Today, 12th January, sees the release of not one but two school-based middle grade books from Little Tiger Group’s Stripes Publishing. Karen McCombie’s ‘St Grizzle’s School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys’ is up against Barry Henderson’s ‘Worst School Trip Ever. Here I give my review of St Grizzles. I will be reviewing Worst Trip soon.
When her mum goes away for work, Dani is upset not only that she will miss her mum and gran, but that she will be attending a dull, grey boarding school far from her best friend with whom she makes whacky YouTube videos using their old toys as actors. But when her mum drops her off for her dreaded term at St Grizelda’s School Girls, she is shocked to find it is nothing like the website had led them to believe! Firstly there are no grey uniforms, secondly, as the title suggests there is a goat roaming around and a boy on the register, but thirdly the lessons are like none Dani has ever experienced before! Will Dani be able to make friends and settle or will her mum come and save her?
This is a fun read, perfectly suited to children from 7-12, which is brilliantly enhanced by the illustrations of Becka Moor, who captivates the weird and wonderful school which Karen McCombie has created.
I am so pleased that ‘St Grizzles School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys’ is just the first instalment – book 2, ‘St Grizzle’s School for Girls, Ghost and Runaway Grannies’ is due for release in June. This is another entertaining great from Karen McCombie which could run and run. Karen is, after all, the queen of long series with Ally’s World and Indie Kidd as just two examples.
I would like to thank the publishers, Stripes, for allowing me advanced access to a review e-copy of the title through NetGalley.
LIBRARIES and WORKING CLASS VOICES
For my turn on the fabulous YAShot Tour 2016, I’ve had the pleasure of discussing with writer and poet Steve Tasane why he is campaigning for libraries and how he brings a working class voice to YA.
Steve, your poem Save the Libraries (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oo-9H_eutbU) shows your passion for libraries and I know you are determined for them to remain open for all despite funding cuts. Tell us a little about your involvement/campaigning.
Libraries are a resource for working class communities; books are essential items that are increasingly becoming a luxury for families that struggle to afford groceries. At the end of the last library event I ran, the pupils were told they had five minutes to choose one book each, and there was a stampede. It was like ‘kids in a sweetshop’. Except it wasn’t sweets they wanted to stuff themselves with, but stories.
School libraries are being similarly squeezed by spending cuts. Working class children are being denied quality education, and the other end of this is that funding for the underprivileged to go to university has also just been cut. Now, the main supplier of fairy tales is the Murdoch press. Keep us ignorant, so we’ll keep believing that their kick in the face is actually a kiss. That’s why I’ll be attending the Save The Libraries National Demonstration on November 5th.
Your two novels, ‘Blood Donors’ and ‘Nobody Saw No One’ have urban working class settings and issues. Why do you see this as important in YA fiction?
That’s a good question, but ironically because it’s such a stupid one. Why would an artist use the colour blue in a painting? Why would a musician write a song in the Key of C? If there was one word I would choose to become redundant in the English language it would be ‘inclusivity’. There are millions of us out there. So why does the YA universe so often refuse to acknowledge us? Or – more to the point – if we write about the millions of kids in urban settings, why does this become ‘issue-based’? It’s just normal life.
Too many YA publishers say there is no ‘market’ for working class stories, which is beyond crass; it is insulting, and political too. But if we write about our own lives and communities, it is we who are labelled as ‘political’. Working class kids have always read fabulous books about the adventures of middle class kids, without anybody questioning it, but if today’s middle class kids are offered stories about working class kids, this is too often seen as radical or difficult. Great stories allow the reader to go on an imaginative journey into unknown experiences. Isn’t that the point?
I’m with you there, Steve. And the characters in your books are exciting and the stories gritty.
I’d like to ask you about male readership as I feel the majority of YA books have more appeal to a female audience.
When I do readings, boys love my books (Killer Bugs!!!). But, yes, most bloggers/reviewers seem to be female. I love the fact that Sis in Blood Donors is twice as tough as Marshall, but tender too, and the fact that Marshall learns that ultimately his muscle-power won’t help him anywhere near as much as friendship and family will; and that the boss of the towerblock, Big Auntie, wields a terrifying chainsaw. I love it that one of the heroes of Nobody saw No One – Alfi – is a ‘wimp’ despite being totally fearless. I’d love more young women to read my books, and enjoy them the same as I enjoyed reading Little Women or Matilda or Catherine Johnson’s excellent The Curious Tale Of The Lady Caraboo. A wonderful story has no gender divide.
You’ve also been writer-in-residence for the Charles Dickens bicentennial celebrations. Dickens portrayed the working class life of his day, how did you bring your modern YA twist to this?
Dickens was a brilliant storyteller and social reformer. Today, he’d probably be dismissed as “issues-based” and the Daily Mail would call for him to be banned. He wrote about characters from all walks of life, but he’s harder to read in 2016 because most of his books were originally designed to be serialized and weren’t therefore tightly edited, language constantly evolves (making much older books more of a reading challenge), and his female characters have dated badly as they tended to be typified as doomed floozies or doomed angels or doomed wives, very much reflecting the social attitudes of his times. I’m sure he would represent female characters very differently if he were writing today. He’d be standing up for refugees and for the NHS and for the Human Rights Act, and be utterly eviscerated for it.
On the other hand, you can’t put a good book down, and I enjoyed taking a similarly colourful approach to Dickens, whether writing about the dynamic cultural hubbub of Seven Sisters Road, the over-the-top villainy of Jackson Banks, or the linguistic gymnastics of Citizen Digit. Dickens could really make words dance, and I hope I succeeded in dancing similarly in his footsteps.
Steve, you are also a poet, with a published collection (for adults), Bleeding Heart. Can you tell me anything about your poetry?
Poetry is absolutely integral to my work as a novelist. Without my passion for performance poetry, I wouldn’t be a writer of YA/children’s fiction. For starters, it was my poetry that first took me back into schools – writers needing to run workshops in order to pay the rent. And it was the children – of all ages – in the schools who inspired me to write for a younger audience. And it was my poet-in-residence status that really allowed me to expand my repertoire – particularly as official poet for Battersea Dogs Home (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyDgNAG5Bqo), and as writer-in-residence for the Dickens Bicentennial Celebrations – during which I wrote a ballad poem adaptation of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. This was a wonderful trip inside Dickens’ working mind, with regard to his structure, themes, imagery, pacing; and of course Oliver Twist was the main inspiration for my book Nobody Saw No One. I write all my books to be read aloud, so you can really be convinced by and enjoy the characters’ voices. Most recently of all, I’ve written a tribute to one of the great masters – Roald Dahl – with this Gobblefunk Rap: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEm2lzLCFGM“
Steve Tasane will be at YAShot 2016 in Uxbridge on Saturday 22nd October. He will be part of a fabulous panel with Michael Byrne, Patrice Lawrence chaired by Polly Ho Yen. Their panel, To Have and Have Not: exploring poverty, privilege and class through YA will run from 17.50 – 18.45 in The Golden Hall at Uxbridge Civic Centre.
Steve campaigns as part of the Save The Libraries campaign, and would love to see as many people as possible join the national Save The Libraries demonstration on 5th November.
It was months ago that I first heard of Peter Bunzl and started to look forward to this book . And it has truly been worth the wait!
When Lily leaves her ghastly boarding school upon learning that her father is missing after his airship has crash-landed, little does she know what lies ahead…. Her mechanical pet fox is also missing and the housekeeper is running their house as if she owns it.
Meanwhile, Malkin the mechanimal fox is desperately trying to avoid gun-toting men in shadows to get back to Lily with an important message.
This is great adventure story set in Victorian times with the daring Lily and her new friend, watch-maker’s son Robert, taking great risks with their own and others’ lives as they try to unravel the mystery of her father’s disappearance and a missing box.
With a cast of humans, mechanicals and hybrids, heroes, traitors and villains, there is someone for everybody to enjoy! I was really impressed with the way the mechanicals had emotions and could talk and think they would fascinate readers of about 8-12.
The setting and the pace of the book are great and, with its underlying clockwork theme, it had me gripped from start to finish.
For a debut novel, this is astounding. I can’t wait for Moonlocket – coming in 2017!
Cogheart, by Peter Bunzl, published by Usborne, release date 1st September 2016.
A fun MG adventure – the start of an exciting new series by Paula Harrison
Published by Scholastic UK 01/09/2016
The first in an exciting new series by Paula Harrison, this book release coincides with the first day of term at Hogwarts, and features a school of children, 3 of whom discover they have magical powers and abilities. And it has a fabulously well-read youngster who made me think of Hermione Granger!
Clumsy middle child Robyn is convinced nothing exciting can happen in her life until she sees a mysterious spiny creature and realises that her family can’t see it. Sharing the news with her best friend Aiden coincides with their realisation that their school has suffered a freak tree-falling incident.
Being moved out to the local creepy mansion, the wonderfully named Grimdean House, is the start of a series of adventures, challenges and revelations for Robyn, Aiden and the very bright Nora from the year below them. Can Robyn learn to fight with unusual weapons against weird creatures and monsters – and a rival group of youngsters with special powers?
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can imagine many 7-11 year-olds being gripped by the adventure and the characters. I particularly liked the sly and slithery Miss Smiting – and the realisation of what she is!
It’s great to know that this is the start of a new series, with more mysteries and adventure to come next year!
Swan Boy by Nikki Sheehan
A book about learning to be yourself – against the odds.
Johnny has moved, with his mum and younger brother Mojo, to a new part of London following the death of his dad. Settling into a new school, with the extra responsibility of collecting Mojo while mum works, are challenges made harder for Johnny by bully, Liam Clarke. But neither teenager reckoned on the clever intervention of dance teacher Mrs Cray.
Superbly written by second-time novelist Nikki Sheehan, this book explores forging new friendships, the impact of bullies and of losing a parent, with a quirky underlying theme of swans.
Highly recommended – to suit ages 9+.
I have been wanting to get started on a bookish blog for some time, and this title seemed the perfect one for my first blogged book review!
The OMG Blog by Karen McCombie
Like in my favourite teen film, The Breakfast Club, detention can throw together a group of youngsters with very different backgrounds.
In this new book by Karen McCombie, we see 4 girls in their first weeks of secondary school being flung together and then working together on a blogging project. Their developing friendship has them each see their mums through the eyes of others and in a new light.
I loved the way the characters – of the girls and the mums – gradually unfold and the friendships strengthen. It is a very realist portrayal of settling into a new school and building friendships, through a light-hearted storyline.
As a Barrington Stoke ‘Conkers’ publication, this is an easier to read novel-length book for ‘tweens’ (9-13), with a layout which is fun, but easy on the eye. The dedication to a former reluctant reader perfectly reflects Barrington Stoke’s ethic of making reading accessible and fun. The book is dyslexia friendly and has some wise words about online safety at the end.
I’d certainly recommend it to both reluctant and keen readers, especially those just transferring to Secondary school.