Bookseller Top Picks: Being Yourself
One of the great gifts that children’s literature can give is that of helping the reader to feel good about being themselves. Books are full of vicarious experience, and, whatever their age, a reader knows what is relevant and affirming for them. Here are a few of our favourite books that value being yourself, even if this is sometimes difficult.
Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street by Patricia Grace and Robyn Kahukiwa (Penguin)
This is one of our favourite New Zealand picture books. When an eel with a magic throat bounces out of Cannon’s Creek and into the houses of the children of Champion Street, they pull musical instruments from his throat and begin to dance. Each child has an instrument traditional to their own culture, but they make music together. They come outside, and everyone in the street, whatever their background, dances together all day and all night — even the police officer.
This lively and delightful picture book by Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan is a great story, wonderfully illustrated, is laced with humour, and has a message to boot. Be yourself! An important refrain in our media-saturated world that continuously sends us messages about how we 'should' be and how our children 'should' be. It’s summertime in New Zealand and this could be anyone’s local beach, favourite river waterhole, or pool. Everyone can do the bomb...except for one boy who can’t quite seem to make it happen — no matter what. His mantra doesn’t work — 'Hear my song, see my lines, check my moves, they’re so fine..' Even Nan, his stalwart supporter, with her encouraging positive vibes, can’t help (until he hears her). Everyone(!) has advice: 'More weight. More height. More hair. More puku. Bigger shorts.' But nothing helps. The bomb is a ... plop. But then he discovers the secret! He’s going to do it his way.
Be yourself! An important refrain in our media-saturated world that continuously sends us messages about how we 'should' be and how our children 'should' be.
Here’s a story you can pull out and read again and again. It’s always going to spark fires with its celebration of being yourself and finding your own way to your goal and the things that delight you. The text is a joy to read, with its rhythm and energetic language. (If you really like the text, check out the song!) The illustrations are tremendously playful, with things to find and keep discovering on every page, and show us a story that could only be in New Zealand — the trees, the birds, the ice creams in their cones. The book has verve and bounce as well as depth, exploring the subtler relationship between a child and those who support them in their endeavours (it’s dedicated to Sacha's and Josh's grandmothers!), alongside themes of anxiety and confidence, without being cloying. The Bomb is sure to become a New Zealand classic. It is a joy each time you read it.
Stories of the Night by Kitty Crowther (Gecko)
This book is so beautiful and quirky that it almost makes us sad that it wasn't around when we were children, or when our children were children. Just as every child has her or his own needs, Little Bear needs three bedtime stories before she can go to sleep. The first story is about the Night Guardian, who lives in the woods and makes sure all animals go to bed. But who tells the Night Guardian when it's bedtime? The second story is about the brave girl Zhara who seeks the forest's most delicious blackberries. In the third we meet Bo, the little man with the big overcoat, who finds it hard to sleep. Finally, Little Bear falls asleep, and there in bed beside her are her new storybook friends. A very lovely book.
A past display at VOLUME featuring Stories of the Night in pride of place among other favourites.
Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein (Pushkin)
Lions have always run away from the hunters who come in search of lion-skin rugs, but one day a young lion questions this tradition, eats a hunter and takes his gun. After a bit of practice, the lion becomes such a good shot that soon all the lions have hunter-skin rugs. A man comes to take the lion to be a sharp-shooting star in a circus, and so begins a new life for Lafcadio: fame, clothes, travel, marshmallows. He becomes more and more human-like and begins to forget that he is a lion. What happens when his friends persuade him to go to Africa on a lion hunt, and, when he is standing there in his lion-hunting outfit, an old lion recognises him? Is he a human or is he a lion? Deep issues of identity are treated with a light touch in this funny book with great illustrations.
Deep issues of identity are treated with a light touch in this funny book with great illustrations.
Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (Faber & Faber)
When the Queen Mary, a Victorian liner, sinks, a baby with hair the colour of lightning is found inside a cello case floating on the English Channel. She is discovered by eccentric scholar Charles Maxim, who names her Sophie and takes her into his home, much against the advice of the authorities. While Sophie sometimes eats off an atlas or writes her sums on the wallpaper, she is surrounded by music, words, and love. When the inspectors come, despite the best efforts of Charles and Sophie to tidy and clean the house and make themselves presentable, the authorities conclude that, now that she is thirteen, Maxim is not a suitable guardian, and Sophie is to be moved to an orphanage where she will be taught to be a proper young lady. In a fit of fury, Sophie destroys the cello case that saved her life, only to find a clue, and away they head over the channel to Paris.
On the run from the authorities, Charles and Sophie are mother-hunting. Sophie is convinced her mother survived the sinking of the ship and she’s determined to take risks to find her. Risks that involve a strange boy, Matteo, and a band of wayward children who live above the streets of Paris on rooftops or in treetops, eking out a precarious existence — one that is preferable to the orphanage or workhouse. Can Sophie trust these unusual, secretive children? Will she be courageous enough to face physical danger and determined enough to believe in herself?
Can Sophie trust these unusual, secretive children? Will she be courageous enough to face physical danger and determined enough to believe in herself?
Katherine Rundell creates magic with her cast of characters and description of place. Sophie is a wild child and determined young woman you warm to immediately: stubborn, intelligent, brave and vulnerable. Matteo is a perfect companion: resourceful, secretive and daring. Charles is an adult who brings the rules, lives by the heart and is loyal to the core. Rundell is an exquisite writer, her pace is spot on, the plot inventive and her language witty. You will find it hard to leave Sophie behind when you close the final page of this adventurous and warm-hearted novel. Fortunately, Rundell has several other titles to her name — all wonderful.
A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge (Pan Macmillan)
A Skinful of Shadows is an immensely compelling novel for children and adults alike. Like Philip Pullman, Frances Hardinge creates wonderful characters, intriguing plots, and ideas that will stay with you long after you shut the covers. A Skinful of Shadows is set in England in the 1640s, the Civil War is brewing, Puritans and Catholics are at loggerheads, and so is the King and parliament. In a small village called Popular, Makepeace lives with her mother. Making a piecemeal living from lace-making and odd jobs, they live in a small barren room in the home of her aunt and uncle, barely accepted by them or the village.
When her mother dies, Makepeace is sent to the home of the aristocratic Fellmotte family, where she becomes a kitchen skivvy. Makepeace, an illegitimate child, has the Fellmotte gene, one that enables them to possess ghosts. The Fellmottes have dangerous and dark plans for her – ones that will consume her in their obsession to preserve the family line, the Fellmotte power and property. Not everyone is an enemy, though, and she makes plans with her half-brother James to escape Grizehayes. After many failed attempts, the chaos of the Civil War gives them the perfect opportunity to escape. When James lets her down, Makepeace finds herself in an even more precarious situation, but with the help of a bear and her overwhelming desire to survive she begins a journey across England to find a document worth more than gold, a document that will grant her freedom from the Fellmotte family and ensure their fall from grace.
The Fellmottes have dangerous and dark plans for her – ones that will consume her in their obsession to preserve the family line, the Fellmotte power and property.
Like all good mysteries, there are plenty of turns and forks on the road, and those that help and those that hinder. Yet the more intriguing elements are those that involve the ghosts or the souls that possess, some of which are malevolent, others helpful. Makepeace is an excellent heroine and her relationship with Bear is endearing. This is a story about power, possession and purpose, and the struggle to believe in yourself.
Ursa by Tina Shaw (Walker)
Fast-paced, exciting and moving, Tina Shaw’s Ursa opens with Leho watching the Black Marks burning books. In the city of Ursa, there are two peoples – the Cerals and the Travesters. One works for the other; one has the resources while the other has the left-overs; one has choices while the other has none. Leho is a Ceral and a canny one at that - able to keep in the shadows, to wander the city unnoticed if he is constantly alert. What happened to make Ursa this way? And why is it getting worse for the Cerals? Is the idea of a promised new land too good to be true?
In Tina Shaw’s teen novel we are introduced to a great cast of characters: Leho and his family – his grandmother who holds them all together through iron will, his mother who has been blinded by a sadistic officer of the Black Marks, his older sister who is secretly defiant, and his older brother working in the dangerous factory and plotting even more dangerous endeavours of a revolutionary nature. No one seems to take much notice of Leho, but he’s determined to prove his worth. Not only is he setting out to play his part in overthrowing the system, but he also has a greater secret - a new-found friendship with an unusual Travestor girl, Emee, who he is curiously drawn to. Will there be a time when a Ceral boy and Travestor girl can be friends?
No one seems to take much notice of Leho, but he’s determined to prove his worth.
Shaw writes with great pace and lively descriptions of the disparate halves of the city, hooking the reader in. Through Leho’s eyes, we discover more about the world he lives in as he begins to understand more about the history of Ursa and the people's desires and needs. He begins to understand his older siblings and the difficulties they endure, and he begins to see the Travesters not as one oppressor but as people with diverse viewpoints. But he also sees increasing hardship and brutality as he is more engaged with an adult world through his work at the Director’s garden, a job he creates to get closer to the heart of control – dangerously close. And he is not the only one courting danger: revolution is coming. Can he save his family and his friends? What can one unnoticed boy achieve against the Black Marks, against the Director, against a system that is unfair?
This is a coming-of-age story that has heart and hope. An increasingly important reminder of regimes that denigrate groups of people through control of resources, with borders and power for the benefit of a chosen few, in a time where nationalism and populist movements are on the rise. Excellent teen reading with its great story-telling and character development, and with an underlying message to rise up against oppression.
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