fiction

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.

New Readers

krazy ketchup horrid henry dirty bertie jackpota home for mollyknightmare foul play

There’s a wonderful transition that happens when reading clicks for children. In the blink of an eye, suddenly they are able to read, and they read EVERYTHING. Lo and behold those of you who leave your Facebook page open, or receive uncouth words in your texts…those pesky children get everywhere! For me, as you can imagine, the real spark inside me lights up when they are so buried in their current book that they won’t get dressed for school, when they come downstairs for breakfast without lifting their head from their book. But which chapter books should they first be reading? What will propel them forwards? The series featured below are all for age 6+

krazy ketchup horrid henry

Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon, illustrated by Tony Ross
A divisive series among some parenting groups. These are hugely popular with children, and with good reason. They are lively, spritely, filled with glee for a child’s life, and even for me, rather funny. What’s more there are non-fiction versions – Horrid Henry factbooks, which appeal because of the character, but impart interesting facts on a variety of topics. However, more often than not I am approached by parents who loathe the examples of bad behaviour contained within. Personally, I think the books are great. I stock loads of them in the school library, and here’s why. Horrid Henry tests those boundaries that most children wouldn’t dream of testing themselves – it’s a way of living it out for them – children don’t act on the behaviour they read about; it’s merely a safe environment for their emotions. In the same way that we don’t commit a murder after reading Ruth Rendell, children don’t act out just because they’ve read Horrid Henry. In fact, if you read it carefully, you’ll see that Horrid Henry’s catchphrase is ‘Noooooo!’ in response to being caught. Yes, Horrid Henry really doesn’t get away with much. And Francesca Simon has made a point of saying that she doesn’t have him do anything that a child wouldn’t be able to think up.

The other reason I love Horrid Henry books is the simplistic 2-D characterisation. Henry is Horrid, Margaret is Moody, Peter is Perfect. This gives very simple signposts to children as they first read longer stories, enabling them to decipher character and motive easily as they follow the plot. These sorts of signposts are also extraordinarily good for autistic children. Of course, the books also have short stories split into easy sections and good illustrations. The other reason I adore this series is that they truly do equally appeal to boys and girls.

dirty bertie jackpot

Dirty Bertie by Alan Macdonald, illustrated by David Roberts
Another hugely popular series in the same vein as Horrid Henry. By the time of his 25th adventure in Jackpot!, published May 2015, the series had sold over 750,000 copies. So what’s the difference between Horrid Henry and Dirty Bertie, you may enquire? Dirty Bertie with his friends at school such as Know-All Nick and neighbours such as Mrs Nicely, also features 2D characterisations for easy understanding, has great illustrations and each book is split neatly into three different stories for manageable first reading. Dirty Bertie though is less naughty than Horrid Henry – just has filthy habits, and is more prone to mishaps. In fact, whereas Horrid Henry schemes and devises plans, Dirty Bertie is more passive – things just seem to happen to him, or he picks up on the wrong end of the stick. He’s much gentler, but like Horrid Henry, always gets his comeuppance. In the title story of Jackpot! Dirty Bertie mistakes his grandmother’s win on the lottery as being a life-changing jackpot win and misleads his entire family. In Crumbs! Dirty Bertie mistakes salt for sugar when baking a cake – and that’s not his only mistake of the day – and in the final story Demon Dolly, Bertie’s sister wreaks some well-placed revenge on Bertie after he throws away her favourite toy. They are funny, yukky and addictive. Buy it here from Waterstones or visit the Amazon sidebar.

a home for molly

Animal Stories by Holly Webb
Another storming series for first readers which has also sold well – 650,000 to date. Each one comes packaged with an adorable animal picture on the front – saccharine for an adult perhaps, but endearing for a young child. The latest, A Home for Molly, tells the gentle story of a stray dog rescued by a little girl on holiday. Holly Webb flits between the feelings of the young girl and the feelings of the small dog to create a narrative that’s full of emotion – the little girl comparing her memories of once being lost to how the dog must feel. It hits the right notes with no great surprises, but tells the short story well with cues for empathy, including familiar parental rules and family life, and the preoccupations of being young and on holiday. The text is interspersed with a few illustrations by Sophy Williams which add to the narrative, and the text is split into short chapters. Holly Webb captures simplistic storytelling in a neat package in a formula that can be repeated without getting tiresome. It’s also nicely modern – mention of emails, Calpol!, a father who works long hours, and yet tied into a perfectly old-fashioned beach holiday. Perfect for today’s first readers. (There’s a free Animal Stories app too. You can download it here.) Buy the book here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

knightmare foul play

Knightmare by Peter Bently
This series by prolific writer Peter Bently is for those readers who want a slightly longer narrative stretch such as the Holly Webb series, but with a plethora of silly jokes and stupid happenings – and a more advanced vocabulary. Rather than based in reality, as Henry and Bertie, Knightmare is set in a time of knights and castles. Each tale is an action-packed, silly, and at times hilarious, romp through a cobbled-together medieval landscape. The fifth book of the series, Foul Play!, takes place during the May Fair, with central character Cedric – a knight in training to Sir Percy – a master who’s not quite as chivalrous or gallant as a knight should be perhaps. Before long Sir Percy is trying to avoid some relatives and some Morris men to whom he owes money, as well as attempting not to lose his castle in a bet over a football game. Medieval football though, is not quite the game it is today, and before long there is much mayhem – and many fouls! There are some lovely modern references – the cook enters a bake-off competition, the football game starts at 3pm, and there’s a fair amount of traffic heading to the fair – not to mention the parking permits! With all the excitement, plays on the historical setting and constant punning, this may be enjoyed by slightly older readers. It’s a pacey read and incredibly daft. You can buy it here from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

 

With thanks to Stripes publishing for review copies.

The Broken King by Philip Womack: The Darkening Path Trilogy

the broken king

Enthralling and all-encompassing, this is a fantasy novel that reaches into the depths of our modernity and triumphantly mixes it with legends of old to create a stunning new adventure. Although I wouldn’t ordinarily offer up as Book of the Week a book that’s the first in a trilogy, and ends on a cliffhanger when book three hasn’t been published yet, I am on this occasion making an exception, because book one is exceptional, and book two ends on a satisfactory note, leaving you wanting more but not disappointing.

Philip Womack takes his extensive classical knowledge and moulds it into a story that features our current world full with modern references of Sainsbury’s, mobile phones, and rock music, but then splices it with a fantasy world of shadows, murderous swans, and golden deer with wings.

Simon’s sister is taken away, kidnapped by a dark force, and with his parents and own world held in a kind of suspended time, he must venture into the kingdom of the Broken King to retrieve his sister. Along with him is sixteen year old Flora, whose brother has also been taken. The plot follows the traditional line of a journey into the unknown, with riddles to solve and dangers to avoid. However, the dark imagery is startling, refreshing and bold – Womack uses the loneliness of teenagers and weaves it into their fears and nightmares of the dark other world, he dips into territory as yet unexplored in children’s fiction – maps made from human skin.

I loved that he imposed physical scars on the two teenagers, so that the pain from their scars reminded them of their quickness to anger at their siblings, and how selfish they had been; how the kidnappings were their own fault. He touches on a subplot of a power struggle in the other world, as well as references to the troubles the teenagers have in their real lives – something that rounds their characters and keeps rooting the fantasy in reality.

There are numerous references to classical literature, the golden bough, Greek gods, Arthurian legends and comparisons of Womack’s writing have been made to Alan Garner, but this is a series firmly planted in our own times – with skyscrapers in the fantasy landscapes, portals in supermarkets, and tourists at the British Museum who aren’t what they seem.

I devoured it in one sitting – your children will doubtless do the same.
9+ years with strong constitutions.

The King's Shadow

You can purchase it here, or buy on the Amazon sidebar. The second in the trilogy, The King’s Shadow is out now and is available here .

Using Pictures for Narrative

Rules of Summer Quest

One of the things that I frequently speak to parents about is using narrative as a way into reading. For those reading age children we label as ‘reluctant’ readers (and I grimace here), sometimes the key is not to thrust prosaic text upon them and hope they will eventually read it, but to reach out to them through love of narrative before text. Because in the end, some of the skills we glean from reading, such as empathy, we get through understanding narrative. We want children to be able to pick apart a narrative – to deconstruct what’s happening, what might happen, what if something happens, and why it’s happening. Narratives are all around us, whether they be in a fairy tale app, a soap opera on the television, an advert trying to sell us something, or the story of our day. One brilliant way to discuss narratives with children is to use a picture book that leads by illustration, or one that doesn’t have any text at all. You can take your time to decipher what’s going on rather than turning the pages as soon as the words are read, which we, as parent readers, have a tendency to do all too quickly.

Two books that lead by pictorial narrative are:

Quest

Quest by Aaron Becker
This is the second wordless picture book by Aaron Becker, the first being Journey, and although Quest is seen by many as a sequel to the first, it works equally as a stand-alone title. I’m loathe to explain too much of the narrative here, because the beauty of the book is to look at the pictures and without saying anything let your children have a go at telling you what they see, what they think is happening, and their predictions. You’ll be surprised how different it can be to your own perceptions. For those who want a brief guide before borrowing/buying the book, it depicts two children in a fantasy landscape who draw on the magic of their tools to transport them across their world and to seek answers so that they can rebuild the kingdom and restore the rightful king to his palace. It’s a fantasy adventure, drawn with depth and imagination. The front cover is typical of that within; images of the boy and girl on each spread with their purple bird in a mystical place with nature and man-made structures colliding, and magical things happening. My favourite picture is that of the children swimming underwater accompanied by their bird and finding their own Atlantis beneath the ocean. As expected, the pictures are detailed, use colour and light in intriguing ways, and draw in the eye to numerous things on each page. The action is non-stop – each picture has motion and plot development – and there’s a map/guide to which my readers kept flicking back. A true adventure in pictures. To buy the book from Waterstones, click here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

Rules of Summer

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan
Shortlisted for the 2015 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, and by highly acclaimed artist Shaun Tan, this is a stunning picture book. For those who are aware of Tan’s work already, it delivers on your expectations – the right amount of surreal fantasy, emotional landscapes and sense of foreboding. In fact, much of Tan’s work could be taken to be fairly nightmarish for a sensitive child – so do beware.
Each page (even the cover and endpapers) depicts two boys, one who is clearly older than the other. The book starts with a simple line: “This is what I learned last summer”, and then proceeds to state the rules learned, accompanied by Tan’s distinctive surreal imagery. For example the rules include: “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline” and “Never be late for a parade”. Throughout the book it is clear that our focus is on the relationship dynamic between the two boys. At first they seem playful, but the mood changes as friction grows between the two. In fact some of the images are particularly menacing. After a while it appears that the small boy is prisoner, and only after a considerable time lapse does the bigger boy come to help, with the rule: “Always bring bolt cutters”. At the end there seems to be some redemption and forgiveness, although the last line is particularly ambiguous: “That’s it”. At this point the two boys are shown watching television together with drawings on the wall of things that have previously seemed to be real and menacing in the landscapes – perhaps Shaun Tan showing that they were merely figments of the boys’ play landscapes. On the other hand, Tan has stated that the whole book doesn’t necessarily have a linear narrative, and that each picture is a standalone story. What is clear is that the book shows the relationship between the two boys – be they friends or brothers. It asks the reader questions: what is the dynamic between the two, from whose point of view is the landscape drawn? And with whom do you most identify – the bigger or the smaller boy? The title also asks questions. What are rules? Are they useful or not? Are they self-imposed or dictated from afar? Are they rules from life experience or simply rules in a game? Only one thing is for sure, this a childhood world we are inhabiting. The images come from the children, and there are no adults present, merely other shapes or beings.

I haven’t said much about the actual pictures – this is because they need to be seen! But the use of colour and light is magnetic – from the yellow heat of the title page, to the dusky sky at nightfall, to the intense shadows created by the sun in the backyards, to the illuminated fantasy land in “Never forget the password.” The muted pastel greys and whites when the smaller boy is taken prisoner are haunting, whereas the vibrant fruit of the still life near the end is warming and intense. Most of these could be artworks hanging on your wall. In fact, I’ve visited The Illustration Cupboard in London and viewed some of Tan’s artworks just so. They are stunning. To buy the book from Waterstones, click here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

Once you’ve read one of these with your children, it’s amazing how much enthusiasm they’ll find for the next book – and then you can gradually start introducing a little text as well – through picture books, comics, graphic novels and illustrated books. Then the magic of the text will start to become apparent as well, as the reader begins to create their own pictures in their heads from the words on the page. And then the reader takes their own flight of the imagination and the seed of wonder of books is sewn….

 

The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford

The Imagination Box

This is one of those multi-faceted novels that delivers on every criteria. Our main character, Tim, lives in a hotel and has to create his own entertainment because his parents are busy working and he has no friends and no siblings. Then he meets one of the guests, a professor in a white lab coat, over a tray of forbidden cakes, and before long they are working together on the professor’s project – an imagination box that creates anything from your imagination. Tim seems to be the only one who can help the Professor to actually get the box to work – and before long Tim is conjuring all sorts of scientific magic. However, there are people who are willing to do anything to get their hands on the device, and Tim becomes embroiled in a race against time to keep the box in the right hands.
Throughout his pacey adventure, Tim has to navigate the adult world, determining who is to be trusted and who isn’t, as well as experimenting with the laws of science. Of course the science in the book is completely unrealistic, but there are roots in the imagination of what we could do with science, and Martyn Ford cleverly employs space-age gadgetry and technology, as well as teleporting, to ensure that young readers are excited and motivated by futuristic scientific imaginings. The book also poses some questions. What would you create if you could create anything? What would you create if you were hanging off the edge of a ten-storey building? What would you create from your dreams? Or nightmares?
Beneath all the adventure and excitement, Tim is a lonely little boy, who has to confront his deepest fears. What’s interesting is that at the start of the book we learn that Tim is adopted, and also friendless. There are deep-seated insecurities about himself here, and his relationship with his adoptive parents is barely scratched in this book – although perhaps this is to be explored in the other titles (the book is set to be the first of a trilogy, although this one works fine as a stand-alone title too).
There are also themes of burgeoning friendships, and loyalty, as Tim cultivates the friendship of the professor’s granddaughter, and also befriends a pygmy monkey (although the latter he conjured from his own head). These two characters imbue the novel with laughter, which sits well against the backdrop, so that none of the story is too dark or threatening.
I fully enjoyed it. It’s meaty, well-structured, and contains the right mix of elements for a sciencey adventure with humour and depth. One of those books that shows youngsters that an imagination is for stretching. For readers aged 9+.

Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin

Joe All Alone

This was an unputdownable read, but tough at the same time. Not because the language is difficult, but because it doesn’t reflect well on our society and makes for uncomfortable reading. Thirteen year old Joe is left alone while his mother and her boyfriend go on holiday to Spain during half term. Although initially he seeks pleasure in his freedom – eating what he wants and playing for unlimited amounts of time on his Xbox, it soon becomes apparent that not only has he not been left enough provisions and money, but that he is lonely, ignored and certainly not mature enough to deal with his situation, despite his best attempts. He’s an exceedingly likeable character, and Joanna Nadin has captured the feelings and thoughts of a 13 year old boy very well. Told in day by day instalments, not exactly like a diary, but documenting the passing of time for the reader, Joe eventually makes friends with a fugitive girl, Asha, who’s sheltering at her mock grandfather’s flat across the way from Joe’s. This affords him some contact, and draws the mock grandfather’s attention to his plight.

The story pulls out some modern dilemmas. Joe describes his neighbours to us, but it’s clear that there is no real community among them. He also points out traits about his school – the attempt to explain budgeting to the children, the interested concern of one teacher, the role of bullying outside the classroom, as well as the wider agenda including the perceived implications of going ‘into care’, troubled children, and of course the first spark of feelings with a girl.

Saying that, there are wonderful touches of humour which lighten the atmosphere, and Joe is a reader, which comes across in his references to Huck Finn and fairy tales. From both of these, and Joe’s friendship with Asha, the reader is left with a feeling of hope and uplifted spirits in what can be changed, and what can be imagined.

I would also make one last remark – the cover for me was slightly misleading – it shows a boy seemingly jumping on his bed with joy, and bears the strapline ‘No parents, no rules, no problem?’. Although I can see how this does depict the story, I would be wary that the cover portrays it more as a ‘Home Alone’ type venture, whereas in actual fact this was quite a dark moral tale for our times.

You can buy it here from Waterstones, or see the Amazon side bar.

I highly recommend. For ages 11+

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.

 

Tom with a ‘Laugh’ in His Name: An Interview with Tom McLaughlin

Accidental Prime Minister mr tiddles

In the same way that our politicians are touring the country to garner our votes, Tom McLaughlin, author of The Accidental Prime Minister, is touring the country to inspire children to read and write and draw. For Tom, inspiration starts with a blank piece of paper. “Books can spring from a doodle, or a mood – a moment you’re trying to create, and then you wrap a picture or a narrative around that. When I’m writing I think about drawing, and when I’m drawing I think about writing. I tend to plan out my books like a spider chart – mapping it out pictorially.”

Of course, Tom didn’t start his career writing books – he started, somewhat aptly for someone promoting The Accidental Prime Minister, drawing political cartoons. “It’s similar to what I’m doing now; drawing pictures and writing jokes, but of course with a book you get much more time to think about and play with ideas. Also, the world is quite a miserable place, and with a book it doesn’t have to be based in reality – so you can have the queen wearing roller skates!” This suits Tom well, as he’s never far away from a joke, inspired by anything from TV to podcast, Monty Python to John Oliver, Father Ted to The Daily Show. He even has the word ‘laugh’ in his name, a fact his publisher has highlighted by colouring it a different colour on the front of The Accidental Prime Minister.

He likes satire, and clever comedy, although admits that in writing for children, he does include plenty of fart jokes too. In fact, I was never sure during the interview quite how much Tom was joking: “If I were PM for a day I would make it compulsory for all cars to be fitted with dogs. Because there is nothing nicer than walking down the street, and seeing a car with the window down and the dog poking its head out, tail wagging in the wind. It just cheers me up. It would just make the world a better place…oh and world peace – that one as well.” In all seriousness, Tom does think that children need to have some knowledge of what’s going on around them. “I think it is important for children to know about the world. As a family, we always used to sit down and watch the news together. Knowing about the world can only make you a better and more rounded person.” Although he admits that writing The Accidental Prime Minister wasn’t a ruse to get children into politics: “It was never meant to introduce politics to children – that was a by-product of what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about the most famous boy in the world, and I was trying to think of how to do that. Should he invent something or be rich? But I wanted him to be powerful and to have a voice – and that’s how the politics thing came about. I liked the idea of him being PM by mistake, although I had to bend the constitutional laws slightly to do that.”

story machine

Tom is following this with The Accidental Secret Agent, although with different characters. He’s also busy creating more picture books as well, following in the footsteps of The Diabolical Mr Tiddles and The Story Machine. Tom told me how he enjoys working within both media: “I like the illustrative quality of picture books, there’s something really beautiful about creating that world. With The Story Machine it was all about creating a mood – although it’s hard because you have to agonise over every single word – it’s not like writing a novel in which you can just go for it.” Surprisingly, as he is dyslexic, Tom found he liked the ‘going for it’ with novel writing despite remembering reading and writing being difficult as a child: “It knocked my confidence for six. I hated the idea of reading in front of people, in front of the teacher. It was terrifying and you felt kind of stupid. I was put on the table with the slow learners and told I was lazy. I was tested for dyslexia, so the school knew about it, but didn’t do anything. I think things are better nowadays.”

Even doing readings of his own books makes Tom nervous: “I still mess up reading my own books – so for The Accidental Prime Minister I read the same passage because I’ve sort of learnt it off by heart. Also, I have good days and bad days and that’s really weird.” He’s learnt certain techniques to help though, and admits writing is easier than reading. “I audio book stuff, and listen to the radio, and I’ve learnt to think about something else while I’m reading – almost like not looking at the words too intently – reading slightly above the line I’m reading so that I’m looking at it out of the corner of my eye – that makes things a little easier.” The strategies help him, and encourage him to speak out about it to children. During our school visit, he told his audience about his dyslexia, and how it hasn’t held him back as an author: “You can still do anything. What’s important as an author is not so much the pictures and words as having an idea and having something to say.”

Tom also treats his keyboard like a piano; music inspires him. In fact, music resonates throughout The Accidental Prime Minister because the chapter headings are all song titles – London Calling was originally the title of the first chapter – although this was dropped in the end, and it became ‘I don’t like Mondays’: “Being at home in front of the computer 12 hours a day drawing or writing you need something, so I listen to a lot of music. If I’m writing I tend to listen to quite spiky, anarchic jazz because it’s like playing the piano on the keyboard. You don’t want any words though when you’re writing. I used to have classical music but you ended up feeling quite sleepy.” Perhaps the sleepiness inspired his next picture book, The Cloudspotter, publishing 18th June. The cover has a dreamlike quality – and the book is inspired by using the shapes of clouds to make images. Judging from his talent at changing mere pen strokes into full-blown political caricatures of the children at this latest school visit, Tom’s pictures and jokes look likely to win him many votes.cloudspotter

Quick Fire Round:

Ears or eyes: eyes

Majority or coalition: coalition

Tea or biscuits – Earl grey tea

Jetpack or parachute – jetpack

Cat or dog – cat

Computer or paper – blank piece of paper

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.