Spring Forward! Special feature coming soon…

Oh the irony of waking up to awful wet weather on the official First Day of Spring! It doesn’t feel much like spring today, so to provide a bit of spring time inspiration, I’m pleased to announce a new special feature coming soon!

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‘Just in time for Spring  will celebrate new authors, new books and general all round inspiration in children’s books. With participation from some wonderful children’s writers and publishers, I’ll be interviewing the people who bring to life new worlds and new characters, finding out all about their new projects. It all starts in the next few weeks, so watch this space!

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We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan

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Nicu is so not Jess’ type.  He’s all big eyes and ill-fitting clothes, eager as a puppy, even when they’re picking up litter in the park for community service. Appearances matter to Jess. She has a lot to hide.

Nicu shouldn’t even be looking at Jess. His parents are planning his marriage to a girl he’s never met back home in Romania. But he wants to work hard, do better, stay here. As they grow closer, their secrets surface like bruises. And as the world around them grows more hostile, the only safe place Jess and Nicu have is with each other.

Nicu and Jess may be at the same school but couldn’t be further apart when it comes to their backgrounds. Or at least that’s how it seems. Nicu is an immigrant but also a Roma Gypsy and the actions of the school bullies towards him are vile. Equally vile is the treatment of Jess and her mother by Jess’ step-father, a daily trauma Jess is desperate to hide and desperate to escape from.  Jess and Nicu meet properly when they end up on a community service programme.  For Nicu, it’s almost love at first sight when he sees Jess; for Jess, can she really be friends with someone who’s always a target for her mates’ bullying?  Both have secrets they want to hide. As their paths collide, what at first seemed marked differences soon become the threads that hold them together.  Nicu and Jess’ momentary solace in each other is short-lived and their troubles soon spill over to interfere with their plans of escape.  With prejudice, hate and fear driving those around them, how can Nicu and Jess protect themselves and each other from the inevitable outcome?

We Come Apart  is a brilliantly told story reflecting the somewhat grim reality of life as an immigrant and as a delinquent teen. Gritty and full of emotion the two central characters, Jess and Nicu, keep you utterly hooked. Having worked in schools for ten years, I have come across teenagers like them; they were totally believable. I found Nicu utterly endearing, very sweet and funny.  Being a Roma gypsy, an outcast in his own society too, he seems more hardened to prejudice than some and perhaps this is why he still wants to stay in London despite being treated so badly here. Or perhaps it’s just the lesser of two evils; the other being an arranged marriage in his home country.  Jess is someone your heart aches for; a ‘messed-up’ teen in the eyes of the world – but who wouldn’t be with such a despicable step-father to deal with?  I’ve met teenagers like her who just can’t seem to move forward, don’t want to be ‘helped’ and who act so tough but on the inside are quietly screaming. She is difficult to warm to, seeming somewhat cold-hearted, but when you understand her situation your empathy for her grows.

The authors brilliantly capture teenage angst, the differences that drive many teenagers to make bad choices and how situations can escalate as a result of these choices.  The thread of humour running through the narrative thankfully lightens the mood. But the sense of calamity surrounding Nicu and Jess’ blossoming romance is apparent from the start, making the good moments they share all the more meaningful.  It also makes the hope they find in each other more significant.   Written in verse, We Come Apart may well be an ‘easier’, shorter read, but the authors ensure every single word counts in order to create the empathy and understanding so clearly felt whilst reading it. This story is all too relevant today, tackling issues of abuse, racial bullying, knife-crime and teenage delinquency. Definitely one for YA readers, and indeed adults, it should be read to understand how prejudice of all kinds can affect young people and the danger of making assumptions about those around us.  Just because our own lives may not be touched by prejudice or abuse does not mean we should stand back and do nothing about those whose lives are.

Find out more at www.bloomsbury.com or on Twitter @BrianConaghan  or @SarahCrossan

I was delighted to purchase this copy of We Come Apart at the launch evening at Waterstones in Brighton. Thank you to Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan for signing it for me.

A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell

A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchella-dangerous-crossing-cover

Ghalib doesn’t want to leave his home. But Syria has become too dangerous, and his family has no choice but to flee. Together they start out on a terrible journey that leads them through dark and dangerous places. Ghalib comes under fire, is caught in a tear-gas attack, experiences the wretched and hopeless life of a refugee camp, and he still has to face the perils of a voyage in a boat that is far from seaworthy. 

Ghalib lives in war-torn Syria with his older sister Bushra, younger disabled brother Aylan and his parents, Baba and Umi and grandmother, Tata. They are part of a tight-knit community but increasingly it becomes clear that they can no longer ignore the ever growing danger caused by the war.  Air strikes and explosions are part of their everyday lives and when Ghalib is injured, nearly killed in a barrel bomb attack, it is the final straw for Baba and Umi.  This, coupled with the hint that their daughter may soon join the army to fight, spurs them on to leave, taking little with them other than the clothes on their backs and gold jewellery with which to barter.  Weighed down with an elderly grandmother and little Aylan, who only just manages to keep up, the journey is slow and fraught with peril.

Ghalib does what he can to help and be brave, but as they get further from home it is clear there is a long, hazardous road ahead.  Escaping a near miss under sniper fire; finding food and water and surviving explosions are just some of the challenges they face.  At the border, Ghalib becomes separated from his family and has to fend for himself, coping with his injuries alone and not knowing who to trust. His journey becomes even more fraught but he finds safety of sorts in a refugee camp.  It is only the appearance of his refugee friend Safaa and her brother Amin that keeps his hopes alive and once reunited with his family, the final, most perilous part of their journey draws near.

A Dangerous Crossing puts into words the horrendous events many Syrians just like Ghalib are going through even as I write this review.  Where do you begin to describe the absolute devastation and human suffering? It’s hard to imagine how it must feel to experience a war, let alone have to leave your home, your possessions, your friends, everything you’ve ever known, to escape.  And escape to what? An unknown future where you could be killed, turned away, starve, lose yourself completely.  This book opens the reader’s eyes to the plight of the Syrian refugees and shows us exactly how it might feel, what could happen and perhaps most importantly, how the human spirit survives even in the most dire of circumstances.

The narrative explores so many things: family relationships and how they change under such pressures; friendships across ethnicity; the degrading treatment of refugees; the extreme kindness of those who want to help; the dangers refugee children face; loss of loved ones; human exploitation; the absolute terror of war and desperation of those wanting to escape it. Central to all this is the love and hope that can be found even in the face of death and destruction, when there is no time to grieve and no telling what the future holds.

I defy anyone not look at the news reports with different eyes after reading this book. A Dangerous Crossing is well written, with a strong cast of characters and good balance of action with more emotional scenes to suit all readers. It would be a great book to use as a class reader in schools for children aged 9+, to explore the refugee crisis and prompt discussion and understanding, as well as all important empathy.

Find out more at www.littleisland.ie and on Twitter @JMitchellwriter

Thank you to Little Island for sending me this book to review.

The Boy Who Drew the Future by Rhian Ivory

The Boy Who Drew the Future by Rhian Ivoryrhian2_0

It’s starting again…

Blaze has to draw people’s future to survive, with threats of the workhouse and witch trials hanging over him. Noah tried all he can to stop drawing but the more he fights, the more it takes over. He just wants to pass for normal in his new school.  As he gets closer to Beth, will he give himself away?

One boy hiding in the past, one in the present. Can their futures set them free?

Growing up can be a challenge at the best of times but when you’re someone with a ‘gift’, it makes life even harder. Both fifteen years old, Noah and Blaze can ‘draw’ the future, predicting what might lie ahead for the person they draw for.

Blaze, in an age where witchcraft is recognised but feared, knows he can use his ‘gift’ to protect himself.  And after the death of his mother, Blaze has no choice but predict the future in return for shelter and food. He is constantly overshadowed with the threat of being discovered and sent to the workhouse – or worse.

Noah, lives 100 years later, where such things as being ‘psychic’ mark you out as a ‘freak’, and whilst not a death sentence, make ‘normal’ life almost impossible.  Consumed by guilt believing his drawings have only brought harm, Noah is terrified someone will get hurt again.  Noah’s parents are desperate for him to stop drawing, hoping that yet another new home and school will be the answer. When Noah makes friends with Beth, he feels he might be on the road to a fresh start; but his hope is short-lived when the drawing starts again….

In the The Boy Who Drew The Future, Rhian Ivory takes all the best components of storytelling and blends them to create a novel which is gripping, eerie and immersive. A thoroughly enjoyable story, I read it in one sitting. This a great book for those who might be more reluctant readers and gives some wonderful historical insight as well as reflecting the lives of teenagers today.

Told alternately from both Noah’s and Blaze’s points of view, the narrative switches smoothly from the present to the past.  Both worlds are brilliantly described – the poverty and destitution of the 1800s; and the challenge of being a teenager in the modern world with all that entails from friends to school to family problems.  Empathy is instant for both characters in their respective predicaments and as the plot progresses, it is clear the outcome is inevitably entwined. The tension mounts and Noah can barely resist confiding in Beth with whom romance is blossoming, much to the irritation of their fellow classmates. Blaze, a soulful boy with only his precious dog for companionship, veers ever closer to danger and has no one to help him. Both boys must face their worst fears and overcome them. Reaching an exciting climax, we discover that perhaps it’s not our ‘gifts’ that define us but how we use them that does.

The Boy Who Drew The Future received a well deserved Carnegie Medal 2017 nomination.

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Find out more about Rhian Ivory at www.fireflypress.co.uk and follow her on Twitter  @Rhian_Ivory

With thanks to Firefly Press for sending me this book to review.

 

Chris Riddell & Friends, Imagine Fest 2017

Chris Riddell & Friends, Southbank Centre Imagine Fest, 9th Feb 2017

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It was half term for many schools in London last week coinciding with the Southbank Centre Imagine Children’s Festival which ran from 9-19 February.  A unique festival run by children for children, the Southbank Centre works with local primary schools to put together an amazing array of events to entertain and inspire.  Just one of these events was the Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell & Friends presenting live illustration, readings and a glimpse into the inspiration behind their work.
The friends in question were Cressida Cowell, author of the How to Train Your Dragon series; Liz Pichon, author of the Tom Gates series and author and illustrator Posy Simmonds. Add to this a special surprise guest in the shape of Neil Gaiman and it was going to be a very special hour!
Chris began with some live illustrating,  drawing members of the audience as they sat waiting for the event to start! They were lucky enough to be given said illustrations to take home. He then introduced his guests through drawing them and shared his own excitement at having then join him on stage. Each guest was given fifteen minutes or so to share some of their writing and illustrating history, how they got started, and where the ideas for their hugely successful books came from. We even got to see some of their early childhood works, including scrapbooks which were fascinating.
All of them had sound advice for the young aspiring writers and artists in the audience. Which in a nutshell was: don’t let anyone tell you you won’t amount to anything or achieve anything through the art of telling stories in words and or pictures. And don’t let anyone hold you back by saying you’re no good at drawing or no good at writing (even if you have dyslexia, which Liz Pichon does).  Sat next to me was a young girl of about 13 who sat drawing in her sketchbook as she listened – inspiration in action.
Particularly special and perhaps a once in a lifetime moment, was Neil Gaiman reading aloud from Fortunately the Milk whilst Chris Riddell illustrated live on screen. Neil also shared his poem Witch Work with illustrations Chris had drawn earlier. Wow.
It was an utterly inspiring event – a wonderful celebration of stories and illustration. It never ceases to amaze me how a person can put pen to paper a draw the most incredible characters and create the most wonderful stories.
Find out more:

Instructions for a Second-Hand Heart by Tamsyn Murray

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Jonny isn’t like ‘normal’ teenagers.

EVERY DAY he wakes up in hospital kept alive by machine. EVERY DAY he wonders if this is the day they’ll find a donor match for his heart. EVERY DAY he wonders if this is the day he’ll die.

EVERY DAY Niamh fights with her “PERFECT” brother Leo. EVERY SINGLE DAY Leo wins. EVERY DAY Niamh dreams of a life without Leo. But ALL that changes on the day of the accident the day EVERYTHING falls apart. This is a story about facing the future no matter how frightening. This is a story about healing your heart, no matter how much it hurts. 

Jonny has been in hospital for longer than he cares to remember, living in the shadow of a heart condition.  His hopes for finding a donor for a heart transplant diminish as each day passes, only just kept alive by his fellow hospital friend Em, and his adoring parents.  Jonny dreams of living a ‘normal’ teenage life, whatever that might be.  In contrast, Niamh is desperate to escape her ‘normal’ life, living in the shadow of her twin brother to whom she has always felt inferior.  Playing the role of the black sheep teenager of the family is destructive, but somehow Niamh can’t help herself.  And then a terrible accident changes the course of both Niamh and Jonny’s lives forever, taking them down a path of grief, friendship and love.  With a new heart Jonny can now lead the life he has always dreamt of.  Without her brother’s constant presence in her life, Niamh can truly be her own person.  But it soon becomes clear that even when you get what you want, you still have a long way to go before you can be truly happy.

Instructions for a Second Hand Heart is not your average YA romance story. Jonny and Niamh present as two very different characters each facing huge change and difficulties in their lives. What makes this story unique and emotionally challenging is how they are brought together and it is well worth reading even if you aren’t a ‘romance’ fan.  Jonny cannot stop thinking about the person who saved his life and Niamh cannot stop thinking about her brother.  If it wasn’t for both of them, would Leo still be alive?  The narrative weaves a clever plot in which Jonny discovers more and more about his donor and Niamh discovers that perhaps her life was not as bad as she thought.  The harsh reality of this being neither one of them can change the situation they are in; they have to decide how to face it.

Told alternately from Jonny and Niamh’s points of view, the story is easy to follow and keeps you hooked from the first page. You feel great empathy for both characters as well as the wider cast featuring their family, friends and the medical staff. With a focus on long-term illness, the importance of organ-donation is also high-lighted. The story explores the anguish of families facing extreme illness, loss, grief and how you manage to keep going even when all seems lost. It reflects the heartache of first time love, true friendship and how teenagers deal with the many and varied situations they face. The author brilliantly shows the reality of the both Niamh’s and Jonny’s situations and how they are not only dealing with their own emotion and heartbreak; they also have to cope with their parents’ frustration and suffering.

Be warned: Instructions for a Second Hand Heart is not for the faint-hearted!  I loved this story and you’ll need a box of tissues and a day to recover from the emotional rollercoaster, but it’s worth it.

Find out more about the author at www.tamsynmurray.co.uk and on Twitter @TamsynTweetie

With thanks to Tamsyn Murray for sending me this book via a Twitter giveaway! 

Crossan and Conaghan at Waterstones Brighton.

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I was somewhat excited about hearing Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan talk about their new book We Come Apart at Waterstones, Brighton and arrived about 45 minutes early in my haste to get there on time.  The seats filled quickly and the talk began, brilliantly chaired by Nikki Sheehan (author of Swanboy and Who Framed Klaris Kliff?).  It was absolutely fascinating to hear the story of how two award winning authors with such unique writing styles came together to produce what will no doubt be a bestseller.  We Come Apart, written entirely in verse, tells the story of Nicu, an immigrant from Romania and his relationship with Jess, a a fellow teenager with a troubled home life.  I’m looking forward to reading it, especially after hearing how it came together.

Brian approached Sarah with the idea of writing together and Sarah agreed; and so began an incredible process of writing mainly via What’s App! With no actual ‘plotting’ the story unfolded between them, each author taking on one of the central characters. Brian would write the story from Nicu’s point of view and Sarah would write the story from Jess’ point of view. Rather than plan the story, each author would write responding and reacting to what the other author had produced, so the process was totally organic.  With their own varied approaches to writing it was clear from the conversation that their various strengths and weaknesses blended well.  And unbelievably it took just five and a half weeks to write!  Both authors shared what they had learnt from the process of a joint writing experience. Amongst other things, Brian, to plan a bit more and Sarah, to keep the gremlins of self-doubt at bay! It also came across as a very brave thing to do, which Nikki Sheehan highlighted saying that as a writer ‘giving’ your story to anyone is like giving something or someone very precious away.

When asked if they would do it again, both agreed there wouldn’t be a sequel.  They also said they’d consider writing together again but perhaps in prose. They both have ideas of characters bubbling away so perhaps it’s a case of watch this space!  It sounded like it had been a very rewarding but also quite challenging experience and it was fascinating to hear the creativity behind it.

As a young girl, I will admit I really disliked poetry. Having studied Chaucer (the original text) to death when I was about 14, I think you could forgive me for being put off poetry for some time.  I was somewhat sceptical when I first heard about The Weight of Water and whether it would appeal to young people based on my own youthful experiences. Sarah shared how in the UK it had been a much harder ‘sell’ because of some negative attitudes to poetry.  She pointed out that young people are often more flexible than their elders and they quickly embrace different styles of writing.  Not only that, for many it appeals as it’s often a quicker read and can be easier for children with dyslexia. Sarah described writing in verse as like sewing lots of different pictures together and how you can get to the heart of the story much more quickly when you don’t have to describe every tree and every ‘high road’! Brian and Sarah both talked about how writing in verse enables the reader to use their imagination to ‘fill in’ the blanks, creating those elements of the story that are left out, in the way they choose.  In that sense, it can be incredibly powerful and also very personal.  For me, reading in verse is an amazing way to communicate a story and has gone a long way to restore my love of poetry.

I wasn’t aware that both Sarah and Brian were previously teachers and both of them talked about this and how it informs their writing. Brian spoke about how he would often be talking to the reluctant readers in the classroom so that he could engage them in even just a small amount of reading, so they could feel a sense of achievement and enjoy stories like anyone else. Not being much of a reader himself as a teenager, he can relate to those who don’t read and even now doesn’t read books with a tiny font.  Brian commented that he writes books for people, about real life and real situations and for those who don’t like this, well, they don’t have to read his books.  I can’t help but agree with this sentiment.  Life is a varied and many splendoured thing and writers can choose what they want to reflect on and the reader can choose what they want to read.  Hence why book choice is so personal – and so important.

Sarah shared that as both a teacher and a mother, she felt a sense of responsibility in being very aware of what she chooses to include in her books and that she always likes to end with even just the tiniest glimmer of hope – even if the ending isn’t a ‘happy’ one.  I can’t help but agree with this too – life is hard and full of difficulties, but it’s often our hope in each other and the future that keeps us going and it’s good for young people to believe this.

Brian and Sarah were both hugely entertaining to listen to, and I can only imagine how excited their agents and publishers were when they were told they had written together; this confirmed by the Bloomsbury representatives and Brian’s agent in the audience.

It’s what I love about the world of books and reading; people are so passionate about stories. Listening to those who write them, hearing their enthusiasm and the creativity behind the story is totally inspiring.  I’m so glad I was able to attend and if Crossan and Conaghan are visiting a Waterstones near you, make sure you go if you can!

A review of We Come Apart will follow soon!