Sunday, 9 May 2021

Children's Books Reading Round-Up: March - April 2021

 A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll (Knights Of)

I've been a bit behind on this one as it has been around since June last year. In fact, I've had a copy sitting on my shelf for a while and my daughter had already read it and enjoyed it. Oh, and everyone else on Twitter had been raving about it and Elle McNicoll only went and won the 2021 Blue Peter award for best story with this amazing little book. It tells the story of Addie, an autistic girl who decides to campaign to have a memorial to women who were tried and executed as witches in her Scottish village. In the so-called witches she finds a kinship - perhaps they were just different and were persecuted for it? With lots of eye-opening moments, Elle McNicoll portrays what life can be like for several different neurodiverse children and young adults (one of Addie's big sisters is autistic too), celebrating what Addie is capable of because of how deeply she cares. On a personal note, I found Addie's parents to be inspirational - something for me to aspire to!

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll can be found on my Read By My LKS2 Daughter book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/read-by-my-lks2-daughter

The Elephant by Peter Carnavas (Pushkin Press)

I wasn't sure what to expect with this one as on the surface it looks like a story for very young children (KS1) - and it is, but it has depth and beauty that will have something to say to readers of all ages. It reminded me a lot of My Dad's A Birdman by David Almond - which is a very good thing in my books. Olive's mum, an adult reader will surmise from the outset, has passed away, and her dad is grieving. In fact, he is grieving so much that his grief is the size of an elephant - an elephant that Olive sees following her dad around everywhere he goes. Olive decides that she can and must help her dad to become happier again - a huge undertaking for a child - and thankfully her granddad steps in to help her to achieve this, pointing out that she can't manage the task alone. Together, they work to bring some moments of happiness in to her dad's life. No spoilers, but the ending is lovely and very satisfying as an adult who was concerned for Olive's wellbeing throughout the story.

The Elephant by Carnavas can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve (David Fickling Books)

I battled against myself with this one - with a publishing date of September I felt that I shouldn't read it until nearer the time. But, being a massive Philip Reeve fan, I couldn't leave it sitting on the shelf any longer. Was I disappointed? Why would I be? This is Philip Reeve and he is a master storyteller! Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep is very different to his previous series of books (Mortal Engines, Fever Crumb, Railhead etc) as it isn't futuristic/post-apocalyptic sci-fi - this time its folksy fantasy set possibly in Edwardian times, but on a remote island in a fictional archipelago of the United Kingdom. There are too, in this story, some aspects of horror, slightly reminiscent of some of H.P. Lovecraft's creations - not the racist bits but the mysterious submerged kingdoms, the strange beings that frequent the shores of the island, and the eerie sense of disquiet that surrounds so much of the action. Having said that, there is a great warmth to this story which is essentially an exploration of what it means to belong to a family as Reeve weaves his cast of richly developed characters into the plot. Given that Philip said himself that things have changed since the proof copy and that the final thing will include a map and chapter header illustrations, I might just have to read it again when everyone else can get their hands on it too.

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve can be found on my Children's Fiction 2021 book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Can You Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark, Illustrated by Anna Höglund, Translated by Julia Marshall (Gecko Press)

Can You Whistle, Johanna? was chosen as a short read whilst in between books, not wanting to commit myself to anything longer, and I'm really glad I did. Apparently, this book is a bit of a hit in Sweden where a televised version is shown every year, and I think I can see why. Despite the deception (a boy is persuaded by his friend to find himself a grandfather at a local retirement home) this is such a heartwarming story of intergenerational friendship. Berra meets Old Ned and, along with Ulf, they become great friends, sharing experiences and memories, and essentially enriching one another's lives. With a refreshing openness and honesty, this book tackles aging and death alongside its message that fun, fulfilling life is for people of all ages but that we must enable one another to achieve it.

Can You Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark can be found on my Children's Fiction 2021 book list  on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Animal Farm by George Orwell, Illustrated by Chris Mould (Faber)

Obviously a book that's been around some time, and one I've read, or had read to me, before. This year it was republished by Faber, only this time chock-full of Chris Mould's lively illustrations. Is it a children's book? Apparently so, and of course it can be read entirely without any political interpretations, however, as an adult I certainly enjoyed it on a new level, trying to match events to my scant knowledge of the Russian Revolution but also pondering the UK's current political landscape too. Chris Mould's illustrations certainly bring this much closer to being a book that today's children might pick up and enjoy, particularly those who are familiar with his illustrations of, say, Matt Haig's books or his version of Ted Hughes' The Iron Man. Energetic in style, the images do a brilliant job of mirroring the descent of the farm's utopian veneer, with Mould particularly nailing the facial expressions and body language of the animal subjects. I'm really glad I re-read this this year, and I'm really thankful for the new version - Chris really makes this new version a visual treat. 

Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll (Knights Of)

I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to read this one before publishing this blog post - my reading of late has been taken up more with books about how to better parent an autistic child. However, a lovely rainy Saturday during which my children were miraculously entertained by magnetic balls and screens meant that I got the chance to read the second half of this in one go. And I have to say I was absolutely bowled over by this book. Cora, the main character, is autistic, and this fact is absolutely integral to the plot, this is not just a book about an autistic person. It's actually a sophisticated sci-fi, unnervingly oh-so-slightly dystopian story during which the reader will gain a whole load of insight into what being neurodiverse might be like. Not only is Cora autistic, but Adrien, her best friend, has ADHD. Show Us Who You Are is almost completely different to A Kind Of Spark (although there are some similarities, the main one being the MC's desire and ability to stand up for what is right), marking Elle McNicoll out as a superbly skilled writer, and if she wasn't already, one to watch as she continues to write and publish. In this book she achieves deeper depths and higher heights, smashing the mould of the growing trend for diverse, representative books which focus mostly on highlighting the plight of a marginalised group. Here we have a book that truly shows that diverse characters can and should be seen in any role in any genre and that actually the story is all the better for it. I actually can't praise this book enough.

Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

The Beast of Harwood Forest by Dan Smith, illustrated by Chris King (Barrington Stoke)

Pete, Krish and Nancy appear once more in another short but action-packed adventure from Dan Smith. This was another book I picked up knowing I had I would be able to take in the whole story in a short time. School residential stories have an evergreen appeal and they are ripe for a bit of spookiness. Very quickly Dan Smith evokes the necessary aura for a midnight exploration to go badly wrong. With nods this time to comic book capers (I'm thinking Captain America and The Incredible Hulk), The Beast of Harwood Forest taps into some WW2 vibes whilst ensuring that those Stranger Things vibes continue to resonate throughout. Without wanting to give too much away, this high interest/low level reader has a super-satisfying ending - it really is a marvel that a story can be told so well over so few pages. Helping with this are Chris King’s perfect illustrations which, as you can see from the cover, are spot on for the comic book vibes. Inside the pictures are greyscale and Chris works with tone so well that they suit the spooky content to a tee - I am so glad the publishers choose to have these books illustrated. Barrington Stoke books are a must-have for every library, and its books like these that showcase perfectly what they set out to achieve (which you can read more about here).

The Beast of Harwood Forest by Dan Smith can be found on my Children's Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

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