aliens

Real-Life Mysteries by Susan Martineau and Vicky Barker


In childhood, there were thrills galore on camping trips in which peers or adults told stories about urban myths, real-life mysteries, unexplained happenings. Which child hasn’t at some point shuddered in horror at ghosts, looked at lights in the sky and wondered about UFOs, or stared across the water hoping to see a Loch Ness Monster? This new colourful non-fiction from b small publishing invites the reader into the world of unsolved mysteries, and helps him or her to become aware of the skills of critical thinking. The reader is not just reading the book; each reader is analysing the evidence presented, sifting and sorting and drawing their own conclusions. In a world of fake news, this is an excellent primer for thinking about what’s fact-based and what’s not. And this week, my choice has approval from the Blue Peter Book Awards Judging Panel, who shortlisted it for Best Book with Facts Award 2017.

The book highlights a whole host of real life mysteries, including Bigfoot, the timeslip of Versailles, Nasca Lines, the curse of the Hope Diamond, cases of human spontaneous combustion, crop circles and many more. Of course, some of these may bring an element of fear, but the book attempts to give some sort of explanation, making the unexplained far less scary and enabling the reader to analyse each case as a cool-headed detective.

This approach to the book is what makes it great. Each ‘mystery’ is dealt with as if it were a case to be solved by the reader. The mystery is presented, and then dealt with in a case file, in which the book  highlights the different elements: witness statements, and witness reliability, theories, physical objects, locations and photographic evidence. (Sadly, with this last, the book is illustrated so, for example, none of the photographs which people claim to have taken of Bigfoot have been reproduced here). But there are diagrams, and the ‘case files’ are laid out in the illustrations as if the pieces of evidence have been put upon a pin board – complete with post-its, captions, drawings.

Difficult words are pulled out and explained (as well as a glossary at the back), and the reader is asked to think about things carefully in a further investigation. For example, with Versailles, the reader is encouraged to tell friends an interesting story and then a week later ask the friends to repeat it back, listening to see if it’s the same. This will inevitably lead to further discussion about memory, truths and hearsay.

The book is colourful and bright – the text is accessible and interesting. Just be warned, the book might teach your children too much information. With conspiracy theories, self-fulfilling prophecies, and premonitions explained, they may want to talk to you a little more about that new ‘word’, fake news. They’ll be assessing whether you secretly ate the last biscuit while they were at school, and working out what you bought them for Christmas before you’ve even wrapped it. You can buy this wonderful book and solve your mysteries here.

The Absent Parents: A Guest Post by Christopher Edge

There’s something to be said for writing any book – it’s not an easy task – takes time, effort, perseverance and grit, as well as, more obviously, great imagination and observation. Edge not only writes great fiction for kids, but in his latest two novels, has managed to incorporate topical science in a subtle and interesting way. No mean feat. Last year I reviewed The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, which combined quantum physics with a heartrending story. This year’s offering, The Jamie Drake Equation, also separates our protagonist from his parent, but for a very different reason. Combining space and family dynamics – this is one special book. Christopher Edge explains below about writing ‘the absent parent’ in children’s fiction.

The first rule of children’s fiction is often to get rid of the parents. From orphans such as the unfortunate Baudelaire children who lose their folks in a house fire to the eponymous James of Giant Peach fame whose mother and father are run over by a runaway rhinocerous, sometimes it seems that the beginning of every children’s book is just focused on clearing the stage so the child protagonist has free rein.

I must admit I’ve been guilty of this myself in my time, choosing to make Penelope Tredwell, the heroine of my Victorian-set Twelve Minutes to Midnight series, an orphan heiress, and more recently, in The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, telling the story of a young boy’s quest to use quantum physics to reunite himself with his dead mother.

As in The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, sometimes the absence of a parent or parents in a children’s novel can create the central mystery to be solved, such as Darkus Cuttle’s search for his scientist father in M.G. Leonard’s glorious Beetle Boy. However in other books, parental absence can simply colour the intricate web of relationships that the central character spins around them, with the emotions depicted ranging from anger and loss, to an uneasy fear that an absent parent will never return.

In children’s fiction, the reasons for a parent’s absence can be as numerous as in real life, from soldiers at war (Stay Where You Are and Then Leave by John Boyne), imprisonment (The Railway Children by E. Nesbit) or just a job that takes a parent away from the family home (Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce and The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange). In these stories, the protagonist’s desire to see their parent again is often the emotional thrust that fuels the narrative.

In The Jamie Drake Equation, the absent parent can’t be found anywhere on Earth, but is instead floating on the International Space Station in lower-Earth orbit, spinning round the world at 27,000 kilometres per hour. Jamie Drake’s dad is astronaut Commander Dan Drake who’s headed into space on humanity’s first mission to launch interstellar probes for the stars. Ten-year-old Jamie ought to think it’s really cool to have a dad who’s an astronaut, but really he just misses him and can’t wait for him to come home.

Our relationships with our parents or guardians are ones that can go on to define us in later life, and often a key staging post in childhood is the recognition of a parent’s flaws. Jamie’s dad might be able to fly like Superman on board the International Space Station, but back on Earth it takes an alien to help Jamie realise what it means to be human, and how the moments we have with the ones that we love can be the most precious in the universe.

With huge thanks to Christopher for his insightful guest post. To buy a copy of The Jamie Drake Equation, click here

 

Attack of the Alien Dung by Gareth P Jones, illustrated by Steve May

Authors are often asked to elaborate on where they get their ideas from. It’s quite simple – most of the time it involves asking themselves the question ‘what if?’ This new series starts with a great premise – what do our pets do when we’re out of the house all day? And the answer is – they defend the Earth against aliens. Hence, Pet Defenders.

Gareth P Jones, former winner of the Blue Peter Award, is known in the industry for his wacky sense of humour and his outlandish inventiveness (see also for this age group: Ninja Meerkats, Dragon Detectives and Steampunk Pirates) but this new series plumbs new depths – or reaches new heights, depending on your sense of humour!

Planet Earth is under constant attack from alien species, but agent Biskit (a dog) is fully prepared to stop them, aided by his new partner Mitzy (a cat!) and the boss – Example One, who happens to be a former lab mouse. Add in a few Forget-Me-Plop seagulls to keep the humans quiet, and a story is born. In fact, it’s highly reminiscent of Men in Black (with animals), and just as funny.

In Attack of the Alien Dung, not only does Biskit meet his new partner, Mitzy, but he has to save the world from a Dung Guzzler beetle from the planet Dun-Glowing, a creature who thrives by eating rubbish and grows larger the more it consumes.

There is little let-up in the action here, with many pet chases, as well as non-stop gentle humour and overarching inventiveness and silliness. Accompanied by very funny black and white illustrations that help to tell the story, as well as showing extra brushes of humour, this is a rollicking read for young readers.

Stepping in the footsteps of Captain Underpants, Spy Dogs, and the silliness of Jeremy Strong’s books – this fine new series should prove to be a popular addition to the comedy canon.

So many children say that they like to read a book that makes them laugh. These sorts of books are perfect for encouraging reading as a habit rather than a chore – if they’re laughing throughout, then they don’t deem it work – and before long the habit is formed and reading is for pleasure and for love.  There’s no better attraction than laughter. And Gareth P Jones does it particularly well. You can buy it here.

Scholastic Sale

These days, as traditional as Christmas pudding, is the transition from sentimental Christmas adverts to January sales promotions.

I’m delighted that Scholastic approached me for two reasons – firstly in their capacity as a publishing group, as they have produced a great title for reluctant readers, and also because they have started their amazing sale with up to 88% discounts on fabulous children’s books (from a variety of publishers).

create your own alien adventure

Create Your Own Alien Adventure: It’s OK! We’re going to save the planet! By Andrew Judge and Chris Judge is an adventure story in which the reader both fills in the gaps (literally, with a pencil and colouring crayons), and also chooses the twists the story will take by turning to the page of their choice. Building on those classic ‘choose your own adventure’ stories, this title goes further because the reader is invited to draw on the book.

With Daisy, the heroine, the reader tracks an invading alien back to his crashed space ship and adventures with him into space. Except that by doing so, the reader has inadvertently led the alien army to Earth, and now the reader must protect it – with Daisy and some characters (of the reader’s own inventing). Not only is it truly interactive (the reader is also invited to tear certain pages), but it’s a great tool for reluctant readers to conquer a book, read a story, follow instructions, and participate in a story arc.

Chris Judge is an award-winning picture book illustrator (Tin, The Lonely Beast, and most recently The Snow Beast), and is joined by his brother Andrew. The illustrations are simple so that a young reader doesn’t feel intimidated by them.

The language too is simple, but humorous, with plenty of eye-catching typeface changes, enlargements etc, to keep anyone interested, as well as some great dialogue.

I’ve already shown the title to two parents of reluctant readers who were both eager to obtain a copy of their own. Luckily for them, this title, retailing at £5.99, is in the Scholastic January Sale for £2.99, and you can buy it here, and it will be followed in April by a further title in the series, Create Your Own Spy Mission.

If tempted by the TV showings of David Walliams children’s book entertainment, you can buy his new title, Grandpa’s Great Escape, in the sale at £8.99, as well as some Early Reader Horrid Henry’s including Christmas Play at £2.99. Scholastic are also great at selling packs, and this non-fiction one caught my eye – narrative non-fiction so that you learn as you read a story – I Survived pack of five books at £9.99.

What’s more every order over £10 earns 20% back in FREE BOOKS for a school or nursery of your choosing. For this reason, I am directing you to the sale site here, rather than my usual referral site.

Picture Book Round-Up

monster in the fridge

There’s a Monster in My Fridge by Caryl Hart and Deborah Allwright
Just in time for Halloween comes a hide-and-seek picture book with monsters. Green witches, werewolves and vampires abound behind split-pages in this messy, colourful and fun picture book. The text rhymes, the monsters are mischievous, jovial, and in some places, rather cute. The pictures are boldly coloured; monsters in green, purple, orange, blue – depicted firstly making a huge mess in the kitchen, and then moving through the other rooms of the house. There is lots to take in on each page – the fridge has monsters in its door compartments as well as in the main fridge and the surrounding shelves. The bathroom is particularly fun with the monster coming out the toilet, the toothpastes using toothbrushes to fight each other, and hidden skeletons with their bubble guns in the bath. A rollicking monster laugh, with some well-pitched vocabulary in the rhythmic text. You can buy it here.

i will love you anyway

I Will Love You Anyway by Mick and Chloe Inkpen
Mick Inkpen has long been a staple for first readers of picture books. Both Wibbly Pig and Kipper are household names. Now in a co-author and co-illustrator team with his daughter, rather like Shirley Hughes and Clara Vuillamy, I will Love you Anyway reads more like a poem than a picture book. Told from the perspective of a naughty dog, this a winsome tale of an irrepressible dog: one who cannot communicate well with his owners, who will not do as he’s told, but nevertheless one who is loved and loves back.

Even from the cover illustration, the dog is irresistible. Huge innocent eyes betray his inherent naughtiness, as he pulls at socks, makes a mess and nips and bites and licks. The rhyming and rhythm are spot on, with much repetition. This is a fast-paced story with humour and wit in abundance.

The illustrations are phenomenal – from the adorable little boy owner of the dog, to the various expressions of the dog, who always looks one moment away from mischief. As with all good partnerships between author and illustrator, both elements tell the story so that some aspects of plot and humour are only discovered by looking at the illustrations.

There’s even pathos as the parents (out the picture) debate the merits of keeping such a difficult dog, and the little boy and dog sit eavesdropping on the stairs. A delightful and funny end, this will be cherished by all readers. A fabulous picture book. You can buy it here.

The Burp that saved the world

The Burp That Saved the World by Mark Griffiths and Maxine Lee-Mackie
Irreverent and humorous, this reviewer is not usually one for bottom and burp jokes, but this book’s magnificent greens and oranges are rather irresistible. Ben and Matt are twins who are famous for doing massive burps. When aliens come to Earth and want to take all the children’s toys and books, the army and navy are useless to fight them. So Ben and Matt devise a plan to let off the largest burp in the history of the world, thereby scaring off the aliens.

Despite the shaky scansion on one or two pages, and the use of the American word ‘pop’ to help with rhyming, the text holds such fun ideas and vocabulary in other places, and the illustrations are so brightly coloured (particularly the street in which all the houses are different colours; the three-eyed red-jacketed aliens in their spaceships with flashing lights) that it makes for a fun read throughout. Children will love the naughtiness. You can buy it here.

oddsockosaurus

Oddsockosaursus by Zanib Mian and Bill Bolton
Another lovely premise for a picture book – a boy who feels that he’s not always understood and so attempts to make up a new dinosaur for every facet of his personality. There is Oddsockosaurus for when he just feels like wearing odd socks, Whyceratops for when he just can’t help asking question after question, and Hungryophus for when he gets a dinosaur roar in his tummy. It’s a lovely idea for those who are obsessed with dinosaurs, and also for exploring how we make and use words in the English language. The illustrations of the little boy depict him dressed up as different dinosaurs and are bold and engaging. Particular chuckles for Nevertiredophus and its accompanying illustration, as well as for Whyceratops’ question ‘Why can’t Grandma do cartwheels?’. Fun and funny. You can buy it here.

brian and the giant

Brian and the Giant by Chris Judge and Mark Wickham
Another household name, Chris Judge is the award-winning author of TiN and The Lonely Beast. Here pared with Mark Wickham for their second book about Brian Boru, who was the High King of Ireland about 1,000 years ago. There are not many picture books based on history, so this is an interesting addition to any picture book collection. In Brian and the Giant, catastrophe strikes the village when the river dries up, the houses are smashed, and there’s a dreadful smell. The villagers are perplexed, until Brian discovers that a huge smelly giant has built a dam and a bath out of their houses in order to create a bath for himself. The giant is not unfriendly though, so once his destruction has been pointed out, he works with Brian to restore the village and build a shower.

This is clearly taking a leap of faith with the whole history premise, but the depiction of resources and engineering in this picture book makes it stand out. Brian is hugely likeable and clever, and the tones of blue and greens make for a great rural Irish backdrop. This isn’t stocked on the Waterstones website, but order through your local bookstore or click through to Amazon.

 

 

 

The little journos

When I was at school I wanted to be a journalist. Whether it was from watching Press Gang with Dexter Fletcher and Julia Sawalha or from voracious reading of Mizz and J17, I’m not sure. I don’t remember reading any children’s books particularly about journalism, but I liked the investigative side of Nancy Drew. and the diary technique of Z for Zachariah, Adrian Mole and so many others – and it seemed as if the writing buzz was the course to pursue. I worked on the school newspaper, then the university one (where Minerva Moan was born), and finally did a journalism postgrad before reality slapped me in the face and I fell into children’s publishing.

My love for the media buzz never died though, so I’m delighted to bring you three stories that play with ‘journalism.’

completely cassidy

First up, Completely Cassidy: Star Reporter by Tamsyn Murray. The second in this series, the first of which I reviewed here. I don’t tend to review another in the same series within a nine month period, but Cassidy’s voice resonated with me the first time and I was intrigued to see if the second in the series retains the same spark. It does. Cassidy falls into journalism rather than pursuing it, and stays with it to impress other people rather than for her own love of reporting. She starts an online petition in favour of girls wearing trousers to school (mainly to cover up her own mishap with some fake tan), and the editor of the school magazine asks her to join. Of course, with Cassidy things never quite work out according to plan, and before long she’s desperate for a decent story.
The great thing about Tamsyn Murray is she really gets modern school children and their world (there’s a mystery blogger who’s causing havoc/borderline online bullying), and she has a wicked sense of humour, which shines through the text. It’s tame enough to be a light, engaging read, and yet with such a strong voice that the reader just wants to read more and more Cassidy. I liked that her use of journalism in this book invokes the moral dilemmas associated with telling a good story. Being a journalist isn’t that dissimilar from being a young teen – it’s all about deciphering what is the right thing to do. Highlights included Tamsyn mentioning the PTA in a good light, and also to Antonia Miller for her fabulous little illustrations throughout, particularly the poison pen! It’s also refreshing to read about a girl with no big issues in her life – her parents are together, she has annoying siblings, she goes to a run-of-the-mill school – and yet, as for all of us, and particularly children finding their way in the world – even the simplest of lives can be complicated and hard to navigate at times. Age 9+. Click here to buy a copy of the book from Waterstones

.jonny jakes

Jonny Jakes, on the other hand, rather like myself as a youngster, lives for the buzz of the story. Jonny Jakes Investigates: The Hamburgers of Doom by Malcolm Judge, came through the post and I read it without knowing any spoilers, so was hugely surprised with the turn of events. Of course, the title is a great play on words – hamburgers for harbingers, although I’m not sure how many children would understand the joke. Jonny Jakes runs the secretive school newspaper under a pseudonym so that he can craftily write sneaky stories about all the teachers and goings-on at his school without being rumbled. This would be story enough for me, but then, out of the blue, his headmaster quits and is replaced by an alien. Rather than get the scoop of the century though, Jonny is pipped to the post by his new headteacher, and Jonny is determined to investigate exactly what sort of head this alien will turn out to be. Written in diary form, the plot twists and turns and gets wilder and sillier, as befits the title. It turns out the headmaster is hypnotising all the students with his special sweets, and fattening them with hamburgers in order to eat them. Accompanied by gross descriptions of the aliens, and accounts of revolting smells, this book is not for the faint-hearted, but I’m sure will be embraced with much amusement by many children. The denouement is wild and fun and action-packed. There are inspired illustrations by Alan Brown, and it’s as far-fetched and imaginative as you would expect. Children – enjoy! 9+. To purchase, click here.

ivy and bean

The third reason for getting into journalism other than aforementioned peer approval and the buzz of the story, is money. Ivy and Bean: No News is Good News by Annie Barrows is a charming story in the long-running American series about two friends, Ivy and Bean, who, in this particular episode, decide to produce a community newspaper so that they can sell it to raise some money. The funniest element to me about the story is that they want the money to buy cheese. Not that they like the cheese, but they like that red waxy packaging in which the individually wrapped cheese comes…and their mother refuses to buy it for them. During the course of the small story we discover what a subscription to a newspaper is, how to earn money up front, and, just like Cassidy, when publishing a story can be morally ambiguous – especially if the story is embellished, embarrassing or just plain fabricated. Ivy and Bean is a series of books for newly independent readers, and although very American in phrase and tone, strikes a lovely chord here too, as it develops a cute friendship and showcases endearing childhood naivety. Sophie Blackall’s illustrations complement the stories well – it’s a good addition to any young reader’s bookcase. (An interesting fact – Annie Barrows co-wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society – see what a bit of investigating can throw up!). 6+ years. To buy a copy of the book click here.