Category Archives: Mg

The 2019 Little Rebels Award Shortlist: Propaganda, War and Autocrats

The Little Rebels awards shortlist was released whilst I was away, and it is a fantastic bunch of titles for children (aged 0-12) which “promotes social justice or social equality, challenges stereotypes or is informed by anti-discriminatory concerns.”

Government propaganda, militarization, misjudged Western ‘aid’ and the UK’s participation in the slave trade are just some of the themes highlighted by this year’s shortlist for the Little Rebels Award for Radical Children’s Fiction.

Small, independent publishers figure strongly on the shortlist, including titles from HopeRoad and Lantana Publishing. Anne Booth makes her second Little Rebels Award appearance (Girl With A White Dog was shortlisted in 2015) and former Little Rebels Award judge, Catherine Johnson, is shortlisted for her historical fiction novel, Freedom, an account of the UK’s role in the slave trade which takes the 1781 Zong Massacre as its cue.
 
The full Little Rebels Award 2019 shortlist (for books published in 2018) is:
Across the Divide by Anne Booth – Catnip Publishing
Freedom by Catherine Johnson – Scholastic
The Ghost and Jamal by Bridget Blankley – Hope Road Publishing
The King Who Banned the Dark by Emily Haworth-Booth – Pavilion Children’s Books
The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntyre – David Fickling Books
Running on Empty by S E Durrant – Nosy Crow
Tomorrow by Nadine Kaadaan – Lantana Publishing

 
War and conflict are recurrent themes while receiving very different treatments: Across the Divide explores the pacifist movement and the militarization of local communities; picture book, Tomorrow (by Nadine Kaadan who moved to London following the onset of the Syrian conflict), portrays civil war through the eyes of a family forced to stay indoors; The Ghost and Jamal exposes young people as the real casualties of wars and critiques Western charitable ‘interventions’ in conflict zones. Two of the shortlisted titles foreground disabled characters as significant voices and agents: The Ghost and Jamal’s protagonist has epilepsy and AJ’s parents in Running on Empty have learning disabilities. Durrant’s novel, set in Stratford (London), stars a working-class family struggling under the pressure of financial hardship and a welfare system ill-equipped to support them. Picture book, The New Neighbours, hints at themes very familiar to previous Little Rebels Award shortlists -the treatment of refugees and pre-conceptions about new arrivals- while the protagonist of the third picture book on the list, The King Who Banned the Dark, is an autocrat who instills obedience in his citizens through imagined fears.
Fen Coles, Co-Director of Letterbox Library, said of the shortlist: “From a king who bans the dark to a tower block community fearful of the ratty (!) newcomers, the Little Rebels Award shortlist demonstrates again that weighty topical themes can be brought to the youngest minds in ways which are playful, provocative, thoughtful and fun. Social divisions, conflict, the rise in far right parties and ideologies, threats to democratic rule as well as very home-grown human rights abuses such as the Windrush scandal are all ‘live’ topics which children are hearing about through ubiquitous social medias. The Little Rebels titles continue to offer young people and children texts to help them navigate, question and make sense of the fractured world which surrounds them”.

From the press release

I’ve seen all except 2 of these so will have to seek them out, what I’ve seen/read though is fantastic. Do have a browse of the award’s site for the history, past winners, and current judges! The winner will be announced on 10th July.

The Third Degree with Sharna Jackson

I reviewed High Rise Mystery last month and enjoyed it so much that I asked to send some questions to Sharna Jackson!

Hi Sharna, thank you for agreeing to undergo the Third Degree!

What or who were your influences when writing? How did Nik and Norva come into your head?

I loved the idea of transposing classic mystery genre conventions and seeing what happened to them when placed in a contemporary, city setting. I was thinking about Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, The Thin Man, books by Kathrine Woodfine and my lovely editor Robin Stevens, but also TV programmes like Luther, films like Attack the Block and the Nothing Beats a Londoner Nike ad.

Nik and Norva are both a bit like me. I love shaving my hair off and being practical like Nik, but I can also be dramatic and excitable like Norva. Norva is actually named after a ceramist I met in The Hague in the Netherlands at her exhibition one day. She was very cool.

What made you decide to pitch a murder mystery to a young audience? Was there anything you consciously toned down because of it?

Alongside the thought of murder mystery in the city being interesting, I was also keen to see young black characters being sleuths – being clever and cunning.

I did tone down some of gory aspects of finding Hugo’s body. I took it a bit too far.

How did it come to be published by KnightsOf?

I knew David Stevens from conferences – and Twitter – and was delighted that he and Aimée Felone – his business partner – had launched Knights Of. What a fantastic thing! I had been speaking to them about other matters and one day they said, why don’t you write? I thought about it for a hot second, said yes and pitched High Rise Mystery to them. I described it to them as “PIs in the Projects, they sent back two black girl detective emojis and that was that.

In your day job you’re concerned with social engagement in the arts. Is The Hub, or indeed any character, based on places or people you have worked with?

The Hub is based on community centres I’ve seen across the UK – flexible spaces used by people in the area to use. I’m the Artistic Director at Site Gallery in Sheffield, and have worked with museums and galleries across the world, and have met some interesting people. Hugo is definitely an amalgamation of some people I’ve met along the way!

What do you think is most important about community spaces such as The Hub, and how are they faring in the face of austerity?

Community Spaces are incredibly important as they allow people in the immediate areas access and spaces to use in ways that are directly relevant to their needs and wants. Unfortunately austerity has a knock-on effect on everything – especially the arts. There is less funding for artists, and less money for the public to spend on events.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I’m just about to start Ghost by Jason Reynolds – can’t wait!

Have you done any author visits to schools and/or libraries yet?

Not yet – my first visit is on Thursday 11th at the Basil Griffith Library in Sheffield and then Waterstones Durham on Saturday [13th April]. I’m excited – and nervous!

When can we hope to see more Nik and Norva?

Soon I hope!

Scholastic Voices

A series of gripping adventures that reflect the authentic, unsung stories of our past.

The series so far!

Last year Scholastic announced the launch of their new series of books, Voices, a series bringing to life BAME figures from British history, who’s stories are rarely told. I have been lucky enough to be sent the first two, both of which are fantastically paced, evocative, believable, heartbreaking, exciting, thought provoking, rage-inducing, and full of historically accurate information ripe for discussion. They are both brilliant stories in their own right, I expect to see them on topic reading lists in primary and secondary schools and in every school library, and I am really looking forward to finding out what is next in the series!


The world is at war and standing on the shores of Dunkirk, a young Indian soldier fights in defence of a Kingdom that does not see him as equal.
My trust in the kindness and decency of others ended. It seemed I had reached a point of no return...”

Bali Rai’s Now or Never

Bali Rai wrote the first, Now or Never: A Dunkirk Story, about a period of time that every British school child has to learn about, but an aspect of that historical event that has been brushed under the carpet by the history books. Faz is one of hundreds of Indians that volunteered to join the British army during WW2 and who were then so badly treated. Scholastic interviewed him about it here. It has been out since January.

When Eve and her mother hear that one of the African divers sent to salvage the Mary Rose is still alive, and that another wreck rich with treasures lies nearby, they set out to find him.

“The water was my destiny. I knew it…I breathed in slowly and slipped over the edge of the boat into the water.”

Patrice Lawrence’s Diver’s Daughter

The second book is Diver’s Daughter: A Tudor Story, from Patrice Lawrence, makes it clear that black people have been in Britain for a lot longer than the Windrush generation, and focussing on another oft-taught about feature of English history: Henry VIII’s flagship, Mary Rose. Her author’s note says she didn’t want to focus on slavery, but it is definitely clear that people of African descent were not safe despite it being illegal on English soil at that time. It is being published in May, look out for it.

Diver’s Daughter brought to mind Catherine Johnson’s many (and brilliant) historical novels…maybe she’ll do one of the future books in the series (fingers crossed)?

High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson

If you think finding a body is a fun adventure, you’re 33% right.

fantastic cover art by Wumzum


There has been a murder in THE TRI, the high-rise buildings where know-it-alls Nik and Norva live. Armed with curiosity, local knowledge and unlimited time – until the end of the summer holidays – the dogged and determined detective duo take it upon themselves to solve the complicated mystery.

Sharna Jackson’s debut novel for children is set in a tower block (surprisingly enough) on a SE London estate. Our detective duo are sisters Nik and Norva, aged 11 and 13, living with their dad on the estate. He is the caretaker of the block and, also, becomes the main suspect when the sisters find the body of their art teacher. Luckily they’ve been honing their detecting skills and are ready for a bigger mystery to solve!

It isn’t only brilliant because it is the first Black British children’s detective series for 9-12s, it is brilliant because it is one of the best children’s detective mysteries I have ever read.

I enjoyed reading this *so* much. It is pretty long for a “middle grade” book (I say MG, but it could easily be enjoyed by older teens as well…and indeed adult readers), but the pages flew by as the investigation continued. Really pleased that it is the first in a series, I want as many of these as there are Poirot novels please!

HIGH RISE MYSTERY is beginning to appear in shops now!

(huge thanks to Colour PR for asking me if I’d like a copy to review)

Emily Windsnap and the Pirate Prince


Emily Windsnap is an ordinary girl on land, but a mermaid when she is in water. Liz has created a world and stories brimming with magic, adventure, friendship… and in this new story, we see Emily become more of a young feminist; taking matters into her own hands when her boyfriend is kidnapped; ensuring that young girl readers see her take a confident place in a male-dominated world, in this case a pirate ship. 

Showing that it is just fine to be seen as brave and strong, and that friendships are worth fighting for was a theme important to Liz. This is a transformative moment for a beloved character: moving from being dependent, and often reliant on others, to realising her own power, and being an individual and self reliant, ok within herself.

Emily Windsnap and the Pirate Prince

The Emily Windsnap series has been going strong for years, selling over 5million copies worldwide and translated into dozens of languages. This is the 8th title, but I’m ashamed to say it was the first I have read. It is aimed at a younger audience than the usual TeenLibrarian fodder, 8+, but now that Matt and I are occasionally even popping picturebooks in I thought it still had a place, and I’m certain that younger teens will still enjoy Emily’s adventures! One of my favourite things about it is how important friendship is.

Liz does some intense research when planning each story, and shared with us the adventure she had researching this title:

Liz Kessler

When people ask about my job, I tell them I sit in my pyjamas looking out at the sea and making up stories about mermaids.

And yes, this is true. (Full disclosure, I am actually writing this blog in my PJs. It’s pretty much the writer’s uniform.) But that isn’t all I do. In fact, one of my absolute favourite parts of my job is the bit that gets me out in the world, researching and seeking ideas for my book.

Sometimes I find what I thought I was looking for. Most of the time, I find much, much more.

I went on two research trips for my latest book, Emily Windsnap and the Pirate Prince. One of them was a road trip to France where I visited Mont St Michel (a tiny island with a castle on a hill) and the old, walled city of St Malo.

The other trip was a week on a tall ship.

When I went on the ship, I already knew that I was looking for inspiration for my pirate prince. What I didn’t know was that I would find a couple of pirate girls at the same time.

Michelle and Anaïs, the two female crew members aboard the tall ship Morgenster, were two of the most inspiring young women I’ve met in a long time. Tough, active, clever, witty, musical and as ready as any of the boys to whizz up a ladder to hoist the sails, these girls were an absolute joy to be with.

And of course they found their way into my book. In the book, there is a moment when Emily confronts the two pirate girls aboard the ship where she has (sort of) been taken prisoner. She says to them, ‘How many girls braid each other’s hair and do it up with ship’s wire instead of pink ribbons? How many girls can fix the cable on the forestay better than their male counterparts?’

In this moment, she is pointing out that by living outside of what society would deem ‘normal’ for girls, they are uniquely positioned to stand up for themselves and for each other and to look beyond the shackles that tie all of us to society’s rules and expectations. And of course, in doing this, Emily realises that she has the right to do the same thing.

I had no idea at the time that Emily was going to grow up to become the young feminist that emerges in this book. But I’m glad she has!

One of the ‘real’ pirate girls, Anaïs, told me this:

‘As a child, the fact that I personally happened to be a girl was always very irrelevant when it came to games, dreams and aspirations, although I did take it into account when I wanted my games to be historically realistic. Every summer holiday my Dad and I pretended the house turned into a pirate ship and we were having those grand adventures. Then, there was no question of gender of course. But when my games turned into more realistic “period pieces” I remember either assuming I *was* a boy (why not? I don’t live in the 18th century either), or alternatively, giving some thoughts to how to look more like a boy, in order to be able to fool a captain and be hired as a ship’s boy.’

I believe that this type of imaginative play is an essential and wonderful part of growing up, and I also think we are living in times when girls are finding themselves becoming more and more ‘allowed’ to take on whatever roles they want.

I am proud to be a children’s author and am particularly proud and honoured that I get to write about Emily Windsnap. If she is part of passing the message to girls and young women that they can be anything they want to be, regardless of gender, then I will consider every moment of sitting in my PJs staring out at the sea making up stories about mermaids to have been time well spent.

I wanted to ask Liz a few more questions after reading about Emily, and she humoured me:

I really enjoyed reading your FCBG post about building a relationship with your characters & wondered what object you had on your desk while writing this book! Actually this time I had a few objects! The main one was a crystal on a chain that I bought from a shop in Tenerife. When I bought it, I thought it had something to do with the book but at the time I wasn’t sure what it’s significance would be. It turned out that diamonds and sparkling lights – similar to the light from this crystal – would form an important part of Emily solving clues and finding the treasure!


You didn’t plan to write so many Emily Windsnap books, have you got any more ideas in the pipeline or will you just wait and see if inspiration strikes again? Well, I’m thrilled to tell you that Emily Windsnap book nine will be out in 2020!


Which of the research trips you’ve been on has been your favourite? That is a HARD question, and in fact I can’t pick one so I’m going to have to give you my top three: Bermuda (for the Monster from the Deep), a cruise in Norway (for the Land of the Midnight Sun), and a tall ship trip in the Canaries (for the Pirate Prince)

Your book for older teens, ‘Read Me Like a Book‘, is a coming out story. Have you considered including LGBT+ content in the Emily Windsnap series? I have thought about this, but the way I see it, the Emily Windsnap books are ALL about people overcoming prejudice and different communities learning to live together and people (especially Emily!) fighting for social justice and the right for all of us to be who we are – and so I see the books as actually having the themes that I want to share, but doing so through mermaid stories rather than more ‘rea-world’ content/issues. In that sense, the books can put across the ideas and messages that I want them to, but hopefully in a way that feels fun, non-confrontational and appropriate for eight-year-olds!

Emily Windsnap and the Pirate Prince is out now! Thankyou to Orion for a review copy