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Winner of the Costa Children's Book Award 2020 | September 2020 Book of the Month | I challenge any reader, young or old, not to want to devour this book in one delicious sitting. Once started upon the story of Lotti and Ben, two orphans living in the aftermath of World War 1 and who could not be more different in temperament or background, it is impossible to put down. Initially and understandably wary, they gradually become each other’s best friend and staunch allies in their respective quests for family and a safe haven for an increasing number of dogs. Their odyssey takes them, in the faithful old narrowboat which has been Ben’s home, across the stormy channel to France, with a vengeful, deceitful uncle and a steadfast policeman hot on their heels. But there is nothing far fetched in their survival, they do need and even eventually welcome the support of friendly adults on both sides of the channel and they learn to work together and to counteract each other’s failings. They never lose hope in even the darkest moments and neither does the reader, despite some heart-stopping tension. These are characters who will dwell long in your memory and indeed leave you wanting to know more, including about some of the fascinating minor characters. The authentic period detail and dialogue captures the spirit of an age where children may seem, to a modern audience, to have a thrilling level of agency and independence, but only because they are largely ignored or neglected rather than protected by society. A standalone, middle grade adventure that is as well written as this, is pure gold dust with which to captivate young readers and a perfect class read. But be warned, they may not want to go home!
January 2021 Debut of the Month | Lesley Parr’s story of evacuees is rich in atmosphere and a sense of place, and uses its wartime setting to explore themes of community, understanding and self-forgiveness. Along with other children at their school, Jimmy and his little brother Ronnie have been sent hundreds of miles away from London to the safety of a small mining town in South Wales, and it couldn’t be further from what they know. Jimmy is determined they won’t stay long, and that the place won’t change him, even as it’s transforming his classmates: Florence Campbell for example, who is free to become someone else, far away from her abusive family. The village has its secrets though, and the discovery of a set of bones in a tree leads Jimmy to solve a decades old mystery and, in the process, to help those living with loss and guilt. The place and its people are carefully and skilfully evoked, with the adults, particularly Jimmy and Ronnie’s new ‘family’ of Aunty Gwen and Uncle Alun the miner, likely to be as fascinating to readers as the younger protagonists. The mystery will certainly keep readers gripped but it’s the characters and the place that will stay with them. Evacuees are a rich source for children’s adventure stories, examples include Michelle Magorian’s classic Goodnight Mister Tom, and Jacqueline Wilson’s more recent Wave Me Goodbye.
Chosen as our Guest Editor, Francesca Simon's Book of the Month | An extraordinary, powerful, and important book, based on the true story of how Liz Kessler’s father escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe thanks to a British couple his family had met once. But what elevates this book about three friends and their different fates in World War Two is the story of Max, the nice, ordinary boy who gradually becomes seduced into hatred and prejudice. The ringing question, ‘What would I do under these circumstances?’ echoes on every page. ~ Francesca Simon
Selected for The Book Box by LoveReading4Kids | Taking in five decades, three generations and the tender love between a girl and her grandmother, Dragonfly Eyes is an exquisitely-written novel set against a backdrop of unrest and change in 1960s Shanghai. With celebrated Chinese author Cao Wenxuan at the helm, readers are taken on an enthralling journey from a Golden Age in 1920s France, to poverty in post-war Shanghai, to rural Cultural Revolution China, in the beguiling company of Ah Mei and her French grandmother, Nainai. Ah Mei has always been close to Nainai and, since they look alike, she “looked different from other children; she was different. Wherever she went, silent eyes stared at her from all directions. She would appear a little shy and embarrassed, but inside she would feel a deep swelling of pride...It was as though this little girl had floated down from heaven, and the people around her were caught in a trance.” This otherworldliness runs through the novel - it’s enchanting, illuminating, delicately written, rich in fascinating historic and cultural detail, and the details of everyday life. From Nainai meeting her future husband in 1920s Marseilles, we move to Shanghai, where the family’s silk business has given them the wealth to live in the Blue House, with its exquisite mahogany furniture, grandfather clocks and English porcelain. Here Ah Mei and Nainai enjoy a charmed life, until great waves of change sweep the city and country. First war and post-war poverty, then famine and state-ownership. In 1966 there are protests and growing threats, with Nainai accused of being a foreign spy, but she’s ever-resourceful and makes the very best of things, especially when it comes to Ah Mei. Through the most terrible circumstances, the family manage to make magic through their sadness, and the fundamental hopefulness of humanity glimmers through the most heart-breaking circumstances. Best suited for confident readers of 11 upwards, this sublime story also come highly recommended for adults who appreciate elegant writing and tales with a timeless, classic atmosphere. I adored every word.
Both Clara and Nancy are very much the victims of a pre-World War 1 society dominated by men. Clara the eldest has fought her way out of the family home and out of the clutches of an abusive father but cannot escape her guilt at leaving Nancy to take her place and face an unwanted pregnancy, a painful birth and the wrench of giving her child away. Clara is proud to have found a job which also provides accommodation and now sees this as the solution for her sister too. Life as a prison guard in Holloway is certainly challenging not least because of the new category of political prisoners- the Suffragettes- many of whom are on hunger strike. The author paints a very vivid picture of the restricted life of women in 1913 and the brutality of prison life for guard and prisoner alike. Whilst Clara is the one who thinks most about the issues of women’s rights and independence it is to be the gentle, shy Nancy who gets swept up into the movement when she becomes obsessed with one particular prisoner: “The Duchess” and while Clara pursues her career rather than her feelings for her boyfriend, Nancy impulsively follows her heart and the Duchess into violent protest. It is all about making difficult choices. Having the courage to make a stand for justice. Realising that following your heart can mean the loss of your freedom. This gripping novel really makes the reader think about the wider roles of women and the personal as well as the political aspects of emancipation. One cannot help but see the ironic juxtaposition of the notorious “Cat & Mouse” treatment of the prisoners on hunger strike and Clara’s treatment of her suitor and again with Nancy’s capitulation to capture and imprisonment for arson and Clara’s eventual acceptance of marriage even at the cost of being “given away” by her abusive father. Thought provoking, shocking and insightful this is a very rewarding read indeed and one which will be very valuable to students of history and women’s studies.
The grounds of a country house in the summer months of 1914 provide the setting for Emma Carroll’s spooky novella and she uses it to explore themes of growing understanding and the awful, looming threat of war. Brought together after an accident puts him temporarily into a wheelchair requiring someone to push it, Leo and Fran form an upstairs-downstairs friendship. Fran is unsettled by a series of strange, seemingly supernatural coincidences that seem to be warnings of things to come, while Leo is obsessed by events in Europe and what they may lead to. Their different worries merge in a deliciously spooky scene where the two young people encounter the ghosts of an Anglo-Saxon army, something they interpret as a warning of what is to come; sure enough, the story concludes with the announcement of World War I. Despite a sense of foreboding, we know that their friendship will endure and feel certain that, whatever happens, the future will hold good things for both. Emma Carroll is one of our foremost authors of historical fiction for children and creates a tangible sense of the tension of those summer months as well as an appealing, believable set of characters. Published by Barrington Stoke, the book is accessible to all readers, including those with dyslexia, and highly recommended.
Selected for The Book Box by LoveReading4Kids | Circus Maximus, the greatest sporting stage of the ancient Roman world, where the best horses and charioteers compete in a race to the death, and one girl dreams of glory. Ben Hur meets National Velvet in the ultimate 9-12 adventure story by debut children's author, Annelise Gray.
Inspired by a true story. It's 1940, and Joseph has been packed off to stay with Mrs F, a gruff woman with no great fondness for children. To Joseph's amazement, she owns the rundown city zoo where Joseph meets Adonis, a huge silverback gorilla. Adonis is ferociously strong and dangerous, but Joseph finds he has an affinity with the lonely beast. But when the bombs begin to fall, it is up to Joseph to guard Adonis's cage should it be damaged by a blast. Will Joseph be ready to pull the trigger if it comes to it?
Run wild with Wolf Brother in a Stone Age world we all want to be a part of with million-copy-selling author, Michelle Paver. Danger, magic and non stop adventure await Torak, Renn and Wolf in a devastating Dark Time that threatens everything they know. The Clans will be tested as never before, as they battle to find ways to survive and thrive in their beloved Forest. In the Dark Time of midwinter, disaster strikes the Forest. Chaos rules. Bears woken from their dens prowl the shadowy valleys. Desperate clans battle for survival. Only demons thrive. With their world in turmoil, Torak, Renn and Wolf are tested as never before. And as a new evil haunts the devastated land, Torak must risk his sanity, his life and even his souls to save everything he loves... Skin Taker carries you back to the Stone Age, drawing you deeper into the astonishing adventure which began with Wolf Brother and has captivated millions of readers.
Nominated for the Carnegie Medal | Set in the author’s native Wales during the dark days of the fifth century, Ellen Caldecott’s The Short Knife is an energetic, edge-of-your-seat page-turner with present-day resonance as 21st-century Britain - island of migrants - faces the challenge of forging an identity independent of continental Europe. With the Romans compelled to leave Britain after 400 years, the island is on the brink of collapse. Amidst this uncertainty and the chaos of Saxon invasion, thirteen-year-old Mai is cared for by her dad and sister (she lost her mam when she was three), and wrestling with her “anger at the people free to flee into the hills. Anger at all the world and everyone in it. I want to open my mouth and let the fire out, burn it all into blackness.” When Saxon warriors turn up at their farm, the family is forced to flee to the dangerous hills themselves. Mai must cross the threshold from childhood to adulthood if she’s to survive in a hostile world in which speaking in her mother tongue might turn out to be fatal. The cinematic scene-setting, first person narrative, and succinct, magnetically lyrical style make for a thrilling experience that will hook the most reluctant of readers. Recommended for fans of Caroline Lawrence and Damian Dibben’s The History Keepers series, this offers enlightening insights into British history with fresh flair, and through the eyes of a compelling main character.
Nazi Germany is a dangerous place for a girl with a stammer - and although her father tries to keep her safe, Ingrid can't help feeling like she's let him down. But in the air, soaring high as she pilots her beloved glider planes, Ingrid is free and incredibly talented. When she gets the chance to fly in a propaganda tour alongside her hero, Germany's daring female test pilot Hanna Reitsch, Ingrid leaps at the chance. But through Hanna, she will learn some dangerous truths about Germany's secret missions and the plans that could change the course of the war to secure victory for the Nazi regime. When everything is at stake, Ingrid must decide where her loyalties lie ...
February 2021 Book of the Month | Deka lives in fear of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she can become a member of her village. If she bleeds red, she will belong. But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold – the colour of impurity, of a demon. The consequences force Deka to leave her village with a mysterious woman, destined to join an army of girls like her – the alaki, girls who are near-immortals with rare gifts, and the only ones able to stop the empire’s greatest threat. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the battle of her life, Deka discovers the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem – not even Deka herself.
Rich in historic atmosphere and detail, and smouldering with female desire to be heard in a patriarchal society, Catherine Barter’s We Played with Fire is a hauntingly riveting read. The fact it was inspired by the true story of the Fox Sisters who made a fortune from communicating with spirits in nineteenth-century America makes it all the more gripping, and a fine example of how to transform extraordinary real-life events into enthralling fiction. Back home in Rochester Maggie had enjoyed listening to progressive women she “thought she could learn from” - strong role models who spoke-up at political meetings held in the kitchen. But these fires of inspiration are dampened when Maggie is incriminated in a terrible event that takes place near the schoolhouse she claims is haunted. As a result of the scandal, her family move to remote Hydesville where, feeling fed-up and fuming, Maggie and her younger sister Kate decide to spice things up by playing supernatural tricks on their parents. Matters take a menacing turn when their old farmhouse makes spooky sounds independent of the sisters’ tomfoolery, and they become certain a spirit is communicating with them. When this attracts the attention of their neighbours and a local journalist, Maggie and Kate see the power and potential of spiritualism and set-off on an astonishing life journey that reels with rebellion, show-woman-ship and gothic charisma.
Selected for The Book Box by LoveReading4Kids | The first in a hilarious and fast-paced trilogy about how to be brave, what it means to be a hero and just how confusing the Norse Gods really are. Fully illustrated throughout, Cat Weldon's How to Be a Hero is perfect for fans of How to Train Your Dragon and Who Let the Gods Out.
What a perfect book to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Puffin and its founder Allen Lane and an intensely personal book for author, Michael Morpurgo, suffused with his love for the Scilly Isles and for his family history - his wife Claire being one of Allen Lane’s daughters. The utterly beautiful illustrations by Benji Davies evoke his own holidays with grandparents in Cornwall and one can see that this story of a boy who loved to paint is one that is very personal to him too. Every inch of this book is crafted with love (make sure that you look at the hardback cover beneath the dust jacket with its soaring puffin against a glorious blue background and the images of both author and artist at the end) The illustrations range from dramatic double paged spreads, to little sepia vignettes but every page illuminates the absorbing and heartfelt story which begins with the lighthouse keeper Benjamin Postlethwaite and a terrible shipwreck from which he singlehandedly rescues 30 people including the 5 year old narrator of our story. Recently fatherless and travelling with his French mother to grandparents in Devon, the rescue and Ben himself make a huge impact on the boy – not least because of the paintings which fill the lighthouse and the gift of a small painting which becomes his most precious possession. The portrayal of the grim and bleak life with unloving grandparents in Devon, the misery of boarding school and of an artistic child who was a bit of a loner is very moving. As soon as school is finished the boy retraces his steps to the now defunct lighthouse and discovers a home, a friend and an artistic vocation as well as an injured puffin that together they nurse back to health. A puffin who keeps returning and brings others with him. By the time the young man returns from the war he could not avoid - the island and Ben have become a sanctuary for these characterful birds as well as our narrator and his future family. A charming book which evokes a very real sense of place as well the importance of being true to yourself and finding your place in the world.
November 2020 Book of the Month | Book 7 Chronicles of Ancient Darkness This seventh book in Michelle Paver’s awe-inspiring Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series that began with Wolf Brother is a triumph of storytelling that myth-loving readers will wolf down (pun entirely intended). The sense of adventure and human spirit is exhilarating, and Paver’s passion for nature, for wildlife, for the world’s wondrous wilds is an immersive joy. Torak and Renn have been in the Forest with their Wolf Brother for two summers when Renn leaves him without word. Though realising that “she would have had to deceive Torak for days into order to prepare for her journey”, accomplished tracker Torak does what he must, and what he does best: he and Wolf embark on a quest to the Edge of the World beyond the Far North to find their friend. Alongside dealing with the ominous threat of ice bears and the “beyond good and evil” Sea Mother, Torak is desperate to discover what drove Renn to this place. The sense of demonic danger is powerfully palpable, the writing rich, yet exquisitely sparse and smoothly readable, and the entirety of this enthralling adventure is laced with an uplifting sense of camaraderie, love and legend.
Selected for The Book Box by LoveReading4Kids | This novel, by Birmingham born poet Zephaniah, is the fifth book in the Scholastic Voices series – highlighting the situation and stories behind the myriad of people who have arrived from all over the world to the UK. Leonard’s father is one of the many Jamaican born men who came to Britain at the request of the UK government to help rebuild the country after the second World War. So, when Leonard and his mother arrive in Southampton the 10-year-old had to get to know a father he barely remembers and learn to live in a climate, both physical and social, that was alien to him. This is a carefully written account which does not shirk from exploring the society and the racism that Leonard encounters in his school and in being a part of 50’s and 60’s society in Manchester – where Leonard’s father was a bus driver. It’s aimed at KS2 children and the language, plus seeing everything through Leonard’s often confused eyes makes it a valuable lesson for children to read. The book takes Leonard’s story to the present day where he is one of the Windrush generation who now struggle to prove his right to be in the UK – making this a strong story on which to base vital lessons on the morality of government policies. Highly recommended.