fairy tales

The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

This book came out in 2016 and rather slipped under the radar, but despite that, has continued to haunt me since I read it – in the same way that the song from somewhere else haunts our protagonist.

Frankie (Francesca) is out distributing leaflets to try to find her lost cat. But when she is hemmed in by bullies in the park, she is rescued by school outcast Nick Underbridge (the name is a carefully chosen clue to the later events in the story). Nick is ostracised in school, and smells slightly, but Frankie finds herself accompanying him home out of a sense of duty and thanks.

At his house, Frankie is drawn by a haunting and beautiful song, but she can’t locate where it comes from. She starts to spend more time with Nick, despite the worry that she too will be cast out at school because of the friends she keeps.

Gradually, the song exerts more and more influence and pull on her, and the story dovetails into part fairytale/part fantasy other world, as it becomes clear that the song originates from the dimension of another world – a kind of fairy tale world. With fairy tales comes danger and darkness, and Frankie’s friendship with Nick is tested to extreme limits when the two worlds collide.

The duality of the story is what makes it so special. The book is set in a time in which kids get on their bikes and ride to freedom, of lego and drawing, but also the internet and mobile phones, yet Harrold makes it feel sort of timeless. The effect of the everyday objects is to ground Frankie deeply in reality, within a contemporary story about friends and bullying, yet there are clear shadows of another world that seep into this – a fairy tale dimension that echoes the heightened emotions of our main story. There are both intensely dark and frightening emotions, and yet also visionary and pure and light overtones to this ‘magical’ dimension of the story. In this way, Harrold uses the duality of his fairy tale to mirror reality and his contemporary story – we all have the darkness and purity inside us.

Pinfold echoes this in his black and white illustrations – they are realistic in what they depict – the estate, a cat at night, Frankie on a bench, Nick’s Dad opening the front door. And yet, because of the shadows cast, the point of view from which the picture is drawn, the intensity of the pencil lines, and yes, more by what is hidden than what is shown – they are deeply dark and disturbing – mysterious and haunting. They feel slippery and ethereal.

The text too – telling a compelling story of friendship in a lyrical way – there is comedy and poetry mixed with darkness. Its evocative and ghostly. Each word is carefully chosen – it’s minimal, and pure.

But most of all, all this combines to make a text that is easy to read, and scattered with illustrations. In fact, the reader devours the book – identifying with the choices Frankie makes about friendship, and her conflicts within herself – especially when she is drawn to a song but can’t quite work out what it is or what it represents. It implies a feeling of loss and absence throughout, and leaves the reader with a sense of bittersweet sadness, as well as uplifting lightness.

This is a great book for deciphering and picking apart friendships – understanding not only who we choose to be friends with, but also how we demonstrate our loyalty to our friends, and how we come to understand them. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been picked up by award lists…this is a hidden gem – perhaps it needs to come out of its own shadows.

Suitable for 9+ years. You can buy it here.

The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison

the other alice

So many children’s books, especially for this age group, talk about a love for reading. They might feature a character whose nose is permanently in a book, a library that bestows secrets, a saviour from bullying whose emotional empathy has been garnered from reading. Preaching to the converted perhaps – a bullet-proof way to draw in the reader, a person who, by the very fact that they are reading the book, will immediately feel resonance with the mention of bookishness within the story.

This book is different though. This is clever. Michelle Harrison doesn’t just weave a love for reading into her book. This novel is very much all about the writing. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you read the book carefully, embedded within it is a story-writing manual.

Midge has an older sister Alice. One who writes stories. But one day Alice goes missing, and when Midge runs into a lookalike who is adamant she isn’t Alice, and then he runs into a talking cat, Midge realises that the characters in Alice’s most recent story have come to life. Midge needs to figure out why Alice is missing, why the characters are alive, and how to end the story Alice has left unfinished, without them all succumbing to the wickedness of the intensely dark and disturbed villain of the piece.

In essence this is a good old-fashioned classic adventure story. Midge must find his missing sister, and together with his new accomplices Gypsy and Piper, must solve riddles to find Alice, as well as avoiding the villain who wishes to get to Alice first. The reader can also have a stab at solving the riddles, which are italicised in the text. Like Dorothy in Oz, who navigates through a landscape where ‘characters’ such as the Tin Man come to life, or Pinocchio, the toy who comes to life, this is a familiar landscape. And yet Harrison lifts it to greater heights – this is a story for older readers with darkness and depth.

And hidden (in plain sight) in the story are markers that point to a more complex novel. The story Alice has been writing is planted in pieces within the general narrative, so that the backstory of the characters is highlighted, and also the vague intent that Alice had for them, illuminating everything for the reader, but not necessarily for the characters. The real author, Michelle Harrison, also leads the reader on a dance through fairy stories and allusions to other tales, not only in calling her character Alice, with Midge seeing her through a looking glass, but in the chapter headings – Gingerbread House, Trail of Breadcrumbs, Once Upon a Time, and in the names of her characters – Piper plays hypnotising music on his flute just like The Pied Piper. Harrison also drops in allusions within the text itself:

“Terror stuck in my throat like a poisoned apple.”

There are numerous extra storytelling tropes thrown into the mix – from an old lady sorcerer who captures a voice (The Little Mermaid) to a fire, mistaken identities, an errant father, a mother who conveniently takes herself away for the duration, and of course, as I mentioned, loving placements of libraries and bookshops.

However, this being Michelle Harrison, there is also a spooky, shivery feel to the book. From the opening scene at the start, Alice’s book within a book, to the name of the town in which Midge lives, Fiddler’s Hollow, to curses, as well as the annual ritual of the Summoning at Fiddler’s Hollow (with its tradition of making a doll likeness of someone and then burning them in a huge pyre), which sounds like something out of Salem. Watchers from shadows, and the creepiest villain with charred hands, gave this reader a haunting feeling, and will certainly do so for youngsters too.

But as aforementioned, it’s the guide to storytelling that’s well and truly threaded throughout the story. Chapter headings such as Writers’ Block are just one example. Midge often relates things his older sister has told him to the fictional characters whom he befriends:

“Alice says stories never start at the beginning. They start when something is about to happen.”

Midge also thinks he knows more about the characters because he can read their history in Alice’s notes, but in actuality, characters only come alive in any book when they are realistic. Characters have to have aims, goals, wants because that’s what real people have. We are all protagonists of our own stories, weaving our own webs of lies and fabrications, being true only to ourselves, and sometimes not even that. Sometimes our stories run away from us, in the same way that authors report their characters can run away from their control.

“Alice often says her characters take over when she’s writing. Doing their own thing. Like the story is writing itself and the characters take control.” Midge explains. This points to the crux of the story within the story here – how much influence is Alice going to have over her characters, or whether the characters are going to steer the story forwards without her. It’s clever and complex, and pushes the reader to think.

What’s real in our own lives, which stories have we fabricated? We’re all characters of our own imagining. Alice projects herself onto her main character Gypsy – the best parts of herself, a braver self with the ability to wear the clothes she wants to wear, to befriend a boy with striking similarity to a boy Alice fancies in real life (well, within Michelle Harrison’s story!).

“Her characters had always been real to her, but they were properly real now, and here. They spoke, they ate, they slept. If I cut them, they’d bleed.”

In the epilogue, Harrison explains how everything is a story – just told from a different point of view. She calls the epilogue ‘Ever After’.

Stepping back from the complexity of the story, there are messages about loyalty – about being true to yourself, and searching for a cohesion in life – be it your family network, or just the end of a story.

This is a masterful telling, which twists and turns and is beautiful in its scope. There’s also a talking cat who likes tea. The only caveat is the shapelessness of the young protagonist – our narrator Midge. He felt ill-defined to me, vague almost, and at times I forgot his gender (it’s told in the first person) – but maybe that too was a masterful stroke. Perhaps our own young selves are shaped by events that are happening to us, perhaps he’s not meant to be fully formed, but a vessel through which the story is told.

Either way, I felt that Michelle Harrison wrote a book in which “there was no option to stop reading, or to put the story down.” A cracking adventure story with added depth.

 

Please note that this review was written after reading a proof copy of the book. The publisher recommends this as a 9+ years read. Personally I would raise that to 11+. You can buy it here.

Fun Younger Fiction

The children’s author, and one time children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, has long been an advocate of funny books for children. He recently announced the winners of the Lollies (see here), but said that “Everyone who is interested in children’s reading knows that for many, many children, the thing that gets them going is a book that makes them fall about laughing. Weirdly, they’re not always that easy to find.” They don’t win the ‘big’ children’s book awards, or get reviewed enough. So here are some very funny titles for newly independent readers:

wilf worrier

Wilf the Mighty Worrier, King of the Jungle by Georgia Pritchett, illustrated by Jamie Littler
Actually the third in the series about Wilf the Mighty Worrier, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book. From the very beginning the author’s self-referential humour kicks in, as she warns you not to read this book – full of scary things and suchlike. Of course it’s as tame as tame can be, that’s half the fun, because Wilf worries about everything…

He has the most evil man in the world (Alan) living next door to him, and when Wilf finds out that he’s going on holiday to Africa, he has even more to worry about – particularly as Alan is coming with.

The text is packed with slapstick, jokes about storytelling, and silly dialogue, as well as the author using funny chapter titles, footnotes, different typefaces and bold text to highlight different comedy aspects of the story. Stuart the woodlouse has a starring role too, told in his own words. It’s highly entertaining, and exaggerated with Littler’s brilliant illustrations, which are cartoon-like and show incidences from different angles (at times from above). Personally for me, the illustrations of little sister Dot win the day.

This is a great book to reassure children who worry a little, featuring a fabulous unlikely hero, and a cast of weird and wonderfuls. Human, fun, and exuberant. You can find it here.

invincibles piglet

The Invincibles: The Piglet Pickle by Caryl Hart, illustrated by Sarah Warburton
Following in the footsteps of such titles as Wigglesbottom Primary with its two tone illustrations throughout – this is another series from the same publishers, and is sparky and bright. Written as if the main character is talking to the reader as a friend, the text is immediately accessible. It also describes everything in a matter of fact every day style – with resonance points for the reader, such as building a den and a school trip.

It’s the school trip that triggers the main plotline – as Nell’s best friend smuggles a piglet home from the farm.

There are some beautiful touches in here, some great characters – the sibling dimension and a super portrayal of a teen is explored with Nell’s older brother Lucas, which is just as well depicted in the illustrations as the text – from his slouching to his brotherly hug.

Twists and turns, and an escaped piglet…the fun continues right to the end. A great new series; taking over the mantle from Horrid Henry’s and suchlike. Available here.

the bad guys

The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey
Another new series on the block, this is part novel, part comic, with far more illustrations than words, and will go down really well with readers who may struggle with longer text books at this stage. It’s also very funny.

Working on the irony of ‘opposites’, the leader of the bad guys – Mr Wolf – decides that their reputation stinks, so they should work together as good guys on good missions. For example, rescuing animals in distress – firstly by breaking 200 dogs out of the Maximum Security City Dog Pound. Of course, with the bad buys including a Mr Piranha, a Mr Snake and a Mr Shark – it was never going to be plain sailing.

It’s easy to read, packed with stupid humour, and told in great comic book style with adult references, such as to Reservoir Dogs – a typical bad boy gang. No child can fail to laugh at Mr Shark dressed up on page 104. This is definitely a read for the cool kids, even if, for this adult, the idea wasn’t exactly original. You can buy it here.

alfie

The Adventures of Alfie Onion by Vivian French, illustrated by Marta Kissi
Perhaps leaning slightly more to an older age group than the other books featured here, and more dry humour than laughs out loud, this is a denser text with fewer illustrations, and less of a tendency to play with italics and bold text, although it still does to some extent. It’s also a standalone title, as opposed to the other books here.

Told by experienced storyteller Vivian French, Alfie Onion mixes together conventional storytelling and fairy tales with a rather unconventional hero. Alfie’s older brother should be the hero of the story – born as the seventh son of the seventh son and with his name Magnifico Onion, but he’s a little bit dumpy and a little bit cowardly. Step in eighth son, Alfie, to save the day and ensure his family lives Happily Ever After.

Navigating through forests, defeating ogres, talking with steadfast animals, and ignoring meddling magpies, Alfie Onion has many obstacles to overcome.

This Happy Ever After tale is as traditional in its story arc and telling as it is unconventional in its hero, characters and ending but all the more refreshing for it. There are tones of Shrek throughout in the anti-hero stance and the humour, as well as the talking animals, but it retains a charm of its own. Well worth plucking from the shelves here.

 

How To Draw Nibbles

NIBBLES_cvr

Nibbles The Book Monster by Emma Yarlett
Bursting through my door, and through his own front cover, Nibbles is one of the cutest monsters I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Nibbles will eat through anything, but his favourite food appears to be books – and during the passage of this picture book he nibbles through several favourite fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. He not only chews on the pages, but manipulates the story, adding a twist to each book within the book. With flaps to lift, holes in pages, a page in which Nibbles is hidden among thousands of book titles, and books within the book (although with holes through them), this is an adventure in paper as well as story.

The illustrations are delightful – acute attention to detail, hilarious renderings of Goldilocks, a grumpy diva-ish Little Red Riding Hood, as well as books everywhere on every page. It’s a marvellous celebration of story and illustration and the magic of modern day book-making.

The text talks to the reader – we have to keep Nibbles in check ourselves, so that the involvement with the reader is complete – to the very back cover. It’s an interactive book with a wonderful sense of play. An exceptional picture book for children aged 3+ years and way beyond. Nibble your way through the bookstore to purchase your own Nibbles here.

Author and illustrator Emma Yarlett has very kindly agreed to show you how to draw Nibbles yourself. So, in good old-fashioned Blue Peter style – I’m handing over to Emma:

How to Draw Nibbles

First lightly draw a circle

Nibbles1

Lightly draw on some long triangles…

Nibbles2

Now this monster needs legs and feet. This monster loves to go places fast. Draw two bendy upside down straws…

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And voila they are legs and feet! Uh-oh.

Nibbles5

Oi! Nibbles come back, you’ve got no eyes, you’re going to bang into the edge of the…

Nibbles6

Told you. Now come back here. Let’s give him some eyes before he hurts himself. Two beady big eyes.

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And two naughty little stripy horns.

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And we’re finished!

Oh wait, I think there might be something important missing…

Ah yes! How can a Book Monster nibble without his nibbley mouth?

Nibbles10Nibbles11

Draw a big bendy sausage. Add some triangle teeth and…

Nibbles12

Watch out! Thanks Emma. You can now go to twitter to find Nibbles. I think he’s hiding in one of my bookshelves. Find me on twitter @minervamoan and you’ll see my competition to win a Nibbles book and toy. Nibbles is hiding in my twitter bookshelf (see tweet). Tweet me which title Nibbles is diving into, using the hashtag #FindNibbles. All correct answers go into a daily draw and one person will be chosen by Little Tiger Press to go forward into a prize draw at the end of the blog tour.

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.

 

 

Fairy Tales

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Albert Einstein.

Ah, fairy tales. How things always come back to these – think of any book you’ve read recently as an adult – did it have elements of fairy tale in it? Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi twists the story of Snow White, Angela Carter is famous for her gory reimagining in The Bloody Chamber, or how about the parallels between Bluebeard and Gone Girl? Evil stepmothers in dysfunctional families, dangers awaiting women in the deep dark wood, conniving witches, brainless giants…

So why do we tell them to children? And why do we keep telling them?

“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” G K Chesterton.

We use fairy tales for so many different reasons – for a common cultural heritage – even a global cultural heritage as we find many fairy stories twisted and morphed in different versions throughout the world. Mainly, fairy tales teach children to overcome fears. They explain that although bad things can happen to good people, it is how one deals with the bad stuff that matters.

There is a great deal of death and violence in fairy stories – the wolf’s burnt bottom in the Three Little Pigs, Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger and lying in a coma – and yet the point of it is to teach children to surmount that adversity. Hansel and Gretel combat the witch using their cunning and wit – they push her into the oven.

Fairy stories teach children to make the correct decisions – if Red Riding Hood hadn’t strayed from the path as her mother had warned, she wouldn’t have come across the wolf – if the little pigs had built their houses more strongly, the wolf wouldn’t have puffed them down. If Goldilocks wasn’t set on stealing, then maybe she wouldn’t have been confronted by three bears.

Moreover, fairy stories teach critical thinking. Are the characters making the right decisions? Are they being morally upstanding? There is often as much goodness as there is evil, either from unexpected sources (a kind woodcutter) or from unexpected resources inside ourselves – inner strength, intelligence, kindness.

The characters are often two dimensional because it is easier for children to identify with them, and the stories are packed with symbolism so that with each retelling of the story the reader or listener can interpret them in different ways.

And we do keep reinterpreting them.

dublin fairytale

A Dublin Fairytale by Nicola Colton
This is a beautiful new picture book from a debut author that follows Fiona, a small girl dressed in red, to her grandmother’s house. It starts correctly – ‘Once upon a time’, but this is a twist on the traditional Red Riding Hood story. On the way she encounters a giant, a troll, and a dragon, but although they appear scary, they are actually all in distress in one way or another, and Fiona helps them out.

Then when the wolf nabs her basket, her new friends retrieve it for her – one good turn deserves another. They end up at Grandmother’s house – all together enjoying tea – and it turns out that Fiona’s grandmother is a friendly witch with a green face.

The magic lies in the setting. Fiona sets off with a map in hand, and each encounter with a fairy tale creature is set in a real place in Dublin –the book traces the city through illustrations.

The characters exude warmth, as does the book, which boasts tones of oranges and greens. It’s quite a unique illustrative style, old-fashioned almost, and hugely appealing to children, with easy shapes, interesting patterns, and beautiful detail on the buildings. A lovely addition to the fairy tale picture book canon. You can purchase from Waterstones here.

Imelda and the goblin king

Imelda and the Goblin King by Briony May Smith
The beautifully produced hardback version – with gold leaves and gold embossed title, a red spine and sumptuous cloth feel – gives an immediate suggestion that this book is fit for a king. The illustrations continue the theme – sumptuous colour and exquisite detail with old fashioned depictions of fairy creatures – elves and pixies with pointed ears, leafy wings, toadstools and garlanded heads. It is highly reminiscent of the flower fairies range.

It tells the story of Imelda, who ventures into an enchanted wood, populated by fairy folk. The Goblin King is a huge bully who arrives and locks up the Fairy Queen when things don’t suit him. Imelda plots for his comeuppance, and succeeds in ridding the forest of the bully – in fact he is turned into a worm!

The illustrations are what bring this story to life – each page is an adventure in itself, every fairy, pixie and elf seems to have its own distinct personality – the wings look like leaves, the flowers droop or bloom depending on mood, and the food looks stunningly sumptuous. There is exquisite detail, lovely use of speech bubbles, and humour as well. And of course, the moral of sharing and being friendly.

A beautiful book that would make a great gift. Purchase here.