Playing by the book

Reviews of kids' books and the crazy, fun stuff they inspire us to do

Head over Heart by Colette Victor and writing outside of your experience

Posted on | July 10, 2014 | 5 Comments

Head over Heart jacketA rich and warm-hearted coming-of-age tale, Head over Heart is an impressive and important debut novel from Colette Victor.

An adolescent girl is smitten with a boy in her class. But she fears her family would disapprove of her spending time with him. How can she balance her wishes with those of her family? How does she work out what she really feels, when whatever course of action she takes may make someone unhappy?

Victor’s novel is finely told, with an eye for emotional complexity, but what makes it stand out for me is how very relevant it is today in Britain with all this talk of “British values”; the heroine in this story (which made me cry quietly as I reached the final pages) is a Muslim girl, trying to work out some of the issues any teenager might face to do with friendship, love, lust and just who they see themselves as, who they want to be, but she is having to do this at the same time as trying to find a comfortable place between or across two apparently very different cultures.

Ideas of what is right or wrong, what is appropriate or not are thoughtfully explored. There are no easy answers, but there’s lots of respect and understanding, quietly woven into the pages. Whilst it is brilliant to see some publishing diversity (how many other novels for young teenagers can you think of with a Muslim main character?), I firmly believe this is story relevant to any adolescent (and indeed any parent of young people just entering that crazy time of their lives when hormones run riot), whatever their cultural or religious background.

If you enjoyed Anne Booth‘s Girl with a White Dog I’m confident you will love this book, which also explores how life in Britain today is incredibly enriched by the many cultures that find a home here. Pertinent, moving, and at times challenging Head over Heart is a book which makes the world a little better for enabling us to walk in each others shoes and understand our neighbours and ourselves a little more.

Perhaps the last comments of my review should go to a friend of mine: I lent my copy of Head over Heart to a Muslim friend who first warned me that it might take her ages to read the book. Within pretty much 48 hours she was back: “I couldn’t put down the book!” “Her writing is so beautiful.” “I would definitely give my daughter this.”. She also talked about how for her as a parent who didn’t grow up in the UK (but in Pakistan) it was very interesting and helpful to think about the differences between her own childhood and that of her UK born children.

Authors write outside their experience all the time but I still felt it would be interesting to hear what Colette Victor had to say about the experience – she was born in South Africa and now lives in Belgium. Here’s what she had to say to me:

“The magic of being a writer is being able to leave your own predictable and familiar existence to temporarily take up residence inside another person’s skin, a different set of circumstances, a new world all together. If the only viewpoint I was supposed to write from was that of a white, middle-aged South African woman living in Europe, I doubt I’d be doing any writing at all. I certainly wouldn’t have any readers.

So why did I feel I had the authority to write from the perspective of a Muslim teenage girl living in Europe? Well, it all boils down to my job, really. I live and work as a community worker in an ex-mining city in Belgium with a large immigrant population. I’ve worked with many different groups of people over the years – children, senior citizens, ex-convicts, job seekers, resident groups and mothers. Many of the young people and mothers I work with are of either Turkish or Moroccan origin – their families came out here over fifty years ago to work in the mines. I’ve heard countless personal stories, been inside scores of homes and spent hours in the company of young Muslim girls and their mums. I also spent a lot of time interviewing some of these girls to find out their viewpoint on various issues and, I can tell you, they’re as vast and varied as any other group of women.

One of the reasons I set out to write Head over heart was because there are so many misconceptions surrounding the headscarf. People often see it as a symbol of female oppression. Through my work I’ve met many proud, strong women who choose to wear a headscarf as a symbol of their identity, despite the opinions for or against it. I know married women, widows, single mums and emancipated university students who wear a headscarf because that’s who they are and not because there’s a man standing in the wings demanding it. On the flip side, I also know many women who would seem Westernised and wear Western clothing but live an existence of subjugation and submissiveness behind the scenes. I know Belgian women, Christian women and atheists – some lead proud, strong lives, some live in fear and submission. Ultimately it’s about looking further than cultural accessories and seeing the person underneath.

My daughter, Stella, who’s about the same age as Zeyneb, had a Muslim best friend for all her nursery and primary school years. The two girls were always together, doing homework, dressing up, sleeping over at each other’s houses. As my daughter’s friend got older and her body started changing, she often expressed concern about the fact that soon her carefree childhood would be behind her and she’d have to make the choice of wearing a headscarf or not. This is what got me thinking about all the cultural pressures at play in making such a decision and this is what I explored through Zeyneb’s eyes in Head over heart.”

My thanks go to Colette Victor for her thoughts on this. And thank you – this has been a long post, but I really think this book deserves the time and space I’ve devoted to it dtoday for it is an excellent, thoughtful, and highly relevant début.

Summer Kidlit days out: A Viking’s Guide to Deadly Dragons with Cressida Cowell

Posted on | July 6, 2014 | 7 Comments

Summer holidays are nearly upon us here in the UK and so I’ve compiled a set of places to visit with the family all of which have a children’s literature link.


  • The 26 Characters exhibition at the Story Museum features photos of children’s authors and illustrators dressed up as their favourite book characters, and runs till 2 November.
  • The River and Rowing Museum in Henley (UK) has a special Wind in the Willows themed exhibition (19 July – 7 September)
  • How many of the book benches around London could you sit on? Yes, not an exhibition, but definitely something fun to try this summer!
  • Daydreams and Diaries: The Story of Jacqueline Wilson is on at the Museum of Childhood in London until 2 November. If you want a flavour of this exhibition you can see the photos I took of it when it was originally opened at Seven Stories.
  • Discover Children’s Story Centre in London has a packed programme of events linked to children’s book all round the year. Their indoor soft play areas and outdoor playground are enormous fun.
  • The brand new House of Illustration has a special Quentin Blake exhibition (until 2 November)
  • Cartwright Hall in Bradford is hosting A Squash and a Squeeze: Sharing Stories with Julia Donaldson (a version of the exhibition we visited a couple of years ago and which I documented here)
  • A variety of Children’s Book Illustrations are on display at Nunnington Hall, Yorkshire (12 July – 7 September). Thanks to ChaletFan for alerting me to this exhibition.
  • Seven Stories currently has two exhibitions: Moving Stories – Children’s Books from Page to Screen and Twists and Tails – the Story of Angelina Ballerina (both until April 2015)
  • The Dean Clough Galleries in Halifax are home this summer to Bear With Me – 30 illustrations including some by Neal Layton, David Roberts, Chris Riddell, Alex T Smith, Chris Haughton, Emma Chichester Clark all featuring a fat(-tish) red bear.
  • Wolverhampton Art Gallery is hosting A Viking’s Guide to Deadly Dragons with Cressida Cowell, perfectly timed to enjoy along with the release of the film How to Train Your Dragon 2

  • Last week I treated myself to an morning exploring the Island of Berk and reacquainting myself with just how one goes about training a dragon by visiting Wolverhampton Art Gallery’s A Viking’s Guide to Deadly Dragons with Cressida Cowell


    The exhibition originated at the marvellous Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books and is now slowly touring the UK (in 2015 it will be in the National Museums, Northern Ireland and The Dick Institute, Kilmarnock, whilst in 2016 it will visit Norwich Castle Museum and Tullie House, Carlisle).


    Based around Cressida Cowell’s How to Train your Dragon series, the exhibition is packed with original illustrations, both draft drawings and finished artwork, notebooks and video interviews, audio clips and [you have been warned!] …dragons.



    There’s a viking long boat you can climb in and sail away on, there’s a camp fire for telling stories around, there’s dressing up and there are books you can just sit and enjoy reading.





    The dragons are very keen to be played with, though some are scarier than others!



    I think kids will love seeing some of Cressida’s school work – a descriptive piece she wrote with comments from her teacher on how to improve it!


    I love showing kids how even very successful authors “uplevel” (to use my girls’ schools’ favourite bit of literacy jargon) their work; it’s completely normal to revise, edit and improve. That’s why this little note caught my eye:


    I was delighted to see that some dragons love reading!


    Something about these little girl vikings really caught my eye:



    The exhibition has a great mix of open space – allowing kids to rush around playing with the dragons and climbing aboard the long boat – and fascinating artwork and notes from the author that are worth spending time really looking at closely. If you don’t know the books, you’ll get a great flavour of them and the kids will still be able to enjoy the exhibition because there are plenty of things to do, including lots of buttons to press. If you DO know the books, it is really exciting to see the art work and something of the development of Cowell’s ideas. It’s also pretty fun to cuddle the dragons!


    Snuck in between information on Dragonese and the Hooligan Initiation Programme there’s also some factual background to the vikings which was nice to see. There’s a special section devoted to the How to Train Your Dragon films and my plan is to take the girls to the exhibition one morning during the summer holidays and then to the film in the afternoon :) Would you like to join us?

    The exhibition is FREE and runs till August 30th. It’s well set up for people with hearing impairment, with all the videos either signed or subtitled. The cafe in the museum is one of the best museum cafes I know and the rest of the museum is really well geared up for families, with lots of hands-on activities in every space.

    Full details:

    Are there any children’s book themed exhibitions on near you in your part of the world? Please do let me know – even if I can’t visit them, I’d love to know about them!

    Win a bundle of books from the new series by Rainbow Magic author Daisy Meadows

    Posted on | July 4, 2014 | 105 Comments

    **This giveaway is now closed**

    If you’ve got daughters who were born any time in the last 15 years I’d put money on you having come across the Rainbow Magic series by Daisy Meadows. Over 29 million Rainbow Magic books have been sold worldwide, and Daisy Meadows was the most borrowed author in UK libraries in 2013. My youngest daughter gained her reading wings, her reading confidence thanks to these books. They were the first chapter books she chose to read herself, and the first books she devoured insatiably. With over 150 Rainbow Magic books in the series (is there a bigger early reader series anywhere in the world??), there’s plenty of reading to do, but I’m sure my J isn’t the only young child to be very excited to hear that Daisy Meadows has a new series launching today – Magic Animal Friends.


    The first four Magic Animal Friends books follow best friends Jess and Lily, who love all animals. But when they follow a mysterious golden cat into Friendship Forest – a place where animals live in tiny cottages and sip dandelion tea at the Toadstool Cafe – their summer holidays suddenly become much more magical!

    I’ve got three sets of these four books (plus stickers, a map and bookmarks) to give away to three lucky readers!

    Giveaway details

    The giveaway is open to residents in UK/Eire only. To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post. I have 3 copies of each set of 4 of books to give away. Each bundle of books also comes with a set of stickers, a map of the land inhabited by the Magic Animal Friends, and some bookmarks.

    For extra entries you can:

    (1) Tweet about this giveaway, perhaps using this text:
    Win 4 books in new series by Rainbow Magic author Daisy Meadows over on @playbythebook’s blog

    (2) Share this giveaway on your Facebook page or blog

    You must leave a separate comment for each entry for them to count.

    Three winners will be chosen at random using

    The giveaway is open for one week, and closes on Friday 11 July 2014 5pm UK time. I will contact the winners via email. If I do not hear back from the winners within one week of emailing them, I will re-draw as appropriate.

    Best of luck and happy reading!

    **This giveaway is now closed**
    The winners of this giveaway are Choxbox, Avril Luke and Lydia Graham – please look out for an email from me! If I do not hear back from you by 18 July, I will redraw the winners.

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