Monday, September 28, 2020

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green


Turtles All the Way Down by John Green


 Aza has some mental health issues. She has what she and her therapist describe as intrusive thoughts.  Voices tell her to avoid situations that can introduce germs into her body. This leads at one point to her drinking hand sanitizer. It makes kissing problematic. She also has a festering wound on her finger where she has picked off a callous. She constantly changes the plaster on this and obsesses about keeping it clean. 

Alongside all of this she is a normal adolescent, struggling with relationships, with her mum, her best friend and almost boyfriend,   Davis.

In addition we have a mystery story.  Where has Davis’s father disappeared to?  Billionaire Russell Pickett has gone into hiding as the law is onto him.  Davis has to care for younger brother Noah.
As ever, John Green offers us a character with whom we can empathise. 

At the end of the book is a list of organisations that can help those who suffer from mental health problems.    

Letters of a Lovestruck Teenager


Claire Robertson brings us Letters of a Love Struck Teenager. The protagonist is a little young for this defined reader yet the text is more sophisticated than the Hopkins one mentioned earlier. The story is told through a series of letters. 

Protagonist Gilly Freeborn is obsessed with her flat chest. She compares herself with others (160-61). She has other body image problems. She decides that her nostrils are too big (153).  

 Gilly is sexually aware to some extent. When dreamboat Johnathan O’Neil arrives at her school she gets “‘stirrings’ all over the place- in my arms, my legs, in my chest, in the gym, in the cloakroom and here in bed” (6). She is sexually naive and only learns the facts of life form a friend who draws a diagram on the back of a recipe for her. Gilly is horrified: “I must say that I was absolutely horrified.It seemed incredible that respectable humans being who had never harmed anyone were forced to submit themselves to this humiliating degradation just because they wanted to have children” (24). She cannot fathom why people would have sex if they weren’t interested in having children but gradually realises that the strange “spasms” (26) she was having were something to do with this. When on holiday she accidentally comes across a porn channel in the hotel she cannot see why there would be any pleasure in “doing it” (188-89)   

Gilly defines herself as a feminist and wants to be taken seriously.  However,she is rejected by Radical Feminists because she is not yet eighteen (20-21). She is forced to form her own feminist organisation LSHYWAC - Langley Street High Young Women’s Action Committee more radical. But not until a party is out of the way (21). They decide to write to the paper - the Trowton Evening Echo (128). Their letter is published. Though claiming themselves to be feminist, Gilly and her friends are obsessed with clothes and spend much of their time talking about them (28).

There is sibling rivalry too. Gilly’s older sister Rosalee skulks like a shadow in the background.Gilly fears criticism from her and occasionally borrows her clothes. Roslaee is stood up by boyfriend Greg and offers to let Gilly wear some of her clothes (96). Yet this is only a ruse to get her to go to Tricks in search of the “traitorous Greg” (97).   

There are family woes - Auntie Paula has to come to stay as she has been thrown out of the flat that she shares with her boyfriend - even though she owns the flat. Mother is not happy about this (58-61). 

However, Auntie Paula becomes an ally and a mentor but leaves again, as mentors generally do. Her parents’ marriage becomes more and more fragile.   

We have details about school - failed cookery projects and boring English  and history classes. Gilly dislikes the class swot(44-48).

She gets a Saturday job at a hairdresser. This is far form glamorous (111-12).

Gilly see through the gloss of the agony aunt’s strategy. She accuses her of providing form answers and not being realistic (118-121).                 

She starts to take risks and goes to a party her parents would have not allowed her to attend - all covered by a lie (144-48).

Towards the end of the novel she wins a special prize for her essay on Emily Bronte (182). Then she is reconciled with her friend Annie, with whom she has had a falling out (185).


The novel ends on a very upbeat note: she has boobs at last, Jonathan, who happens to be Aunt Paula’s new husband Fred’s nephew, dances with her at he aunt’s wedding, it looks as if her father and mother are going to be reconciled and she and her sister become more friendly.  

This is a slightly difficult novel to place; it was published in 1990, just before the vast expansion of young adult novels. The protagonist is just fourteen - and only for part of the novel at that. This puts it right at the beginning of the young adult period. It can be construed as young adult as the protagonist is concerned with her growing sexual awareness though there is some reluctance there.

As ever, though much of this is upbeat and light-hearted, there are significant shadows.   

The book is 218 pages long in blocked text.  The font is Plantin  13 point.       

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Being by Kevin Brooks



Fostered sixteen-year old Robert Smith goes for a routine endoscopy and things go badly wrong.
The novel is a car chase from the very beginning. Short sentences and frequent line-breaks maintain a fast pace. Kevin Brooks keeps us guessing all of the time. The pace slows later as the story turns to romance and sex. 

Robert tells his own story in a first person immediate narrative that as so often in books written for young adults makes the reader feel as though the narrator is their best friend and is telling their story in order to work what has happened. 

Is it a thriller? Is it a science fiction?  There is violence and Robert takes risks. There are also elements of the thriller in this novel.  

There is something odd about Robert and the reader is left to find her own explanation. 

The fast pace and the thriller elements in the first part of the story make it seem suitable for teens. 

The content in the latter half of the book brings it more firmly into the YA area.                  

Snakehead by Anthony Horowitz


2015, first published 2007  

This is the seventh of the Alex Rider books.  The stakes get higher still in this one. He has recently t splashed down from his journey into space and has just been reconciled with his guardian Jack Starbright when the Australian secret service employ him.

Alex only accepts this mission because he will be working with Ash, who used to know his father well.  Ash is in fact Alex’s godfather.  Ash has had most of his stomach ripped out and is in constant pain. This is one of the consequences of this sort of work.  MI6 had not been very sympathetic so he went to work for Australian intelligence.

This time his Australian mission gets mixed up with Scorpia again and once more  Alex finds himself working also for MI6. There are gadgets again but mysteriously one crucial one lets him down.  This makes him realises that Ash is in fact a double agent. His other allegiance is to Scorpia.  

Alex learns more about his parents’ death.  Ash was involved.    

Alex is becoming more sexually aware but still in a very subtle way. The novel ends with the reappearance of Sabina Pleasure. She is presented to us as being extremely attractive.   

The book is 398 pages long, with blocked text and an adult but simple font. The chapters are quite long.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness



The monster in the title takes many forms. It is an ancient spirit in a Yew tree, a nightmare, cancer, death, illness, humanity, a caring grandmother, an almost always absent father, a group of bullies and the protagonist himself, Conor.

The concept was created by Siobhan Dowd, but sadly she died of breast cancer before she could start writing. The task was taken on by Patrick Ness but he made no attempt to replicate Dowd's voice.   
This is a brave novel. It tackles many young adult themes – peer pressure, family relationships, bullying and school. There is a touch of the paranormal too in the story. It also brings us face-to-face with death and illness; some of the descriptions of Conor's mother's illness are quite graphic. 

Conor is not altogether likeable yet Ness manages to make us empathise with him. 

In the end, it is up to the reader to decide exactly who or what the monster is.  For sure, it brings some wisdom and poses many questions.                     

Mates, Dates and Pullling Power by Cathy Hopkins


There are several books written for teens that resemble chick-lit but are written for younger women. I like to call these chicklet-lit. There is  also what might be called “staglet-lit” literature which has a male focus. These books are characterised by lots of parties, interest in other sexes, and fun with peers. Yet there is also peer pressure and on the whole these texts are slightly more serious than their adult counterparts. Cathy Hopkins Mates Dates series offers us plenty of examples. 

In the opening scene of Mates, Dates and Pulling Power (Hopkins 2003) the girls are together and “We were covered in some homemade gloop that Lucy and Izzie had concocted in the kitchen and were discussing the local boy talent in North London” (2). Much of their chatter is about boys. 

The girls are generally lighthearted. One of their father’s is a university lecturer and recommends books to his daughter. But Nesta, our protagonist, says “Not my cup of tea at all, I’d rather watch a good soap on telly” (7). Retail therapy is an option: Netsa buys new underwear when she is annoyed about having a brace on her teeth. Her friend questions this. She replies: ”Distraction …. Obvious, isn't it?” (62). They don't take themselves too seriously. “’Yeah, bugger unrequited love and passion,” said Lucy. “Chocolate never lets you down” 968).   

Nesta isn’t all that ordinary; her father is  a film director and her mother is a TV announcer. Dad is also partly Italian (21-22). Yet her mother’s hours are cut and when Netsa asks to join an acting class that will cot £5.00 a week her mother says that they can’t afford it. She takes a job stacking shelves to raise the money.  He father confirms that this is a good move: “he says that loads of movie stars  start out working in dead end jobs, so that they can pay their way before they make their  big break” (48).  

There is humour. Nesta visits the dentist. The dentist asks her a question. She replies: “‘Urg, argle, oof,’ I attempted to say. I mean how ridiculous? Asking people questions when they’re lying on their backs with their mouths full of fingers,” (28-29). Later she is not amused; the dentist recommends that she  wears a brace. She exaggerates on the day the brace is fitted:” I emerged form the orthodontist’s looking to the world like a normal teenager, but inside I was a wounded soul cut down in the prime of my life (35). 

Also, when she invites Luke for a meal she switches the grill on instead of the oven, she takes creamed fish out of the freezer instead of vanilla ice cream and finally sets fire to her hair with a candle (Chapter 8).  

The book is peppered with good advice for teen girls. The advice isn’t totally impractical and may give hope. This includes: recipes for face masks, explanation of the meanings of difficult words, how to fit a bra, visualisation / affirmation exercises and a recipe for pesto.    

The peer pressure is there from page 4. Our protagonist reminisces about her former boyfriend but her thoughts are really more aobut her girlfriends. “Maybe they thought I only dated him because he was loaded. I decided to find out what they really thought about me in a really subtle way”(4). There is also peer support: after she has the dreaded brace fitted her friends rally round (Chapter 4).   

There is is a distinct dark side to this novel. Nesta’s dad reacts strangely to Luke. There is  history between his family and Luke’s. He bans Nesta from seeing Luke ( Chapter 9). We learn in Chapter 13 that Nesta’s father blames Luke’s father for his sister’s death. She was killed when a drunken driver ran into the car she was driving. Luke’s dad had let her drive when she had only just passed her test. Netsa has grand ideas of staging a reconciliation between the two Italian men. It doesn’t  quite go according to plan. Luke’s father takes over and the reconciliation happens after all. 

Though this novel has its darker side but it has a feel-good ending. There is also some wisdom as Nesta realises there is room for garlic and for roses in the world (Chapter 16).         

The book is 169 pages in blocked text and a simple font. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Hit by Melvin Burgess




Melvin Burgess as he often does here offers a serious of challenges. In this story we have drug-taking, sex, death, risk-taking, social unrest and extreme violence.  Burgess pushes boundaries again:  much of the violence is premeditated and calculated.  

This suits the YA reader well:  my own research establishes that this genre, if you can call it a genre, is often multi-themed. 

The novel is also what publishers might call "high concept". The story centres around Death, a drug that gives users a week-long high. At the end of the week the user dies.  The young adults who take the drug also create a bucket-list of many risk-taking activities they want to enjoy.

Again as we might expect from a YA text, this novel is in effect a bildungsroman. Protagonist Adam learns to value life. The ending is upbeat but uncertain.  There is hope for Adam and his friends.  
Burgess has also created believable characters with whom we can easily empathize. 

This is a book with a thick spin and some 304 pages. It has the narrative balance we would expect in  a novel written for an adult.                       

Wolves by Emily Gravett

2016, first published 2002  

Rabbit goes to the library to choose a book about wolves. With Rabbit we learn where wolves live, what they look like, which parasites they have to endure, all about their teeth and what they eat.  There is a story too.  Fortunately for rabbit, the wolf he actually encounters is a vegetarian.

The illustrations are amusing and add a little to the story.

There are some novelty interactive elements.  There is an old-fashioned library card at the beginning of the book. There is a letter that the child can take out of an envelope.  The double spread where this is situated is covered in realistic pictures of letters and a receipt from the Burrowed Wok that provides Carrotenese takeaways.

There is even another story at the end of the book.  The chid is invited to make a booklet that tells the story of the ten little rabbits.  This story is more suitable for the emergent reader.      

It has sixteen double spreads.  The paper in this edition is matt. The book is almost square and tending towards portrait suggesting that there may be an expectation that the child would read it alone.  


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

George by Alex Gino



George thinks as herself as a girl even though she was born a boy. She feels awkward using the boys' toilets. She longs to play the part of Charlotte in  the school production of Charlotte's Web.   

All of her life, however, she has been assigned male gender and she has a penis. She collects pictures of girls in pretty swim wear - not because as a boy she is turned on by this - she is after all only a fourth-grader -  but because as a girl she wants to look like the people in the pictures.

The narrator uses the pronoun “she” right from the beginning but older brother Scott calls George “little bro’”. Her best friend Kelly seems quite accepting of her wanting to take the part of Charlotte but her words “Who cares if you’re not really a girl?” (26) injure George.  Kelly is keen to support her friend’s plans but completely misunderstands the situation. She reminds George that men have traditionally played women in theatre before, especially in Shakespeare’s time.

George has to go through the ordeals of confessing her status to her best friend and to her mother.  Reactions are somewhat hostile at first.

However, the story ends on a high, though she has taken just one small step and must continue to take one step at a time.      

The Beautiful Game


 Jon Blake’s The Beautiful Game has an older protagonist, a teenager who is good at snooker. The book is just 79  pages long,  and the text, although blocked implying it is for a fluent reader, is double-spaced and in a child-friendly font. The chapters are short. The book has a decent spine. Only those interested in snooker would choose it. It contains a first person narrative which would suit the teen reader. This is high-low - a simple text for the older struggling reader.    

There is tension right from the beginning. By the end of the first chapter - just four and half pages long the protagonist knows  “I’m going to get my arse kicked by Creeping Death” (9). By the end of Chapter 3 Jamie’s estranged father has turned up at the family home and upset his mother.

Gradually, Jamie’s dad creeps back into their lives. He gets Jamie a new cue. Jamie has to hide this from his mother but she does find it eventually. Do we trust Jamie’s father? He turns up one day with a bruise on his cheek. He has been in a fight with another man who thought that he was looking at his wife.    

After Jamie’s mother has found the new cue and is not happy about it. Jamie runs away form home and joins his dad. However what he finds is not pleasant: “there is a stink of aftershave,stale beer and rotten food. The sides are chock-a-block with pizza boxes, paper plates and empty cans of lager” (47). 

Later, Jamie clears the place up and is pleased with himself (56-57). But it is all spoilt when his father brings his mates home and an orgy takes place (58).

His father lets him down. Yet Jamie manages to pull himself together enough to win the big game, defeating Creeping Death. He realises that his mother was right all along. He walks away from the beautiful game. 

This story does indeed have plenty of negatives but the ending is completely upbeat and will appeal to the mature reader.              

Theodore Boone The Fugitive by John Grisham



I actually found this book in the teen section at the local library.  Younger teens may very well enjoy it though it lacks some of the peer pressure and sexual angst often seen in books for this age group. 

However, protagonist Theodore Boone does take charge of his world and in this case helps convict a man of murder. In a sub-plot we see him act as a lawyer in an Animal Court.

There may be no latent sexuality or love interest but Theo’s best friend is April. 

Theo is just thirteen years old and we and our young readers may be amused that he and his classmates take great delight in “passing gas” on the coach when they go on a school trip. 

John Grisham employs a very readable simple prose here. His characters are very well-drawn – believable and rounded.  Theo waivers between demanding justice and being scared of the consequences of his actions. Uncle Ike is a rather eccentric but good-hearted character. The Boone parents argue about the law in a friendly way.  With Theo, they are firm but fair. April is more adventurous in her choice if ice-cream than Theo; she goes for a new flavour every time whereas he always has the chocolate covered in Oreos. 

Grisham raises the tricky topic of illegal immigrants or “undocumented workers”.  The chief witness in the trial, Bobby Escobar, is an illegal immigrant. The defence argues that he is taking an American’s job and that he s is only giving this evidence so that the police will protect him. In the discussion around this Theo thinks that many Americans would not want to do the work that Bobby does.      

This particular edition is easy to read.  It is a double-spaced hardback, part of  five book box set. At the end of the main text there are some useful further activities.      


Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers



Oliver Jeffers’ Here We Are looks like and behaves like a standard picture book for pre-schoolers. 

It is a large, almost square book and though portrait in orientation it is big enough for adult and child to share. It has scant text which is formatted in an adult serif font with difficult ‘a’s and ‘g’s. The pictures give more information than the text. Yet the information in it is probably for the older child.  Indeed, 

the information in it is so important that it is appropriate that the text is shared between child and adult.
It brings a totally positive message. Its subtitle is “Notes for Living on the Plant Earth”. It is the point of view of parent explaining to a child what the world is about. A message in the front papers says “The book was written in the first two months of your life as I tried to make sense of it all for you”. Or is it that the writer is trying to make sense of it all for himself and other adults? 

We start off with a description of our place in the universe and then we explore the planet Earth in more detail. We look at the land, the sea, and what we can see in the sky at night. Then we move on to the human body and its needs. There are double spreads showing all sorts of human beings and all sorts of animals. The writer recognises that the child will have all sorts of questions. He also tackles time and warns that it goes by quickly. 

There is enough for everyone - physically, intellectually and emotionally. There are a lot of people in the world to love and be loved by. 

The book rejoices in abundance and positivity. 

The only tiny shadow is the warning about time slipping by.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Song of Somewhere Else by A/F. Harrold and Levi Pinfold



This is a slightly puzzling book. It seems to be a book for the fluent reader at the end of junior school. Yet it contains elements for other age groups. 

It certainly has a nice fat spine and uses blocked text which suggests the fluent reader.  It also uses a serif font and includes difficult a and g which again is normal for this reader.  

It makes a concession to the new reader by containing a double-spaced text.

As in picture books for the pre-school child, the pictures add to the story, although they are in black and white and are more sophisticated than they would be for the younger child. Pictures are clearly important in this book; it was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway prize in 2018. The text also included quite a few decorative elements. Some of the pictures, however, are very dark ,  e.g. the double spreads on pages 116-17 and 162-3, and this brings it back up into the older age group.       
There are elements also that suggest a teen reader. The protagonist reasons logically – is she in   Piaget’s formal operations stage? She behaves like a teenager. She is reluctant to tell her father about her day at school. Bullying is a teen theme. 

The children are left home alone so there is plenty of opportunity for them to have their adventure on their own.  

It includes high fantasy elements – including a troll mother and a talking cat. Shades of Alice? 

 Bordering on horror? We are also treated to the mystery woman – the agent of Extra-Existent affairs.

Ark Angel by Anthony Horowitz


2015, first published 2005  

This is the sixth of the Alex Rider books. It starts off with Alex almost recovered form a bullet wound at the end of the last adventure. The bullet only just missed his heart.  He befriends the boy in the next room.  Paul is the son of a very wealthy business man, Nikolei Drevin.  An attempt is made at kidnapping Paul but Alex takes his place.

All is not what it seems. The aggressive activist group Force Three is a set up: Drevin has commissioned it to make him look innocent when he blows up the space hotel he has been working on with the British government.  The project is bleeding money and Drevin wants to get rid of it. He has arranged for it to fall out of the sky and act like a nuclear bomb that will wipe out Washington.  Alex’ a guardian, Jack Starbright, is currently staying in Washington with her parents.  

Drevin also makes several attempts to toughen up his son. The kidnapping is his idea and had it not gone wrong with Alex taking Paul’s place, Paul would have lost a finger.  

Alex, who has still not quite recovered from the operation to remove the bullet, is now sent by the CIA to move the bomb to another part of the space hotel, so that it explodes harmlessly in space.

Anthony Horowitz supplies us with graphic details of what travelling in space would feel like.     

The book is 346 pages long, with blocked text and an adult but simple font. The chapters are quite long.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Stories of the First World War by Jim Eldridge




This is neither an easy nor comfortable read.  It includes twelve short stories about the Great War. Each one is told from the point of view of a young person.  Most of them are to do with combat and many feature death. A couple of civilian stories are also quite grim. One involves a bombing, anxious parents and the rescue of a friend and a dog. The other is about a much-changed young man who at first cannot face going home; he was one of only seven of the Accrington Pals who survived. He is different now also because he has been a prisoner of war.   
Jim Eldrige writes a few of the stories from a German point of view.  The British and the German experiences are very similar. He even tackles the conscientious objector – the “conchie” and invites the young reader not to see this just in black and white. 

The stories are in chronological order and there are sections between them that give historical contexts.    

This would be an extremely useful book for teachers or parents wanting to study the Great War with   children. The child probably needs some adult guidance.  

The Boy at the back of the Class by Anjali Q Raúf



The story is told by a naïve female narrator. She loves school, has some good friends and has a comfortable life with her mother. We learn that her father died in a car accident when she was six.  Her mother has to do two jobs to keep them fed, clothed and sheltered.  But she lives in a safe environment.   We also learn that her paternal grandmother was a Holocaust survivor.  

The new boy Ahmet arrives at school.  He does not speak English. The narrator and her three chums try to make him feel welcome.  Gradually he is able to respond to the offered friendship.

The children learn that it soon may not be possible for Ahmet’s parents to join him because the Border Agency will “close the gates” in a few days’ time.  They seek the Queen’s help and end up storming the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. This is seen by some as an act of terrorism!  

All comes good. Ahmet gradually learns English. His parents are found. They are all invited to Buckingham Palace to have tea with the Queen.

This isn’t without a struggle. Ahmet and his friends have to face Brendan-the Bully and some xenophobic adults, including one teacher at their school and a local MP.

There are good adults too: most of the teachers at the school, the greengrocer who finds the pomegranates and a kind taxi-driver.  We must not forget Her Majesty the Queen.  

Even though the protagonist is somewhat naïve, she realises that some people can’t help their first reaction to somebody who dresses differently and eats different food.  

There are materials at the end of the book that will be useful for teachers.   

This is in a normal blocked text and the book contains just a few simple drawings which are meant to be the work of the narrator.  The narrator may be a little too naïve for some maturer readers.

Keedie by Elle McNicholl

  2024    teen, lower secondary, upper primary     key Stage 2, Key Stage 3, ages 9-11, ages 10 -13, McNicoll Elle, Keedie and her twin ...