BooksforTopics Reading for Pleasure Recommendations
We are so excited to host a Q&A with Nicola Skinner, author of the brilliantly original new book Bloom.
Read on for a review of the book, a giveaway for a copy and an exclusive Q&A in which we ask Nicola the inspiration behind the story and the important environmental theme.
Book Title: Bloom (available here)
Author: Nicola Skinner
Illustrator: Flavia Sorrentino
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication Date: April 2019
Most Suitable For: Years 5-6
Hilarious and truly original, here is a book with all the ingredients to take root and blossom wildly among the imaginations of young readers!
I immediately loved the premise of the ‘surprising seeds’ that lead to an epidemic causing people to grow flowers out of their heads. I also was charmed from the start by the endearing narrative voice and the variety of compassionately-written characters, each with their own dreams to chase and burdens to bear.
Sorrel Fallowfield is a rule follower. Never wishing to cause trouble for her overworked Mum or to break the strict rules of a perfection-demanding headteacher, Sorrel knows that she is in with an excellent chance of winning when school announces a competition to find the most perfectly-behaved student. Even better, the prize for the winner is a family holiday - which is exactly what Sorrel thinks her Mum needs the most.
Sorrel’s luck changes when a mysterious packet of seeds appears in her garden that have the most surprising effects. Before she knows it, the power of the seeds have taken root not just in Sorrel’s life but also in her whole community. Could nature be fighting back against a town that has eradicated all of its green spaces?
Many young readers will relate to the environmental message that is conveyed imaginatively and humorously without losing impact. With recent events like the climate change protests being fresh in the minds and hearts of young people, this story hits the mark perfectly as it grapples with themes of learning to discern when and how younger members of society can take a stand against authority and make their voices heard. The story also impresses the power of discovering links to inspirational figures in previous generations who have taken a stand for important issues too - stressing that raising a voice about looking after our environment is nothing new for this generation but no less important that it was for our ancestors.
This is a stand-out story full of humour and heart. I highly recommend this story to Upper KS2 classrooms.
This book also features on:
with Nicola Skinner, author of Bloom.
I loved the sound of Bloom from the moment I first heard about it - especially the original idea of flowers growing out of people’s heads! Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the story?
Thank you! It came from my daughter; in our garden one day, she picked up a dandelion and, with a mischievous glint in her eye, blew its seeds at my head. I made a joke about how I would now grow a dandelion out of my scalp. Being only four at the time, she half-believed me, and looked both terrified and delighted at the thought that she might have made me ‘sprout’. I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea and after a few false starts I settled down to write it properly in December 2015.
A major theme in the story is the importance of protecting and enjoying our natural world and green spaces. Did you have particular places in mind when you were thinking up the setting of Bloom?
Little Sterilis – the town where Sorrel lives – is based on the neighbourhood in South Bristol that I was living in at the time. It also had windowless play spaces and shopping centres and a litter problem. Our back garden became a a haven for me; gardening kept me sane. Just behind our house, fenced off from us, was a small nature reserve. I suppose subliminally that feeling of being surrounded by concrete, while nature was either out of reach or tantalisingly close yet far away, all came together to create the setting of Bloom. But when you think about it, the setting for Bloom is really all around us - all towns and cities were, once upon a time, green and wild. It’s like their past life. Sorrel’s journey lies in discovering and caring about the hidden past life of Little Sterilis. In doing so, she creates another life for herself.
What were your own favourite books as a child?
The first books I remember loving passionately were the Enid Blyton ‘Magic Far Away Tree’ books. The idea that you could climb a tree, and find magical lands at the top, was the best thing ever, made only more exciting by the fact some of them were scary. From Blyton I progressed to Roald Dahl, who I loved, as well as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘A Little Princess’, and Louise Fitzhugh’s ‘Harriet the Spy’. And finally, I must mention I was a huge fan of Garfield – in the 1980s, you could buy a small Garfield collection of strips by Jim Davis almost every year, and I thought they were the bee’s knees. Garfield’s sarcasm and quips definitely rubbed off on me – you can probably see his influence on every page of Bloom.
In the story, the main character Sorrel is a pupil at a primary school that demands perfection of its students. Does this reflect your experience of today’s school system and the pressures it puts on children and teachers?
A little bit, although to be fair all the teachers I’ve met since my daughter started primary school have been nothing but brilliant, and very open-minded about the importance of failing, and making mistakes, and having a go at things without worrying about making them perfect. But yes, I think the problem in the education system lies at the top – the pressure it puts on children and teachers to reach ‘targets’ and milestones, at pre-ordained times, like they’re robots. This means it’s harder for schools to allow for difference, or a slower, more organic process to learning, where children can develop and grow at their own pace. I was also probably trying to exorcise some demons from my own schooling, which took place across two very strict boarding schools, which had bells which went bong all day long, and lots of tedious rules demanding complete obedience at all times.
One aspect of Bloom that I particularly enjoyed was seeing characters that have courage to stand up for what is right even if it means going against the tide. Has there been a time when you have been in a similar position?
I wish I could say that I stood up for others, but I don’t do enough. This is something I’m trying to get better at.
I really enjoyed the humour in the story! As a writer how did you make sure you achieved the right balance between the funny moments and the serious issues addressed in the narrative?
It’s quite lovely writing for this age group, because a mercurial mixture of funny and serious is exactly what most children are like – they can turn on a sixpence, and are never too far away from finding something riotously funny, then fall into solemnity within seconds. Writing in that way too begins to feel more natural the more you get into the story.
When it comes to writing, I think the best jokes operate according to their own rules; in other words, they do what they want, when they want. A lot of the funny moments in the book were unplanned – I’d be writing something quite serious and they’d bubble up out of nowhere and I’d have to type very fast in order to catch them before they disappeared again, before I could even begin to worry about whether they were appropriate or not.
You don’t want a joke to eclipse an important scene, but at the same time, humour doesn’t necessarily diminish the gravity of what you’re trying to say – occasionally, if you make someone laugh at the same time, you’re making more of an impact, without lecturing them.
I suppose I’m a spontaneous writer, but an obsessive, much more pedantic rewriter. I read my drafts obsessively and rewrite them a lot until I’m happy with them. So some of the jokes are more thought through – they come last, when I’m more relaxed that I know what I’m doing with the story itself.
What is your own favourite flower, plant or tree - and why?
Any sort of tree laden with pink blossom is one of my most favourite sights in the world. I love them because in a world that is becoming increasingly more uncertain, they stand out like beacons of something else – something purer, I suppose.
Lots of children today are hugely concerned with protecting the natural world and are likely to relate to the characters in the story who feel like grown-ups are not listening to the truth or taking enough action. What advice would you give to young readers who want to do more to protect their planet?
I have really struggled with this question, because it’s so hard to know what to advise; it feels like we’ve reached a dangerously critical point for our planet – we only have twelve years to halt dangerous levels of global warming – and there are so many things to worry about, that sometimes I just want to go to bed and pull the duvet over my head and leave it all to the experts.
And then I realised, that fortunately, I don’t have to tell you to do anything – because there are cleverer, more passionate, more informed children out there who will able to give you much better advice than I ever will. Greta Thunberg, for starters. I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be a child eco-activist. Look around you. Find your team. You don’t have to do it on your own.
Also, think of yourself as an equal to any grown-up when it comes to talking about environmental issues. One thing I’ve noticed is that politicians and big multinationals responsible for a lot of environmental problems think that if they write a letter to children promising to listen to their concerns, they won’t change a thing. Don’t let them palm you off. Be difficult. Argue. Debate. Keep writing. Demand a meeting. Lobby your local MP. Ask for actual evidence that these big businesses are doing what they are promising. Keep on.
And I know this sounds awful, but don’t expect your parents to have any answers. We’re all far too tired and frazzled. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that children have a much better sense of justice than grown-ups ever will. We need you to tell us what to do. Tell us to come on marches with you. Tell us which products we need to boycott. Boss us about, please. You’re in charge now.
For more from Nicola, follow @skinnerwrites on Twitter.
Thanks to the publishers at Harper Collins, we have 5 copies of Bloom to give away to our followers!
Many thanks to Nicola for answering our questions and to the publisher for sending us a review copy of the book and providing the giveaway prizes.