Summer holidays

We arrived in France yesterday for our family summer holiday. We had a week in Ireland last week visiting family, travelling between Dublin and West Cork. It was wonderfully full-on so there was precious little reading time. However, now that it’s just the five of us I’m looking forward to a slower pace. My children are all well into the teen zone now so my husband and I find ourselves twiddling our thumbs in the mornings, waiting for them to get up. Perfect reading time!

We are staying in Cancale, a smallish coastal town in Northern Brittany, arriving here on the overnight ferry from Cork to Roscoff, which was very pleasant indeed – good, reasonably-priced food, decent cabins and plenty to do.

I’ve been unusually restrained with my holiday library this year, just the three books: Harvesting by Lisa Harding, a harrowing account of child prostitution, child trafficking, abuse and neglect, Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie, the August choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, one of my book club’s summer reading titles.

I’ve almost finished Harvesting in the first couple of days! It’s not for the faint-hearted, but is gripping. I’m told it has been thoroughly researched and is not an outlandish account. If this is the case, I have truly led a sheltered life. It’s tough stuff.

If I manage all three books there is always the Kindle back-up! I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

What are your holiday reading choices?

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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Kids book review: “Tin” by Padraig Kenny

Tin is a debut children’s novel from Irish writer Padraig Kenny which is receiving a lot of publicity and has had some really good reviews. It’s set in pre-War Britain, and concerns the production of highly sophisticated robots (‘mechanicals’). Parts of the book take place in central London and the English home counties, other parts in the dreadful dystopian setting of Ironhaven, an ugly metallic landscape populated by  junk, by discarded and disfigured ‘mechanicals’ and by fearsome robots designed to terrorise. As such it is somewhat timeless and placeless. Reading it, I was struck by similarities to 1984, to Frankenstein (which strangely enough, I reviewed recently), to Oliver Twist, to dystopian fantasy as well as the Wizard of Oz! Most readers will be in the 9-12 age group, though, so may have little knowledge of these references.

Tin imgThe story begins near Aylesbury where the spivvy disgraced engineer Dr Absolom is trying to sell ‘mechanicals’. These are child robots which were initially created to perform tasks that society no longer wanted humans to do. We learn some vague details about how the experiment got out of hand when some rogue scientists tried to instil their creations with a soul. This was considered a step too far and laws were put in place to limit the capabilities of these creations, and, in particular, to forbid the building of adult-sized mechanicals. The environment we are observing, however, appears somewhat lawless, and it is clear that Absolom is operating on the margins and that there is a black market in mechanicals.

The main characters at this stage are the ‘child’ mechanicals Jack, Round Rob and Gripper, the slightly uncategorised Estelle (who works for Absolom as a specialist in making skin) and Christopher who believes himself a human orphan. Late one evening Christopher is involved in an accident which breaks his skin and reveals wires – he is not a human child, but a particularly sophisticated mechanical. He is later kidnapped by some rather shady officers from ‘The Agency’. They are merely masquerading as the authorities, however, and are in fact operating on behalf of Richard Blake, son of one of the rogue scientists, the egotistical bully Charles Blake, who was involved in illegal activity in the experiments he conducted. He is keen to get hold of Christopher who, it turns out, is the only remaining example of ‘Refined Propulsion’ – a mechanical with a soul – and to take over the world with his own giant robotic creations.

Meanwhile, Absolom’s small band of misfit mechanicals decide they must go in search of Christopher and rescue him. They seek out Richard Cormier, another one of the famous rogue scientists, for help. When they find him, however, he is hostile and uncooperative. He is an angry and disillusioned man who wants no part in society. We later learn that he lost his son in the Great War and then later his only grandson; it was in fact he who created Christopher out of grief, as a replacement for the lost child. He instilled him with memories that his grandson would have had.

The story takes the form of a quest – a group going in search of their lost friend – and the setbacks they face along the way. At the heart of it is their love for their friend, and this challenges the notion that the mechanicals do not have a ‘soul’ or feelings, because, clearly, it is their anger at his kidnap and their desire to rescue him that motivates their search. There is action and adventure, some mild peril (the sinister scientists reminded me of Dr Strangelove!) but nothing that should trouble the average ten year-old too much. Younger readers might need some guidance. The plot is quite complicated in parts and I did not always follow it easily, and some of the language of mechanics could be off-putting to some readers. It is ultimately a heart-warming story with a happy ending – good triumphs and evil is defeated.

It’s a wonderful achievement for a debut novel and I commend the author. I also like that it is not obviously a ‘boy’s book’ or a ‘girl’s book’, it will appeal to both genders and has strong male and female characters (as well as non-gender-specific mechanical characters). My only criticism would be that there are no adult females to counter the rather domineering male scientists!

Recommended for 9-12 year olds, a good and engaging read. There are some interesting references for the adults to enjoy too: Blake at times reminds us of a certain American President (he wants to “Make this nation great again”), and it raises issues around AI and the nature of warfare.

Do you find it more enjoyable to have references or jokes that are especially for the grown-ups when you read books with your kids?

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Kids book review: “The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare” by Zillah Bethel

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare imgThis book is set in a familiar country (England) but in a future time where life has changed and the world is very different: bus journeys cost hundreds of pounds, many routine tasks and jobs are carried out (not very well) by robots and everyone carries a QWERTY, which it seems is some next generation pocket computer. Auden Dare is an eleven year-old school boy who lives with his mother in Forest Gate in east London. When we first meet him we learn that his father is away fighting in the war in Europe. Climate change has taken hold and water is scarce. Indeed, water, or the lack of it, seems to be the root cause of the conflict in which Auden’s father is involved. Auden has a condition called achromatopsia, which means he is unable to see colours, only shades of grey.

Auden and his mother move to Cambridge when Auden’s uncle, Dr Jonah Bloom, his mother’s brother and a brilliant scientist, dies and leaves them his cottage. She sees it as an opportunity for them to make a fresh start. When they arrive at the cottage, however, they find that it has been ransacked, as have his rooms at Trinity College, where he worked. It is clear that there is something amiss. Auden makes a friend at his new school, Vivi, who, it turns out, also knew Dr Bloom very well. The two young people decide there is something suspicious about Jonah Bloom’s death and set about to uncover the mystery.

Very soon Auden and Vivi discover that Dr Bloom had invented a robot, Paragon, which they find in a secret chamber underneath the garden shed in the cottage garden. Initially, Auden believes that his uncle was in the process of inventing a machine that would enable Auden to see in full colour. However, it turns out that the robot, in fact, has a much higher purpose.

This book is part adventure story, part mystery and has all the usual tropes you would expect from a children’s book of that nature: a brave and bold character in Auden, a brilliant female mind in the form of Vivi, an external threat in the form of the Water Allocation Board, which also wants to get hold of Dr Bloom’s work and in particular the robot Paragon, and a race against time, with moments of high tension. There are underlying themes here around the power of friendship to overcome adversity and how individuals can take control of their own lives and defy the destiny society has decided for them. It is also about taking a stand and doing the right thing.

As a rule of thumb, kids like reading books about characters who are slightly older than them; Auden is 11, but I would say this is a book for 10-12 year olds, rather than 9-11s. For a start it’s quite long and the plot is at times quite complex. Also, some of the themes may be quite challenging for younger readers, for example, the vision of the future, a kind of police state where the head of the Water Allocation Board is hostile and threatening. There is also the suggestion that Dr Jonah Bloom has been illegally murdered by the state and that Auden’s father has been wrongfully imprisoned by a corrupt military authority. Echoes of 1984!

Spoiler alert….

Also, the robot, Paragon, who develops a strong personality and whom Auden grows to love, ‘dies’ when he self-destructs after fulfilling his purpose as a rainmaking machine. Younger children might find some aspects of the book challenging or unsettling.

In places it is really funny; it reminded me a little of Time-travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford, so kids who enjoyed that book might like this one too (although for me it’s not quite as good or as well-written).

Recommended for 10-12 year olds who like an adventure mystery and can cope with some threat.

If you or your children have read this book, do you agree with my thoughts about the reading age?

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