dyslexia

Strange Star by Emma Carroll and Thicker than Water by Anne Cassidy

straange star

Following on from Monday’s guest post by Emma Carroll, I review two recent children’s novels that draw on classic literature. Firstly, Carroll’s own novel, Strange Star, inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A modern day Frankenstein draws together so many elements – from the inspiration of classic literature on today’s contemporary writers, to the teaching and love of science for young people, and in particular, girls (STEM reaching out its tendrils to young females) and also our modern obsession with the treatment of ‘other’, which is something that, believe it or not, has existed since the dawn of time: whether what is different is perceived as monstrous simply by the fact of it being ‘other’.

Strange Star begins in June 1816 with a group of friends gathered at a villa on the banks of Lake Geneva, telling each other ghost stories. It was where Frankenstein was reputed to have been imagined by Mary Shelley as she listened to stories from Byron and Percy Shelley. Carroll uses the scene to build tension and atmospheric chill, when a thudding at the front door reveals a strange, half dead child who, on awakening, proceeds to tell her tale.

She is Lizzie Appleby, a village girl from England who speaks of strange happenings, lightning strikes, the disappearance of animals, and the strange goings-on at Eden Court near her house, where a scientist is experimenting with lightning. By the end of the book, the connection is revealed, but there are spooks and thrills along the way, and some canny plot weaving.

As in Frankenstein, Carroll repeats the narrative within a narrative framework for her tale, but she goes further than simply using the inspiration of ghost stories and internal narratives. She has cleverly played on so many of the themes buried within the original text, from the use of fire, not only in a final denouement, but also in the lightning strikes, to themes of sight and light – light providing opportunity and yet also danger, and a lack of sight providing the most insight.

Carroll’s characters are vividly imagined, and although our first narrator is a boy, the bulk of the novel is Lizzie’s narrative, and she tells of the women who surround her. Throughout the story, the strength of women shines through, despite the historical context and the struggle they must surmount to prove themselves. From women and their relationship to motherhood, to women who are prepared to work hard and sacrifice themselves in the process, to the women of science who need to prove they are as good as their male counterparts. All in some way sympathetic characters – even those, who like Dr Frankenstein, push themselves too far in blind ambition and forget to think of what or who they may be hurting along the way.

The other point of view in Strange Star (in third person) is that of Felix, Lord Byron’s servant, who is also richly portrayed, and intensely simpatico, despite his own difficulties in the face of his ‘otherness’. Carroll draws together the historical implications of all these people with their differences – be it gender or race or disability – and shows how strength of spirit and tolerance can forge through.

The writing flows as with all Carroll’s novels; the descriptions are visceral and explore all the senses, but more importantly the plot is meaty and intense. This is storytelling at its very best, and with a deliciously haunting feel to it that readers will savour long into the night. Age 12+. You can buy it here.

thicker than water

Anne Cassidy attempts to get even closer to her original text, this time Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, by recrafting her take on the story in Thicker Than Water.

George wants to run a record shop, with just enough money to get by. But he has Lennie to look after too, and despite his size, something about Lennie is not quite right and he certainly doesn’t recognise his own strength. So it’s inevitable that before long Lennie will lead them both into trouble, and with the sort of people they’re working for – the trouble will be deep and dangerous.

Of course the problem with tackling such a meaty book by an author such as Steinbeck and condensing the word count so significantly is that there isn’t time for a slow wallowing immersion into the complexity of the characters and their relationships to each other.

Steinbeck spends a large portion of his novel focussing on male relationships; a brotherly connection of protection and idealised friendship. This is what makes his tragic ending so poignant and heartfelt. Although Anne Cassidy’s also feels emotional, I think it’s a stretch to achieve quite such a wrench in a condensed novel.

There’s a languorous world-weariness in the original text, a reality come to bare that the American dream is all but an impossibility. In Thicker Than Water, George also seems to realise that his dream is probably unattainable, but the philosophical life-learning lessons to reach this realisation – anguished over in Steinbeck, is harder to pull off when reducing the age of the protagonists to teens, as Cassidy does in hers.

Although some of the moral ambiguity is stripped out, Cassidy has interpreted Steinbeck’s original thoughts on the economic turmoil and societal breakdown in America beautifully by positioning her own English characters within a pub, where a host of figures explore the lack of opportunities afforded them, and instead wallow in crime and social exclusion. This is clever and effective.

Cassidy also draws out the central premise of loyalty, and maintains some of the original themes, such as the natural world, the premise of loneliness, and the dogs.

This is a good standalone novel, or a companion piece to Of Mice and Men. There’s a quality to the text that’s dramatic, filmic even, and I could happily watch a stage adaptation of Cassidy’s too. Age 12+. You can buy it here.

Whether the reader approaches the books in ignorance of the original sparks of inspiration, or reads them as complementary novels, these are both well written, memorable novels. For me, it bumped the originals back onto the To Be Read Pile. But I’m glad I read the classics while young, for “the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain.” Thanks, Mary Shelley.

 

 

With thanks to Simon Lister for his valuable insight on OMAM.

Embarrassing Parents

It’s Father’s Day today, so for a little twist, I thought I’d feature tween books with embarrassing mums instead.

The omg blog

The OMG Blog by Karen McCombie

I was quite smitten with this slim gem of a book from the cover – which is a bit different and highly coveted by many of my readers. The book is about four secondary school girls who are thrown together for a school project, and find something in common: they all have embarrassing mums.

But far from being snipey, or menacing, this is a super little tale that shows how to make new friends, to work together and develop loyalty, as well as using empathy to be able to see parents in a new light.

Four girls meet in detention, and although seemingly different on the surface, take part in a blogging competition together. The one thing they have in common is their embarrassing mums – and they make a blog on the subject the ‘Our Mums – Grrr’ Blog – OMG. The blog is hugely successful, but will their mums discover who they’re writing about?

One of the most striking changes that happens to children in their early teens is the different way in which they view their parents. As science has shown, this is to do with conflict created by the development of the brain’s frontal lobes during adolescence, which for a short period of time means that teens can be more impulsive and are more susceptible to poorer judgement.

What makes this novel particularly clever is that the mothers (and families) aren’t out the ordinary – the embarrassment of the girls, and their frustration with their mothers, stem from small incidences that mothers do, from being too involved in their daughters’ school, to dressing and talking loudly, to befriending their children on social media. It’s tame, and yet real.

Karen McCombie is a skilful and experienced children’s writer, and she manages to create well-defined characters and a well-crafted story in quite a condensed novel. She also promotes online safety through careful writing, not preaching to her readership, but merely portraying how the internet can be used for good – an intelligent view of our current online world.

It’s a light-hearted novel, good for a quick read or for reluctant readers, with the main narrative interspersed with the girls’ blogs and the comments of their peers. As a parent, this is a reassuring read – it promotes good friendship, appreciation of family (no matter their quirks) and safe use of the online world. Highly recommended for age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

the parent problem

The Parent Problem by Anna Wilson

Another light-hearted, easy-to-read novel featuring a Year 8 girl called Skye Green, who is also mortified by her mother’s behaviour. Her mother wears bizarre clothing, dabbles in new hobbies, and invites the new neighbour’s son to babysit – even though he’s only a year older than Skye.

Told in the first person, and dotted with excerpts from Skye’s diary, the whole story is told from her own point of view, so that the reader is truly immersed in her life. Of course, that’s part of Skye’s problem – she’s extremely self-involved, and once Wilson adds to the mix Skye’s penchant for being impulsive and jumping to conclusions, it makes for some highly comic reading as the reader sees through her story.

The serious side is explored in Skye’s relationship with her best friend – as they move into adolescence it becomes apparent that loyalty towards each other is waivering as their interests start to differ, as well as their differing views on boys – one friend maturing before the other can be a tricky part of tweendom to navigate. Anna Wilson exploits every teen’s fear of losing friendship, and explores the perceived hurts and betrayals on both sides. There’s also a focus on bullying in today’s world, as Skye’s own embarrassing moments are filmed by her peers on their phones and shared widely. The perpetrators of this seem not to be punished though, merely threatened by others with their own embarrassing moments – perhaps this is truer to life than the adult world intervening.

Skye’s mother does intervene in her daughter’s best friend problems though, and helps her to navigate through – despite being embarrassing, it turns out mothers can be good listeners.

This is a comforting read – it doesn’t push any boundaries, but merely lays out friendship struggles and points to the perils of narcissism. When Skye finally sees beyond her own dramas, she embraces her family wholeheartedly.

There are many endearing and warming features about this book – from the boy next door, who is portrayed as far from perfect but completely adorable in his own way, to Skye’s obsession with books – she talks about what she’s reading and why she likes it – almost like a recommendation list within a book, which explores a breadth of reading and is good fun. This reader obviously particularly enjoyed that aspect. The interplay between school and home life is well depicted, as are themes of jealousy, younger siblings, and realising that parents are humans too. You can purchase it here.

 

Football Fever

Friday saw the start of the EURO2016 tournament. Cue great excitement in certain households, particularly those that are fed up with talking about the ‘other’ European issue. Although I hate to be gender divisive when talking about books, it does seem to follow that boys who are reluctant readers and prefer to play football can be enticed with a football book. Those of you who follow me weekly will be tired of my anecdote that my son learned to read from the Sky Sports News tickertape – but it’s true. I personally adore football (season ticket holder from the age of 13yrs until it was nabbed by my son), so as a girl into football and children’s books – these newly published titles won me over.

callum new team

Scotland Stars FC: Calum’s New Team by Danny Scott, illustrated by Alice A Morentorn

For a slightly more integrationist blog, this is a book about football set in Scotland – but completely suitable and enjoyable for England fans too (or anyone). This first in the series tells the story of Calum, newly moved to the area and struggling for a place on the school football team. It doesn’t help that another child’s parent runs the team (somewhat unfairly), and that Calum doesn’t have astroturf boots – but these things are soon remedied and it becomes all about the skill.

Written by Danny Scott, who works for the Scottish Book Trust, and is a huge football fan – the love for the game and for literacy shines through the text. It’s easy to read, with a manageable vocabulary and a plot that moves along quickly and realistically.

Interspersed with zazzy illustrations from Alice A Morentorn and complete with trading cards inside, this is a young football fan’s dream story. It touched a nerve here – the things mentioned in the book absolutely happen – which makes it completely relatable. The characters are sympathetically drawn – even Calum’s busy parents. Of course there’s the usual happiness at the end – so many fictional football teams win trophies and beat rivals (in the end) – in real life if you’re a Spurs fan the wait can be a little longer than the time it takes to read a book….

For age 6+ years. A cracking addition to the team. Purchase your copy here. Three titles have been published, and there are more to follow in August.

over the line

Over the Line by Tom Palmer, illustrated by Ollie Cuthbertson

Another brilliant story from Tom Palmer that integrates love for football with historical fiction. Over the Line tells a fictional story about the professional footballers who fought in the First World War. With astute attention to detail and historical research, the story maintains an integrity throughout as it pushes to tell the story of the brave men who fought in the war, but at the same time exploits the passion and drama of the beautiful game.

Jack makes his debut as a professional footballer, but unfortunately for him the year is 1914, and there is huge pressure on the fit young men to sign up for the war effort. Jack bravely does so and shows the same courage and team spirit on the fields in France as on the football pitch. All the time, dreaming of when he can return home to London and play football.

The youth of the boys fighting, the horrors of the front line and the confrontation with death and killing are all embedded within Tom Palmer’s text, but with pathos and tenderness. Jack is a warm and loveable protagonist, and although the reader knows the odds must be stacked against him, the tension is dissipated by the belief in his ability to survive and go on to triumph.

What was particularly compelling was the inner thoughts of Jack, pervading each scene, and giving the reader a good insight into the sights and sounds of war, as well as the feelings behind being picked for a team – even as a professional.

From the team at Barrington Stoke, so it is highly readable and not too long, but also ties in beautifully with Euro 2016 and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. See resources here. Age 8+ years. You can buy the book here.

booked

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Ever since the publication of Crossover, readers have been begging me for a similar title, but about football rather than US-focussed basketball. Kwame Alexander delivers again with this novel in free verse for the teen market, this time with the focus on football rather than basketball.

Twelve year old Nick is the star of the football team, but he struggles to keep his head in the game when things at home start to break down. Add to the mix a school bully and a potential girlfriend, and Nick begins to see that although football may be everything, sometimes it has to take the back foot.

Kwame Alexander’s word play is always fresh and exciting, and this novel doesn’t let the team down – it continues in brilliant free verse, using text messages, dialogue and even t-shirt slogans to move the plot along. There’s a wide-ranging vocabulary, all explained in footnotes, and a mixed relationship with words, as Nick’s Dad insists on him reading a dictionary to better himself, whereas Nick would rather live in the world of texting and football, until the girl he likes explains how wonderful books and words can be.

Alexander’s characters are all well-rounded, even from such sparse poetry – with background stories for them all, and a wonderfully quirky school librarian who plays an integral part in Nick’s story, and a brilliantly depicted best friend.

The emotion is raw, emphasised by the use of poetry, and the blank spaces between the words. Nick’s pain comes across strongly; the poem on page 59 is particularly poignant.

The homage to the poet Langston Hughes is noticeable here in the different strands of poetry; the ‘jazz poetry’ that portrays the physicality of sports in particular. Alexander also integrates the titles of each poem into the poetry itself and utilises the white space on the page, all great examples of how much can be said in the implication rather than the spoken word.

There’s not as much football in here as there was basketball in Crossover, and the love for the game doesn’t come across quite as strongly – the sporty poems don’t have quite the same bounce as in the previous book, but the backstory is so emotive and the characters so real that football fan readers will still appreciate the story, and reluctant readers will soak it up. Age 9+ years. You can buy a copy here.

Young football fans might also like to catch CBBC’s adaptation of the Jamie Johnson football books by Dan Freedman. Starting tomorrow, Monday 13 June, at 5pm.

History Meets Sports

Two skilled sports’ writers this week who have brought together their favourite sports and combined them with history. This is not revolutionary – merely apt. All sports enthusiasts tend to have a good idea of their club’s or sport’s history – whether it’s when their club last won the league, statistics from last season, or world records. These two stories incorporate ghosts and heritage – because aren’t all sportsmen haunted in some way by the legends who came before them?

wings flyboy

Wings: Flyboy by Tom Palmer, illustrated by David Shephard
The author of Football Academy, among many other titles, Tom Palmer excels at bringing football and reading together. His latest series is called Wings, and cleverly incorporates RAF planes (he wrote the books whilst being the RAF Museum’s Writer in Residence) into his scintillating football stories.

Four children attend a football summer camp near an old airfield, and mysteriously get sucked into the past. Part time-travel, part war-story, part football story, this slim book combines all these elements in a fast-paced action packed adventure.

Jatinder is a great footballer, but a bit lax about taking risks on the field – he prefers to play it safe. But when he starts to read a book about World War I pilot Hardit Singh Malik, he gets sucked back in time and finds himself transported into a cockpit – flying Hardit’s fighter plane in enemy airspace.

Tom Palmer writes with breath-taking ease – pulling the reader right into the action so that the sights and dangers of the situation seem real. With great historical detail, yet modern language and thought, Jatinder is a believable character who learns from this time travelling adventure, and carries his new sense of possibility to the football pitch.

Hugely exciting, and a clever entwining of genres, Tom Palmer’s new series is one to watch. It’s also particularly suitable for struggling or dyslexic readers, and comes with a model aeroplane. Assume those wings and fly into reading here.

rugby flyer

Rugby Flyer by Gerard Siggins
There aren’t many books for children about rugby – and yet, outside of North America, rugby is the world’s second most popular game, behind football (soccer). The 2015 Rugby World cup attracted TV coverage in 207 territories.

And so many sports books fall into the fairy story trap of just delineating an underdog triumphing. Siggins, a former sports journalist, has approached this series with a difference – incorporating Irish heritage, the supernatural and, in this particular book in the series, sportsmanship and rivalry – incredibly good topics to deal with.

The series starts with Eoin at a new school, learning rugby as a new sport. By this title, Rugby Flyer, the fourth in the series, Eoin has been chosen for a special rugby summer camp and is looking to make the team heading for Twickenham, London.

Supernatural elements continue in this book, as Eoin tries to solve the mystery of a Russian ghost figure and his connections to Ireland and rugby.

But the lessons learned during the rugby scenes are particularly poignant – Siggins incorporates the tactics of the game, handling rivalry as Eoin and his friend play on opposing teams, following the progress of Eoin’s character as he learns when winning really counts, and when to be aware of sportsmanship and how you play, but all within an exciting and developing storyline, so the reader doesn’t notice the teaching. The scenes are vivid and fast moving, and yet also woven into the book are subplots and peripheral characters – all very real, and all adding to the general action.

Siggins adds a warmth to his characters, and manages to convey a special relationship between grandson and grandfather. It’s also particularly enjoyable to read the scenes of the teammates off pitch as well – their ability to get along, or not, and in particular, the scene where the squad go bowling adds to the dynamics of competitiveness, rivalry, friendship, loyalty and integral values.

An intriguing series, aged 9+ years. You can try it here.

 

Shakespeare 400

As you will know by now, 2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare died. It’s quite difficult to review Shakespeare books for children, as most adults come to the plays with at least a gist of the plot line, and also with a preconceived notion of who Shakespeare was and the influence he wields over our inherited culture, whereas children are approaching him afresh. As someone who studied Shakespeare at university, it’s hard to separate existing knowledge from the presentation of Shakespeare in children’s stories, but seeing as it is a big Shakespeare year, I thought I’d reach out to children’s publishers and see what they are producing for the commemoration. And this is what I found.

to wee or not

To Wee or Not to Wee! By Pamela Butchart and Thomas Flintham

Pamela Butchart is a favourite children’s comic author, and she has tackled Shakespeare with aplomb. After taking part in the BBC School Radio Shakespeare Retold project, she has tried her hand at retelling four of the best known Shakespeare plays in this little collection: Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet.

Each story starts by introducing the role call of characters, as one would at the start of a play, but then each story reverts to prose. The stories are told by a contemporary child, Izzy, who is something of an expert on the stories, and likes to show off how things that happen in her life can be related to Shakespeare plays.

For example, her friend Zach is totally indecisive, and she compares this to Hamlet – and proceeds to tell her friends the story. Likewise, a feud between her mother and her friend’s mother over invitations to a party is relatable to the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. Sort of.

It’s completely tongue in cheek, and made me snort out loud, not only in the tenuous connections between Izzy’s life and Shakespeare, but also in her retellings. For example Ophelia is fed up that Hamlet doesn’t want to marry her, not only because he’s mean to her, but also because her wedding dress is non-refundable.

Izzy explains how the Capulets and Montagues fell out over a hoover. Izzy thinks Macbeth should have de-stressed a little by doing a Sudoku instead of burning Macduff’s house down to the ground and killing all his family. Butchart brilliantly conveys the excitement, madcapness, blood, gore and love twists in her stories, but also adds a brilliantly modern childlike prose style to capture emotions.

Some fabulous illustrations accompany the text – as well as much of the text being in huge capitals or squiggles to convey when people are POISONED, or MURDERED or IN LOVE.

They are funny, thrilling and funny again. Never before has the retelling of Hamlet made me laugh so much. And of course there’s always Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has a man called Bottom in it. Perfect for children of all ages – even the grown up kind. Highly recommend. You can buy it here.

boy and globe

The Boy and the Globe by Tony Bradman, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones

With precision and acute attention to detail, master storyteller Tony Bradman illuminates the time of Shakespeare with a brilliant little story about Toby, a young orphan on the streets of London during the time of Shakespeare.

Sent by a Fagin type ringmaster called Moll Cut-Purse, Toby tries his criminal luck pickpocketing at the Globe. But he stumbles across a certain famous playwright, who needs Toby’s help in more ways than one. Before long, Toby is staking out rival players at the Rose theatre, helping Will with sticky plot points, and even acting in a play himself.

The story whizzes along in a jaunty and happy style. The young Toby is peppy and interesting and perks up the character of Shakespeare, who is portrayed as slightly jaded and in need of some youthful spark. Bradman has set his story towards the end of Shakespeare’s London playwriting career, so that his reputation already preceded him.

The story is fun in itself, but the huge amount of historical detail simply dropped into the story means that the reader comes away with a good picture of how life was in Shakespeare’s time. Added to this, are the production touches given to the book itself – from the endpapers (covered in Yorick skulls) to the fake splodges of ink on the pages, which lend themselves to the idea of the book being written by quill, and the contents – laid out like the beginning of Shakespeare plays, complete with the cast, the time and the place. Tom Morgan-Jones has inked his own unique illustrations, beautifully illuminating scenes and emotions.

The story manages to explain the idea behind The Tempest, the role of the players, the rival theatres, and Shakespeare himself, all in short chapters and encapsulated within a ‘ducking and diving’ action story.

The activities at the end of the book add further colour, with street scenes and Shakespearean insults. And it’s dyslexia-friendly too. Read this and you certainly won’t have “a February face, So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.” You can purchase it here.

wills words

Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk by Jane Sutcliffe and John Shelley

A phenomenal book, with wise words and witty illustrations, drawing attention to which words Shakespeare created and brought into common usage – so much of our language today. It cleverly describes, in a few well-chosen words, what it was like in Shakespeare’s time – from the streets of London to inside the Globe, and backstage. Each double page spread shows a hugely colourful illustration packed with people and historical detail – almost a Shakespeare Where’s Wally.

Jane Sutcliffe summarises what’s happening in the scene, using words and phrases that are now in general usage thanks to Shakespeare – either words he invented himself, or words that he simply brought into common usage. A box-off at the side explains the phrases, any changes in meaning, and which play they come from.

It’s an ingenious concept, superbly executed – I could have read pages more. The illustrations are worth poring over. The packed London scenes include the stocks, pickpockets, sedan chairs, and different classes of people in the hustle and bustle of an ordinary day. John Shelley shows us old-school bridges with houses and buildings stretching across the Thames, as well as the first printers – churning out leaflets to advertise Shakespeare’s new plays.

The scenes in the Globe portray different plays, as well as a cross-section of backstage, which is brilliantly done – a trapdoor, a costume room etc. The audience too is amazingly detailed – you can see whether the audience is shocked by the tragedy, roused by the history, and amused by the comedy. There’s even a fascinating explanation of the theatrical phrase ‘box office’.

The text is easy to read, and well-written – and hugely enjoyable, as is the postscript from Jane at the end, which winningly describes the relevance of Shakespeare. He made his audiences feel – and this book too makes the reader feel – it’s inspirational and makes you want to delve further into Shakespeare. Standing ovation all round (except of course, most of them were already standing at The Globe!) Get this one here.

romeo short sharp

Short Sharp Shakespeare Stories: Romeo and Juliet retold by Anna Claybourne, illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones

It’d be remiss of me not to include a series of Shakespeare books that retell each play singly, so that readers getting to grips with Shakespeare can pick and choose which play they want to learn about. These Short Sharp Shakespeare books really break down each play, and as above, they are illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones, who manages to inject each illustration with wit, and personality.

After introducing the gist of the story and the who’s who with a strangely complicated graphic, the story is told in prosaic chapters with contemporary language, although with the authentic elements left in, such as duels, swords, candles and silver platters. Every so often an illustration features a speech bubble with the original language, and this is extrapolated at the bottom of the page to explain difficult words and phrases.

The text reads with enough wit and pace and fun to grip the reader:

“…he suddenly saw the most enchanting, heart-stoppingly pretty girl he had ever laid eyes on. It was not Rosaline. Rosaline was forgotten at once.”

The pages at the back provide extra tidbits for project work, including explanations of the difference between prose, dialogue and stage directions – writing as a play as opposed to a novel, breaks down the play into acts, gives some context to Shakespeare and the stage, as well as introducing the main themes within the play. A really perfect guide for readers being introduced to the plays, either before studying the original, or before viewing on stage. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

shakespeare sticker

Usborne Shakespeare Sticker Book, illustrated by Paul Nicholls and written by Rob Lloyd Jones

This is a completely different way to approach Shakespeare of course, but leads with factual elements, overseen by an expert from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, so is reliable information. The first few pages set the scene by describing the idea of ‘players’ to perform plays, and go on to discuss life in London at the time, and the Globe playhouse – bringing history to life with intricate details. Each spread has a small amount of text and a large backdrop and then it’s up to the reader to drop in the stickers where they like.

This is where the fun begins. The stickers are light-hearted and hilarious – from the overly dramatic expressions of the players to the spectator who is clearly bored and asleep. There is a lovely selection of rats to place in the scenes of London life, and some brilliant sword-fighting stickers for the scenes at The Globe. The last few spreads are dedicated to a few select plays, including The Tempest, Midsummer, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Illustrator Paul Nicholls has gone to town on the witches for Macbeth, the fish in The Tempest, and fairy wings for Midsummer. Hilarious and captivating. I can’t wait to start sticking. Especially the numerous angry Romans with blood-dripping daggers in Julius Caesar. Try it here.

It’s Shakespeare Saturday this weekend, 23 April. See here for participating bookshops, and grab a Shakespeare Saturday tote bag as part of Books Are My Bag campaign.

Bikes, Trains and Boats

No information books about transport here, but three lively stories for newly independent readers. Each contains phenomenal illustrations, making these all easy transitions from picture books.

the secret railway

The Secret Railway by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Sam Usher

This is a sparkling book, everything one could want for a young child starting to read, as it bursts with joy and magic and the silliness of fantasy lands where anything is possible. Wendy Meddour is the author of the quirky series Wendy Quill, as well as more recently, How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel, and she does have a wacky way of looking at things, which is a delight in a young children’s book.

A gorgeous sibling relationship between older brother Leo and younger sister Ella develops throughout the story. The children have moved house and while the parents unpack, the siblings go exploring and discover a secret railway in the station workshop of their new station house. But of course it’s not just a disused train line, but a magical railway that leads to the Kingdom of Izzambard where Griselda, the Master Clockmaker, has stopped time.

Riding the train in error, Ella and Leo are informed that they must return the magic magnifying glass to The Chief Snarkarian at The Great, Grand Library of the Snarks, and receive a key in return that will help them back to their own world. It’s as crazy as it sounds, but satisfyingly eventful and imaginative. With swooping mechanical birds, butterfly spies, and a marketplace full of beavers reminiscent of the munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, this is a jam-packed story of wonder and adventure. For an early reader it bursts with action and non-stop fun.

The book talks to the reader with text that is spunky and full of vitality, from the beginning where it asks for the readers’ tickets, to the description of ‘ordinary children’:

“Ella and Leo Leggit were not ordinary children. ‘Well, of course, you’ll say: ‘No children are’
And you’d be right. I’m sure you’re very peculiar. But what I mean is, Ella and Leo were extremely not ordinary.”

Each chapter is a different platform number, and the entire story is accentuated by Sam Usher’s now distinctive and endearing illustrations. Usher draws the sort of children that you want to hug, and manages to make every scene seem three-dimensional – you could just step into the story.

More to follow in The Secret Railway and the Crystal Caves in July 2016. You can chug along on the first Secret Railway here.

grey island red boat

Grey Island Red Boat by Ian Beck

A Little Gem by name (from Barrington Stoke’s Early Reader series) and a little gem by nature, Ian Beck writes a story that makes you want to sink back into a comfortable chair and be sailed away into the magic. He tells a modern day fairy tale with his own illustrations punctuating the text, and has dedicated it to his grandson. It’s exactly the tale you would imagine a grandparent telling a grandchild.

A princess lives with her father, the King, on the Island of Ashes. As the reader may expect from the name, everything on the island is grey. The sea, the sky, the land. The black and white illustrations convey this too. It rains all the time, and the month is always November. The princess feels that something is missing, and the tone of the text is muted, sad and withdrawn.

Then one day a small boat washes up on the island – and there’s something different about it. It’s red. Before long the stranger aboard has disembarked and is colouring the world with every touch of his hand. Some people are bewitched by this – the Princess and others feel “tickled” by it. But the King fears change, and takes action to prevent it, although change proves inevitable.

Ian Beck brilliantly captures the rhythm of a fairy tale or legend, as well as an underlying depth beneath the simple story. Reading the book was like feeling a warmth spread across one’s body. Children will adore the gradual introduction of colour into the illustrated landscapes, and the perfectly easy descriptions of the feelings colour gives the people on the island. Adults will see the depth of the message. You can buy it here.

fergus

Flying Fergus: The Best Birthday Bike by Chris Hoy, with Joanna Nadin, illustrated by Clare Elsom

Sometimes I feel reluctant to review ‘celeb’ books on the blog, knowing that they will probably gain a huge audience in the wider press anyway. But the publishers have paired Hoy with children’s author Joanna Nadin quite brilliantly, and the result is a hugely entertaining story.

Fergus desperately wants a Sullivan Swift for his ninth birthday. A stupendous bike with “24 gears, hydraulic brakes and state of the art suspension.” When he receives a rusty old second hand bike, he’s a little disappointed. Until he discovers something magical happens when he rides it in the right way.

The story whisks the reader into a fantasyland, complete with a princess (who wears mismatched welly boots), a Swamp of Certain Death, and some rather ridiculous rules.

Clare Elsom’s illustrations deserve great credit. The book is jam-packed with them, and each is as funny and madcap as the text. The princess in particular, with her dishevelled hair and wonky eyes, is a sight to behold. There are also two maps at the beginning.

But despite cramming this slim little early reader with oodles of fun and endless adventures, there are still some great messages within. Fergus has a heart-warming relationship with his grandfather, who is endlessly encouraging about Fergus’s ambition to win a cycle race. But he firmly believes that it’s not about luck – it’s about hard graft.

There is also some poignancy within the story as Fergus’ father has been missing from his life for nine years and Fergus still dreams of finding him and making his father proud.

There are so many facets to this book that each child will be able to extract their own enjoyment – whether it be fantasy, the reality of the bullies, a missing father, a princess, or simply ambitions and dreams. A good start to the series. Pedal your way to your copy here.

 

 

Easter Chocolate Fun

The chocolate Rain

When I was little my favourite book was The Chocolate Rain by Bronnie Cunningham. It was a book used to teach children to read, A Hamlyn Robin Level 6, in fact. The little boy can’t believe it when it starts to rain:

“It began to rain
but it was not raining rain drops.
It was raining chocolate drops.”

He eats as much as he can, but then the sun comes out and the chocolate melts and creates a big brown puddle, and then a lake:

“Jack went swimming in it. It was very sticky in the chocolate.
Jack’s mother said, “Go home, you are all sticky.”

I’m not sure what captivated me about the book – probably the singsong repetitiveness of the text, but mainly of course, the subject matter. (it’s now sadly out of print).

great chocoplot

Thinking about how so much of children’s literature is dependent on food; the Famous Five and their ginger beer picnics, midnight feasts at boarding schools, and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, it’s baffling that there aren’t more chocolate books. Of course there’s the dominant Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, which I won’t review, as I’m sure you’ve ALL consumed more than your fair share of Willy Wonka’s magic, but now, there’s also The Great Chocoplot by Chris Callaghan, with its shiny purple cover.

Jelly and her chocolate-obsessed parents live in a town with a chocolate factory (no, not that one!). Everyone loves eating chocolate – they eat it all the time in fact, especially Blocka Choca bars. And everyone depends on the chocolate industry. Then a news report announces that according to an ancient prophesy on Easter Egg Island, there will be a chocopocalypse in six days, resulting in no more chocolate…ever!

Jelly notices something strange about the ‘posh’ chocolate shop in town, which sells horrid chocolate, and is run by Garibaldi Chocolati, who doesn’t seem perturbed about the coming meltdown. Together with her Gran (who lives in the caravan on Jelly’s driveway), Jelly sets off to investigate if there is a chocopocalypse or just an evil chocoplot.

Chris Callaghan has captured the silliness and craziness of his idea (subtitle Who Ate All the Chocolate?), jam-sandwiching it with modern sensibilities – Jelly downloads an app to countdown to the chocopocalypse, uses text messages to communicate, and foils dastardly plans with satnav.

But despite the eccentric villain, crackpot characters, and a host of fun, there is a hint of seriousness behind the book. There are underlying messages about the impending doom when a town dependent on one product is faced with its extinction. Jelly is particularly concerned about how tired her mother is from working nights at the supermarket, and the economy of the town. And under the glitzy wrapper of shiny gloss there is a tiny dark hint of being over-reliant on something for happiness.

“’Eat it! Eat it!’ yelled Mum and Dad together.
Jelly broke off a chunk and popped it into her mouth. Instantly a familiar sensation filled her mouth, and her heart beat faster, flooding her brain with pulses of pure joy.”

It did the trick though, with the glossy purple cover winking at me, and the inevitable descriptions of people constantly eating chocolate, by the end I was desperate for my own “meltilicious chocodreaminess”. If this is anything to go by, this debut novelist will have us all eating out of his hand. Age 7+ years. You can taste it here.

whizz pop chocolate

Of course the inimitable Kate Saunders wrote The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop some time ago, which is also well worth dipping into. Twins Oz and Lily have inherited an ancient chocolate shop and are moving in. But of course it’s not that simple, and soon the twins become involved in ancient family history –which just happens to be of the magical sort – with witches and wizards galore, and a Secret Ministry of the Unexplained in an undercover world. There’s a cast of eccentrics, which includes a talking rat and a helpful cat called Demerara (a favourite of mine, not just because of the name, but also its penchant for glitter).

It turns out chocolate is pretty special, the moulds holding the secret to immortality. And of course there’s some villainy too. This is a magical mix of spy genre, adventure, mystery, and good old-fashioned British eccentricity, with a healthy dose of a girl with dyslexia saving the day.

With so many elements and a twisty plot, the book isn’t smooth chocolate, but a nice nutty mix of crunch, richness, gloss and sweetness, and there’s no surprise that the cover of this one too, is that famous shiny purple. Age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Reading with Benefits

reading

I like reading. I do it for fun as well as for work. I read as a reader, a reviewer, and as a writer. All different kinds of reading, and I’m told that reading decreases stress – that it enhances my wellbeing. The University of Sussex found that reading reduces stress by 68 per cent – according to cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis (2009). Of course for me personally, I wonder whether my stress at my ‘to be read’ and ‘deadline’ pile negates the positive well-being I’m supposed to derive from the actual reading?

Why do we place so much importance on our children reading? There are huge benefits to reading as well as reducing stress, including building empathy and enhancing well-being – it increases educational achievement in many areas; language development, general knowledge, grammar and comprehension, and it has positive emotional and social consequences (DfE 2012).

But what actually happens to our brain when we read? There have been numerous studies recently to try to discern this. From the researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who asked participants in their research to read a chapter of Harry Potter while hooked up to functional magnetic resonance scanning machines, to the dyslexia studies of Dr Shaywitz at Yale University, which show that readers sound out words they see even silently inside their heads – and when they can’t sound out the words their brains look different on an MRI.

At the moment UK schools tend to teach reading by teaching phonics – decoding the sounds. This triggers the ‘language’ part of the brain. But even before school, toddlers often pretend to read a story by turning the pages of a book, especially when it has just been read to them. Why do they do this? They are mimicking the action of their parents, and if the parent has read the story to them over and over – then they often learn it by rote. They are picking up the language through sight and memory already.

This works in the same way as facial expressions and speech – babies and toddlers learn through imitation. So when they learn to read, it’s actually just like talking.

Some MRI studies show that readers sound out words they see – once they progress beyond school – they still sound out the words but silently in their heads. In fact we learn to read one sound at a time – just how we talk. This is important in terms of phonics or decoding, because the English language contains only about 44 sounds, whereas there are more than 1 million words – so if you learned to read by sight memory alone it would take longer.

However, a reader has to take into account the order of the sounds – the irregularities in the English language – in fact nearly 13 per cent of English words contain ‘exceptions’ to the sound rules. It’s a wonder any of us learns to read at all!

All this decoding lights up the part of our brain that deals with language and then we commit words to our memory (the hippocampus) as we decode and comprehend them. But researchers have also discovered that what you read lights up different parts of the brain.

Studies at Lancaster University (2015) showed that with passages from Harry Potter the more emotionally arousing words that the text contained, the more the readers’ left amygdalas – the part of the brain that processes emotional responses – lit up as they read. Ie. Emotion was elicited from words and phrases within a passage rather than just building empathy over an entire narrative.

There’s a reason authors are taught to write from the perspective of all five senses – to really visualise the scene. When readers read a word such as lavender or cinnamon, it triggers the area of the brain associated with smelling, as well as hitting the language area. Likewise when a reader reads dialogue, the auditory pathways light up in the brain – as if the dialogue is really being spoken (even if the reader is reading silently on their own). This is why dull boring clichés don’t work – they don’t light up an extra part of the brain because we know the phrases so well they no longer function as metaphors or similes – our brain recognises them as just words.

Whereas if you read about a character ‘sprinting’ or ‘jumping’ or performing some sort of action, then it’s likely that the ‘motor’ part of your brain will also light up. The scientists at Carnegie Mellon discovered that when reading a passage about Harry Potter flying, the brain not only activated those parts traditionally associated with reading, such as the language compartment, but also the same brain region used to perceive other people’s motion, as if the characters were real people flying in sight of the reader.

No wonder reading teaches empathy – it’s as if we’re in the story ourselves.

In fact, some research has shown that reading ‘literature’ as opposed to ‘genre fiction’ can result in better empathy – maybe because there are more ‘sensual’ metaphors. The study of the Harry Potter readers found that those people who empathised with Harry Potter as a minority person became more sympathetic to minority groups in general.

Because reading isn’t just about decoding – it’s about comprehension. MRI scans have shown that when the brain starts to ‘sound out’ unfamiliar words, then comprehension switches off. So comprehension grows when the reader moves the word from their ‘decoding’ vocab into their ‘sight’ memory – once it is stored in the hippocampus. One problem the Literacy Trust found with their project on reading in schools is that about 20 per cent of children at each of the schools they worked with can decode but not fully comprehend – they just aren’t inferring meaning.

And only with comprehension can a reader gain those lovely benefits such as empathy and knowledge. This is why discussing books, as well as just listening to a child ‘decode’ is so important in teaching reading. ‘Listening’ to a child read means engaging with them about the text, not just hearing them decode.

I’m lucky. I read for pleasure as well as for work, so I should be empathetic and stress free. The 2009 University of Sussex study showed that reading for only six minutes slowed down the heart rate and reduced tension in the muscles. Six minutes! My problem comes when people throw these sort of statistics at me. For example, if you work out how many years you have left to live (on average) and how many books you could potentially read in a year (on average), and multiply the two – it isn’t very many. Now that’s stressful!

 

Silly School Stories

There are some writers who excel at what I call ‘slapstick writing’ – the sort of silliness that ties the reader in knots, makes them laugh out loud, then chortle delightedly, and declare the story ‘nonsense’ in the best possible way.

Two school stories for you this week, which are ludicrously ridiculous. But, deep down, underneath all the mayhem, there lurks a subtle dig at our education system.

uncle gobb

Firstly, Michael Rosen’s Uncle Gobb and the Dread Shed, illustrated by Neal Layton.

Malcom’s school tries to make anything that could be remotely interesting appear boring, and has a penchant for worksheets, particularly the ‘filling in the gap’ kind. His Uncle Gobb (who lives with him) has a soft spot for homework, and when Malcolm doesn’t give the correct answers, or even ask the correct questions, Uncle Gobb decides to place Malcolm and his friend in the Dread Shed as a punishment.

But Malcolm is already querying why his uncle has his name stamped all over the school worksheets, and when a genie appears, and then another, and the way out of the Dread Shed is found simply by opening the door, things start to become even more peculiar. Add in some chocolate bars, chapters that go nowhere, and wacky illustrations, and suddenly you have a book of nonsense, with a subtle rebellious message about schemes of learning, and a book that elicits giggles at every opportunity.

Michael Rosen’s casual approach is brilliant – there are blank chapters, barmy explanations of non-fiction, plays on words, and references to writers and readers, and he even points out the central conflict in his book with capital letters. Neal Layton executes his illustrations in perfect tune with the text – messy, humorous, nonsense. A laugh a minute book for 6+ years. Click here to purchase.

mad iris

Or you could visit Puddling Lane Primary, the scene of Jeremy Strong’s Mad Iris series. Jeremy Strong was himself a headmaster, so there’s an added pathos and depth reading his school stories, a truth running through the middle. Like Michael Rosen, Jeremy manages to poke enormous fun at education – in Mad Iris and the Bad School Report by Jeremy Strong, illustrated by Scoular Anderson, it is the school inspectors who take the brunt.

Pudding Lane Primary has a mascot on the grounds – the ostrich Mad Iris. But Ross and Katie have to keep her under control because not only is there a new boy who is allegedly allergic to ostriches, but also the Ofsted inspectors are visiting.

Jeremy Strong is particularly good at naming his characters, from Mrs Fretting to Miss Cactus, and the dialogue is spot on too. He also likes to poke fun at the school system – when the inspectors ask one of the teachers for the point of the lesson, she answers that she thought the children might enjoy it. The ensuing horror from the lead inspector is terrifically written.

There’s a huge amount of humour running through the story, from the relationships between fellow pupils, to those between pupils and staff, and lots of slapstick mayhem with the ostrich. Kids will fall about laughing – with Jeremy Strong it’s pretty much guaranteed. This book is also superbly illustrated throughout in black and white. Published by Barrington Stoke, it’s suitable for dyslexics, but will appeal to anyone from age 7+ years. Buy it here.

Imaginary Friends

If you include the premise that an imaginary friend can be based on an object – a very special stuffed animal for example, as well as the completely made up illusion of a friend, then about 65 per cent of children have had one*. Take out the stuffed animal, and that leaves about 37 per cent. It’s a common phenomenon.

Not all imaginary friends are born out of loneliness. According to Marjorie Taylor from the University of Oregon, author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them, children make up imaginary friends for many different reasons. Interestingly, girls tend to create characters who need nurturing, some boys create aspirational characters who are born from their own sense of who they want to be.

Imaginary friends abound in children’s books, from Hobbes and Soren Lorensen, to the Wild Things and Beekle. Two recent additions to the canon are:

imaginary fred

Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer and Oliver Jeffers
A picture book for older children, this explores friendship and transience. Imaginary Fred moves the imaginary friend centre stage. Fred, our imaginary friend depicted in small turquoise dots by Jeffers, in comparison to the ‘real’ people who are in black and white, floats in the wind and waits for lonely children to summon him. Of course, what he longs for most is permanence, as most of the time he is discarded when a ‘real’ friend comes along. In the end, he gets his happy ending, but not as the reader first envisages.

Colfer’s message at the end is that all friendship is real, in whichever guise it comes. And also that friendships shift and change during childhood, as do a child’s interests. Interestingly, the real children in this picture book are often depicted as being cruel to their imaginary friend in the pictures Jeffers draws, although not necessarily in the text. Colfer imagines that Fred tries to be the best friend that he possibly can, with Jeffers drawing in what Fred has to put up with – from being imagined as a witch with the little boy stabbing him with a sword and yelling ‘Die, Evil Witch’, to another boy imagining Fred naked and laughing at his humiliation. It’s an interesting twist and can lead to discussion on how far we go to be a friend, and what that entails. Of course, it also shows great comedic potential.

The children’s use of ‘imaginary Fred’ displays their vivid imaginations, but perhaps, as with all our imaginations, allows us to do things that we wouldn’t do in ‘real’ life. This is where the book gets really interesting.

Because Colfer and Jeffers have turned the premise around so that the reader sides with the ‘imaginary’ person – the one who demonstrates emotions, as opposed to the ‘real’ children. In fact, Imaginary Fred fades a little bit each time  he is discarded – he wants a forever friend, and needs the illusion of permanence.

As always in Jeffers’ books there is much added detail in the illustrations, from the wonderful attitudes of the couple on the bench in the first scene, to the eyebrows on Frieda. Check out also the author references in the books that the boys read. And when Jeffers plays with the pictures, so Colfer plays with the text. The whole story is told very much ‘to you’ the reader, as if the reader is alone. It’s a neat device, and by the end the reader has a friend – because the author is calling you and all the other readers friends:
“And this, dear friends, is the interesting thing that happened.”
So you aren’t alone any more either.

There is also wonderful comedy for adults throughout the book, from the depiction of the teachers at the school concert, to the audience in the Carnegie Hall. Trademark Jeffers abounds with his famous noses and his squigglish captions. The pen-inked drawings contrast beautifully with Colfer’s full-bodied lively text.

Not for the very small, but a book to be treasured by all. If you find it lying on the sofa, it’s probably because your imaginary friend was reading it. Again and Again. You can buy it here.

honey and me
Honey and Me by Karen McCombie
A very different book from that above, but of equal importance. According to Marjorie Taylor’s study, school age children still had imaginary friends – they might have changed and they were more likely to have purely imaginary friends than stuffed toy friends – but they were still there. Honey and Me tells the story of Kirsten, who is starting at a new secondary school without her old friends, who are going to a different school, and she is coping with various issues at home because her Dad has lost his job. She turns to her friend Honey, who is a great listener, and has been in Kirsten’s life for a long time. In fact she always turns up when Kirsten needs her, even when they haven’t seen each other for quite a while.

Kirsten realises that Honey is still there for her, and not only helps her to think things through more carefully, but comes up with solutions for some of her problems. Her forever friend is a good listener and a troubleshooter. It is only near the end of the book that it becomes apparent that Honey is a purely imaginary friend – and Kirsten is desperate for the ‘real’ girls at school not to find out about her. Kirsten eventually finds the courage to bond with the ‘real’ people in her life, and gets her happy ending.

This is a moving book for those children coming to terms with growing up, dealing with difficult issues in life, and making new friends. It’s a great short story by an experienced storyteller, and published by dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke. A highly recommended read. Ages 8-12 yrs. You can buy it here.

 

*Marjorie Taylor, University of Oregon studies