters are strongly developed, well-rounded and believable. The narration switches between Aiden and Alfie and I loved the way the author uses their different speaking styles to convey character.

I love the way Welford writes; he has a real ear for the language that young people use and there are great comic touches in this book which will appeal to kids’ sense of humour. There are some challenging themes here – I read Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time earlier this year, where the main protagonist has a condition which means he ages extremely slowly. Rather than being some miracle to be aspired to, Tom Hazard, like Alfie Monk in Welford’s book, finds it lonely and isolating because it prohibits normal human relationships. Alfie says throughout that he just wants to be a normal boy, to go to school. At one point he talks heartbreakingly about the “Prison of my deathless life.

This novel has everything you want from a children’s book – pace, plot, great characters who grow and learn from their experiences, and suspense. It has a happy ending. Although I believe that children should not be completely shielded from some of the tragic realities of life (Alfie’s mother is killed and for a time he believes his cat was also), I also think it’s important for the 9-12 age group that there is positive resolution and that good things can come out of bad. That way, I believe, we can help build children’s resilience, a role that books have always had in my life for sure.

Highly recommended for 9-12 year olds.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts. 

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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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Kids book review: “A Whisper of Horses” by Zillah Bethel

If you have children aged 10-12 years, I can heartily recommend this book. It’s marvellous; dark in parts (but don’t kids love that?!), but ultimately full of hope and showing that you can achieve the near-impossible if you dare to believe.

a whisper of horses imgThe novel is set in Lahn Dan, you’ll recognise the pun, but the place described in the book will be unfamiliar; it is practically a separate city-state within England, encircled by the ‘Emm Twenty-Five Wall’ that none of the inhabitants dare cross (told that there is only a deserted wilderness on the other side anyway). This is a time after ‘the Gases’ (a reference to climate change), the ‘Tems’  has deteriorated to a muddy flat and only the rich are able to live in the ‘crystal towers’  that afford them some natural light and allow them to live above the pollution layer. In a nod to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World there is a strict hierarchy in the society: at the bottom are the Pbs, who do most of the work, then slightly higher up are the Cus, the professional classes, but true power lies only with the Aus. Give the child a prize who spots that these are chemical symbols and what this says about the social order! Lahn Dan is run by ‘the Minister’ a distant and slightly mythical figure, not unlike Big Brother, whose orders are carried out by Mordecai and his Secret Police. It all has echoes of 1984.

The main character is Serendipity Goudge a 12 year-old girl who lives alone with her mother. They are Pbs and do agricultural work. They live in a ‘pod’ and have very few possessions, though Serendipity cherishes a small wooden horse her mother once gave her; she is fascinated by the creatures but they are said to be extinct and nobody has ever seen one in the flesh. Serendipity’s mother dies, leaving her nothing of any value except a locket. Hidden inside the locket is a small map indicating a route out of Lahn Dan, through the Emm Twenty-Five Wall to ‘Whales’ via the ‘HH Bridge’  to a place where there might be horses. Strictly speaking, Serendipity, as an orphan, should be taken into care, but Professor Nimbus, her ‘storyteller’ (the children get a very limited education), takes her under his wing as his apprentice. It quickly becomes apparent that this situation is not sustainable and that Serendipity’s life is in danger. She decides that she will try to escape Lahn Dan, initially with the help of the Professor, who confesses that he, along with a small group of others, is a secret agitator for change.

By chance, they meet up with Tab, and his funny little dog Mouse. Tab is part of a band of Smugglers with a camp on the other side of the Wall. Tab is like something out of Oliver Twist, a street-wise orphan who helps Serendipity escape the city. They reach his community’s encampment, but it becomes clear that Tab may also be in danger and so he decides to accompany Serendipity on her search for horses in Whales.

The rest of the book is about their quest to fulfil a dream, but, though they don’t realise it at the time, they are also looking for a better life, outside the corrupt, polluted, decrepit city of Lahn Dan. En route they come across things they have never seen before – green fields, rain, a train, fresh food. It is a story about love and friendship – initially, Serendipity and Tab do not trust each other, but they soon come to realise that their fates are entwined and that they are better as a team. The people they meet along the way  help and encourage them on their journey. The novel also has great suspense; once the authorities realise that there has been an escape, they pursue Serendipity, and nearly catch her several times.

Spoiler alert!

Serendipity reaches her goal in the most magical and unexpected way, not immediately, but many years after she has settled happily in Whales, in a brief and beautiful moment that made me cry! 

This is a fabulous book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading – kids and adults alike will enjoy spotting all the references, the links to current concerns in its themes (the importance of community, climate change, the social and economic separation of London from other regions of the country). The pace is perfect for the 9-12 age group, the characters are well-rounded, credible and fun, and I loved all the nods to other books – this would be a great introduction to titles they might come across later in life.

Highly recommended.

[My copy of this book was very kindly sent to me by the author after I posted a review of her other novel The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare which I also enjoyed and recommend.]

What sort of books do your kids like reading?

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