Book of the Week

The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley

The Wickford Doom
Not usually one for ghost stories, this little tale of the supernatural set during the Second World War and aimed at eight year olds gave me a few shivers! It’s a beautifully compact story of Harry and his mother, who discover that they have inherited an old eerie mansion, Wickford Hall. However, it becomes apparent that this is a cruel joke, and as the story unfolds Harry is led further and further into the creepy past and supernatural evils of long ago. Chris Priestley is a master of suspense and tight plotting, and this is his first title for the dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stokes. At nearly 140 pages, it’s slightly longer than some titles for this age group in their range, but rattles along at a grand pace – the anticipation building, and the emotions wonderfully crafted. Chris Priestley manages to convey Harry’s thoughts and feelings perceptively, yet with sparse words. The language is both simple and yet highly evocative:
“The cliffs were high, and they were cracking and crumbling like a huge, half-eaten loaf of bread that was shedding crumbs.”
Published on dyslexia-friendly paper, and appealing to both avid and reluctant readers, with easy chapters and good spacing, this is an excellent starting point for leaping into longer novels. Highly recommended and spooky – the banging door is still haunting me!

The Wickford Doom was kindly sent to me for review by Barrington Stoke publishers. Click here to purchase

How the World Works by Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young

how the world works
Nothing makes me want to read a non-fiction book more than this sort of quote on the back cover “Gross! We’re all descended from green slime. Find out all about it inside.” Actually, this is a much more sophisticated book than the strapline implies. Covering basic earth information, such as how the world came about, how the seasons work, planets, gravity, day and night, evolution, the beginning of life, earth’s plates, the water cycle, weather, carbon, the sea…the list goes on. Yet unlike typical encyclopedias this book sets out the information in graphic and interactive illustrations so that for example, you can open a cheeseburger to see where all the constituent ingredients come from. The water cycle pops out the page, a carbon footprint is a footprint, and the food chain reveals itself in a pop up diagram. Not only is the text clear and simple, but also poses many questions to the inquisitive reader…how do you think our actions affect the natural water cycle? A joy to look at, read, and a fabulous start to explaining the ‘big picture’ of our world. This won the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize in 2011, and Christiane Dorion has since published How the Weather Works, How We Make Stuff, How Animals Live, and in September 2014, How the World Began, which is an exploration of history from the big bang (covered in greater detail than in How the World Works) through ancient civilizations to the future of the earth. Good visual reference for ages seven and up.

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I am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz

I am Henry Finch

Being a big fan of Alexis Deacon, ever since Beegu, I was delighted to discover that I am Henry Finch also provokes much debate and thought. It is great when picture books tell a good story, but there’s an added bonus when a picture book punches above its genre and reaches older children through concept and design. I Am Henry Finch tells the story of a flock of finches with a shared look, sound and identity. Then one finch has a revelation, not unlike the French philosopher Descartes, ‘cogito ergo sum’, or in this case:
“I am Henry Finch, he thought.
I think, he thought.”
The realisation that he can have his own separate thoughts gives him the freedom to have his own identity, and ambitions, and to take his own separate course of action. His aspirations to greatness lead to adventure and enable him to overcome adversity (depicted here by the beast) and finally to enlighten his fellow finches on the gift of free thought and freedom. By the end each one of the finches has its own separate ambition, from travelling the world to falling in love. Not only is the story liberating, but the genius is pairing it with Viviane Schwarz’s illustrations. She uses red fingerprints (apparently gathering them from her friends) to depict the finches, and has added wings and faces with simple black strokes. The cartoon-like faces lighten the tone, and the fingerprints give the book a dynamic distinct identity of its own.

I am Henry Finch inside

The Story of Buildings by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by Stephen Biesty

The Story of Buildings
The best non-fiction for children tells a narrative journey whilst attempting to impart knowledge. And Patrick Dillon’s book does just this. Although his text is not the most beautiful I’ve read, it is very readable and aims to pose a question in the mind of children and answer it – how did human civilisation get from cave dwellings to skyscrapers? And how did humans get to the point of designing beauty, not just practicality, in their buildings? By profiling a handful of famous buildings throughout the world, Patrick Dillon attempts to answer these questions. The draw with this book of course is the illustrations by Stephen Biesty, which assist in explaining the text. The introduction speeds through log cabins, stone houses, brickworks to stilt houses, igloos, tipis, Bedouin tents, staircases, Roman floors, and onto Georgian terraces, windmills, factories and railway stations, each beautifully illustrated. Then Dillon focuses on the architecture of about 20 bold and beautiful structures from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to Notre Dame of Paris, Taj Mahal in Agra to the Chrysler Building in New York and the Sydney Opera House – all illuminated by Biesty’s amazing exploded gatefold cross-sections of the buildings. It’s a tour de force in explaining the very basics of architecture to children. Although Dillon does include some generalisations, and specific architects aren’t often mentioned, I don’t think it matters in that the book inspires an interest in how buildings are built, dreamt of, and used. There’s also a timeline at the back. Any adult would equally enjoy examining the detailed cut-throughs. You can even see the toilets in the Bauhaus!

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Animalium by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott

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An absolute colossus of a book, Animalium screams ‘gift purchase’ and fittingly was published in time for Christmas. In fact that’s how it came through our front door – a hefty £20 present for a child, in a format that would make any bookseller weep (where to display/where to shelve?)

For all the hype, Animalium does not disappoint. In fact, it delights. Fights in our household over who was reading it first resulted in a compromise of reading aloud, and luckily it’s large enough that all three children could fit round the book. The aesthetic beauty of the book is apparent straight away – its huge smooth matt pages, with intricate and luxurious illustrations – some cut away skeletons, some full animal drawings.

The book invites the reader into the ‘museum’ that’s open 365 days a year and 24 hours a day – and the illustrations really do seem resplendent and yet muted – as if they are behind glass – and the accompanying text gives the impression of being the information board lying alongside.

The strength of the illustrations and the friendliness of the text make this a most warm and inviting museum. Jenny Broom’s tidbits of text provide copious detail in breathtaking conciseness. The information isn’t run of the mill either – but carefully picked out facts:

“[Crocodiles’] ears are so sensitive that they can hear calls from their unborn young still inside their eggs.”

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The layout guides you through the book in a sensible manner – if you can drag yourself away from the opening illustration of the Tree of Animal Life! It is aimed at 8+ yrs, although any child or adult would happily meander the pages of this fine museum.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Five Children on the Western Front
Hailed with a chorus of five star reviews when published last year, Five Children on the Western Front really does deserve all accolades thrown at it. Kate Saunders has taken E Nesbit’s story of the sand fairy, the psammead, from Five Children and It, and moved it gently into the era of the First World War. The book works as a stand-alone novel, but those with prior knowledge of the psammead won’t be in any way disappointed with the update. It’s as if E Nesbit herself had written it. The children, despite some having reached young adulthood, stay divinely in character, as does the psammead – and the period details of the time are lovingly rendered. The manners, the setting, the dialogue are all completely convincing and beautifully crafted. What struck me most however, was that Kate Saunders manages to convey the horror of the war injuries, the devastation of the deaths, and the immense change that the war wrought on the world without scaring any young child reading the book. I enjoyed it fully as an adult read, but have no qualms reading this war literature piece to the eight year olds and older with whom I read (although reading aloud may be difficult as I was reduced to tears on more than one occasion!) I couldn’t recommend a book more highly – a perfect example of how a children’s book should be.

Seen and Not Heard by Katie May Green

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Purportedly inspired by looking at portraits hanging in galleries, Katie May Green’s stunning picture book contains some of the most ‘alive’ illustrations I have seen in a while. It tells the story of the children of Shiverhawk Hall who climb out of their portraits at night and run riot in the huge house. The mischievousness of the children builds throughout the book, from their slow descent from their picture frames, and climaxing with their pillow fight in the bedroom. Each illustration is worth looking at for quite some time to pick up all the detail and nuance within, our favourite definitely being the children running down the wood-panelled corridor. The look in the children’s eyes throughout the book is quite priceless. The small children with whom I read the book found the language a little difficult and so I’m suggesting that this is a picture book aimed at slightly older children (5+). However, the language matches the imagery; the rhythm reflects the children’s race around the house, and ends with the delightful quiet of them back in their picture frames:
“They stay still and sweet and good,
just like children should.”
An exquisite book to treasure, and one which would make a beautiful gift this Christmas.

Seen and Not Heard

Hooray For Fish! by Lucy Cousins

Hooray for Fish

Although Lucy Cousins is best known for her Maisie series of books, amongst others, my favourite Lucy Cousins’ book is Hooray for Fish! Pretty much learnt off by heart from when one of my children was little, this is a great example of where pictures and words combine to create the perfect partnership. Less is more leads the way in both pictures and text, with just a few words on each page and delightfully simple drawings to match the adjective: Spotty fish, stripy fish, happy fish, and grumpy fish. There are interactive spreads too “How many can you see?” in which the page suddenly comes alive with a multitude of different shapes/colours/sizes of fish. Always something new to look at and admire, and always something to smile at for the pre-schoolers in the family. We never tire of this book. Hooray for Fish!

Atlas of Adventures by Lucy Letherland

Atlas of Adventures

Trying to make sense of our world is tricky for today’s youngsters. They might know about penguins, but where could you go to see them? What if your seven year old was planning your holiday in Europe – what would they choose to do? This beautifully cloth-bound pictorial atlas introduces a new illustrator to the children’s book world, with incredibly detailed, yet humorous illustrations for each adventure. Follow two child adventurers through the continents of the world to see what adventures they have – from playing football in Senegal to riding with cowboys in Northern Patagonia. Each page throws up interesting facts, and a small round globe hones in on the area in discussion. For me, I wanted to buy it for the endpapers alone. A great edition from a new publishing venture, Wide Eyed publishing.

endpapers Atlas of Adventures