I was delighted to be invited to review the Branford Boase 2017 shortlist. The Branford Boase Award is given annually to the author of an outstanding debut novel for children, in memory of Henrietta Branford and Wendy Boase. Uniquely, it also honours the editor of the winning title, highlighting the importance of the editor in nurturing new talent and celebrating the author/editor relationship.
Having now read my way through this amazing variety of children’s debut fiction, I can see that the judges must have had a very difficult task when choosing the winners. Wonderful writing, amazing characters, absorbing worlds and inspirational story lines abound. All thoroughly deserved of their place on the shortlist, these stories demonstrate the brilliant array of fiction available for children today.
The Branford Boase 2017 Shortlist
Little Bits of Sky by S.E. Durrant
Ira and Zac have been moved around foster homes for as long as they can remember. All they have from their past is a tatty, blurry photograph of a black dog. Then they move into Skilly House, a children’s care home in London. It’s here that they make friends. Lose them again, and wait for their lives to begin. And then one day, they do…
Little Bits of Sky is an utterly believable reflection of growing up in care and the heartache felt when you don’t have a family of your own. Set against the backdrop of the late 1980s, it’s a lovely story about people young and old, who don’t always say the right thing, or do the right thing, but whose hearts are in the right place. Moments of childhood are captured perfectly; like playing outside and climbing trees as well as having to share a bedroom with your sibling and finally finding a grown-up who understands you. Ira tells the story through diary entries and is full of wonderful observations like “the trouble with holidays is they make ordinary life feel even more ordinary”. You instantly warm to her and her sometimes quite demanding little brother Zac. Throughout the narrative you are rooting for them to find a home. Without being overly sentimental Little Bits of Sky grabs at your heart strings and the characters are truly authentic. I particularly liked Silas, who helps look after Skilly House and the lovely Martha, who wants nothing more than to give Ira and Zac a home. An evocative snapshot of childhood, this is a fantastic story with writing that reminded me of L M Montgomery.
Find out more at www.nosycrow.com
We Are Giants by Amber Lee Dodd
Sydney thinks her mum Amy is the best mum in the world – even if she is a bit different. When everyone else kept growing, Amy got to four feet tall and then stopped right there. The perfect height, in Sydney’s opinion: big enough to reach the ice cream at the supermarket, small enough to be special. Sydney’s dad died when she was only five, but her memories of him, her mum’s love and the company of her brave big sister Jade means she never feels alone . . .
But when the family are forced to move house, things get tricky. Sydney and Jade must make new friends, deal with the bullies at their new school and generally figure out the business of growing up in a strange new town. And Sydney doesn’t want to grow up – not if it means getting bigger than her mum…
We Are Giants is an absolute gem of a story, celebrating love, family and friendship. Yes Sydney’s Mum is different but many of the things they face as a family are not and that’s what I enjoyed most about it. Everything felt normal and the author cleverly sheds light on the difficulties facing a mother with dwarfism as part of everyday life. Financial worries, difficult relationships, teenage angst, problems at school, moving home, romance all become part of a convincing narrative; a realistic reflection of things we all have to deal with. We Are Giants generates real empathy for Sydney, her Mum and her sister, who are ably supported by an array of eccentric characters. Sydney’s new friend Bobby is a gorgeous character – everyone could do with a friend like him. The well-paced plot keeps the story moving and just the right amount of humour keeps it light, enhancing the positive messages of believing in yourself and the power of family.
As as young girl I myself had a family situation that was a bit different – my oldest sister was disabled. To me, it was completely normal but I imagine to everyone else it was ‘different’. But we just got on with it; we were just ‘normal’. Family comes in all shapes and sizes, and that’s what Amber Lee Dodd celebrates in this book. I loved it.
Find out more at www.amberleedodd.com.
The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Forbidden to leave her island, Isabella Riosse dreams of the faraway lands her father once mapped. When her closest friend disappears into the island’s Forgotten Territories, she volunteers to guide the search. As a cartographer’s daughter, she’s equipped with elaborate ink maps and knowledge of the stars, and is eager to navigate the island’s forgotten heart. But the world beyond the walls is a monster-filled wasteland – and beneath the dry rivers and smoking mountains, a legendary fire demon is stirring from its sleep. Soon, following her map, her heart and an ancient myth, Isabella discovers the true end of her journey: to save the island itself.
The Girl of Ink and Stars is storytelling at its best, taking me back to the childhood feeling of only being limited by your own imagination. A story as gorgeous as the cover that binds it and the pages it’s printed on, it is a magical adventure, with a great plot. Bravery, loyalty and friendship abound and as Isabella is drawn deeper into uncharted territory the truth about the island is revealed. The perfect blend of mystery, myth and monsters – and of course, maps – keeps you on the edge of your seat. What is it about maps that is just so magical? I think they can reflect the wonder of the world; a time long ago when people explored in a way they perhaps don’t today.
When an author takes the trouble to write stories within the story, it always creates a world that is that much more believable. The myths in the narrative become more important as the story progresses and Isabella and her best friend Lupe reflect a courage embodied in the island itself. Their enduring loyalty is the lasting impression. The Girl of Ink and Stars is bound to inspire and encourage friendship in all who read it.
Find out more at www.kiranmillwoodhargrave.co.uk
Riverkeep by Martin Stewart
Wull knew it was his Pappa as he had always known him….but there was something else there now too. Fifteen year old Wulliam is dreading taking up his family’s mantle of Riverkeep, tending the river and fishing corpses from its treacherous waters. But then everything changes. One night his father is possess by a dark spirit, and Wull hears that a cure lurks deep within the great sea-beast known as the mormorach. He realises he must go on an epic journey downriver to find it – or lose Pappa forever.
Riverkeep is an impressive blend of myth, fairytale and coming of age story. Beautiful, haunting descriptions create an absorbing world and Wull is a believable character with whom you feel much empathy. What with trying to save his father from a parasitic creature, as well as coping with the impending duty of taking over the role of Riverkeep – keeping the river free of corpses – Wull is facing many challenges. Surrounded by an eclectic mix of characters as he embarks on his quest, Wull’s journey is far from dull! The persistent threat of the mormorach reminds us of the fragility of humanity with every life it devours. I enjoyed the authenticity the dialect added to the characterisation enabling you to really ‘hear’ the characters voices. Not being a fan of gore, for me the blood and guts distracted from the beauty of the prose. However, Riverkeep is a truly well-written debut evoking a fantastical but believable world, worthy of the comparisons it has drawn to other celebrated writers of the same genre.
Find out more at www.martinstewartwriter.com
Beetle Boy by M.G.Leonard
Darkus Cuttle’s dad is missing, vanished from a locked room and now everything for Darkus is about to change. Miserable and lonely, he is has to move in with his eccentric uncle Max, next door to the most disgusting neighbours ever and their house infested by beetles. But when a giant beetle called Baxter comes to his rescue, Darkus learns that these are no ordinary creatures. They’re an incredible super-species and they could just be the key to solving the mystery of his dad’s disappearance.
When links begin to emerge connecting the crime with cruel Lucretia Cutter, mad scientist and fashionista, and her penchant for beetle jewellery, Darkus, Dexter and the other beetles are caught in a race against time to find the answers. A coffee-mug mountain, home to a million insects, could provide the answer – if Darkus and Baxter are brave enough to find it.
I defy anyone not to enjoy Beetle Boy! Darkus is a wonderful character, who despite having had a really tough time, remains optimistic and is incredibly brave – a fantastic hero in the making. This bravery is in no small way down to his new found and fairly unusual friend, Baxter the giant beetle along with new school mates Virginia and Bertolt – both also fairly unusual themselves! Baxter leads Darkus, his friends and his eccentric Uncle Max to find out the truth; what follows is a well-paced adventure with plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing. Larger than life baddies including the rather awful Pickering and Humphrey; and Lucretia Cutter (surely Cruella De Vil’s far-more-foul-cousin) will have you jumping up and down for justice! I will confess to not being fond of beetles but after reading this, can see the magic in these fascinating creatures whom I now know so much more about. Beetle Boy also has a positive message about facing your fears and celebrating being different which, alongside the mystery and mayhem, are ingredients for a wonderful story. I’m looking forward to the next one!
Find out more at www.mgleonard.com
The Bubble Boy by Stewart Foster
‘Amir is mad. He’s crazy. But the hospital wouldn’t let a crazy person in. They must have interviewed him and checked his qualifications. But maybe he didn’t even meet them? Maybe he hasn’t even come from India. He might have arrived on an alien spaceship and snuck in here in the middle of the night.’
Eleven-year-old Joe can’t remember a life outside of his hospital room, with its beeping machines and view of London’s rooftops. His condition means he’s not allowed outside, not even for a moment, and his few visitors risk bringing life-threatening germs inside his ‘bubble’. But then someone new enters his world and changes it for ever.
It doesn’t sound like the happiest of tales, but thankfully The Bubble Boy is more than just a view of being a sick kid. Joe is a sweet boy who has been dealt a really rough hand in life – on top of his illness, his parents died in a car crash so the only person he has in the world is his sister Beth and his Skype- friend Henry who lives in the US with the same condition. The writing effectively creates a picture of the claustrophobia of living with this awful illness, but it also demonstrates that Joe in many ways is just like every other kid. He’s loves superheroes and football and wants to do something with his life, someday. And it’s the totally odd, but very kind, Amir, his new nurse that takes the story in a different direction where you’re not entirely sure what is going to happen! I enjoyed the friendships Joe has with the wider cast of characters: his nurse Greg; the camaraderie with his Doctors; his fellow Bubble Boy Henry and the endearing Amir and his crazy ideas. It’s a tough but compelling read and perhaps a reality check for those of us who take our health for granted. How do you stay hopeful in a hopeless situation? Through friends, kindness, the love of family and yes, by being a bit of a superhero.
Find out more at www.simonandschuster.co.uk
Cogheart by Peter Bunzl
Some Secrets change the world in a heartbeat. Lily’s life is in mortal peril. Her father is missing and now sliver-eyed men stalk her through shadows. What could they want from her.? With her friends – Robert, the clockmaker’s son, and Malkin, her mechanical fox – Lily is plunged into a murky and menacing world. Too son Lily realises that those she holds dear may be the very ones to beak her heart….
What a thrilling and brilliant adventure! Full of imagination and fantastic characters, I absolutely loved Cogheart. The setting comes alive with wonderful imagery and vivid steampunk themes. The dirigible airships are utterly magical and capture the sense of adventure that runs through the narrative reflecting the Victorian age of discovery. Lily is the perfect heroine, and as she sets about trying to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance, danger is never far away. As a world famous inventor it quickly becomes clear he has lots of enemies; not least because of the incredible life-like mechanicals he has made. There is the utterly charming if slightly irascible Malkin, a pet fox made for Lily by her father and one I am certain will find his way into the hearts of everyone who reads this story. More mechanicals make up the household staff – a brilliant addition to the wider cast of characters, including Mrs Rust the cook whose exclamations are particularly endearing. “Clockwork and Cam-wheels!”.
Lily let’s nothing get in her way but even the bravest of heroines need help and thankfully she has stalwart Robert to help her. He has to face his own self-doubt whilst fighting against some fearsome villains alongside Lily. The fast-paced plot keeps you on the edge of your seat, as do the action-sequences. Cogheart doesn’t hold back on the treachery but balanced with the warmth and courage of friendship this creates an authentic story full of adventure sure to be a classic for years to come.
Find out more at www.peterbunzl.com
I absolutely cannot wait to see who wins this evening and wish all the authors and editors on the shortlist huge congratulations for their success so far! And thank you to the organisers of the Branford Boase Award for sending me these books to review!
You can read my reviews of the 2016 Branford Boase Shortlist here.