Pheebs has been reviewing books for us since she was 14, now an undergraduate she is still more than happy to read and write about great books, whatever the target audience.
Unfortunately, ChipLitFest has been cancelled for 2020 due to the much-needed Coronavirus protection measures. It’s a real blow though as it was going to be incredible, but never fear: there are still the wonderful books on its programme to read. Since the schools are closed, the kids are home and, with self-isolation and social distancing, they are going to need some great children’s stories to keep them busy; luckily, ChipLitFest has it covered. Here’s a list of some of the amazing books it is highlighting this year and my personal review of each of them, starting with the books for the youngest readers and then increasing in target reader age:
Billy and the Dragon by Nadia Shireen, for 3+
Billy and her sidekick Fatcat are attending a tea party with their animal friends when Fatcat is unexpectedly abducted by a fire-breathing dragon, so plucky Billy sets off to rescue him. This is a beautifully illustrated picture book for little ones. It is visually engaging, using bright colours, large and punchy images, and adorable designs for all the characters, especially the little animal companions. The plotline is very sweet too, with Billy being absolutely determined to get her friend back no matter what, but still tackling every problem that comes her way with optimism and a cheery attitude, leading to a happy ending all around. Parents will no doubt enjoy looking out for Fatcat’s facial expression: his look of grumpy boredom hilariously doesn’t crack even when being carried off in the claws of the dragon. It’s a lovely story and just all-round feel-good.
The young narrator of My Hair is trying to decide how she wants to style her hair for her birthday, but can’t make up her mind. She goes through many different options until her mum finally suggests the perfect one… Another picture book for younger children, it’s uplifting to see how she celebrates all hair types and styles equally, from the most elaborate hair-dos to the short grey hair of her grandma, and is paralysed by indecisiveness between them since they are all so good. Far from the pressure of fashion to follow certain trends, it is wonderfully refreshing to find a story aimed at younger readers that does not predetermine any one option as better than another. Also, I love that the hairstyles praised in the book are all non-Caucasian, especially in light of the stigma often shown to the natural hair of people of colour; for example, I am shocked and dismayed at news reports of girls being sent home from school for having hair that is ‘too big’. Ultimately, this book shows children that the aesthetic of self-expression is important because it can make everyone feel good about themselves; a rather inspiring message, packaged within its gorgeous illustrations.
Joshua Seigal Poetry, for 6+
I have read two poetry collections associated with Joshua Seigal; I Bet I Can Make You Laugh, by Seigal and Friends, and Welcome to my Crazy Life, by Siegal alone. Both are absolutely excellent introductions to the world of poetry for children, but I’ll review each of them separately.
I Bet I Can Make You Laugh is segmented into different categories, from school and animals to words themselves. I particularly like the ‘words’ category, as it’s clear how it encourages the reader to think about the process itself of writing poetry, including how words can be manipulated to serve the poet’s purpose. It’s a sure-fire way to get budding future poets to begin to hone their craft! Some of the poetry is thought-provoking, but the majority of the poems are funny, living up to the name of the collection and making me chuckle. The general tone of the book is silly and usually surreal, making it perfectly tailored to a child’s sense of humour, yet the style of each poem varies hugely thanks to the many talented poets contributing to the collection. As a result, both diversity and collective merriment combine in this riotous initial exploration of poetry for children.
Welcome to my Crazy Life is equally witty, with many of the poems having a clever punchline that made me laugh out loud. The collection also plays around with the poetic form; my favourite example is the ‘Silime!’ poem, which reverses typical similes and begins ‘as freezing as fire’. I really love Siegal’s style in this collection, which, while not being more solemn than the other collection per se, is perhaps more ponderous and contemplative. It’s more connected to serious topics that children might be starting to think about; I cried on reading one of the poems about the loss of a faithful pet. Siegal portrays poetic wit, emotion, and philosophy as sensitively and enjoyably as poetry aimed at adults, yet formats it in such a way that keeps it accessible for children. It is what I can only describe as one of the best introductory guides as to how poetry can be so vivid and why it is so fundamentally important.
I would, for my part, recommend I Bet I Can Make You Laugh to start young readers on poetry, drawing them in with wacky humour and the odd thoughtful line to get them thinking, then moving on to Welcome to my Crazy Life to solidify their interest with its brilliant, more complex poems.
The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Raúf, for 9+
This is a book aimed for older children as it deals with some distressing issues. Aniyah and her younger brother Noah are relocated to a foster home after something bad happens to their mother, causing her to turn into a newly born star. When Aniyah finds out that there is a public competition to name the star, she realises her mother might be given the wrong name, so she heads to the Royal Observatory with Noah and her two new foster brothers to tell the ‘star hunters’ (astronomers) that the star is her mother.
Although the story does introduce the difficult subject of domestic abuse and has a particular address to those who may have experience of this, including helplines for both children and adults, this book is for everyone. Raúf is really excellent at portraying adult problems through a child’s perspective and so many little hints throughout the novel that could otherwise be interpreted as normal are just chillingly wrong; playing hide-and-seek for example, but trying to stay hidden as long as possible from the father. Even worse, Aniyah considers her father’s behaviour normal and believes that her new foster mother, the sunniest character possible, naturally also has a ‘switch’ that she needs to learn the rules for how not to flip it. It’s horrifying. But I’m incredibly glad that I read it, as there are many forms of abuse and its psychological implications that I have been privileged not to have had to consider before. It has made me more aware of the very real dangers faced daily by many women and children in the community around me, who organisations like the author’s Making Herstory work to support.
But please do not think it is a depressing book. Aniyah is thoroughly courageous and handles her situations with a ferocity of spirit that is admirable. Her companions too are equally noble-hearted and their entire adventure is a stirring journey of adherence to doing the right thing for those we love; in this case, ensuring that Aniyah’s mother can live as a star with her own name. As such, it is a very gentle representation of an ugly topic where young victims can find hope that a kinder household is possible and where children fortunate enough not to be in such an environment can realise that domestic abuse is something which may be happening to their peers and the mothers of their peers and understand better how to help.
Just talking about this particular message in this book however is unfair, as it is a fantastic children’s story in its own right. It’s hard for an author to write through a child’s eyes as generally adults have aged out of that kind of mindset, but, speaking as someone who has only recently become an adult, I feel that Raúf nails it. This makes the story wonderfully realistic, while the ‘star hunter’ focus is inspiringly ethereal. Exciting pace, lovable characters, and a commitment to a multitude of detail, from the different interests we infer from the two rooms of the foster brothers to the Halloween costumes they end up journeying in (I just love how Aniyah basically completes an entire quest in a tiger onesie!), all make The Star Outside My Window a book that I want to read again and then again.
And that’s my super-long review of some more of Chiplitfest 2020’s children’s books. Although we cannot now meet their lovely authors and visit their events, we can at least celebrate their writing by reading their books!