What We’re Reading Wednesday: First Book of Nature – Nicola Davies & Mark Hearld

The book that I’m reading at the moment has become a true classic in our house. Published back in 2012, Nicola Davies and Mark Hearld’s A First Book of Nature, has become a staple of our reading year. The forerunner of this year’s Greenaway longlisted First Book of Animals (illustrated by Petr Horacek), the book journeys through the four seasons in a mix of poetry and lyrical prose, offering scraps of recipes, facts, fragments and observations to remind us of the wonder and diversity of the natural world.


I’m blown away each time I return to it by the richness of the illustrations – colour simply floods the page (no white margins here) perfectly capturing the essence of each season. Mark Hearld’s collages are vibrant and evocative: a mixture of direct observation and characteristic nostalgia. I’m a fan anyway but they seem to me to perfectly capture the essence and experiences being related in Nicola Davies’ words.


The book deals with each season in turn but it is always ‘Spring’ which holds the greatest draw for me. I can’t see the buds opening on the cherry blossom without thinking of this book: ‘Last week the twigs were just twigs, Bare and black and boring, But now – blossom!’.


I think that this is essentially the root of its enduring appeal: no matter the time of year, no matter the location you will find an image or a phrase that totally encapsulates your experience of the natural world. The nature that it records is universal and recognisable for children everywhere. It takes us through urban landscapes, woodlands, back gardens fields and beaches so that in a single page turn we can jump from the garden pond to the rockpool.


The book excels by not simply describing the season but rather the experience of it. Davies tells us that Lamb’s tails wiggle when they’re happy…you’ll see it when a lamb is feeding. It butts its mum and starts to suck, Then watch the tail go!’ but she also tells us that we’ll see them and want to smile. How true! It’s this beguiling mix of the practical and the poetical that has ensured that we keep returning to it year after year.






Review: The White Fox – Jackie Morris

The White Fox by Jackie MorrisThis week I’ve been reading Jackie Morris’s Greenaway 2018 nominated The White Fox – given the weather we’ve had this week, I couldn’t have hoped for a better book!

The day the fox comes, things begin to change for Sol. He’s adrift too, lost in the big city with his father, longing for the wild and frozen north. The fox offers a way back, a chance to reconnect, to find his way home.

Blue grey wintry tones set against the thick cream paper stock that is Barrington Stoke’s trademark make this the perfect book to curl up with on a wintry evening. Jackie Morris once again weaves words and pictures into a pocket sized work of beauty.The White Fox - Jackie Morris

At only 84 pages long the story is deceptively deep. Sol, bullied at school and adrift in a big city, feels a natural affinity with the white fox which mysteriously turns up on Seattle’s docks. It offers him a way back home and a reconnection with both the wild landscape of Alaska and his family.

The whole book breathes: clutches of snowy birch trees offer punctuation to the text and a tiny fox rushes along the bottom corner whilst gloriously saturated double page spreads allow the reader a moment of quiet reflection to connect to the wider themes of the book.

Both Sol and the fox begin the story profoundly out of place – beautifully conveyed in the opening illustrations which show the fox lost among the dark and overwhelming man made structures. However, as Sol’s connection to the fox, and indeed his own family, develops the colour palette lightens and we progress through the shining snow of the forest and the emerald green backdrop of his grandmother’s house to culminate in the shimmering, gold spangled, blue of the night sky. There is a satisfying sense of a journey having taken place – both literal and emotional. A truly satisfying read.



Review: Beyond The Wall – Tanya Landman

9781406366273The Blurb: From Tanya Landman, author of the 2015 Carnegie Medal winner Buffalo Soldier, comes a heart-stopping tale of love, corruption and the power of choice.

Blood on her lips. Blood on her tongue. Blood that is not her own. Cassia does not fear to die, but for her – for a slave who has maimed her master – there are worse things than death. Yet the mighty Roman Empire has its limits. Beyond her master’s estate, beyond the river, far to the north stands Hadrian’s Wall. And beyond the wall? Freedom. With dogs on her trail and a bounty on her head the journey seems impossible. But then Cassia meets Marcus – slick, slippery, silver-tongued – a true and perfect son of Rome. And her only hope.

The Review:

I’ve thrown myself into the list of CKG nominations this week and selected Tanya Landman’s Beyond The Wall as my first read. It’s no surprise that I went for this one first – I spent many lunchtimes in my school library closeted away with Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece – so this felt like comfort reading of the highest order. And yet it’s not really a comfortable read – with a less benign outlook than Sutcliff, Tanya Landman’s version of Roman Britain is definitely aimed at an older YA audience.

It’s the story of ‘a runaway slave and her journey through the murky underworld of Roman Britain’. There’s action aplenty as Cassia flees from the repugnant landowner Titus Cornelius Festus but this is not simply about a slave’s desire for freedom; the oppression Cassia is fleeing from is very specifically violent and sexual. Landman deftly interweaves a thorough examination of the position (read oppression) of women at all levels of society through her fast paced and perilous plot.

It left me thinking two things:

1) Just how good and varied Tanya Landman’s historical fiction is – Beyond The Wall is so different from Carnegie winning Buffalo Soldier and yet reading the author’s note at the end it was very clearly born of the same creative process.

2) The second thing is really more of a lament – Why are there not more YA books set in the Roman world? After the heyday of Sutcliff et al it seems that Rome has fallen out of favour (or fashion) and yet Landman shows that it’s just as pertinent a backdrop for YA fiction now as it ever was. Through Cassia and Marcus we traverse tricky ideas about freedom from oppressive rule, foreign occupation, materialism, a return to a way of life more connected with the natural world as well as investigating female sexuality and ideas of consent – all topics which wouldn’t feel out of place in one of today’s newspapers. Landman takes all these threads and throws them together to make a thrilling and emotionally intelligent adventure story – Not a bad way to kick off CKG 2018 I reckon!



Gill Lewis in conversation with Jake Hope

Winner of the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award for radical fiction, Gill Lewis books often probe at social and ethical issues. Her latest book, A Story Like the Wind, poignantly recounts the story of a refugee boy escaping an impossible situation in his homeland. A powerful treatise on the importance of stories, music and art in our lives, A Story Like the Wind is an emotionally sophisticated, engaging but highly accessible story illustrated throughout by Jo Weaver.  
The book has been endorsed by Amnesty International, an organisation the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals works with on the Amnesty CILIP Honour for a book from the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals which seeks to recognise a book from each shortlist which illuminates, upholds or celebrates human rights.

Jake Hope recently met with Gill to find out more about A Story Like the Wind.

JH: ‘They are only memories; moments of light locked into his synapses and pockets of time spilling away to the stars.’ 

There’s a beautiful blend of poetry and science around this depiction of memory, how key is the idea and past to Rami and the others in the boat?

GL: We are made up not only from our DNA, but from stories. Some of these are the big stories that have shaped the world around us, but many are the smaller stories of our own lives; the people and places that have influenced us. Some of these stories are passed through generations; some are the shared moments with friends and family. Stories make us who we are. They give us our identity. How do you hold onto your identity, onto these memoires when you are torn away from home? In the story, Rami tries to hold onto these memories, and it is through his music that he manages to do so.

There is a sense of community and camaraderie on board the boat, how did you go about building this up and how important is this to the idea of the story as a whole?

Initially the passengers are strangers to each other, all frightened and alone. As Rami shares his music, they begin to share their stories with each other and in doing so, give each other comfort and hope. Jo Weaver’s wonderful illustrations show the sense of community has been built up through the story.

The image of the boat on the ocean seers itself onto the minds of readers and instantly brings to mind all manner of images of refugees from the popular presses, how much research was involved in crafting the novel and were there any stories that particularly stayed with you?

Several years ago, I heard a Mongolian folk-tale Suke and the White Stallion, a story about the power of music to overcome oppression. It is also a story about the origin of the violin. I didn’t know how to tell the story until I saw a news-story about a young Syrian man playing his violin at a border control. The image was a powerful one, showing how music can cross physical and political boundaries and also boundaries of prejudice and fear. Music and stories allow us to connect with each other, and share our common humanity. Not long after the publication of A Story Like the Wind I discovered that the young Syrian I has seen in the news-story had made it to safety in Germany and is continuing his musical studies. He has an album My Journey of which the proceeds are being donated to the Red Cross.

‘My name is Rami and I am still alive’. In spite of the a lot of the sadness of the story, there it is also a tremendously humane and life-affirming story. The writing deftly suggests tragedy and trauma without ever being gratuitous, was this a difficult balance to achieve? 

Writing about the refugee crisis is a huge challenge, to achieve the balance of reality and yet offer hope. It is important not to shy away from difficult subjects yet bear in mind the age of readership for some of the dark themes. In the story we realise that each of the passengers has witnessed and experienced traumatic events but I hope I have managed to balance this with an offering of hope and a vision for the future.

Whilst being timely and topical, there’s a fable-like quality to the story. Was it very deliberate to make the experiences feel universal?

Yes. I love folk tales and how they have been passed down through history, often through oral story telling. Folk-tales and fairy-tales have universal themes that speak to us all, no matter what culture or religion. The fable in A Story Like the Wind tells of the origin of the violin from the Mongolian horse head fiddle, and how the horse head fiddle carried stories and music along the spice routes and silk roads, and eventually became the violin and cellos that first appeared in Europe. The stories of our global connections go back thousands of years and show how stories and music bring us together now as they did in our past. The passengers in the boat recognise their own stories within the story Rami tells, and it gives them hope for the future and for freedom. There is some comfort from knowing that stories about overcoming oppression can be hundreds, possibly thousands of years old, and what people have fought against in the past can be fought against again.

‘The soldiers forbade us to play more music. Perhaps they knew its power.’ The role of the arts and stories are massively important as mechanisms for change in the character life. How important do you think they are and what contributions can they make to our everyday lives?

Stories and the arts are incredibly powerful for telling universal truths and for shining a light on the darker side of humanity. In many countries today musicians and artists are restricted from creating and sharing their art as it threatens the authority of those in power. During the Second World War, the Nazis classified any art they deemed ‘unpatriotic’ as degenerate art. They didn’t want art to reveal the truth of the horrors and reality of war. We need art now more than ever, in all its forms, from books, to art and sculpture, to music and films to satirical cartoons to speak out for us all, for justice and freedom. I was honoured that Amnesty International endorsed the book, as the charity supports artists and writers around the world whose voices can’t be heard.

Rami’s story about Suke and the wild foal is heart-breaking but ultimately is uplifting. A lot of your novels have explored quite dark issues but shine moments of hope into these. Is hope necessary in fiction for children and young people?

My stories do explore some dark issues, and I try not to shy away from the bare truths and realities. I think children see many worrying stories in the media and need access to a way to understand these issues and have an opportunity to discuss them. Fiction is unique in providing this, and a offering a narrative to understand from another person’s perspective. For me, hope is a vital part of story telling, because stories become our maps and guides. They are there to shine a light in the darkness, to offer hope when there may little to be found.

You won the ‘Little Rebels’ award for radical children’s books with ‘The Scarlet Ibis’, what did winning the award mean to you and has this altered any of your approaches to books and to your writing?

Winning the Little Rebels Award was a huge honour. The award recognises children’s fiction which promotes social justice or social equality, challenges stereotypes or is informed by anti-discriminatory concerns. So, I was very chuffed to be considered a little rebel. I think my books have always had a central theme of justice for both human rights and animal rights. However, the award has brought to my attention the need for more diverse books so that children can have books as mirrors to their own worlds as well as windows to others’ experiences. The award also champions the need for the voices of more BAME authors to be heard to offer a greater variety, richness and depth of stories in the world of children’s publishing.

Jo Weaver’s illustrations create an incredible sense of place and emotion on the story. Can you tell us a little about the process of how these were created? Did you and Jo have any interaction over stories, characters or moments in the stories?

Jo Weaver’s charcoal landscapes and her characters and animals are indeed wonderful and add another layer of depth and understanding to the story. I was lucky to meet Jo and hear about her approach to the illustrations. The art director at Oxford University Press designed the layouts and spreads for Jo to create her artwork to fit within the pages. Then Jo created her vision of the book. I think it’s wonderful to see another person’s interpretation of your words and Jo manages to capture the moments of isolation on the sea, to the warm memories of home and the stunning sweeping landscapes and horses of the Steppe mountains in Mongolia.

What would you hope readers take away from reading ‘A Story like the Wind?’

I hope that the book enables the reader to empathise with those people fleeing war and conflict, and to understand the human stories behind the headlines we see in the media.

Many thanks to Gill Lewis for this interview. A Story like the Wind is published by Oxford University Press and is out now. 

CKG Review: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

What the Judges Say:

“The language used in this novel exquisitely conveys the atmosphere of the 1940s American rural setting…Every character is believable, well developed and fully rounded, combined with well observed small domestic details. This is a truthful exploration of small-time attitudes and injustice without being overly sentimental, and exploring questions of morality within the confines of the story.”

What We Say:

“The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”

From the moment I read that gripping first line, I was absolutely hooked on Wolf Hollow. There aren’t many books that I read in one day but I swallowed this one whole. 

Compelling is the first word that comes to mind when I think of this book. It’s not a cheerful story and it takes you to some pretty dark places but, from that first line onwards, you’re completely drawn in and have no choice but to go there.

The book tells the story of twelve year-old Annabelle, whose unremarkable life in sleepy, rural Wolf Hollow is rudely interrupted by the arrival of a new girl at school, Betty Glengarry. Betty’s reputation precedes her (she has been sent to live with her grandparents in the country because she is “incorrigible”) and she very soon reveals herself to be a cruel and manipulative bully.

Before long Betty is bullying Annabelle and making threats against her brothers. But Annabelle has an ally in Toby, a First World War veteran who lives on the edges of Wolf Hollow’s small community:

He didn’t ask for food or money. He didn’t ask for anything at all. But instead of drifting through on his way to somewhere else like the others, he circled endlessly, and I confess that I had been nervous about him in the beginning.

When Toby challenges Betty, she soon sets out to get revenge in startling and very disturbing fashion. And Annabelle is forced to tackle questions such as, when is doing wrong actually right? And what if lying is sometimes actually in the best interests of the truth? 

This book has been compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s easy to understand why such comparisons have been made – a rural American setting; a small community; a lying antagonist; the “mockingbird” character, wrongfully accused of something terrible and left facing the wrath of the townsfolk; and a girl approaching adolescence being confronted by some very grown-up dilemmas. 

Wolf Hollow is a really well-crafted novel, a challenging read that explores some pretty big concepts and really makes you think about human capability, motivation and morality.


Wolf Hollow is published by Corgi Books

Find out more: listen to Lauren Wolk talk about Wolf Hollow here: