Auntie Robbo, by Ann Scott-Moncrieff

I first met Auntie Robbo on a sunny day six years ago, in Any Amount of Books second-hand book-shop in Charing Cross Road. She was not exactly looking at her best at that point: originally released in 1941, this Puffin edition from 1962 crudely transposed an illustrarion by Christopher Brooker on its cover. You had to peer at it to realise it showed a horse-drawn caravan jolting along at a dangerous pace, while an elderly woman – rakishly attired – hauled a young boy aboard with calm insouciance.

But once I’d seen that, I knew I had to jump aboard that caravan as well.

I fell head-over-heels in love with Auntie Robbo and passed old Puffin editions onto friends. I could never quite understand: why wasn’t it better known? Why hadn’t it become one of those Puffins everyone reads to death and hangs onto through life? Why had there never been a movie adaptation, by Ealing or the Archers or Disney?

Why, for goodness sake, was it not still in print – destined to endure only in the shelves of Impossible Libraries like mine…

I’m surely not alone in loving novels that feature wild, wise and wonderful old women (often grandmother figures). Novels like Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and now The House with Chicken Legs (and you’ll tell me the ones I’ve forgotten, of course). Like Tolly Oldknow, Auntie Robbo also features an admiring grandson, and that’s a wonderful relationship to see celebrated in fiction: the rebellious old women doing all the talking, the fey young men shutting up and listening for once.

In Auntie Robbo, it’s eleven year old Hector sitting beside eighty year old Aunt Robbo (short for Robina, which to me suggests Robina Crusoe’s adventures in the Girl’s Own Paper), as she drinks her coffee and he eats his bread and jam. She is not his Auntie, or his Grandmother, but his Great-Grand Aunt. In their remote old house, Nethermuir, she tells him of the travels of her youth, and sometimes they go to old battlefields to improve Hector’s grasp on history.

“[We] ride over the battlefields and go and look at the castles where the murders were done.”

Seeing Merlissa Benck’s shocked expression, Hector explained seriously. ‘Scottish history has a great many murders, you know.’

‘I dare say,’ said Merlissa Benck shortly. ‘But I should have thought British history would have been more suitable for a boy of your age, indispensable in my opinion. England’s story is a very great and noble one.’

‘Yes,’ said Hector. ‘But then we couldn’t ride to the battlefields, could we? I mean they were mostly fighting in places that didn’t belong to them, weren’t they?’

Hector has no wish to jostle about with boys his own age, and certainly no intention of going to school. When a couple of self-interested do-gooders (hell Merlissa Benck) try and rescue the boy from this outrageously dysfunctional upbringing, he and Auntie Robbo take off by bus at dead of night, and begin a string of wild adventures.

So you may be able to tell, already, that this is a truly wonderful book. So why is it not better known? I couldn’t help wondering – was it possibly the fact it was Scottish? Parochial book publishers, thinking the English kids wouldn’t ‘get’ it? Well, it turns out that’s precisely what happened: ‘too Scottish’ for the UK, and so it was first published in the US, albeit with a warning: it had not “a shadow or suspicion of a moral”.

Well, that may be true – but it certainly has an urgent sort of message to it, although thankfully without a trace of saccharine about it. It argues against convention and for freedom, against respectability and for bohemianism, against stale compromise and for the wide open beauty of the Highland countryside. There are lyrical descriptions of the coast and the woods, and even that night bus racing through the darkness. Hector and his Auntie end up racketing about with three other orphans, getting in and out of trouble, but they all end up living life according to their own characters.

Image from the National Portrait Gallery

I suppose the end of the 30s was the last blooming of the bohemian dream: Augustus John was still alive and the Bloomsberries were in their farmhouse. I particularly like the youngest boy discovering his passion for painting, and the novel’s conclusion that greed and selfishness are the worst things in the world, especially when it pertains to people.

I tried to learn more about the author, Ann Scott-Moncrief, but her other two novels seemed to have faded away, and she had vanished with them. I know now that her short life took her from Orkney to Fleet Street, that she was a poet and married a playwright, and that she found fame as a broadcaster on BBC Scotland radio. I know that she had a great ear for comedy, perfectly evoking Auntie Robbo’s mix of anarchy and stateliness:

The dining-room door was snapped open and Auntie Robbo’s voice came with great finality: “I tell you the whole thing is ridiculous, quite ridiculous,” and presently she swept into the drawing-room.

Auntie Robbo was at her most magnificent, flushed and excited, anger adding fire to her brown cheeks and faded eyes. She was wearing one of her grandest evening dresses: a purple taffeta one nipped in at the waist, spread out into a fan-shaped train. It was festooned with bunches of net and white rosettes and from the corsage hung two twinkling tassels of diamonds. Auntie Robbo wore this confection right regally; she loved her clothes as she loved her food.

It’s a novel about the human appetite for life, about the delight in sharing and companionship, a funny novel about heroic eccentricity versus agents of conformity. It’s vivid, delicious novel, funny and adventurous – and the marvellous news is that Scotland Street Press are reissuing it this summer! Yes, edited by Scott-Moncrief’s granddaughter, with Brooker’s illustrations intact, Auntie Robbo will ride again this month. I can finally replace the final copy I gave away to a friend, and even more delightful, those lost books of hers will soon be lost no more: back to life, back on the road, escaping from the Impossible Library and rattling along, ready to sweep readers along with them, out into the breathless Highland hills. You won’t regret going along with Hector’s Auntie Robbo.

P.S. Today’s blog is an update of this review from my old blog, A Pile of Leaves for Scotland Street’s ‘Auntie Robbo’ blog tour.

Reading the Carnegie: ‘The House with Chicken Legs’, by Sophie Anderson

Step inside the house of the title; don’t be alarmed by the fence of human bones, and don’t stop to wonder if this house was even standing here yesterday. Yes, those are great big chicken legs curled up underneath it, and perhaps the house is flexing on them somewhat, poised to move or even defend itself if you prove other than what you seem. A fire is burning, food is cooking on the stove, and a cup of kvass is waiting for you. A mysterious door in the corner of the room remains temptingly shut, but that is for after you have feasted, told your host about your life, and heard a little of hers.

Her name is Baba Yaga. Perhaps you know it already: perhaps you rode with a brave young Prince, in another story, begging for a magic talisman from Yaga to help you track down the fabulous Firebird and win the hand of a princess; or perhaps you arrived by accident at this strange house and helped her daughter to escape, and then were hunted by the witch in her flying mortar, shuddering at every gnash of her great iron teeth. There are many stories told about Baba Yaga, within and beyond the canon of Russian fairy tale.

Jan Pienkowski’s House on Chicken Legs

I have a vague memory of encountering her as a small child, in a picture book of the Firebird? I expect I was inclined towards her because I called Mum’s Mum ‘Baba’ – she disdained ‘Grandma’ because it made her feel old (none of us knew we were using the same name from another culture) – but I found her frightening too. I loved witch-stories from an early age, and I must have responded to Baba Yaga’s unpredictable character: no Glinda the Good Witch, her. She’d help you or devour you on your individual merit. Plenty of ink has been spilled on trying to interpret Yaga’s origins: did she embody a storm cloud, a matriarchal goddess, a lunar goddess, a memory of Persephone?

Whatever her origins, she continues to have a long and varied life. Sophie Anderson’s interpretation – the grandmotherly old woman dishing up steaming shchi from a huge black pot – is faithful both to Yaga’s associations with the dead and her long history of reinventions. This Yaga is a psychopomp (I’ve always loved that word, and get to use it so rarely), guiding the spirits of the dead into the next world. Her house has legs because it covers so much ground, visiting remote corners, where the smell of festive cooking draws ghosts from far and near. Perhaps you hadn’t realised that, seated at this nice table, enjoying the earthly things of the world: you’re being readied for whatever lies behind that door.

Gennady Spirin Baba Yaga

But perhaps you’ve spotted someone else in the house on chicken legs, a girl watching you from the periphery of the scene. Marinka, Baba Yaga’s granddaughter, with a sombre expression. She has never known her parents, only this house and Yaga, and she really should be involving herself more in this process, listening to the specific words, learning the language of the dead, because one day – perhaps sooner than she expects – Marinka will be taking on this role.

But that is there is a problem, one that drives this wonderful novel, pushing its characters to do daring, huge, tiny, impossible, stupid, wonderful, treacherous, human and magical things: Marinka doesn’t want to live this life. She wants to live among people and have friends who are not just spirits on the brink of something else. One day, her Baba will go through the gateway into the land of the dead herself, and Marinka will fully inherit the identity, the history and the responsibility of the Yaga. But if Marinka has her way, she won’t.

Without risking spoilers, it’s worth saying how refreshing it is to see a children’s fantasy novel without a villain. Certain genres and conventions seem unavoidable after a while, and the assumption is often that younger readers demand constant peril and clean moral distinctions. This novel is about a girl whose compass is spinning from the very first page, and we are with her, wishing for some form of escape. We long for her to find a friend or have an adventure that will in some way resolve her anxiety about the future – but every action has a consequence, and this isn’t a story about tidy options. It’s driven by emotion, fuelled by secrets, and its route is unpredictable and bumpy.

The narrative flies along, and Anderson keeps us guessing, but this is also a novel of subtlety, of a sort only a fantasy novel can achieve. When Marinka’s house brings her to a new city, for example, and Marinka throws away her headscarf because it makes her look like a Yaga, or when Marinka agrees to a ritual of formal inheritance while a secret betrayal burns darkly in her heart, complex ideas of cultural difference are being invoked. What might initially appear an adventure about escaeing from a hard life, perhaps with some spooky, Tim Burtonish furnishings, quickly becomes a novel about precisely those details and their authenticity: about how folk and fairy tales like those of Baba Yaga help us grapple with the impossible aspects of the world. It is also about how these tales are an inheritance available to all of us: the House is waiting for you or I to enter, sit down and share our stories.

Ernest Small’s House

Though it carries its character into extraordinary circumstances, their emotional truth is richer for that kernel of folkloric strangeness. Anderson gives the folk tale a cultural authenticity, never simply adopting it for an exotic flavour, whilst also playing about with it making it structurally, even societally meaningful (a whole Yaga culture, with its own rules, stories and newsletters) within Marinka’s world. It’s a deft achievement.

I first read this when it was Book of the Month at Waterstones (in fact, it was launched in our store –three men in red silk shirts playing balalaikas in the history department: it was great). After that it was on the shortlist of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and now it has joined the Carnegie Shortlist (alongside, peculiarly, a number of other children’s novels about grief and death). It deserves all this and a long life too. Not only that, I can’t wait to read what Sophie Anderson writes next.

Reading the Carnegie: Rebound, by Kwame Alexander

Have you played H.O.R.S.E.? All you need is a basketball and a hoop, and at least one opponent. Let them take a shot from anywhere they like, any style, eyes closed, whatever. Now it’s your turn: if they missed, you can take up your own position or style, but if they made a basket, you have to copy their shot exactly. Each person who fails a shot challenge takes a letter: first ‘H’, then ‘O’. Okay, so I’ve never played it in my life – in fact, I had to look it up online to find out what it was, but even I can tell this is the sort of relaxed thing you play when there’s not enough of you around for a proper game, a game of showing off and playing up, a childlike game, low stakes and at the same time a game where individuals are repeatedly put in a spotlight, watching one another and laughing, applauding or swearing as appropriate.

Charlie Bell, the boy at the heart of Kwame Alexander’s Rebound, used to play H.O.R.S.E. with his Dad. Sometimes they played two-on-two against another boy and his Dad; in the summer holidays, they’d take a road trip to another state capital, collecting cheesy tourist attractions and looking forward to rites of passage like sharing their first beer. But two months ago, Joshua Bell had a heart attack and the ambulance didn’t arrive in time.

Now, with the summer of 1988 coming on, and in spite of every inducement thrown at him by his best friend Skinny, Charlie has lost all interest in basketball. He’s lost interest in much of life: he rereads adventures of The Fantastic Four that he knows backwards. He’s morose, angry, lost in cold, dark space. He talks back to his Mom, leaves the dinner she cooked him in the oven, skips school to play arcade games. He fantasises about being a cross between a superhero and a superstar baller, depicted in comic-style illustrations from Dawud Anyabwile (and I wish we had more of them).

If Charlie’s Dad, as he describes him, is a star whose death has created a black hole, it’s that steady suck of gravity we can feel in the first half of the book. Sooner or later trouble, in the form of Skinny’s brother Ivan, is going to prove impossible to resist.

Alexander’s novel is another on the 2019 Carnegie Award shortlist told entirely in verse. But his use of the form feels entirely different to Elizabeth Acevedo and Jason Reynolds: his use of metaphor and imagery is utterly restrained compared to the form, and there is little of Reynolds’ use of ambiguity. Instead, Alexander’s poetry works to place the reader immediately into the action, like a camera picking out specific details to speed the action along. Conversations resound in the head, no background detail necessary. When Charlie can’t answer his mother, which grows increasingly often – or when, now and then, it’s she who cannot find the words – Alexander need only show us the absence, the awkward silence, the ‘…’

Be grateful for what you have, Charlie. Some kids don’t

even have shoes to wear.

How were your tests?


Can I have some money for lunch?

When Charlie complains about not having the sneakers he needs to play on the basketball court like he used to, his mother tell him We have everything we need. Not everything, says Charlie. And then it’s just

In a world composed almost entirely of voices, these ‘,,,’s are bigger than pauses, they are moments when the world freezes and empties of life. But as the title suggests, this is a novel of optimism and change. It begins with Charlie being sent to spend the summer with his father’s parents in Washington, a household of tough love, hard work and home truths, but also of some surprising emotional connection with Charlie’s Grandaddy. But where the book – and Charlie – come alive, is back on the basketball court, with Charlie’s ultra-dedicated cousin Roxie. You can feel the book’s heartbeat quicken:

 ‘cause she’s like

a magician

and the ball is

her hat

and they all look

at each other

in awe

like she just pulled

a rabbit

out of it

when she fakes

a jumper

then passes

the ball

right between

Red’s legs


and lays up

an easy point.

It’s all action, no room for ‘…’s. All it takes us a ball passed to him out of the blue, the spotlight on him, taking a shot he didn’t want to, and then, to coin a phrase, running with it.

This is not the novel I expected it to be: far from a dark Young Adult tale, it’s a middlegrade adventure with an off-kilter sense of humour and an ever more empowering, upbeat attitude. I enjoyed the basketball material more than I’d have expected to, even if the storyline becomes a little too predictable, the life lessons a little too homespun.

But then, this is an unashamedly aspirational tale. It’s a tale of heroes – Josh Bell was as ‘knucklehead’ kid according to his father, but grew up to be a ‘a star / in our neighbourhood’, running adult learning classes and night school for troubled kids – who don’t necessarily ride have a ‘time sled’ with which to correct the past. Because

being this close

to victory

makes me hate


I want to be

the hero

in my story.

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, by Christopher Edge

One question I’m always asking about middle-grade fiction is, where’s the science-fiction: the wild and wide-eyed adventures, and the big ideas about science or sentience or society? That might be starting to change, with Kirsty Applebaum’s gripping dystopia The Middler and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s moving and funny Runaway Robot both published this year with great reviews.

Christopher Edge, however, has been flying the flag for children’s sci-fi since 2016’s The Many Worlds of Albie Bright: not just redeploying the tropes, but using them to tell philosophically, emotionally rich tales that are distinctly his. The Many Worlds that Albie explores, parallel to our own, are not just explorations of quantum theory – utilising CERN technology and an old banana, in true Doctor Who/First Men in the Moon style – but also a quest for a lost parent that takes us into big questions about character, history and grief. The Jamie Drake Equation is about the heroism of astronauts, the fallibility of parents, messages from distant stars and the Grand Unified Theory that draws them all into one meaningful pattern. The first Edge novel I read, The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day, takes readers to the edge of existence beyond. It excites the reader, provokes questions and springs surprises, but it also moves us and, like Edge’s other novels, leaves us on a note of hope.

Holloway image by Stanley Donwood

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, published this week, is another novel of surprises: nothing is quite what it seems. When Dizzy takes his friend Charlie to the woods, it’s to find who has left secret messages on the path, mysterious signs made out of bent twigs. Is it a spy? Is it a monster? Is there really a wild man hiding out there? Or could it all be a trick laid by Johnny, the toughest kid in school?

Before these questions have been satisfactorily answered, the three realise they are lost. However far they walk, they never seem to reach the edge of the woods. Night falls unexpectedly quickly, and when Charlie climbs an oak tree to look for the North Star, the night sky looks completely wrong. And meanwhile, it seems the children really are being followed.

It’s clear from the opening of the novel that this is a story about time: ‘Can I tell you a secret? Once upon a time doesn’t exist. This story starts once upon a now.’ But what Edge has accomplished here is no straightforwardly sci-fi novel. Though it is clearly illuminated by the science of time – he acknowledges the work of Carlo Rovelli and James Gleick, among several other scientific approaches – what we have here is closer to Maisie Day in exploring the philosophical and phenomenological aspects of his theme. As well as Rovelli, Edge mentions Alan Garner’s collected essays, The Voice that Thunders, and Charlie Noon also reminds me of Garner’s later novels, Red Shift, Thursbitch and even Boneland, except that it’s a great deal more enjoyable and digestible than those. There are echoes of Garner’s contemporary, Penelope Lively, of Astercote and even more of her adult novel Moon Tiger.

Nether, by Stanley Donwood

Garner and Lively are both archaeologically-minded writers, and an archaeological concept appears to inform Charlie Noon in the way that quantum physics did Edge’s earlier novels: deep time, the sense of the world’s ancientness (and vast futurity), in which human beings can appear insignificantly small and agency. It’s a universal theme that nonetheless speaks particularly to children, who are sometimes made to feel just that, pinpricks in the bigger history of their ecology, their culture and their families: look at the framing of their ecological protests in recent months. ‘Viewed from the perspective of a desert or an ocean, human morality seems absurd – crushed to irrelevance,’ writes Robert Macfarlane in Underland, but equally, ‘[at] its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy’. It’s a shift in perspective that offers hope when the present moment appears intolerable, as in Charlie’s claustrophobic home life: what seems immovable as rock was once fluid and shifting: ‘There is a way out of the woods.’

Deep time compels us to work our imaginations on scenes and situations that appear unalterable, and show us the life, violence and movement embodied by rock formations and rivers. It makes a wild tempest of the landscape, in which Charlie and the others must become immersed in order to understand themselves and their place in it. Past and future time are part of the storm, too, in ways that seemed particularly alive and pertinent, given this week’s D-Day commemorations. Narrative convention itself is shaken by thunder and struck by lightning: once upon a time doesn’t exist and the future is yours to write. Reading and decoding run through the novel, and for me it chimed with something Michael Rosen said at a Reading for Pleasure conference last month, about reading as not merely an act of comprehension, but interpretation.

The Heart of the Forest, by Denys Watkins-Pitchford (aka ‘BB’)

Comedy, high adventure and stories of personal drama each have an important part to play in children’s reading, but we must also celebrate novels that allow room for interpretation, that leave gaps for readers to bridge, that ask questions without easy answers, that are strange and mysterious and even disconcerting. The Longest Night of Charlie Moon is at times a deeply strange novel, and hooray for that.

From one simple idea, page-turningly linear, told with elegant economy and deceptive simplicity, The Longest Night of Charlie Noon branches out into all manner of subjects, stories and concepts. Like Edge’s earlier novels, it concludes – it feels wrong to say that it ends, after all these non-linear shenanigans – with an emotionally resonant resolution, and on an optimistic note. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that stories of hope are desperately required at this point in history, and not just by the children amongst us.

You might also be interested in my review of The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day on my old blog, where there is also quite a lot about Alan Garner, one of my essential authors.

Reading the Carnegie: Things A Bright Girl Can Do, by Sally Nicholls

“Remember how they used to laugh at us? And say it weren’t worth it, going to prison and that, for a cause? Bet they ain’t saying anything like that to the boys at the Front, is they?”

As Sally Nicholls’ new novel begins, it’s spring 1914 and women do not have the vote. Three teenage girls are about to involve themselves in that fight, and their story is first charming, then exciting, then moving and finally inspiring.

By chance, May encounters Nell in the crowds outside a public meeting at the Bow Baths Hall. The speaker is Sylvia Pankhurst, a campaigner not only for women’s suffrage but the rights of working-class women like Nell, whose large family struggle on the breadline. Nell is an outsider in her own community, swaggering in her brother’s breeches and only interested in boys for the opportunity of a scrap: she’s also not averse to carrying a nightstick to Pankhurst’s talk (though only in defence against anticipated police violence). May, by contrast, is used to a more middle-class, less aggressive form of protest: though she idolises Boudicca, “if I was [her], I wouldn’t go to war, because I’m a Quaker and we’re pacifists … I’d use diplomacy and political wiles instead. Miss Aitchison said it wasn’t ladylike for women to involve themselves in politics.” She and her mother are proud Suffragists, but Pankhurst’ s political message resonates with them: she is thrilled by the fervent atmosphere of the talk and, both personally and politically, by Nell. Having borrowed her mother’s copy of Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex, she is not for one second ashamed about pursuing her. As much as the story of their political fight, this is almost immediately the story of their rapidly intensifying relationship.

 Equally by chance, May sells a copy of Votes for Women to young Evelyn; of the three she has seemingly the most conservative home scenario: quiet life as a dutiful daughter, respectably paired with her childhood sweetheart, Teddy, and discouraged by them from pursuit of a University degree. Yet, of the three, she will undergo some of the greatest physical hardships of the cause, and her dream of an Oxford education is not to be easily dismissed. Nicholls’ novel follows these three individuals, their families and lovers as they fight, suffer and pursue extraordinary adventures in the four years leading through the darkest of times toward the coming of the Representation of the People Act.

Syrett’s illustration to Sharp’s story ‘Anyone Else’s Prince’

The period is faultlessly evoked. Each detail is deftly painted in, without crowding the mental image like a naff costume drama. Moreover, character dialogue is perfectly captured. In an interview with the In the Reading Corner podcast, Nicholls describes reading novels of the time, including children’s literature like E. Nesbit’s, which we know (like middlebrow fiction) frequently offers us a clearer window onto social mores than literary fiction. As a side-note, I’m startled to learn that Nesbit was not herself involved in the cause of women’s suffrage, whilst Nicholls’ interview for In the Reading Corner has introduced me to the work of Evelyn Sharp, a campaigner in the Pankhurst mould but also a prolific children’s author, whose fairy tales are available on Gutenberg along with their beautiful stylised illustrations by Nellie Syrett, and who provides Nicholls’ book with a brilliant epigraph. Sharp’s fairy tales remind me strongly of her contemporary Frank Baum’s, and wear their radical politics on their sleeve: “The boys in my country are so brave,” says Princess Winsome, “that … [they] stop all the games by fighting about nothing at all; and it’s dreadfully dull when you’re a girl, isn’t it?” It’s a mannered style though, and Nicholls’ characters speak to with a zeal and looseness that is decidedly Nesbittish, not glowing like silver but glinting with steel.

These are women raised with not-so-great expectations for their future (particularly Nell) who nonetheless relish life:

May, to Nell, was like opium. Like brandy on a cold day. Like an electric shock. She made everything blaze. What did all the petty mess of manners matter when there was May there, waiting?

1910 poster by Alfred Pearce

It’s an educational book (with the odd concession to younger readers – or not-very-young readers like me, who need more context) but it’s as much an education in what it felt like to be living through rather-too-interesting-times: caught up in a mob or undergoing a hunger strike, and more particularly once Britain slips into war. I have rarely seen a depiction of the home front so nightmarish, even in Hilary MacKay’s glittering The Skylarks’ War. Perhaps it is the portrayal of Nell and her family, already impoverished, being pushed closer and closer to breaking point: perhaps it is the subtle but obvious parallels to jingoistic attitudes of today. Nicholls’ magic trick in Things A Bright Girl Can Do is to show us an historic event that we feel we know, and make it uncomfortably raw. We all know – and it feels inevitable — that during both World Wars, women took on jobs left vacant by fighting men, but here we consider the sense of loss and desperation that led to this first violent shift in consciousness. We know full well that policy changed somewhere, but we reflect here on changes in mentality:

I feel like my brain is being rewritten [a character writes], all my nerves unravelling and reknotting themselves – it’s disorientating, of course, but it’s perfectly thrilling too. I feel like I’m unfolding, and I’m just wild to see what I’m going to unfold into.

It’s a dangerous choice, following each of the three women by turns with equal attention. Much simpler to take one girl on her journey through the maelstrom, have a few cameos from major figures, and end on a brilliant victory. Yet the novel’s structure makes a page-turner of a complex, lengthy process for which (we think) we already know the outcome. Each young woman’s approach to the cause is subtly different, and each has their heroism in different circumstances. We cheer them on for their radicalism, all the more for the ambivalence and often outright abuse from their peers.

Nicholls’ approach reflects her unwavering fidelity to the complexity of the campaign: not as streamlined or logical as we might like it to be, as messy and complicated and full of difficult choices as real politics (as life itself) continues to be, a century later. What do you believe in, and what do you believe in doing about it: persuasion, activism, sacrifice? It was a powerful experience to read this novel in the same year I read Old Baggage, the witty and moving novel of the Suffragette cause ten years after their (partial) victory 1918; but Things A Bright Girl could equally be read alongside 2017’s The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which describes the journey of one girl toward political expression. We are living in an era when Young Adults will be more likely to be marching, painting banners and involving themselves in political struggles (whether like Evelyn, May, Nell or Boudicca). This will make an inspiring read for them.

PS: Note to publishers — more LGBTQ historical YA, please!