Reviews of children's books and the crazy, fun stuff they inspire us to do. Here I spread the word about brilliant books for kids and young people, and to connect with others who are passionate about reading, stories, illustration, and all the things which can come between the covers of a book. Blog by Zoe Toft.
In fact, this book turns people into little magicians, for with just a few pencils or crayons and a pair of scissors, it allows you and your kids to conjure into being 3-D landscapes across the seasons. The process is simple but hugely effective – as this short video shows:
Cut & Color Playbook: Seasons - YouTube
The explanation and design is very clear and the illustrations are clean and uncluttered with just a sprinkling of detail and pre-printed colour. Young children may need some support with the cutting, not least because the pages are all bound tightly into the book, rather than with perforated edged for easy removal.
Boisrobert’s pop-up books are among the most treasured books-as-objects in our home, with their crisp lines and clever paper engineering never failing to delight. It’s such fun that with Cut and Colour Playbook: Seasons a little of their beauty has been packaged up in such a way as to enable children to create something a little similar.
Whilst colouring and cutting out the scenes in this activity book it occurred to me that we could adapt the basic idea of Boisrobert’s book to create our own layered landscapes. First I gathered together examples of paintings where layering, in terms of shades and colours, plays a big role. You can see what I found (with much appreciated help from blog/twitter followers Anamaria Andersen and Fiona Barker amongst others) on this Pinterest board.
With these beautiful pieces of art in mind, M put watercolour washes in several shades of blue on separate sheets of paper, basically making each sheet lighter than the last by using more water on her brush.
When dry, she draw mountain ranges on the reverse of each sheet…
…before cutting them out and layering them up.
We noted how when hills or mountains are “layered” in a picture, they tend to “fade” the further they are away. M also noticed how in many of the pieces of art we looked at the sky’s colouring typically went from darker up above, to lighter near the horizon. She decided her “mountains” were beneath a stormy sky and so painted a final sheet with a graded black-grey watercolour wash.
Finally everything came together and I framed it:
For such a simple art project, I think it is remarkably effective, and M is definitely delighted with the results.
Intensely tender and bold, The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc, translated by Sarah Ardizzone is the tale of a blossoming friendship between a lion and the injured bird he discovers in his garden one autumn day. It’s a tale across the divide, about setting free that which you hold most dear, about being content and grateful, about kindness, sorrow, loneliness and love.
The injured bird is one of a flock migrating to warmer climes. Left behind because of a damaged wing, the bird is nursed back to health by Lion and they become firm friends as autumn turns to winter. One spring day brings the bird’s flying family back his way and the lion has to accept his friend’s need to return to the clouds, leaving the lion to grieve. Time, however, never stands still and as summer gives way to autumn, Lion looks to the sky. Will his friend return? Or was that glorious winter of friendship all that will ever be?
Dubuc’s storytelling here has an astonishingly powerful emotional impact on me. It is delicately and finely honed, with words so sparse many pages are without any at all, and with visual pacing that holds the reader utterly captivated, and at times almost breathless. The quietness of the text creates space and time to really experience the passing of the seasons and the heartache Lion feels at Bird’s absence. Small details depicting the kindness and thoughtfulness in the two animals’ friendship will make you smile. The daring choice to devote a whole double page spread to no illustration at all, leaving two pages white and empty indicating the vast depth of winter and the slow passing of time (a spread not included – I understand – in the U.S. edition of this book which came out in 2014) made me gasp at its cleverness and subtle power.
We brought Lion and Bird to life on our shelves by sculpting them out of tin foil. Tin foil is light weight and very malleable, making it super easy for small hands to work with, and mould into shapes (environmentally it’s not the greenest crafting material so consider rinsing and re-using foil you’ve used to cover food when cooking) and this is exactly what we did, creating bird bodies and a lion head.
Once the girls were happy with their basic shapes they covered them with pieces of tissue paper (white for the birds, yellow for the lion) and watered down PVA glue (a bit like papier machier). They covered their shapes entirely and once dry, their sculptures were ready to have details added. Fur and feathers were added using felt tips (sharpies), and thin wire was bent into leg shapes.
One of the nice things about tin foil sculptures is that they are so light you could easily mount them on the wall – perhaps something to consider if you create them in school and want to present them as a display.
Whilst making our lion and birds we listened to:
Lots of different versions of I’ll Fly Away, including by Johnny Cash and this one by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch
Just showed this to Miss 8. Looks fantastic. She is very keen to make one. I too have a toast rack in the cupboard so love your idea to put books in it. The only problem is we have had to ban Miss 8 from reading at breakfast time (on school days) as she takes one bite of toast every five pages and we are always running late for school!
A finely woven novel exploring grief, hope and friendship, Storm Horse by Nick Garlick moved me to tears, even though I started reading it with a great sense of wariness, my inner cynic poised to be proved right with the slightest hiccup in plot, writing or characterization.
Having recently lost his parents, a young boy can’t believe he’ll ever feel at ease with the relatives who have agreed to take responsibility for him. But all that changes when he makes friends with a horse. A growing sense of trust and (self) belief enables him to find a place where he’s happy to belong, even though in the process he comes face to face with some of his greatest fears, loss and sadness.
This page-turner, with dramatic, breath-taking scenes worthy of the vast gloomy shore skies under which it is set made me nervous before I turned the first page; Storm Horse is set on the Frisian islands off the north coast of the Netherlands and is partly inspired by a very emotive true life story about a lifeboat disaster that devastated an island community.
Surrounded by huge and exhilaratingly beautiful sandy beaches, the lifeboat on Ameland was traditionally launched by horses who pulled the boat over the sand and then into the tide, enabling launches where no pier existed. But in 1979 eight horses drowned during a lifeboat launch and in this small island community their terrible loss was felt deeply and powerfully and is still remembered with great sorrow, but also pride, for launching lifeboats with horses was something unique to this particular community, long after other Frisian islands had given up on this tradition.
As it happens I know Ameland and this story rather well (the photo above shows M and J visiting the grave and memorial to the eight horses back in 2012, whilst the photos below show a re-enactment I once saw of how the lifeboat used to be launched), and so when I found out about a novel set on the Frisian islands, centered on horses and lifeboat rescues I was both curious and anxious.
Starting a novel when you already have an emotional investment in it is a scary thing. What if it doesn’t live up to your hopes? What if you feel it betrays the beauty / the sorrow / the wonder you feel about certain events or places or times?
But I took the plunge and turned the first page and…
…Well here’s why I think you might enjoy this book as much as I did, even if you’ve never heard of the Frisian islands and have not one ounce of hope at stake when you come across it in your local bookshop or library:
Storm Horse is brilliantly plotted with chapter endings which demand you turn the page and read just a bit more. I actually read this book in a single sitting and couldn’t believe how the time and pages had whizzed by.
Garlick’s characterization is lovely, authentic and satisfying. From the most wonderful Aunt Elly, who exhibits the kindness, compassion and wisdom that we all wish we had, to the silent and imposing (and ultimately big hearted) Uncle Andries, via uncannily spot-on observations about life as a seven year old who wants to be a part of everything, to the thoughtfulness of old and lame Mr Bouten, the cast of this story is rich and not without humour.
Bereavement and how people cope with loss is explored in several different strands, each offering a different light and reflection on the grieving process and being able to eventually see light at the end of a sorrowful tunnel.
Quietly and powerfully Storm Horse gives its readers a sense that they can find a way to hold on to what matters to them, through perseverance, through patience, through resourcefulness and generosity. What a great gift from a book, don’t you think?
This is no literal re-telling of the terrible, heart-breaking events of the 14th of August 1979; Garlick sets his story on an imaginary island (though Ameland is briefly mentioned), and yet all the details ring beautifully true. The challenges of island life are not shied away from, but read this moving, convincing, vivid novel and I think you may nevertheless fall in love.
Now… what will my lifeboat-mad, Dutch husband who spent every childhood summer on Ameland think of this book? Well, somehow I’m going to have to find the time to read it aloud to him and the girls as I now know I needn’t have worried: Storm Horse is a cracker.
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.
I would expect to find this book in the part of the bookshop/library aimed at 8/9 – 12/13 year olds.
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Perhaps the most famous example of this for a certain generation are the Harry Potter novels; many a child (and a fair few adults) grew up in parallel with the Harry Potter books as they each came out over a 10 year period. Other series which I know have done something similar for kids more recently are the Clarice Bean (and Ruby Redfort) stories by Lauren Child, the Claude stories by Alex T. Smith, the Captain Flinn books Giles Andreae and Russell Ayto and also the Albie books created by Caryl Hart and Ed Eaves. For my kids the Findus and Pettson books by Sven Nordqvist and the Eddie books by Sarah Garland have done something similar.
Eddie’s Garden was first published in 2004, the year M (now 10) was born. I wish I remembered how we discovered it because it is one of those books which almost defines my early parenthood and time with my first child. The slightly chaotic home felt oh-so-recognisable. That Eddie’s messy but warm home was full of kindness and playfulness was something I aspired to as I tried to work out how to be a half-way ok parent. 2007 saw the arrival of Eddie’s Kitchen, followed by Eddie’s Toolbox in 2010, each book being greeted with glee by us all in the family.
Eddie and his family are off to the seaside for a short camping holiday. He has fun helping to set up their pitch, building a fire, tying guy ropes and making it homely. He even builds his own play tent out of branches and a blanket. As happens so often on family camping trips, the kids make friends with other children nearby, but when a pet dog goes missing, it looks like Eddie and his new friend Max could end up in trouble. Thanks, however, to Eddie’s ingenuity all ends well with new friendships formed and sausages eaten around the campfire.
Like all the Eddie stories, this one mixes very practical information – elements almost of non-fiction – with adventures any child could recognize from their own life. The mixture of fact (both in the illustrations and often in endnotes at the back of the book), with hugely reassuring and yet realistic family life experiences is a winning formula. Eddie’s Tent includes great advice on building campfires, cooking on them as well as how to tie useful knots. In many respects I think it pairs brilliantly with Mick Manning and Brita Granström’s (non-fiction title) Wild Adventures. What it offers, however, over and above anything any non-fiction book can do, is a cast of characters you care about, who make you smile, who you’re only too glad you know.
There’s lovable Lily, Eddie’s mischievous little sister, their Mum who hangs out in joggers and baggy jumpers and is immensely practical as well as kind (Hurrah for a fictional mum who can build and fix things as well as nurture and play with her kids.) By this fourth book, they’re joined by Eddie’s mum’s new partner Tom, and his lovely daughter Tilly (another Hurrah – for a mixed race family that’s just part of the mix). Down to earth, generous, relaxed and yet lively, they make a super family that’s a delight to read about.
Eddie’s Tent is a marvellous continuation of Eddie’s story, once again perfectly pitching learning hand-on skills with fun storytelling. Fingers crossed another Eddie story is in the pipeline – even if my kids are in their teens when it appears, I know we’ll be all reading it together!
Now, can you believe it – as a family we’ve barely ever camped. Our only time under canvas was a few years back in a rather luxurious yurt with futons and duvets and good coffee on tap nearby but with the arrival of Eddie’s Tent I was DETERMINED to give more traditional camping a go with the girls. They were extremely excited at the prospect, and with the wonderful support of their Grandparents we were able to spend a night camping last last month.
We pitched our tent where X marked the spot.
We did a bit of on location reading.
We made damper bread.
We baked cake in hollowed out orange skins (ready mix cake mixture poured into scooped out orange halves, re-assembled, wrapped in foil and then baked in the ashes for 20 minutes or so).
We had rather a lot of fun.
The three of us squeezed into the tent and our sleep was sweet (but short). Would we do it all again? Most definitely. Roll on the summer holidays I say!
Tent and camping themed music for a playlist could include:
A pacy tale of high secrecy, first love and agonising betrayal there’s much to enjoy in Ruth Estevez‘s début novel, Jiddy Vardy. Dramatic, intense settings (from the North Yorkshire moors and coastline to high society life in London at the time of Haydn) and vibrant characters, (including an independent and brave heroine) enrich a plot packed with momentum. Ruth Estevez’s fine ear for language and dialect, and her nuanced exploration of belonging, family and how judging right or wrong isn’t always black or white provide food for thought as well as comfort reading to curl up with.
Having enjoyed Jiddy Vardy so much I’m delighted to host a guest post today written by the novel’s author, Ruth Estevez.
Recurring Themes – Belonging
“I’ve been thinking a lot about common themes in my work and a recurring one is belonging.
My Mum spoke about fitting in both as a child and an adult and it’s made me wonder if we can take on a previous generations’ problems and experiences without noticing it until one day, we realise we have. And then come the questions, How did that happen? Why did I let that happen? When did that happen? Is that how I really think or feel? How do I get rid of it?
So, am I interested in writing about belonging because it has seeped into my psyche from previous generations or is it something I’ve added all of my own? Reminds me of the Philip Larkin poem, This Be The Verse, opening line…They f**k you up, your mum and dad which goes on to say that it isn’t their fault, it’s all passed through the line between generations and then some issues are specially added, just for you.
Belonging is a major theme in Jiddy Vardy. From the beginning, the young Jiddy fights to belong in a community she wasn’t born into. Half-Italian, she doesn’t look as if she belongs in a Yorkshire fishing village, with her black hair and darker skin set against the locals’ fairer looks. She stands out like a red poppy in a field of bluebells. She is angry, confused and frustrated and also determined that she will fit in. She won’t let anything passed on be passed on again by her. In the book I’m currently writing, The Monster Belt, neither of the two main characters feel they fit in where they were born and brought up.
It’s made me ask myself why this theme reoccurs in my work. Does it seep in because we are told stories and experiences verbally from parents or grandparents? Or is it deeper, more subtle? Does it enter our psyche through our bodies or is it soaked in through atmosphere and unspoken gestures? I do believe our bodies hold experiences, so the way someone walks, reacts to others, give hugs or not, all those things are ways of passing trauma at its most extreme or annoyances at its lightest. We also take it on board subtle experiences, like being told, ‘oh, you’re pretty…..for a redhead.’ Believe me, I’ve heard that said.
Hang ups can be passed on and I’m trying really hard not to pass my accumulated ones onto my daughters. I’m also trying to break the chain of them and that’s what I enjoy exploring with my characters. Fiction is brilliant for discovering options and how a character can make changes. You can call it therapy. I call it using what you’ve got. And what about those who don’t have parents and grandparents passing their experiences and hang ups on?
Jiddy’s birth mother isn’t around. She has never met her apart from when she was born. Yet she is drawn to luxury, which is what she would have had if she hadn’t been left to a life of poverty in the fishing and smuggling community of Robin Hood’s Bay. Jiddy looks exactly like her mother, Maria Vardarelli. She yearns to travel as her mother loved to travel. She likes pretty things as her mother did.But, Jiddy was brought up in a tough Yorkshire village by a childless couple, where there was no luxury, not until she saw it at the big house on the hill and began to covet beautiful things. This half-Italian girl speaks with a Yorkshire accent. She knows how to fight and how to break the law.
But where does she really belong?
Our family moved from Bradford in West Yorkshire to a rural village when I was two years old. We had a brilliant, free childhood. For Mum as an adult, I’m not so sure. Dad went off to work and she had to interact with women who it seemed were from a different planet to her. She was a young mum surrounded by the wives of doctors and lawyers whose children were grown up and who also went into such professions. As an adult, she carried her childhood insecurities of being the odd one out. She didn’t speak of how she must have felt at the time, but she did more when we were teenagers.
When she was a little girl, a neighbour called her ‘The Odd One.’ She was the middle one of three, with an older sister who this same neighbour called, ‘The Queen of Cowper Place’ and a younger brother. Quite different names with different connotations. Just so you know, Cowper Place was the square where they grew up, in what was called, Poet’s Corner, an area for Bradford where the streets were named after writers and poets. There were Shakespeare, Scott and Wordsworth Streets, Tennyson and Coleridge Place. Mum often talked about the one friend she had, Anita Goldberg, who moved away. Mum carried this with her, but did she pass it on?
I was the only girl to go to my secondary school from my village primary. I remember in the first week, a boy called Robert asked me to meet him after school. I was in such a dilemma and I didn’t know anyone well enough to ask their advice. I didn’t want to appear uncool. In the end, I didn’t go. It was a two mile walk home, and I caught the bus. The next day, I found out he had stayed behind after school. And so had his girlfriend. Months later, I had an argument with a girl in my new friendship group. At the end of lunch break, in Maths, others, led by the leader of the group, weren’t talking to me. They’d known each other from primary school. I was an outsider.
My friends all lived on the housing estate that stood slightly removed from my village. They all had blue eyes except me. They all tanned, except me. I vividly remember sitting on the school field and lining up our arms, most tanned to lightest. The kudos was in being the most tanned. Sounds silly, and trivial, but at that age, teenage years, these things can stay with you. That first year was a crash course in adjusting to kids from other schools who seemed alien to me. I had to work out my place and who I trusted. I became part of the group, I’ll add, and we are still great friends, years later.
And sometimes, out of nowhere though, that sense of not-belonging, not truly belonging, kicks in. All of my own.
I have to admit, I also liked being different as well, or what I took on as being different. I think it made me want to be a writer. It certainly drew me to writing stories and making up characters. I sought out new places where I didn’t know anyone and I loved it. I remember a boyfriend at university saying that I liked feeling misunderstood. It shocked me at the time. ‘No I don’t!’ I remember shouting. I realised though, that I did! And he’d seen it! Perhaps what he said made me be a little more self-aware. It’s all made me look at motivation and how my characters find their place.
Mum used to say everything that we do and that happens to us will be useful at some point. I’ve realised she’s right. Jobs I’ve hated, certain experiences…As a writer, and sometimes in life in general, they’ve proved useful. So, I’m going to be grateful for it all. Our backgrounds, past, and experiences make us all unique and that makes how we view the world unique. For writing, that means, even if we all write about the same subject, each piece will be different because we are. That’s something to celebrate, isn’t it?”
Today I’m excited to bring you an interview with Karl Nova (@KarlNova), whose début collection Rhythm and Poetry is shortlisted for this year’s CLiPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award), the only award in the UK for published poetry for children.
Karl Nova - Rhythm And Poetry [NEW BOOK OUT NOW!!] - YouTube
Karl Nova is a Hip Hop artist, author and poet. Born and raised in London as well as Lagos, Karl is a social commentator, creative writing workshop facilitator, broadcaster and cultural critic who creates platforms for other artists as he seeks to uplift, inform and inspire through this artistic expression. Apart from being a wordsmith and energetic live performer, Karl Nova is an avid beatmaker and he released a compilation of electronic music that he created on his phone called “Made ‘Em On My Phone”.
In the run up to the announcement later this month of the winner of this year’s CLiPPA, I talked with Karl about his poetry, his life and inspiration, and we started at the beginning, with a bit of background, and a discussion about how Karl got into delighting in words, rhythm and rhyme.
“Well I was born in London (Hampstead) and I can say it was my mother introducing me to books quite early that got me into reading. She tells me I could read the newspaper at 4 even though I didn’t understand what I was reading. I was taken to live with my father in Lagos, Nigeria when I was 7 and it was there that I discovered rap music through a much older cousin and spoken word slam poetry from watching “SLAM” featuring Saul Williams. It was from then that I got into trying my hand out at writing verses of my own. In particular that scene where the character played by Saul Williams recites an amazing poem in a prison courtyard; it made me know that I must be a poet.”
“Another lightbulb moment for me would definitely be hearing the first rap song I can remember. It was “Paid In Full” by a legendary Hip Hop artist from New York City called Rakim. ”
Eric B. & Rakim - Paid In Full - YouTube
“Then there was younger sister encouraging me to write out my feelings through poetry when she saw how down and depressed I was as a teen. I had failed my exams and had to repeat a whole class in secondary school (that is how it was in Nigerian schools at the time). Another experience that brought me to where I am today was being involved in music in my teens. I had very musical friends and we formed an acappella quartet which involved singing, rapping, vocal instrumentation and a lot of improvisation.”
Hearing Karl talk about being a musician, I pick up on a word he’s fairly recently started using to describe himself, in addition to being a Hip Hop Artist; that of POET.
I ask Karl what it means to him and how being a poet is or isn’t different from other aspects of his creative life, and about the experience and process of being a poet.
“I do different things, I rap, I sing, I produce music and now I am an author. As a Hip Hop artist I am rapper/MC and to me being that is being a poet. A poet to me is someone who communicates an experience or viewpoint or feeling in verse. When I started writing rap verses my main thought was to always write verses that would sound great when I performed them, but also somehow jump off the page if they are read. I wanted to write verses that could stand on their own even without music and not lean too heavily or just be carried by the instrumental part of a song. I have always aimed to write verses that even looked good on the page with how I arranged the words. I made this choice long before I ever thought of having a book. It was just something I admired about great Hip Hop artists I grew up listening to and more conventional poets I discovered afterwards.
Rap is a very conversational kind of art form in style and delivery even though it is informed by other oral traditions so my challenge when writing a book was to find a way to put the words together so that in some way inside people’s heads I am sort of joining in with their internal monologue. I really thought about this and hope I’ve achieved it! The feedback I get from people reading it is they can actually sort of hear my “voice” come through the words which is quite an amazing thing.
The editing process was tough because I had to chop off parts and change other parts. It was a back and forth process that was quite gruelling. It is letting someone else into the world you are creating with your words and trusting that they understand your vision and can help build it better without you losing your authenticity in the process.”
At this point in our interview I fess up and admit my own experience of hip hop is pretty much limited to my kids’ passion for the musical Hamilton. and I ask Karl what he says to those of us adults who might not know where to start with his poems (given that it is the adults who will often make the decisions about what books to buy and share) and who might almost be a little bit intimidated by the idea of rap.
“To anyone who is new to my style of poetry I will just say read it! Also try reading it out loud and I guarantee as that is done you will find the rhythm in the verses. It is quite a magical thing because that rhythm and flow is there waiting to be discovered. I made sure the content of the poems has humour, warmth, truth, humanity and stories that we can all find a common ground to stand out. The theme of Rhythm And Poetry is going from childhood to adulthood so I dug deep into my own childhood and unearthed a lot of stories of me growing up. I have stories about playing on the playground, being pushed into a puddle, being chased by a dog and all kinds of common experiences we can all relate to. Rap is all about conversation and storytelling and the stories I tell strike a chord with many because they are things we’ve all experienced to a great degree.”
One aspect of Rhythm and Poetry that really excited me personally when I first read Karl’s Rhythm and Poetry is how it bursts with incredible positivity. It’s full of optimism and brightness. So I ask Karl where that come from in him and what difference it makes to him, having a positive outlook on life.
“It is so funny to me that my writing comes out how it does in my book. I guess I have always felt words put together creatively are doorways into a world in my imagination where things are brighter and better. Writing has always been my way to escape into my own personal Narnia. My personal faith that somehow all things good, bad and ugly work together for good definitely informs my writing in some roundabout way so I guess the optimism and hope I get from that comes through even when I am not intentionally doing that. I guess writing a book like this where I dug deep into my childhood and also where I was inspired by the young people I have been meeting while doing Hip Hop-flavoured creative writing workshops helped me tap into my inner child maybe? Haha! I have been through a lot of dark places and low times in my life so I guess I am thankful I am still here and want to share some of the joy that I found through the art form that was instrumental in me getting through those tough times.”
I totally get that idea of wanting to share joy – it’s part of what Playing by the Book is about for me, sharing the joy that comes from books and being creative with my kids. So I wrap up my conversation with Karl by asking him about the last time he read something which inspired him go out and do something linked to what he had read – What was the most book that most recently got him doing/playing?
“Wow this is a very interesting question. There is a book called The War of Art: Winning the inner creative battle by Steven Pressfield that I read. That book is all about the challenge of writing and the way it is written is in such a brutally real challenge that it made me want to write lots of verses. I guess a book about how challenging being a writer can be helped me write my own book.”
Could there be a better note to end our interview on?! My thanks go to Karl for his generosity as we chatted. Now go and find his book!
Victoria’s day job is as a primary school teacher in Glasgow but when we got chatting I wanted to know how she ended up becoming an author (as well!) and what books had influenced her on her journey to publishing her first novel. Here’s what she had to say:
“Nearly every writer starts out as an avid reader, often at a young age, and I was no exception. Recently I came across an old story I wrote when I was seven, a fan fiction retelling of the story of Peter Pan, with my best friend and I both cast in the lead role (to forestall one of our many arguments about who should be in charge). It began:
Once upon a time there was two girls. They were both twins. They lived in Neverland. They decided they wanted to be boys so they dressed up like boys and they both got the name Peter Pan.
Victoria’s original Peter Pan story
The story went on to describe our adventures battling skeletons in the Marsh of Monsters, sword fighting with Captain Hook and defeating the terrible Marsh Monster, and it got me thinking: Why did I believe when I was seven that if I wanted to do any of these things in a story, I had to be a boy?
Looking back now, the answer is obvious. From an early age I was addicted to adventure stories, and devoured the Enid Blyton books, the Tintin and Asterix comics, the entire Three Investigators series, and all of the Hardy Boys books. As a teenager I moved on to fantasy and science fiction – The Hobbit, The Dragonlance Chronicles and the Tripods trilogy. What did all of these books have in common? They all featured boys who went off and had adventures with their male friends. Even in The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and Narnia stories which featured both girls and boys, the boys were very clearly the leaders of the gang. George tries to join in the adventures on equal terms by pretending to be a boy, but it’s clearly Julian who calls the shots despite her best efforts. And worse, Susan gets kicked out of Narnia in The Last Battle for daring to like such girly things as lipstick, nylons and parties.
The message from all of the books I read as a child was clear: boys are the ones who get to be heroes and go off on exciting adventures, and sometimes they let girls come too as long as they know their place and don’t either try to take charge, or worse, admit to liking ‘girly’ things.
It’s not that there were no female characters worth reading about when I was growing up, but I just couldn’t get into books that were aimed primarily at girls in the same way. There was always something missing for me. Nancy Drew didn’t have a proper gang like The Three Investigators or an equal partner like The Hardy Boys. And the adventures the girls in the Mallory Towers and Chalet School books went on seemed a bit tame and humdrum compared to the dramatic and dangerous situations the boys always seemed to be getting themselves into.
All of this early reading experience influenced my writing, though I didn’t know it at the time. The first novel I ever wrote as a teenager was a sprawling trilogy of hundreds of thousands of words and dozens of animal characters, of which only a handful of minor ones, I realised only years later, were female. The next few fantasy books I wrote had white male protagonists, and it wasn’t until I became a primary school teacher that I realised this lack of representation in children’s fiction was problematic for the pupils I was teaching.
One year I was teaching a class of six year olds in an area of Glasgow with high numbers of families seeking asylum. That term we’d been reading Harry Potter, and had spent our art lessons turning the class into Hogwarts, complete with a Diagon Alley word wall, a number train, feather-quill pencils and house points for good behaviour. Late one Friday afternoon, the children were enjoying some free play time with the cloaks, broomsticks and cauldrons I’d bought second-hand on Ebay. There weren’t quite enough to go round, and before I could intervene, an argument over the last wizard cloak broke out between a girl from the local Glasgow estate, and a boy recently arrived from Sudan.
“You can’t be Harry Potter!” the little boy yelled, clinging onto the cloak, “you’re a girl!”
“You can’t be Harry Potter either!” the girl shot straight back, holding onto the cloak just as tightly, “you’re black!”
That was definitely an epiphany moment for me.
Over the next few years I began experimenting with the characters in my own novels, first with female protagonists, then with characters from many different cultural backgrounds. I’d spent a number of years teaching in Cameroon, Malawi and China, and am ashamed to admit that up until that point, it hadn’t occurred to me include these children in my stories before – such is the power of early experience of representation in our own fantasy lives.
Just one of Victoria’s bookshelves at home
My travels also taught me to read more widely, and for the first time I discovered the novels of Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, the plays of Athol Fugaard, the short stories of Lu Xun and the beautiful writing of Khaled Hosseini. The Kite Runner was one of the books I read before starting The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, and along with The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War by Sumia Sukkar, it helped me shape Reema’s character, despite the fact that I’ve not yet visited the Middle East.
The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle is my attempt to write the kind of book I wanted to read as a child but didn’t yet know it: a book about a meeting of cultures, a plot driven by the friendship between two girls, a shared secret leading to an adventure, and a female-centred animal story that forms the glue holding Caylin and Reema together.
There’s so much more diversity in the world of children’s fiction now than when I was growing up, and I’m looking forward to reading more of the brilliant books featuring characters from many different backgrounds that have been published in recent years, as well as hopefully writing a few of my own.”
My thanks go to Victoria for her post today. I’d urge you to get hold of a copy of The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle as it’s a good read on so many levels – topical, though-provoking, inspiring, and sharply written with a lovely ear for language.