Saturday, 28 February 2015

MG = Magic Gateway by Huw Powell

I was so excited to hear about MG Strikes Back, because for years YA has dominated the headlines. It’s about time that MG received the attention it deserves. Why is this publishing category so important? Because the MG years (8 to 12) are golden! This is when children start defining their reading habits and refining their tastes in genres. It’s also when they get to experience some of the most incredible books ever written.

In fact, I would argue that Middle Grade is far too drab a term to describe such an exciting branch of literature. It’s only marginally better than using Chapter Books to classify these wondrous adventures. MG is not a ‘middle’ sibling or a school class, but a thrilling way to meet colourful characters and experience new worlds. It should stand for Mental Gold or Mind Gripping, or better yet, Magic Gateway.

Books can be like portals to another life and they often leave a lasting impression. It’s not just the words that are read or the way the plot is structured, but the images inspired by the story and the feelings experienced by the reader. Most of us have powerful memories from the tales we enjoyed as children. Who could forget Aslan sacrificing himself in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, or Dumbledore falling from the tower in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling?

How many of us got through Watership Down by Richard Adams without a lump in our throat or a tear in our eye? Author SF Said blogged that this thrilling pager-turner changed his life, but it was only when he re-read it as an adult that he realised its true depths. In his opinion: “Some of the richest and most imaginative contemporary literature is being written for young readers.”

Perhaps this is why children’s books account for one in every four books sold in the UK, or why MG novels regularly feature in the greatest books of all time.

However, it’s not just about magic and talking animals. MG books span such a wider range of genres, covering everything from science-fiction to historical drama. There are few topics that escape the imagination of MG authors. Elen Caldecott has compared these books with being a time lord, because they allow you to “travel back in time, whiz to the future, and travel across continents.”

I can recall the thrill of Chas McGill finding a crashed German bomber during World War II in The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall. Even now, I get excited thinking about sailing with the Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, or building a den out of rubbish with Stig of the Dump by Clive King. I sometimes wonder which parts of my own novel, Spacejackers, will children remember in their adult life.

What makes a good MG book? Is there something that children look for in their novels? Author Abi Elphinstone blogged about how there is something magical about being 8 to 12 years old: “I was full of wonder at the world and I craved adventure.”

It turns out that she was not alone.

As a Patron of Reading, I set the students of Writhlington School a competition to win some of the latest MG books. All they had to do was write what they liked best about reading in 140 characters (or less). Most of the children wrote about books being doorways to exciting new worlds, where they could experience thrilling adventures without leaving their bedrooms, whether it’s solving crimes, riding dragons or battling space pirates.

The winning student thought beyond her personal reading experience and conveyed the impact of reading on others: “I love books because they inspire people to feel confident and give company when people are lonely.”

It’s not only children who crave escapism, there are plenty of teenagers and adults who read MG novels, perhaps to revisit those magical worlds and rekindle their childhood memories. Author Jenny McLachlan told me that losing herself in a book felt “like magic” and that “reading makes life feel like an adventure, where anything is possible.”

I write MG novels because they are fun and exciting, because they contain colourful characters and strange new worlds, because they entertain and exercise imagination, because they inspire confidence and give company to people who are lonely, but most of all, because I get to engage with hordes of children who enjoy a good story.

Author Jason Rohan put it best in his blog post about MG audiences: “Why would I want to write for anyone else?”

I may be a big kid who refuses to grow-up. However, you could do a lot worse than to forget your worries, pick up a good MG novel, prepare yourself for an adventure and step through the Magic Gateway!

Huw Powell

Friday, 27 February 2015

Why I think 'Here Be Monsters' by Alan Snow is Mid-Grade perfection

I discovered a mammoth of a book called Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow a few years ago and couldn't believe that it wasn't more known.  I wrote a rave review about it on my own blog and since then, as if by magic, it's been reissued and a film was made based on the story in the form of Boxtrolls.  I was even lucky enough to get an author interview with Alan Snow and was left all flustered afterwards.

I've pushed this book onto as many people as I can and will gladly shout about it as much as possible because it's an amazing mid-grade book that needs to be discovered by more people.  I could continue to gush about it but I think I should explain a little about it first.

Here Be Monsters was first published in 2005 and was released in the form of the first volume of The Ratbridge Chronicles (Ratbridge being the location for story).  It's a kooky world made up of human beings, trolls that wear boxes like clothes,  cheese that roam the countryside, rats that run a dry-cleaning service from a pirate ship, cabbage-headed underground beings and women that love to live their lives dressed up and existing as bunnies.  With a collection of characters like that, you can imagine just how wonderfully nuts the plot is.  

This books isn't just a brilliantly written book; it's also gorgeously illustrated by Alan Snow himself and is filled with lovely doodles and sketches within the story to add comedy and delight to each chapter.  I loved turning each new page and finding a little Boxtroll strolling around amongst the words before me.

I would recommend this book to fans of Roald Dahl; especially the manic worlds of The Twits and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as well as those who loved the Harry Potter books and want something a bit lighter and with a real British sense of humour.  If you've seen the film The Boxtrolls, I urge you to go an by the book.  There is a new abridged edition in bookshops right now or try and seek out the large tome and enjoy every ounce of it.  This book is beautiful in it's simplicity but sublime for its ridiculousness.

Step into Ratbridge and become a kid again completely guilt-free.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Interview with Sinéad O' Hart

Following the recent announcement of her US book deal, I caught up with Middle Grade author, Sinéad O’ Hart to talk about bookish things (and purple footwear!).

KF: Welcome, Sinéad O' Hart, and thank you for doing this interview for Middle Grade Strikes Back.  Can I begin by asking you about your early memories of stories or books or reading?  What did you read as a child?

SOH: Hello, and thank you for having me here on Middle Grade Strikes Back! My early memories of books, stories and reading revolve around my parents, who read to my brother and me from our earliest days. I learned to read very early, prompting my parents to set me 'tests' to check whether I was actually reading, or simply memorising, which (naturally) I passed with flying colours. I had a wonderful teacher in primary school who spotted how much I loved reading and writing, and who gave me 'creative writing' projects to challenge and stretch me. It was extra homework, but I never minded! As a child, I'd read anything which stayed still long enough: newspapers, cereal packets, instruction manuals, roadsigns, and of course books, which our house was full of. I adored the Childcraft encyclopedia, and one of my favourite books was about Halley's Comet, which appeared in the sky when I was a small child. I loved The Faraway Tree and the Noddy books, and later the stories of Malory Towers and St Clare's, and I loved The Twits, James and the Giant Peach, and of course Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - in fact, anything by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton! I also loved anything about history and folklore, particularly the books of Michael Scott; I adored stories about Vikings, which is a love I still have. The most significant book I've ever read in my life was Alan Garner's Elidor, which I read when I was eight; I've never been the same since.

KF: Can you remember anything about these early "creative writing" projects?

SOH: My early writing projects were exercises in plagiarism. I think a lot of writers start out that way! I wrote 'homages', shall we say, to books I loved, without a care in the world as to copyright or originality. The first story I really remember writing was a sequel to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, complete with illustrations (which I copied directly from the original book!); I wrote this masterpiece when I was about seven. I think it was four pages long and came to an abrupt end when I ran out of plot (a problem I still have, sadly). I also started writing a diary because Anne Frank, whose diary I read at age eight, had kept one, and as a result my efforts at chronicling my daily life were often a bit overwritten and dramatic due to the influence of my particular edition of Diary of a Young Girl. I also recall a laboriously plotted 'series' entitled Grass Valley High, which was a total ripoff of Sweet Valley High - I even went to the trouble of drawing my own maps in an effort to create a fresh story world, but it never really worked. It took a long, long time for me to shake off this tendency to copy others, but it's a good way to learn how to write. I'm just glad none of my early efforts are still lying around at home! 

KF: Cool!  As you ventured into your teens, did this love of writing continue?  When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

SOH: I knew from around the age of eleven or twelve that I wanted a creative life and career - not necessarily writing, but something artistic. I love to draw, too, and I originally planned a career as a visual artist, but over the years that desire faded as my love for stories grew. In my teens I wrote a lot of (terrible) poetry, and for whatever reason I didn't focus as much on writing prose; I preferred to read instead, soaking up as many books as I could (something I still do, and something I feel is vitally important for anyone who wants to write). As my school life came to a close and college began, I got back into writing stories, and when I was twenty I wrote my first children's book. It was terrible. But I wrote it, and I finished it, and that sense of accomplishment stayed with me for a long time, even when the realities of life and career meant I didn't write again for many years. My love for children's books and MG stories began to bloom then, and has never gone away - thank goodness!

KF: What children's book(s) has had the biggest impact/influence on you?

SOH: Definitely Alan Garner's 'Elidor', as well as his other novels 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen', 'The Moon of Gomrath' and 'The Owl Service'. I also loved, and had my mind opened by, Madeleine l'Engle's 'A Wrinkle in Time', and I adored the strangeness of Norton Juster's 'The Phantom Tollbooth'. As well as these, I love 'The Little Prince' with a passion bordering on obsession! All these books helped to shape me as a reader and a person, and I read them all between the ages of eight and twelve.

KF: Before we talk about your forthcoming book, can you tell us a little about your journey to publication.

SOH: The book with which I got my publishing deal was the third book I'd actually completed (fourth, if you count that I'd written one of the other books twice!) It took me almost exactly a year to gain the representation of an agent, and I had a slightly unusual route to signing with her. I queried her with all the books I'd written, one after another, gradually building up a professional relationship and a sense of mutual trust. I queried other agents, too, of course, but this pre-existing relationship meant that when it came to choosing an agent (as several people were interested in signing me, by the end) I really only had one choice. Polly thought I had potential from the beginning, but it took the third manuscript (which became The Eye of the North) for her to be sure she wanted to sign me. When she did take me on as a client, we worked hard together on editing The Eye of the North before beginning the submissions process, and very quickly it sold in the United States and Canada. We haven't yet been successful in gaining a publishing deal for the UK and Commonwealth market, but we're hopeful that will happen during the course of 2015. If I could sum up my publication journey in one word, it would be persistence! Never give up. You will find the story and the deal for you, so long as you keep writing.

KF: You must be so excited about the launch of your début novel.  What can you tell us about The Eye of the North?

SOH: The Eye of the North is a standalone Middle Grade fantasy adventure story about a girl named Emmeline Widget who lives in a big, crumbly old house with her scientist parents (when they're not away at conferences or exploring remote parts of the world, that is), her butler, Watt, and the housekeeper, Mrs Mitchell. She is careful and cautious and suspicious of everyone and everything, so when she receives a letter one day telling her that her parents are dead and she is to be shipped off to Paris to live with strangers, she smells a rat right away. On board the ship to France she meets a strange boy with no name (he calls himself Thing, for want of anything better!) who manages to accidentally rescue her from being kidnapped. Then, however, just as they think they're safe, the kidnappers strike again. Emmeline is taken, right from under Thing's nose, and he, along with some new allies, immediately sets off to find her. Their journey takes them into the heart of the frozen North, where an ancient and terrifying Creature, with the power to destroy the world, lies sleeping - a Creature which cannot be awoken without Emmeline. Who has taken Emmeline, and why? And can she and Thing stop the Creature from being awakened before it's too late?
The Eye of the North is set for publication by Knopf Children's Books in the US and Canada in late 2016. I'm really looking forward to seeing a printed copy in my hands!

KF: Wow!  The book sounds amazing.  I can't wait to read it.  As a fellow writer, I'm always interested in how, when and where other authors write.  Do you have a routine, a special room/pencil/furry pair of slippers etc?  That sort of thing...

SOH: I have converted the smallest bedroom in my house into an 'office'; it's tiny, overcrowded and woefully messy, but it's where my writing happens. I blog three days a week, so I begin my writing day by looking after that. Then, I pick up from wherever I left off on my last writing day! It's as simple and hard as that. I start early and work for as long as I can, and then it's time for a walk, or housework, or a change of scenery. I don't have a favourite writing pen, but I do have a fabulous pair of furry purple slippers. (Actually, I think they're the brains behind my stories!)

KF: Now that you're a soon to be published author, what advice would you give to other aspiring authors (apart from the furry purple slippers)?

SOH: The best advice I could give any aspiring author is to read, widely and with an enquiring mind. Read within your own 'genre' and outside it, too, always with an eye to learning how a story works, how it's put together and why it works (or doesn't, as the case may be). Write as much as you can, as often as you can, and write primarily for yourself - write the stories you love, which mean something to you, and enjoy it as much as possible. (Remember to take breaks: sometimes, not writing is important, too!) Finish what you start, and always leave time between finishing a draft and revising it. (Always revise; nobody's first drafts are publishable!) I'd also counsel bravery. Sending your work to agents and publishers can be terrifying, but take the chance. They're looking for people like you! Take heart, and don't take it personally when you're rejected. Every rejection will teach you something, and will always be worthwhile. And finally: keep going until you hear a 'yes'. If writing professionally is what you want, don't let anything stop you.

KF: What a motivating and inspiring reply!  If that doesn't give hope to the unpublished, then nothing will.  An uplifting way to conclude our conversation.  Almost.  Because I'd like to finish up with some short, fun, questions.
In a line or two, what literary world would you most like to visit?

SOH: Argh! Just one? Earthsea. No! Lyra's Oxford. Or... wait. Maybe Ingary, with Howl and Sophie. But then that means I can't have Ancelstierre or the Old Kingdom or  Middle Earth or Narnia... Can I have all of 'em? 

KF: God, I'd hate to go shopping with you.  If you could have dinner with ONE literary character, who would that be? Notice the way I capitalised ONE...

SOH: Charles Maxim from 'Rooftoppers',  for reasons which are not entirely literary. :-) 

KF: You've just sold the movie rights of your book for a large bag of cash.  What's the first thing you will buy?

SOH: A pair of purple Doc Marten boots. I have a thing for purple footwear! 

KF: In a word, paper or electronic?

SOH: Paper! No question. I do see the benefits of electronic media but I'm a paper enthusiast all the way.(Sorry - that was more than one word).

KF: Lions, witches or wardrobes?

SOH: I reckon wardrobes, because you just never know where you're going to end up when you open that door... 

KF: And let's go parochial for the last one: Tayto or King?

SOH: King, all the way! 

KF: Apologies to our UK readers for the "secret-Irish-handshake" nature of that last question, but those who need to know, will know.  Thank you so much, Sinéad, for the wonderful interview.  You've certainly whetted all our appetites for The Eye of the North.  I for one, am very much looking forward to reading it.  We wish you every success with it, and all future titles.

SOH: Thanks for a fantastic interview! 

Click here to find out more about Sinéad O' Hart or Kieran Fanning.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Review: Worry Magic by Dawn McNiff.

Goodreads synopsis:

Courtney is a worrier - she's worried about EVERYTHING, from her mum and dad's constant fights, to her Gran being ill to the fact that her best friend Lois suddenly seems to be more interested in growing up and hanging out with mean girl Bex. 

But then one day, during a particularly bad argument kicked off by her dad's discovery of a pig in their lounge (don't ask...) Courtney begins to feel a bit funny... a bit woozy... a bit like a dream is coming on - and then when she wakes up everything is better! Mum and dad are being nice to each other, the pig is going back to the animal shelter (really, don't ask...) and even Kyle, her older brother, seems to be making an effort. 

Courtney becomes sure that each time she feels woozy and has her dreams, she's magicking her problems and worries away. Her mum, dad and brother aren't so sure though. Can Courtney convince everybody that her worry magic dreams are the perfect way to solve her problems? Or should she learn to worry a little less and to ask for help in some non-magical places more?


Based on the synopsis of this book I was expecting a book with a slight fantasy or magical realism slant. This wasn't the book I got - it's rooted entirely in our here and now - but the book I did get was a lovely, highly enjoyable one.

The main character, Courtney, spends a lot of time and energy worrying. She worries about the big things going on in her life and the small, seemingly inconsequential, things too. She tries her hardest to predict things that will go wrong and then solve them before they can wrong - anything to reduce the stresses going on around her. When these stresses continue to grow so too does the load Courtney is taking on and she begins to experience anxiety attacks. 

These anxiety attacks are no ordinary thing - they cause Courtney to faint and whilst she's in the faint she sees what's going to happen next. Everything is always better after one of these attacks so Courtney puts two and two together, she can use these faints to fix all of the things causing her stress. I found that even though I knew things couldn't be working the way Courtney thought they were I was still very invested in her aims.

The resolution of the book is entirely satisfying. I loved the way Courtney's thoughts and actions were explored, there is a gentle hand at work here - she's never made to feel bad for thinking the way she does and I really appreciated this. I think many young readers will identify with Courtney and her worrying - we all worry about things to some extent, and the range of her worries is pretty broad. There are some nice thoughts expressed in the book about worry and about managing worries, I'm sure its target audience will be reassured and encouraged.

I loved both Courtney and her brother Kyle in this book. Their sibling relationship is so well created, they have times when they don't get on but none of this matters to them in the grand scheme of things. They were absolutely my favourites though there aren't any weak links in terms of characters.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and will be looking forward to whatever comes next from Dawn McNiff.

Juniper's Jungle

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Heroines From Books

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

Today, ten of our fabulous Middle Grade Strikes Back contributors have each chosen their favourite heroine from a middle grade book:

1. Abi Elphinstone: Lyra Belacqua from Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

When I was twelve, most of my girl friends at school wanted to be Kylie Minogue. I, on the other hand, wanted to be Lyra Belacqua. She breaks rules, avoids homework, answers back to adults, becomes pals with Gyptians, has a gorgeous daemon called Pantalaimon - and, as if that's not enough, she befriends an 'outcast' bear and learns to read an alethiometer. Take that, Kylie.

Twitter: @moontrug

2. Jim Dean: Kat Stephenson from The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson series by Stephanie Burgis

From the first sentence I read about Kat - in which she chops off her hair, dresses as a boy, and tries to run away to save her family from impending ruin - I knew she was a really special character. Over the course of the trilogy of novels following her as she juggles her heritage as a witch and a Guardian with trying to help her older sisters marry their true loves, she became my all-time favourite. Loyal to her family, clever, quick-witted, and altogether wonderful, she is stunning to read about. Her unexpected reappearance as a debutante in last year's Courting Magic, a novella, was a highlight of 2014 for me.

Twitter: @yayeahyeah

3. Aoife Walsh: Kizzy Lovell from The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden

Kizzy is a diddakoi, which means she's half-gypsy, half-not. The book's heartbreaking until it becomes uplifting. Kizzy's rejected by more or less everyone and especially at school where she's too different - one of the bullying episodes is so violent it would have stayed with me since I was eight even if I hadn't reread the book fifty million times. She's tough and angry and unreasonable, and one of the most lovable heroines ever.

Twitter: @AoifeMPWalsh

4. Stacey: Matilda by Roald Dahl

I only read Matilda for the first time in 2013, but she quickly became one of my favourite heriones. Which booklover – young or old – doesn't see themselves in Matilda? She's quiet yet confident. She's incredibly intelligent and independent, and of course bookish in the best possible way. Matilda paved the way for me to delve into middle grade novels; I wanted to read more about these amazing, talented children and their magical adventures.

Twitter: @theprettybooks

5. Elen Caldecott: Hermione from the Harry Potter series

First, for anyone who says HP is YA, not MG - it's not, get over it. Second, I also have to say that I lovelovelove Daniel Dalton's buzzfeed reworking of the series (WARNING: link not entirely child-friendly, unless your child is a bit sweary). Hermione is the brains of the operation, she saves the boy wizard countless times. As Daniel says, without Hermione, The Boy Who Lived would be dead as...sugar. She's brave, bright, brilliant. A heroine we all want to be. #TeamHermione

Twitter: @elencaldecott

6. Tamsin Cooke: Annabeth Chase from the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan

Annabeth Chase is half god, half mortal. Being the daughter of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, means she's incredibly clever and logical. Not only that, she's unswervingly loyal and brave. She knows how to fight, and is stubborn and sassy. If I had to fight monsters, I'd want her by my side.

Twitter: @TamsinCooke1

7. Piers Torday: Claudia in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiller by E.L. Konigsburg

Thanks to an American pal I've been catching up on so many wonderful MG classics from across the pond that never reached me as a child. And Claudia Kincaid is my kind of heroine. She runs away from home - to a "large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place and preferably a beautiful place." So ends up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, naturally! Along with her nine year old brother she ends up solving an ancient art history mystery. Claudia proves herself much smarter than many adults in this story, and gets her just reward.

Twitter: @PiersTorday

8. Kirsty Connor: Darcy Burdock from Darcy Burdock by Laura Dockrill

You can't help but love Darcy. She is mischievious and funny and I love her take on the world. I love that she has a pet Lam called Lamb Beth and seeing their relationship. I love how creative she is in her own don't care approach focusing on doing what she wants rather than what others think. However more than anything I love how really kind she is to others around her and how fierce she becomes about those around her who she thinks are cruel and nasty

Twitter: @overflowingklc.

9. Julia Lee: Dido Twite from Black Hearts In Battersea and more by Joan Aiken

Sarky, sneaky, scruffy and jam-stained, anti-heroine Dido only just manages to show her shining qualities by the end of this book but was too good a character for Aiken to abandon. Dido rebounds triumphant - and just as quirky - in Nightbirds In Nantucket and further adventures. She's one of the few poor/working-class heroines I can think of - though most her her family's work is hardly legal! A total joy. 

Twitter @julialeeauthor

10. Sophie Cleverly: Tiffany Aching from the Tiffany books (part of Discworld) by Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is a precocious and book-smart young girl, the daughter of a family of shepherds, who is discovered to have potential witching talent. Her drive, determination, ability to take charge of almost any situation and to question her own thoughts make her the ideal witch. She chases the Queen of the Elves through fairyland (armed only with a frying pan) to save her little brother, has her mind possessed by a terrible creature called a hiver and even dances with the Wintersmith. Terry Pratchett was once praised by a group of Brownies for writing "a real nine-year-old girl", and I couldn't agree more. Tiffany is flawed, clever, funny and the perfect heroine.


Twitter: @hapfairy 

Monday, 23 February 2015

Power Of Books When Changing Schools

Power Of Books When Changing Schools

Between the ages of 8 and 13, I went to four different schools, including one halfway around the world. This meant I had be the ‘new girl’ four times, not know how the school works four times, try to make friends four times. You get the idea. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of it was great fun, and I met so many wonderful people. But it was also incredibly daunting. In fact terrifying is a more accurate word. But there was one thing that saved me during these turbulent times. Books!

The night before my first day of school, I would grab my favourite: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, and I’d be transported to Narnia. Instead of worrying about the next day, I would see my old friends, Lucy and Mr Tumnus. I’d stroke Aslan’s fur, and shake my head in horror at Edward’s actions - I was quite a judgmental child!!

My copy passed down to the next generation.

This book was my constant. When everything else was changing, it was my security blanket. And even now, if I pick up my tatty much loved copy, those feelings of warmth and safety come flying back.

Most children between the ages of 8 and 13, have to change schools at some point, whether it’s primary to secondary, prep to senior. It’s a time of transition.  And it’s hard. Books can be real lifesavers at times like this.

They can be a comfort, an old familiar face, when everything else seems to be changing. Just like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was for me.

Or they can be helpful tools. Pea’s Book of Best Friend’s by Susie Day is a superb book telling the tale of three girls, not only moving school, but moving house too. Written in such a humorous way, it shows all the different emotions children feel they when start a new school. What I particularly love is that it shows how things don’t always go as planned; it takes time to settle; and most importantly, things often have a way of working themselves out in the end.

Or perhaps, books are pure escapism. A child chooses a brand new story, that’s so gripping, so spellbinding, there’s no way they can put it down to spend time worrying about what might or might not happen. Right now, there’s such a surge of fantastic middle grade books; so many for children to choose from; so many for children to escape in.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Review: The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden

I'd never heard of The Diddakoi until someone recommended it during a #ukmgchat event on Twitter, which was on the theme of diversity in children's literature. I ordered a copy on that basis but, being a bit thick, I assumed the title was along the lines of The Gruffalo, or Jabberwocky or The Babadook, meaning I thought it was about a strangely-monikered monster. D'oh!

As I now know, "diddakoi" (or diddicoy/didicoi/didakai) is a pejorative slang word for "gypsy" or "Roma" or "traveller", as we would now say. 

Written and set in 1972, The Diddakoi tells the story of Kizzy Lovell, a young orphaned traveller child and her struggle for acceptance in a small English village. Readers of a certain age may remember Kizzy, a six-part BBC adaptation from 1976 which is available on YouTube.

One of the things that struck me while reading The Diddakoi is how far we've come in forty-odd years. As with watching the BBC cop show Life On Mars, it's sometimes shocking to recall the open racism, sexism and other -isms that were commonplace at the time. To her credit Rumer Godden, who spent much of her early life in colonial India, does not downplay these issues and bullying, as well as the unintentional damage caused by well-meaning but ill-informed people, is front and centre in the novel. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider can relate to Kizzy's predicament and her quiet strength draws you in to rooting for her to succeed in changing the world around her.

On one level, The Diddakoi is a simple tale, beautifully told and, while some techniques such as embedded dialogue seem a bit dated, the central story itself is timeless. Godden brings the fictional village of Amberhurst to life with a host of well-drawn and recognisable characters, ranging from the local busybody to the lord of the manor without reducing them to caricatures, and the moving finale avoids being twee and sentimental. The descriptions of Romany culture and customs are fascinating and I learned a great deal.

If you're looking for a heart-warming book which teaches children about the strengths in being different and taking pride in their roots, then I thoroughly recommend The Diddakoi.