Children’s Lit Round-Up: Historical Fiction Edition

This week on the blog, I’m taking a quick detour away from YA with some marvellous historical fiction children’s books!

17350491Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication date: 7th March 2017
Source:
Purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Found floating in the English Channel in a cello case after a shipwreck when she was a baby and taken in by the kindly Charles, it seems almost impossible that Sophie’s mother is still alive – but that means it is still possible, and you should never ignore a possible.

When the Welfare Agency threatens to send Sophie to an orphanage, she flees to Paris to follow the only clue she has: an address on the inside of the cello case. There she meets Matteo and his network of rooftoppers, who open her eyes to a world above the streets, close to the sky. They must find her mother before Sophie can be caught and sent back to London – and before she loses hope.

I’ve talked about how much I like Rooftoppers before (for instance here, and most recently, here in my review of Katherine Rundell’s latest novel The Explorer) but I think I should just say again how much I adore this book. I don’t even think I have quite the words to describe how much. It is wonderful children’s fiction. It’s wry and funny and self-aware (“Your powers of observation are formidable. You are a credit to your optician”) and atmospheric and clever and just a little magical. It reaps the rewards of an adept writing style but bears traces of an old-fashioned children’s classic.

It’s set in the late nineteenth century, and is very much a book of two halves: its English scenes are warm and bookish while its Parisian scenes are both grimy and starry. The book’s eccentric family focus was perhaps my favourite parts of the novel. Young heroine Sophie is tomboyish, plucky and daring (“It is difficult to believe in extraordinary things. It is a talent you have, Sophie. Don’t lose it”). Her guardian Charles is unconventional but incredibly kind (“He was thirty-six years old, and six foot three. He spoke English to people and French to cats, and Latin to the birds”). The enigmatic Matteo and his ragtag collection of street urchins add notable texture and grounding to the book’s landscape. I only wish the novel’s ending wasn’t quite so rushed. That said, while there are a lot of children’s adventure stories out there (in fact The Explorer is one of the best of 2017) but Rooftoppers remains a masterstroke. 5stars-fw

Rooftoppers is a wonderful work of elegant plot, pacy adventuring and wry humour. Katherine Rundell is fast becoming one of my favourite writers of children’s books.

34045334The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publisher:
Chicken House Books
Publication date:
4th May 2017
Source:
Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Ami lives with her mother on an island where the sea is as blue as the sky. It’s all she knows and loves, but the arrival of malicious official Mr Zamora changes their world forever: the island is to be made into a leper colony. Taken from her sick mother and banished across the sea, Ami faces an uncertain future in an orphanage. There she meets a honey-eyed girl named for butterflies, and together they discover a secret that will lead her on an adventure home. Ami must go back to the island of no return, but will she make it in time?

A pattern is emerging in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s children’s books: both The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at The End of Everything have – to name just a few similarities -long titles, young female protagonists, tropical island settings, and officious male villains who use bureaucracy to ruin that tropical island home. However, while The Girl of Ink and Stars is magical realism or light fantasy, her second standalone novel certainly leans toward historical fiction. The Philippine island of the title, Culion, was a real leper colony for over ninety years (though it should be noted that in the book ‘leper’ is seen as a slur and the word ‘Touched’ is use to describe those who have contracted the disease). Set in the early twentieth century, it makes use of such implied isolation to create a microcosm that could seem ghastly (as the reader is aware of the seriousness of the illness) but has the capacity to amaze, particularly as Ami discovers the butterflies of the cover.

The Island at the End of Everything is a very bittersweet book. It echoes with a (perhaps not-unexpected) melancholia that saps some of the potential magic of the prose. I liked the descriptions, the kindness of several of its characters and the interesting twist in perspective that comes just over halfway into the book. I would’ve liked a stronger plot and a more memorable cast, but Millwood Hargrave writes with an effective and descriptive style. If you liked The Girl of Ink and Stars (my review of which can be read here), this one is worth checking out.

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A relatively short and often bittersweet second novel, with an unusual choice of subject and an effective, descriptive writing style. 

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The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine
Publisher: Egmont
Publication date: 4th June 2015
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

When a priceless and bejewelled clockwork sparrow is stolen from the glamourous London department store known as Sinclair’s, shop girl Sophie finds herself on the trail of some of the city’s most dastardly criminals. Joined by rookie porter turned aspiring detective Billy and extroverted, beautiful chorus girl Lillian, she must crack codes, devour iced buns and vow to bring the villains to justice…

This is the opener in what looks set to be a marvellous historical mystery saga – there are already several sequels and I can’t wait to read them. Woodfine builds an Edwardian London of great contrast, from the shimmering luxury of the shop to the shady backstreets of the city’s criminals. I loved the choice of time period and the setting, which give the mystery a really distinctive feel, and there are some fabulous panoramic scenes in the store. The plot is engaging and an intriguing mystery brings a quick pace. Its young characters are neatly individualised, particularly heroine Sophie and runaway Joe, and there are some interesting adult secondary characters. There was one over-long exposition scene, but the writing is otherwise strong.

Fans of Robin Stevens’ cracking Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries (I recently reviewed each of the books so far) will find plenty to like here – though the busy Edwardian shop floor contrasts sharply with a 1930s boarding school, and Sophie and Lillian are very much accidental detectives. There’s a sense that a series-long villain is on the cards here, while Stevens’ mysteries are decidedly more self-contained and murderous. Woodfine’s work probably bears more resemblance to glossy period drama Mr Selfridge, as Selfridge’s is clearly the inspiration for Sinclair’s, from its opulent displays to its gregarious American owner. (Of course, these books being aimed at kids aged 9-13, it skips out on the television series’ rampant adultery and, alas, the absurdly beautiful Grégory Fitoussi.)

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An engaging, pacy mystery with a terrific historical setting and fantastic series potential.
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*I’d like to make it clear that the stars are for the book, not just the Grégory Fitoussi gif.

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The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor Book One) by Jessica Townsend // pleasingly fun and utterly immersive

dfp1adkuqaaos5lAuthor(s): Jessica Townsend
Publisher: 
Hachette/Orion Children’s Books
Publication date: 12th October 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): fantasy, adventure
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Morrigan Crow is cursed. Born on the unlucky day of Eventide, she’s blamed for all local misfortunes from hailstorms to broken hips. Worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die on the next Eventide – until, that is, a strange and remarkable captain named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black smoke-hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he offers her the chance to escape her draughty, unwelcoming manor and enter an unpredictable but magical city called Nevermoor.

Jupiter believes Morrigan could contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organisation: the Wundrous Society. If she can pass four difficult and dangerous trials, she will have a chance at a future full of strange adventures. But there are hundreds of children with extraordinary talents in Nevermoor, and as far as Morrigan is aware, she hasn’t got a gift anyone would want. Morrigan will need to discover more about who she is, and more importantly, who she could be – or she’ll have to leave the city and confront her fate, once and for all.

Having only recently read Katherine Rundell’s terrific historical standalone The Explorer, I was itching to dive into more new children’s fiction  – but whatever I expected when I picked up this book, it probably wasn’t something quite as wonderful as Nevermoor. It took me a few chapters to get into it, but once I had, I raced through it in a couple of hours. This is charming, utterly immersive stuff.

As Eventide draws near, the last thing cursed eleven-year-old Morrigan Crow expects is for a magical and magnificently dressed Captain called Jupiter North to offer her a chance to escape the fate she thought she’d been resigned to long ago. Exciting and rhythmic but not overstuffed, the plot is one of discovery and cleverly placed detail. It doesn’t reinvent the literary wheel but almost every page features something interesting or memorable. Townsend’s use of familiar tropes, like the whisking away of a downtrodden child hero to a secondary world or the appearance of an unconventional pseudo-father figure, is highly effective. There are requisite foes in a compelling conflict with a Big Bad called The Wundersmith and some lesser enemies made at a very intense garden party. While the final showdown is a bit anticlimactic (it’s cut short and the stakes don’t quite make an impression), there are some suitably spooky, atmospheric moments in the build up which show the shadowy side of the Republic and even of the otherwise glittering Nevermoor.

It is in worldbuilding that this book really shines. Startlingly inventive and entertaining, the sheer imagination and delight at play is astonishing. There are hints at the workings of a broader fantasy world – it is, for example, run on Wunder, a mystical medium few truly understand, and opens in the gothic ‘Great Wolfacre’ – but much of the novel spills over with inexplicable and varied magic simply because it can. Because it’s fun. There’s a logic and yet an immense expressiveness to it. There are rooms that redecorate themselves for different occupants; carriages built like nimble metallic spiders; shadows that can wander on their own. Violinists who pickpocket entire audiences while playing; a clock with a sky for its face. Fireblossom trees and mesmerists and snowhounds and a gigantic talking cat.

Plunged into a city where the impossible seems positively ordinary, self-effacing, black-clad Morrigan is startled to realise that it is a place in which she might be able to feel she belongs. The Hotel Deucalion is full of colourful, eccentric characters. The charismatic, gregarious Jupiter North was undoubtedly my favourite, but trouble-making dragon rider Hawthorne was a close second. Even minor characters like Martha and Dame Chanda have their moments. One of the finer details of the book is that many of the core cast feel like they could be the hero of their own story, and one imagines there are thousands of untold escapades just waiting to spill from the mysterious Wundrous Society (“Tales from the Wundrous Society” is totally the title of a short story spin-off collection).

The best of the book’s prose comes from its descriptions (“Days of splashing in the sun-drenched Jasmine Courtyard pool gave way to balmy nights of ballroom dancing lessons, barbecue dinners and long lounging sessions…”, “an enormous rose-coloured chandelier in the shape of a sailing ship, dripping with crystals and bursting with warm light”). The writing is fairly undemanding, but it’s accessible and surprisingly funny (“the first day of Morningtide, Spring of One, Third Age of the Aristocrats. Weather: chilly but clear skies. Overall city mood: optimistic, sleepy, slightly drunk”). I would’ve liked a positive female friendship for Morrigan or more useful guidance from Jupiter rather than seeing her be kept in the dark, but these are small quibbles. A lack of hugely expansive explanation leaves this one feeling very much like a series opener, but then it is a story readers will likely be thrilled to return to. There is such tremendous potential in this energetic, appealing piece of storytelling.

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Vivid, imaginative and surprisingly funny, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is a dazzling children’s fiction début. 

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The Explorer by Katherine Rundell // “You should always dress as if you might be going to the jungle”

34992381Author(s): Katherine Rundell
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 10th August 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): adventure, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to final changes.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

From his seat in a tiny aeroplane, Fred can see the vast Amazon jungle below him. He has always dreamed of becoming an explorer, of making history and reading his name on lists of great discoveries.

But when the plane crashes through the canopy, Fred suddenly finds himself in the jungle far sooner than he expected, along with three other children he’s only just met: Con, Lila and Max. With little hope of rescue, their chances of getting home feel impossibly small. Except, it seems, that someone has been there before them…

I love YA, but when you spend a lot of time reading and reviewing it (and its seemingly never-ending swamp of contemporary fiction), it can be a real breather to jump back into the exuberant capers and imaginative gymnastics of children’s fiction. There is a touch of that vibrancy to the work of Katherine Rundell, whose books include Rooftoppers (“A soaring story of adventure, friendship and hope set on the rooftops of Paris,” to use the fabulous Jenny’s words) and The Wolf Wilder, one of the most reviewed children’s titles of 2015. Set in the untamed wilds of the Amazon rainforest and following four children who must work together to find their way back home, there’s no other term for it: The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. 

Fred has read everything he can get his hands on about explorers, adventurers and the great expeditions which have taken them into the unknown. But with his father far too busy working and being respectable to notice (“his father always insisted so unswervingly on clean shoes and unrebellious eyebrows”), Fred’s dreams have always been a secret. That is, until a trip to Brazil sees him crashlanded in the jungle with three other children – siblings Lila and Max, and haughty Con (actually Constantia but use it at your peril). While their time in the jungle is dangerous (and involves eating spiders), it opens up something more in each of them. Fred gets braver. Con learns to climb trees and run. Lila’s love for animals, though she’s never been allowed a pet, leads her to adopt a sloth named Baca who likes to hang out in her hair. Five-year-old Max mostly wanders off into nearby trees/beehives/ant nests, but you get the idea. There’s lots of teamwork, arguing, and new friendship.

As with all good kids’ books, adult characters are a secondary consideration. There is one exception in the titular and nameless explorer, a mysterious and gruff jungle-dweller who lives in some ancient ruins and can catch fish with his bare hands (think Indiana Jones if he was more concerned with leaving things intact than putting them in a museum). Rundell makes sure to give each of her characters moments of complexity or backstory, the explorer included. The period setting isn’t entirely specific, but a little digging puts it somewhere in the mid-to-late 1920s. There were no illustrations in my early copy, which is a shame as they have the potential to really change or cement one’s experience of the book. It takes time to invest in the plot and a rushed ending is precipitated by just a little too much dialogue, but the book runs at an otherwise jolly pace. It’s packed with incident, from hair-raising river rides to tricky rock climbs.

Rundell’s prose is fairly straightforward, but also expressive (“his accent, Fred thought, belonged among good tailoring and fast motor cars”) and memorable (“I liked that it might be all right to believe in large and wild things”). The rainforest – “it was a thousand different colours; lime and emerald and moss and jade and a deep dark almost black green that made him think of sunken ships” – ultimately becomes a place more for savouring than escaping from. Rundell takes the opportunity to invoke the host of extraordinary creatures who call it home, too. Sloths, snakes, spiders, monkeys, Amazon river dolphins, whispers of big cats (“something with strong jaws and sharp manners”) all get a look in.

The writing style will appeal to readers across the 7-12 age group, and could make a great family/parent-child choice for reading aloud or together – particularly as the writing is by turns clever, challenging, touching (“Love is so terrifying. It is less like rainbows and butterflies and more like jumping on to the back of a moving dragon”) and tongue-in-cheek (“I did not admire our prime minister. He is very well-dressed, but despite his many protestations to the contrary, I am not one hundred percent sure he can read”). Of course it requires a little suspension of disbelief, a little strategic pacing, but young readers employ logic where it suits them and it is not going to detract too much from the story here. The Explorer is about adventures, and wildlife, and kids who get their hands dirty.

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Vibrant, expressive and often clever, The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. Rundell’s prose is terrifically appealing. Ideal for young fans of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything or Abi Elphinstone’s The Dreamsnatcher. 

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