Review: Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce
By Julie Mills
Frank Cottrell Boyce won the Carnegie award for Millions (2004) and his novels have been regularly shortlisted/nominated for the Carnegie medal since then. His children’s novels include Framed (2005), Cosmic (2008), The Unforgotten Coat (2011) and The Astounding Broccoli Boy (2015). He has also revived Ian Fleming’s famous flying car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again (2011).
Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth gives us a hearty helping of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s humour and fantasy whilst being grounded in the not so wonderful life of Prez, a young boy who is living in temporary care. It is a boy-orientated narrative with episodic flights of fancy and imagination.
The flights of fancy are great investigations of “what if?” – What if the remote control really could rewind real life? Or a reverse explosion could rebuild Hadrian’s Wall? Or the supermarket self check-out gave you money and not the other way around? – all delivered with Frank Cottrell Boyce’s trademark humour. These sequences also allow him to explore big themes: time, ageing, death, love, home (Life, the universe and everything?). The story also gives insight into the experience of children who are carers, living with dementia and life in care for both young and old.
Review: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
By Clare Walters
Set in rural Western Pennsylvania, USA, in 1943, Wolf Hollow (2016) tells the story of 12-year-old Annabelle’s bruising experiences with an ‘incorrigible’, ‘dark-hearted’, older girl, Betty. It is a coming-of-age novel, a Bildungsroman, in which the protagonist goes through a period of intense psychological change over a matter of a few months. She transforms from a happy, innocent child into a more wary, but stronger and independent, young person who’s had first-hand acquaintance with the underbelly of humanity.
The story, told in the first person, is narrated by a mature female voice, reflecting on a time when she was younger. The older Annabelle recalls how, during a few momentous months, she was forced to reconsider both her place in the world and her understanding of other people. She ‘learnt how to lie’, and discovered that what she said and what she did actually ‘mattered’ – that her actions directly affected others.
As Lauren Wolk explains in her video on the Carnegie shadowing website, Annabelle is a good girl, with a strong sense of right and wrong, who tries to solve a problem without recourse to her parents. In doing so, she discovers her own moral strengths and weaknesses. To cope with the situations before her, she has to face her own fear and draw on reserves of courage. Annabelle is both brave and loyal, but she is also subject to emotions such as anger and meanness (at one point she prays for Betty to get blisters from her encounter with some poison ivy). She also experiences constant confusion, as she’s unfamiliar with dealing with the difficult new challenges that tumble fast, one upon the other.
Roehampton Readers, who meet at the University of Roehampton to discuss the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards shortlists as a shadowing group and post reviews to the shadowing site itself, are now in their fourth year. NCRCL MA student Nicki Oakes-Monger, who coordinates the group with fellow MA student Judy Digby, reflects on their summer outing and this year’s shadowing experience.
Here we are, the Roehampton Readers shadowing group, composed of current and former Children’s Literature MA students on our summer outing to Chawton, Hampshire. We had a private tour of Chawton House Library where Jane Austen’s relatives lived and which now houses a collection of early women’s writing, including some books written for the instruction of children. We also visited the house where Jane herself lived and which is now a museum. All this was interspersed with the consumption of plenty of coffee and cakes!
We have been meeting as a group for the past four years over the summer in the weeks leading up to the selection of the Carnegie and Greenaway winners. In the past year we have also met up regularly to talk about past award-winning books. It is enjoyable to get together with other people who have a strong interest in children’s literature and the discussions often go into considerable depth, which is a stimulating experience.
Review: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, illustrated by Yutaka Houlette
By Clare Walters
The Fighting for Justice series ‘introduces young readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress’ through engaging words and pictures. This fascinating and beautifully produced book about a Japanese-American man who, along with approximately 120,000 other Japanese-Americans, was interned by the United States’ government during World War II certainly fits that bill, and would be suitable for children from top primary to lower secondary school age.
Although born, educated and living exclusively in the United States, after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, in which many American sailors were killed, Fred Korematsu was arrested as an ‘alien enemy’ and jailed. Two years on from his arrest, with the help of a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Fred argued in the Supreme Court that summarily imprisoning Japanese-American citizens violated their constitutional rights. He lost his case and was sent to a prison camp at Tanforan, south of San Francisco, where, with many other Japanese-American detainees, he lived in appalling conditions in the horse stalls of a former race track.
Almost 40 years later, in 1983, Korematsu challenged the original court ruling – and this time he won. Subsequently he continued to campaign for social justice issues and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1998. Now in America 30 January has been designated as the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, and there is currently a movement to make this day a national federal holiday. Korematsu’s life history is quite a story… and it’s very well told in this impressive, well-researched, non-fiction title.
Review: Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers
By Anne Malewski
Once upon an Oliver, we met a boy with a penguin friend, a curious girl who put her heart in a bottle, a moose that belongs to no one, a bear who was a paperplane enthusiast, and many more who, I daresay, live happily ever after in readers’ minds.
Those picturebooks are excellent both in content and form, as are his paintings and music videos. Without losing his distinct style, Oliver Jeffers keeps exploring and experimenting enthusiastically and he has outdone himself with Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for all the Letters (2014). Again.
Jeffers has reimagined the concept of alphabet books, shifting the emphasis from educational to inspirational (where Once Upon an Alphabet imparts information, on dark matter for example, it does so cheekily and sneakily). Lovingly dedicated to the letters without whom words and sentences and stories would be impossible, his book celebrates each letter with a short story of its own. Not to explain letters but for the letters.
Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
By Kay Waddilove
Lies We Tell Ourselves is a historical YA novel which interweaves a story of friendship, teenage identity crisis and burgeoning love into a brutal account of horrifying racism and prejudice. Set in the fictional US town of Davisburg Virginia in 1959, the story is narrated by two female protagonists; Sarah, a black girl entering a previously all-white high school, and Linda, a white girl who is the daughter of the town’s newspaper editor, a fervent white supremacist. In 1954, a time when open segregation was common in the southern states (‘white’ cafes, ‘whites only’ toilets, etc), all US schools, by Supreme Court ruling, had been required to become racially integrated (the Brown v. Board of Education ruling); the Court ruled that states must integrate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” Nevertheless, many Southern politicians resisted the ruling, utilising technical delaying tactics (some schools were shut down by local politicians or school boards for months or years – a history alluded to in the book), economic reprisals and direct intimidation in order to maintain a segregated and two-tier education system. Robin Talley grew up in Virginia, and decided to write this novel after hearing her parents discuss their own teenage memories of high school desegregation in the 1950s. She investigated historical records, including diaries of black students, and speaks on the Carnegie website of her shock at what she discovered during her research and her determination that the facts of history should be better known.
In 1957, a federal court ordered integration of the Little Rock, Arkansas public schools and nine African-American teenagers were enrolled into the Central High School. Such young people had thus been placed in the frontline of the struggle for civil rights, and on arrival, the ‘Little Rock Nine’ encountered a vicious white mob. This scenario clearly inspired the powerful opening chapter of Talley’s book, when the ten new black students turn up for their first day at Jefferson High, to be greeted by “a sea of angry white faces” and calls to “keep the niggers out”. The author pulls no punches in depicting the intimidation that her fictional characters face; from the outset the shocking language and physical violence aimed at them is described in challenging terms. As the progress and experiences of these students are followed throughout the school year, Talley maintains and builds suspense through her realistic description of events. No-one, apparently, is safe; incidents such as the false arrest and subsequent vicious life-threatening beating of Chuck, Ennis’s decision to leave Jefferson, Sarah’s final assertive rejection of her parents plans for her future, all reinforce the realism of this text while also ensuring that reader engagement is rooted in the unexpected turns of the plot.
Review: There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake
By Julie Mills
The themes of the novel are identity and change manifested in the person of adolescent Shelby about to become adult at age 18, and of course lies. The story is told in a dual narrative set in present day USA and in “the dreaming”, an imagined, fairy tale, mythological location influenced by legends of the Native American peoples. The two narratives echo, mirror and complement each other and gradually become more overtly closely linked. In one of the narratives we are on a typical “road movie” trajectory running away from events and in the other we are on a quest in search of the evil crone and to rescue “the child.”
The lies begin at the beginning. The author/narrator lies to us right at the start. Shelby’s Mom has been lying to her all her life, she lies during this story. The coyote figure tells Shelby that there will be two lies and then there will be the truth. This may be about the only thing which is reliable, although we are kept speculating about which stories/versions/revelations are lies – or the lies.