Book of the Week

The Big Book of Beasts by Yuval Zommer

A skulk of foxes, mould growing in a sloth’s fur – just a couple of random facts that I learned whilst perusing the latest offering from Yuval Zommer. This follow-up to the hugely successful The Big Book of Bugs is another triumph. Such short sentences – pithy and witty – provide easy text for a young reader and speak casually with not a word wasted. “When a tiger licks a wound, its spit helps to heal its skin.” Simple yet effective absorption of facts.

But of course, this book is led mainly by its illustrations. Zommer has his own fun style – a series of portraits of each animal on a double page spread – so for example, the reader sees depictions of a lion roaring, snoozing on its back, licking a friend, hunting and sitting astride a rock – all to show the different snippets of information that Zommer wants to impart.

Each spread shows either a different type of beast – wolves, tigers, bears, bats, hyenas etc, or some general characteristic – such as noises and smells, claws and jaws. There’s no precise science as to which animal made the cut and which didn’t; the book just sets out to make an impression.

And because this book of beasts is for the relatively young, it remains positively tame. Although the lion hunts, the depiction of bloody meat is cartoon-like and divorced from the animal – the bear hunting looks as if the animal is juggling fish rather than eating them.

Because this is not intended to be a clear representation of the animal – rather a mashup between a cartoon and an illustrated depiction of the creature – so that the bear rubbing its back against the tree looks almost Yogi-esque in facial expression.

It’s not an encyclopedia – not a book you’d go to for ‘everything about lions’ for example, but rather a taster of the animal world, instead of a reference for project work. But at this age, what more could the reader want than to pique curiosity with stunning, selected facts: ‘A baboon sleeps upright on a cushion-like patch of skin on its behind’? Accompanied by a myriad of sympathetic, slightly humorous, endearing illustrations.

There’s a lovely glossary with pictures, and an index too – for those that need an introduction to such things. There’s also an interactive element, and the by now necessary bit in every children’s animal book about those species that may be at risk, and the human environmental factor. As with the rest of the book, this is done in a very gentle way. In fact, in the book as a whole, there’s nothing beastly about it.

You can buy it here.

The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King

So there’s chocolate and there’s books. Two favourite things of mine. Sylvia Bishop clearly feels the same for she has transplanted the idea of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory into a book about bookshops.

Property Jones was left in the lost property cupboard of a bookshop when she was just five. Now she lives with the owners – a mother and her son. She loves living there, with her adopted family, but as was the case with Charlie Bucket and his family, they are impoverished. And Property is impoverished in more than one way, for she is harbouring a terrible secret – she is illiterate and cannot admit it.

And then, fortunes appear to change when the family win a competition to own Montgomery’s Emporium of Reading Delights, perhaps the greatest bookshop in the world. The shop smells of books, the rooms are themed on a grand scale: a dictionaries room in which everything has a brown tag label; the room of knights and castles books with stone walls and tapestries, books of woodland tales in a room in which the floor is covered with pine needles – and so on, all operated with a series of levers and pulleys – stacks of rooms in loops.

But with more power comes more responsibility, and possibly great danger, not in terms of the grumpy cat who resides there, but the grey man who lurks mysteriously in the shop.

This is an old-fashioned adventure story, wrapped up in the fantastical delight of limitless imagination. There are forgeries and baddies, befuddled old gentlemen and oddball cats, and children seeing and doing more than the adults. But above all, a shining colourful adoration for books.

The ultimate message is one of honesty – being true to yourself and others, and seeing what’s true and what isn’t. What message could be more pertinent in this era of fakery and falsification? And most of all the text and characters feel fresh; the premise may not be new, but it has been executed as if it is – the prose reads freely, the plot moves like liquid gold. If I was seven again this is the book that would make me fall in love with reading. And bookshops.

I was sent this book to review in the early proof stages, but have been promised (and given a sneak peek) of the illustrations that will embellish the book. I have no doubt that they too will be as exquisite as the text.

Don’t miss out – this could be your child’s golden ticket to a lifelong love of books. Suitable for age 6+ years.

You can buy your own golden ticket/bookshop girl 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.

The Awesome Body Book by Adam Frost

I’m sure I would have qualified to be a doctor, or at least enjoyed biology more, if this book had been around when I was a youngster. This is a non-fiction chapter book, set out in full colour, and packed with the most incredible facts that will enable the reader to answer quiz questions, startle their teachers and amaze their parents, as well as share delectable, laughable quirks with their friends.

There’s no index or contents, for a very good reason – this is a book of randomly assembled facts to dip into, laid out in colourful infographics and cartoon illustrations.

So the reader can find out what’s edible in their back garden, to which is the biggest/smallest/strangest/longest muscle in the human body, to bacteria, worms, hair, noise, crying, the heart, brainpower and on and on. And each section contains small enjoyable sentences of information.

Amazing the facts might be, but there’s no alternative truth here. The full source and reference list is even listed at the end of the book so that the reader can double check any truths of which they’re unsure.

The diagrams are hilarious – showing how long the human tongue would be if it was proportionally as long as an African hawkmoth’s, there’s a diagram showing different facial hair, and some of the graphics are just plain fascinating – the infographic showing different noises in decibels.

But mainly this book works because as well as being interesting, it’s so accessible. It’s easy to read, and the reader will learn without realising they are absorbing facts, and ‘read’ without realising they are ‘reading’ a book because the facts are in such small morsels.

It answers things that don’t actually come up in biology lessons, and goes beyond farts and worms, (although it does cover these in detail) and delves into the psychology of dreams, colours in different cultures, and behaviour comparisons between humans and animals.

Adam Frost has won the Blue Peter Book Award for a previous title in the series, but this is the first themed title. And it made me use my orbicularis oculi (pars lateralis). See if it makes you use yours! Buy it here.

Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone by Lyn Gardner

This is one of those inherently pleasing children’s books, which, through carefully planted attention to historical detail, whisks the reader into another world. The series is set in the Victorian music halls and theatres of London, and is rather like a mashup of Noel Streatfield and Murder Most UnLadylike, with a lick of Dickens.

Rose Campion (named by the author rather wonderfully, after a hardy plant with magenta flowers) is a foundling – left romantically on the steps of Campion’s music hall. Her world is one of taking theatre trips, performing an act on the music hall stage herself, and consorting with her two steadfast friends, Effie and Aurora.

This second book in the series opens with the appearance of a new act at Campion’s Music Hall, the magician Gandini. He performs magical tricks with appearing doves and disappearing watches, and most magnificently attempts the bullet trick (for any of those who recently watched David Blaine, you’ll know all about it). However, as with any trickery and sleight of hand, all is not as it seems.

When Lydia, actress and new doyenne of society, comes to watch Gandini, wearing the famous blue doomstone diamond, and it is stolen from her neck in the middle of Gandini’s act, Rose and her friends must race to work out who is the culprit before more blood is spilled.

Gardner’s prose is dense but vivid, detailed and transportative. From incidental details such as the delight of penny ices or the murkiness of the Thames, she also describes the opulence of the West End theatres and juxtaposes it with the dinginess of backstreet Victorian London.

In fact, this is one of the highlights of the text – the acute differences between the classes in Victorian society – those thrown into Holloway prison and the arguments for reform – and those in high class society attending the theatre, to be seen rather than to see the play.

Much is made of the similarities between the sleight of hand used by magicians and theatrical performers, and that used by thieves and pickpockets, as well as how important it is to pay attention rather than be distracted. Throughout, the reader follows the clever, but sometimes misguided, observations of the protagonist, Rose, and like her, the reader will try to decipher the twists and turns, red herrings and clues. The reader is very much in thrall to the mystery up until the end.

Despite being a foundling, irrepressible Rose finds a substitute family in the theatre and her friends around her – this is a female-dominated tale with feisty, quick-witted women and girls, who aren’t all always on the side of good.

Mainly because of Gandini, this book reminded me of The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll – another absolute winner for this age group. Fabulously, Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone belongs to a whole series – so there’ll be more to come. Bravo!

For confident readers aged 9 and over. You can buy a copy here.

The Lumberjack’s Beard by Duncan Beedie

I’m often asked – what makes a good picture book? There are so many elements it’s hard to be so prescriptive, but this book certainly ticks lots of the boxes. With a stunning main character, lashings of food, fun with language, a slightly distorted silly reality and a green message, this book won me over (and my little testers).

Lumberjacks are great fodder for stories – they appear in fairy tales – from the woodcutter who saves Red Riding Hood, to, in some versions, Hansel and Gretel’s father. The idea of the lumberjack links to a shared cultural past – the history of when men cut down trees by hand rather than by machine, and also a bygone era in which they embodied ideals of masculinity – strength, solitude, and a conflicted solidity in common with the trees they were about to fell. Of course, many of you, me included, will launch into Monty Python’s Lumberjack song at about this point in my blog. “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay….”

In The Lumberjack’s Beard, the protagonist is Jim Hickory, a lumberjack who lives in a stunning mountainous landscape populated with a plethora of triangular trees, eats a stack of pancakes each day (I’m sure Duncan Beedie knows that Lumberjack Day is synonymous with Pancake Day in the States) before venturing outside his log cabin and starting work for the day, chopping down trees.

But when the woodland creatures lose their homes, they demand a new place, and although Jim offers his beard as a new home, there comes a time when it all gets too much for him. A better solution is needed.

The language is great – not only do we hear the noise Jim makes when he fells a tree, but also this is an extremely active man. He does his limbering exercises before his lumbering job, but he also swings and cleaves and whacks and hacks. He chops and snaps…the vocabulary is pitched perfectly – it fits the story and adds to the excitement.

But as with all great picture books, it’s the illustrations that need to come up trumps. Beedie not only has the main illustrations serving his purpose well – from the colours that emphasise the woodland feel of the story, to the expressions of his characters, (an indignant porcupine, an outraged bird, and an incredulous beaver), but he also pays attention to the small details: Jim’s mug, the bird’s glasses, the variety of textures between the animals, Jim’s beard, and Jim’s comfortable dwelling – his bed cover, his shirt etc.

Of course, the message at the end is that planting trees to replace those he is cutting is the ultimate solution, and it even shows the patience taken in doing so. The reader too is encouraged to have patience – lingering over the spread in which the seasons change allowing the trees to grow – so that they can spot the animals’ various activities in the different weathers.

This is a thwumping story, full of passion, humour and heart, and sure to become a new favourite. You can buy a copy here.

Radio Boy by Christian O’Connell, illustrated by Rob Biddulph

Another celebrity pens a children’s book (sigh). Luckily for all of us though, it’s really rather good.

Radio Boy tells the story of wannabe DJ Spike Hughes, dejected and downcast after being sacked from his slot on hospital radio, and then not chosen by his Head Teacher to broadcast on the new school radio show. His Dad provides him with the impetus to set up a secret radio show from his garden shed, and Spike is soon broadcasting with his voice disguised, under the name of Radio Boy. But before long, his success goes to his head, and Spike is calling rival warfare on the evil Head Teacher from his radio studio, and broadcasting all sorts of trouble.

The book is told in the first person. Spike desperately wants to be a radio DJ, and so his voice, even when written down, needs to be sparkling, witty and appealing – as much as an eleven year old boy’s can be. Luckily for Christian O’Connell, this part of the book does work – even if at times it feels overly-laboured to an adult reader. Spike not only reels off a host of sniggersome anecdotes, but he also lays his emotions bare in an easy-to-read style.

The other characters are fun and believable, especially Spike’s two best friends. Artie is into vintage music (this made me feel old) played on vinyl, and Holly excels at producing and is the brains behind much of the hard graft in securing equipment and setting it up. Spike’s parents are great secondary characters in their own way – not always united in their parenting!

If anything the evilness of the Headmaster is slightly overstated and stereotypical, but works as a plot device, so it’s easy to go along with it. In fact, it’s the plot that drives the story more than anything, providing the pace and proving to be particularly page-turning. There’s a race against time for people to discover who Radio Boy really is, and the book pulls the reader towards the end.

There’s also an undercurrent of what it means to be popular in school, and the responsibility that goes with being famous, as well as a clear message about having a lack of self-confidence. Spike fits into the realm of other boy protagonists for this age range who need a boost so that they don’t feel like such a loser – Wimpy Kid, The World of Norm, Timmy Failure, Middle School – but this is all part of his appeal.

Spike’s Dad and close friends believe in him and encourage him not to ditch his dreams, and finally he does start to believe in himself. (And possibly goes too far the other way)

Watch out for the Rob Biddulph illustrations throughout, particularly Spike’s sister mid-yell. They not only add a fun element to the book, dominating some pages, but also give character and setting.

With so much readily available technology for children, the essence of the book remains true to life – such things as clandestine streaming radio stations are possible. And mixed with a good brand of childish humour, this is sure to be a chart hit. Aimed at age 9+ years. You can buy a copy here.

 

The White Tower by Cathryn Constable

I once had a giggle with a fellow children’s books reviewer about the number of books we reviewed in which the main character had to move house or school in order to start their adventure. But sometimes an old trope works a treat in a new book.

Livy, a young girl struggling with her grief that her best friend has died, is moved to a new private school, and her family to a house within the grounds, when her father lands a job in the school’s library. Her new attic bedroom nestles among the spires and domes of the school, and Livy is strangely drawn to the statues on the rooftops. When the headmistress shows more than a passing interest in her and her little brother Tom, Livy must work out what her connection is to the school, and how it will help her to overcome her grief.

With echoes of the lost boys of Peter Pan, and the contemporary adventures within Rooftoppers, this is a book that lingers in the mind long after the final page is turned. The story itself is old-fashioned – not only the setting of an old private school, but the unfurling of a mystery about ancient science experiments, a wish to fly, and a dream-like reality where ghosts stalk rooftops and nothing is as it seems.

The reader pelts through the story, as keen to solve the mystery as Livy herself, and as unsure of the motives of the old librarian and the headteacher as Livy. But as things begin to fall into place, the reader remains a little unsure as to whether all the links completely tie up.

A trance-like atmosphere pervades the book: stained glass shatters, and spires and statues create connotations with the dreamy spires of Oxford. This imagery haunts at the end, but it almost seems as if the book could have been drawn out into a trilogy – there was scope for the links between the dropped clues and the final dénouement to be extrapolated further. The wonderful setting of the school library and her father’s work within could have been stretched out too.

There is a wonderful juxtaposition between the everyday normality of a school; Livy has modern problems with friendships and distracted parents, and there is much made of friendship groups, fitting in, and flirtations with the opposite sex. And then the dreamy, almost fantasy landscape of Livy’s night-time wanderings, as she seeks to find out the mystery behind an ancient science that makes claims of human flight, and the link between gravity and being grounded – science and pure magic.

Emotions are pulled too – Livy’s little brother is used as a pawn in the villain’s game, and there are frequent references to the science that couldn’t help Livy’s best friend recover from leukemia – so Livy is grieving too.

This is a good book, and it certainly deserves to be read. I’m not sure if it was so good that I wanted more, or just did not satiate satisfactorily, which left me wanting more.

Make your own mind up here.

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

It was with some trepidation that I started reading this novel, advertised for young teens, but I think appropriate for mature nine year olds, because of Laird’s introduction. The novel begins with a foreword from the author, which gives an explanation of why the war in Syria began and poses a question at the end about how history will judge our treatment of refugees.

Literature is there to pose questions and make us think, as well as imbue empathy. And good literature should teach us things too – but above all there needs to be a good story well told, otherwise readers won’t get to the crux of the book. Elizabeth Laird is an experienced writer, and has written many great, distinguished and prize-winning novels. Is this more than just another ‘issue’ book, a book that has written a story around an issue, rather than starting with a story and drawing an issue out of it? This isn’t Laird’s best book in my opinion, and yet this is way more than an issue book, and it certainly makes the reader think, and so it deserves this week’s book of the week spot.

Twelve-year-old Omar narrates the story – in past tense. He lives in Bosra, isn’t keen on school, but makes money selling postcards at a tourist site. His father also works in tourism – but for the government. When war breaks out, the family’s troubles grow – not least because Omar’s father has to move for work, but also because his older sister is being married off (having reached the marriageable age of sixteen). Omar’s older brother Musa suffers from cerebral palsy and starts getting in with a group who are anti-government. It’s a complicated situation and Laird does her best to navigate through the family’s journey. As the bombs fall on the city, they move again, and again, until eventually they have to flee Syria completely and cross the border to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Laird has done her research – she has spent time in the refugee camps and has prior knowledge of living in the Middle East as well as a presenting us with a hefty acknowledgements section that clearly names all the various experts and refugee families who have helped to share their experiences with her.

It’s not a short novel, coming in at over 360 pages in the proof copy, and is fast-paced and hugely enjoyable. Yet, even at this length, it still feels like a skeletal piece. The descriptions of places are somewhat lacking – particularly the urban settings, although there are glimpses of what was once there – the tourist areas boomed, and the ordinary society was buzzy and lively – and yet there wasn’t quite enough description to give that emotional evocation of what has been lost.

The secondary characters too – Omar’s sister is desperate to stay a scholar and not get married, Omar’s brother struggles with his illness that sets him apart as different (just as any boy would anywhere in the world), but neither are portrayed in enough depth to give complexity to their issues. However, other relationships do spring from the page – Omar’s mother’s relationship with her grandmother, and likewise her relationship with her sister – these feel alive and real – with just a light touch. Omar – our protagonist – is likeable despite having many flaws; he comes across as real – that awkward age of boyhood into adulthood that’s particularly difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone in wartime, and when he’s dealing with an absent father and a physically weaker older brother.

Written from a very British perspective, the language used will be vastly familiar to the Western reader – words such as ‘bungling’ and phrases such as ‘ratting on someone’ and ‘I beg your pardon’. Perhaps this is on purpose, to make the readership feel familiar with the family portrayed – to show the readership here that this is something that could happen to anyone. And yet, as with the lack of physical description of Syria, it takes away some of the authenticity of the book.

But overall this book ticks the boxes for me because it’s gripping and fast (the book sprints through the plot) and portrays the Syrian war and the refugee crisis so that an average ten year old in this country could gain some insight and experience some empathy.

The book extols the virtues of bravery and hopefulness. Of learning to look out for your family and put someone else first. And it makes you think – how will we welcome a family such as Omar’s in our country? Who are these people? Are they just like you and me?

You can buy it here. Fifty pence per copy of the hardback book sold will be donated to an international aid agency supporting the Syrian refugee crisis.

Me and Mister P by Maria Farrer, illustrated by Daniel Rieley

Arthur is frustrated with his family. Living with his younger brother Liam isn’t easy, and Arthur feels left out and overlooked. Until, that is, he opens the front door to find a polar bear called Mister P. The bear doesn’t talk, he’s pretty big and clumsy, and enormously scared of spiders, and yet somehow, through a great talent for keepie uppies, dancing, and hugs, he’s able to lend some help to families that need him.

Liam seems to be on the autistic spectrum, although this is never spelt out – the story is told from Arthur’s point of view. In this way, Farrer has managed to portray Liam sympathetically but also realistically, showing all the ways in which Liam annoys Arthur. Arthur moans about the restrictions on his life, such as the limited volume when watching football, the mode of transport to school etc, although the reader can see that these restrictions are only imposed by his parents because they simply want to protect, and do what’s right, by Liam.

This is a simplistic story for the seven plus age group – it’s blatantly obvious that Mister P’s arrival is to show Arthur how lucky he is, how to manage his family situation, that patience is a virtue, and that Liam is one of Arthur’s biggest fans. Some strange quirks come across – there’s a total lack of surprise or reaction by the rest of the world to the fact that a polar bear has arrived and can play football, and there is a slightly over-extended section in the middle of the book on a football game, but altogether this adds up to the book’s charm.

It’s the little moments that draw Arthur and Liam together, which pull on the heartstrings. Children at this age do often need reminding that for all their annoyances, their siblings are their friends – and will be loyal and dependable, as well as mainly, awfully good fun.

There’s nothing startlingly new about this of course. Animals, teddy bears, created ‘other’ personas or imaginary friends, have long been used in children’s literature to bring siblings together, from Aslan to Paddington; or they have been employed to help a child deal with a tricky situation until they’re no longer needed, from Brigg’s The Bear (another polar) to Skellig, and Mary Poppins. I still retain warm memories of George by Agnes Sligh Turnbull, a now out-of-print book, that tells of George, a talking rabbit who helps Milly and Tommy – especially with their arithmetic!

But there’s a warmth and naturalness that oozes from the writing in Me and Mister P, as well as scenes that are punctuated in a wonderfully low key way by Rieley’s illustrations. A full double page is awarded to the illustration of Mister P in the back of a truck on his way to the football, complete with headphones and team scarf. Rieley has been set quite a task here – a polar bear adept at football – and it works both humorously and with pathos.

It’s a fun book, massively endearing, with much heart. There are even a few scattered facts about polar bears at the end of the book – perhaps to encourage readers to find out more about them, and learn to protect them. For although of course we’d all love to snuggle up with a glossy furry bear who solves our problems, we need to make sure that polar bears don’t become imaginary creatures, but rather remain a plentiful species that inhabits the Arctic.

For newly independent readers, but also great to share with little ones at bedtime. You can buy it here.