Monthly Archives: October 2020

Book Review: The Lost Magician

Title: The Lost Magician

Written by: Piers Torday

Cover illustrated by: Ben Mantle

Published by: Quercus

The Lost Magician

The Lost Magician is an exciting and unique quest that has significant parallels to C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe. The story is set in 1945 just after the Blitz in London. Two brothers and two sisters, Simon, Patricia, Evelyn and Larry Hastings are sent to stay with their aunt, Professor Diana Kelly, who lives in Barfield Hall, a large house in the countryside. The book opens with an omniscient narrator who talks directly to the reader, explaining why the children have been evacuated and how they discover the mysterious library hidden in the attic. The reader is then swept along on a phenomenal adventure written from all four children’s point of view.

Larry is the first to venture into the library and the magical world of Folio where he meets a fairy knight called Tom Thumb riding on the back of a butterfly. In true CS Lewis style his brother and sisters will not believe the library exists. Until Eve the more scientific of the children discovers the entrance for herself but where Larry went to the land of the Reads, Eve goes to the non-fiction world of the Unreads which is ruled by the notorious Jana, Secretary of the Unreads whose mission is to rid the world of fiction.

The desire for knowledge and the free-will of imagination are pitted against each other in the epic battle scenes between the reads, un-reads and Never-reads in an eternal battle. The children’s only hope is to search for the magician who created the library but he has been lost for centuries.

This novel highlights why a good range of diverse books are essential throughout the world and demonstrates the importance of libraries to society and the need for more good librarians.

The Lost Magician is a celebration of the importance of reading.

An interview with… Isabel Thomas

For my Writing 4 Children column, in the October 2020 issue of Writers’ Forum magazine, I interviewed Isabel Thomas about writing narrative non-fiction for children using her picture book Moth: An Evolution Story as an example.

Isabel explained that Moth: An Evolution Story is a picture book retelling of a classic evolutionary biology case study of natural selection in action. The story of the peppered moth’s adaptation to the environmental effects of the Industrial Revolution here in England. This book is published by Bloomsbury and has recently been released as a paperback.

She told me how she first encountered the story of he peppered moth at university, where she studied Human Sciences, a degree that’s grounded in evolutionary biology. Natural selection and adaptation were introduced onto the primary school curriculum in England quite a few years ago, but Isabel realised children start asking the big questions about life at a much younger age, pretty much as soon as they can talk. Questions like Where do we come from? and Why are there so many different plants and animals?

“I realised the peppered moth story could the perfect way to introduced natural selection and evolution to young children, and indeed to parents who had studied it ages ago and forgotten how it works.”

Isabel Thomas

Her aim was not to create a ‘science non-fiction book’ but a read-aloud narrative that has the power to entrance audiences of any age, and conveys the beauty and wonder of natural history at the same time. Isabel uses the picture book approach to help children make meaningful emotional connections with science, so the desire to understand the world scientifically becomes part of them. Children are familiar with narrative, with the page turn of a picture book, with moments of change and peril and hope. Woven into this familiar fabric, the building blocks of the theory of natural selection aren’t presented as obstacles of hard fact but become almost intuitive for readers as they predict what will happen on the next page turn.

“My top tip is to fastidiously footnote as you go, then you will always have that link back to your sources. Once I’ve amassed information and ideas, it’s a bit like I have a huge pile of Lego bricks. The next stage is beginning to assemble it into something that is greater than these individual parts. Choosing the best way explain or convey my excitement about a subject.”

Isabel Thomas

Isabel suggests writers should try and surprise readers, whether that’s through including the very latest science (rather than sticking rigidly to curriculum-linked content), or in the way you use language, or in the way that connect different areas of life. The way to do this is to surprise yourself, rather than trying to follow a recipe. She stipulates writers aspiring to write children’s creative non-fiction should read a lot of children’s creative non-fiction, as this is the best way to absorb language level and parameters – but don’t imitate.

“Be unexpected and make each pitch and project unique to you, as this is what will grab readers’ (and publishers’) attention. If you can think like an 8-year-old, you’re on the right track.”

Isabel Thomas

Another writing tip from Isabel is not to ‘write for children’ as you will risk ending up with either dry or patronising text. Her suggestion is to write as if you were talking to a friend about something you find absolutely fascinating because a good non-fiction book doesn’t make the reader feel like they’re learning from an expert – it makes them feel like THEY are the expert.

You can find out more about the different types of non-fiction Isabel writes on her online portfolio or follow her on Twitter @isabelwriting and on Instagram @isabelthomasbooks

Book review: If You Were Night

Title: If You Were Night

Written by: Mượn Thị Văn

Illustrated by: Kelly Pousette

Published by: Kids Can Press

This enchanting picture book asks the reader a series of questions like: “If you were night, what would you do?” It encourages the reader to walk into the night on an adventure to explore what they can find and to consider how they would act and respond to the breath-taking stimuli such as an otter splashing, a spider stitching by starlight or a slug munching.

There is a poetic, calm and lyrical feel to this beautiful picture book. It is certainly a unique and fantastical exploration of the natural world at night that engages all the readers senses. The illustrations are amazing paper-cut dioramas that brings the night alive with wildlife and magic – each one more evocative than the last. The children will spend hours examining the intricate cut-outs to spot the creatures and learn more about their world.

The ideal book for bedtime reading and to lull your small child into a sleep full of miraculous dreams about what happens outside when the sun goes down. It could be used in the classroom to support topics and discussion on nature and the natural environment and will help to encourage their observations skills and encourage curiosity.

A book to cherish.

An interview with… Sahar Mustafah

For the October 2020 edition of the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum, I interview Palestinian-American author, Sahar Mustafah about the research she did to build her characters in her novel The Beauty of Your Face.

Sahar told me she was interested in addressing the immediate threat toward the Muslim American community, as well as tell an authentic story about where we come from and the forces that bring us to the present moment. For her, story always comes first. She typically begins writing the narrative before supplementing necessary research and she is particularly interested in the humanistic details of her characters.

Sahar explained research aids description and builds setting. She wanted to first have a sense of her characters’ inner lives then flesh out any pertinent factual elements. She did not want to depict flat, contrived characters so she limited her research so as not to be trapped by a profile.

“In my preliminary research, I was very moved by Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. Though it’s a nonfiction, journalistic account, Seierstad offers a compelling narrative of the life of the murderer which doesn’t offer redemption or any sort of justification, as much as an understanding of how he had come to kill 69 young people and eight adults at a camp. It’s quite well-written though indelibly disturbing.”

Sahar Mustafah

Her protagonist, Afaf’s, storyline came, in part, from her personal background and the stories others have shared with her from her community. Her experience in Palestine allowed her to build that world when referenced in the novel in realistic ways, as well as having mostly lived and been raised in Illinois.

“After 9/11, my family and friends were experiencing near-daily incidents of harassment and discrimination at their local schools or on a trip to the grocery store.”

Sahar Mustafah

With every project, she begins a new journal or notebook in which I separate narrative notes from research questions/components. This allows Sahar to see her story arc clearly and flesh out characterization and outline plot without the distraction of technical, informational components. Sahar Mustafah’s tips to other writers when they are researching is to be wary of the rabbit-hole of research, i.e. clickbait and consumption of peripheral and supplementary information, which is presently so much more accessible via the internet.

“It’s easy to get caught up in informational or factual reading rather than the writing of story. I continue to find balance in my own writing practices. Research can be a quick and easy distraction for me so I limit its time. I tend to write in the morning so research in the latter part of the day is more productive for me.”

Sahar Mustafah
The beauty of your Face by Sahar Mustafah

As a lover of stories, Sahar explained she seeks out informal interviews with individuals relating to aspects of her research. She believes these help to preserve the humanity of the experience, in addition to providing technical facts and information. Her family members and friends who have provided time and interesting first hand accounts have been the seed of new stories.

You can find out more about Sahar Mustafah on her website or follow her on Twitter: @saharmustafah