Review policy

I am very happy to review any novel that fits in with the theme of this blog: novels aimed at 9-14 year olds, preferably with a fantasy/ speculative world setting. However, I will make clear in the review that I was sent the book by the publisher and I will write my honest opinion. Please feel free to contact me via Twitter or Facebook, or fantasticreads at gmail dot com.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

Image: welovethisbook.com

Ash Mistry is your average thirteen year old: into computer games, with an eye for a pretty girl and not as fit as he could be. He and his sister Lucky are on holiday, visiting their aunt and uncle in the holy city of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh at the beginning of the novel. Their uncle is a lecturer in ancient Indian history at the University, but even Ash's fascination with weapons and legends isn't making up for the heat, flies and missing his friends in London. 

Then at a party hosted by the mysterious Lord Savage, Ash witnesses some very strange events. Could it be that Lord Savage is more than just an eccentric, old and very wealthy aristocrat? Could it be that he plans to open the Iron Gates that hold the demon king Ravana? and could it be that Ash is the only person who can stop him?

Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress is the first in a new series for 8+. Annoyingly marketed as being "for boys" (why? because girls don't enjoy reading fast paced, exciting adventures set in India?) it's the latest novel from Sarwat Chadda. I'm delighted to be part of the Ash Mistry blog hop: more information soon! And, as I said here, I'm delighted that there is a fantasy novel with a British Asian protagonist.

Do check out Sarwat's Billi SanGreal series, fantastic adventure novels for 12+ about Billi, a teenager inducted into the Knights Templars in contemporary London. Billi's father is Master of the Knights Templars; her mother was Pakistani. Billi (Bilqis) and the Knights Templars battle fallen angels, vampires and werewolves, and Billi has to come to terms with her separateness from other teenagers- as well as getting into trouble for falling asleep in Geography. I hope that there are more Billi novels in the future.


Ash Mistry is published on 1st March.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Diversity in fantasy fiction

Image: laurenbeukes.bookslive.co.za

I am currently reading the wonderful adult speculative fiction novel Zoo City by South African writer Lauren Beukes. Set in an alternative version of Johannesburg, it is the story of Zinzi Lelethu December, former journalist and junkie, now a finder of lost things and 419 scammer. In Zinzi's world people who have killed are "animalled", carrying around an animal familiar as a manifestation of their guilt. Being animalled also confers special powers. This the result of a plague that spread from Afghanistan in the 1980s.

It's a truly wonderful book, I strongly recommend it, and one of the aspects I enjoy the most is the clearly identifiable African setting. The ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness that Zinzi needs to survive  as well as the use of African languages: Nigerian pidgeon as well as a variety of South African languages and African French make the fantastical seem plausible.

The image above is created by a South African artist, and I think captures the spirit of the book perfectly. Zinzi's Sloth is not like Lyra Belacqua's daemon (visible soul) Pantalaimon from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials; he is a permanent embodiment of her guilt, and like guilt, is a heavy load to carry around.

I have been thinking a lot about diversity in children's literature recently. It is something that has always been important to me since I started teaching nearly 20 years ago (wow! How did that happen?). It re-appeared on my radar firstly due to reading the forthcoming novel by Sarwat Chadda, Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress. It was so heartening to read a fantasy featuring a British Asian protagonist with fantasy derived from Indian mythology rather than European, and made me wonder why US-based authors Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (author of The Conch Bearer) and Nnedi Okorafor (author of, amongst other books, Akata Witch) are not published in Britain, where we have so many children with Indian and African heritage. I wrote about them here. More of Ash Mistry next week.

Secondly, someone tweeted a link to this blog post on the shocked reaction of fans of the forthcoming Hunger Games film to the casting of an African American actress to play Rue. One of the contestants in the Hunger Games, Rue, is clearly described in the novel as a black girl, so it is depressing that so many (white) readers assumed that she is a white character. Rock star Lenny Kravitz has been cast as Cinna. Cinna's description in the novel is less precise than Rue's but there is no reason why a character described as having close-cropped dark hair and golden-brown eyes should be automatically be played by a white actor. I have often wondered why in post-apocalytic novels and films, both British and American, it should be assumed that only white people survived.

And then I heard Trish Cooke, British author of So Much and actress of Dominican heritage, speaking on Radio 3's The Essay on her experiences of learning to read from books only featuring suburban white families, such as in the Peter and Jane books. None of the books she read featured children growing up in  families such as hers; black, working class, with 8 children and living on a council estate in Bradford (coincidentally, the same estate as the one featured in the film Rita, Sue and Bob Too (sweary clip, watch out if small people are around!). Tricia explained in the radio programme that after a while, she started to feel that there was something wrong with her family, and it changed her from being a lively, confident girl to being quiet and unwilling to contribute in lessons at school. She was determined that her son should not have the same experience, leading her to write picture books featuring families like theirs. They are beautiful, warm stories featuring loving families; I adore them.

It seems to me that we are fortunate to have so many amazing picture books showing diverse families, including culturally diverse backgrounds, single parents, children living with grandparents- but this not being the central point of the story. However, it is disappointing that in fantasy fiction for the age range known as "middle grade" in the US (roughly 8-12) which has been a best selling genre, when minority ethnic characters appear at all, they often appear as colourful backgrounds rather than as active participants in the story- for example, Parvati Patil and Lee Jordan in the Harry Potter series who are so under-developed as characters that I struggle to name them. The only non white character developed to any degree is Cho, Harry's first girlfriend, who is mainly noticeable for her drippiness.

Does it matter? Well, as I see it, if we are concerned about the number of books that children read, then we really need to ensure that there are books that children want to read, books that reflect them and their experiences- and books from a variety of genres. Novels with diverse characters need not always be social realist. Also, white children need to see positive representations of children from other cultures, particularly children growing up in fairly mono-cultural environments. There are of course wonderful publishers such as Frances Lincoln and companies such as Letterbox Library that celebrate diversity and seek out authors to write books doing so, but more needs to be done. Perhaps the advent of digital publishing will mean that there will be more opportunities for more variety of stories to be told.

The exception to the paucity of fantasy novels published in Britain with minority ethnic characters are of course Malorie Blackman's amazing Noughts and Crosses, which is due to be dramatised on Radio 4 next Saturday. The excellent comic book blog New Readers... Start Here has a series of great posts about diversity in comics, including some great ones about Characters of Colour.

EDIT: I have realised that I left out Salman Rushdie's amazing Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life, both wonderful, fantastical stories using references from the Arabian Nights and Indian mythology, but with a warmth and playfulness that I find missing from his novels for adults.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Clever girls and loving mothers

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me is the story of sixth grader Miranda, growing up in 1979 in New York City. The story specifically mentions Amsterdam Avenue, which I believe is Upper East Side- in the 1970s this was a working class neighbourhood. She lives in a shabby apartment with her single parent working mother, and her best friend Sal lives in the same building.

One day while walking home from school, Sal is punched in the stomach without any forewarning by a boy who is a stranger. He runs away from Miranda and locks himself in his apartment. Then Miranda and her mother's spare key goes missing, and Miranda starts to receive mysterious letters from someone who seems to be wanting to warn her of something coming in the future.

This is a wonderful book, cleverly wrong-footing expectations from elements of a realist family story (Miranda's shifting friendships, the relationship between her mother and mother's boyfriend Richard, her mother's determination to appear on a game show) by the mystery and Science Fiction elements, which are foreshadowed by Miranda's refusal to read anything but Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, which I wrote about here. In fact, many expectations are wrong-footed: the troubled boy who punches Sal in the stomach is the one who understands the time travel in A Wrinkle in Time, but the girl Miranda perceives as a stuck up airhead, Julia, is the one who explains it, albeit by the use of her diamond-chip ring!

Image: mrbsemporium.com

David Almond's My Name Is Mina is the prequel and companion book to the award-winning Skellig, which I wrote about here. In Skellig, Mina is Michael's friend, who is able to see the wonder in Skellig and explain it to Michael. This novel starts:

My name is Mina and I love the night. Anything seems possible in the night when the rest of the world has gone to sleep. It's dark and silent in the house, but if I listen close, I hear the beat beat beat of my heart. I hear the creak and crack of the house. I hear my mum breathing gently in her sleep  in her room next door.

12 year old Mina tells her own story (as does Miranda) but it is not a straightforward narrative. Miranda is addressing the person sending her the mysterious letters throughout When You Reach Me, but Mina is addressing herself through her diary, story writing and poetry. Mina is an intelligent and creative thinker and a gifted writer, through which Almond (a former teacher) makes some pointed comments about the rigidity of the school curriculum and the obsession with testing, targets and results in the English education system.

Like Miranda, Mina is growing up with a single mother, but unlike Miranda, remembers her father who has died. In a passage where Mina describes running out of school where she is being teased, she goes into a tunnel under a park, into the Underworld where she is planning to seek Hades and Persephone and ask for her father back. I am not ashamed to say that this passage (written in the third person as Mina seeks to distance herself from it) drove me to tears on a packed train to Brighton. However, five minutes later some word play made me laugh out loud. 

Throughout the novel Mina, from her vantage point in her favourite tree, notes the nesting, laying eggs and hatching of baby blackbirds, heralding the coming of spring after a long north of England winter. As Spring arrives, so does a boy and his family in a house opposite, and Mina feels ready to leave the safety of her tree and choose interaction with children of her own age. 

I read these wonderful novels one after the other, and noted in both a tender and loving relationship between the girls and their mothers. The relationships are not always perfect, and in both books there is a recognition that a strong relationship between mother and daughter is not enough for either mother or child. In both cases the girls recognise that their mothers need to be more than simply parents (important though this is) and both girls eventually seek out new friends, frightening though this is. In When You Reach Me, indeed, Miranda is beginning to think about boyfriends, although this is not a big part of the novel.

These are fantastic books. Although it would not be necessary to enjoy When You Reach Me to have read A Wrinkle in Time, or My Name is Mina to have read Skellig, I hope that readers will go on to seek out those marvellous books too. Both books are suitable for readers 10+ due to their complexity.

In My Name is Mina a teacher sings the Scottish miners' lullaby Corrie Doon, which I think is a beautiful expression of love of a father for a child and also linking the ideas of death, loss, underworld and rebirth. 





The time is now

This week I have read two wonderful novels that have made me think carefully about time and history. Coincidentally Susan Cooper and Penelope Lively were recently honoured for their work, Susan Cooper with the Margaret A Edwards Award for significant and lasting contribution for young adult literature for Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series and Penelope Lively was made a Dame in the New Year's Honours list.

Image: books.simonandschuster.ca

I have written already about my love for The Dark is Rising, the second book Susan Cooper's wonderful series. I also loved The Boggart. However I haven't read any of her other books, so when I saw this review on @chaletfan's blog I made sure I got hold of King of Shadows. I found it a wonderfully affecting read. In 1999 13 year old Nathan Field from South Carolina has been recruited to join a troupe of American boy actors who travel to London to appear in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the recently-opened Globe theatre on the South Bank of the Thames. Nathan is an unhappy boy. He has recently lost his father in traumatic circumstances. In London, he is lodging with a family and enjoying himself at the theatre, when he suddenly becomes dangerously ill. He is rushed to hospital, but when he wakes up, he is in London of 1599, on loan to Shakespeare's Lord Chamberlain's Men from St Paul's school, to play Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream on request from Queen Elizabeth 1. He has switched places with an Elizabethan boy actor, also named Nathan Field. You can see his portrait at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. 

Image: dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk


The atmosphere, smells, political intrigue and casual cruelty of Elizabethan London is evoked brilliantly by Cooper. I really enjoyed the theatre details, both modern and Elizabethan, and the relationship between Shakespeare and Nathan is beautifully touching. The only aspect of the novel that didn't quite work for me was the exposition at the end; I would have preferred some mystery about the time slip. 

Image: fantasticfiction.co.uk

Mair and Peter Jenkins have just moved from Wales to the Cotswold village of Charlton Underwood. The children make friends with farmer's daughter Betsy Tranter, whose family have lived at World's End farm for generations. The woods around the farm hold a secret: they used to be the location of the village of Astercote, which was wiped out by the Black Death in the fourteenth century. The Jenkins family lives on the new estate, but the village is inhabited by families who have lived there as long as the Tranters. World's End Farm has another secret: it is the hiding place of a Mediaeval gold chalice, which is guarded by Goacher, a mysterious man who may or may not have survived the Black Death. But when Goacher and the chalice disappear, Betsy is taken ill with mumps and white chalk crosses start to appear on the houses of villagers with illnesses, Mair and Peter realise that they must find Goacher and the chalice to stop the village from cutting itself off, as it did in the 14th century.

Both novels make great use of history, but in slightly different ways. In novels by Penelope Lively (who studied History at Oxford) history seems to appear in layers over the landscape; here and there the new layers are thin so that the older layers seep through; in this, her first novel, the veneer of modernity is thin even with the inhabitants of the village. Once the chalice disappears, the deeper layers of superstition are visible. Mair, who as Evadne the district nurse identifies is in the pre-adolescent stage of dreaminess and empathy with the place, is able to imagine herself into the position both of the villagers and of Goacher, and is the key to putting things to rights.

In King of Shadows the history of place is significant, but also the emotional state of Shakespeare, mourning the death of his son Hamnet, and Nathan, mourning the death of his father. While reading this novel, which makes wonderful use of Shakespeare's words, both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Sonnet 116, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments...", I also was reminded of the opening lines of L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between: "The past is foreign country; they do things differently there". In Lively's work, the past is not foreign; it co-exists with the present, and the future, and this palimpsest approach is what makes her novels so rich and fascinating. I would recommend both these novels for confident readers of 9+.

Monday, 6 February 2012

An Illustrated Year 2: The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats


50 years ago this year, a little African American boy first played out in the snow in an American city.

Image: betterworldbooks.com

Peter wakes up, and excitedly looks out of the window. Seeing the snow, he puts on his red snowsuit and goes outside. He makes footprints, hits a snowy tree with a stick, makes a snowman and snow angels, climbs a pile of snow and slides down. He tries to save a snowball for the morning, but it melts, and he is unhappy until he wakes in the morning, finds that new snow has fallen and calls for his friend across the hall to play out again.

The simplicity and gentleness of this book delighted me as a little girl. I expect I encountered it about 10 years after it was published. Many comments under the NPR website story (the audioclip is wonderful, do listen to it) state that white listeners didn't notice Peter's skin colour. I certainly did as a small girl. I had encountered picture books with black characters before, but I seem to remember that they were all quite "exotic", living in Africa or the Caribbean. This (and the other books about Peter, Whistle for Willie and Peter's Chair) didn't make an issue out of Peter's skin colour- in fact, the book was criticised by some civil rights leaders for not addressing it. However, by simply showing Peter doing ordinary things- playing in the snow, learning to whistle and coming to terms with a new baby sister- Keats shows that children can look different, but have common experiences, and I think that this is very powerful. And for black children, the powerful experience of encountering people that look like them as protagonists rather than colourful background characters is demonstrated in the clip by the teacher who wrote to Keats telling him that for the first time, children in her class were not using the pink crayons to draw themselves; an experience that I have shared in my teaching career.

Sadly, this Caldicott medal winning book doesn't appear to be in print in the UK at the moment, but is readily available second hand online. I do hope Puffin are reprinting it.

This claymation video adaptation is delightful. 

I hope your children enjoyed the snow this weekend!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Four Fantastic Libraries

Tomorrow is National Library Day, marking a year of protest against library closures. Interestingly enough children's borrowing from public libraries is growing, with Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo as the most borrowed title for the second year in a row.

In order to celebrate libraries, I will be outlining my favourite fictional libraries.


1. Sunnydale High library
As all Buffy fans know, Sunnydale High was built over the mouth of hell, hence why it is plagued by vampires and demons. Buffy's creator Joss Whedon is primarily a fan of fantasy and horror, and one of the joys of the series for me is his clever inversion of their tropes. In most horror series Buffy would be the girl at whom the viewer is shouting "No! call the police! Don't go to the cellar to investigate the strange noises!" instead of the vampire slayer. If the subtext of Buffy is that growing up, and specifically high school, is hell, then the library is the safe zone. Librarian Rupert Giles, the Watcher, keeps the Scooby gang safe, and shy, bookish Willow is frequently the character whose reading and discussion with Giles leads to discovery of the monster that Buffy is battling that week.


Image: oldkingdom.com.au

2. The Clayr's Library
Lirael is the second in Garth Nix's amazing Old Kingdom series. The Old Kingdom is separated from the New Kingdom by a wall, which I picture as a complete Hadrian's Wall. Lirael is growing up in the Old Kingdom. Her mother has abandoned her with her cousins, the Clayr, and she has never known her father. Lirael is pale, dark haired and brown eyed among the fair haired, tanned skinned Clayr, but her lack of identification goes beyond the way she looks: the Clayr women have the Sight, which generally awakens at the age of 11, although some develop it as young as seven. At the beginning of the novel, Lirael is fourteen and still hasn't developed it. Instead she is sent to be a Third Assistant Librarian in the Clayr library, housed deep inside the glacier on which the Clayr live. Inside it is housed an archive of both magical writings and objects, and in exploring these, Lirael begins to understand that maybe her destiny is very different from what she had imagined.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

3. The Unseen University library
I have written about Terry Pratchett several times in this blog, mostly about Tiffany Aching. This is not one of his children's novels, however, as Juliette from the wonderful Pop Classics has pointed out, many people do start reading these books in late childhood/ early adolescence. The witches arc is beyond doubt my favourite, and this is the first novel to feature them. As a baby, Eskarina (Esk) Smith (eighth child of an eighth child) is accidentally identified as a wizard. In Discworld, women can be witches and men can be wizards, and there is no possibility of Esk training as a wizard. Initially, Granny Weatherwax (after Tiffany, my favourite Discworld witch) tries to train Esk as a witch, but soon it is apparent that her powers are too strong, and they travel to Ankh-Morpork to enrol Esk at the Unseen University. Initially this doesn't go to plan, and it takes all of Granny Weatherwax's deviance to get her in. 

Image: wiki.lspace.org

The library at the Unseen University is fantastic. The Librarian, an orang utan, was once a wizard, wo can travel through time and space to collect and protect books that have yet to be written. Indeed, the Library occupies L-Space in time and space, so that it contains all books on magic from the past, present and future. The books are chained, not to protect the books from the students, but to protect the students from the books: books contain knowledge, knowledge is power, which (according to Physics) can be converted to energy and matter, which could distort time and space (I long for Terry Pratchett to write an episode of Doctor Who!). Esk and a young wizard called Simon unintentionally cause chaos in the library, travelling through a hole in space to the Dungeon Dimensions. I love Esk; sadly the only other Discworld book she has appeared in so far is the latest Tiffany Aching book, I Shall Wear Midnight., and only briefly.

4. Hogwarts Library
Image: harrypotter.wikia.com

I think that this is my ideal of a magical library. In my imagination it is a cross between the Bodleian (which features in several of Gillian Avery's children's novels, particularly those featuring Maria, the Warden's Niece) and University of London's Senate House library reading room. Hogwart's Library, housed on the third floor of Hogwart's Castle, has another great magical librarian, Madam Irma Pince, for whom JK Rowling has apologised, explaining that if she helped Harry, Hermione and Ron the way she should, there would be no adventures! One of the many reasons I love the Harry Potter novels so much is that the magical books in novels are so dangerous and exciting; they can bite, help or enchant, and the reader is never quite sure which. The library is a place of mystery and danger, where Harry, Ron and Hermione must often enter by stealth, sometimes wearing Harry's invisibility cloak, and Hermione's tearing a page out of a book in The Chamber of Secrets.

So here are four fantastic libraries. I would love to hear yours! Please comment and tell me.