Author Archives: dawn

Alone on a Wide Wide Sea

Michael Morpurgo

HarperCollins

1904442714

Oct 2005

Arthur Hobhouse, an orphan shipped to Australia when he was six years old, has only one link with his past: a small key on a piece of string, given to him by his sister Kitty. He has no idea what it is for and no clear memory of his only living relative, but he treasures it. Arthur dies never knowing if his sister ever really existed, but his daughter Allie sails across the world, all alone in the boat he built for her, to find out.
Two distinctively different but equally compelling narrators tell the story of Arthur and his daughter Allie, whose love of sailing is as passionate as her father’s. Morpurgo masterfully manages the dissimilar voices of each storyteller. Arthur’s tale is an honest reflection on a life of hardship occasionally lightened by love. Allie’s narrative, written partly in e-mails, captures absolutely the tone of a spirited young woman on an incredible journey.
The strong tidy thread of plot belies a myriad of inspirations, deftly woven together. Morpurgo’s story is informed by the harrowing historical accounts of child migrants, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the e-mails of Alex Whitworth and Peter Crozier, who circumnavigated the world in their yacht in 2004.
Discussing ‘what makes a children’s book great?’ critic Julia Eccleshare once said ‘what makes a book so amazing is the feeling that you cannot stop reading it’ an urgent book.’ Urgent this book certainly is.
I would have read the book in one sitting if it were not for the two sections ‘ as such it demanded two! Be warned: once you start this epic adventure story, you won’t want to stop.

The Coming of Dragons

A. J. Lake

Bloomsbury

1904442714

Oct 2005

Edmund is the privileged son of a king, travelling cautiously in disguise. Elspeth is the fierce daughter of a shipmaster, working proudly at her father’s helm. Their paths are thrown together when they are the only survivors of a terrible shipwreck.
All they want is to return home. But they learn that an evil warlord plans to destroy their homeland, and discover that they each possess mysterious powers significant in the fight against him. And so, aided by a learned old man and accompanied by an enigmatic minstrel, the children are forced to comply with destiny.
Edmund and Elspeth narrate alternate chapters, creating a read which should appeal equally to both boys and girls.
A. J. Lake’s historical knowledge of the Dark Ages means that the ancient British setting is well realised; perceptive details woven subtly and consistently throughout the tale give us a satisfying feel of the texture of their daily lives.
Though ‘the dragons are coming’ we don’t encounter many throughout the story (we get just a brief glimpse of the one who caused the shipwreck at the beginning of the book). The conclusion foretells more dragon action in the next book, as well a quest to defeat a malevolent god.
Which means that fantasy fanatics who enjoy this story should be left eager to read the next in The Darkest Age series.

Under The Persimmon Tree

Suzanne Fisher Staples

Walker Books

1904442714

Oct 2005

As every storyteller knows, it is the tales of individual people which bring real events to life. The sanitised vocabulary and politicised angles of the news can make the realities and complexities of recent world events difficult for young adults to access.
Set in Afghanistan in the months following September 11th and endorsed by Amnesty International, here is a book to contribute to a better understanding. Alternate chapters give us the stories of two heroines. Najmah, an Afghan girl, sees her father and brother conscripted to the Taliban, and her mother and baby brother killed in an American air raid. Lost and alone, she begins the dangerous journey through the mountains to Pakistan, where she hopes to find her family again. Elaine, an American woman, is also alone. Living in Pakistan after converting to Islam and marrying an Afghan doctor, she has not heard from him since he left to establish a hospital. Whilst she waits she teaches refugee children under the persimmon tree in her garden.
The two different viewpoints work well. From Najmah we get a picture of everyday life in rural Afghanistan. Staples draws on her experiences as a UPI reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan to paint a picture of day-to-day life rich in fascinating and evocative details. Set against this normality the accounts of the death of Najmah’s mother and baby brother are particularly powerful and moving. From Elaine (known as Nusrat) we get a view of the contrasts between Western and Middle Eastern culture. By giving us an insight into two hearts and minds Staples also shows us the similarities, in a wonderful celebration of our common humanity.
When at last Najmah and Nusrat do find each other, their shared feelings of anxiety and loss, plus their shared interest in the stars, gives them the comfort and strength they need. Don’t expect a happy ending, Staples is a realist. But she shows that hard truths can be accepted, with courage and dignity.

Clair-de-Lune

Cassandra Golds

Orchard Books

1904442714

Oct 2005

A young balletomane, Clair-de-Lune, lives alone with her austere grandmother, Madame Nuit. Her mother (La Lune) died whilst dancing a dying swan ballet, and she has been mute ever since. Such overtly symbolic names emulate the methods of fairy tale, which sets the mood for this story.
The setting has an historical atmosphere (think Paris, 150 years ago). Clair-de-Lune lives in a very tall, very old building populated by artistes. It also hides a talking mouse, Bonaventure, who dreams of starting his own ballet school, and a magical secret doorway to a monastery by the sea. Here Clair-de-Lune meets Brother Inchmahome, who through sensitive listening and a series of probing questions, helps her to unlock her heart and her voice.
The “Ah, Reader!” style of narration and slight frou-frou factor (silk gloves, a King Charles spaniel called Chouchou, ‘the exquisiteness of a troupe of mice, dancing.’) will estrange a significant proportion of readers. Describing Clair-de-Lune’s lace collared dress, Golds notes: ‘It was’ not perhaps to everyone’s taste’. The same could be said of the book. Those who love ballet will adore hearing about the agonies and ecstasies of ‘The Dance’. But the emphasis on lady-like behaviour and genteel manners will not appeal to girls who like climbing trees or, I suspect, boys.
Bonaventure’s lengthy monologues (all his conversations with Clair-de-Lune are one-sided, after all) create a somewhat verbose read in places. And I couldn’t help thinking that the romantic tale of a talking mouse had been done before (in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux). Golds asserts that ‘no one, to Bonaventure’s knowledge, had ever before’taught classical ballet to mice.’ Which of course put me in mind of Angelina Ballerina. The fascinating minutiae of mouse life (such as toothpick barres and toffee wrapper writing paper) have also been celebrated elsewhere, in Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books. However, these familiar elements are fetchingly sewn together.
Golds’ narrative thread is straightforward ‘ the singular problem is Clair-de-Lune’s frustrated desire to talk. But as the story progresses an emotional depth unfolds. Characters who I had feared to be one dimensional reveal themselves to be credibly complex. Through them the powerful effects of loss and of love are perceptively explored. An allegorical message, that love is the most important thing in life, lifts the story to a philosophical plane. Some will read this as a moving exposition of sadness and solitude, laced with poetic metaphor, which is reminiscent of The Little Prince in its profundity. Some will find it all a bit too frilly.

The Foretelling

Alice Hoffman

Egmont

1904442714

Oct 2005

In a world where war dominates the media, and power and violence often go hand in hand, Alice Hoffman offers a timely reminder of the strength of mercy, humanity and compassion.
A fierce Amazonian tribe of women warriors battle for survival. Rain is destined to be their leader; she is the daughter of the queen, but she struggles against the cruelty and hatred demanded by her future role.
Bite size sections make the story easy to swallow, despite the serious and sometimes dark issues involved. The realities of war; brutality, murder, rape, are all there, but handled sensitively in terms of their emotional impact, rather than being disturbingly graphic.
Hoffman writes beautifully, her style blends the intimate feel of a diary with the authoritative tone of legend.
In traditional cultures rites of passage helped children to become adults. In a society lacking such rituals, it can be healing to enter, imaginatively, into a world where overt transitions do exist. Where things are simpler and deeper. Where dreams have significance, talismans have power, signs have meaning – the true magical essence of life is appreciated. Teenage readers will share a journey to womanhood which is spiritual as well as physical. With the strength of mind to follow her own heart, Rain provides an inspirational role model.
Carefully researched details about the uses of horses, bees, plants and minerals effectively evoke an ancient, nature-based culture. This earthy element should appeal to green teens. As will the fact that the publishers, Egmont, practise what they preach ‘ the text paper on both the paperback and hardback editions of this book comes from sustainable forests and is fully approved by the Forest Stewardship Council. The company also adheres to a fair trade Code of Conduct. Commendations to Egmont for this responsible approach to children’s book publishing.
The Foretelling triumphs because it transports you to another world, whilst its emotional truths matter in this one.
Soul food for teenage girls.

Katie Milk Solves Crimes and So on…

Annie Caulfield

Corgi Yearling Books

1904442714

Oct 2005

Despite the promise of the title, there’s not a whiff of a crime for at least six chapters. Instead leisurely scene setting and character introductions fill the pages. But if you can get through the slow start, you’ll be rewarded by some engaging situations and unexpected plot twists.
Katie starts boarding school hoping to have adventures. Night-time expeditions investigating rumours of mad nuns, and the mystery of an orphan girl who claims that her mother is really a supermodel, provide the excitement she craves.
The story is told in the first person. Katie’s chatty tone and frequent reflections on the world could either amuse or annoy. Stereotypically, teenagers speak with limited vocabulary and frequent repetition. Katie Milk’s voice has this real life ring, which makes for an easy read, but also means descriptions are not as rich as they might have been.
Occasionally, Caulfield seems to have used Katie’s youthful inexperience at narrating to cover some slightly awkward plotting. ‘Now, I expect you’re not supposed to do this ‘ to say about things going on that you didn’t know were going on at the time ‘ but I think it’s important for you to know the thing going on at the time that I didn’t know was going on at the time” This didn’t work for me.
What did work though were the well observed details which brought characters to life ‘ hair flicking Danielle was a particularly convincing show-off. Secrets and lies surrounding key characters add a puzzle element which readers will enjoy trying to untangle. And the resolution succeeds in tying all the loose ends neatly together, whilst still being unpredictable.

Dawn Undercover

Anna Dale

Bloomsbury

1904442714

Oct 2005

With a fondness for beige cardigans, Dawn Buckle is often ignored. Which makes her the perfect candidate to join the top-secret organisation S. H. H. (Strictly Hush-Hush) to work as a spy for their Pursuit of Scheming Spies and Traitors department (P.S.S.T.). Her mission takes her to the sleepy village of Cherry Bentley, in search of the notorious criminal Murdo Meek.
Off-beat gags and quirky characters set the tone; light and humourous. Dawn’s knitted donkey Clop, for example, is ‘made of stern stuff (as well as wool and snipped-up stockings)’.
Fans of James Bond will find this an altogether gentler kind of spy story. The gadgets are less hi-tech and the villains less threatening. A finger nibbling tortoise is about as violent as it gets. Plenty of friendly details (think tea from china cups, ginger nuts and jumbo crosswords) create a warmly welcoming world.
The story skips along at a carefree bumbling sort of pace, which may prove too scenic for some readers.
There are numerous clues to puzzle over, yet the ending is still unexpected enough to satisfy.

Cloudsailors

Hugh Montgomery ill. by Liz Pyle

Walker Books

1904442714

Oct 2005

What a beautifully produced book this is. Luxurious, thick pages, a swirling font and stunning illustrations. The blurb says simply: ‘In each myth lies a truth, like a grain of sand within a pearl’.
So I opened the pages with high hopes. Unfortunately, my expectations were not met.
Montgomery starts slowly; with a legend. In the beginning, he tells, Menfolk were divided: the Lowlanders settled in the valleys and the Mountainfolk settled in the mountains, ‘cloud-sailing’ from peak to peak in coracles of ice. The narrative continues at an unhurried pace; we meet the main character – ‘the orphan boy’ Sundeep ‘ only after a florid passage following the flight of a bumble bee.
And that’s the problem I had with this book. Too much style and not enough content. A great deal of the story is made up of a description of Sundeep’s difficult ascent to the mountaintops, where he hopes to discover what happened to his parents. The beauty of the setting is evoked in detail, as is the experience of the climb (accurate minutiae based on the author’s own experience). There are moments when Montgomery’s phrasing is pleasing to the ear. But much of the abundant simile and metaphor neither develops the characters nor furthers the plot.
Most of the remainder of the book consists of the tales told by Ptarmagon and Morchilla, the old man and the young girl that Sundeep meets. I found the dialogue of these characters unnaturally formal, weighed down with exposition and more ornate description.
Some readers may simply enjoy being transported to a wonderful mountaintop land by some lovely imagery. And Pyle’s ethereal illustrations of the snow-sparkled world, which are all the more powerful for their restricted palette of blues and whites, will certainly haunt the imagination.
But I’m afraid this reader was left disappointed.

Crow Girl

Kate Cann

Barrington Stoke

1842993461

Oct 2005

Lily is lonely; often bullied, at best ignored. She takes refuge in the nearby woods, finding solace with the crows that live there. Her visits to spooky clearings, her desire for cobwebby outfits and her growing ability to call the crows, give this title a gothic edge.
An avian theme runs throughout the book. No nonsense grandma, Grandy, says that Lily has been in ‘what I call ‘the ugly duckling phase”. The story charts Lily’s transformation from ugly duckling to dark swan ‘ Crow Girl.
Having always comforted herself with chocolate, Lily has always been overweight. So walking in the woods, instead of past the sweet shop, makes her look better. Grandy teaches her the importance of posture and a well fitted bra. Add a little black dress and red lipstick and she’s a new woman.
In a world where glossy women’s magazines have teen versions (how they must rub their hands in glee ‘ a whole new market of fashion and beauty consumers!) such a ‘makeover’ is many a young girl’s dream.
However, I had reservations about this Trinny and Susannah style transformation. Like Andersen’s Ugly Duckling (which, incidentally, is not a traditional tale but one he made up himself) it seems to recommend changing outward appearance, suggesting that beauty is the ultimate goal.
Happily, Cann does redeem herself ‘ her emphasis on walking tall and pushing your hair back from your face shows it really is all about attitude. Thank goodness she lets teenage girls in on the Big Secret: that being attractive is all about self-esteem. Lily starts to like herself. She grows in confidence, develops her creativity and stands up to the bullies.
Cann gets teenage concerns exactly right. That feeling of being misunderstood, undervalued, the burning need to ‘show them all’. Those who fantasise about their triumphant moment, when their true powers are unveiled and their tormentors stand in awe, will find Lily making her own fantasy into a reality inspiring stuff.

Snapshot

Robert Swindells

Barrington Stoke

184299347X

Oct 2005

Click. Victor takes a photo of a crime. Next thing he’s being followed. Someone wants those pictures. Someone with a gun.
This combination of unambiguous plot and short snappy sentences makes for a particularly accessible read.
Set in a grey world of tower blocks, stinking lifts and rainy streets, and peopled by blokes in baseball caps and puffer jackets, it will appeal to teenage boys who get into a certain kind of hard, urban cool.
Swindells strikes a good balance in his hero Victor. He’s disaffected enough to be tough but caring enough to be likeable.
Victor narrates the story in his own words ‘ colloquial language and slang designed to be easy to recognise and relate to. ‘Street language’ can be hard to write, it changes rapidly and what was right one day sounds wrong the next. But for the most part Swindells succeeds.
Boys often enjoy non-fiction and relish discovering gruesome information. Victor’s accidental involvement in a world of petty crime and murder should prove exciting stuff for such readers. They will also appreciate the fact that that the story is based on a real-life drama.
Barrington Stoke books aim to entice ‘disenchanted and under-confident readers’. Snapshot will do just that.