With life having been a little bit complicated of late, I’ve tried really hard not to take on new blog posts, but when Anne Glennie got in touch from Cranachan about Barbara Henderson’s latest children’s book, Rivet Boy, I simply couldn’t refuse. You see, Barbara is one of the most talented children’s writers of the modern era and I love her books. Consequently, it gives me enormous pleasure to participate in the blog tour for Rivet Boy by sharing a guest post from Barbara as well as my review.
Published by Cranachan’s imprint Pokey Hat on 16th February 2023, Rivet Boy is available for purchase here.
Just to prove how much I enjoy Barbara’s books you’ll find:
My Review of The Reluctant Rebel here.
My Review of The Chessmen Thief here.
My review of Fir For Luck here (also one of my books of the year in 2016).
A smashing guest post from Barbara about Fir For Luck publication day here.
Another super post from Barbara about why a book launch matters to celebrate Punch here.
A guest post from Barbara about nature and my review of Wilderness Wars here.
A guest post about novels and novellas and my review of Black Water here.
Based on real people and events, Rivet Boy blends fact and fiction to tell the story of one boy’s role in the building of the iconic Forth Rail Bridge―Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder―in 1889.
When 12-year-old John Nicol gets a job at the Forth Bridge construction site, he knows it’s dangerous. Four boys have already fallen from the bridge into the Forth below. But John has no choice―with his father gone, he must provide an income for his family―even if he is terrified of heights.
John finds comfort in the new Carnegie library, his friend Cora and his squirrel companion, Rusty. But when he is sent to work in Cain Murdoch’s Rivet Gang, John must find the courage to climb, to face his fears, and to stand up to his evil boss.
A Guest Post by Barbara Henderson
Every time I drew the curtains in my childhood home in Germany, I’d see the tower on top of the hill in the distance as my eyes glided over the thickly forested horizon. If I looked closer though, especially in the early mornings, there were squirrels in our garden, often taking over the bird feeder to the outrage of our resident robin. Streaks of rusty-red shot along fence tops and shook the branches as they jumped. I took those acrobatics for granted then.
Not any more!
I am lucky: where I live in the Highlands of Scotland, squirrels are still around – and we do get the red squirrels rather than grey. I hadn’t even seen a grey squirrel until I came to the UK as a student. Imagine my surprise when I was researching my latest book, Rivet Boy, and a squirrel made an appearance. I was researching the world of Victorian engineering – the construction site of the iconic Forth Bridge (now a world heritage site – ‘that red bridge’ in common parlance). It was a bamboozling world of rivets and cantilevers and struts and bays and lattices. Somewhere amid all the engineering jargon and tales of fatalities and grim Victoriana, there was a newspaper article: a squirrel had fallen from the bridge into the Forth below and been rescued by a passing patrol boat. Apparently, boats travelled continuously beneath the structure in case a worker was unlucky enough to fall (scores of men died in the construction), transporting men from one part of the site to another and retrieving equipment. I allowed that little image to unfurl in my imagination for a moment, before realising the incident happened after the time period when my book is set. While historical writers sometimes take liberties with timelines, I tend to try not to fly in the face of truth. Nevertheless, the squirrel on the bridge grew vivid in my mind. If a squirrel had scaled the bridge then… What if it was a regular occurrence? And as a children’s writer, I am always looking for ways to connect young readers with the hero or heroine of my story. What better way than giving my boy in the story a cute animal sidekick?
All the squirrels of my childhood bounded back into my mind’s eye. The way their eyes dart across the ground as they nibble and sniff. The way their tufty ears twitch forwards when interested, and backwards when aggressive. The way the sunlight paints their reddish hue with gold.
The article did not mention whether the squirrel was a grey or a red. Red squirrels were probably still dominant in that part of Scotland at the time (1888/89) so my mind was made up – I was having a red squirrel in Rivet Boy, to match the distinctive red bridge we all know and love. Sorted. All I needed was a name for it. Irritatingly, I could not settle on one. Rusty or Red were too predictable and boring, so I put a call out on social media: Help me name a Victorian red squirrel, I begged my friends, accompanying the post with a gif of a dancing squirrel. Suggestions rained in, but while I was entertained by many, I didn’t love any of them. Ironically, it was my non-writer husband who brought the breakthrough. ‘What would a child think of, Barbara? My first pet was a white hamster, and it was called Snowy. Don’t overthink it.’
He was right. Rusty it was, the very first name that had sprung to mind.
I’ll tell you a secret: there are some shortcuts in children’s writing. One of the most useful secret hacks is this: If you need a character to be lovable, then make someone else in the book love them – ideally someone less powerful like a smaller child or an animal. It sends the message that your character is trustworthy and kind. It’s a shortcut. In my book, the boy in question, like the squirrel, came straight out of a newspaper article. Apparently, 12-year-old John Nicol from Dunfermline fell from the bridge and was rescued, ‘sustaining no more than a wetting’. I decided that he was the one! A survivor is a good idea in a children’s book, believe you me. Even better if this boy spots an injured squirrel on the railway tracks and decides to rescue it. A bond develops and suffice to say that this is not the end of Rusty’s part in the story. Don’t children and animals often save the day in children’s fiction?
And if all that has whetted your appetite, there’s a chance to attend an evening online launch for Rivet Boy on Saturday 4th March by clicking here.
My Review of Rivet Boy
John Nichol needs to support his family.
Whilst historically accurate and immersive, I think what is so fantastic about Rivet Boy is the way John’s circumstances are so relatable for many children in today’s society; the struggle to survive with mounting bills, single parent families working hard to keep everyone together and the need to grow up too quickly. As a result, Barbara Henderson seems to give voice to the disadvantaged of all eras, not just to John in the 1880s. Add in the Murdoch family bullying and John’s life has elements so many readers will find comfort in identifying with as they realise there are others who have similar lives.
As always with a Barbara Henderson book, the story simply zips along embracing threat, peril, excitement and bravery, all set against a vivid historical background. I loved Cora’s feminism and the inclusion of famous characters like William Morris, Queen Victoria and Robert Lewis Stephenson, not just because they bring the story alive, but because they add interest and ideas for research outside the sheer pleasure of the narrative. There’s so much to spark the imagination, to use in a school or private project and to discover further, that Rivet Boy lasts long beyond the reading of the story. I loved the affection with which books, libraries and reading were woven through too.
However, it is the real life John who is such a wonderful character, embodying the power of an active and inquisitive mind despite his humble start in life. He shows how kindness brings reward, not least through his relationship with Rusty. Reading the Author’s Note to discover the background to Rivet Boy made it all the more affecting to have encountered John between the pages.
Indeed, the blend of fact and fiction in Rivet Boy is yet another example of Barbara Henderson’s complete skill in bringing history to life. The pictures at the end of the book of some of those mentioned in the story are not to be missed because they show children how history is made and provide such scope for discussion and research.
Rivet Boy is, as I had expected, quite wonderful. It’s written with brilliantly researched historical accuracy, but more than that, this exciting, engaging and affecting narrative is written with complete humanity. I loved it.
About Barbara Henderson
Barbara Henderson has lived in Scotland since 1991, somehow acquiring an MA in English Language and Literature, a husband, three children and a shaggy dog along the way. Having tried her hand at working as a puppeteer, relief librarian and receptionist, she now teaches Drama part-time at secondary school.
Writing predominantly for children, Barbara won the Nairn Festival Short Story Competition in 2012, the Creative Scotland Easter Monologue Competition in 2013 and was one of three writers shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize 2013. In 2015, wins include the US-based Pockets Magazine Fiction Contest and the Ballantrae Smuggler’s Story Competition.
Follow Barbara on Twitter @scattyscribbler or Instagram for more information, and read her blog. You’ll also find her author page on Facebook.
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