19. Benjamin Zephaniah – Refugee Boy
This book starts with two almost identical chapters – one in Ethiopia, one in Eritrea. This is where the main man Alem is introduced – his Dad sends him to Great Britain as a refugee, being as his parents have a foot in either camp of the warring factions. Alem’s journey is unsurprisingly not a barrel of laughs, and the book is gritty, honest and at times difficult.
Alem experiences lots of problems as he tries to assimilate into British culture, building to an ending that fits in well with the rest of the book. It was published in 2001 but is just as relevant today.
I’d read this to my class but won’t be lending it to any of the children – there is some swearing that I’d be able to edit out if I was reading aloud.
20. Benji Davies – Grandad’s Island
Recommended by lots of people on Twitter, so I bought it despite not really knowing what it’s about. It’s heartfelt, and a thoughtful way of looking at death with younger children.
21. Markus Zusak – The Book Thief
I’d had this for a while but wanted to wait until the Easter break so I could get stuck into it. I initially found it difficult going as the narration had an unusual, stop-start style, but this soon passed and I found myself devouring chapter after chapter.
Liesel’s story takes in death, war, bravery, theft, naivety, friendship and loss, all through the voice of the narrator – Death. Her life is turned upside down as she is orphaned at the start of World War II and so is sent to live with the Hubermanns (Hans and the fearsome Rosa), of whom Hans becomes everyone’s grandad and an all-round wonderful beacon of light through the dust and dirt of the poverty in which they live.
Liesel steals, gets beaten at school and is pestered constantly for a kiss by her good friend Rudy. Unsurprisingly, the story doesn’t have a happy ending, but it’s a hell of a journey.
A large portion of the story centres on the Hubermanns’ decision to shelter a Jewish man, Max Vandenburg, the son of a man Hans Hubermann fought alongside in WW1. His presence allows the reader to see a different side to Rosa, and Liesel develops her own moral code and strength of character.
22. Morris Gleitzman – Once
Following The Book Thief, I thought this would be an apt read. Felix, a young Jewish-Pole, narrates his tale as he tries to escape occupied Poland, although his naivety and innocence is present throughout the book, meaning he doesn’t really know what it is he’s running from.
This changes when he meets Barney, a dentist who is secretly protecting children from the Nazis. Felix realises what is really happening – the ending is excellent and appropriate. Now I need to get the sequels.
There’s a lovely footnote from Gleitzman at the end of the book too.
23. David Solomons – My Brother Is A Superhero
I read the first chapter of this book to my class who loved it – it may well be our next class read. Luke’s older brother Zack suddenly and mysteriously gains six superpowers, though he doesn’t know what they all are. He and Luke agree that his pseudonym should be Star Lad, and he immediately shoots to fame when he prevents an accident outside his local comic store.
Cue Lara, a girl in Luke’s class who is determined to unmask Star Lad in order to satisfy her own ambitions as an up-and-coming journalist. Luke eventually sees her as a confidante, especially when Zack goes missing, and eventually the two work together to solve the mystery.
Solomons writes with lots of humour and clearly knows his comic-book history. Recommended.
24. Crystal Chan – Bird
I loved this book – really, really loved it – from the opening line to the very last word.
Jewel lives with her Mexican mother and her Jamaican father in what appears to be a fairly loveless and difficult arrangement, particularly as all concerned have never recovered from the loss of their son (Jewel’s older brother) John. There are arguments, silences and awkward moments provided by the most important character – her mute grandfather. Jewel makes lots of mention of her Grandpa and the silence of the house in beautiful yet sad ways:
I never really thought of Grandpa as someone who had feelings – with him being all silent, I just thought his heart was silent too.
We meet a new boy who befriends Jewel, though her father and grandfather have doubts about the validity of this friendship.
Jewel feels as though she has never been fully accepted by her family in the light of their loss, and her friendship is the best thing she has ever had going for her. But her family’s misgivings lead to a climactic ending, and one that I don’t mind admitting shedding a few tears over.
A beautifully told story of acceptance, struggle and friendship.
25. Patrick Ness – The Rest Of Us Just Live Here
I didn’t understand this story at all, so this is what I think happens:
- A group of teenagers are living in what seems to be modern society, though it is after the vampires and soul-eating ghosts have struck
- Mike, the main character, is in love with his best friend Henna
- Henna sometimes is and sometimes isn’t in love with Mike, but is in love with another boy called Tony, but ends up dating a guy called Nathan instead
- Mike has another best friend, Jared, who is one quarter God and can heal things with his hands. He is also able to communicate with cats
- Mike suffers with OCD; his sister once almost died from anorexia
- Indie kids keep going missing
- Blue lights keep appearing, both in the sky and in the eyes of people and animals
And that’s it. I couldn’t piece it all together, yet raced through the book hoping that something would make sense. It didn’t. The way it’s written lacks any real memorable description – it’s mostly dialogue (and a hell of a lot of brackets).
I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has read this and enjoyed it – I’m sure I must have missed something…
26. Elizabeth Laird – The Garbage King
Set in Ethiopia, this story sees two boys from very different backgrounds develop a friendship in unlikely circumstances. Dani is rich, fat and fed up of the threats he receives from his father, so runs away from home, surviving on the bag of clothes and 20 birr he takes with him.
Mamo is from an altogether more modest background, and his story starts when he is spirited away from his sister to work as a slave in the countryside. He too runs away and eventually crosses paths with Dani, before the two of them join a street gang, scavenging piles of rubbish for clothes and begging for food.
The messages here are strong ones, commenting on social injustice and the true meaning of friendship, but for me the book never really got going. It was fine – the story moved along at a decent pace, the characters grew a little – but there just seemed to be a lack of emotion, almost as though it were a reporting of facts rather than a story from the heart.
I am looking forward to reading Welcome to Nowhere though.