Festivals galore

Autumn is definitely the time for festivals and usually a conference or two.  This year  I have just been to Cheltenham and also Bath, where I have been helping out for 13 years – I don’t know where the time has gone.

The start off was in Bath and I spent Saturday the 28th Sept over at the Guildhall helping with two of the very popular events.  The first of these was with the current Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell and it was a total sellout in the Banqueting Room.  300 eager fans and parents were in the room to hear Cressida talk about her writing journey, how to train your dragon and particularly about the latest volume in the series ‘Wizards of Once’, which is called “Knock Three Times”.  The signing queue was enormous and took nearly two hours for everyone to speak to Cressida, get their books signed and have photos taken.  We just managed to get things tidied when it was time for our second speaker of the day to start her signing session.  This was the wonderful Emma Carroll, who has become one of our brightest lights when it comes to historical novels for the middle grade audience.  This latest book has a very local feel, not least because Emma lives in Somerset; it is called  “The Somerset Tsunami” and is based on a true event that took place in January 1607 (Gregorian calendar) and which affected large parts of the county as well as the area around Newport in South Wales.  I remember seeing a programme about this many years ago and can’t wait to read her version of events.  Once again the room was packed full of eager readers and then another long queue formed to get books signed.   I was also lucky enough to see the amazing Chris Mould in the Green Room, although his session about his new illustrated version of Ted Hughes’ “The Iron Man” was not until after I had left.  However I hear great reports about it and gather there was even a surprise appearance by the  totally unique Chris Riddell, who was doing his own event about “Guardians of Magic”, the first in a new series called the ‘Cloud Horse Chronicles’. By the time I left, tiredness was beginning to set in, but it had been a great day.

After this I had a bit of a rest but on Tuesday I was back in Bath.  The first event was at the Central Library and was a craft and reading session with Tracey Corderoy, when she was talking to some very young children and their parents about her book “The One-Stop Story Shop”, illustrated by Tony Neal.  There were rhymes, props, singing and lots of glitter and glue.  I was amazed by how well prepared Tracey was.  There were pre-cut templates, packs of sequins, paper and all the things that were needed, so we didn’t have to go hunting around.  This really did make for a stress free event.  She also told us about her latest picture book called “Mouse’s Night Before Christmas”, which I have already bought and which will be in the Christmas round up.  After this lovely session (which really took me back to the days in a public library) I went down to the Guildhall for my second event.  This was with the lovely Abi Elphinstone and she had a couple of hundred school children enthralled by her talk about her books, but particularly about “Rumblestar” the first in a magical new series called  ‘The Unmapped Chronicles‘.  This was an excellent event which the children loved, although I think being shown her very own home-made catapult might have made quite a large impression.  This is yet another young writer who is taking the book world by storm and I look forward to following her books over the coming years.

My third day at the festival was on Sunday 6th October and it was the finale of the whole event.  As usual there were more people that I wanted to see than I was actually able to get to, but it was a fabulous time.  I started off with the wonderful Robin Stevens who was talking about her books ‘Murder Most Unladylike’ and particularly about the new title “Top Marks for Murder”, which once again sees her heroines Daisy and Hazel back at school and facing yet another murder mystery.  The idea for the story came to her when she was standing on Bath railway station and saw a couple of people on the hill in the distance; it made her think about seeing a murder, but not being close enough to recognize the murderer and so the plot was conceived.  Robin has built up a following of avid readers and they were out in force to get their books signed, some of them bringing their complete collections.  I was then scheduled to help with the “Horrid Henry” session with Francesca Simon, which was a packed event and there were loads of excited fans wanting to find out about their unlikely hero.  Once again the queues were long and everyone wanted their books signed.  I managed to dash downstairs to try and get some books signed by the speakers for another event.  They were Catherine Fisher, author of “Clockwork Crow” and “Velvet Fox” and P.G. Bell who wrote“The Train to Impossible Places” and now has “The Great Brain Robbery”.  I managed to meet Catherine and get my books signed but unfortunately  Peter Bell had already left the building.  Never mind, I will catch up with him eventually and the books will gain his signature.

Anyway this saw the end of the festival for this year but as the saying goes “I’ll be back” next year I hope.  In the meantime I have also been spending time at Cheltenham Literary Festival, but only in the audience.

I attended it on Saturday 5th October, so I had a double dose of book events that weekend.  The first event was Robin Stevens, something that I had booked before I found that I was stewarding for her the following day.  Whilst it was great for me to be able to see and hear her talk to different groups, I must apologise to Robin for popping up all over the place.  What was great was to see how she tailored her talks to suit the audience and the length of time that was available at each venue.  This event was definitely larger than in Bath and lasted an hour, so there was more time for questions from her adoring fans.  What we all discovered was that the Cheltenham audience is quite politically minded and when asked to come up with plots and characters for a murder mystery they chose the House of Commons and some well known politicians !!  Thankfully this was all fiction.  My second event was a panel session called “The Ultimate Guide to Writing for Children”.  It consisted of the iconic Barry Cunningham, founder of Chicken House Publishers and discoverer of the “Harry Potter “series, Alex O’Connell from ‘The Times’, Nikesh Shukla from the Good Literary Agency and Jasbinder Bilan, the author of “Asha and the Spirit Bird” (and previous winner of the Times Children’s Fiction Competition).  This was definitely one for the adults, something that was reflected by the lack of young people in the audience, although the Pillar Room was crammed full of excited adults, some of whom definitely wanted to have their work published.  The talk itself was stimulating and reminded me that I have been very lucky over the years to meet many people in publishing, all of whom are generous with their knowledge and experience.

My next visit to Cheltenham was on Saturday 12th and one again I had two very special events to attend.  Both of them were panel events although the themes were very different from each other.  The first discussion was entitled “70 years of Children’s Books” and was chaired by the totally amazing Daniel Hahn (editor of “Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature” and prolific translator and reviewer); he was talking to Alex O’Connell, Mat Tobin (Oxford Brookes University) and Clare Pollard, the author of  “Fierce Bad Rabbits”, a truly delightful look at picture books.  Each of the participants had to choose one title from each of the last seven decades and it was brilliant to see the range that they came up with.  Many of the titles I am glad to say were old favourites, some I really must get around to reading and one or two were new to me.  The panel also chose a title that they thought might prove to be future classics and although I have not read one of them yet, I think that they are definitely worthy of this accolade.  They are  “Bearmouth” by Liz Hyder, “Julian is a Mermaid” by Jessica Lowe, “Skylark’s War” by Hilary McKay and “Town is by the Sea” by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith.   The second event of the day was entitles “Mysterious Places” and it had been guest curated by Robin Stevens, although she was not able to attend and the wonderful and talented Katherine Woodfine took the role of chair, as well as being one of the authors, talking about “Spies in St Petersburg”.  The other speakers were Dominique Valente with her book “Starfell”, which was about magic and what happens when a particular day ceases to exist; Dave Shelton with the first in a series of adventures featuring “Emily Lime, Librarian Detective” and Polly Yo-Hen with her latest novel “Where Monsters Lie”.  They spoke about their individual books and specifically how they created the characters and situations, but they also talked about other recent books that they have been influenced by.  This was an event that was definitely loved by the young audience and hopefully they will have added some new titles to their reading lists.  The great thing about such panels is that you might go to hear a particular author but you then discover that you might enjoy books by the other participants.

That was my final event for this year but I am already looking forward to the various events for next year.  There are also a few book launches in the offing, so I hope that I be able to report on some of them.  The thing to remember is that these book events are for everyone and it is a total delight to be surrounded by so many enthusiastic readers, especially the young ones.

Some Spring Gems

It has been a while since I wrote about some of the latest middle grade fiction that have appeared recently.  There has been a continued interest in all things crime related as well as mythical beasts, alternate worlds and of course witches.  In fact we have all been spoilt for choice, with not just some brilliant new books, but also continuing adventures from some of our favourite authors of the moment

 

Nosy Crow, 9781788000260

“Dragon in the Library” by Louie Stowell, illustrated by David Ortu.  Well anything about a library is going to get me interested and this is no exception.  When Kit and her friend visit the local library to get hold of a book by his favourite author something strange happens.  Kit starts reading an information book and suddenly finds herself transported into the pages of the book; the librarian Faith Braithwaite see all of this and brings Kit back, they then try and find out why this happened.  It turns out that Faith is a wizard and the library and some of the books in it act as portals to travel to other magical libraries, but best of all Kit and her friends find out that there is a dragon called Draca sleeping under the building.  When an unscrupulous developer Hadrian Salt tries to buy the library they will all have to find some way to thwart his plans and save the library and the dragon.  This is a really great story and I hope that there will be more, so that we can follow Kit and her friends as they get more involved with wizards.

Kelpies, 9781782505556

“Guardians of the Wild Unicorns” by Lindsay Littleson is a fantastic story from Scotland and is published by the wonderful Kelpies.  Lewis and Rhona are on a school trip staying in the highlands, far away from their homes in Glasgow, when Lewis sees what appear to be unicorns he thinks he is imagining things, but what if they are real?  The two friends find themselves trying to save these wild unicorns from people who see them as a way to make money, but they find that the task is not as easy as they hope.  The unicorns in this book are not at all like the glittery and colourful ones you find in younger age books; these are wild ones in the same sense that those in Harry Potter are and it brings an added fascination and sense of reality to the theme of the story.  Behind all of this we have the stories of two young people who are each coping with major issues at home and are not telling anyone, but by the end of the story they have realized that sharing problems can have a positive effect.

Piccadilly, 9781848127616

“Potkin and Stubbs” by Sophie Green, illustrated by K.J.Mountford, is a crime thriller but with a decided difference.  Lil has always wanted to be a reporter and because she lives in a city where schools have been closed and her mother is out at work, she has opportunities to follow her ambitions.  One evening she sees a young boy at the bus station cafe and offers to buy him a drink because he looks cold and hungry, however the truth is much stranger than that; Nedly is a ghost and Lil decides to try and discover where he had lived and how he died.  The story gets darker and more dangerous as they get closer to the truth and they find that there are citywide crimes that need to be resolved.  This is a fantastic story for those who love crime stories, with that little added twist of the supernatural.

Stripes, 9781788950220

“The Star-spun Web” by Sinead O’Hart and illustrated by Sara Mulvanney, is a magical tale of parallel worlds that should not connect, but where someone has created a machine to travel between them.  Tessa suddenly arrived on the doorsteps of an orphanage as a baby, but  there were some strange circumstances, such as the snow on her blanket, even though it was not winter.  The story picks up when she is twelve and is claimed by a man purporting to be a relative.  What happens next is strange, as she sees a boy through a mirror in the summerhouse and eventually  she is able to transfer to this alternative world.  It is still a version of the city of Dublin, but  one where there is a war and it seems that someone wants to bring bombers through the gateway in order to conquer her own peaceful version of the city and country.  Sinead O’Hart has a wonderful imagination and has created a group of characters full of caring and friendship on the one hand and some dastardly villains on the other hand.  It is a story that leaves you with a great big smile at the end.

Scholastic, 9781407191553

“Wildspark” by Vashti Hardy (illustrations by George Ermos and Jamie Gregory) is one of those books that you know will leave an impression and you will probably want to read again.  It is set in a world where the spirits of those who have died are able to be transferred into the bodies of animals.  It is also a world where robots are used to do a lot of the work and being mechanically talented is a real skill.  Prue lives on her parent’s farm and is a great engineer, but she has one ambition and that is to try and find the ghost of her brother and have him brought back to this second life.  When she is chosen (or rather her dead brother is) to become an apprentice in the main city of Medlock, she thinks that her opportunity has come.  This is a beautifully written story about what it is to be human, the love of family and the way we use technology and I really recommend it to anyone who loves fantasy, steampunk or books of extraordinary imagination.

Quercus, 9781786540782

“A girl called Justice” by Elly Griffiths is definitely one for those who love books by Robin Stevens, Laura Wood, Katherine Woodfine and Fleur Hitchcock among others.  After the death of her mother, Justice  (because her father is a criminal barrister) is sent to boarding school and soon finds an opportunity to use her super sleuthing skills.  One of the school maids has gone missing and Justice suspects foul play.  As she gradually settles into the strange world of a girls’ boarding school and makes friends, she also investigates the mysterious goings on and whether they have any links to a death from the past.  This was a great read for those who love this mix of school and crime and I can’t wait for further adventures from this absolutely ‘spiffing’ heroine.

Nosy Crow, 9781788004503

“No Ballet Shoes in Syria” by Catherine Bruton.  This is an amazing, heart breaking and yet very hopeful story of Aya, a young refugee from Syria and her mother and young brother.  The main part of the story deals with their struggle to be allowed to remain in the UK and the hope that one day they will find Aya’s father, who was feared drowned as the crossed from Turkey to Greece.  The other part of the story is about her love of ballet and the people she meets in a ballet class at the centre where they go to meet the case worker helping them.  We are given parallels between Aya and the ballet teacher Miss Helena, who had come to England on one of the last Kinder transport trains  and there is a lesson to be learnt about honouring those we have lost by achieving the potential that they believed we have.  There is so much hope in this book but it is laced with much sorrow and I really suggest you have a box of tissues at the ready; also don’t read it on the bus or train!

Macmillan, 9781509874217

“Kat Wolfe takes the Case” by Lauren St John, illustrate by Daniel Deamo is the second story about young Kat and her friend Harper as they are caught up in more adventures on the Jurassic coast where they live.  When a dinosaur is found by Harper’s father and his team (they are paleontologists), it leads to theft and possible smuggling by a gang trying to find “Dragons’ teeth” which are supposed to cure those suffering from incurable diseases.  Once again Kat needs the help of her grandfather (the Minister of Defence) and begins to know him better as a person.  This is a great story that mixes geology, animals, mystery and also friendship and family.  It is an ideal story for some adventure and crime fighting.

“Malamander” by Thomas Taylor is a tale of mystery and monsters set in a world similar to ours, but with some major differences.  Young Herbert Lemon works at the Grand Nautilus Hotel as a ‘Lost and Founder’, but he did not expect that he would be asked to find two people who had disappeared 12 years before.  Their daughter, Violet Parma thinks that it is linked to a monster called the Malamander that is said to inhabit the wreck of an old vessel in the bay.  This is a fabulously creepy yet funny book with amazing characters (and that is just their names) and a bookshop that every town should want.  I look forward to further adventures from this intrepid pair of children.

Simon & Schuster, 9781471178733

“Sea-ing is Believing” by Steven Butler and Steve Lenton, is the next episode in the goings on at yet another weird and wonderful seaside hotel; only this time the hotel is for non-human guests and I don’t mean it is a pet hotel.  This hotel caters for yetis, mermaids, and other such unusual clients.  In this adventure Frankie’s great grandfather reappears as a ghost during the celebration of his 175th birthday.  However something is not quite right and it is up to Frankie and a cast of incredible friends to save the hotel and all of those in it.  As always these two Steves have produced a hilarious and very quirky story that will have everyone in stitches and longing for more of the same

OUP, 9780192771605

“The last spell-breather” by Julie Pike takes us to a place where magic still happens and spells are created and then breathed over the recipient.  Rayne is the daughter of a spell breather, who protects their village from an undefined plague that has ravaged the country.  When her mother disappears it is up to Rayne to keep everyone safe, but unfortunately she is not very good at spells and the results leave her running for her life.  Her aim is to go to the city where her mother trained as a spell breather in the hope that she will find her mother and reverse the problems that she has created.  Along the way she meets several new friends, but not all of them are what they seem and there is also a dark and sinister villain who brought the original disaster to the country.  This is a beautifully conceived story with a frustrating young heroine who battles to do the best for everyone, but because she doesn’t always know the full facts, she gets things wrong.  It really is a lesson in communication, listening, trusting people and the importance of family and friends.

Barrington Stoke, 9781781128558

“The Disconnect” by Keren David is a new story from Barrington Stoke and is aimed squarely at the young teen reader, especially those who are attached to their smart phones.  Esther’s year group at school have been asked to do without their phones for six weeks and the winners will each get £1000 and the opportunity to be on a panel looking at the use of social media.  Many of the young people decide not to take part, many fall at some point during the trial but Esther and her friends are determined to win.  This is a fascinating look at how people depend on social media and what it means to be cut off from it.  It is also about fake news and making sure that we understand the consequences of believing anything we read without checking.  This is altogether a very timely book from one of our top authors for young adults.

Andersen Press, 9781781783448043

“The Bolds go Wild” by Julian Clary and David Roberts.  Once again we join our wonderful family of urban hyenas in Surbiton; however this time they get a surprise visit from Fred’s mother Imamu and she is very definitely a WILD hyena.  Whilst the children, Bobby and Betty are delighted by the visit they nearly give away the family secret when they are seen by their headmistress, with their tails showing below their clothes.  However all is not lost, as Mrs Dobson, the head, has her own secret; she has a son who wants to become a chimpanzee.  So the next thing is for the Bolds to help him achieve his ambition and then get him and Imamu back to Africa.  You can always guarantee that there will be zany goings on with this family, but beneath it all there is a real sense of caring about letting people and creatures find their own place in the world.

I do hope that you will find something here that you will enjoy.  We really are so lucky that there are some splendid books being published for this middle grade range and many of them deal with some quite serious subjects but in a very understated way, so that the reader is carried by the story line, rather than feeling they are being lectured.  This is just the start of a much bigger selection that I hope to bring to you in the next month or so.  Happy reading!