2019 Blog 2

It’s Not About the Burqa by Mariam Khan

Muslim Woman on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race

‘This isn’t a children’s book,’ I hear you all scream from across the giant internet room. Well, no, it’s most definitely not but, in my opinion, it’s definitely a book everyone regardless of gender, race or religion should read. I can’t remember where I saw it first; I think it was on Twitter and possibly a review in one of the papers. However, as I was about to head off to America just as it came out, I thought I might be able to pick it up at Heathrow. No. Failed. So once in the enormous Barnes and Noble in Baltimore, I asked in there.

‘Hi, do you have a copy of It’s not about the Burqa by Mariam Khan,’ I ask the girl on the desk. She looks at me slightly blank and says she’ll check on her computer. After a few minutes hunting she says to me, ‘Would you normally find it in the food section?’ Eh, I am looking slightly confused. ‘You know in the section where they have other books on burgers.’ This is not going well. She then proceeds to tell me she can order it from Amazon in the UK. I decline. I had to wait until I returned home, where I found a single copy lurking on the shelves of Waterstones in Exeter. I was delighted that I could find it and have the opportunity to read it straight away.

This collection of essays from Muslim women was enlightening. There are essays about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a woman of colour, what it means to be a muslim woman, but to limit it to such vague ideas would be to do it a disservice. There are so many perspectives gathered into this short book, starting with something as simple as what we wear, as women and how muslim women are often defined by what they choose to wear. Note that word choose. There are fascinating insights about why women CHOOSE to cover themselves or not. But also the inherent sexism they have to face by muslim men too (not all men, just like those who are not muslims, there are plenty of men who do not treat women with any respect). It was a revelation to me and seeing the absolutely stunning muslim supermodel on the front of the Sunday Times style section this weekend, there is a sense that ALL women face the same issues of body dysmorphia and have far too many insults slung at them for wearing the wrong thing.

Another essay reflected on failed marriages and the great sense of shame that came with it. But what struck me about this essay was the sense that the family made no judgements about the idea of a marriage not working. They supported their daughter regardless bringing her home from a loveless and abusive marriage. However, by the time she finds her third husband she is a very different person and thank goodness she is now very happy. Saima Mar writes a passionate essay and explains how Islam has for too long been ‘interpreted through the eyes of men.’ This is something that is not the preserve of muslim women. Our world has been defined for men until relatively recently and there’s a long way to go yet.

Now, I should say, I didn’t agree with all the ideas expressed with this essays. In fact, there were one or two where I thought that the women hadn’t expressed their arguments very well and I felt little sympathy. But those were the exception. Most of them gave me a much better understanding of the predicament of growing up muslim in a country where Islam is defined by the right wing press as ‘dangerous’. The reality is far from that presented in the press. The doubts expressed by these women about where they ‘fit’ in the UK despite being born here, made me angry and upset for them.

This is a thought provoking collection of essays from a diverse and intelligent group of women. They left me feeling that I would like to sit down with each and every one of them and discuss the ideas they raise. If there is one non-fiction book you read this year, this is it. Learn, understand, embrace because women, now more than ever, need to be a collective voice of reason.

2019 Blog 01

The Goose Road by Rowena House

One girl’s epic journey in the chaos of World War One

When you get to meet the people behind their pictures on Twitter or Facebook, clearly there is a nervous moment and then a sort of wonder and then, in this case, laughter and cake! But I’ll explain that in a minute.

Rowena House’s Goose Road is a tale of courage in the face of adversity, not just war but starvation, weather, and disease. It takes us from a farm in rural France, through Paris and onwards across the countryside through a war torn country constantly under threat from the German requisitions. At just 14 year’s old, Angélique is taking care of her family’s farm and desperately trying to ensure her brother has something to come home to when and if he survives the trenches. She is faced with unimaginable hardship as she takes a flock of geese across the country to sell them for the highest price she can get. She is assisted by her wonderful Uncle Gustav, who indulges her need to save her family farm.

Of course, with all the teenagers in the tale, there is gentle love story woven in amongst the rural landscape. Despite the ravages of war, there is still room for joy and happiness. But this is not a tale for the faint hearted. Rowena’s brilliant story telling lands us in all sorts of emotional trouble. Just when you truly believe that the world is going to give Angélique the support she needs, all our hopes and hers are dashed by the gritty reality of what it means to try to survive the war behind the lines. At one point, I was physically sobbing as Angélique seems to lose so much along the way and I wondered how on earth there could be any hope for her.

Of course, the story gives us a fitting conclusion – I’m not revealing it! You’ll just have to get the book. But this was a thoroughly engaging tale that really had me on the edge of my metaphorical seat. Rowena writes in a matter of fact way, there is no room for sentimentality here. You have to face the world and get on. Perhaps that is a nod to her journalistic past, as she is not afraid to confront some of the difficult issues of the day: inherent sexism, domestic abuse, famine and disease. It’s an amazingly researched book and set in the wonderful scenery of France which seems to stand out against the violent backdrop of WW1.

A fantastic read that should be in every school library and I have just recommended it to my Mum’s book group! This is not just for young people, it’s a tale for all.

Oh and Rowena is a true Tour de Force! She happily signed my book that I had taken along to a SCBWI South West Exeter write-in. We sat for ages discussing and chatting about many things. She was already working on her second novel and I for one, cannot wait to get my hands on it!

Who should read this book?

I would heartily recommend this for Years 7 – 9. There’s plenty of opportunity for cross curricular work in History, French, and Geography. Equally, so many interesting links to war poetry that you could happily use this book for a term, as it has plenty of opportunities for transactional writing.

When life throws rocks

There are places I’ll remember, all my life, though some have changed …

Well, I have not been on my blog for a while. In fact writing has been the last thing on my mind BUT time has moved on and I am back, almost smiling. First up then a bit of reflection.

November – Scoobie Doobie Dooooo!

SCBWI-Frame
You’ve been Framed!

November was the first time I attended the SCBWI British Isles conference and just to add to the my general excitement I was also Co-chair. Yes, well, why not organise something you have never been to before, that’s not a problem in anyway. Now, what you need to understand that these conferences are all run by enthusiastic, wonderful volunteers. They work really hard behind the scenes all year and deliver a phenomenal conference.

What’s it all about?

It’s about people. I have already mentioned the volunteers but the attendees at a conference of children’s authors, illustrators, and all manner of other talents (video marketing!), come together and natter, share and encourage. If you’ve never been before, I highly recommend it. It’s a safe space to say daft things, do daft things, and be like the people we all create for, just a little bit silly! Of course, some people are more silly than others. However, it’s ok if you just want to sit quietly and learn, or if you want to be loud and noisy and stand out from the crowd. But, everyone is team SCBWI and that’s what makes it so special.

George and Julie
This conference business is very serious.

I didn’t actually get to see all that much of the conference myself, as I was running around like a being possessed trying to make sure everything was in the right place and that attendees who needed support were well looked after. I did get one special moment with Benji Davies after his stunning presentation. He signed my books and drew me a cat … I am still glowing from that one!

Benji Davies - The Storm Whale
My personalised Storm Whale

One other thing you need to know about … THE PARTY. Now when people said fancy dress (And I’d seen the pictures), I think the level of effort I imagined was nowhere near the mark! It was simply, MAD! Pure children’s writers perfection. There is nothing that represents our tribe as much as a party with cake and costumes (shame there was no jelly and ice-cream as that really would have been a top addition!). As the theme of the conference was travelling through time, people’s creativity came to the fore and well. See for yourselves!

Sunday was more workshops, eating cake, and I was heading toward the inevitable post event crash! It was so much fun and I met some amazing people, whilst also catching up with the volunteer team who I had been talking to remotely all year and catching up with one of my oldest friends. What are my key takeaways

  1. Well, although you may be shy and a little scared, people are genuinely lovely and kind. I found my ‘tribe’ and so will you.
  2. It’s ok to cry at people’s presentations and be overwhelmed by the talent around you … but you’re here too and one day it might be you at the front.
  3. Be brave, talk to agents and editors … funnily enough they want to hear from you and like a good chat too!
  4. Give a volunteer a hug or a cake … they work tirelessly for everyone to have a great time.
  5. Finally, there is no costume that is too outrageous for the party!

Then things collapsed …

After spending such a fabulous time in November and meeting with my writing mentor on my birthday (the wonderful Jenny Kane), I thought I’d have a finished manuscript by Christmas. I also assumed that I’d still be Co-Chairing the conference for another year with all the excitement and work it entails. But life is sometimes cruel and small twists of fate lead to many untrodden paths.

Within days of chatting to my fellow Co-Chair, my Dad was rushed to hospital. Now, if you know me, you will know the profound influence he had on my life. Thanks to him, at 18, I joined the BBC and spent 10 years working in TV. But his legacy was over 500 live concert recordings of bands that you all know: The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Marc Bolan, The Doors, The Police, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, U2, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, REM, Sade, The Pretenders, Ian Dury, The Jam, The Cure … and many, many more.

I spent my youthful days in the BBC studios with him or in the back of a truck with him and the engineers. But it wasn’t just that. Dad came from humble beginnings, he had holes in shoes as a kid that he stuffed with paper because his parents couldn’t afford new ones. He was the first person in his family to go to Grammar school … it changed his life. His national service, spent in the RAF, opened many doors, including learning to sail. Dad and I sailed together from when I was 5. By the time I was 8 we had won national championships and could pretty much beat anyone. He then built me a boat which I sailed to National and International level. He would watch from the cliffs staring out over oceans, as his daughter sailed about. But he wasn’t just watching, he was analysing every tack, every wind shift and we sit and talk about it afterwards.

After retiring from the BBC, he and Mum settled into a very busy social life bowling. As with everything Dad did, he did it with aplomb. He and Mum were always winning things! He was an accomplished handy man. If something was needed, Dad built it. Things weren’t thrown away, they were fixed. When my son was born, he embraced being a grandad. He was as happy reading to my lad as he was playing scalextric or building something out of lego.

At his heart, he was a very private person but he instilled socialist values in me. He made me value every person I worked with. He made me competitive and he gave me his musicality and creativity.

Sadly on the 10th December, at 82, Dad passed away. It’s going to take a long time for me and my family to recover.

What next?

Well … back to plan A! Get my manuscript written, enter a few short story competitions. Go to the SCBWI conference, as an attendee (now that will be a new thing!). Get back to blogging, as I have read some marvellous books since I last posted anything and … who knows! I am going to spend the next few months going with the flow.

Thanks to all the tremendous support I have had from friends and people I hardly know. You have no idea how much it has meant to me.

Onwards!

Retreating to Northmoor

It’s good to get away

I have found getting around to any writing this year to be difficult. I am sure it’s the sort of thing, all writers face: family illness, travelling for work, school stuff, just eating and sleeping. Everything seemed to stand in my way. Even my reviews have dropped off (not because I haven’t been reading); I simply didn’t have time to even contemplate what I was going to say. So, when confronted by my inability to carve out time to do one of the things I love in life (along with sailing, running, cycling, and not forgetting being with my family), I had booked to go on the wonderful Imagine Writers’ Retreat to Northmoor House on Exmoor.

Driving through Dulverton and up to the house itself is quite an adventure. You have to cross a magical troll bridge over the river Barle and round a sharp bend in the road, you see the former gatehouse. Trundling slowly down the gravel drive brings you to the House. It’s intimidating exterior and grand oak doors hide bedrooms galore and some of the largest baths in the world (ok slight exaggeration but I think I tried 4 different baths, all of which you could easily get lost in!). When I arrived, I was greeted by the wonderful and talented Jenny Kane. She and her business partner Alison, ran the retreat. They were relaxed and didn’t expect any of the attendees to fulfil anything other than their own goals. So if you didn’t want to take part in any exercises or events, you simply didn’t!

 

I had chosen my room on a previous visit. It’s not the sort of room you’d expect to me in, after all, I am not exactly girlie! But there I was unpacking my supplies (copious amounts of bubble bath, dodgy flavoured tea bags, and running kit) in the Flower Room. I’d chosen it on the basis of being able to look out over the garden and the room’s calming green colours. I also knew that it was a room where I could work, undisturbed and in a focused manner. By the time I had made it down to the kitchen with my ginger tea bags, most of the writers had arrived ready and prepared to get down to it. 6 of us were there for the first evening meal, along with Jenny and Alison. It was a fantastic meal. Chatting about writing moved from the mundane, to the extraordinary and beyond. In fact, all the evening meals were times where we openly discussed the writing process, progress or lack thereof (!) and were an inspiration to me. I learnt about my characters through these discussions and also realised that sometimes your characters don’t do what you think they should, and that’s fine!

 

The following morning, I was up and in the kitchen for my coffee very early, well earlier than most! I then cleared off for a run. Retreats are about writing I hear you scream. Actually, they’re about freedom. The freedom to give yourself the space to think. Something that I don’t get to do most of the time. Running through the grounds and out onto the footpath, I met a deer and her fawn, down near the water. They were beautiful but my heavy footsteps on the path startled them and they ran up the steep sided bank and watched me lumbering along. The image stuck with me and funnily enough, ended up in my writing that afternoon. It was an beautiful day and I think each of the writers ended up outside at some point, working in the sunshine.

 

In the evenings, we had two visiting writers. The first was Dan Metcalf, children’s author, scriptwriter, and lovely person. The world is small and the moment he mentioned going to Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, once more my past came up behind me and whacked me over the head with a big stick! However, times have moved on and Dan’s writing career was part computer generated, part gritty determination, all fuelled by talent. His revelations about the trials and tribulations of a jobbing author working full time and fitting his writing into every spare moment, struck a chord with most in the room. He was generous with his time, staying for dinner and answering endless questions about getting published. Dan has quite some tales to tell and, if you haven’t seen him speak, I highly recommend you do.

Our second author visit was from the equally wonderful Kate Griffin. Her marvellous stories of the incredible Kitty Peck are all set in the Victorian period around the East End of London. Recounting tales of her family in the East End and her visits to music halls both renovated and crumbling, kept all of us enthralled. One of the areas that she recommended to us was entering competitions, as her own break to publication was through entering a competition.She also mentioned that the latest trend in publishing was around ghost stories and that it worth paying attention to what publishers want. Kate was brilliant at bringing her characters to life and I must admit, if it wasn’t for the fact that I am reading as many children’s books as possible, I would be off to buy her books now! Like Dan, she stayed for dinner and continued to discuss with the assembled group her experiences and encouraged all of us to get our ideas written.

In amongst the residents, there were some day visitors, evening visitors, two day stayers, overnight guests, etc. We were a really eclectic mix, ranging in age and interests, at different stages of our writing ‘journey’ for want of a better word. The different genres and ideas were really inspiring and whilst I produced a massive 15,000 words in 3 days (this is the way I work, I probably won’t write anything for weeks now!), it wasn’t about the amount but that my own story took a dramatic twist over the breakfast table! The support and time given by Jenny and Alison to everyone was unstinting. Not once did Jenny mind me wandering over and asking a question or chatting randomly about character development.

   

I am feeling somewhat bereft now. I am missing the camaraderie, the excellent food, and the time to write. I have already booked my place on the next one and requested the Flower Room again, along with everyone else (it was a huge success!). But Jenny and Alison have another idea for a spring retreat. So keep an eye out. My advice, spend time working with other writers; they’re the best people in the world.

 

Blog 23

Pax by Sara Penny Packer

“I had a fox. I have a fox… We left him on the side of the road. My dad said we had to, but I should never have done it.”

This is a beautiful story and a compelling one.

One story is about Peter, who has been forced by his father to abandon his fox that he had rescued as a cub. Peter seems to be living in the modern world that is torn apart by war. It seems to be set in the USA or Canada but it could be any country that is calling men to arms. The consequence of the fighting means Peter is shipped off to live with his grandfather away from the frontline, where his father has decided to volunteer. The poor boy is full of guilt that he has left a tame fox to fend for itself in the wild. He feels he has left it to die. So he packs his backpack with essentials and runs away back to his home, in the vain hope he can find his beloved pet and save him.

Of course, as in all good stories, it’s not as simple as that. Peter breaks his foot and finds himself at the mercy of the wild. He stumbles into a barn and is himself, ‘rescued’ by Vola, an army veteran who has withdrawn from the modern world and lives off the land. Her harsh care and ability to make Peter confront his own weaknesses are what he has been lacking from his father. She is a tough woman. But she teaches Peter the harsh realities of nature and that he is much stronger than he could ever imagine.

The other story belongs to Pax. His initial confusion as to why his ‘boy’ would abandon him is heart breaking. He waits patiently for Peter to return. His loyalty is profound. However, his instincts draw him to his own kind and even though he stinks of humans, he is eventually accepted by the local fox population. Even so, his fight for survival becomes more than just finding food. As he tries to find his way back to the home he once had, he puts himself in terrible danger, as he is journeying towards where men are fighting the war. He suffers terrible loss and faces impossible odds but you will him to survive.

At the heart of the story is the rite of passage that both Peter and Pax must go through in order to survive in a world that is essentially falling apart. It’s a hard read and it does not give you the pithy resolution of a Disney film. I felt this was a moral tale for today that should make all of us reflect on our relationship with nature and each other. There’s an intense loneliness in this story and a need for humans to reconnect with one another and the world around them. It rather drew me back to the world of Steinbeck and certainly had the delicate nature imagery of stories like Of Mice and Men.

Who should read this book?

This is a lovely book and would make a wonderful partner to the Book of Lost Words, carrying the same sort of messages. I think Years 5 – 8 would enjoy this and there are plenty of opportunities to link with some powerful poetry or even Blackbird by The Beatles. As I mentioned earlier, schools will have hundreds of copies of Of Mice ad Men lying around and Pax would be a good partner text for older readers. Highly recommended, emotionally charged read.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2uZxxRk

Blog 22

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

“They killed my mother. They took our magic. They tried to bury us. Now we rise.”

This is one of a flurry of books I have read over the last month and it’s one of my favourites. Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel is a stunning story set in a fictitious part of west Africa and is inspired by west African culture and heritage. I was quickly drawn into this fantasy world and, from chapter one, it is clear that this is a world of devastating violence, embittered by hatred and fear. It seems utterly relevant for our world today and yet seems intrinsically linked to the past.

At the heart of the novel are three voices: Zélie, Amari, and Inan. Zélie is the lively daughter of a fisherman whose mother has been killed by the powerful ruling regime. She is fiercely independent, strong and has her mother’s magic. Yes, this is a story of magic but not Harry Potter wand waving magic. It is the magic of the spirit, grounded in the earth and the gods that give that magic to chosen individuals. But the magic has been lost. Destroyed by the despotic King Saran who has tried to kill all those who are touched by the gods, Zélie is the key to the return of magic to the kingdom but can she do it and who will stand in her way? Zélie is a fabulous leading character, she has all the traits needed for a hero but she also has the self doubts of a 16 year old confronted by her first feelings of love and desire (this was so beautifully written, it took me back to my own teenage years!).

Amari and Inan are the daughter and son of King Saran. Amari is the rebellious one, although she is also a virtual prisoner of her father’s ideological hatred. She is unable to think or be herself and lacks any confidence. Her growth throughout the story is crucial to Zélie’s progress and she is, at times, really annoying and at other times the saviour of the tale. Her voice brings balance to the violence and hatred, as she is often measured in amongst the chaos that surrounds our leading characters. Inan on the other hand … Is he a hero? Is he an antihero? Is he the villain of the piece? Early on, Inan’s secret is revealed (I am not telling you what it is!) and as a reader you are variously drawn to him as he falls for Zélie, and she for him, and then hating him as he seems to betray both himself and everyone else. As I rushed towards the end of this compelling story, I didn’t know whether I trusted him or not and whether I liked him or not! Adeyemi leaves it open to the reader to decide and that is one of the joys of this text, it doesn’t necessarily give us everything we expect.

This is one big fat book. But it doesn’t feel like it when you get going. It’s quite hard to put down. There’s some terrible scenes of violence that are in no way gratuitous but demonstrate what happens when you keep people afraid of their own shadows. People and children die. No punches are spared. Some of those that are killed shocked me to the core, but I can see how vital they are to expose the regime and give Zélie the courage to bring about a change. I can’t wait for the next instalment … as I didn’t want this one to end!

Who should Read this book?

This is a book for probably 14+, year 9 and onwards. It is a book to inspire and the characters will appeal to both genders. I think there is a great deal you could do with this as a class text for year 9. It has so many opportunities to discuss African heritage, culture and beliefs. But the real opportunity is to talk about difference. Why do we treat people differently based on race, gender, culture etc? I would definitely pair this with some poetry of people like Ben Zephaniah, or to look at some of the GCSE poetry, like ‘Nothing’s Changed’ or ‘Limbo’.  As writers, I think anyone playing with multiple voices should read this, and if anyone tells you that only two voices are acceptable… show them this!

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2lXp502

Blog 21

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

“Every summer Quill and his friends are put ashore on a remote sea stac to hunt birds. But this summer, no one arrives to take them home.”

I have read some fine books since the start of the year but this is going on my pile of books that I would keep in my soul forever. This extraordinary telling of a true story is beautiful and is unrelenting in its confrontation of what it means to stay alive. It was so hard for me to put it down that last night I was reading well beyond midnight, desperate to get to the end. Desperate for a happy ending that is not quite what I expected.

So what is the story all about. Well, living on a remote Scottish island in the 1700s must have been pretty harsh to say the least, particularly as the St. Kilda Archipelago sits off the western coast of some of Scotland’s larger islands. Now these tiny islands are the homes of wildlife, humanity has left nature to its own devices. However, the crofters and farmers that lived there in the 18th Century relied on sheep, fish and the birds to live. Fowlers, as the men and boys in this story are called, were shipped off to a remote rock and spent a few weeks capturing the birds that nested there. They effectively farmed them for the food, oils and feathers. In fact, pretty much all of the bird was used. However, what this group of 9 people didn’t expect was to be left behind. Why they were left is not revealed until the end of the tale but it’s worth the wait.

The main character is wonderful Quilliam. He is a young man, not quite adult but not a boy. He is wise beyond his years and suffers awfully at the hands of one of the men, Col Cane. But Quill is sensitive and has great empathy and it is thanks to him that this small group survive their 9 months on a rock with 3 caves. His dreams of returning to Hirta (the island where they live) and being with his beloved, Murdina, keep him alive and he believes her spirit is with him throughout the ordeal. And what an ordeal. You are living on a rock. There are no comforts, just rock. You live off the birds that you are supposed to be taking back to Hirta and the fish you can catch. There is no real warmth and your clothes are tattered and torn, saved only by constant repairs. Every day you venture out a slip could result in your death or worse an injury that leads to death. The whole experience can be summed up as horrific. Yet, somehow despite everything that takes place, the loss, the hope, their stubborn refusal to die, there is such spirit in the boys.

What I found most moving was the relationships between each of them. The tenderness, the hatred, the love and the jealousy. All human spirit seemed to be encapsulated in 9 months isolation. There are villains, Col Cane being the worst. A supposed religious man who uses his position to manipulate the boys and maintain his lazy disposition. He gets his comeuppance, however. Mr Farris who without Quill would have never made it home and Davie, wonderful Davie, who I just wanted to hug. The landscape itself is living and breathing through the beautiful writing. McCaughrean captures every moment through the tiny details and at times, I was literally hanging on a cliff’s edge wondering how on earth the next moment could possibly be resolved. It’s a stunning read.

Who should read this book?

Heartily recommended for Year 7 & 8. This book would open up wonderful cross-curricular opportunities for history and geography and would be a brilliant text for looking at context. It’s also a really good introduction to Lord of the Flies if you were thinking of using it at GCSE. There’s some wonderful opportunities to talk about gender identity here. What makes a boy or girl? How do we create gender? So perhaps this might work in Year 9 too. As an adult, this is one of the stories that lives with you and I am so glad I read it. Well worth its Carnegie nomination and more.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2ko2kBr

Blog 20

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

“This is a story about an eagle huntress, an inventor and an organ made of icicles.”

This is a book EVERYONE should read. I haven’t loved a book like this for a very, very long time. Of course, there had been a huge buzz around it and I was unusually sceptical, perhaps because of my love of the Northern Lights trilogy, and I had only just read the Polar Bears Explorers Club. So I had resisted this particular text. However, I was absolutely gripped from the start to the finish and in fact, I slowed down to saviour every chapter as I simply did not want it to end. I was both uplifted and saddened that I had come to the final pages. I feel I am mourning the loss of Eska and Flint … I want them back!

So what was it about this novel that I loved? Firstly, the landscape. If ever there was a story that demonstrated how far the landscape becomes a character in the story this was it. The hostile environment that envelops you at the start is so beautifully captured and really I was there. I was on the ice, watching the stars, in the caves, in the forests. I was lost to the mood of the environment. Secondly, the three leading characters: Eska, Flint and Blu. Eska starts the story a captive of the evil Ice Queen who has her locked in a music box. The Ice Queen tortures her and wants to steal Eska’s voice before the rising of the midnight sun because, if she does that, she will rule not only Erkenwald (where the story is set) but she will bring down the Sky Gods who have overseen the land and the tribes for centuries. It’s a classic story of good versus evil but Eska can’t remember her life before being taken prisoner. She has no idea why her voice is important or how she has been touched by the Sky Gods.

Flint is the inventor and, despite everything that has happened, he is enchanted by the long lost magic that the tribes abandoned under the rule of the evil Ice Queen. He knows the old ways and invents clever machines and gives power to objects throughout their adventures. He is also mesmerised by Eska. Something about her gets inside him and it is thanks to Flint that Eska escapes the clutches of the Queen. However, without Eska, Flint would never have believed that his inventions would work, so they need each other. But I am not telling you anything else, as that will give away the fantastic story that unfolds as Eska and Flint journey across Erkenwald to save themselves, their parents and their tribes. Blu is Flint’s little sister. She is a delight.  Both intuitive and clever in ways that even her brother doesn’t realise until it’s in front of him. Blu recognises Eska’s goodness the moment she meets her and instantly embraces her as a friend. Where others dismiss her, Eska listens and Flint will defend Blu to end of the world.

I was overwhelmed by the feelings brought about by this text. Whether it was the idea that we need to remember to protect our environment or that nature is a powerful or that community is far more powerful than one dictator, I was so taken aback that I am still emotionally there with Eska. I want to be her. I want an eagle as a friend and I really, really want to meet an Erkenbear! They must be real, as I read them here and believed. Truly wonderful. There is so much more to this story but I don’t want to spoil it’s twists and turns. I just want you all to go out and read it.

who should read this Book?

Well in my humble opinion: EVERYONE! I guess it’s aimed at the middle grade audience of 8 – 12. It would be a wonderful Year 6 text. It will stretch vocabulary, enchant both girls and boys and I am sure most of the teachers will enjoy it too. There is a fantastic opportunity to explore the arctic and the peoples who live there. Some lovely work could be done across the curriculum with Geography and considering climate change. But maybe look at the Inuit people too or some of the reindeer herders of Finland etc. There are fantastic opportunities to talk about voice  and who has the most power: the quiet and thoughtful one or the loud dictator. Finally, diversity and difference and why we should not judge people because of their differences through talking about Blu.

Honestly, I am not going to be moved by a text like this again for a very long time.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2vnnVCE

 

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The London Book Fair or “how to be lost in a sea of books”!

“What are all those people doing on the stands?”

Well … a very long day in good old London town but I have to say a thoroughly enjoyable experience at the London Book Fair and thanks to some wonderful ‘Scoobies’, I learnt all I need to know about visiting in the future. It was a bit like being a kid in a candy store or, in my case, being at Harry Potter World.

Some of the stands were stunning and I took quite a few images of things that caught my eye. The first was this amazing artwork on the Bloomsbury stand … there were images all the way round but this really spoke to me and I kept wondering what her story was.

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Beautiful images on the Bloomsbury Stand

There was a great deal of discussion going on on this stand which had an eclectic mix of books but I was intrigued by Big Foot!

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Bigfoot Challenge from Fox Chapel

Now the Knights Of folks were tied into another stand but when I saw the Moomins I was immediately staring at all the wonderful books and stationery that was available. There are very few images that have stayed with me from my childhood but the Moomins have great longevity.

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My beloved Moomins

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Another gorgeous stand Image

One of the key areas that, if I had realised had presentations for free (well included in the price of your ticket), was the fabulous Children’s Hub. There were some amazing people there and I was gutted I missed Chris Riddel, who was drawing as a number of writers read from their books. But the stand was surrounded by wonderful drawings by Quentin Blake from Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Was lovely to see the traditional amongst the new (if you can call Roald Dahl traditional).

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Quentin Blake’s fabulous images

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Matilda – Roald Dahl

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Matilda considering reading – Roald Dahl

I did spot ‘Barry Chicken’ on my way around the Chicken House stand … and it was pretty amazing to see so many of the books that have been on my reading list and blog all in one place. For a small publisher, they carry an enormous weight with the MG community.

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So many familiar texts here!

Now back to my original question, what were all those meetings about? In my naivety, I had no idea that book deals and meetings with agents would be taking place. I know, I know, what did I think they were all doing there, having tea and cake! I was also blissfully unaware that the publishers didn’t want random pretend authors (like me!) wandering across their stands with a big backpack on bashing everyone on the head. But ignorance is bliss and not once did anyone really stop me looking at the books due to be released this year.

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Some of the World’s Biggest Publishers

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So many meetings

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Blog 19

A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan

“Who wants to live in a town where everyone has to wear glasses to stop them going blind?”

This is a fantastically creepy story! Violet is a bright and clever girl who moves to the town of Perfect, when her Dad is given a seemingly fantastic new job. However, anywhere called Perfect is bound to be an illusion right?

Violet quickly finds herself blind after spending just one night in the town. Given a pair of spectacles she can then see her surroundings and its inhabitants again but something is not quite right and she knows it. Everything seems just too ‘perfect’, immaculate houses, streets and the people seem to be possessed by a false kindness. Violet also has a sense that she is being moulded into a different kind of person, someone who is submissive and does what everyone else does in Perfect. Violet is also aware that someone seems to be watching her and eventually she meets with the mysterious, “Boy”. Boy lives within the town but in an area called No-Man’s land. No-Man’s Land is populated by all those who did not fit the ideal model citizen of the main town and somehow they have been forgotten and lost.

The tension builds incredibly quickly in this story, as Violet finds her world falling apart. Her mother becomes more and more consumed by making cakes and book groups, something that she had never done before. She starts trying to turn Violet into a model citizen by drugging her with concoctions given to her by the brothers who run the town’s opticians, the Archers. And her father … he has vanished and her mother doesn’t seem to realise. However, Violet can see that behaving just like anyone else and not being an individual is wrong and with the help of Boy, she starts to unravel the goings on in the town.

This is such a clever mystery. There are so many twists and turns and the brilliant linking together of the characters is superb and had me gripped. There’s also some really disturbing dystopian features, eyeball plants and stolen memory jars that are right out of a John Wyndam novel. How are they pulled together? Well you will just have to wait and read the story yourself but needless to say, the Archers are not what they seem and the mysterious lady in the ghost village is far more important than she initially seems!

Who should read this book?

This is a cracking text for Years 5 – 7. With appealing central characters in a world that seems not too remote from our own, I think it will intrigue boys and girls alike. Violet’s strong character is a delight and she will appeal to young girls and boys, as she shows both her determination but also her fear. In terms of using this in a classroom, I think there’s some fantastic opportunities for exploring the idea of ‘rose tinted spectacles’ and imaginative writing. There’s also some great stereotyping here and questions around why women bake cakes and men go to work. Definitely something you could use to challenge perceptions in Years 6 and 7.

Loved it! Sure you will too.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2JMyBgY