Illustrated by: Helen Crawford-White and Laura Brett
Published by: Zephyr
The Time Traveller and the Tiger is a remarkable book about a young girl called Elsie who aspires to be a writer. She goes to stay with her Uncle John where she discovers a tiger skin in the spare room and an exotic flower in the greenhouse..
This book is different from other books in that it is cleverly written from several points of view. The first chapter is from John’s point of view of the inciting incident that sets the story in motion – when he killed the tiger which he regrets. The story continues from the future in Elsie’s point of view until she is transported back in time to 1940 India where Great Uncle John is a boy again. From that point the story is mainly Elsie’s point of view, with intermittent chapters from Mandeep’s and the tiger’s point of view, really getting into the tiger’s head with dramatic effect and in a humorous twist from Sowerby, the antagonist’s point of view and his untimely death. I enjoyed the different points of view and gaining a deeper understanding of the character’s motivations and emotional state.
I was captivated by Great Uncle’s John’s regretful decision to shoot the tiger and carried along with Elsie’s goal to prevent him making the same mistake again, changing both their futures and ultimately saving his brother’s life. Tania’s writing flows easily from scene to scene with realistic dialogue and amusing exchanges. She creates a stunning, colourful world set in India with her vivid and evocative descriptions of the animals and vegetation. These are enhanced by the truly breath taking charcoal illustrations of the Tiger scattered throughout the pages.
The Time Traveller and the Tiger touches on issues of sexism and racism as the attitudes and opinions of the time are perceptively portrayed and expertly balanced by Elsie’s views and feelings of these dated and bigoted opinions.
The timeless message of preserving our wildlife rings loud and true from every page as the plot highlights the plight of the tiger and other endangered species and gives young reader’s options at the end of the book how they can help protect their planet from such species dying out altogether. The timeless message of preserving our wildlife rings loud and true from every page.
In the March issue of Writers’ Forum I talk to Anna Ellory about the research for her historical novel, The Puzzle Women, and how she combatted travel restrictions.
Anna explained her books always start with a character.
“My characters talk to me, often annoyingly, and once I have their voice firmly planted in my head I can find their time and place in history. The story develops from there as a collusion between history and voice.”
She first encountered her character Rune, whilst she was editing her first novel The Rabbit Girls. At that time, he was a small boy, younger than when we meet him in the THEN sections of The Puzzle Women, he had a story to tell and Anna was listening. It wasn’t until Lotte found her too that the book made some sense and she knew she was on to something. Lotte was cheerful and unaffected by the abuse their mother endures, she was protected and lived within her own bubble.
It took Anna many full drafts before she realised Lotte had Down’s Syndrome. Anna revealed Lotte had hid this from her and she wrote her entire character without this knowledge – she was her full complete person, before the ‘label’ of Down’s Syndrome and Anna hopes this comes through in the book. The Down’s Syndrome does not in any way define who she is or what she has to say.
Anna used to be a children’s nurse and has worked professionally with children and young people with Down’s Syndrome during her career. She was able to draw on this experience as part of her research. She had also read a number of novels that feature a character who has Down’s Syndrome including children’s literature and YA books. Many adult novels feature Down’s Syndrome as THE character, a mother who gives birth to a child who has this diagnosis and the journey they go on thereafter. Anna did not want that to feature in her book.
Lotte is her own person, offered love and support and a great deal of time and space by Rune and Mama to be able to be very independent. Anna told me:
“I think a great deal of literature out there is highly negative of Down’s Syndrome and with screening and abortion options available now, it is important to understand the power of language we offer women at the time of diagnosis and, I hope, seeing fictional characters offers an alternative way to imagine a child who has Down’s Syndrome rather than the leaflets which list possible ‘health complications.’”
The Puzzle Women is also about domestic abuse, but seen from the child’s perspective. Anna explained that everything the children in her novel witness has been done to a woman, many women, maybe even a woman who lives next door. Anna felt it needed to be treated with the sincerity of refined and clear research so readers were not jolted away from the story by the uncertainty of facts. Anna wanted her research to be accurate and then to fade into the background so the characters could take the stage.
It is set in Berlin during the cold war. There is a theme of survival, of fragmented knowledge and of overcoming trauma that is still relevant now as much as it was during the cold war. As part of her research Anna watched many German movies, including The Lives of Others, Goodbye Lenin and Barbara, staring Nina Hoss. She found that a national trauma can be translated into art, informing and inspiring further creativity too.
At the time Anna was living on benefits, a full-time single mother with a part-time job that made almost nothing. She had no ability to go to Berlin, to see these places. She had a small child and a house she could barely afford, relying on food parcels from family and friends to keep us going over many months. Anna told me:
“I think it’s a luxury to be able to travel and now due to the coronavirus, there is a universality to restricted movements. I made do with what I did have and used all the information available.”
Anna’s research consisted of speaking – via google translate to many people at libraries and museums in Berlin for the small details she wanted to know. She also used her local library. She found maps and old documents which she used google translate to read. She used trip advisor for places she would have loved to have gone to, but couldn’t. A one-star review of Teufelsberg gave her the noise of what it must be like on the roof of the old listening tower in Berlin where Rune sits and contemplates his future.
And many documentaries, YouTube videos, books and art allowed her the insight into a world of Berlin, torn apart by a wall, that she had no access to. Anna highly recommends not writing a book set during a turbulent time in history, where street names are changed regularly, before technology and in a completely different language to your own as it was a real challenge. There are easier ways but Anna just didn’t have access to them.
“I wanted to offer the truth to the history I was re-creating in my novel. I wanted it to be as close to real as I could possibly make it, because I wanted the reality of the characters’ lives to become real to the reader.”
Anna explained that being very clear on what you want from your research enables you to fill in the blanks when you reach them. But not just ‘what does it look like?’ but ‘what aspects of this would my characters see?’ Each character would see the same building completely differently. To some the Berlin Wall was a monstrosity, to others it was a blank canvas. Knowing who is walking around your world enables the world to be rich in the eyes of your characters and therefore the readers too.
The Wild Way Home is a unique book where the gender of protagonist, twelve-year old Charlie Merriam, is not revealed and is left up to the reader. The story works well with Charlie as a boy just as it does if she is a girl and to be honest I did not think her gender was relevant. However, my preference by the end of the book was to think of Charlie as a girl in that when she is whisked through time to the Stone Age and discovers Harby, he is searching for his baby sister. In contrast Charlie is running away from her baby brother.
Charlie has always wanted a baby brother but when Dara is born on her birthday and the doctors discover he has a heart defect, she is unable to deal with emotional turmoil of her brother’s life-threatening condition and sharing her special day. Her response is to run from her problems and hide in the forest where she loves to play with her friends. A place where she normally feels safe.
Written in the first person we get a deep insight into Charlie’s feelings and wave of mixed emotions at the hospital and on her adventures in the forest that used to be so familiar but has (like her family life) suddenly changed into a ‘wild’ almost unrecognisable landscape. Sophie Kirtley paints vivid descriptions of a Stone Age environment, complete with cave paintings, wolves, spirit songs, primitive tools and a strange new language.
Charlie discovers it is alright to be afraid of change and it is ok to worry about things that happen, which they are unable to control.
“Things happen, bad things sometimes and sometimes people get a bit broken…”
The story emphasises how things are easier when you don’t try to deal with them alone. In this way, The Wild Way Home carries a message of hope that together with love and support from friends and family we can get through the bad times.
A great book for PSHE sessions for discussing the different ways people react and cope with scary situations and ways we can safely manage circumstance that make them anxious.
This month for my Writing 4 Children slot in Writers’ Forum I talk to Michelle Robinson about her latest picture book The World Made a Rainbow, about a young girl’s experiences of being in lockdown.
I reviewed this beautiful picture book written by Michelle Robinson and illustrated by Emily Hamilton on the 5th of January. You can read my review here. Michelle explained to me the idea came after a hectic book week visiting schools and suddenly being told to stay at home. She couldn’t stop thinking about how they all the children must be feeling. .She has two young children of her own and found helping them stay confident and happy through these very sudden, very huge changes to our lives was extremely challenging. Michelle said:
“There have been times when I’ve found myself wanting a grown up to tell me everything’s going to be okay. The World Made a Rainbow is basically me trying to embody that grown up — calm, confident, reassuring and soothing.”
The book is essentially the ink-and-paper version of the rainbows that appeared in windows throughout lockdown. It’s a way of showing children that behind closed doors we’re all in the same situation, and what really matters is to feel safe and loved. Michelle hopes young children will recognise their own lives and feelings within the book’s main character. Her protagonist really demonstrates all the emotions we encounter are legitimate: it’s okay to not love every minute of being stuck indoors with your nearest and dearest, and it’s okay to admit to missing more carefree times.
Michelle revealed she loves writing picture books; she loves the whole process, playing with language, curating words on a page and seeing what direction her stories will take. She never starts with a plan. She explained that she prefers to write in the morning and if something’s not working she just chuck it out and have another go until she is happy.
“Writing early in the day is like running on rocket fuel. I can achieve much more in a couple of premium hours than I can in a whole day of distractions and mind-clutter.”
She explained problems often resolve themselves when you’re not looking directly at them. She also believes that when writing books for children you need to change the scene frequently. No one wants to stay still too long. The best books surprise and delight, take us out of our ordinary worlds and put smiles on our faces.
She also believes that the most difficult part of writing a picture book is getting published. Even as a successful author, with multiple publishers actively seeking texts there are still so many hurdles to leap. This is particularly true since the COVID-19 crisis. Texts now need a really clear message or selling point to get backed — they can’t just be ‘fun for fun’s sake’. It’s a shame. Without the odd leap of faith we’re never going to create miracles.
Great picture books have a magic somewhere you can’t quite put your finger on. It happens between the words and the pictures, and in the idea at the book’s heart. Ideas are what it’s all about. We all enjoy discovering fresh ways of looking at tried and trusted themes.
“Writing for children is a total privilege. Children are the very best humans around, and they deserve our very best work. I love knowing that I still haven’t created my best books.”
If you’re trying to write picture books, Michelle’s tip is to try copying out the text of a few great ones into Word documents. Stripping away the art lets you focus on the skill of writing. Leave breaks for page turns, take note of how many words there are per spread, not just the overall word cunt. How does the document look compared to yours? Most picture books land on editor’s desks in this form, they never arrive fully realised. Is yours truly strong enough to make someone want to work on it for two or three years?
You can find out more about Michelle Robinson and her books on social media:
The Wacky Bee Buzzy Reads series were launched in 2020. They are a quick read books ideal for children to read independently.
Nina’s Amazing Gift is about a young girl whose best friend, Choco has moved away. Nina is convinced her life will never be happy again. Then a mysterious envelope arrive from Choco. It contains five strange brown beans. Meanwhile, Raymond and Nigella and their sous chefs arrive in town for a cooking competition. Nina watches the contest from high up in the branches of the cherry tree she used to climb with Choco in the town square. She has the beans Choco sent to her in her pocket. Unknown to Nina the beans are cocoa beans.
It is hard to imagine a world where people have never tasted pizza, pancakes, chips and spaghetti. When the contestants start cooking these ‘new’ foods the judges get extremely excited. Maya Lunde weaves a hilarious creative tale of how Nina discovered chocolate, which she names after her best friends and becoming a late entry into the cooking competition.
At the back of the book there are some interesting true facts about chocolate and it is revealed the original illustrations by Hans Torgen Sandnes that have been reproduced throughout Nina’s Amazing Gift were actually made with chocolate. They are currently stored in a cold basement at a secret location, safe in plastic folders. After reading this amazing fact I had to go back and study each illustration in depth to absorb the fantastic detail and use of colour. Ingenious!
There is also a recipe for chocolate brownies at the back of the book, which could be undertaken at home or as a food technology session within school.
In my Research Secrets slot in February issue of Writers’ Forum Aliya Whiteley told me about her debut non-fiction book, a fascinating insight into fungi entitled, The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World.
Aliya usually writes speculative fiction such as her horror short stories Fearsome Creatures from Black shuck Books (Oct 2020) and her novel Greensmith from Unsung Books, which deals with seed banks and viruses and the current global threat to diversity. (Nov 2020). She explained she had no plans to write a non-fiction book on any subject.
Her novel, The Beauty, imagines a future in which fungi and humanity combine, and since its publication in 2014 people have sometimes sent her photographs and news clippings about fungi. She has always been interested in the subject, but the way it resonated strongly with readers really struck home.
Aliya was contacted by an editor at Elliott & Thompson who had read a few of her novels and thought she might be able to bring something unusual, elements of strangeness and surprise, to a non-fiction book about fungi they had planned. This interest from an editor just gave her the push she needed.
As can be imagined fungi is a huge area of knowledge – fungi are connected to all aspects of life and death on this planet – and Aliya knew there was no way for her to approach an expert level of understanding in the time she had available for writing the book so she looked for what she could bring to the project. She started with an overview from Oxford University Press’ A Very Short Introduction To… series, and made loads of notes.
“I decided to concentrate on different angles that would allow me to concentrate on using language in a lyrical and involving way. I wanted to get readers excited so they might go and read further if they wanted to find out more.”
She split the information she discovered from her research into three main areas: ‘Erupt’, ‘Spread’, and ‘Decay’. ‘Erupt’ dealt with new life and new beginnings, futuristic and ongoing scientific developments, and people who have found a growing love for fungi through cooking and foraging. ‘Spread’ loosely covered all sorts of fungi from around the world. ‘Decay’ dealt with their role in death, in illness, and in dark literature. These categories really helped Aliya to get her thoughts together and turn it into a cohesive book.
Aliya revealed she found fungi in space a fascinating area of study, and the NASA website helpful. She said:
“Just searching for ‘fungi’ uncovered so many interesting articles, developments and proposals. One of my favourites involves plans to grow habitable shelters on Mars from radiation-resistant fungi.”
A tip for other non-fiction writers which she found useful was to take notes by hand. She explained created a better link between the vast subject of fungi and her brain, and enabled her to get a handle on some very challenging material, such as scientific or medical papers. A few days after taking those notes, she would try to describe what she had learned in her own words, just to see how well she had grasped the information and if she could do the trickier aspects of the subject justice. This enabled her to concentrate her thoughts, and also develop some confidence in them.