Book of the Week

The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone

The Dreamsnatcher cover FINAL

Lightly straddling the realms of adventure and fantasy, Abi Elphinstone’s debut novel teases out memories of a canon of beautiful children’s literature that has gone before her, as she builds a world of gypsies and dark magic set entirely in woods in a mystery land. Our likeable protagonist Moll is a 12 year old gypsy, raised entirely in a wagon-filled clearing in the woods, unknowing of the world outside (she has never seen the sea or imagined other countries). This landscape allows Abi Elphinstone to explore the wild elements of Moll’s upbringing, filled with animals and birds, and herbs and potions.

The oracle foretells that Moll, along with Gryff, her wildcat, will be the sole defenders against the power of the dark magic of the Dreamsnatcher. The author’s energy enthuses throughout the book; she manages to pack action into the story – Moll never seems to sit still for a minute, the book is crammed with some extraordinarily restless vocabulary; Moll is forever springing forward or leaping or unfurling, with her heart hammering. It’s a whirlwhind of an adventure, and pulls the reader along.

The scenes of the dark side of magic – Skull and the dreamsnatch – are chillingly portrayed, the imagery is dark and scary, but Moll and her friends are so beguiling that the book balances beautifully between the dark and the light. The author employs devices borrowed from Pullman, Barrie and Rowling in her use of imagery, relationships and evil. This book is highly engrossing, with a dark imagination. I would recommend it for an advanced middle grade reader. Once read, you won’t be able to wait for the next in the series; it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve read since the His Dark Materials trilogy. Published 26th February 2015.

Cover illustration by Thomas Flintham

Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: Supermarket Sweep by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad

Squishy McFluff Supermarket Sweep

Never having met Squishy McFluff before, this was my first foray into this invisible cat’s world. Supermarket Sweep is the second book, about Ava’s trip to the supermarket with her mum and her invisible companion cat. A third book called Squishy McFluff Meets Mad Nana Dot was published this week. Squishy McFluff is narrated entirely in rhyme and I was captured from the rhyming introduction, which asks the reader to imagine Squishy.
“Can you see him? My kitten? He has eyes big and round
His miaow is so sweet (but it makes not a sound!)
Imagine him quick! Have you imagined enough?
Oh, good, you can see him! It’s Squishy McFluff!”
It turns out Squishy is a very naughty cat, who leads his owner, Ava, into all kinds of scrapes and trouble, with a mischievous glance at the reader. I loved the relationship between Ava and her mother, I loved the modern references to objects such as mobile phones, and also the fact that Pip Jones certainly knows her audience as she understands what’s appealing to children – Ava will visit the supermarket on the premise that she can ride in the trolley. It is reminiscent of The Cat in the Hat – but only the more pleasing for being so. This is also perfect material for a child looking to start reading independently – the rhyming helps a young child to figure out which word is coming next, and the vocabulary is not too taxing. The book is also split into small chapters, which is helpful if you’re a struggling reader. It’s funny and endearing with superbly fitting illustrations from Ella Okstad. More please.

Stonebird by Mike Revell

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This is a stunningly impressive debut novel. Mike Revell tells the story of 11 year old Liam who moves to a new area so that his mum can be near his grandma, who is suffering from dementia. Liam struggles with the consequences of the move – a new school, his mum’s new friend, as well as with his elder sister’s advance into adulthood. Liam stumbles across an old stone gargoyle in the abandoned church behind his house, and after finding his grandmother’s old teenage diary, discovers that the gargoyle is magic and can make stories come true. Liam harnesses this power of storytelling to right the perceived wrongs in his life, from fixing his grandmother to dealing with the bullies at school, but before long the storytelling becomes more dangerous and powerful than Liam had imagined.

The novel is told in the present tense, giving immediacy and tension to the story, and sweeps the reader along. At the same time, Mike Revell conveys an 11 year old’s feelings and emotions sensitively as Liam witnesses the deterioration of his grandma from dementia, and the frightening fallout effects on the whole family. At no point is the story too bleak though, as Liam is an intensely realistic and likeable protagonist, with an inspirational teacher, a loveable dog and enough support to carry him through. This is a well crafted and deftly written book. Definitely one of the highlights of 2015.

Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty

Darkmouth

One of the most exciting children’s books to be published in recent years, Shane Hegarty bursts onto the scene with this super quintessential tale of good versus evil – or in this case Legend Hunters versus monsters (the Legends). Finn is being trained up to become the next Legend Hunter in his small town of Darkmouth, the one remaining Blighted Village on earth where gateways open between the human world and the world of the Legends. The problem is, Finn is a bit rubbish, and it seems as if the Legends are plotting a big evil invasion. It’s a gripping read from start to finish with tremendous fighting scenes, and subtle cliffhangers, which give the whole book a feel of suspense. The standout feature for me is Finn’s generational burden, as all Finn’s ancestors were Hunters, and he must fulfill his destiny of becoming one himself, despite his misgivings. His father is insistent that Finn will rise to the challenge, and the scenes in which Finn is attempting not to disappoint his dad are heart-breaking and thrilling at the same time. The ongoing struggle to please parents is inherent in so many children, and Hegarty picks up and brilliantly describes this emotion for his readership. There’s a feisty female sidekick too, and a glut of repulsive and dangerous monsters. The descriptions of the village, the monsters and the fighting scenes are terrific, but massively enhanced by James de la Rue’s phenomenally detailed pictures. It is a highly visual read. I read the proof without illustrations, but was bowled over when I finally saw the finished product. More than worthy of book of the week, this is set to be a big series for Harpercollins, and rumour has it, a movie too!

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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.