Book of the Week

The Boys’ School Girls by Lil Chase

taras sister trouble

There’s a type of book that my readers never seem to tire of; a book based in schools, with issues around friendship, family life, and all the bother of finding one’s place in the world. I am delighted to bring you a new series that does the job so diligently with a clear understanding of 12 year olds, and with writing that sparkles with life. This is just the sort of series I wanted to read when I was young. (I confess I hugely enjoyed reading it this past week and I’m well past childhood!).

Lil Chase has created a fictional boys’ school, Hillcrest High, which has decided to admit girls for the first time. In the first title of the series, Tara’s Sister Trouble, Tara is one of these girls and she’s very excited – not least because she has a huge crush on one of the Hillcrest boys – but also because a new school means new friends, new opportunities and her best friend will be attending too. However, when Tara’s sister also joins the school, things start to fall apart for Tara. There is intense rivalry amongst the few girls at the new school, and her sister seems intent on sabotaging any relationships she does have. It’ll take Tara a fair amount of detective work and understanding to find out what’s really going on with her sister and her friends. There are a few little plot twists in the book – and it deals with some larger issues too – break up of a family, gambling, and jealousy, but Lil Chase always deals with them showing a great deal of compassion and humour. The action rolls along at a good steady pace and the reader is compelled to feel great empathy with the main character.

abbys shadow

There are three in the series, and the next two each focus on a different girl in the set of friends. Lil Chase has handled this cleverly by writing from the first person perspective each time – but the voices don’t blend into each other. Each girl in the series has a distinct voice and personality and this shines through. It’s a clever device and very enjoyable. The next two are Abby’s Shadow and Obi’s Secrets (the last published June 4th), but I’m hoping there’ll be many more. A series your 9-12yr old will devour with relish. You can buy the titles here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

obis secrets

Mad About Monkeys by Owen Davey

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For the past few years the trend in children’s non-fiction has been to produce exquisitely packaged books, with high-end illustrations, quirky text with interactivity, and sometimes a niche subject. Mad about Monkeys hits the trend spot on. It feels and looks beautiful – even the endpapers are beautifully designed with high class illustrations of different species of monkey.

The book progresses, almost story-like, through a quick and yet slyly comprehensive look at monkeys – addressing how you tell the difference between New World and Old World monkeys, their social habits, intelligence, identifying marks, particular species and much more. The conciseness of the text here is very good – there are no spare words – information is given in short, understandable paragraphs, yet with just enough information to sate the appetite without overloading.

The titles of sections are wisely done – ‘Is a Monkey My Uncle?’  ‘Tree’s a Crowd’ and of course ‘King of the Swingers’. Much information is imparted, including details about prehensile tails, and ischial callosities (you’re all dying to look that one up now), as well as typical facts for children, such as that a Howler monkey’s call can be heard up to three miles away. There’s also a great section at the end on monkey mythology and also deforestation.

The crucial winning feature of this title though is the illustrations. From the pygmy marmoset drawn to correct proportions to the predators page, the illustrations are amazing. They seem simple, and yet are clearly intensely detailed – showing each monkey’s features so that the species is identifiable. Worthy of much admiration, and, as I mentioned, it feels luxurious. A perfect non-fiction book for the age group (6-11yrs), which nicely whets the appetite and looks so appealing that you want to read and read again. Buy it here from Waterstones or click the Amazon sidebar.

The Broken King by Philip Womack: The Darkening Path Trilogy

the broken king

Enthralling and all-encompassing, this is a fantasy novel that reaches into the depths of our modernity and triumphantly mixes it with legends of old to create a stunning new adventure. Although I wouldn’t ordinarily offer up as Book of the Week a book that’s the first in a trilogy, and ends on a cliffhanger when book three hasn’t been published yet, I am on this occasion making an exception, because book one is exceptional, and book two ends on a satisfactory note, leaving you wanting more but not disappointing. Philip Womack takes his extensive classical knowledge and moulds it into a story that features our current world full with modern references of Sainsbury’s, mobile phones, and rock music, but then splices it with a fantasy world of shadows, murderous swans, and golden deer with wings.
Simon’s sister is taken away, kidnapped by a dark force, and with his parents and own world held in a kind of suspended time, he must venture into the kingdom of the Broken King to retrieve his sister. Along with him is sixteen year old Flora, whose brother has also been taken. The plot follows the traditional line of a journey into the unknown, with riddles to solve and dangers to avoid. However, the dark imagery is startling, refreshing and bold – Womack uses the loneliness of teenagers and weaves it into their fears and nightmares of the dark other world, he dips into territory as yet unexplored in children’s fiction – maps made from human skin. I loved that he imposed physical scars on the two teenagers, so that the pain from their scars reminded them of their quickness to anger at their siblings, and how selfish they had been; how the kidnappings were their own fault. He touches on a subplot of a power struggle in the other world, as well as references to the troubles the teenagers have in their real lives – something that rounds their characters and keeps rooting the fantasy in reality.
There are numerous references to classical literature, the golden bough, Greek gods, Arthurian legends and comparisons of Womack’s writing have been made to Alan Garner, but this is a series firmly planted in our own times – with skyscrapers in the fantasy landscapes, portals in supermarkets, and tourists at the British Museum who aren’t what they seem.
I devoured it in one sitting – your children will doubtless do the same.
9+ years with strong constitutions.

The King's Shadow

You can purchase it here, or buy on the Amazon sidebar. The second in the trilogy, The King’s Shadow is out now and is available here or through Amazon.

The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford

The Imagination Box

This is one of those multi-faceted novels that delivers on every criteria. Our main character, Tim, lives in a hotel and has to create his own entertainment because his parents are busy working and he has no friends and no siblings. Then he meets one of the guests, a professor in a white lab coat, over a tray of forbidden cakes, and before long they are working together on the professor’s project – an imagination box that creates anything from your imagination. Tim seems to be the only one who can help the Professor to actually get the box to work – and before long Tim is conjuring all sorts of scientific magic. However, there are people who are willing to do anything to get their hands on the device, and Tim becomes embroiled in a race against time to keep the box in the right hands.
Throughout his pacey adventure, Tim has to navigate the adult world, determining who is to be trusted and who isn’t, as well as experimenting with the laws of science. Of course the science in the book is completely unrealistic, but there are roots in the imagination of what we could do with science, and Martyn Ford cleverly employs space-age gadgetry and technology, as well as teleporting, to ensure that young readers are excited and motivated by futuristic scientific imaginings. The book also poses some questions. What would you create if you could create anything? What would you create if you were hanging off the edge of a ten-storey building? What would you create from your dreams? Or nightmares?
Beneath all the adventure and excitement, Tim is a lonely little boy, who has to confront his deepest fears. What’s interesting is that at the start of the book we learn that Tim is adopted, and also friendless. There are deep-seated insecurities about himself here, and his relationship with his adoptive parents is barely scratched in this book – although perhaps this is to be explored in the other titles (the book is set to be the first of a trilogy, although this one works fine as a stand-alone title too).
There are also themes of burgeoning friendships, and loyalty, as Tim cultivates the friendship of the professor’s granddaughter, and also befriends a pygmy monkey (although the latter he conjured from his own head). These two characters imbue the novel with laughter, which sits well against the backdrop, so that none of the story is too dark or threatening.
I fully enjoyed it. It’s meaty, well-structured, and contains the right mix of elements for a sciencey adventure with humour and depth. One of those books that shows youngsters that an imagination is for stretching. For readers aged 9+.

Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin

Joe All Alone

This was an unputdownable read, but tough at the same time. Not because the language is difficult, but because it doesn’t reflect well on our society and makes for uncomfortable reading. Thirteen year old Joe is left alone while his mother and her boyfriend go on holiday to Spain during half term. Although initially he seeks pleasure in his freedom – eating what he wants and playing for unlimited amounts of time on his Xbox, it soon becomes apparent that not only has he not been left enough provisions and money, but that he is lonely, ignored and certainly not mature enough to deal with his situation, despite his best attempts. He’s an exceedingly likeable character, and Joanna Nadin has captured the feelings and thoughts of a 13 year old boy very well. Told in day by day instalments, not exactly like a diary, but documenting the passing of time for the reader, Joe eventually makes friends with a fugitive girl, Asha, who’s sheltering at her mock grandfather’s flat across the way from Joe’s. This affords him some contact, and draws the mock grandfather’s attention to his plight.

The story pulls out some modern dilemmas. Joe describes his neighbours to us, but it’s clear that there is no real community among them. He also points out traits about his school – the attempt to explain budgeting to the children, the interested concern of one teacher, the role of bullying outside the classroom, as well as the wider agenda including the perceived implications of going ‘into care’, troubled children, and of course the first spark of feelings with a girl.

Saying that, there are wonderful touches of humour which lighten the atmosphere, and Joe is a reader, which comes across in his references to Huck Finn and fairy tales. From both of these, and Joe’s friendship with Asha, the reader is left with a feeling of hope and uplifted spirits in what can be changed, and what can be imagined.

I would also make one last remark – the cover for me was slightly misleading – it shows a boy seemingly jumping on his bed with joy, and bears the strapline ‘No parents, no rules, no problem?’. Although I can see how this does depict the story, I would be wary that the cover portrays it more as a ‘Home Alone’ type venture, whereas in actual fact this was quite a dark moral tale for our times.

You can buy it here from Waterstones, or see the Amazon side bar.

I highly recommend. For ages 11+

How To Write Your Best Story Ever by Christopher Edge

how to write your best story ever

As a writer I am constantly overwhelmed by the amount of advice out there for budding authors. Blogs, podcasts, books, individual tweets, facebook groups. The advice goes on and on. In the end, I always feel if you want to write, sit down and WRITE. However, for the youngest among us a blank piece of paper can be quite frightening and a little guidance can help. Christopher Edge, author of fiction such as the Penelope Tredwell series, has written a sensational learning accompaniment to creative writing. In fact, it made me revisit some of my own writing and proved an invaluable resource for my daughter, who is fast rivalling me for story-telling prowess.

Firstly, thanks to imaginative and colourful illustrations, it doesn’t look like a learning resource at all. It comes across as a fun, informative and creative non-fiction children’s title. The first half covers a range of different ideas and definitions and starts with how to get inspired. It draws on the very powerful question ‘what if?’, as a start to using imagination, and also explains that the simplest newspaper headlines can inspire a novel. It highlights making notes, using dreams and just having a go, even if you don’t know where the story will end up. In between the hints and inspiration are informative notes about grammar and vocabulary. Christopher Edge outlines setting a scene, delineating a character, and how to incorporate setting and character into the action. He explains tenses and why not to mix them up, how to open a story, incorporate dialogue, introduce red herrings, how to end – and then how to edit. This is a really important skill, and something that’s easily forgotten in the rush of excitement brought by finishing a story. Re-examining your own text though can be crucial to making improvements and Christopher handles it well with a web of questions to help edit.

There is a huge amount of detail and interesting pieces set out in fun ‘inspiration stations’, such as fabulous titles, quotes illuminating how a character is portrayed in dialogue, as well as little circular bubbles with hints “If you can’t tell which character is speaking you might need to change the dialogue”, and ‘red alerts’ to explain difficult grammatical constructs.

The second half trots through the different genres, from adventure through crime, horror, mystery, comedy to writing about love, history, sports and so on. It is certainly comprehensive. And for the last spread alone, it inspired me to make it book of the week – the last page gently explains that writers can find their inspiration from other writers. Reading is the key. It highlights some great opening lines from children’s fiction – including two of my personal favourites – “When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news” Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz, and “There is no lake at Green Camp Lake.” Holes, Louis Sachar. If it inspires the next Horowitz or Sachar, Christopher Edge has done a really great job. You can purchase it from Amazon on the sidebar, or from Waterstones here

With thanks to OUP for my review copy.

 

Head Over Heart by Colette Victor

Head over Heart

A common topic of conversation in the children’s book industry is diversity. From authors and illustrators to publishers, publicists and reviewers – are we doing enough to engage all children from all different backgrounds in books? Children aged between 6 and 11 consistently look for books in which they see themselves reflected – characters who look like them. At a recent seminar at the London Book Fair, Inclusive Minds talked about turning that conversation into action. Last year, Chicken House published a book called Head Over Heart by Colette Victor. It’s a lovely coming-of-age tale about thirteen year old Zeyneb who is struggling to juggle her life just like any other teen – schoolwork, family, friends, future, feelings for a boy – but she has another issue, in that as a Muslim girl coming of age, she needs to decide whether to start wearing a headscarf or not.

The thing is, I’m not recommending this novel because it’s inclusive and features a Muslim character. That’s just an added bonus. It’s a compelling well-written read, with a lovely description of a father/daughter relationship, and a beautiful depiction of what it’s like to first fancy a boy. Zeyneb struggles to follow the ground rules that her parents have set out for her, and struggles in her frustration to communicate with her parents. This is a common teenage trait and Colette Victor portrays it adeptly. I warmed to Zeyneb’s character from the first page, and continued to sympathise with her throughout the book. I liked that she is an ordinary, good girl – there’s no dramatic action here or tale of the unusual – it’s an everyday story with believable relationships and simpatico characters, and woven into the story are all sorts of components that form the life of a British Muslim – which meat she can eat at a friends’ barbecue, whether she can see a boy alone or not, the scope of her freedom, and her perception of her non-Muslim friends. This is for my older readers though – definitely recommend for about 11+ years. You can purchase a copy from Waterstones here.

 

With thanks to Colette Victor for arranging for me to see a review copy. Cover and interior design by Helen Crawford-White

Wild by Emily Hughes

Wild by Emily Hughes

Published last year to great acclaim, Wild is now available in paperback. The cover is the first thing to grab your attention – a large girl’s face with huge hypnotic scribble brown eyes that draw you into the picture. Then surrounding her face, a huge tangle of grass and flowers and weeds masquerading as hair. Already, there’s a lot to discuss with your child. These large eyes are very distinct from Disney large eyes – this is no saccharine character representation. The story is simple – in fact the text is so minimal that some pages have just three words, and others none at all. It tells the tale of a little girl who has been nurtured in the wild – by nature – until one day, a new animal that looks like her comes along. The humans aim to ‘tame’ this wild child, but to no avail – she remains miserable and cross, so in the end she is returned to the wild – taking the family’s cat and dog with her. The beauty of this picture book – and I would recommend it for all age groups – lies in the illustrations – each one a picture in its own right – with plenty to discuss in each from the portrait on the title page to the flowers on the endpapers. The magic lies in the detail and the emotion of the illustration. For example, the page in which the girl swims with bears is notable for many factors, not only for the lush earthy tones (which are seen throughout the book), but also for the detailed expression on each separate animal’s face. Questions are raised – why are the bears hunting the fish and yet friends with the girl, and in fact, letting her eat with them? Why is the small bear on the rock frightened of a crab? Why does the mother seem more protective of the girl than its own cubs? There is an array of flora and fauna to discover on the banks too. In the illustrations in the human environment, the tones shift colour from earthy browns and greens to introduce some tonal reds, oranges and yellows, but the abundance of detail remains. The image of the girl playing with toys can be compared with her playing with foxes earlier – the human scene poses many questions – why has Emily Hughes included a sword and arrow in the girl’s playthings? What other toys did the adults deem appropriate? Why are patterns so woven into the human world?
Overall, this could be read as a simple morality tale – nature utopian and good, civilisation evil, but I think that would be to misread the subtleties within. It’s an exploration of a child’s chaos and behaviour and our attempt to impose an order around it. It’s also an important tool for discovering where the reader’s sympathy may lie at different parts of the story. In the end do the adults learn a lesson, rather than the child? With allusions to Where the Wild Things Are, as well as to Eliza Doolittle, this is a picture book to be thoroughly pored over. If you do like this one, you can look out for Emily’s new book, The Little Gardener, publishing June. Purchase Wild from Waterstones.

With thanks to Flying Eye Publishers for the review copy.

Violet and the Hidden Treasure by Harriet Whitehorn, illustrated by Becka Moor

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Reading about the adventures of Violet is like eating a box of chocolates. It’s a sumptuous read – in part I kept wanting to stroke the cover, which I have in hardback, as it is shiny and has Becka Moor’s divine colour illustrations on the front. The best thing though is that its luxurious feel is replicated in the words within. Our heroine, Violet, is a young Sherlock Holmes, solving mysteries where she can. In Hidden Treasure, she has just returned from a holiday in India, when she is asked to look after the Maharajah’s cockatoo, as sadly the Maharjah has died and the cockatoo is the only link left to his fortune. Someone is trying to birdnap the cockatoo, and it is up to Violet and her friends to figure out who it is. Harriet Whitehorn draws a picture of an eccentric family living with somewhat eccentric neighbours around a communal garden. The whole book has a timeless feel, although there are allusions to modern day, but what makes it notable is the beautiful language that Harriet deploys to tell her story. The plot is a fairly run of the mill mystery – perfect for the age group, if a little contrived for a grown up reader, but the luxury of the book makes it rather special. I loved the glossary of Violet’s ‘tricky’ words at the back, which is a fun way of introducing good vocabulary to a young reader, as well as the newspaper articles summing up what happened after the story ended. And for me that encapsulates what the Violet series is all about – the fantastic attention to detail. Violet and the Pearl of the Orient, which was the first in the series, is similar in vein, with detailed illustrations matching the detailed text. There’s a lot to coo over within these books – I’d take Violet over a Cadbury’s Milk Tray any day.
For readers age 7+, this follows in the ilk of Goth Girl and Ottoline – highly illustrated younger fiction which appeals because the books are both well written and beautifully produced.

 

With thanks to Simon and Schuster for a review copy. Buy yours here.

The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday

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It’s always hard to review the last book in a trilogy, not knowing if your readers have read the first two. Although not impossible to read as a stand-alone, I would implore everyone to read the first two titles, The Last Wild and The Dark Wild, before coming to The Wild Beyond.

The Wild Beyond matches the magic of the first two books in the series, continuing the adventure story of Kester, his two friends, Polly and Aida, and the animals they have gathered along the way. It is a triumphant and glorious ending to the trilogy, pulling together all the story strands and giving each character a fitting ending. It finishes with an uplifting message of hope, which for a book about how much humans have damaged the world is quite an achievement. Both compellingly written and perfectly pitched for the age group, The Wild Beyond contains equal amounts of fast-paced action, and vivid scenic imagery.

Kester is a boy who cannot speak, except to the animals left behind when environmental catastrophes engulfed the world. He has managed to rescue some of the animals, and save quite a few humans too, but his biggest challenge lies in this new adventure, as he has to make enormous decisions about where and how the human race can continue to survive. When a blue whale delivers a frightening message about the near future to Kester, he realises that he will have to travel a long way to seek the answers to his questions. Torday’s masterstroke is that although the adventures are fantastical, the characters of the children are so rooted and grounded, and their camaraderie with each other so real, that the reader immediately identifies with them. The friendship between Kester and his two loyal friends is magical, brave and provokes humour and hope. It stands out precisely because it is unremarkable. The children find strength in unity and never give up.
What’s more the book has a magnificent villain in Fenella Clancy-Clay, a pale ice-cold woman with a necklace of magical icicles, who captains a ship made out of glass. She’s like a cruel mixture of Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials, the Snow Queen, and Cruella de Ville.
There are many terrific scenes – the introduction of the dolphins and their conversations with Kester was one of the highlights for me, as well as the mass of dense imagery that Torday manages to pack into the novel, from huge seas, to islands, and spaceships, as well as daring action scenes involving planes careering out the sky to engulfing fires and deluging floods. But throughout, Torday’s characters retain a great sense of humour, which makes the book a joy to read.

For me,The Last Wild trilogy is good enough to be an all-time children’s classic. Your children will be enthralled – and when they’ve finished – take it for yourself.

Cover illustration by Thomas Flintham

With thanks to Quercus for sending me a review copy of The Wild Beyond

Buy your own copies here.