Monthly Archives: September 2015

Goodbye Stranger

Rebecca Stead

Andersen Press

9781783443192

September 2015

paperback

There is so much to admire in this new book from the author of Liar And Spy, winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. The narration is multi-faceted and subtle. It’s a book that addresses an issue – sexting – and manages to approach it with a sense of proportion and humour. The book is never an issue-driven novel. Stead is extremely clever at using her characters’ dialogue to convey an authorial position on the matters at play in their lives – friendship, family, adolescent love.
And in Bridge, a girl who having cheated death by surviving a serious car accident has just returned to school following several years of recuperation, the author has created a character who cannot fail but enter the reader’s consciousness, wearing, as she does all the time, a headband with a pair of cat’s ears attached.
A passage from near the end of the book that doesn’t contain any plot spoilers, except insofar that it propounds a life view in keeping with the story:

That’s what life is. Life is where you sleep and what you see when you wake up in the morning, and who you tell about your weird dream, and what you eat for breakfast and who you eat it with. Life isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something that you make yourself, all the time. Life is that half minute in the morning before your cat remembers she’s kind of a grouch, when she pours out her love and doesn’t give a flying newton who sees it.

I agree with what a reviewer called Tasha on GoodReads says: “Stead finely captures the feeling of middle school, of just being in the process of changing and growing up, of different people being at various points of maturity both physically and mentally, of meeting new people and maybe being attracted in a different way, and of trying to stay friends through it all. Happily too, it is a book that shows the heart of girls, the bravery of being a modern kid, and the choices that are made. This is not a book that laughs at the antics of pre-teens, but one that celebrates them and this moment in their lives in all of its baffling complexity.”

The Grubby Feather Gang

Antony Wootten

Eskdale Publishing

9780953712380

April 2015

paperback

This is a great little book – one I’m so thankful to the author for bringing to my attention. It’s essentially self-published, but don’t let that put you off. It’s an exceptionally polished presentation – my only minor quibble regards typesetting: an unusually large inset for the first line of each paragraph.
As a short chapter book about bullying and pacifism, set at the time of the First World War, it presents moral and behaviour conflicts in a manner that makes it eminently accessible for children of primary school age. It would make a very good group read.
The author is a primary school teacher and says (his experience is one I can share from my own time working with this age range), “I believe there are many very capable readers in upper key stage 2 who are put off by longer novels but who do want to read challenging and interesting subject matter.”
The book is presented as the first in a series of “BigShorts” – short novels for strong readers, that Wootten intends publishing and promoting through his website. If subsequent titles are as good as this, ACHUKA will be happy to help promote them.
The writing is clear, visual and uncluttered. The characters are finely delineated – the bully, the victim, the pacifist father, the strict schoolteacher, the friend & accomplice – but all very believable. The conflict between the main character’s parents – his father the conscientious objector, and his mother who has to bear the brunt of fellow women’s resentment that while their husbands are away fighting hers is at home shirking – is one of the best aspects of the book.
Female readers might want George’s friend, Emma, to play a more forthright role in subsequent adventures.
Oh, and there is animal interest, in a cat named Azar.
The formula is a good one.
The author’s publishing website: http://www.antonywootten.co.uk/EskdalePublishing.html

The Man In The Mountain

J. E. Roberts

Sea Campion

9781943092703

June 2015

paperback

Sea Campion is a tiny independent press. This is its first children’s book publication.
The author, J. E. Roberts can write. He can write very well. And I enjoyed this short but atmospherically intense novel very much indeed.
Set in the Black Mountains (where the author lives) it is described as “an ecological adventure story for children 9 years old and above’.
Roberts succeeds in establishing a rapport with his main character Joe (a boy recently moved from the city who has an interest in Charles Darwin) but is also able to create vivid supporting characters, notably an old man and an old woman, and also Joe’s much younger brother, Ant. Less vivid is Gwen, the girl Joe befriends.
Nearing the climax of the story I feared the book might become too polemical, too message-driven, but in the end this was successfully avoided.
The book bears comparison with Bone Jack by Sara Crowe, albeit without the sense of menace, and deserves to find a readership in its own right.
The publisher is actively trying to attract more authors with work highlighting ecological issues.

The Bear and the Piano

David Litchfield

Frances Lincoln

9781847807175

September 2015

hardback

I’m not surprised this book was selected as a Highlight of the Season in The Bookseller’s Children’s Autumn Buyers Guide. It’s rather special. And it’s Litchfield’s first picture book. He will be opening The Bookseller’s Children Conference later this month when he will be exhibting (alongside five other illustrators) original artwork from this title.

I recommend a visit to his website:

davidlitchfield

From the end papers and the opening spread, the artwork in this picture book is stunning. And I love the variation in page layout. The designers have done a wonderful job.

But well-presented artwork also needs an original and moving story and this book has that also.

A bear discovers an old piano abandoned in the wood. He plays on the piano every day, practising for months and years until he can play so well that other bears come to listen. One night his playing is overheard by a girl and her father, who ‘discover’ him and entice him away to the city, where he performs in public and becomes a star on Broadway. He wins awards, is lauded, and feted. But he misses his home and his friends.

He returns to the forest. The piano has gone. His friends aren’t there. He is forlorn. But it turns out the piano has simply been moved to a safe position. His friends have been following his career. They are his fans too. He sits down and plays a special concert set just for them.

Litchfield’s forest and city illustrations are equally strong. I love, in particular, the auditorium double spread. The hardback’s dustjacket tells us that he uses “a variety of traditional techniques, assembling the different elements together in Photoshop to create large-scale, dramatic scenes.” We’re also told that the book was inspired by The White Stripes short 50-second song ‘Little Room’.

Terry Perkins and his upside down smile

Felix Massie

Frances Lincoln

9781847806208

August 2015

hardback

I sat down this morning with my 11 o’clock espresso and spent some time browsing through the Autumn Catalogue of the Quarto Publishing Group. When I came to the section for Frances Lincoln Books I stopped on p80 and thought to myself, “Ooh, this looks interesting – hope I’ve been sent a review copy.” So up I get and look at my pile of recently received picture books. Yes! It was there. And what a wonderful debut it is.
Felix Massie is a London-based award-winning animator and illustrator. He designed the short, animated trailer for the book:

Massie’s illustration style is disarmingly simple, but perfectly suited to this rhyimng tale about a young boy who is fine, until he starts to speak, when all his words come out garbled, as if they have been written upside-down. The doctor recommends a straightforward remedy to Terry’s mother. Turn the boy himself upside-down and then the words should come out the right way. Which they do. But all is not well. Now he can talk. But can’t walk. He has to be pushed around in a trolley. He is teased mercillessly at playschool. Then a girl called Jenny befriends him at a playground. She is hanging upside down on the monkey bars, and when she means to say “Boo!” it comes out as “Poo!”and Terry finds himself laughing for the first time since being turned upside down.

It’s an amusing story about being different and will be especially helpful to parents of young children who have speech difficulties.

Massie is already signed up to create a second picture book for FL which will be called George Pearce and his Huge Massive Ears.

The Baby

Lisa Drakeford

Chicken House

9781910002230

July 2015

hardback

The Baby by Lisa Drakeford is one of the best books about the impact of teenage pregnancy I’ve read. The opening is a tour de force, a superbly realistic and well-realised seventeenth birthday party at which things take the normal mildly debauched downhill trajectory culminating, not so normally, in a girl giving birth in the bathroom.

The party is Olivia’s. The girl with the baby is her best friend Nicola.

I don’t normally enjoy books with multiple narrative viewpoints, but this book is masterfully constructed, so that we experience events from one person’s point of view and then move on to another’s. The author doesn’t fall into the trap of switching back and forth, but continues the momentum of the narrative forward in time as she switches from character to character.

Olivia narrates the first section, February. Nicola takes over in March. Then it’s Alice, Olivia’s younger sister’s turn in April. These three sections, forming just over half the length of the novel, are superb.

By the time the two male narrators, Jonty and Ben, take over in May and June, the novel becomes a little less engaging. I think this is partly because they have already been seen through the other narrators’ eyes, partly because the author is less assured in writing in the masculine voice, but mainly because the introduction of an additional ‘issue’ (Ben’s ‘secret’) is an unnecessary loading of concern into a novel which already has Nicola’s teenage pregnancy, Alice’s autism, Jonty’s anger issues and Olivia’s sense of betrayal to contend with.

This is, nevertheless, a book that can be very heartily recommended, and the author’s next novel eagerly awaited.