Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited.

I started this blog intending to write only about children's fantasy ('magic fiction') but have since widened my scope to include any work of children's fiction that I have read and enjoyed. Fantasy will still probably predominate, as it remains a favourite genre, but I cannot now resist sharing thoughts on other wonderful books too. (MG and occasionally YA.)

Here you will find only recommendations, never negative reviews. If I read a book which I feel is less than wonderful (which happens far more often than not) then I simply don't write about it. This blog is, rather, a celebration of the most exciting books I stumble across on my meandering reading journey, and of the important, life-affirming experiences they offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts their writers give.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

The High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson; Ghost by Jason Reynolds

New Knights on the block

‘Knights Of’ (KO) are an exciting new company dedicated to bringing more diversity into children’s book publishing in the UK: into management, production, editing, writing and illustration, as well as into the characters and contexts of the stories themselves. 

Recent years have seen massive strides forward in liberating and celebrating the roles of girls and women in children’s books, and a wonderful and important thing this is. Diversity and inclusion are starting to emerge far more positively too, but there is still a long way to go, so initiatives like this one are to be welcomed warmly  - and, hopefully, supported strongly. 

Happily, these two recent titles from KO look set to establish themselves amongst current bestsellers. They certainly deserve to do so. 

An important new take on a popular genre

Another fine writer, Robin Stevens, had done a great job of bringing something akin to ‘golden age’ detective stories to a children’s audience. Her ‘Wells and Wong’ murder mysteries have kicked off a popular trend in children’s fiction, as well as providing many young readers with thrilling entertainment, cleverly written and with some pertinent messages slipped in amongst their period coziness. 

Now Sharna Jackson has added important new dimensions to the children’s murder mystery. Her up-to-date story is set amongst the high rise blocks of an urban estate, and her two young detectives are kids from the top floor of one of them. These two protagonists, Nik and Norva, are wonderfully drawn, and their characters, providing complementary detecting skills, are clearly and entertainingly distinguished. Their lives and language feel very credible and their interactions are often amusing, always engaging. Many young readers will identify readily with  them. Similarly, the residents of their home block have identifiable elements of authenticity as well as providing the usual varied cast of  witnesses and suspects. The storyline is kept light, as befits the age of this audience, with the emphasis on the puzzle of the detection rather than the horror of the crime. (If such subject matter can be considered light - but then that is the way of the ‘cozy murder’ genre.). The mystery is as clever and entertaining as any - and its young detectives far more so than many. 

This book contributes an important contemporary counterbalance to the white middle-class ethos of some children’s books, whilst still providing a highly quality, light entertainment read for any enthusiasts of junior sleuthing. It will surely make many new fans for the this particular genre too, and is warmly to be welcomed. 

‘Nova grabbed my hand. “Time to shine,” she said, throwing her braids over her shoulders. “This is our moment.”’ (p 350) 

Indeed it is!

Far wider appeal than might first appear 

Ghost, by justifiably lauded US author, Jason Reynolds, is a truly exciting find for children’s reading and we should be enormously grateful to KO for bringing it to the attention of a UK audience. 

As someone not really into sport, or, for that matter, a fully paid-up subscriber to ‘The American Dream’, if I had been asked in advance if I were particularly interested in reading a book about a poor American kid, whose life was turned around by becoming a member of a ambitious track running team, under the direction of a pushy coach,  I would, in all honesty, almost certainly have said no. Same old, same old? Field of Dreams rework yet again? That just shows the folly of making rash assumptions. If I hadn’t actually read Ghost I would have missed out on a truly wonderful and important children’s book, so I am inordinately thankful for the book bloggers who raved about it so much that I felt I had better check out what the fuss was about.

Ghost is contemporary, relevant  and truthful. The voice of its first person narrator, Castle Cranshaw (Ghost is his self-chosen nickname) is superbly caught, with enough of the vernacular to convince of authenticity, without making comprehension over-challenging for those not of the culture. The story touches, very poignantly, on some of the hardest aspects of life for some children today. But it also majors on some of the qualities that are best, and some of the things that are most important, about humanity. It has warmth and heart as well as darkness. It reminded me, in part, of lines from a hymn I sang at school: ‘Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.’  That it is set in America and concerns track running gives it grounding, but in no way limits its universal resonance. It is ultimately a positive, hopeful tale, and not only is that right for a book for this age group, it is right for all of us. 

It is not about winning the race; it is about starting it. 

Ghost is, of course, fiction, and its ‘reality’ is carefully manipulated by the author, as it should be, to create a fully satisfactory read. Yet it is one of those novels that is not only experienced as real in the reading, but contains enough of the truth of actual life, enough real experience and enough deep understanding of human beings, to give those with similar lives many point of identification, and those with different lives,  greater understanding and empathy.  Both of these are so important for our young readers, and for our world, for both provide insight that can change, for the better, how we see ourselves and others. 

It seemed like we were all connected in some strange way that none of us had imagined.’ (p 158)

Once again, I say, ‘Indeed!’

On shelves, please: in shops, homes, schools, libraries

It would be good to see both of these books included with the offers in many upper KS2 classrooms. They will contribute strongly to the range and diversity of reading available as well as to its attractiveness and quality. Getting and keeping children reading is often a matter of leading each one gently towards the right book at the right time. I am sure that these books will speak to many children, of all backgrounds, and I hope that Ghost, particularly, will become the hugely enriching part of their reading diet that it has the potential to be.