Timeslip: ‘Running with Ivan’ by Suzanne Leal
How do you explain to youngsters an event as unimaginable as the Holocaust in a way that elicits empathy and understanding rather than trauma?
Australian author Suzanne Leal has chosen a timeslip novel that allows readers to imagine themselves in the midst of such horror, while relating it to modern-day concerns of children and teens. In the author’s words:
The enormity of the Holocaust makes it almost impossible to comprehend. Mindful of this, I wanted to bring an immediacy to wartime Europe when writing Running with Ivan. That is why Leo – a boy from the twenty-first century with little understanding of the war and its impact – needed to find himself dropped right in the middle of it. Only then could he begin to understand what actually happened.Author’s Note, Running with Ivan p 308
Leo is thirteen, unhappy at having to share a bedroom in his new home with his detestable stepbrother Cooper. He still misses his mum who died two years ago. Now his dad has remarried: to a nice woman with horrible sons. There is nowhere Leo can go to get away from Cooper and his older brother Troy. Until he discovers a corner of the unused garage, and his mother’s old wind-up music box.
The music box proves to be a portal into the past, and Leo is transported to various times and places before, during and after World War II. He meets Ivan, who grows from a small child to a teenager as Leo appears and disappears. Ivan is Czech, and Jewish, and on each of Leo’s visits to his world, things are getting darker and more dangerous for Ivan and his family.
On a later visit, Leo finds himself in Theresienstadt, a walled ghetto used by the Nazis as a concentration camp, from where they transported trainloads of people to Auschwitz. He takes a terrible risk to save his friends, Ivan and Olinda, from being put on a transport.
The motif of running is used throughout the novel, as Leo discovers he has a talent for speed and finds that it soothes and distracts him from his problems at home and his worries about his Czech friends. There is a lovely link between his elderly coach, Mr Livingstone, and Leo’s wartime experiences, which is revealed at the end of the story.
Throughout the novel, Leo learns more about the experiences of people during WWII; the grim realities of life in Europe at that time; and his own struggles with his family. He also learns that he can overcome difficulties:
“Take it from me, Leo, at thirteen, you can do almost anything. Never forget this. Difficult things, courageous things: they are all possible, even at thirteen. No, especially at thirteen.”Running with Ivan, p39
Running with Ivan is a terrific example of how timeslip stories can immerse a reader in the past (or future) while remaining connected to their own present. I was especially moved to read that the idea for the story came from the author’s friendship with a Czech man who had himself experienced the horrors of Theresienstadt.
The book is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
Trio of new picture books: ‘Grannysaurus’, ‘The Easter Bum Book’ & ‘Dorrie’
Three new picture books for young children celebrate family, dinosaurs, Easter fun and Australian literature.
Grannysaurus by UK best-selling David Walliams riffs on the enduring fascination of littlies for all things dinosaur, with a big dollop of Grandma love. (Whatever did youngsters get obsessed about before dinosaurs became a thing?)
Spike is on a sleepover with his Granny (who is a ‘cool’ grandma with spiky grey hair, big hoop earrings and fashionably round glasses.) He is reluctant to go to sleep but is finally in bed, when he hears the sounds of a party from downstairs. Creeping down to peek, he sees Granny turned into a big blue dinosaur, a spin-osaurus, spinning tunes on the deck, while an assortment of other dinosaurs dance all over the loungeroom. He encounters a tetchy triceratops on the loo, a plesiosaurus in the bath, and brachiosauruses bouncing on the bed. But when a huge T-Rex arrives, dapper in a bowler hat and carrying a walking cane, who flicks Spike out to the moon with his tail, he decides to take himself off to bed at last.
It’s a fun bedtime story with big, colourful illustrations and interesting vocabulary (exploded, lumbering, exclaimed, flicked, surfed, stomped…)
Grannysaurus is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2023.
The Easter Bum Book is a follow-up to Kate Mayers and Andrew Joyner’s Christmas Bum Book, published in 2022. Now, I said in my piece about the first ‘Bum Book’ that I do feel a little bit jaded by the plethora of bums in children’s books. That still stands; however as with its earlier cousin, this new book offers a playfulness about common Easter themes in its text and illustrations, with some sly references to popular culture thrown in (who remembers Tiny Tim’s ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips?) Very young children will enjoy the pictures of all things Easter, cleverly morphed into all things bums.
The Easter Bum Book is also published by HarperCollins Children’s Books and arrives just in time for Easter 2023.
The third of my trio today is another Australian offering, this one about an iconic Australian children’s book author and illustrator. Written and illustrated by Tania McCartney, Dorrie tells the story of Dorothy Wall, the creator of the classic Blinky Bill stories. Overseas readers may not know of the cuddly Australian koala, whose mischievous nature takes him on all sorts of adventures. He has been a much-loved character of Australian children’s literature since he first appeared in the 1930’s; in the 1990’s he starred in a movie and TV series.
Dorothy Wall is one of those well-known Australians claimed by both New Zealand and Australia – a bit like the pavlova! In Dorrie we read about her childhood in New Zealand where she wrote stories, created all sorts of lovely things on her sewing machine, played music and danced.
Her creativity came with her to Australia, which is where she first met Blinky and the stories about him took shape.
Dorrie is a gentle and imaginative telling of the story of Blinky and his creator, beautifully illustrated by the author in soft colours that capture the tints of the Australian landscape in which Blinky lives.
It’s published by HarperCollins in February 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for copies of these books to review.
Hopeful alternatives: ‘Into the Sideways World’ by Ross Welford
One of my favourite childhood books was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis – actually, I adored the whole Narnia series. It was something about the possibility of entering another world, parallel with, but completely different to, our own.
Into the Sideways World by British author Ross Welford offers middle grade readers that opportunity to imagine another world. In this case, though, the Sideways World is not populated by magical creatures, but by the same people in Willa and Manny’s world – their families, friends, teachers – just different versions of the same people.
This new world is very different in all other ways from their normal one. It’s an alternative world, in that its people have figured out how to stop warfare, avoid climate change and pollution, feed and house everyone – and they love wearing bright colours.
Manny and Willa are both delightful characters, each with their own challenges and problems, whose friendship forms the basis of the novel. Together they try to figure out how to return to their own world, but also to bring home with them the messages of hope and positivity – a different way of doing things – from the Sideways World.
I enjoyed the little snippets of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Doctor Who, J F Kennedy, and genetic experimentation, among others. I also love that it’s set in the Tyneside area of northeast England (home of the Geordie accent). There are occasional echoes of Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 novel, A Wrinkle in Time (also a novel I loved), with its exploration of the concepts of time and space travel.
Into the Sideways World is a story of hope and possibility – something youngsters very much need just now. It will be enjoyed by readers who like to imagine, explore, and wonder.
Into the Sideways World is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in February 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
World Between Blinks #2: ‘Rebellion of the Lost’ by Amie Kaufman & Ryan Graudin
Yes! Another instalment in the World Between Blinks, what I hope will become a long series for middle-grade readers. I loved Book 1 (here’s my review) so this sequel was very welcome.
Book 2 continues the magical, sometimes chaotic, occasionally scary but always fun world of the Lost. Every item, person, geographical feature and building in the world that has been ‘lost’ to history, ends up in this world. The problem is that the Administrator, in charge of the team of Curators who log and document all the comings and goings of things, has decided it is all way too chaotic for his liking.
So, he implements strict new controls designed to restore order. The unintended consequences of these rules are separated families, bored inhabitants, and a sterile, humourless World. Enter the rebels: all those who want to see their World returned to the creative, beautiful place it had been.
Cousins Marisol and Jake, along with Marisol’s older, teenaged brother Victor, are drawn back to try to assist the rebels. What follows is a rollicking adventure with some fearful moments, new friendships and old ones rediscovered.
On the way, Marisol and Victor learn some new things about each other and get to see their sibling in a new light. This insight stretches to others in the World: a beautiful metaphor for how, if we only stop to look, we can realise that people are not all ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – even individuals like the Administrator has an inner life that guides what he does, even if somewhat misguidedly.
‘That’s the thing the Administrator doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to understand. Put everyone back in their zones, and they’ll be exactly the same forever. But everything changes. I’m not the same person I was back home. I used to think some things, say some things that – well, I’ve learned a lot. That’s what happens when you’re always exploring. You learn new lessons.’Rebellion of the Lost p139
The Administrator has the power to ‘flip’ the hourglasses of every person in the World, thus erasing their memories. The process and its result is rather like an accelerated version of what happens to a person who suffers from a dementia illness such as Alzheimer’s. This could be a good analogy to explain what that disease is, for youngsters who have a family member diagnosed with it.
On a personal note, I was intrigued that the ‘lost mountain tops’ in the World includes Mt St Helens, the volcano in America’s Washington State that literally blew off its peak in 1980. I’d spent a year in Washington State in 1979 and was very familiar with how that particular mountain top had looked before it became ‘lost.’
I’m looking forward to Book 3 in the World Between Blinks series!
The World Between Blinks: Rebellion of the Lost is published by Harper Collins in February 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Nerdy fun: ‘The Curse of the Vampire Robot’ by Graeme Base
Who can go past a Graeme Base book, with their clever play-on-words humour and illustrations that you can simply fall into? This new one is especially fun and will bring a smile to parents and teachers, too, chock full as it is with references to all things tech.
In the Scottish Highlands, a modern-day take on an old folk story plays out. There’s a vampire in a grim castle atop a hill, fearful valley-dwellers, a humble cleaner. Littered throughout are tech references: there is a ‘baby ware-wolf’, a corrupted hard drive, range anxiety, a packet of ‘juicy little USBs’… you get the idea. It’s a playful mash-up of vampire tropes and the world of computers.
We think you had a virus’, said the ware-wolf.The Curse of the Vampire Robot
“Or a worm.
We ware-wolves often get them –
you can feel the malware squirm.’
It’s a lovely addition to kids’ bookshelves for fans of Graeme Base and those new to his work.
The Curse of the Vampire Robot is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins, in September 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Blend of mystery and historical fiction for younger readers: ‘The Fire Star: A Maven and Reeve Mystery’ by A.L.Tait
A.L.Tait is an Australian author well known for her adventure stories for middle-grade readers, including the MapMaker Chronicles series. The Fire Star is the first of a new series featuring two very likeable characters, Maven and Reeve.
Set in a kind of fictional mediaeval world, it is a mystery and adventure story involving the disappearance of a valuable gemstone (the Fire Star of the title). In the kingdom of Cartreff, Reeve has just arrived at Rennart Castle to begin his duties as newly made squire to Sir Garrick. He meets Maven, whose nondescript appearance as a humble maid to the Lady Cassandra belies her intelligent and quick mind – and hides her secret.
The two young people are thrown together when the Fire Start disappears. In the uproar that follows, the hopes and plans of them both are thrown into jeopardy, unless they can solve the mystery of its disappearance – and do so quickly.
There are knights, jousting, witches and a hiding place deep in the forest – all elements of a good fantasy or historical fiction.
What shines in the novel are the two young characters, whose different skills complement each other perfectly. From reluctant beginnings and distrust, they must work together to avert disaster.
There are some pithy comments throughout on the perils of being an outsider in any society:
To them, we are outsiders, Reeve, and nobody is more vulnerable than a person who is other.’The Fire Star p120
My favourite revelation in the story is the ‘Beech Circle’ , about which (in the interests of avoiding a spoiler), I won’t say more, other than to agree that every girl and woman needs their own Beech Circle.
I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the Maven and Reeve series.
The Fire Star: A Maven & Reeve Mystery was published by Penguin Random House in 2020.
Magic of buttons: ‘Eliza Vanda’s Button Box’ by Emily Rodda
When I was a little girl, I loved looking through my Nanna’s button collection. At one point she began to give my mother assorted buttons each time we visited; much later on I realised that Nanna knew she was dying of cancer and had begun divesting herself of objects. Perhaps they were special buttons, treasured for some memory they evoked of happier times. I’ll never know. Now I have my own modest button collection and I sometimes think of Nanna when I search through them to replace a missing shirt button.
The new story from award-winning Australian author Emily Rodda is all about buttons and the mysterious but kind woman who appears in Milly Dynes’ small village with her magical button collection.
Milly is in the midst of a spate of difficulties in her life, and meeting Eliza Vanda (or EV as she is known) and her companion Victor, takes her into a magical world in which she encounters witches, black jellybeans, a princess, a bewitched frog and a beautiful wedding dress.
It’s a gentle story with humour and compassion in equal parts, and allows younger readers to explore emotions such as sadness or anger in a safe context. Milly is a sweet and clever girl and EV and Victor quite complex characters; Milly quickly realises that things (and people) are not always entirely as they appear.
Eliza Vanda’s Button Box endows the humble button with a significance which I think is fully deserved, as I recall the pleasure I had in sorting through my Nanna’s button box all those years ago.
Eliza Vanda’s Button Box is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
A fun mix of history and fantasy for middle grade readers: ‘The World Between Blinks’ by Amie Kaufman & Ryan Graudin
Amie Kaufman is a much-loved writer of fantasy and adventure for middle grade and young adult readers. She has teamed up with another best-selling author, Ryan Graudin, for a new middle grade series, of which The World Between Blinks is Book One.
First of all, this is such a cool title reflecting an equally cool premise: that there is another world that exists in parallel with our own, that some people (especially youngsters) can occasionally get a fleeting glimpse or sense of it – in between blinks.
The book lives up to its promise of terrific world-building by the authors, some adventure, a treasure map and lots of magic, and engaging characters, especially the two protagonists, cousins Jake and Marisol, who arrive in the world by accident and must find the one person who can help them return home.
Being a history nut, I especially enjoyed the way the story is peppered with figures and events from the past. The World between Blinks is the place where lost things are found, so the cousins come across many ‘lost’ people and things: aviatrix Amelia Earhart; former Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt; a thylacine (the extinct Tasmanian Tiger); brown M&M’s; London’s Crystal Palace; a Viking; the Ninth Roman Legion are just some examples.
My feeling is that this would be a great springboard for some ferreting in a library or the internet by youngsters keen to discover who and what and when and why. I confess to doing a bit of ‘Googling’ of some of the references with which I was less familiar.
The historical gems are dropped in with humour and a light touch and they add much to the story.
At a deeper level, The World between Blinks explores memories, what it means to leave friends and places behind, and what makes family special.
But what Marisol was really trying to hold on to was her family’s togetherness, and you couldn’t keep that in your hand any more than you could catch a puff of smoke…You couldn’t use a particular thing or a certain place to make your life just the way you wanted.The World Between Blinks p255
But you could hold onto love…
You could hold onto the things that made you you.
An added bonus is the way in which so many cross cultural references are included, including American, Australian, Bolivian. Marisol and her parents speak both Spanish and English so Spanish expressions are effortlessly woven into the dialogue without losing the meaning and flow of the narrative.
The World Between Blinks is a wonderful beginning to a new middle grade fantasy series. It will be enjoyed by readers who like adventure, magic, and a little history, all rolled into a satisfying package.
The World Between Blinks is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.