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!

Spring time quote

‘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!

spring time quote 2

 

 

We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan

We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan25310356

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.

Crossan and Conaghan at Waterstones Brighton.

25310356

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!

The Memory Book by Lara Avery

the-memory-book-coverSam McCoy is 17.  Sam McCoy was going to be someone – and then she became ill.  Now, she must figure out who she is…..

Told in a diary style narrative, The Memory Book follows Sam McCoy as she deals with a life-changing illness.  Diagnosed with Niemann-Pick, a form of dementia, Sam will inevitably lose her memory.  Determined to give herself the best possible chance of remembering who she is, Sam starts a memory book, like a diary, telling her future self (Future Sam) who she is and what she wants from life.  As she writes, Sam discovers the plans she has made for herself – winning the Nationals, making the Valedictorian speech and going to NYU – are less and less likely to be achieved but with dogged determination she fights her way forward.  Sam’s friends and family provide some support and advice but it’s not always welcome; her illness affects them too.  As it progresses, Sam has less and less freedom, which for a teenager desperate to break free is increasingly frustrating.  Sam starts to realise perhaps she isn’t the person she thought she was and it’s only through the memory book that her true self is revealed.

The Memory Book is an utterly compelling young adult story and I read it in one sitting, staying up till 1am to finish it.  In practical terms, it’s very easy to read with some ‘chapters’ only one line long (so a good choice for teens who don’t want to read a ‘long’ book).  But in emotional terms, it’s heart-wrenching, with the final scenes in particular causing a flood of tears.  I loved Sam; she’s bold and brave and totally inspiring considering what she is facing.  I loved her debate partner Maddie; who takes no prisoners and says it like it is – causing conflict here and there.  I loved Coop; the unassuming, ‘dope-smoker’ from next door, who turns out to be *spoiler alert* the best friend a girl could have.  Sam’s family (Mum and Dad, a brother and two sisters, all younger) are introduced to us through childhood memories as well as ‘current’ moments and Sam’s own predictions of what she thinks her siblings will be like in the future.  Particularly poignant is the scene where Sam lapses into memory loss and ‘forgets’ one of her sisters – with her sister understandably distraught at being ‘forgotten’ even if only temporarily.  Sam’s parents work hard to pay the inevitable medical bills and to stay strong through the horrendous ordeal of watching their child’s health deteriorate.  Through the various relationships Sam has, including with Stuart Shah her schoolgirl crush, the journey of self-discovery is significant. As the reader, you rejoice with her when she manages to achieve some of her goals, mourn those she can’t and feel absolute heartache as her “body is failing”.  Slowly, Sam starts to realise those things she placed so much hope in are not as important as she thought.  This realisation helps her to embrace the life she now has and do her best to enjoy it; a lesson we can all learn along with her.the-memory-book-cover

As a mother myself, I cannot bear the thought of having my sons going through an illness like this. It’s bad enough when they have the flu – you’d do anything to make them feel better.  Magnify this by about a million and that is how I imagine Sam’s mother to feel.  Her words to Sam, her eldest daughter, written in The Memory Book are just beautiful.   The story of Sam McCoy will stay with you long after reading.

Also reviewed for the Reading Zone. Thank you to Quercus for sending me this book.

Author Interview: Patricia Forde

img_7368-soft-copy-copy-730x410I’m so excited to present my first author interview of 2017 with Patricia Forde! Patricia has written picture books, plays, TV dramas for children and teenagers as well as writing for various soap operas – in both English and Irish. Her first novel, The Wordsmith, was published by Little Island in May 2015.

Thank you Patricia for joining the blog today.

How did you come up with the idea for the character of the Wordsmith? For me, writing often starts with a single image.  With The Wordsmith I had an image of a young girl selling words in a shop. Interestingly, I spent a lot of my young years behind the counter of my family’s shop so it was a familiar setting for me. My husband had just come back from the USA and had brought me a visual thesaurus for my computer.  I remember thinking that it was as if he had bought words for me. I then spent months trying to figure out who this girl was and what kind of place would have people who needed to buy words. The story and the character began there.

The Irish language also played a part.  I am bi-lingual and write in both languages. I feel that in my adult life I have been attending a wake for the language. Gradually, native Irish speakers are using more and more English words in normal speech.  Apparently, a minority language like Irish, dies, by being cannibalised by the stronger language, in our case English. Working in that environment and seeing the ‘list’ of words we use diminish definitely influenced me when creating Letta and her world.

the-wordsmith-coverThe Wordsmith ‘collects’ and distributes words throughout the book. I thought the List was a great – if scary – idea. I also thought it was clever to show how restricting the words that can be used affects communication. How did you decide which words to ‘keep’ when writing List dialogue and did you worry about this affecting the narrative?The list of words came from an American linguist.  I found him on the internet and asked him what was the minimum number of words needed to hold a basic conversation (How many words do you need to survive?) He very kindly responded and said 500 and then sent me a list of the 500 words you would use.  I doctored the list to my own ends. I added words like ‘desecrator’ for example.

I did worry initially about restricting my vocabulary but then I invented rules to help me get over that.  In the novel Letta speaks the ‘old tongue’ to her master, to Marlo, to John Noa, and of course, in her own head. This made easier for me to express myself fully and not feel that I too had to conform to the List.

Freedom of expression through the arts is a key theme in the book. What do you think is important about the arts in our daily lives (not just as a means to make a living)? We are the only species on Earth that has more than one life. We have the possibility of imagination. We are able to imagine what will happen- after lunch or in a thousand years time.  We not only experience the reality of every day but we have the facility to step out of the normal and into the ‘other’. Music, poetry, art and stories all act as portals to help us make that transition. I think it is central to our mental health and wellbeing to be able to make that leap. Personally, I’ve always been a reader.  No matter what calamity was playing out in real life, I had the ability to escape into a book. I passionately believe that every child should have the right to have access to that door. I was lucky to have been born into a home where books were valued and into a community where education was freely available. I was lucky to have access to a public library. I think, as a society, we need to value the arts more and realise what a great privilege it is to be able to freely enjoy artistic expression.

You touch on people’s desire or need to believe in something in the novel.   The statue of the Goddess indicates some of the people’s past beliefs. Why did you include this theme in the story?  I grew up in a very Catholic tradition and even though I have major criticisms of the church as an organisation, I loved all a the symbolism and ritual attached to it. I also loved the comfort and reassurance that faith brought. In Ireland now, the idea of faith and belief is slowly falling away. In the novel, I show a people who have left it behind them but still yearn for something supernatural to believe in.

The’ Melting’ in the novel has been caused by man’s own ignorance which has resulted in the catastrophic destruction of society.  What inspired you to write a novel with this as a central idea and did you research the issues surrounding this to inform your writing?  The destruction of the environment has been such a hot topic in recent years. I live on the outskirts of Connemara on one side and the Burren on the other. Both of these places are spectacularly beautiful with granite mountains in Connemara looking down on the wild Atlantic ocean and miles of bone-white limestone in the Burren peppered with rare wild flowers. I did a lot of research into global warming and its consequences. It is horrifying to think that we are destroying fragile places all over the world. And of course we are endangering insects, birds and animals as well. One of the things I mention in the book is that bees had become almost extinct before the Melting. I love bees. My grandfather kept a couple of hives and Ireland has a lot of folklore connected to them. For instance, the old people would say that you should always inform the bees if someone in the household dies.  Otherwise, they will swarm and leave the hive.  This is because bees are very sensitive and easily offended.

*SPOILER ALERT* – Letta and Marlo seem destined for each other (and yippee so they were!!)  Did you feel it important to have an element of romance in the story? No I didn’t!  I had no hand, act or part in it. My plan – such as it was- did not include a love story. Sometimes, characters take on a life of their own and stop going along with the writer. It started with a few glances.  She noticed he ‘smelt like sage’ and before I knew it, they were in love! Eventually I had to give in to them and I was quite happy when they got together at the end.

I love the narrative and the deliberate descriptions you include – such as when Letta is making the ink for her words using the beetroot. This being your first novel (having previously written television dramas, plays, early readers and picture books) how did the writing experience differ?  As far as books go, everything I had written before this was a sprint.  The novel was a marathon. There were times when I found it hard to be patient, hard to slow down and describe things, to let the engine idle for a minute. I had to constantly remind myself to stop plotting and to look around me and tell the readers what I saw. On the positive side, I loved having time to say all the things I wanted to say and I loved having time to spend with the characters, especially Letta. I was shocked at how much I missed her company when the story finished.

And finally, to any aspiring writers out there what would your three best pieces of advice be?!  

1. Read everything you can and especially read books that you love.

2. Write as much as you can. Write every day if you can but don’t get hung up on that.  Everyone is different. There is no right way and there is certainly no wrong way to write. You are the only one who sees the world from behind your eyes. Tell us what you see and we will be interested.  Don’t worry if you don’t see vampires or wizards. I don’t think anyone will mind.

3. And finally, never, ever give up.

Wonderful advice,thank you Patricia! And some really amazing answers here too.

 

The Wordsmith by Patricia Forde

the-wordsmith-coverThe Wordsmith, Patricia Forde

Ark is a place of tally sticks, rationed food and shared shoes, where art and music are banned, language is severely restricted and outcasts are thrown to the wolves. Letta’s job is to collect words and dole them out to people who need them.  When she discovers that John Noa is planning to rob the people of language altogether and make them Wordless, she has to stop him. But she’s only a young girl and he’s the leader of the known world.

Letta is an apprentice, learning the trade of the Wordsmith; perhaps the most important role in all of Ark.  Letta makes the word cards that people are allowed to use in their daily lives – anything not a ‘List’ word is forbidden.  For words are considered to be the cause of the Melting; they are the root of all evil and therefore restrictions ensure there will be no more trouble. The rule of law is created by John Noa and Ark is policed for him by gavvers; ruthless men who will do anything they can to ensure the law is followed.  Anyone found to be challenging the law, a Desecrator, is banished to the wild. Benjamin, the Master Wordsmith, has been Letta’s family since her parents were lost.  He often reassures her that all will be well, even when unrest spreads across Ark and outside the walls in Tin Town. When Benjamin meets his death on a word-finding trip and a Desecrator named Marlo shows up in her shop with bullet wounds, Letta starts to question everything.  The reality of Ark suddenly becomes more like a prison; Letta realises John Noa is not all he seems and that everyone is in danger.  Now the Master Wordsmith, Letta must overcome her fears and challenge all that she thought she knew to uncover the truth.

The Wordsmith is a beautifully written tale illustrating the importance of language and creativity and the power they have to change lives. Suitable for ages 11+, it has a detailed narrative and clever plot, you are instantly drawn into the post-apocalyptic world of Ark.  It takes a moment to get used to some of the conversation which takes place using only ‘List’ words, but this perfectly creates the atmosphere of what it must be like to live in a world without proper communication. The heroine Letta, for whom you feel great empathy, is full of imagination considering the time she lives in, and very brave.  Saving Marlo leads her to find out what life should really be like and how creativity is part of being human – as well as discovering the Desecrators are not the monsters she thought.  The monster, is in fact, John Noa, who has clearly become obsessed with controlling all those around him through taking away their words.  It is a frightening thought and there are some unpleasant moments where you realise just how far he will go to ‘save’ society.

As Letta’s journey to discover the truth unfolds, we find out what happened in the Melting (global warming) and how this has destroyed the world as we know it –a potential future that is a little too ‘real’ for comfort.  Letta meets many brilliantly described characters; each of whom has a different experience to share; each of whom lead her on to the inevitable confrontation with John Noa. As well as being a great adventure, with plot twists to keep you on the edge of your seat, The Wordsmith captures many of the concerns we have in society today. Raising questions of science, faith, religion, old age, poverty and the power of freedom of expression , I thoroughly enjoyed this story and really hope there will be a follow-up!
Check out my interview with Patricia Forde; not to be missed!

Find out more about Patricia Forde at www.patriciaforde.com and follow her on Twitter @PatriciaForde1

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