Ancient Egypt

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

National Non-Fiction November

posterlores

November is National Non-Fiction month, the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ annual celebration of all things factual. And there’s much to celebrate. Children’s non-fiction books is a growing area, with ever more stylised, intriguing, general and niche titles being offered. This year, there’s extra good news. The FCBG and World Book Day have teamed together with non-fiction publishers to give away the 100 Books featured in their ‘100 Brilliant Non-Fiction Books for Children and Young People’ for schools and public organisations, or you can win 33 books as an individual. For full details of the giveaway, see here.

In the meantime, here are some extra quirky non-fiction picks for you that didn’t quite make their list, but ended up on my desk:

pharaoh-fate

Pharaoh’s Fate
An interactive adventure that explores and teaches about Ancient Egypt at the same time as the reader solves a murder mystery. Someone is plotting to murder Pharaoh and the reader has to work out who it is. Journeying through town centres, royal palaces, the gods and goddesses, a map of Egypt and much more – the sections are tabbed for easy reference. To solve the mystery the reader will also have to decipher hieroglyphs. This is a full-colour, beautifully packaged book, the definition of teaching through play.

Not only is the book great fun, but it looks appealing from the start. With gold foil on the cover, and a black mysterious background, the inside is filled with bright, colourful illustrations. Particular highlights are the map of Egypt, the Opet festival and the depictions of the Nile in simple yet bold captioned illustrations. And because it’s so beautifully presented, a child will revisit even after solving the mystery.

Historical facts are absorbed rather than read, as the reader puzzles to solve the mystery, this is a great introduction to Ancient Egypt and good fun. You can buy it here.

very-important-things

DK Encyclopedia of Very Important Things
Fact hungry little ones will delight in this book for 4-7 year olds that doesn’t patronise, but manages to convey information in a tone that is both chatty and informative. Split into six sections, including planet, places, animals, people, me and ‘other’, there is lots to satisfy curious minds. It’s fairly unclear why some pages are placed in ‘other’, such as animal babies, birds’ eggs and beetles, and not in the animals section, but little minds will delight in seeing the large graphics and the simple labelling however they choose to read the book – dipping in, or from start to end.

In typical Dorling Kindersley style, this is a mixture of graphics, illustrations and stock photography, all put to good use. So whereas a fiery volcano, ‘Lava is very very hot’, is shown with a wonderful photographic image of a volcano (sadly unlabelled so that it could be from anywhere), blood vessels are shown as a graphic, indicating the platelets, and blood cells within.

It’s an eclectic mix of topics, and includes some interesting choices, but it’s hard to encompass the whole world and all its history for any age group, let alone this young one. However, hopefully it incorporates enough of the basics – where countries are, dinosaurs, the five senses, colours and shapes, etc. to stimulate further curiosity.

There’s a lovely green ribbon to bookmark the reader’s place, so that this really is a book for dipping into and revisiting. Highlights include common flags, simple maps, and miraculous medicines. Find out more here.

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Elliot’s Guide to Dinosaurs by Elliot Seah
So for those of us still waiting for a publishing deal, this may be rather galling, but on the other hand completely inspiring for children. This book, written by an eight-year old dinosaur enthusiast, is rather interesting. It is like a factfile, firstly in the introduction examining where dinosaurs came from, what they ate, and how they lived, and then examined dinosaur by dinosaur, in chronological sections. Each colour-coded section covers a different era: Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. Each species is described by appearance and locomotion, as well as distinguishing features.

The text is rather dry, but for kids who like their facts clearly and simply presented this is an excellent resource, supported and fact-checked by an expert palaeontologist. Elliot introduces a cartoon dinosaur friend to lead the reader through the book, although this is not utilised nearly as much as it could have been.

The layout is appealing – crisp and sparing, with large amounts of white space, and short easy digestible text chunks. The identification chart bears a consistency that makes it easy to distinguish and compare the dinosaurs, and nice touches include a section on recent discoveries, as well as showing which museums have skeletons of which dinosaurs.

This book started as a school project and developed from there. The chapter divisions contain Elliot’s original artwork from the project, although the rest has been illustrated by graphic designers, and the book is highly professional in its finish – a regular published non-fiction book. It just goes to show what a school project can become if you work hard enough. Translated from the French. Please note this book goes on sale on November 15th. You can pre-order it here.

cool-mythology

Cool Mythology by Malcolm Croft
Part of the very popular cool series for children on a host of topics from art to science, this is a small book with hugely comprehensive contents. Covering world mythology from the North American myths to Hindu mythology, with everything in between.

The book starts at the very beginning with creation myths, and then embraces individual stories, mythological creatures, places, and of course the afterlife. While some stories will be somewhat familiar to today’s children, others will be completely new. But what’s really cool about the book is that it compares and contrasts them, asks why these myths are so pervasive in our modern culture, and what message they may contain. It’s an entertaining guide to how they infuse our modern morality and what lessons can be learned from the stories of history.

The language is not easy, because the book is designed as much for adults as for children but it’s not so complicated that it can’t be understood, and will certainly stimulate some hard thinking. The use of plentiful colour, diagrams, amusing illustrations, checklists and plays on words adds to the element of fun about the book as well as easing the information flow for younger readers.

There are some real gems contained within, particularly the deconstruction of the seven basic plots of myths, the beserkers of Norse mythology, and the gentle pulling apart of Gilgamesh and its teaching of what it means to be human. This is a brilliantly comprehensive look at myth, and a go-to guide for global myth making. Excellent. Buy it here.

Look out for my non-fiction animal round up next week