We’re on the second leg of a tour around the Common Travel Area, in the company of some recommended children’s books, including a few old favourites and more new treasures. The first leg (posted here) took us from the Scilly Isles, through the West Country, Wales, Ireland, and ready to head back over the Irish Sea to Scotland.
Glasgow is the setting for Fly, Pigeon, Fly, an engaging picture book for children aged 6+, telling the true story of an unusual friendship, between a boy and an injured pigeon. Published in 2005, it was a first book by John Henderson, and co-written by Julia Donaldson (Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, Stick Man). The illustrator, Thomas Docherty (Little Boat, To the Beach), subtly depicts the industrial urban landscape and Clydeside shipyards in pen and wash.
Heading north, we leave the lowlands for a tour of the Highlands and Islands.
First, a familiar modern classic: Mairi Hedderwick’s Katie Morag series, set on the Isle of Struay. The first, and possibly favourite, is Katie Morag Delivers the Mail (1984). Struay is modelled on Arinagour on the Scottish island of Coll in the Inner Hebrides, where Mairi Hedderwick lived for a number of years. The books have a gentle humour, a strong sense of place, and are lovely picture books for sharing with children of 6+.
Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the world ends ( 2017) is based on a true story set in St Kilda, the isolated archipelago of westernmost islands of Scotland whose inhabitants famously evacuated the islands in 1930. The largest island is Hirta, whose sea cliffs are the highest in the United Kingdom. In 1727, a group of men and boys are put ashore on a remote sea stac to harvest birds for food. No one returns to collect them. This coming of age tale of survival and dread, written with the Carnegie medal-winning author’s characteristic brilliance, is a great read for 12+.
In the wild Scottish Highlands, best friends Lewis and Rhona discover that legends are true: unicorns are real creatures, darkly magical and in deadly danger. In Lindsay Littleson’s Guardians of the Wild Unicorns ( 2019), a black-hearted gamekeeper has captured the last herd of these creatures. Can Lewis and Rhona rescue them before an ancient promise has unimagined consequences for them all? Nominated for the Carnegie Medal, this fantasy adventure would suit readers of 9 – 12 years.
Corey’s Rock, by Sita Brahmachari, illustrated by Jane Ray (2018) is another selkie story, in a contemporary setting in the Orkney Islands. Jane Ray’s luminous illustrations vividly conjure both place and emotion as Isla and her parents seek a new beginning following the death of her young brother Corey. Refugees and shipwrecks echo through this beautiful collaboration between author and illustrator, which brings together themes of loss and new beginnings, friendship and cultural heritage. This is a short book (96 pages) with plentiful illustration and well designed space, with a reading age of 8+, and an interest age of 8 to adult.
Now, we’ll head south, over the border to England. (If we travel via Edinburgh, we’ll visit the important second location featured in our Newcastle selection.)
The stunning Northumberland coast, with it’s long, sandy beaches and high skies, is the setting for Robert Westall’s much-loved classic, The Kingdom by the Sea (1990). Set during World War 2, it’s the story of a young boy who goes on the run (picking up a dog along the way) after his family’s home is bombed. It has some dark and unpleasant scenes, so might be classed as YA, but a mature 12+ reader would also appreciate this episodic, coming of age, survival story.
Newcastle is the main setting in Malcolm Duffy’s terrific book, Me Mam. Me Dad. ME ( 2018). (We reviewed this book at greater length here.) Danny is a fourteen-year-old Geordie lad, son of a single mother, living in a run-down council flat. He has a great relationship with his mother – and his extended family – and is a normal, happy, football-playing boy, until the two of them move in with Mam’s new boyfriend. Callum’s domineering behaviour soon turns into physical abuse and coercive control. It’s a very dark theme, but told with a straightforward grace and a lot of humour. I couldn’t put this book down, and whole-heartedly recommend it to readers of 12+. There’s an excursion to Edinburgh, too, to cross off on our itinerary.
Heading south, Lark, by Antony McGowan, is published by Barrington Stoke, who work with the best writers and illustrators to publish good, accessible books that help every child experience the joy of reading. Brothers Nicky and Kenny get lost and caught in a blizzard on a day trip to the Yorkshire moors. Their predicament is chilling, and yet there is plenty of humour in the boys’ chat and daft quips. It is a short book, with short chapters. Evocative description of the natural world is kept tight and concentrated, and carries the action along. McGowan has told how the discipline of writing for Barrington Stoke has honed his skill as an author. Not a word is superfluous. This is the fourth in a series but is equally good to read as a stand-alone.
Blue John is a distinctive stone found in the Peak District around her Derbyshire home, which inspired Berlie Doherty to create this modern myth. The author crafts each sentence carefully, and this short story, beautifully and simply told, will intrigue and move young readers. The original 2003 version has been simplified, with fresh illustrations by Alexandria Neonakis, and republished by Barrington Stoke, who are renowned for producing high quality books that are also dyslexia-friendly. Recommended for beginner readers.
M.P. Robertson’s The Moon in Swampland (2004, originally published in 1994) is a retelling of an old English folktale (also known as ‘The Bogles and the Moon‘ and ‘The Dead Moon‘) that has its roots in the Lincolnshire fens. Lavishly illustrated and slightly spooky, this is a picture book for older readers.
Winner of the Branford Boase Award 2001, Marcus Sedgwick’s powerful debut novel, Floodland, is set on the Norfolk coast. For 8-14 year olds, it tells of surviving in a sinking world, and marked the beginning of the author’s multi-award-winning career. It’s a short but gripping tale of environmental disaster, the consequent collapse of civilisation, and moral dilemmas.
Touring on south now to London, we’ll start with a graphic novel, for readers of 12+: Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black (2019), from Marcus Sedgewick, co-authored by Julian Sedgewick, and illustrated by Alexis Deacon. Melding historical fiction with Greek myth, this is a story about two brothers, written by two brothers. Harry Black wakes in hospital to learn that his brother Ellis has almost certainly been killed by a rocket falling during a German air raid on London. Delirious, Harry begins to blur the distinctions between the reality of the war-torn city, the fiction of his unpublished sci-fi novel, and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Harry discharges himself from hospital and begins a search for his brother that will lead him deep into the city’s Underworld.
Based on a real urban fox who has gained an online following in Islington, Gaspard the Fox, written by Zeb Soanes and charmingly illustrated by James Mayhew, follows the fox through the course of one day, as he searches for food and friendship. A straightforward story for younger readers, and a good bedtime tale, there are knowing nods to the adult reader, and a cosy evocation of the colourful urban buzz of the streets and canals around Camden Lock.
By contrast, Sharna Jackson’s Mic Drop (2020) is set among inner-city London tower blocks, with black, female, working class protagonists. The main characters, sisters Nik and Norva – and their sidekick, George – are brilliantly drawn, with their different personalities bringing complementary strengths to the investigation. It’s a ‘Whodunnit’ detective story, with lots of plot twists and red herrings. At 362 pages, this hefty book may look daunting, but the short chapters and fast-paced plot make it an easy and engaging read. Despite having a murder at its heart, it’s a light-hearted and joyful page-turner. Recommended to anyone from nine to ninety nine.
Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery (2007) is a well-plotted detective story with believable and engaging characters. Ted has a different brain from other people – he says he runs on a different operating system. When cousin Salim comes to visit and then disappears, Ted and his sister Kat set out to solve the mystery. Using the art of deduction and his unusual way of looking at the world, Ted discovers clues that others miss. The focus is on the solving of a mystery rather than his Asperger’s syndrome. An excellent read for 9 – 12 year olds.
That’s the end of this tour. I hope you have enjoyed it. If you would like to round off the journey by visiting some children’s books from our own neck of the woods, in the south eastern corner of England, try this earlier post. Let us know of any good books you know that conjure a sense of place around these islands.
Thanks once again to our location scout, J, for lots of helpful background research.