dragon

The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan, illustrated by Ben Mantle

the land of roarNarnia lives on the in public imagination, almost 70 years after the publication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis. According to a poll conducted in August by eBay UK, the book tops the list of the most popular books among adults in the UK. But it’s not just among adult readers that this tale of an icy land where it’s winter but never Christmas, lives on. In fact, it lives on with adult writers too and penetrates our children’s literary inheritance.

For those of you who were away in August, Waterstones book of the month was The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan. In this astoundingly bright, bold and fearsome novel, protagonist Arthur and his sister Rose enter the Land of Roar not through a wardrobe but through a Z-bed.

Staying with their grandfather over the summer, eleven-year-old twins Arthur and Rose start to clear out his attic, throwing away their childhood mementos and old toys. Arthur is reminded of the make-believe land they once played, the Land of Roar, in which they had both things they loved (mermaids, ninjas and so forth), and yet also was filled with their fears. But Rose is more sophisticated now – hanging with her friends, fiddling with her phone, shunning her childhood imaginings.

When their grandfather mucks about with the Z-bed, he is pulled into the portal and vanishes. Which means Arthur must follow to rescue him – except that Roar isn’t real – it only existed in their imaginations. Or did it? And how to convince Rose that she’s needed too?

The ingenuity of McLachlan’s writing lies not so much in her land of warmongering dragons, the Lost Girls, ninja wizards and frightening scarecrows, although her world-building is impressive, but her wit and intelligence lie in her use of time passing, nostalgia, childhood and old age. For this is a fantasy adventure that pulls on the essence of what it means to imagine, of what it means to grow up; and how our fears fade, and then manifest as other, different things in adolescence. In this way, it strongly conjures the literary landscape of Peter Pan.

Roar is representative of Arthur’s and Rose’s younger selves, from the ‘unsophisticated’ map, which labels areas such as ‘the bad side’ and doesn’t conform to geographical rules, to the props within, the relics of the fun they once had: the language ‘Obby Dobby’, which is just like a childhood language we all spoke (in which you insert extra letters into English words); the ninja wizard’s collection of left-behind toys from Arthur, such as his fidget spinner.

The ‘Bad Side’ of Roar reveals both the fears of their childhood, and also the youngsters’ growth. The enemy of the land is Crowky, a frightening scarecrow with Coraline-esque button eyes. And whereas once it was their fears that built him, their fear of the dark or of crows, frogs and heights; playing with those fears was a thrill, ‘like listening to a ghost story’. When the children re-enter Roar as adolescents, the fears feel more real, the scare feels deeper, there’s worry there too. The world feels more serious, even an imaginary one.

McLachlan has oodles of humour, and she liberally sprinkles this throughout the novel, firstly through the imaginary world, such as labelling a bit off the coast of Roar with small islands as ‘Archie Playgo’, and her naming of the rocking horse that comes to life as ‘Prosecco’, but she niftily handles the added bonus of bringing teenage sarcasm and sardonic humour to Arthur and Rose’s new entry into the land. Arthur apologises to Prosecco that Rose hasn’t come too, choosing to go to Claire’s Accessories instead.

Of course the darkness comes with the increased power of their childhood nightmare Crowky, whose power has grown since Rose and Arthur have neglected Roar. But their neglect has had other consequences too – the land is suffering from sink holes, and cracks appear; as the land leaks from the children’s memories and thoughts, so it literally disappears. This extended metaphor speaks to how we neglect those imaginings as we age – how things in childhood get pushed to the back of our minds, and yet to stop the ‘bad’ overcoming us all, we still need creativity and imagination as we grow older.

One of the things I most admired about the novel was the changing relationship between the siblings. The hints of how they used to play together as young children, the changes that occur as they grow, the frustrations with each other for growing too quickly or not maturing fast enough – mutual exasperation that their attitudes are no longer in tandem. But most of all the camaraderie, the need for one another, and the protective loyalty that exists – a sibling understanding of shared pasts and families, and the knowledge that they’re entwined, no matter what.

There’s also a fierce protectiveness of their grandfather – a key figure to them – wise by dint of his willingness to play and experiment, to break rules and embrace freedoms. He’s an embodiment of why creativity and memory are still important as we age. (Who wouldn’t love a grandad who encourages throwing things from the attic window into the garden as a way of clearing a room).

Although I saw an early proof of the book with artwork to come, the illustrations by Ben Mantle that were shown were rather spectacular. The finished version is a treat to behold – Mantle captures the dichotomy of Roar – the beauty of it and yet its profound danger.

This is an engrossing and vividly-imagined story, with messages that stretch from story to the real world; themes of imagination, but also feminism and adolescence – a growth in mindset as well as imagination. For children aged 8+ (and for adults too).

You can buy it here. With thanks to Egmont for an early review copy.

The Dragon in the Library by Louie Stowell, illustrated by Davide Ortu

dragon in the libraryJames Daunt might be straddling the Atlantic by now being both Managing Director of Waterstones bookshop chain and newly appointed CEO of Barnes & Noble bookshop chain, but for those with an interest in books this side of the Atlantic, we seem to be getting something wrong.

The book market is going from strength to strength, but in these lean times of government cuts, the UK is pulling investment from libraries – those most important bastions of a civilised society.

In 2018, about 130 public libraries closed outright, whilst many others (as yet unnumbered) fell into voluntary hands with limited opening hours and services. Most recently children’s authors stepped in to protest against Essex County’s proposed closure of up to 44 libraries.

So it’s incredibly timely to read Louie Stowell’s excellent younger fiction novel, The Dragon in the Library, set in a library that is threatened with closure by a Simpsons’ Mr Burns-type villain, who wishes to turn the space into a shopping centre. He represents those who believe that economics rules over creativity and knowledge, and those for whom moneyed connections are deemed to be more important than empathy and curiosity. Who needs libraries, he says, when there is the Internet?

Our unlikely protagonist is Kit, a reluctant reader, who prefers climbing trees and getting messy outside to time spent inside, particularly in a library. But her two friends are desperate for the latest book in a series of books they are into, and they drag her along to the library. Once there, they stumble on a secret – the librarian is a wizard. What’s more, Kit herself seems to have magical powers, and the library is the most magical place of all.

Stowell goes to town on her magical tropes – there are librarian wizards, hidden creatures in secret stacks, portals from one magic place to another. Nowhere could be quite as exciting as the library, and she excels at extolling the absolute magic of reading and story – books literally take the reader into a different world. She also weaves a wonderful intertextuality in the book – for those who know their children’s literature there are nods to it all over the place from Ursula Le Guin to Baba Yaga to fairy tales and Harry Potter of course. There’s even a nod to the old trope of children drinking lemonade and eating something gingery (memories of Enid Blyton picnics come to the surface). Although the world-building of this magical structure of wizards and libraries seems a little confusing at first, it soon becomes apparent what’s at stake and why.

And it is the characterisation of the three children that makes the novel. Each child has his or her own attributes, goals and motivations, worries and anxieties. Kit and friends Alita and Josh feel very real, and support each  other in a wonderful triumvirate of camaraderie. Although Kit is the only wizard of the three, she’s the least ‘into’ books, and so it takes the help of her friends for her to be able to pursue her wizard path.

Faith Braithwaite is a wonderful role model of a wizard librarian and teacher/mentor to Kit. She is sassy and warm, modern and authoritative, understanding and knowledgeable, in essence, everything a librarian should be. Plus, in the times we live in, brave too.

So Stowell nods to our current preoccupations, not only in the fight for survival of the library, but also with dripped-in truisms about our modern obsessions with risk awareness, knowing what’s real and what isn’t, gender bias and diversity.

And cleverly, above all that, lies the essence of the novel, which is the celebration of the story behind the book. It is rare in a children’s book, particularly one set in a library, to have the protagonist as a reluctant reader, but here, although Kit hates reading aloud, and doesn’t particularly want to sit and read a book quietly either, Faith Braithwaite shows her the magic behind the book – the power of the story – the magic that’s contained within, especially when the reading is pleasurable and not graded or schooled in some way. How a story can teach and explore, delight and entertain, stimulate and encourage.

This is an exciting, pacey book for the 7-9 years (and beyond) readership, with superb neon packaging and a plethora of black and white illustrations throughout, which feel cartoonish and vivacious.

Oh, and there be dragons.

You can buy your copy here. Thanks to Nosy Crow for the review proof.

The Boy Who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

boy who grew dragonsSo, this is not the first book about a young boy with a dragon pet. I bet you can think of a few yourself. Which begs the question, what makes this book standout from the crowd, what makes it so unique, good and worthy of the book of the week spot?

Tomas helps his grandfather with his unwieldy garden, and one day stumbles upon a strange tree growing the most peculiar looking fruit. He takes one of the fruits home, and later that evening is immensely surprised to discover a dragon hatching from it. What follows is the trials and tribulations experienced when hatching your own baby dragon.

But for me, Shepherd’s unique selling point is not her plot, although it moves with pace, but her ability to mix humour and fun with an intense pathos and understanding of human emotion. It is Tomas’ interaction with the other human characters that really pulls on the reader’s emotions – although there is plenty of fun to be had with the dragon too.

Tomas has a little sister Lolli, who although too young to talk, communicates and spars with Tomas brilliantly in her capacity as co-conspirator in hiding the dragon. Their alliance also demonstrates the uniqueness of sibling relationships – the bond that stretches from affectionate love and sharing of secrets and a helpful camaraderie at one end, to being able to blame the other for something they didn’t do at the other extreme.

The sympathetic grandparent relationship within the story also rings true, and draws the most pathos. Tomas loves spending time with his grandfather, but is torn with guilt between how much time he spends with him versus time with his friends, and Tom also shows an acute awareness, in a wondrous childlike fashion, of how delicate the relationship is as his grandfather gets older and more fragile. The feeling of not wanting to disappoint and yet also wanting to live his own best life compete beautifully within the plot structure.

This gamut of human emotion also stretches to Tomas’ new pet dragon. Feelings of responsibility compete with curiosity and awe, the knowledge of having something different and special and being the envy of one’s peers, and yet knowing that the dragon is precious and special and not merely for showing off – in fact it’s a live being with feelings of its own.

There are some lovely touches here – the timidity of the dragon at first, the portrayal of its physicality as it learns to trust Tomas, and Tomas’ inventive efforts to control the poos and treat his dragon correctly.

But none of this overshadows the sheer fun and vivacity of the novel. Shepherd brings out every flourish of her imagination in Tomas’s discovery – from the tree itself with glowing fruit, to the different types of dragons, their combustible poos, and how difficult dragons are to capture and hide.

Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations here do what they did for the characters in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series, and she brings to life the tree, the dragons and characters with limitless expression. These are warm, animated, engaging illustrations that almost seem to move across the page.

This is a sumptuous start to a new series, bursting with energy and humour, yet tinged with the darker side of life too. There’s a grumpy neighbour, aware but preoccupied parents, an eclectic group of friends, a strange gardening guide, nomenclature of dragon pets – so many facets all covered and explored. A perfect example of domesticity interrupted with a touch of magic. Dragon fruit will never look the same again! Happily for 7+ years; you can buy it here.

Christmas Books Roundup 2017

““Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo” (Little Women), but for me, presents means books. So, if you’re looking to treat your children to some rectangular shapes in their stockings and under the tree, here are my highlights…

Picture Books


Oliver Elephant by Lou Peacock and Helen Stephens (Nosy Crow)
My top pick for the season is definitely this heartwarming Christmassy through-and-through tale about a Christmas present shopping trip, in which mummy has a long list, a pram to manoeuvre, her children Noah and Evie-May, and Noah’s toy elephant. With sparkling rhythmic rhyming, and huge attention to detail in the department store colourwash illustrations, this will make every reader feel that magical Christmas time aura. There’s much to love in the familiar tale of a temporarily lost toy in a large store, but Peacock and Stephens manage to inject their own personality onto the book, with lots of love, expression and minute detail. I love the mittens on strings, the busyness of the store, the flushed faces of the customers, the diversity of the cast, and the wonderful emotion on the face of the mother (tired yet happy), and Noah (small in a world of big things). His playfulness with the elephant, and the frustrated sympathy of his mother is pitch perfect. And of course, there’s a happy Christmas ending. You can buy it here.


The Princess and the Christmas Rescue by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton (Nosy Crow)
This hilarious picture book for Christmas manages to combine fairy tale allusions (it is about a princess after all), feminism (girl engineers), and an ironic Amazon-like present-picking machine all in a neat sing-song rhyme. But mainly, this is an adorable rhyming picture book about finding friends. Princess Eliza loves to make things, but her parents are worried at her lack of friends. When the Christmas elves run into trouble in the busy lead-up to Christmas, Eliza steps in to help, and finds that as well as being a super duper inventor, there’s fun in friendship too. Exquisite illustrations in bright colours that mix the essence of Christmas (ribbons, elves, cosy armchairs by the fire) with ‘Wallace and Gromit’ type inventions. Christmas bliss. You can buy it here.


All I Want for Christmas by Rachel Bright (Orchard Books)
Rachel Bright is superb at wrapping moral lessons in her books, and this Christmas treat is no different. It’s not an illustrated version of Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit, but it does carry the same message – as well as cookies and trees, and presents and roast dinners, what this Big Penguin really wants is love. Yes, this is about penguins, not humans. Shown first in a snowglobe on a mantelpiece, the story opens up to explore the penguins’ world in the lead up to Christmas. Cute illustrations, and a fabulous spread in the middle that shows miniature vignettes of Big Penguin and Little Penguin busy doing the ‘hundred things’ to get ready, this is an adorable read. You can purchase it here.


Last Stop on the Reindeer Express by Maudie Powell-Tuck and Karl James Mountford (Little Tiger Press)
The next title also features a family with a missing adult, but here they are human, and there is a more pronounced emphasis on families who can’t be together at Christmas time. Mia’s dad can’t come home for Christmas, but luckily for her, she stumbles across a magical postbox with a door to The Reindeer Express, which manages to convey her to her father for a Christmas hug, and still be back with her mother for Christmas.

Karl James Mountford’s illustrations feel globally Christmassy, with muted earthy tones, in particular a profusion of rusty red, as he conveys a timelessness to the images – from the dress of the people, which feels old-fashioned, to the takeaway cups of mulled wine, which feel up-to-the-minute. With maps and explorers’ articles, and a globe-trotting reindeer, the book feels as if it’s digging into a magical time of exploration and discovery, as well as showcasing a homely setting with snow outside the window. Our heroine wears glasses and is an eager and curious child. But what sets this book apart is its production. With thick pages, peek-throughs and cut-outs, and the most tactile cut-away cover, this truly feels like a gift. Romantic and yet curiously real. You can purchase it here.


A Christmas Carol: Search and Find by Louise Pigott and Studio Press
Another beautifully produced book, with silver foil on the cover, this classic Christmas story is retold with search and find scenes – both the characters and setting are illustrated at the outset, with a brief summary of author and text, and then the story is told through double page illustration scenes, alongside an illustration key, which asks the reader to find certain people and objects (such as five red robins, a wistful scrooge, and the ghost of Christmas yet to come).

Through minimal text but large illustrations, both the characters and their narratives are revealed. It’s clever, and wonderfully appealing, in that it’s a book that could be shared, and certainly pored over, as each scene is so wonderfully detailed. Answers, are of course, at the back. You can purchase it here.

Chapter Books:
Three chapter books for you, each from an established series, but this time with their ‘Christmas theme’ stamped all over the cover and narrative. My testers (little kiddies) adore all three series, and couldn’t wait to read them – so they won’t be under my tree!


Polly and the Puffin: The Happy Christmas by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty (Hachette)
I have the distinct feeling that the children and I like this book for very different reasons, but that’s the joyous element of this book, which is written to be shared by being read aloud (with references to hugs, and an authorial voice).

Polly and Neil (her real puffin) are all ready for Christmas, but it’s only November, and such a long time to wait. And then things start to go wrong. Will it ever be Christmas? Will the puffling hatch? Will Wrong Puffin find his way home? There is a huge infusion of wit and personality here – from Polly’s moods, and her quirks (from calling the toy puffin Wrong Puffin, to her grumpiness with her real puffin, Neil) to the illustrator’s humour (see the contented yet oblivious cat lying on the sofa, the wine bottle from Christmas Eve and bleary parents at Christmas Day morning). The narrative voice is warm and comforting, just right for Christmas Eve. There are loads of extras at the back too – recipes, activities and jokes. Buy it here.


Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Jingle Bells by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton (Nosy Crow)
This pair of cake-baking, crime-solving dogs are never far from mischief, and the delight of these little books is that they each contain three stories in one book – good for short attention spans and first readers. Only the first story is Christmas-themed, with the delightful Santa Paws, but the other two tales are equally strong and eventful: Sea-Monster Ahoy! and Lucky Cat. With plentiful illustrations in two-tone colour, lots of lively language, and fast plots, these are lovely little bursts of entertainment. You can purchase it here.


There’s a Dragon in My Stocking by Tom Nicoll, illustrated by Sarah Horne (Stripes)
Lastly, and for slightly older readers, this Christmassy addition to the fabulous ‘There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!’ series continues the adventures of Eric, who was first introduced when he discovered a mini dragon (Pan) in his takeaway dinner. In this funny sequel, Pan’s parents arrive down the chimney. Looking after one dragon and stopping fires was bad enough, but now Eric has three on his hands, and his parents are entertaining on Christmas day. When disaster hits their lunch plans, it might just be that three little dragons come in useful. As well as being huge fun, Nicoll captures the family personalities beautifully, especially annoying Toby from next door, and his Mum (complete with mobile phone!). You can buy it here.

Happy Christmas shopping.

Books in Books for Libraries Week

For #librariesweek, a few books about books. Because we are living in a time of library cuts, librarian redundancies, and struggling independent booksellers, children’s authors are doing more and more to celebrate not only their nostalgia for the old days of libraries, but also a burgeoning belief that they must fight to uphold every child’s right to library access in the here and now.


Madeline Finn and the Library Dog by Lisa Papp

This is a reassuring book for those readers who haven’t quite grasped the fundamentals yet, or who are struggling with their confidence. Madeline does not like to read, especially out loud, for fear of humiliation and ridicule, but she really wants to earn a star at school rather than just a ‘keep trying’ sticker. She does have a great role model in her mother, who takes her to the library, and keeps her supplied with an abundant pile of books. When the librarian suggests that Madeline read out loud to a dog, rather than a human, Madeline begins to see the merit in trying, and before long her reading abilities have caught up with her ambition.

Inspired by real-life programmes of incentivising children to read with ‘Read-to-Dogs’ sessions in order to build readers’ confidence, this is a worthy and also admirable little read.

The book deserves a mention, not only for the quality of the storytelling, but also for the clear, well-spaced text against a cream-tinted background, which provides an ease on the eye for emerging readers. The illustrations are fitting – soft, expressive, and with a winsome collection of scenes from Madeline’s life – from riding her bike, to struggling over her books, to swinging in the garden, and staring out the window, all with an ever-present favourite soft toy. It creates a rounded picture of Madeline, perfect for empathy. The dogs are all cute and fluffy, or sleek and loyal, and delighted my listeners with the several different breeds depicted, and the dogs’ loving, attentive eyes. You can buy it here.


Franklin’s Flying Bookshop by Jen Campbell, illustrated by Kate Harnett

Jen Campbell takes her bookish book one step further, with a dragon protagonist who loves to read aloud. Perhaps he needs a dog, for this dragon can find no one to read to (the people he encounters run away in fear). Then he meets an inquisitive book-loving girl called Luna, who isn’t afraid because she has read about dragons in books, and so they come up with a plan to enable the sharing of books as widely as possible – a flying bookshop on top of a dragon.

If the concept sounds a little strange, it is – but it fits with the quirky whimsy of this book, which uses the bulk of its prose to extort the virtues of reading (expanding knowledge and extending imagination) by creating a higgledy piggedly mix of what the dragon and the girl bump into within the books in their reading sessions, from roller skating and King Arthur to kung fu and pirates, carol singing and anteaters.

This is quite literally drawn out in Katie Harnett’s illustrations of ant-eaters juggling, kungfu bats and mice moving furniture. The illustrations feel dreamy and timeless, with pencil colouring textures and shading and painstaking patterning – particularly the horseshoes on the dragon’s green skin.

The book speaks to unusual friendships, accepting others who may have only kind intentions despite threatening appearances, and the power of books. You can purchase it here.


Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers

This Luna is more than just a girl who loves the library. She has a special reason for loving the library, and it’s because her Dad waits for her there, and together they explore the books. Although not explicitly stated, Luna’s mother and father are separated and so this is the time she spends with her father. In a story within the story, (a physical inset), a not-so-hidden metaphor for Luna’s family situation, the enduring love for a child is explored using trolls and mermaids, despite the splitting of the family unit.

So, of course this is a book about dealing with family breakup, and yet it will appeal to all, for its illustrations are warm, affectionate, colourful and brimming with life and imagination. Lumbers depicts the library books coming to life – with vines sprouting from one book, bugs from another, and magic tricks busting from a magic book.

More than this though, is the attention to detail in the depiction of the library: the clever welcoming posters in the foyer, the comfortable chairs, the abundance of books, and the set up, which shows a spacious, well-lit modern library with a self-checkout. Lumbers and Coelho are at pains to depict not a fanciful idealisation of libraries and family life, but a confrontation of where we are and how we can still find happiness and hope within it. (Although I wish my local library was as well-lit and stocked).

Lastly, and by no means least, are the people depicted within the book. Lumbers and Coelho tick all boxes here, both the diverse mix of people using the library, but also in the comfort and ease of the body language – the children flopped over chairs, or tucked up tight, others with legs akimbo, hair wild and smiley faces. But the best – the armchair hug with Dad. You can almost feel it. You can buy it here.

 

 

 

Dragons to Light Your Fire

Dragons have generally been tarnished with the evil/badass brush for most of their mythological lives. Western mythology certainly paints dragons as evil beings designed to be fought by brave knights. But in the East, dragons are favourable creatures. They can bring good luck – and can even be helpful. Three excellent dragon books flew into MinervaReads recently…and although they did not battle, they certainly set MinervaReads on fire.

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
This silky smooth, deliciously alluring middle grade novel, about a young dragon who gets turned into a human with a penchant for chocolate (making, crafting, and eating), was devoured like a smooth cup of hot chocolate in the middle of a harsh winter.

I’m generally not that keen on fantasy stories, but this brilliantly-told adventure tale navigates the fantasy realm and yet also manages to stay rooted firmly in the friendship/adventure book stable, completely twisting up that ‘new girl moves into school/village’ premise.

Aventurine the dragon decides to prove to her family (including her ridiculously talented older siblings) how fierce and tough a dragon she is, by leaving the safe mountain cave, and venturing out to capture prey all by herself. However, the first human she meets tricks her into eating enchanted chocolate (who could resist the aroma?), and she is turned into a human.

The bulk of the novel follows Aventurine as she moves into a human town and tries to make something of herself – most particularly as a chocolate maker’s apprentice, for she cannot resist the allure of chocolate.

There are some stand-out qualities to this novel that take it from the realm of the fairly mundane fairy tale about transformations and dragons, into a really excellent novel.

The characters are all wonderfully drawn, with just a hint of mystery behind them. Silke, Aventurine’s ally and friend, is as feisty as a dragon herself, yet also wily, loyal, and brimming with emotional intelligence. As is the owner and chef at the chocolate shop who employs Aventurine (notice how they’re all female). Each character comes across as startlingly real and three-dimensional – they lose their tempers and metaphorically breathe out fire occasionally, but they are also graceful in their presentation, and fierce in their passions.

There is, of course, much love for chocolate. It’s hard to read the book and not want to eat some, which shows how well the descriptions work, but also there’s some interesting detail on cocoa nibs etc.

But I think my favourite quality is the excellent use of observation. Aventurine comes into the human world without having a clue about it, and it’s her witty ignorance that fills the book with humour – from the hair on people’s faces, to the clothes they wear, the things they value, and the similarities in family structures between her dragon family and human families. Much is made of class, greed and hierarchy in the book, and it works well, and can easily lead to further discussion. Patronage, corruption, bureaucracy and blame are addressed too.

Of course the overall message is not to judge by appearance. Aventurine has the same personality whether she wears a dragon skin, or inhabits a human skin. There’s also a great message about fear of failure – how failure can destroy confidence, and yet above all what’s needed is grit and determination. Hard work pays off. Loyalty is rewarded.

For a contemporary audience, I loved how the images of chocolate fit with today’s taste for spicing up chocolate with flavours, such as chilli chocolate etc. It’s a sweet and flavoursome book, which you’ll devour like a dragon. For ages 9+ years. You can taste the book here.

Build the Dragon by Dugald Steer, illustrated by Jonathan Woodward and Douglas Carrel
Part activity, part book, this is great for all dragon enthusiasts.

A comprehensive guide to dragons frames this Build the Dragon kit, which includes 46 pieces that are easily slotted together to make your own 3-D model. The dragon comes with moving parts – a jaw that opens and shuts with a lever, and a windup motor that makes the dragon’s wings flap. Once the model was built (taking an eleven year old child just over an hour on their own, with only a slight struggle with the motorised wings), we set to exploring the accompanying text.

my dragon (which went down a treat in the school library)

This is a 32 page large full-colour exploration of everything dragon, from a definition, to legends, habitats, anatomy, diet and reproduction. The author has split the world of dragons into Western and Eastern, highlighting the extreme differences between the two, and then used tales of dragons from mythology to highlight their various characteristics as if they were real.

Each paragraph of information is accompanied by an illustration or diagram, some captioned, and the text is neatly written – easy to understand and containing a dense amount of information in bite-size chunks.

There is much to learn here – from the Guardians of Flaming Pearls to the Venom Spitter, a dragon that didn’t breathe fire, but was referenced in a London pamphlet in 1614, which explained that the dragon had used its violent poison to kill both men and cattle. Other highlights include the map of the world showing global myths, and the dragon scales chart.

The book ends with a sumptuous colourful dragon guide, highlighting earliest representations of dragons, which vary from written references in AD 680, to depictions on Egyptian bowls in BC 4000.

It is excellent and thoughtful of the publishers to provide duplicates of the delicate wings in case they tear, because the motorised wings were fiddly to build and we didn’t think would hold up to much play once built, but the rest of the model is constructed from robust cardboard. I also would have loved to know the authors’ key sources for their information.

Invest in your dragon model here.

The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook by Katie Haworth, illustrated by Monica Armino
Another comprehensive tome that takes the premise that dragons are real. This is fiction masquerading as non-fiction, a guide to looking after dragons – almost like a ‘bringing up baby manual’ – with fabulous full-colour illustrations that both give information and lend a comedic element to the book.

The opening letter of the text talks to the reader as if they have succeeded in applying to look after the dragon, and this book is the starter guide – at this point I began to have palpitations in much the same way as I do opening Ikea furniture instructions.

However, the instructions here are much better written, more informative, and massively more fun. There is a wonderful sense of humour pulsating throughout the book from the suggested equipment at the beginning – such as oven gloves for handling anything the dragon has set fire to – to the advice on where learn to fly the dragon – several hundred miles from human habitation.

As well as the fun in the text, the book is hugely interactive. Spinning wheels, flaps to lift, pop up flying dragons, books within the book, and the ultimately hilarious happy/fierce face flip dragon towards the end.

There is a huge amount of information taken from dragon-lore, such as famous paintings that portray dragons, popular stories, and the different types of dragon from around the world. Brilliantly, it would perfectly complement the Build the Dragon book reviewed above, if your child (or you) have a particular penchant for dragons.

This is a book to make you smile and give much pleasure. By the end I felt competent to look after and even attempt to fly my own dragon. Get yourself a similar skillset here.

Defender of the Realm by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler

Defender of the Realm

A superb premise, well executed. It’s easy to tell that authors Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler are screenwriters – the book begins with an action scene of the heir to the British throne dashing through the streets to avoid both paparazzi and security guards. You can almost hear the director’s voice – zooming the camera in here, sweeping through the streets there.

Fourteen year old Alfie is a reluctant heir to the throne, particularly when his father dies suddenly and it is thrust upon him rather more prematurely than he had hoped. However, there’s more to the job than photo ops and ribbon cutting – and Alfie discovers that the lineage of royalty is also a lineage of superhero power – fighting a centuries old battle against monsters and supervillains (all in immense secrecy – the public is unaware of the King’s dual royal).

At the same time, the reader’s focus is drawn to a commoner – teenager Hayley Hicks – who happens to get caught up in one of the secret battles, and before long is more embroiled in royal shenanigans than she could imagine. She is the perfect antithesis to the privileges and snobbery of royalty, and a great sparring partner for Alfie.

What’s delightful about this novel, as well as the constant flux between ‘real’ life and ‘fantasy’, and the grounding of the teens who are as normal, acerbic, and witty as a reader could want – is the phenomenal ‘history-building’ that the authors have imagined to accompany their premise.

Alfie has a ‘mentor’ and guide in the shape of advisor, Lord Chamberlain, who is a great pontificating character. He teaches ‘real’ history to Alfie, including the magical powers of the crown jewels, how King Alfred the Great really fought the Vikings (and their dogs!), how Elizabeth I fought the Spanish king and his armada of vampire mermaids…plus a whole new way at looking at Beefeaters.

It’s lovely because it ties in British history, especially the places Alfie must go to fight the Black Dragon: Westbury, Stonehenge, Edinburgh Castle, as well as royal settings in his real life rather than superhero life – the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, even Harrow School. This makes the book very British in ‘feel’, which is exactly how a book about royalty should be.

The characters are all well drawn, the action is relentless, the plot tight. But most of all it’s pure fun. This book definitely gets my royal seal of approval. You can buy a copy here.

For age 8+

An Interview with Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, authors of Defender of the Realm

Defender of the Realm

Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler are an Emmy and Bafta-Nominated screenwriting partnership, and scriptwriters of the new and highly acclaimed Danger Mouse. Their first foray into the world of children’s publishing, Defender of the Realm, is published on World Book Day – it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s an action-packed, gripping novel, about fourteen year old Alfie, heir to the throne. What Alfie doesn’t realise is that as well as becoming King, he also assumes the inherited role of ‘Defender’ – superhero, who must battle to save the country from the Black Dragon. My review will be published Sunday, but I had the honour of interviewing the writing duo behind this fab new series. This is what they said.

You’re an award-nominated screenwriting duo. What made you decide to write a children’s book?

Well, we both love books in the fantasy genre for this age and writing a novel was always something we wanted to try. But really, it was the content that dictated the form in this instance. Defender of the Realm takes place in a parallel reality version of Britain and we needed to figure out the big rules for that universe… a universe where monsters are real and Kings and Queens are secret super heroes. We felt only a book would allow us the freedom to explore all of that in depth and get it right!

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There are a lot of inventive ideas in the book such as the magic of the crown jewels and playful ideas with the magic of lineage. How did you come up with them?

It all flowed really from the “what if?” idea of Kings and Queens being secret superheroes. That was the big idea and from there, the supporting ideas of magical crown jewels, alternative secret history of Britain and inherited blue blood super powers seemed to come naturally. It was so much fun to work on because of that, you know you’re on to something when the ideas don’t stop. It felt like striking oil! The rules of it all were hard to figure out and pin down but that was part of the job of this book, set out the stall for our world and tell it in a fun and exciting way. We did a lot of research into the royal history of Britain as well. The more we looked into the idea of monarchy, the greater the similarities to superheroes were apparent.

Writing is usually quite a solitary act, how do you pen a novel together? What are your writing practises?

We’ve got immense respect for writers who write on their own. It’s a tough gig keeping a level head when dealing with the ups and downs of the business and keeping yourself fresh, happy and ready to write! So it helps to have someone to laugh with about things- so much of this business is out of your control it’s good to have someone alongside reminding you of that. Work wise,  we spend a lot of time talking before writing anything, a habit picked up in screenwriting where producers invariably want to see outlines before you can proceed to script. So we spend hours breaking the story, then we extensively outline to the end and only then do we start writing. We take alternative chapters, then switch over, give notes and plough on, fighting to get that first “dirty draft” done. Then we rewrite. It’s fun seeing each other’s chapters because even with all the detailed outlining, we surprise each other with how we’ve written it.

The book mixes fantasy and reality, with giant powerful lizards and also the paparazzi and a citizen’s viewpoint, in that of Hayley. Is one of you better at fantasy and one reality?

No, it’s part and parcel of the Defender world- those rules I mentioned above. Nailing the level of reality, how the fantasy and reality of the world intersect, was part of the development we did. We both brought ideas to the table, from big action sequence ideas to smaller (but no less important!) character details.

Do either of you plan to write solo at any point? What would you miss most about the other if you did?

I don’t think so. I hope not! Cue Nick announcing a new six part, solo graphic novel. Here’s the thing: the big concept of the King or Queen of Britain as a superhero was Nick’s idea way back when and he unthinkingly and unselfishly let me in on it purely because we’re a writing partnership. It wasn’t called Defender of the Realm then, it was only a germ of an idea and it’s now very much “our” idea now. But I thought it was a great pitch with massive potential. Hopefully people will think the same after reading the book. We always say the best thing about working in a partnership is that you only have to have half a good idea and then the fun is working it up together.

Have you already written the film script for Defender of the Realm, and who would you cast as the Lord Chamberlain (a somewhat staid and grumpy, though very knowledgeable and quite endearing, authoritative character)?

Good question. Before Defender was a book we were thinking it was a big TV show or film and we considered doing it that way. As I said, doing it as a book gave us the freedom and time to explore the world and get it right. Of course, we dream that one day the film rights might sell (!) but who knows, it would be an expensive film to make and make right. I always imagined LC as Ian McKellan myself. Charles Dance would also be perfect. We’re lucky in the UK that we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to actors with great gravitas who would fit the bill. Someone with bearing, hidden depths and possessed of a withering glare!

With thanks to Mark and Nick – you can pre-order your copy of Defender of the Realm here, or you can read my review on Sunday and then buy it!

Unicorns and Dragons

Sometimes a story holds a mirror up to nature; a reader identifies completely with the actions and emotions of a character. I’m currently reading a book (for adults) by Elizabeth Strout in which a woman takes a beloved dress out of the washing machine only to find hundreds of bits of white gunk on it because her husband had left a tissue in a pocket of an outfit that went into the wash. This has happened to me more than once, and made me laugh (when I read it).

But at other times, stories are so magnificently surreal that they provide complete escapism. Both the following stories are written in the first person – as if the main character is talking to the reader, which is a lovely device for newly independent readers, building an affinity from the beginning.

louie lets loose

Louie Lets Loose: Unicorn in New York by Rachel Hamilton, illustrated by Oscar Armelles is about as far from reality as one can get, and is by the wildly talented-at-wacky writer Rachel Hamilton, author of The Case of the Exploding Loo. The story is told from Louie’s (the unicorn’s) point of view, which adds yet another screamingly funny side to the book, as he is completely un-self-aware – it’s naivety taken to a whole new level.

Louie hails from Story Land, where “mermaids, goblins and fairy folk were living in perfect harmony somewhere over the rainbow”, but sees an advert for the New York School of Performing Arts, and believes he is destined to go.

The premise becomes wonderfully more and more ridiculous, as not only does Louie end up in the big city, but there is already a famous unicorn taking all the starring roles, such as in The Unicorn, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Unicorn of Oz. Louie’s roomies at the school include a mermaid, a faun and a troll, but despite his lack of talent, and somewhat sad bunch of friends, Louie finds the gold at the end of every rainbow. He’s a unicorn with immense optimism.

Illustrations add extra laughs – his selfie in front of the Statue of Liberty is hilarious, as is the illustration at Central Park, mainly because the illustrator has cleverly superimposed Louie and other characters on top of black and white photographs of the real city.

For newly independent readers this is a laugh-out loud gem. Clashing real New York with the fairy dust and sparkles of an overly optimistic unicorn is incredibly silly, but shows lashings of imagination, fun and cupcakes. Read it and giggle. For 6+ years. There is a whole series to follow. You can buy a copy here.

theres a dragon

Another story far from reality is There’s a Dragon in my Dinner! By Tom Nicoll, illustrated by Sarah Horne. Any book that features “pull my finger” on the front is asking for trouble.

Eric Crisp opens his Chinese take-away to discover a mini-dragon hiding inside, supposedly en-route to Mexico. This dragon is not a free toy, but a live talking dragon (who can even breathe fire), and it’s not long before he’s causing all kinds of trouble.

This book is immensely readable, especially for those readers gaining in confidence to read themselves. An array of hugely entertaining, yet believable characters from a Dad who coaches a losing football team, to a yoga-mad Mum, and a hugely annoying kid next door who has everything (except a mini-dragon!)

The chapters are short and snippy, the dialogue great, and the plot interesting enough to keep a child guessing. It’s written in Eric’s voice, which is warm and witty, and also includes lovely little details such as lists and recipes.

Sarah Horne’s illustrations intersperse the text and vary from little incidentals to full page pictures. The scene in the kitchen in Chapter One manages to sum up the characters of the entire family and the domestic setting, before the dragon even arrives. Once he does, Sarah has great fun with his flying technique, his chosen place to sleep, and his dance on the video game remote control.

The mini-dragon’s character is adorable – if ever your child nagged you for a pet, be ready for them to start asking for a mini-dragon. I quite fancy adopting one myself. He might eat through a washing basket of clothes, but I bet he doesn’t leave tissues in there. For age 7+. Publishes 11 Feb 2016. You can purchase a copy here. A series is to follow.

 

 

New Year Grit

It’s the New Year. A time for resolutions, and thoughts about what’s to come. For children it’s never too early to learn the key skills of steering your own life – personal responsibility, determination and grit.

In fact, ‘grit’ has been acknowledged recently as an important indicator of academic success. It’s a tricky one as it’s a fairly undefinable characteristic – but is associated with character traits such as resilience, and perseverance. Not hanging around for ‘good luck’ to happen, but focusing on personal growth and a drive to improve. This goes back to Albert Bandura’s definition of self-efficacy as one’s belief in the ability to succeed in a situation or to accomplish a task. The psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk has been fairly well touted as a definitive guide to grit. But for the young, who may not understand a full TED talk yet, there are numerous picture books that also espouse ‘grit’:

most magnificent thing

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
This is a wonderful picture book tale of grit. A young girl (a regular one, the author makes clear) sets out to make something, assisted by her dog. The reader isn’t sure what it will be, but the girl knows it will be something magnificent. From the cover page it’s clear that this is going to be an assemblage of junk yard items, but firstly the girl starts by drawing a plan of it.

The text is simple, playful and as everyday as possible. The reader sees that the ‘regular’ girl makes things all the time, and this will be “Easy peasy!” Hilarious illustrations accompany the text, adding an extra dimension – there is a lovely scene where the girl hires her dog as an assistant – she is posed looking over glasses at the paperwork. Then when she starts to work, her American city neighbourhood is shown in the background – the buildings in black line drawing, the characters at the front – colourful and as diverse as can be.

Then the book really springs into life with the girl’s work. The vocabulary is fabulous – she “tinkers, hammers, measures,” and later “smooths, wrenches and fiddles”. After numerous attempts it’s still nowhere near magnificent. Her face shows much grit, determination and perseverance. She re-examines, she “twists and tweaks, steadies, fixes”, and even draws a crowd. But it’s not right.

Then of course, as is natural, she loses it! She “smashes” and “jams” and “pummels” and the vocabulary becomes less and less constructive, and more and more destructive, as she fails to build what’s in her imagination. She ends up hurting herself and quits.

But after a long walk with her trusty assistant, she comes to the realisation that with careful and slow work, and no distractions, she could try again. There are some brilliant learning points here – her explosion is “not her finest moment”, her discarded inventions are found to be useful by others, the illustrations show that her imagination is piqued by what’s around her on the walk….

What she makes in the end is magnificent (even though it is not perfect, and the author is keen to point out it has taken all day) – the girl and her dog are not disappointed and nor will the reader be. This reviewer certainly found the book to be a magnificent thing.

cow climbed tree

The Cow Who Climbed a Tree by Gemma Merino
More about doing what’s deemed impossible by others and following dreams than having grit, this picture book still aims to show that unless you attempt something you won’t achieve it. In magnificent watercolour, what stands out most in this picture book is the subtlety of the illustrations versus the unsubtlety of the premise.

Tina is a curious cow who reads books and comes up with ideas. Her sisters reject each of them. Then one day Tina disappears, and in order to find her, the cow sisters must follow her example and climb trees and see where she might have gone. In the end, they too believe that anything is possible – cows can climb trees, fly and even go to the moon.

The humour inherent in the illustrations is great. When Tina looks at a book, her three sisters are pictured leaning against a tree chewing the cud languorously, eyes disbelieving. When Tina explains to them about taking a rocket to the moon, the sisters are shown eating again – but this time around a kitchen table. A disinterested mouse strolls off the other side of the page. Likewise when she explains to them ridiculously incredulous stories of her meeting a vegetarian friendly dragon at the top of the tree she climbed, they are pictured dismissively strolling up the stairs to bed (mouse too).

These cows walk on two legs – the trees are pictured with round colourful watercolour leaves, almost like balloons, and when the sisters do follow Tina, they climb behind a pig on his way to flying lessons.

It’s a cute, yet beautifully composed picture book about attempting the previously thought impossible. Buy it here.

oh places you go

Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss
I’m sticking a classic picture book in here. Not all book purchases need to be of new books – many of my favourites are from the back catalogues. This is a quintessential book about keeping going, because good and bad things will happen to you, but it’s all about persevering and pushing through. Written in second person – referring directly to the reader, and also in future tense as if the reader is just beginning on the journey of life:

“And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.”

What’s great is that despite all the realism within – you’ll face slumps, be left in the lurch, lose because you’re playing a game alone, you’ll spend time alone, and be confused and sometimes frightened and face problems – you’ll get through it all, and keep moving onwards – there is eternal hope and enthusiasm on each page:

“With banner flip-flapping,
once more you’ll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you’re that kind of guy!”

Classic Seuss illustrations from fantastical creatures to colourful flying balloons, weird contraptions, balancing houses, imaginative landscapes like the craziest crazy golf you ever played – it’s all here in wondrous colours. A poem to keep you going. You can buy it here.