Our Story Starts In Africa

Our Story Starts in Africa
Patrice Lawrence, illustrated by Jeanetta Gonzales
Magic Cat

Paloma is visiting Trinidad, staying with Tante Janet and is eager to play with her cousins whom she’s not met before. They however don’t want to play with her; “How can you be family?” they say in response to her different way of speaking. Paloma’s sadness at her cousins’ comments is palpable in Jeanetta Gonzales richly hued illustrations, but Tante Janet is on hand to comfort her and tell her a secret.

Little by little she tells Paloma a story, one that starts in Africa. She explains how the comb the child holds is like combs found by scientists investigating the banks of the River Nile in northeastern Africa, used by people similar to the two of them, who lived thousands of years back, The conversation moves to warrior queens of yore, in particular one who fought the Romans two thousand years ago. I love how present and past come together by the visual juxtaposing of Paloma and her aunt, the comb and the historic ruler they are talking of.

This device continues to be used as their discussion turns to story telling and how African people preserved their stories on parchment, carved in stone, painted in caves and on jars, woven into kente cloth and through the beating of talking drums, not forgetting most importantly the passing on of stories orally from generation to generation. “Just like we’re doing now, Tante!” says Paloma.

Prompted by Paloma’s next question about writing books, the narrative turns to the role of libraries past and present, by which time the two decide to have a break for some refreshing ginger beer specially made by Tante Janet. This necessitates picking some limes from the yard, which is full of trees that Paloma hasn’t ever seen before. As the picking proceeds the two discuss some of Africa’s treasures; fruits, spices, precious wood and frankincense resin used in perfume making. Children will be horrified to read of jealous rulers from other lands, stealing diamonds, gold and most precious of all, African people.

Then with the limes collected, the subject of enslavement comes up :“That’s how we came to Trinidad,” Tante Janet says, leading on to colonisation,

and eventually through the wretched times of colonisation and enslavement, to the emergence of the fifty African countries comprising a thriving, present-day community of many places, faces and achievements.

That is where this superbly illustrated, engagingly and sensitively written book differs from many others about the African continent wherein the focus tends to be on (non contentious) topics like dance, music and traditional costume. How refreshing and exciting is Patrice’s approach for any adult who wants to present Black history to today’s youngsters, including this reviewer who feels increasingly ashamed of British policies and actions both past and present.

(In the final spread there’s more information about the topics discussed during the story.)

Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush

Granny Came Here on the Empire Windrush
Patrice Lawrence, illustrated by Camilla Sucre
Nosy Crow

This wonderfully warm book follows Ava and her Granny as together they search Granny’s trunk one Sunday for a costume suitable for Ava to wear at her school dressing up event to represent someone she admires. Rummaging through the various items of clothing, jewellery and other objects Granny is reminded first of Winifred Atwell on account of the sparkling bead necklace, then Mary Seacole who sometimes wore a red scarf just like that in the trunk, a jacket makes her think of Rosa Parks. In each instance Ava’s grandmother tells her a little bit about each of the women mentioned: the glamorous pianist, the nurse who tended the wounded during the Crimean War, the brave woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus.

Then, hidden under all the clothes, Ava unearths something she’s not seen before: it’s a small cardboard grip in which Granny had carried presents she was given when she left her home in Trinidad and came to England on the Empire Windrush.

As she pieces together a story using the objects – a smooth grey pebble, an empty jar, a small blue hat and a pair of lacy gloves, we learn of the intense feelings of homesickness and loneliness her grandmother experienced; and how she built a life for herself in a new, chilly country, meeting and marrying the man who was to become Ava’s grandad. This woman – her own beloved Granny – is Ava’s real hero, the one she chooses to dress as.

With Patrice Lawrence’s perfectly paced telling and Camilla Sucre’s richly hued, vibrant art, this is a truly moving story that celebrates both the Windrush generation and their achievements, and the bond between Ava and her grandmother.

A superb book to share and discuss with young listeners at home and with primary children both in KS1 and KS2.

The Very Merry Murder Club

The Very Merry Murder Club
edited by Serena Patel & Robin Stevens, illustrated by Harry Woodgate

This bumper collection of wintry mysteries wasn’t quite the novel I originally anticipated.. Rather it brings together stories by thirteen authors: Elle McNicoll, Roopa Farooki, Annabelle Sami, Abiola Bello, Patrice Lawrence, Maisie Chan, Dominique Valente, Nizrana Farook, Benjamin Dean, Joanna Williams, Serena Patel, E.L. Norry, and Sharna Jackson.

Only some of the tales are of murders: the first, set in Inverness, tells of a ballerina’s death, which, main character Briar, an underestimated autistic girl, is determined to show was the result of foul play.
Another murder (also taking place in a hotel) is Nizrana Farook’s ‘Scrabble’ mystery narrated by young Saba, a member of the Hassan family who are on their way to spend the Christmas holiday with Grandma. However an impassible road results in an overnight stop in an isolated hotel an hour away from their destination, and that’s where another guest is discovered stone dead after a game of Scrabble.

Other Christmas tales involve theft, sabotage and a Christmas Eve visit to a very weird funhouse that really sends shivers down your spine.

However if you want to be really chilled, then turn to Dominique Valente’s The Frostwilds which is a fantasy set in an icy-cold world wherein children’s lives are under constant threat from the mysterious Gelidbeast.

It’s impossible in a short review to mention every story but suffice it to say that with a wealth of interesting and determined, often brave protagonists, settings modern and historic, as well as invented, there’s sure to be something for everyone to puzzle over and enjoy, especially snuggled up warm with a hot chocolate and a mince pie close at hand.

Harry Woodgate’s black and white illustrations (one per story) are splendid – full of detail and there’s also a clever ‘book cover’ that serves an a visual introduction to each one:

Be sure to look under the book’s dust jacket where a colourful surprise awaits.

Introducing Rollercoasters

These three books are the first of a series from Oxford University Press called Rollercoasters developed in association with Barrington Stoke. With their highly engaging themes intended to build reading confidence and foster a love of reading, they all use the Barrington Stoke ‘dyslexia friendly font’ and are aimed at readers from around eleven. Each includes an author spotlight, some background information relevant to the story and more.

I Am the Minotaur
Anthony McGowan

Carnegie prize winning Anthony McGowan’s perceptive story focuses on fourteen year old Matthew, referred to as Stinky Mog, who is the narrator.

Matthew does his level best to care for his mum who is battling depression, while trying equally hard to fit in at school without being noticed especially by those types likely to make him the target of their bullying. Not an easy task when he frequently turns up looking decidedly dishevelled in his ragged uniform.

Enter Ari, a beautiful girl who totally captivates Matthew – ‘I longed and yearned for Ari’ he tells readers describing his feelings for her as ‘warm and golden’.

Shortly after her birthday, her brand new bike is stolen and Matthew decides on a plan to get it back from the thieves and make Ari happy as a consequence.. He heads off to the public library to start an internet search.
Next day off he goes to a rendezvous: can he pull off his bike rescue? If so, can it change the course of his life?

With themes of bullying, parental depression and poverty, this short novel packs a powerful punch. It’s great to see that for the narrator, the school library with its kindly librarian is a place he feels safe.

Edgar & Adolf
Phil Earle and Michael Wagg

Whether or not you are a soccer fan (and I’m anything but) this story based on real characters – at the heart of which is friendship – will surely move you. It certainly did me.

The book begins in 1983 in a village in Scotland with seventeen year old Adi.
Adi has come from Hamburg, Germany, with something he has inherited and is on a special mission: to find a man named Edgar Kail and return to him what is rightfully his – a special football badge that the now frail old man hasn’t set eyes on for over forty years. If he succeeds Adi will have fulfilled his grandfather’s final wish to reunite the erstwhile England footballer with his prized possession.

And succeed he does but that is only the start of the tale for it’s one that spans some sixty years as Adi and Edgar share memories, press cuttings, letters and more relating to Edgar and the lad’s grandfather Adolf Jäger.

According to the authors’ notes at the back of the book, Edgar Kail and Adolf Jäger having played for their clubs before WW2 – Dulwich Hamlet and Altona 93 – remain folk heroes celebrated by fans (including Phil and Michael) to this day. Amazing.

Patrice Lawrence

If you’ve read the author’s YA book Orangeboy, then you’ll know how utterly compelling her writing is.
As the story opens, Al is living in a flat with his mum who is attempting to stay on the straight and narrow after spending time in prison. Partly as a result of having moved several times already, Al has only. two friends, his pet rats Vulture and Venom, and he has to keep them secret from the council.

Things are tough as Al’s mum out of prison on licence, has very little money and no job. Consequently it’s not long before she shoplifts from the local supermarket and after an incident that involves Mr Brayer who lives in a flat below, is back in prison.

Al’s certain that it’s Mr Brayer’s fault and decides to get his revenge whatever anybody else says.

The entire cast of characters and the connectedness between them is interesting especially Al’s Gran and his nineteen year old sister Plum, a college student and carer, who is called on to stay with him when his mum goes back to prison. We also discover something of Mt Brayer’s back story which comes as a surprise to Al and I suspect to readers.

Gripping and thought-provoking, this should certainly appeal to older, under confident readers.