History seems to me to be even more important these days, so I was pleased to receive two “history” titles from the publisher Barrington Stoke. Although each book is set in different period and place, each focuses on a character likely to inspire teen and pre-teen readers: a girl longing to escape the role their society has given them, and driven by a consuming passion, rather than a romance. Although - following Adele Geras' practice, I admit I know both writers, it was the books and the subject matter that intrigued me.
TILT by Mary Hoffman
Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza historical fantasies for teenagers are evidence of her love and long knowledge of Italy. Now, in TILT, she takes her readers straight to the Pisa of 1298: the famous leaning church tower must be completed. The prestige and honour of the city, the church, the architect and of the long-respected Pisano family are all at stake, but how can another layer be added without toppling the entire structure to the ground?
The story is told through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Simonetta, know as Netta. She is the only daughter of the widower Giovanni Pisano, stone-mason, sculptor, and Head Mason of Santa Maria Maggiore church. It is Measuring Day but Netta knows her father is worried by more than the tower. Without living sons, how will the family business continue? She longs to be free of women’s tasks and kitchen chores and be a help to him.
Netta wants to know how her father “could take these shapeless lumps of stone and transform them into leaves without even thinking about it.
An acanthus leaf was one thing. But a tower that rose straight and true to the sky quite another. And what I wanted to know was how you got from the leaf to the tower.”
When her father realises how interested Netta is, he lets her into his confidence and even employs another servant to help in the kitchen so Netta has time to observe the work in the stone yard and study the drawings in his office. Her world has opened up, and when she is suddenly offered marriage by a young stonemason from Siena, she rejects him, unwilling to risk dying in childbirth before she has learned all she wants to know.
Written in an appealing, straightforward style, Netta’s “voice” reminded me at times of the directness of Karen Cushman’s influential book I, Birdy.
Mary Hoffman creates a vivid picture of Netta’s world and its dependency on wealthy, important patrons. She also makes the reader aware of the many minds and hands and centuries involved in the making of such famous buildings. Now they may be familiar, much-photographed landmarks but once they were only a dream.
I must add that, subtly, throughout the story, she draws the attention to the practical application of subjects such as physics, engineering, sculpture, architecture, geometry, mathematics and more. Perhaps TILT will stir up such interests and passions in a modern Netta’s heart?
UNTIL WE WIN by Linda NewberyThe attractive “stitched” cover of this book, with its purple, green and white colour scheme, honours the embroidery typical of Suffragette movement, the subject of this book.
Set in the summer of 1914, Linda Newbery offers the reader a picture of life just before the Great War: a time when society is straining under change.
Seventeen-year-old Lizzie Frost can’t help being angered by how her mother’s life is dominated by the needs of her blacksmith father and her overbearing stablehand of a brother Ted, and the over-riding priority given to men’s work.
Determined to have a life beyond the gossipy village, Lizzie works as a filing clerk for an Insurance Company in the nearby town, saving enough to buy herself a second-hand bicycle, her proud symbol of independence.
Nevertheless, Lizzie still smarts under the constant reminders to know her place, whether from Mr Palmer her boss, her father at home or Ted’s boorish friend Frank who expects her to marry him when he enlists.
However, on the way to start secretarial classes at the local Workers Institute, Lizzie meets two young women who invite her to come along to a local suffragette meeting. Lizzie has already heard of the Women’s Social and Political Union – the WSPU – and the death of Emily Wilding Davison, so she decides to go along to hear the speaker’s lecture on the Cat and Mouse Act. What she hears changes Lizzie’s life.
At work the next day “I had to force myself to concentrate. My mind was sparking with excitement and a new determination. Last night I had found something bigger than myself, bigger than the samey dullness of life in the village and the office. I’d found something to be passionate about.”
Lizzie becomes involved in more activism. Her deception about attending “weekly classes” is discovered and worse follows: police violence, arrest, job loss, false promises and prison. Eventually, Lizzie has to decide where her own future is leading.
UNTIL WE WIN is a useful and essential piece of well-researched, easy to read fiction. Linda Newbery’s short book weaves together the important historical threads of 1914 and, through the character of Lizzie, makes the story of the Suffragette movement relevant for young readers in our current, overtly-feminist times.
TILT by Mary Hoffman and UNTIL WE WIN by Linda Newbery are two interesting books for teen readers, well worth a place on the school library shelf.
However, as I read these two titles, I could not help considering the books as artefacts in themselves, especially as the publisher BARRINGTON STOKE aims to make reading as easy and enjoyable as possible, especially for dyslexic pupils or reluctant readers.
At about ninety pages, these two books are short - especially for historical fiction - yet the level of content felt satisfying enough to hold each story together and to inform the reader.
At the same time, I could not help wondering whether some readers now might also be “reluctant” because they have so little time to read for recreation & pleasure, or both. It is easy forget just how much text and information - whether on page or screen - pupils face these days, and how tiring that quantity might be.
Surely, one of the pleasures of these brief volumes is that the story is accessible? The content is not little and light but the book can be read quite quickly, fitted into a little space in a busy schedule. They are books that many young people, especially girls, would enjoy reading.
Furthermore, the writing is direct and accessible, the stories not overburdened with description, yet each exists in its own believable historical world. The books don’t gush, but the plots have an emotional drive and the subject matter is never “childish”. Besides, poor reading skills do not, of themselves, preclude ability or interest in subjects such as art or geometry or mathematics.
And – sssh! - I’d also like to admit to some writer envy here, too. Barrington Stoke are known for how carefully they design their books. Looking through the pages, I see they allow “breathing” space around the words, use a clear serif font, have short, titled chapters and use a good quality of creamy-coloured paper: all of which subtly signify that the book contains a story someone believes is worth reading – which is a good message to send.
I suspect that many writers, discovering their own title has been set out in a tight, tiny font on thin paper, would welcome such visible respect for their printed work, and be glad that their work would be easily readable, by readers of all levels. Well done, Barrington Stoke!
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