In which writewyattuk runs the rule over two winning children’s books that prove the future remains bright for traditional adventure stories.
Shirley Hughes’ first novel – at the age of 85 – seems to break many of the suggested rules of the modern publishing industry professionals and experts.
For starters, her teenage protagonists sometimes sound too ‘grown-up’ for today’s generation, and much of the back-story seems to be there on the page for all to see.
But it works, not least because Shirley knows what it was like to be a teenager in 1944, she remembers how life was in Florence just after the Second World War, and she’s clearly done her research.
The result is a triumph, bringing to mind some of the classic wartime stories of the past – from Ian Serailler’s The Silver Sword, Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners and Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War through to more recent successes like Michael Morpurgo’s The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom and Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
If I was a teenager today (and I am sometimes) I’d have lapped this up and been inspired to read up more on the Italian resistance struggle and find out more about the scenery Shirley so vividly paints.
Note that last bit – so vividly paints. For Shirley, one of our most celebrated modern artists and revered by generations of readers for her amazing illustrations and classic picture books, has disciplined herself to hide away her paintbox, brushes and pencils this time, instead focusing on the written word. And she does so with great skill.
Shirley’s narrative is comparatively wordy by modern standards of children’s fiction, but she never patronises her readers, and nor does she over-do the sentimentality, keeping it real yet managing to entertain as well as educate. And you get the feeling that Hero on a Bicycle will be required reading for many years to come.
As the front cover quote from The Times puts it, this story has ‘all the charm and excitement of a new classic’, and at once it’s as if we are parachuted into Shirley’s beloved Florence, albeit one occupied by German forces, with the Partisans hidden away in the hills waiting for their chance to strike back, with Allied assistance.
At the heart of all this are the Crivelli family – young Paolo, his older sister Constanza, and their English-born mother Rosemary, each so thoughtfully drawn and utterly believable.
All the best writers have projects living longer in their head than they’d ever envisaged, and you get the feeling this project has been on Shirley’s back-burner for many moons.
For her own back story, I’d strongly recommend the autobiographical A Life Drawing, but for her first proper novel there’s also a website dedicated to this fine tale, complete with many of the sketches she somehow managed to keep out this time around.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t brought up with Shirley’s back catalogue, but those treasured books finally came my way when I became a library regular with my own children, and we were soon on a healthy diet of Alfie, Annie Rose, Dogger, Olly, and all. My eldest daughter’s hit her teens now, but Shirley’s picture books still regularly see the light of day, not least those for older children (and adults of course!) such as Abel’s Moon, Stories by Firelight, and The Lion and the Unicorn, the latter also touching on those war years.
Some of those stories have haunting qualities, some bring comfort, some enchant you, and all leave their mark on you, told with such colour and conviction. And now the same author has pulled off that wondrous effect with words alone.
Hero on a Bicycle has all the ingredients for that ‘classic’ label, not least its sparkling narrative, great story-telling, sense of suspense, well-crafted twists, and a deeper portrayal of right and wrong and that occasional indefinable line between the two.
You also sense the determination and spirit that helped see off fascism, while focusing on a family where traditional qualities of Englishness are complemented by Italian fire, and you genuinely feel the weight on our heroic trio in the absence of their ‘Babbo’ at such a key time.
Liz Kessler – North of Nowhere (Orion, 2013)
While Liz Kessler made her name as the author of successful children’s book series featuring Emily Windsnap and Philippa Fisher, she showed another side to her writing craft in A Year Without Autumn in 2011.
In the latter, we followed 12-year-old Jenni’s voyage of self-discovery as she somehow missed a year of her life, forced to put together the lost details in a bid to try and work out how to avoid a family tragedy.
That valiant attempt at modern-day time-travel fiction led to Blue Peter Book Award success, and while Liz continues her mermaid and fairy adventures for younger readers, the St Ives-based author has now returned to time-travel for older readers (and no doubt a few of those who started out with Emily and Philippa too) with the accomplished North of Nowhere, an old-fashioned adventure with plenty of inventive twists and turns.
The story centres around Mia, an outwardly-quiet year eight taken away by her mum during the school holidays – when all she wants to do is hang out and shop with her mates back home -to help run her Gran’s pub in the sleepy seaside village of Porthaven, following the disappearance of her beloved Grandad.
Like Jenni in A Year Without Autumn, she thinks – like many teens – she has enough on her plate to cope with as it is. And while she misses her Grandad dearly, she has less time for her less-open Gran, upset at her stoic resolve to carry on regardless, her emotions always in check.
As it is, Mia is far happier out of the way, walking her grandparents’ dog. And it’s through these daytime escapes that she discovers new friends in unexpected places, while embarking on her own quest to retrace Grandad’s steps and uncover a secret past.
One of the main criticisms voiced of A Year Without Autumn centred around how ‘annoying’ she came over in the early stages. A typical teenager, if you like. There was a worrying stage where I felt North of Nowhere was going the same way, and those early chapters imply this is a book for girls. But there’s plenty here for boys, not least as Mia comes into her own and discovers her spirit of adventure with the seemingly out-of-reach Dee, seafaring teen Peter, and his sister Sal.
It’s a story that successfully spans the generation gap, with Mia doing plenty of growing up along the way. In the wrong hands, North of Nowhere could so easily fail, the intricacies of Liz’s plot potentially leaving the author on the rocks and swept to shore. But that never happens.
There were times when this 40-something had to stop reading to take stock and question the feasibility. I shouldn’t have worried though, Liz having honed her skills along the way and proving -if it were needed – that writing convincing children’s books is as much a craft as any other genre. And Liz certainly gets her readers’ grey matter going, inspiring their own spirit of adventure and quest for imagination in the process.
While North of Nowhere proves something of a stormy sea to navigate, the author comes through unscathed, handling a multi-stranded plot with dexterity.
And as with Shirley Hughes’ Hero On A Bicycle, the result is compelling and truly inventive.