family

In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll

My next book of the week will be published September 6th. For a list of my books of the week to date, scroll down to the bottom of this review.

in darkling wood

Both the narrative structure and subject matter of Emma Carroll’s latest story, In Darkling Wood, are indicative of her own distinct style: quietly modern and yet definitely traditional in application. The novel is told using a dual narrative – in letters dated 1918 from a young girl to her brother in the war, and a modern-day first person narrative of a girl called Alice who is sent to live with her estranged grandmother whilst her brother is in hospital for a heart transplant. By weaving the two very distinct narratives together, Emma Carroll creates a magical story that is both classical and contemporary – just like her style of her writing in all her books.
At first Alice struggles in her stay with her gruff grandmother – her anxiety about her brother shines through the text, as does her frustration with her parents and her grandmother, Nell. She befriends a mysterious girl in the woods bordering her grandmother’s house, and before long becomes embroiled in a battle to save the woods and the enigmatic creatures whom the mysterious girl claims reside within the trees. At the same time, the letters from 1918 reflect another young girl’s anxiety about her own brother, and a preoccupation with some enigmatic winged creatures in the wood. The two stories edge closer together, and the book’s resolution is satisfying and complete.
Emma Carroll neatly references the Cottingley fairies story – a series of five famous photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in Cottingley towards the end of the First World War that came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and created a stir about the existence of fairies.
In Emma’s story, the fairies come to represent hope, and lead Alice to stand up for what she believes in.
The story is told sensitively, and is utterly engrossing. Each character is superbly drawn – the voices drip effortlessly from the page – from the distant yet forthright grandmother with secrets, to the absent father, sick brother, and the cast of characters in the modern school, as well as those from 1918. In fact, Emma’s time as a schoolteacher has clearly been useful – the school environment is one of the most believable I have encountered.
Furthermore her talent as a writer shines through in her description of Nell’s house and the Darkling Woods surrounding it – they remain an image within my head months after reading the book. It’s my last book of the week before the summer. Take it with you on holiday – but be warned – wherever you go, you’ll imagine you’re In Darkling Wood…

With thanks to Faber for the review copy. You can buy your own copy from Waterstones here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

My brother is a superhero by David Solomons
Too Close to Home by Aoife Walsh
The Cake, the Wolf, and the Witch by Maudie Smith, illustrated by Tony Ross
Alfie Bloom: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent
There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins
The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan
The Boys’ School Girls: Tara’s Sister Trouble by Lil Chase
Mad About Monkeys by Owen Davey
The Broken King by Philip Womack
The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford
Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin
How to Write your Best Story Ever by Christopher Edge
Head Over Heart by Colette Victor
Wild by Emily Hughes
Violet and the Hidden Treasure by Harriet Whitehorn illustrated by Becka Moor
The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday
The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn
The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Robot Girl by Malorie Blackman
How to Fly with Broken Wings by Jane Elson
A Whisper of Wolves by Kris Humphrey
The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone
Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: Supermarket Sweep by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad
Stonebird by Mike Revell
Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty
The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley
How the World Works by Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young
I am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz
The Story of Buildings by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by Stephen Biesty

A Guest Blog from author Lil Chase

taras sister troubleabbys shadow obis secrets
“I’m so excited about the release of the third book in my Boys’ School Girls series. They look so gorgeous together! It’s about a boys’ only school that has decided to take on girls for the first time, so there are only ten girls in the whole school. Each book is about a different one of the girls – their friendships with the others as well as their home life.

The first book is about Tara when she starts a club to rival her sister. The idea came from a hen party I went to where the sister of the bride brought along the bride-to-be’s club handbook from when she was young: full of favourite colours, boys they fancied, bands they liked, and coded languages. The younger sister admitted to regularly stealing the handbook and copying down her secrets.

Abby’s Shadow is a homage to the film Fatal Attraction. It’ll teach you to never betray your best friend by telling another girl she’s your best friend. This is what Abby does when she goes on holiday, but with Facebook and Instagram the girl from holiday catches up with her, and doesn’t like being second best. Warning: this book gets pretty scary!

The third – only just released – is Obi’s Secrets. Obi has never felt special but for reasons she doesn’t understand, the most gorgeous boy in her school likes her. Like likes her. It’s a heartbreaking story with a love triangle at the centre and a massive choice for Obi: her best friend or the boy she fancies.

People often ask me where I get my ideas from. The truth is: everywhere! I keep my eyes and ears open for inspiration and it finds me. It could be a friend’s anecdote from their childhood, a film I like, or – as was the case with Obi – knowing a character so well that you know the worst possible situation for them. I got to know Obi while writing books one and two and realised that she was loyal, and desperate for a best friend. So I decided to give her the best friend she always wanted, and then do something to test her loyalty.

So where did the big idea come from? The idea for the series? When I was young – about 10 or 11 – my father was made redundant from his job. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before new job offers came in. One was to be a bursar at a boys-only boarding school. The only downside was that we’d have to move and live on site. At eleven years old, I thought this would be wonderful! I would have my pick of all the boys. When he didn’t take the job I was heartbroken from missing out on all the knights in shining armour fighting for my hand.

Years later, I realise the reality of being the only girl in a boys’ school would not have been something out of Romeo and Juliet. Boys that age would at best, ignore me, at worst, tease me. Teenage boys aren’t often very chivalrous.

So the idiom ‘write what you know’ is true. Or, as in this case – write what you almost knew but made a lucky escape from.”

Thank you Lil Chase for your guest blog today.

MinervaReads is delighted to have 2 full sets of The Boys’ School Girls to giveaway. Just send MinervaReads an email with your favourite fictional school, or follow me on twitter @mineravamoan and see my Lil Chase competition tweet. Competition ends midnight 14th July. You can read Minerva’s review of The Boys’ School Girls here. And buy copies of the book here

Too Close to Home by Aoife Walsh

too close to home

As a child I loved reading about other people’s families. Little Women, I Capture the Castle, and more recently dipping into children’s books as an adult, I felt that same pull with Perfectly Ella by Candy Harper, and the Pea series of books by Susie Day. Then, in April another book landed on my desk that worked the same magic, and pulled me into a new family, whom I adored reading about and was sad to finish. Too Close to Home follows 14 year old Minny, a thoughtful, vivacious, complicated character with an equally complicated, loud and unique family. Told in the third person, which makes a change from so many which are told from the first person point of view, this slants towards Minny, but allows the author Aoife Walsh a little distance from her main character, which helps to give a greater perspective. Minny lives with her mother and grandmother, as well as her older sister Aisling, who is autistic, her younger sister Selena who has her own quirks, and her baby brother, whom she helps to look after. They are a single parent family, yet with much mention of extended family relations, from grandparents and their add-ons, to Minny’s father and his new family. It mirrors many jumbled family situations today, and is both a good insight and good reference into family life that isn’t just two parents plus 2.4 children.
Aofie’s talent is to give her main character a sympathetic and realistic voice, and to have her surrounded with problems, not all of which she can solve successfully, and certainly not on her own, and to push the idea that today’s teens are dealing with so many issues – from helping immediate family with childcare and domestic responsibilities, to friendships and boys, to schoolwork and in this particular case, to protecting her older sister, and learning where her loyalties lie. It also makes the point that young people do need grown-ups to help them make the right decisions, and to give useful advice: grown-ups including grandparents and responsible members of society, not just direct parents. Because there are so many characters, especially those living under one roof, Walsh has used dialogue to punctuate the story and develop the plot, and she clearly has an ear for it – the conversations are realistic and punchy. The book immerses you in the family, the reader feels as if they too are in the middle of the arguments, laughter and dinner table antics; it was like being a fly on the wall of the house down the street.
There’s more than one hint of diversity here, from different social stratas – one of Minny’s grandmothers is giving shelter to a boy whose own mother has substance abuse issues – to different sexualities – Minny’s best friend has two mothers. It’s great that Aiofe Walsh is able to include diverse characters in such a matter-of-fact way – this is not an ‘issue’ book, but simply portrays people from all walks of life with their own different concerns and backgrounds.There are also references that sit the book firmly in modern times – from cultural and food references, to references as to how global our modern world is – people move country so easily. Once engrossed in the book, Walsh’s fictional family loom so large in the mind that it’s hard to believe they don’t really exist. You’ll want to remain in their house for far longer than the book. A thoroughly enjoyable read for ages 12 and up, written in a classic contemporary style. Buy it here from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

With thanks to Andersen Press for a review copy of the book.

The Cake, the Wolf, and the Witch by Maudie Smith

cake wolf witch

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Actually I’m only going to write this review if you promise not to give away any of the spoilers to your children but just give them the book to read as a surprise. Ready? This is a book set in the land of Ever After, and explores the adventures of Max and his step siblings as they attempt to overthrow the wicked witch and make sure that Ever After remains Happy Ever After.

There are of course massive overtures to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The children travel by accident, not through a wardrobe, but through a cake, to the land of Ever After (rather than Narnia) – they encounter a wolf rather than a lion – and the wicked witch is turning everything to greyness and ash rather than whiteness and ice, but rather than draw some Christian allegory, Maudie Smith is simply having fun, and her creativity shines through the story. The inhabitants of Ever After are all familiar characters from fairy stories, and the author depicts them with cheek and flourish. Little Red Riding Hood has attitude, the troll under the bridge is adorably childish with his pinky promises and appetite for a playmate, and there is even a sneaky eighth dwarf. Max’s search for the witch uses a familiar narrative of age-old quests, including an encounter with a knight, inclement weather, a maze, and finally a daunting castle over a seemingly insurmountable mountain, but the journey is exhilarating and fun for the reader. The danger is never too threatening, the familiarity of the characters is comforting, and there is the growing inevitability that Max and Ever After will have their happy ending.

Maudie’s talent for reinvention blazes a trail here, but her characterisation of her ‘ordinary’ children is what really distinguishes this book and makes it my book of the week. Max, despite being in a fairy tale land, is one of the truest children I have read. His grief over the death of his mother pours through, as does his readjustment to life with a step-family, and his fears and worries. Maudie is assured in her ability to incorporate an aspect of his personality that explains his favourite hobby, (marble runs), why it makes him happy, and how it enables him to complete his adventure. She provides the reader with a character who develops beautifully from the start of the book to the finish, growing in self-awareness and empathy. Through all the fantasticalness of the story, the character of Max and his step-siblings remain very much grounded in reality, and this makes this book a complete winner. With illustrations by the wonderful Tony Ross (of Horrid Henry fame), this is the summer’s must-read for children aged 7+. You can buy it here or purchase from the Amazon sidebar.

Children’s Literary London

My favourite activity is sitting at home in my little leafy patch of London reading a book. However, sometimes, according to my children, we have to leave the house. So here are my top tips for having a children’s literary day out in London this summer.

Lost and Found

Discover a story: The first place to grab our attention is The Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford, East London. Their current summer exhibition is the Wonderful World of Oliver Jeffers. You can actually step inside his books, immerse yourself in props from the illustrations, including the rocket, the penguin, the boat etc. It’s very hands-on, and it really lets the smallest children relive their Oliver Jeffers’ books obsession. There’s an outside story garden to explore too, as well as craft and story sessions.

Visit a good bookshop
: As if I didn’t have enough books already *waves from behind a towering stack* there are some beautiful bookshops to explore in London. Of course there’s Waterstones Piccadilly, the biggest bookshop in Europe – head for the second floor to find the newly expanded children’s department. I adore Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street – if ever there was a bookshop to entice you to browse this is it. Also, you can’t miss Foyles in Charing Cross Road, in its fairly new location. It’s Independent Bookshop Week this week, so for children’s books, you can try The Alligator’s Mouth in Richmond, the Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill, and Bookworm in Finchley Road, Tales on Moon Lane in Herne Hill, South-East London, or Pickled Pepper in Crouch End. Check them all out on Google, as they often have author events, craft sessions or storytime for children.

tiger who came to teawhen hitler stole pink rabbit

Celebrate a great author: Judith Kerr A Retrospective is currently touring England, and this summer alights at the Jewish Museum in Camden. We’ve yet to do this one – it only opens on 29 June, but I have high hopes. Judith Kerr is an author who reaches out to children of all ages, from her Tiger and Mog stories to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. This is an exhibition touring from the Seven Stories Centre in Newcastle, so should be a good one. Opens 29 June.

Visit somewhere that has a copy of every book printed in the UK: Anyone who loves books has to feel a bit of an affiliation with The British Library. This is definitely one for older children though. There is an exhibition on the Magna Carta until September, but their ongoing exhibition, Treasures of the British Library, showcasing the actual manuscripts of famous authors from Shakespeare to Austen, as well as the Alice in Wonderland handwritten original are enough to inspire any future budding writer, and awe literary enthusiasts.

alice in wonderland

Go to Wonderland: If you’re into Alice, you should also try Adventures in Wonderland at the Waterloo Vaults. Led through snaking paths into the labyrinth of wonderland by a guide, and entertained by actors dressed as the various characters from the story, this is a compelling piece of moving theatre. Children of all ages, including grown up ones, will love the disappearing Cheshire Cat, the bounciness of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and be charmed by the Mad Hatter. The crew behind the show have put a great deal of creativity and imagination into creating a wonderland under Waterloo; it’s a remarkable feat and you truly feel ensconced. There’s a daytime show for children, and an evening show for adults. During the day, if you’re feeling decadent, you can also sample a real Alice Tea Party at the Sanderson Hotel in Oxford Street with their Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea.

the rest of us just live here

Meet an author: For teens and those into young adult literature, one of the most exciting events this summer is the YALC, which is happening on July 17-19. It is a celebration of young adult literature, brought to fruition by the last children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, and now managed by BookTrust. It takes place at the London Film and Comic Con at Olympia, and includes authors such as Judy Blume, Cassandra Clare, Derek Landy, and Patrick Ness, and there’s a Harry Potter party. You can find a full schedule of panels and workshops and events on the website, although tickets sell out fast.

harry potter

Take the Hogwarts Express: Not only can you visit platform nine and three quarters in Kings Cross Station, but you can also venture a little further away from the centre and go to the Warner Bros Harry Potter studios. Even if it’s more film than book, JK Rowling’s magic pervades the site – with the Hogwarts Express, the Great Hall and more. This summer they’re concentrating on the food in the films – you can eat Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.

The twits

Travel further and be a twit: If you’re feeling really adventurous you can leave the cosy of the city for Great Missenden and visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre – this is well worth a visit – the museum takes you through the life of Roald Dahl and then has an interactive gallery focusing on his writing, encouraging you to get creative too. You can see Roald Dahl’s writing chair, dress up, use touchscreens to tell stories, and attend a storytelling session. It’s good fun, although really for children who already have a good knowledge of his work and are happy to get involved.

stig of the dump

Learn to be an illustrator: Lastly, if you’re attracted to children’s books by the illustrations, you might want to visit Quentin Blake’s House of Illustration in Kings Cross, where there is currently a Ladybird by Design exhibition featuring nostalgic Ladybird book illustrations, or attend one of their monthly family workshops led by professional illustrators. There’s also celebration of children’s illustration at The Illustration Cupboard; their summer exhibition concentrates on the work of Edward Ardizzone (Stig of the Dump, The Little Train). Beware though, it’s very tempting in here to get swept away and want to purchase your very own children’s illustration.

Lastly, there’s a neverending stream of children’s books being turned into theatre in the capital – from Matilda and Charlie to Hetty Feather, Aliens Love Underpants, Pinocchio, Horrible Histories, The Gruffalo, The Railway Children, War Horse…to mention a few.

Or, you can just stay at home and read my book of the week. As I will be doing today….

The Boys’ School Girls by Lil Chase

taras sister trouble

There’s a type of book that my readers never seem to tire of; a book based in schools, with issues around friendship, family life, and all the bother of finding one’s place in the world. I am delighted to bring you a new series that does the job so diligently with a clear understanding of 12 year olds, and with writing that sparkles with life. This is just the sort of series I wanted to read when I was young. (I confess I hugely enjoyed reading it this past week and I’m well past childhood!).

Lil Chase has created a fictional boys’ school, Hillcrest High, which has decided to admit girls for the first time. In the first title of the series, Tara’s Sister Trouble, Tara is one of these girls and she’s very excited – not least because she has a huge crush on one of the Hillcrest boys – but also because a new school means new friends, new opportunities and her best friend will be attending too. However, when Tara’s sister also joins the school, things start to fall apart for Tara. There is intense rivalry amongst the few girls at the new school, and her sister seems intent on sabotaging any relationships she does have. It’ll take Tara a fair amount of detective work and understanding to find out what’s really going on with her sister and her friends. There are a few little plot twists in the book – and it deals with some larger issues too – break up of a family, gambling, and jealousy, but Lil Chase always deals with them showing a great deal of compassion and humour. The action rolls along at a good steady pace and the reader is compelled to feel great empathy with the main character.

abbys shadow

There are three in the series, and the next two each focus on a different girl in the set of friends. Lil Chase has handled this cleverly by writing from the first person perspective each time – but the voices don’t blend into each other. Each girl in the series has a distinct voice and personality and this shines through. It’s a clever device and very enjoyable. The next two are Abby’s Shadow and Obi’s Secrets (the last published June 4th), but I’m hoping there’ll be many more. A series your 9-12yr old will devour with relish. You can buy the titles here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

obis secrets

Father’s Day

Sometimes the best presents are those that you share. For Father’s Day – and I’m posting this early so that you have time to buy the right gift, here are some books about dads that fathers can share with their children. For me, and many others, the quintessential father in children’s books features in Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World: “My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”

But I’ve found some other marvellous and exciting fathers for you in children’s literature. First, picture books:

superhero dad

Superhero Dad by Timothy Knapman, illustrated by Joe Berger
A simple idea, astutely executed. To the narrator (the small boy) of the picture book the boy’s Dad is a superhero – everything he does is super. Of course to anyone else, he is a normal Dad. Although, clearly an excellent modern Dad who spends a considerable amount of time with his son, cooking for him, telling him jokes, and playing with him. An exuberance pitches the reader headlong into the book and the rhyming text and joyful rhythm continue to the end. The illustrations match perfectly, so that our rather comical fairly skinny ordinary Dad in glasses is seen holding the tiny dog Jumbo above his head in an extraordinary pose:
“His jokes are Super Funny…
…and his laugh is Super Long.
He can pick up our dog Jumbo
so he must be Super Strong.”
Every word is taken tongue-in-cheek, every picture matches. And yet the tone is loveable, warm and enchanting. The punchline is simplistic yet apt – the father denies he is a superhero, insisting instead that he knows of a superhero – his superhero son. There is also playfulness with the layout of the text – using bold and larger letters to convey emphasis and differentiation. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

my dad beard

My Dad’s Beard by Zanib Mian and Laura Ewing
This was published last year by a new publisher, Sweet Apple, which continues to grow their list. Although slightly niche, in that it appeals obviously to those whose fathers have beards, it is both cute and original. For younger children than those I usually cater for, each page draws on an example of why the child loves his Daddy’s beard – and how it defines him. It draws on our sensory perceptions from describing the look of the beard – how it is different from other family members’ beards – to the feel of it in different situations, and finally to what the child imagines lives in it (spoiler: a teeny tiny cat). It also manages to draw in the rest of the family as the child witnesses their perceptions of what the beard means to them. This is clever in that it highlights the important place the father has within this family – as a protector, and a person whom they trust and look up to. It draws on Islam in that it explains why this particular Dad has a beard, and so works as a picture book that reaches out to a diverse audience. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

my dad birdman

My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
Many children’s authors absent one or both parents so that the children of the story can go on an adventure without parental restrictions. What’s beautiful about David Almond’s writing is that so often (as with Roald Dahl), it is the adults themselves who bear the idiosyncrasies that make the story so appealing. Although one parent is absent here – the death of the mother is an overriding concern throughout this short tale – the consequences lead to a strengthening and developing of relationship between the daughter and the father. Lizzie’s Dad wants to enter a Human Bird competition, and believes he needs to adopt the characteristics of a bird to be able to fly. He encourages Lizzie to join him in this mad venture, despite the protestations of her adorable Aunt Dotty. The premise is barmy, the characters eccentric – but illuminated by Polly Dunbar’s flamboyant illustrations, the book manages to soar. Highly original, imaginative and everything a children’s story should be. Wonderfully typical David Almond. Age 6+. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

demolition dad

Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
Phil Earle’s fictional father comes about as close to Danny the Champion’s Dad as I can find. However, as with much children’s fiction I’ve been reading recently, this is a depiction of a modern Dad who fits right into our current world. Jake and his Dad love to spend every Saturday together pursuing their hobby in common – wrestling. Jake’s Dad George knocks down buildings as a day job, and at the weekend takes part in wrestling matches – knocking down other men – and he’s really good at it. So good, that Jake thinks he should go public, and so secretly enters a video of him in action in a pro-wrestling competition. When George wins, he agrees to travel to America for training and a headline fight, mainly for Jake, but unfortunately things start to unravel, and it’s not quite the dream venture they had all planned.
There were so many things to love about this book. As a refreshing change from much of the ‘humorous’ fiction in the marketplace for this age group – this book wasn’t full of silly jokes and slapstick happenings. It is extremely funny but the humour is carefully woven into the story; there are many wry laughs here, not fart jokes. Also, the wrestling is a major factor but doesn’t dominate. What comes across and leaves quite an impression is Phil’s adeptness at portraying the hidden emotions of parents, the sense of a community in a town, friendships, and most importantly father and son relationships. It’s clever, has emotional depth, and packs quite a punch. Touches I enjoyed – how the mum’s past career influences her behaviour, Phil’s capturing of the small town landscape complete with the ‘house that was stolen’ mid terrace, and Jake’s wonderful innocence and naivety – and his gradual responsive awareness. There are some stunning illustrations from Sara Ogilvie – the cover itself betrays this – but there are even better ones inside (the fight scenes are spectacularly hysterical). Moreover Phil Earle’s self–referential authorial musings are brilliant – see chapter 17. If you buy your Dad just one book this Father’s Day – make it this one. (then keep it for yourself). Age 8+. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

a boy called hope

A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson
On the other end of the spectrum from Danny Champion of the World’s Dad is the Dad in A Boy Called Hope. That’s mainly because he’s absent, having left his family and remarried. This is heartbreaking for Jake Hope, the boy in the story, especially when his Dad appears on the television in his role as a journalist – the first time that Jake has seen him in four years. Sadly, this speaks to so many children today. But despite the sadness of the situation, this is a poignant and uplifting story. Jake comes to see that he is surrounded by a loving family – especially as his Mum has met someone new, Big Dave, who actually turns out to be a terrific father to Jake.
Lara Williamson has magic on her side – she imbues the novel with a myriad of symbols and devices from sky lanterns to glow-in-the dark statues and stars that lift Jake’s situation from the humdrum of normality to the wonder of childhood – she lets us see things through Jake’s eyes that we would never normally capture in our vision.
There is humour too – Jake frequently misinterprets situations which leads to some trouble, but in the end, much laughter, and there are some splendid characters too – from his friends Christopher, who has his own troubles, to Jo, who is obsessed with the saints. It was also hugely enjoyable to read about Jake’s teenage sister through his eyes – older siblings can seem so detached from the family until you dig beneath the surface a little.
This is a wonderful book – fantastically true characterisation, and great writing. Be prepared for tears to accompany the laughter though – as in real life – sometimes you have to make the best of what you’ve got. You can buy it here from Waterstones or see the Amazon sidebar.

Pranking Both Sides of the Pond

prankenstein yankenstein

I’ve never been one for pranks. I did get a fright recently when my son left a plastic spider in my kindle cover, and yes, I did get him back (although somewhat lamely). Then I read Prankenstein vs Yankenstein by Andy Seed, illustrated by Richard Morgan – and although it was snatched off me by the pesky children not long after, I’m now brimming full of new prank ideas. I just hope they don’t enact them first. The first described prank is that of prying apart an oreo biscuit, eating or discarding the cream, then squeezing toothpaste in its place and remaking the sandwich biscuit. For an inexperienced pranker, this sounded great, and made me want to read more! This book is the second in the Prankenstein series by Andy Seed, and it is an extremely funny read. It describes how Pugh, otherwise known as Soapy, wakes up to find himself handcuffed to a toilet seat. A master prankster himself, he decides it must be the work of his visiting cousin, Topazz and therefore he must wreak his revenge. The added twist however, is that both cousins, if they eat the wrong foods, turn, by night, into prank monsters, Prankenstein and Yankenstein, and perform outrageous tricks and inflict chaos and damage throughout their town. The plot races along with tit for tat pranks, mystery and intrigue, before coming to a climactic Butch Cassidy and Sundance ending – both pranksters trapped in a barn and facing their comeuppances. Add to the mix the Estonian ‘twince’ as Soapy calls his twin friends, and you have a hilarious cast of characters in a stupendously silly story. One for kids who like to laugh! Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

tapper twins go to war

Things reached tipping point though when I read The Tapper Twins Go to War (with each other) by Geoff Rodkey. This had me chortling from the get-go – I nearly snorted cornflakes up my nose. My son also massively enjoyed it, although I have the feeling we were laughing at completely different things. This is a realistic situation, as opposed to the fantastical scenarios presented in Prankenstein vs Yankenstein, and is a highly visual read – the twins’ world and their apartment remain fresh in my mind. For an older audience than Prankenstein and by a US author, it tells the story of 12 year old twins, Reese and Claudia, and the pranks they played to get each other back over a missing pastry. Told as a reported ‘history’ by Claudia, using friend’s witness statements, Reese’s arguments, and the parents’ text messages, it documents (with pictures too) the pranks and their consequences. It’s both witty and clever – I particularly liked the parents’ text messages to each other discussing the twins, whereas my son enjoyed reading about the pranks they played as well as the small handwritten comments in the margins, as if added later to amend text and correct mistakes. We both enjoyed Claudia pranking Reese in an online gaming situation as well, and the moral dilemmas it presented to her. It’s well executed, in that both twins do learn something from their experiences without the book descending into morality or preachiness, and Geoff Rodkey has pinned down their separate distinctive voices expertly. The setting is New York, and for children in the UK, it draws a good picture of Manhattan life. It’s modern and relevant, using a wealth of different narrative structures, text devices and points of view. I highly recommend and will be buying the next in the series. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

terrible two

Lastly, for budding or experienced pranksters, there’s The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John, illustrated by Kevin Cornell. A mixture of the above, in that it doesn’t descend too much into farce and the fantastical, as in Prankenstein vs Yankenstein, but it is also not as realistic as The Tapper Twins. It does, however, contain plenty of laughs. Miles Murphy is known for his pranking. But when he moves to a new school in a new town, and realises that the new school already has a master prankster, he has to decide whether to go it alone in the war of the pranksters, or team up in order to pool strengths. The beauty of this book is threefold. The characters Miles meets in his new town are pretty much all caricatures, enhanced hugely by the illustrations, so that his eventual partner in crimes, Niles, gives off the appearance of the quintessential class ‘goody’. The headmaster comes from a long inherited line of headmasters and is struggling to live up to the family reputation. He comes across as an overarching fool. The pranks themselves and their consequences are delightful – from a car parked across the school entrance so that every child must clamber across the backseat to get into the school, to the ‘fake’ birthday party in the town square, resulting in a standoff between Miles and Niles. There are some fun extras, such as facts about cows interspersed throughout the story – they become an essential part – as well as chapter 6, which is written as a list. The chapters are all short and bite sized, sitting comfortably with reluctant readers, and Kevin Cornell’s illustrations truly accentuate the text. Another heartily recommended prankster book. I’m not having you on! Buy it here from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

With thanks to Fat Fox Publishers for the review copy of Prankenstein vs Yankenstein, and to Orion for The Tapper Twins Go To War.

 

The Girls of Year 7

completely cassidyperfectly ella Dog Ears

I have three excellent books for those children facing, with some trepidation, the start of secondary school. Each book has its own distinct qualities and themes, but the one aspect they all share is demonstrating that with support from friends and family the upheaval and newness of Year 7 can be conquered: from dealing with a new faculty of teachers, juggling different subjects and homeworks, meeting and making new friends and keeping old ones, and other people’s expectations of a Year 7’s greater personal responsibility. Year 7 can be daunting and tough, so three great protagonists with whom young readers will identify are Cassidy from Completely Cassidy, Ella from Perfectly Ella, and Anna from Dog Ears.

completely cassidy

Completely Cassidy: Accidental Genius by Tamsyn Murray, illustrations by Antonia Miller
This book had me chuckling from the outset, and kept up the humour and pace all the way through. I devoured it in one sitting and highly recommend it. Tamsyn Murray captures the essence of what it means to be a tweenager in this endearing new series about a girl called Cassidy. Written in the first person, Cassidy is just starting secondary school and intensely worried about looking right and fitting in. Her mother is pregnant with twins, and her big brother is annoyingly at the same school, and just generally annoying! In the first in the series, Cassidy’s test results get muddled with someone else’s, and the school mistakenly place her in the Gifted and Talented group, as well as putting her on the school quiz team. Overnight she’s the school genius! At the same time she’s juggling her old friends, one of whom has a crush on her older brother (much to her annoyance), her transformation from little girl to bigger girl – from still wearing fairy knickers to dying her hair – and her changing family situation. Tamsyn employs the use of CAPITAL LETTERS to accentuate her tweens’ intonation, as well as random doodles and squiggles, and graphics showing ‘torn out’ to do lists, extracts from diaries, and lists of facts that Cassidy attempts to learn to keep up her genius status. But above all, what shines through is the realism of Cassidy’s voice, in her deepest thoughts, her squabbles with her brother, and her conversations with her friends. I can’t wait for the next book. This one was fantastic. (and there’s a website www.completelycassidy.co.uk). You can purchase it from Waterstones here.

perfectly ella

Perfectly Ella by Candy Harper
Although this book also opens by talking about knickers, it’s not meant to be as comical as Completely Cassidy. The voice of Ella, also in the first person, seems slightly more imbued with the author’s voice, with a more serious sensibility and worldly awareness. Ella’s family situation dominates the novel, for although Ella is also starting Year 7, she is still dealing with the breakup of her family:
“I don’t think their divorce will ever really make sense to us”
Her weeks are split between time at home with her teacher mother and three sisters, and time with her sisters at her Dad’s place with his new partner and new baby. Ella is also dealing with a sharper case of insecurity – she struggles to define herself against her other sisters, all of whom appear to her to have much more distinctive characteristics. They also deal with the outcomes of the divorce in different ways; her eldest sister bottling up the emotions but releasing a drip of anger and resentment; and her littlest sister wanting her whole family to live together under one roof. Ella herself counts the exact days since the divorce, and tries to make an effort to get everyone in her family to be happy, no matter the cost to herself. The accuracy of the situation is heartrending and I particularly loved that Ella prized her time alone with each parent more than anything. Ella is also contending with the dynamics of bringing two old friends of hers together at school and attempting to make them like each other – and then realising that a threesome of girls can be tricky. It’s a well-crafted book, and the writing shows that the author herself comes from a large family. She picks up the dialogue superbly. For her readers, there’s the added delight of craft activities, recipes and quizzes at the back of the book. You can also read my Q&A with Candy Harper here, and buy Perfectly Ella from Waterstones here.

Dog Ears

Dog Ears by Anne Booth, cover by Pip Johnson, illustrations by Anne Booth
This author shot to critical acclaim with her debut novel, Girl With a White Dog, in 2014. It gently introduced the topic of Nazi Germany to a young audience and makes for compelling reading. Her new book, Dog Ears, also uses the device of a dog to bring a much bigger topic to life. Anna, halfway through the autumn term of Year 7, finds that she can’t easily talk to anyone in her family, so relates her day to day thoughts and feelings to her dog. This works well, as the reader is the dog and therefore privy to Anna’s struggle as she tries to balance the hectic life of a Year 7 schoolgirl with problems at home. Her father is away, her mother dealing with an ill premature baby, and so Anna is left to pick up the pieces, dealing with domestic duties and the increasing stress of her home environment. Anne Booth wants to draw attention to the multitude of children who suffer the pressures of being young carers at the same time as dealing with schoolwork and friends and growing up. She manages to strike a fine balance here between bringing an issue to light and making this a fun read. Through the telling of the story we gradually realise that Anna is finding it harder and harder to keep up with not just her schoolwork – but also to remember things for school such as ingredients for food technology, costumes and musical instruments for school performances. The extent to which Year 7 can be overwhelming is patently laid bare here. Anna is also under pressure from her Gran to be more helpful at home, and all of this is set against the backdrop of an exciting talent competition at school. There’s the fluctuating emotions of her mother because of the situation with her sick baby brother, as well as frustrating Skype conversations with her absent father. By the end she has realised that she is not alone in her predicament, and also that once her feelings are properly aired, she has a huge support network around her. Anne Booth manages to pack a great deal into this slim manageable book. It’s a complex situation dealt with simply and deftly, and an enjoyable read. Buy it here.

 

With thanks to Usborne Publishers for sending me a copy of Completely Cassidy for review, and to Simon and Schuster for sending me Perfectly Ella for review.

 

Head Over Heart by Colette Victor

Head over Heart

A common topic of conversation in the children’s book industry is diversity. From authors and illustrators to publishers, publicists and reviewers – are we doing enough to engage all children from all different backgrounds in books? Children aged between 6 and 11 consistently look for books in which they see themselves reflected – characters who look like them. At a recent seminar at the London Book Fair, Inclusive Minds talked about turning that conversation into action. Last year, Chicken House published a book called Head Over Heart by Colette Victor. It’s a lovely coming-of-age tale about thirteen year old Zeyneb who is struggling to juggle her life just like any other teen – schoolwork, family, friends, future, feelings for a boy – but she has another issue, in that as a Muslim girl coming of age, she needs to decide whether to start wearing a headscarf or not.

The thing is, I’m not recommending this novel because it’s inclusive and features a Muslim character. That’s just an added bonus. It’s a compelling well-written read, with a lovely description of a father/daughter relationship, and a beautiful depiction of what it’s like to first fancy a boy. Zeyneb struggles to follow the ground rules that her parents have set out for her, and struggles in her frustration to communicate with her parents. This is a common teenage trait and Colette Victor portrays it adeptly. I warmed to Zeyneb’s character from the first page, and continued to sympathise with her throughout the book. I liked that she is an ordinary, good girl – there’s no dramatic action here or tale of the unusual – it’s an everyday story with believable relationships and simpatico characters, and woven into the story are all sorts of components that form the life of a British Muslim – which meat she can eat at a friends’ barbecue, whether she can see a boy alone or not, the scope of her freedom, and her perception of her non-Muslim friends. This is for my older readers though – definitely recommend for about 11+ years. You can purchase a copy from Waterstones here.

 

With thanks to Colette Victor for arranging for me to see a review copy. Cover and interior design by Helen Crawford-White