Wednesday, 28 June 2017

I Have No Secrets, by Penny Joelson, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Image result for I HAve No Secrets image

This is a wonderful book; fresh, highly readable, and giving an insight into the life of a severely disabled person in a way I've never seen done in a story for children before.  It’s a book that every secondary school library should stock and promote.  Why?

Fourteen-year-old Jemma has severe cerebral palsy, meaning that she has no independence and no means of communicating.  Her lovely mum and dad foster her, along with two other children with different severe problems.  Sarah, Jemma's carer, is her friend and roll model.  But then Sarah disappears, and Jemma almost certainly knows who is responsible for that, and also for a local murder.  Dan, Sarah’s new boyfriend, may play at being charming when in company he wants to impress, but feels safe to threaten and tease Jemma with revelations because she can’t tell anybody anything, can she?  But a new device offers Jemma the chance to have her say.  Will it be in time to save herself, and Sarah?  This story is a domestic thriller, and it certainly has that unputdownable quality that comes with characters we care about being in urgent peril. 

This is all told in the first person by Jemma herself, so we understand how absolutely normal and bright she is in spite of her odd appearance and lack of speech.  We get to experience Jemma’s frustrations at being ignored or sidelined, parked in her wheelchair in a position that stops her from seeing what she wants and needs to see, or present at conversations where she is the only one who could tell what they need to know, if only she could ‘tell’.  And we also share her excitement in discovering a twin sister, and the difficulties that produces on both sides. 

This is Penny Joelson’s first novel, and it’s an important one.  Watch out for more to come!


Monday, 12 June 2017

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

Opening up a new Neil Gaiman book is always a treat, but I was curious about reading The Sleeper and the Spindle. How would Gaiman play with traditional folktales and make them interesting and new? As you might have guessed from the title, Sleeping Beauty is the basis for the story. But, there is a twist or two.  One of the protagonists is a queen who has striking resemblances to another fairytale character. She has dwarves for friends, does not seem too keen on her stepmother, once slept for over a year in a glass coffin, and has skin that, in a certain light, seems as white as snow. 

The Sleeper and the Spindle is a story of heroines. Princes are nowhere to be seen in providing happy ever afters. The queen hears of a terrible new sleeping plague spreading across her neighbour’s kingdom, who incidentally happens to be a princess who has been slumbering under a spell for some eighty years, so that birds fall from the sky mid-flight and whole towns of people sleep ‘… in their smithies, at their awls, on milking stools.’ Awful as this is, the plague gives a welcome excuse for the queen to ditch her fiancé on the eve of their wedding, don her armour and ride off for adventure to save her kingdom. 

While Gaiman gives a nod to traditional folktale conventions — 'Names are in short supply in this telling’ — he also adds other modern flavours. Creepily, the cobwebbed sleeping multitudes affected by the plague speak in unison and lumber after the living, reminiscent of zombies. It is the queen, not a prince, who wakes the sleeping girl with a kiss. 

We are also challenged to think about identity. How much choice do we have about who we are or what we do? When we first meet the queen, she is contemplating life without choices after her imminent marriage: '..the path to her death, heartbeat by heartbeat, would be inevitable.' Interestingly, many of the main characters do not use their own names: one name has been forgotten; others do not want to share theirs publicly; many are simply referred to by their titles (Her Majesty, the sot, the pot-girl). In fact, Gaiman sets up our understanding of who-is-who early in the book, only to challenge our guided misconceptions later in the story. 

The artwork embellishing the book is magnificent. Chris Riddell uses a black-and-white palette with a hint of gold in a style inspired by art nouveau. The intricate detail of the illustrations — creeping claustrophobic vines, cobwebs and expressive faces of the characters — are hugely atmospheric and weave their own story around the written tale. The book was a deserved winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal 2016.


Thursday, 8 June 2017

When Marnie Was There, by Joan G Robinson: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

Earlier in the year, I went on holiday to Norfolk. I'd only been there once before, to Yarmouth, years ago, and I didn't have very high expectations. I thought it was going to be flat and rather dull.

I was so wrong! In North Norfolk, where we were, the countryside was lovely: sloping fields, sometimes with rows of daffodils, woods, streams - and just something about the light. The towns and villages were compact, with characterful coffee shops, there was Nelson's birthplace, Blickling Hall and Sheringham Park - and then there was the coast. Salt marshes, great stretches of sand, circling birds - and vast skies.

At a shop at Cley Nature Reserve I bought the first in a series of mysteries set on the Norfolk coast, written by Elly Griffiths. (Brilliant - for a review see here.) After I'd written about it, a friend who lives in Norwich, writer Paeony Lewis, asked if I'd read a children's book called When Marnie Was There, by Joan G Robinson - it too was set in Norfolk, and she had a feeling I might like it.

She was absolutely right, and I don't know why I hadn't heard of it before. It was published in 1967 - I was a teenager then, so I suppose I was a bit too old for it and perhaps that's why I missed it. As with the Elly Griffiths books, the shifting, changing seascape is an integral part of the story; you can't always be sure what you're seeing - or even, perhaps, when you're seeing it. People from the Neolithic, Vikings, smugglers - none of these would look out of place here.

So it really doesn't seem too surprising when lonely orphan Anna, staying with an elderly couple for the summer, sees a girl in a white dress with long pale hair in the window of a house across the creek - a girl whom no-one else seems to have noticed. Anna is a self-contained child and a lonely one. She doesn't know how to make friends and she's given up trying. 'She knew perfectly well... that things like parties and best friends and going to tea with people were fine for everybody else, because everyone else was 'inside' - inside some sort of invisible magic circle. But Anna herself was outside. And so these things had nothing to do with her. It was as simple as that.'

But it's different with Marnie. The two girls are drawn to each other, and Anna - in this world of the sixties, where a child can spend hours by herself on the sea shore, in a boat, sometimes with an eccentric old man called Wuntermenny - is happier than she has ever been. As she spends time with Marnie, Anna blossoms; she becomes happier and more confident, more able to reach out to other people. I won't spoil the story - but at the end of it, Anna has learnt a great deal about herself in all sorts of ways - from her encounter with the mysterious Marnie, she's gained so much.

I can't find an image of the copy I have, but here's a still from the film. made by Studio Ghibli.

From the postscript, written by Joan Robinson's daughter, it's clear that this has been a novel which has appealed to people all over the world - she tells the story of a Japanese man, who, having read the book as a teenager, set out to find the place where it was set, with only the book itself as a guide. In the book, the village is called Little Overton - but that wasn't much help, because its real name is Burnham Overy. Still, he took the train to Kings Lynn, as Anna did in the book, caught the bus along the coast as she did - and recognised the place by a windmill which features in the book.

First published in 1967, my edition was printed in 2014. A film was made of it recently. This is an enduring story, a classic. And this doesn't surprise me. It may be set in the mid-twentieth century, but the emotional landscape of Anna - initially bleak, cold and lonely - ensures, sadly, that it will always be relevant; there will always be children who feel they don't fit. And the physical landscape of the Norfolk coast - wild, empty, sea-washed - provides a perfect reflection of her inner life, and a  perfect setting for a story where the barriers between reality and imagination shift and rearrange themselves - like the sand dunes and marshes themselves.


Sunday, 4 June 2017

THE EEL OF FORTUNE by Sally Prue. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

When Sally Prue's first Class Six book came out, I reviewed it on this blog. A  link to my piece is below. For those who are pressed for time, the main thing about this review is my justification for reviewing a) a book by a friend of mine and b) a book for juniors, not hyped, and not much advertised and which could easily fall below the radar.

This is the follow up. The school has lost the wonderful witch Miss Broom..she's been sent away so that the terrible Mrs Knowall, who's keen on being a school governor, doesn't spot that there's magic in this school, doesn't report it to her friend the District Inspector of Schools, and get the school changed or closed down or somehow rendered unmagical. 

The only problem is: the School Fair is coming up. Will Class Six be able to prepare all the magical things that Miss Broom would have been in charge of?  What will Winsome and Anil and the hilarious Rodney do to save the day?

I can't begin to convey how delightful the solutions are. How fun-filled and silly and completely satisfying they are.  The staff at this school consist of a werewolf, a vampire and the head is mermaid who sings sad sea songs. The school secretary is called Jeanie and of course, retires into her lamp when she needs to. Beanstalks grow and giants appear. Barry the eponymous eel helps Miss C Weed tell fortunes. And my favourites of all are the band called The Sirens. 

They are put in charge of drawing in the crowds and of course the crowds are drawn into the Fair in their thousands.  And the song the Sirens sang, in Prue's words: "wasn't exactly singing: the sound was more like someone spin-drying a gibbon."

Prue writes so well. She's so zingy and inventive and the illustrations by Loretta Schauer fit perfectly with this zany and delicious story which every Year Six child will enjoy. And Prue isn't above slipping in a message for parents and educationalists. "Mrs Knowall wants to make this a place where all the children are squeezed into the same shape, so the fat ones can't breathe and the thin ones rattle."

There are numerous delights all through this book. And there are quizzes and bonus bits at the end....what more could you wish for? Buy for your school classroom. Buy for your child....enjoy!


Thursday, 1 June 2017

THE RED SHOE by Ursula Dubosarsky. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

I loved this book. It's a complex, funny, sad but ultimately hopeful family story.

Three sisters are living in Sydney in 1954. Elizabeth is fifteen, Frances eleven, and Matilda six. Their father, who was traumatised by his experiences during the war, is in the merchant navy. The main viewpoint is Matilda's, and the author captures perfectly the small but utterly absorbing world of the six-year-old. But behind the ordinary events of childhood (playing in the garden, collecting snails, spying on the mysterious people who have moved in next door) there is a sense of unease, of something wrong in the family, something unspoken. Why is Elizabeth having a nervous breakdown? Why is Uncle Paul so often in the house when Daddy is away? And when will Daddy come home?

Matilda has recently acquired an imaginary companion, Floreal, whose remarks and questions are always unsettling. She doesn't like Floreal and wishes he would go back into the radio, where he came from. Matilda has seen and overheard things, some of which she has repressed - but not so deeply that Floreal can't reach them. At last the memories begin to force their way up and to make sense. And it's Matilda who, in the end, reveals a shocking truth.

Interspersed with the chapters are excerpts from Sydney newspapers of the time which relate to some of the background events in the story and help to build the atmosphere: items about children with polio, the H-bomb, Russian spies, diplomatic visits. The story is set very precisely around Easter 1954, and details of real events are woven into the narrative.

It's difficult to say what age this book is for. Perhaps about twelve - but with no upper age limit. The best thing would be just to have a copy around for anyone who wants to read it. For me, the full complexity of the plot structure was not apparent until I read the story for a second time - and enjoyed and admired it even more. This is a book to keep, share and re-read.

Walker Books, 2015.


Sunday, 28 May 2017


“This book is for anyone who wants to know how friendships work and what to do when they don’t,” says the blurb.
 And who wouldn’t want to know about all that?

Few things are as important as friends and friendship groups to teenager, or as complicated. Beyond one’s own family circle, how does one learn about the art of friendship? I feel that the media isn’t always helpful. Films and tv series show idealised - if not ideal - social groups where, for obvious storytelling reasons, episodes must be full of heightened interactions and continually “dramatic” relationships. Real life is more boring and more complicated.

This book, THE TEENAGE GUIDE TO FRIENDS by Nicola Morgan, is a welcome guide, containing a wide range of clearly explained information as well as plenty of those simple “get to know yourself” quizzes beloved by many readers.

The author, Nicola Morgan, is already well known for self-help books for young people: see other titles below. Conversations with pupils and staff in those many schools must surely have led to this latest publication.  

In THE TEENAGE GUIDE TO FRIENDS, she suggests there are many different types of friends. Rather than focusing on the wish for “one best friend”, she looks at the range of opportunities for friendship existing within one’s social groups and beyond. 

Chapters introduce the importance of empathy, the psychology of personality types, as well as peer pressure, group behaviour and the effect of family position. Nicola Morgan writes about the problems that come from the need for friends including the impact of “negative” friendships to managing friends online. She introduces the differing needs of introverts and extroverts, whether in school or out in the wider world, and talks about the management of stress and anxiety.

Wisely, Nicola Morgan suggest that friendships can change, encouraging the young reader to consider friendship as a range of relationships, not always of the same intensity or serving the same purpose or lasting for ever. 

Over the chapters, she points out that friendship asks for understanding and that sometimes one needs to say sorry, or not to take things too personally or seriously. I also liked how, in one chapter, she promotes the value of just being friendly by acting inclusively towards outsiders within social situations and lunch-breaks: an outward looking view of friendship, not just a focus on "me."

Nicola Morgan’s tone is warm and straightforward; she makes it clear that this is a book of general advice and information, and frequently tells troubled readers to talk to trusted friends or adults. The last section, which supplies plenty of helpful addresses, includes warnings about the dangers of misleading articles, unofficial blogs and web-sites.

Best of all, I felt, was the way that Nicola Morgan tries to give her teenage readers more confidence in managing their social circles and that intention, in particular, makes her book, THE TEENAGE GUIDE TO FRIENDS, a useful and an easy read. I’d say that this title would be a welcome addition to secondary schools self-help collections, in the library or wherever such books can be quietly and easily reached by those who need them.

Penny Dolan.

Ps. Just to avoid misunderstandings, Nicola Morgan does visit schools frequently and is an established writer of fiction and non-fiction books. 
She is not Nicky Morgan, the past Secretary of State for Education.


Wednesday, 24 May 2017

THE LAURAS – by Sara Taylor

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

Billed as a road-trip novel, I’d say this is so much more.  It’s a thirteen year old being woken by yet another row between parents, then being yanked out of bed and into Mum’s car.  So begins a road-trip that not only takes in several US states but introduces Alex to a past relived by a mother who has not said anything about until now.

It’s a very interesting past, involving an unconventional home life with parents who lapsed in and out of coping, foster homes both good and bad – and the Lauras, girls who’d influenced Alex’s mother’s life in some way.  In between the gradual opening up, there are those needing help, those needing revenge – and the sudden appearance of a gun.  All the while the two of them drift and Alex has to settle into new schools before being uprooted once again to go on the road. 

Then there is Alex.  The desire to go back home, against the need to be on the road.  This is where my review becomes tricky – because I can’t refer to Alex and ‘she’ or ‘he’ and I don’t want to write he/she, because Alex doesn’t know either.

Yet Alex’s indeterminate gender is not the focus of the story, although it does have consequences, particularly at school.  What stands out is Alex’s mother’s support, given unconditionally since the day Alex came home from school in tears because the children had been told to line up in a girls’ or a boys’ line and Alex was left not knowing which one to choose.
Throughout the book you never know whether Alex was born male or female.  But one thing for certain is that Alex is Alex, and it is this, not Alex's gender, that counts.

But please don’t think this is a book about gender – it is a about a mother and child road-trip, were discoveries are made, both self and each other.  It’s beautifully written and both Alex and the drifting mother come across as fully rounded characters, flaws, good points and all.

Supposedly for the adult market, I think this would sit perfectly alongside YA.  And although it’s not the main theme, it would be a welcome addition to the LGBT shelves.