Children’s books round-up: Michelle Harrison’s A Pinch of Magic offers some feisty heroines
Plus new reads from Polly Ho-Yen, Aitziber Lopez, Kate Pankhurst and Fiona Robinson
Two Sides, by Polly Yo Hen and Binny Talib: readers will surely pore over again and again
As International Women’s Day approaches, where better to look for inspiration than to your bookshelves, and this month’s children’s publications offer a wealth of feisty heroines – real and fictional – to awaken a young reader’s feminist consciousness.
There are a trio of them in Michelle Harrison’s A Pinch of Magic (Simon and Schuster, £6.99, 8+). Fliss, Betty and Charlie Widdershins live on the eerie mist-mired island of Crowstone.
Their residence is the Poachers Pocket, the dilapidated pub their tipsy Granny runs, which Fliss describes – in an evocative passage that epitomises everything that is great about this book – “as a knackered old racing pigeon, with its loose tiles and shutters flapping like raggedy feathers . . . Time had nudged it like an elbow, and now the whole building slumped drunkenly to the left.”
Their mother is dead and their father, a convict, is imprisoned on the neighbouring island of Repent: or that’s what Granny has told them anyway. Harrison’s setting immediately captivates the reader, but the fact that the Widdershins girls are destined to stay on the small, gloomy island forever because of a curse makes it even more compelling. There is high drama (a prison break!) and enchanted objects (a teleporting bag), family tension and gripping mystery. From the opening Halloween-set pages, Harrison engages the reader in their own page-turning quest for the story’s resolution.
What would the Widdershins sisters make of Lula and Lenka, the dynamic duo at the heart of Two Sides (Stripes, £7.99, 6+), which explores an old cliche by narrating a single event from the perspective of two different characters. Born on the same day in the same hospital, Lula and Lenka have, literally, been “best friends forever”, despite the fact that “people say we’re like chalk and cheese. Or pens and peanuts. Or penguins and pencils. Or any two things that are quite different from each other.”
Lula is bubbly and busy, Lenka shy and thoughtful. After a silly misunderstanding, they fall out one day, and are forced to consider what the other may be feeling now they are no longer friends.
Polly Ho-Yen indicates the shifting voices with subtle changes in typology, and the shared narration provides a new energy to events as they unfold, as well as an effective way of exploring competing perspectives and conflict resolution. The book is a beautiful production too, with a textured hardback cover and full colour illustrations from Binny Talib on luxurious glossy pages that readers will surely pore over again and again.
Aitziber Lopez offers some real-life role-models for young women in Brilliant Ideas from Wonderful Women (Wide Eyed Editions, £11.99, 5+), which focuses on female inventors. She introduces us to 15 twentieth-century women whose inventions changed the way we lived, even if their names are barely known in broader history.
There is Marion O’Brien Donovan, who used parachute material to create the first disposable nappy when confronted with the washing pile for her first child, and Margaret Wilcox, who invented the first car heating system, as well as the first washing machine. The story of Elizabeth Magie Phillips is particularly interesting: she came up with the idea for The Landlord’s Game, an anti-capitalist board game that was reinvented by Parker Brothers as Monopoly, a children’s game that encouraged exactly the opposite impulse that Phillips hoped to foster.
The brevity of the stories and the liveliness of Luciano Lozano’s illustrations, which feature children in every possible context, make this a perfect starting point for further research.
For that you might turn to Kate Pankhurst’s Fantastically Great Women Who Worked Wonders (Bloomsbury, £6.99, 5+), which features 13 women who challenged social limitations to become mountaineers, mathematicians and match-girl trade unionists. The stories bring together unusual, lesser-known characters, and present personal as well as political contexts for their achievements, and the reasons we don’t know their names better. Pankhurst also illustrates, using cartoon punch for maximum inspiration.
In The Bluest of Blues (Abrams, £12.99, 5+), Fiona Robinson illuminates the life of a single historical character, Anna Atkins, who published the first book of photographs ever printed in 1843.
Anna was trained in botany by her scientist father, accumulating a significant collection of plantlife, which she recorded in detailed engravings and illustrations. When she is introduced to cyanotype printing by a colleague, who is using the new technique to copy his notes, Anna begins experimenting with preserving her specimens using the same chemical process. Eventually, she produces more than 2000 prints, defined by their blue and white imagery.
Robinson’s book mimics the colour palette of a cyanotype, and the illustrations are exquisite. Readers of an artistic persuasion will be dying to try printing themselves, instructions for which are given at the end of the book.
The Little People, Big Dreamers series (Frances Lincoln, £9.99, 3+) was created in 2015 to highlight visionary women in all areas of life, from fashion to fine art, science to sport. There are now more than 30 titles in the hard-backed series, which boast cloth spines, vivid, toddler-friendly illustrations and biographies, written by Isabel Sanchez Vegara, which are finely edited for impact.
This year the series has expanded to include male historical heroes too, with Muhammad Ali and Stephen Hawking providing a welcome addition to the corpus, which celebrates the tenacity of adversity overcome and the use of personal achievement for political good. Ali and Hawking’s inspirational stories transcend gender boundaries – just as the titles based on women’s lives did – and that is really the best impetus for any book.