fiction

The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn

The Devil Diaries

Once in a while a children’s book comes along that is so inventive, and witty, and different, that you want to hug it whilst reading. Twelve year old protagonist Jinx D’evil is just like any other school boy apart from the fact that he is a demon with bright red skin and wings, lives in Hell and is the son of the ruler there, Lucifer. His problem is that he is too angelic – he is no good at being devilish, and runs away from his father after disappointing him one too many times. Whilst on the run, in the outer circles of Hell he meets Tommy, a dead girl, and together they discover a coup to overthrow his father, and finally Jinx has a chance to prove himself a worthy devilish son. The ensuing adventure is fast, furious and fun. The story is gripping, the writing compelling and the jokes clever and witty, so that you can appreciate them as an adult and as a child – it’s not just silly slapstick:
“Now, now, you really needn’t worry. I happen to know that Tafrac, the Patron Demon of Wrath, isn’t home right now. I believe he’s down on Earth, busy making people angry with a new scheme, something to do with website comments.”
Even the chapter headings are well conceived, from ‘A Rare, Lesser-Spotted Dead Girl’ and ‘Blah Blah Secret Plots Blah Blah’ to ‘How Grim Was My Valley’. Throughout the book these chapters are interspersed with scenes of Lucifer himself – sometimes on holiday – sometimes chatting with God. Tatum Flynn’s writing oozes effortless humour, but she manages to deftly mix it with a great plot and loveable and realistic characters. The friendship between Jinx and Tommy is nicely observed and develops well during the novel. This is a great debut book from a new talent. I recommend it both for its irreverence and its crafty humour. There will be high expectations for the sequel.

Illustrations by Dave Shephard

Publishes 2nd April. You can buy the book here.

Thank you to Hachette publishers for sending me a proof copy of this title for review.

Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2015

Blown Away
This evening, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize was announced. Another book prize? I hear you moan. But actually book prizes can be really helpful in identifying book recommendations for your children, as most awards tend to be judged by experts in the field – those in the industry or children themselves! The shortlist for this year’s Waterstones prize was particularly strong – you can scroll down and see them at the end of this blogpost. The categories are split into three: illustrated book, fiction 5-12 years and teen. Then an overall book is chosen as the winner – and tonight it was Blown Away.

I did review Blown Away by Rob Biddulph in my Christmas penguin blogpost last year, but wanted to revisit it to explain why I think it’s a worthy winner. It tells the story of Penguin Blue, who flies his brand new kite, but gets swept away and taken on a journey far away from his native land. Those animals who try to rescue him are also taken along for the ride. The text rhymes, which makes it good to read aloud, but it’s the multitude of small detail that wins it for me. The animals from Antarctica are amazed when they stumble upon a jungle island, because, as Rob points out, green is not a colour they’ve seen before. The ending of the story also sits well: Rob explains that after his long journey away – this penguin isn’t made for flying. It’s a superbly neat ending for a penguin picture book.

There are great small details on each page – you’ll have to buy a copy to see the insides – but they include the seal’s washing (and the surprise post in his postbox), the numerous signposts, the numbered clouds in the sky, the name on the ice cream van, the texture on the sea – and even the endpapers. You can buy a copy here.

murder most unladylike

The book that won the 5-12 years fiction category was Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens, described as an Enid Blyton/Agatha Christie mashup. It’s fabulous, and one I have recommended on a individual basis many times. I fully intend to blog on the appeal of this new series and Robin Steven’s fantastic writing and characterisation when I get a minute. You can buy a copy here.

Best Illustrated Book:
The Queen’s Hat by Steve Antony
The Dawn Chorus by Suzanne Barton
Blown Away by Rob Biddulph
Where Bear? by Sophy Henn
Atlas of Adventures by Lucy Letherland, words by Rachel Williams
The Sea Tiger by Victoria Turnbull

Best Fiction for 5-12s:
Girl with a White Dog by Anne Booth
Cowgirl by G R Gemin
Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
Violet and the Pearl of the Orient by Harriet Whitehorn, illustrated by Becka Moor
A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson

Tell Me Another: Jewish Festival Storytelling

The Jewish festival of Passover is an interesting festival for me because it’s all about storytelling. Commonly, Jewish people retell the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt over a meal. There are many children’s books on the market for Passover, because there is quite a lot about the festival that needs explanation for children – why bread isn’t eaten, why a special meal (the seder) is held, why it lasts for eight days, and the story of the exodus itself.

And Then Another Sheep Turned Up

And Then Another Sheep Turned Up by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Amy Adele is a gem of a Passover book, published in February this year. Sheep are often associated with spring, and it being a spring festival, the characters fit in perfectly. The scene at the table is great, from the seder plate to the wine, books on the side table, and matzah. The family of sheep are all ready for their special Passover seder and just about to begin, when Grandma Sheep turns up to join in, followed by many more unexpected guests. Told in rhyme, the beautiful illustrations evoke a warmth in the scene from the tight hugs with Grandma to the dog’s and cat’s movements as the evening progresses. The little touches are great – from the children’s tiredness, to Papa sheep’s final words:
“Time to get our kids to bed.
Next year in Jerusalem!
And next year….PLEASE CALL AHEAD!”
To purchase through Waterstones, click here. Available from 28 March 2015. Ages 3+

engineer ari and the passover rush

Another new title, Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush by Deborah Bodin Cohen, and illustrated by Shahar Kober, continues the Engineer Ari series inspired by the historic rail line from Jaffa to Jerusalem. Ari has to gather everything he needs for the Passover seder on the last day of driving his train to Jerusalem and back to Jaffa before Passover begins. He watches the workers in the matzah factory in Jerusalem, and admires their speed, before heading back to Jaffa, and gathering horseradish, parsley and an egg from his friends in exchange for boxes of matzah. Fabulous illustrations of the train, the market in Jerusalem and the baking of the matzah make this a special picture book, and it ends in the same way as many seders – with someone asleep! It’s a charming little story, which captures a nostalgia for Israel, and the feelings of joyfulness and anticipation as time rolls towards a festival. To purchase, click here. Ages 5+

Dinosaur on Passover

An old favourite is Dinosaur on Passover by Diane Levin Rauchwerger. A rhyming story about a dinosaur who gets involved in the preparations for Passover and causes havoc at the seder table, especially when searching for the afikoman. It’s always good to have a more secular topic (dinosaurs) interacting with a religious festival, as for many children it helps to familiarise it in their minds. Bright colours, easy words and basic concepts make this a winning formula for the youngest at the seder table. To buy this title click here. Ages 2+

sammy spider's first passover

I have chosen Sammy Spider’s First Passover by Sylvia Rouss mainly because it contains the line, “Sammy had never seen so much food!” which makes me chuckle every time I read it. Published as long ago as 1999, Sammy Spider remains ubiquitous with the Jewish festivals for many families. Sammy Spider is alarmed by the family doing housework and sweeping away his web, but by the end of the story (and the seder meal) he has spun a new web to help point the children in the right direction of the afikomen. He also uses shapes to spin his web, in the end ‘passing over’ one shape with another. It’s a cute link to the festival. To buy this title click here. Ages 3+

Passover Around the World

Lastly, and for slightly older children is Passover Around the World by Tami Lehman-Wilzig, illustrated by Elizabeth Wolf. Many families delight in reading about the different customs that different strands of the religion or people of different nationalities bring to the seder table. Although it’s traditional to have the same format every year, it is great to learn about other ways too. This book features stories, recipes and histories of Jews in America, Gibraltar, Turkey, Ethiopia, India, Israel, Iran and Morocco. From the brick of Gibraltar to the Mimouna celebration in Morocco, these are all intriguing customs, with a great glossary at the back to help. A useful and different addition to any child’s Passover bookcase. To buy this title, click here.
Age 8+yrs

Thank you to Kar-Ben publishers for review previews of And Then Another Sheep Turned Up and Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush

Me and My Books: The Grammar Conundrum

grammar
My books and myself? My books and I? Are you finding this difficult to read? And now I’ve started a sentence with ‘and’, which is okay in literary prose isn’t it? Although children are taught that you absolutely mustn’t start a sentence with ‘and’; it’s not deemed to be an acceptable sentence opener.

Seriously though, how much does it bother you? I read a LOT of books. Or a great many books! So many of them contain grammatical errors, particularly when I read them on the kindle, although admittedly many of the ebook errors are typos, which leaves me wondering if the digitisation was just a tad slapdash. Are we making more grammatical errors because our language is evolving and we deem it to be okay to finish a sentence with a preposition, split an infinitive, or use that instead of which, or are we just not taught grammar correctly anymore? Are there less copyeditors (yes, I know it’s fewer) with a good grammatical grounding?

The Super Adventures of Me Pig

Does it matter more if the grammar is correct in children’s books? Some children’s books are supposed to contain grammatical errors. The funniest book in our house at the moment is The Super Amazing Adventures of Me Pig by Emer Stamp. It starts like this:
“Hello.
Me I is Pig. I is 562 sunsets old. Well, I is guessing that is how old I is. I is not brilliant at counting. I got a bit confused around 487.”
The grammar here is not annoying because it’s supposed to be terrible – the author is writing as if he is a rather stupid pig, so the grammar reflects this, and it makes the book funny. The children testers for this book found it hilarious because they knew instinctively that it was grammatically very badly written. However, in order for them to find the style funny, they have to know the correct grammar to start with. But what about if the author is writing from a young child’s point of view, but in the third person narrative voice:
“He did, however, out of the corner of his eye, catch them doing that sarcastic thing they did, where one of them – Barry didn’t like separating TSE into two, as that was kind of recognising that they existed, but if he had to, he would refer to them as Sisterly Entities One and Two – would pretend to write down something he said, as if it was really important. Which of course was their way of saying that it wasn’t important at all. Barry really hated it when they did that.”
The Parent Agency, David Baddiel, illustrated by Jim Field

Heidi

What’s the difference between the book containing grammatical errors or just being badly written? Would a book flow better if the grammar was correct? Take an extract from Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Some might argue that the language is too ‘heavy’ and the style of writing too old-fashioned, and therefore it becomes prohibitive as a modern child needs something lighter. I don’t necessarily agree with that:
“Heidi looked at the jug that was steaming away invitingly, and ran quickly back to the cupboard. At first she could only see a small bowl left on the shelf, but she was not long in perplexity, for a moment later she caught sight of two glasses further back, and without an instant’s loss of time she returned with these and the bowl and put them down on the table.”

Narrative voice should also make a difference. If we can’t excuse David Baddiel for the writing above, would we be more willing to excuse it if he had written the book in the first person instead of the third person? The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is acceptable because it’s written in a colloquial way in the narrative first person.
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”
However, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is as much about accent and social commentary as it is about grammar. Do we always need to be grammatically incorrect to talk in a child’s voice? The following books all use grammar incorrectly for effect – to create the child’s personality and they’re all in the first person. Are the grammar mistakes immediately apparent to the average child?

Emily Sparkes

“This is completely a bad start and I am just thinking I need to change the subject quick because she is on an ‘eco-roll’ when it is too late and she says the terrible words.”
Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco by Ruth Fitzgerald

Clarice Bean Spells Trouble

“I go home in a very downcast-ish mood and even my older brother Kurt says, “What’s the matter with you?”
Which is unusual because usually he doesn’t notice other people’s gloom, he is too busy feeling gloom himself.”
Clarice Bean Spells Trouble by Lauren Child
But then surely, if Clarice is quoting her mother, as she does in the next extract, would her mother, as the adult, speak slightly better than she does here:
“When I ask Mum why he’s so cheerful, she says, “He’s just got himself this weekend job at Eggplant and it has really put him in a good mood.” To me, this still sounds like Clarice Bean – or is Clarice not quoting her mother directly, but twisting it from her memory into ‘Clarice speak’. Is bad grammar excused if it’s in speech marks because it’s representative of how we speak, which is often grammatically different from written prose?

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is American, and so of course a reader should expect Americanisms, but the author also deploys a lack of good grammar for effect – it is a child’s diary after all.
“Us kids have pretty much figured Fregley out by now, but I don’t think the teachers have really caught on yet.”
However, if it’s being an ‘authentic’ kid’s diary – would the spelling all be correct, or should the editor be modifying that too to create ‘personality’? Tricky one, hey? What about apostrophes? They all seem to be correct in the Wimpy Kid books…should they not be? Do your children speak like this? Can readers/writers get inside the head of a youngster without resorting to bad grammar?

I have a child in my house who insists on saying “Me and my friend went swimming” instead of “My friend and I went swimming”. I correct her constantly, which must be ‘super irritating’! However, did she pick this up from reading, or from her other friends? One children’s book, which I read recently, made this one error all the way through, even though the rest of the book was grammatically correct. For effect or just an error? Has our language changed so much from the days of Johanna Spyri that it’s now acceptable for modern literature to have bad grammar littered throughout? Does the expanse of bad grammar in our midst mean that children’s authors have a responsibility to write with even more care for correct grammatical usage to teach our children what’s right in the first place? If our children pick up their language tools from reading, at what point do we think its okay to break the rules for effect? And one day will they even know the difference?

When does bad grammar become a literary style?

 

By the way, last Thursday I guest-blogged on another site, MG Strikes Back, about the role of animals in middle grade fiction. You can read it here. It mentions some of my recent favourite MG books too.

MG STrikes back

The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Broccoli Boy

An amusing tale involving superheroes, food and school bullies. Rory Rooney is locked up as a medical mystery when he unexpectedly turns broccoli green on a school trip. The scientists aren’t sure if he’s carrying a contagious disease or if his colour is the result of something he ate. When Rory discovers another boy has also turned green, and not only that, but he’s the school bully and they’ve been locked up in isolation together, he realises they will have to work as a team to prove to the world that they are superheroes and must escape – after all, the Incredible Hulk and the Green Goblin were green. Cottrell Boyce manages to make ordinary London extraordinary as the hero and his classmate roam around a vibrant night-time London, having weird and wonderful adventures, their friendship developing and cementing the further into the book you delve. Brimming with humour and likeable characters, this was a gripping read from start to finish. Giggles a-plenty and great visual scenes that almost beg to be made into a movie. Add in some girl power, a penguin and a friendly prime minister and you have an immensely lovable story. Frank Cottrell Boyce has an easy-going natural storytelling voice that manages to weave humour, great adventure and pathos into a book all at the same time. Modern London is adroitly depicted in the book, with the climax reaching the dizzying heights of the Shard. Not to be missed by your children of eight years and over. Publishes 26th March 2015.

Illustrated by the incredibly talented Steven Lenton (unfortunately for me I reviewed this from a very early proof, so didn’t get to see the illustrations – that’s why I’m going to buy my own copy through the link below!)

To buy The Astounding Broccoli Boy, click here

Robot Girl by Malorie Blackman, illustrated by Matthew Griffin

Robot Girl

Of course, I have nothing but praise for Malorie Blackman. She’s the children’s laureate, and clearly a wonderful writer. She was also given a gold Blue Peter badge earlier this year in recognition for inspiring children. Her latest book for Barrington Stoke is for those with a reading age of eight, but interest level stretches to 12 years. Actually, I’d argue with the publishers here – the novel works as a brilliant short story for adults too! Claire’s Dad works long hours in his lab, perfecting a project he has been working on for a long time. Claire feels neglected and confides her feelings by email with her friend, Maisie, who seems to be the only one who understands her. However, when Claire’s Dad reveals the project, it’s only the first of many surprises to come Claire’s way. This is a fantastic futuristic little tale full of twists and surprises, with fabulous clues dropped in, and beautiful illustrations to accompany the text – all set out in a dyslexia-friendly way. It asks powerful questions about who we are, what life would be like without feelings, and what it means to be truly alive. I hesitate to describe it more for want of giving away the suspenseful punchline. Masterly crafted, this would work as good fodder for classroom discussion on storytelling and questions of philosophy in secondary schools too. Fabulous.

Click here to buy this book.

Bridging the Gap

I’m really excited today to have a blog post about four fantastic series of books for newly independent readers. They bridge the gap between picture books and first fiction brilliantly, all with a stunning combination of text and pictures that work so well together they could be described as picture books – and yet they reach new heights by appealing to young readers longing to explore text on their own, and feel as if they are reading ‘grown-up’ chapter books. I must caveat this though, by saying that newly independent readers haven’t grown out of picture books. As I said previously here, one is never too old for a picture book – some picture books work for children all the way through school and into adulthood.

However, first chapter books can be jolly good fun. Some publishers release certain titles as both picture books and chapter books – eg. Winnie the Witch and Mrs Pepperpot.

Claude in the City

One of the most popular series in my school library is Claude by Alex T Smith. These never stay on the library shelves for long – with good reason. This is a series of books about a dog, who is in no way ordinary! Claude in the City exemplifies all that is good and appealing about this series. The stories are exquisite – Claude always notices what’s interesting and different about things – as a child would. The accompanying drawings are terrific– all the humans always look at Claude with a slightly disdainful look, as if a dog shouldn’t be doing the human things that he does. Claude looks perfectly at home in his beret and jacket in whichever place he chooses to go, be it looking at sculpture in an art gallery or sipping his hot chocolate at the table in the café. He is marvellously eccentric and endearing. He has a sock as a pet, whom he takes to hospital in part 2 of Claude in the City, in his own home-made ambulance. The scenes in the hospital are hilarious, from Claude taking temperatures with a banana to the diagnosis of his sock. It’s a fantastic read with both witty and silly humour and a child’s sense of wonder and fun. The titles are printed with one tone colour red, which make them bright and appealing. The text is split into easy bite-sized chunks, but the stories are meaty and fulfilling and often have a separation of parts, which gives the reader a boost of confidence for managing a bigger book. Titles include Claude on Holiday, Claude on the Slopes, Claude in the Spotlight, Claude at the Circus, and Claude in the Country. In fact, Alex T Smith is bringing out a picture book version of Claude in June of this year. The six young fiction titles were enjoyed equally by the children I tested them with – from aged five to aged 10 years. You can buy the Claude books from Waterstones here

squishy mcfluff

Another excellent series, currently with three books out, is Squishy McFluff, The Invisible Cat. This is a rhyming series by Pip Jones and illustrated by Ella Okstad, which is equally enjoyable and endearing, but I won’t say too much more as I’ve already reviewed it here.

wigglesbottom primary

A new series, which I’m really excited about is Wigglesbottom Primary by Pamela Butchart and illustrated by Becka Moor. The first title in the series is The Toilet Ghost, although this book has three stories contained within. Also one-tone colour, this time green, Wigglesbottom Primary relates the happenings of one class at the school from a first person perspective, in a chatty tone as if this child were telling you the story verbatim: “One time Gavin Ross asked to go to the toilet, and when he came back he was completely SOAKED.” The text makes good use of capital letters and much dialogue. I can report that much dialogue in CAPITAL LETTERS does indeed happen in school! The three stories are well-contained, well told and simply plotted, and each one is great fun. The camaraderie of the pupils in the classroom comes across well, as does the joyfulness of school days. Becka Moor’s illustrations highlight the different personalities of the pupils and seamlessly merge with the text. Really hoping for many more in this series…this pairing of author and illustrator really knows how to make children laugh. Another one that stretches across the age band from five to 10 years old. Click to buy

woozy the wizard

Lastly, but by no means least is Woozy the Wizard by Elli Woollard and illustrated by Al Murphy. This is one of those books that screams to be read aloud, in fact when it dropped through the postbox I had to stop myself running into the street and grabbing someone to read it to. Woozy the Wizard: A Broom to Go Zoom is the latest in the series. It’s told in rhyming verse and describes the travails of a wizard called Woozy in a village called Snottington Sneeze. Although aimed at four years and over, I think that much older children will delight in this piece of poetry, which has a combination of excellent vocabulary and made up words. Rhyming is great for newly independent readers who find it helpful as the words just drop into place:
‘Woozy!’ Titch cackled.
‘You nincompoop nit.
Your hoover’s not made yet –
it comes as a kit!
You need globules of glue,
You need screws, you need pliers,
And hammers and spanners and
wrenches and wires.’
Woozy’s clearly as good at flatpack as I am. It appeals to the child in the adult, as well as the child, and full colour pictures make this a pleasure from start to finish. Again, more please! Click to buy.

Having a Bad Day?

I’m pretty much done with the toddler tantrums in my household, but I remember days of frustration with young children as if it were yesterday, and most parents would agree that there are still days in the life of a nursery and reception child where the terrible twos didn’t seem that long ago. I’ve found that an excellent way to combat a full meltdown is by holding up a mirror to a child’s behaviour. A few great picture books for children having difficult days are as follows (and older children can still benefit from the comfort these give, and as they get older recognise the embedded irony too)

PomPom gets the grumps

Published February 2015, Pom Pom Gets the Grumps by Sophy Henn is the most recent addition to our ‘behaviour’ books and leaps out from the bookshelves with its vibrant ka-pow cover. Pom Pom’s expression is immediately one of immense anger and disgruntlement all because one morning he got out of bed on the wrong side. Pom Pom is pictured in the first page with a cloud of grey rain over his head, which doesn’t lift for much of the book. Sophy Henn leads the reader through all the things that go wrong from losing his toy, to a soggy breakfast, to being irritated with his mother, all the way to Little Acorns playgroup/nursery. His nastiness to his friends results in his own-enforced isolation, and immediately his anger turns to regret and he reaches out to them again. I love the fact that Pom Pom realises his own mistake and says sorry, but I also love the twist at the end – children’s moods can swing so suddenly! The story itself is one that has been told before, but the illustrations are magnificent and universally appealing. The simplest lines indicate a brow crease frown, whether in profile or face on, and the friendly animals at the playgroup/nursery are adorable. One to be re-read for certain.

Big Shouty Day

I would recommend My Big Shouty Day by Rebecca Patterson to mothers sitting alone of an evening after a particularly tough day – the first illustration is enough to make the most frustrated parent crack a smile.
shouty dayinside

The book sums up beautifully the weariness of the parents, as well as the embarrassment felt when one’s child creates a fuss at the shops, on a play date, and even in the street. However, it’s also good for the child as the text becomes bigger and shoutier during the book, as the irrationality comes through, and the illustrations get funnier and funnier.
“Then it was time for my tea and my bath.
But those peas were
TOO HOT
And our bath was
TOO COLD”
Most children will recognise a tiny bit of themselves in it, as they see the simplicity in the overreactions of the child and her unreasonableness. The beautiful ‘sorry’ at bedtime, with the mother’s understanding, “we all have those days sometimes”, leading to a better day in the morning, is the perfect resolution to this Roald Dahl Funny Prize award winner.

Smile

Smile by Leigh Hodgkinson has a quirky design, not unlike Charlie and Lola books, with lots of font changes. Smile is about a small girl who has lost her smile (mainly, it seems, as a result of being told that she cannot have any more biscuits). She spends the day searching for it, asking her family where it might have gone. As she searches, she inadvertently does some good deeds round the house, and then when praised for her good behaviour, the smile returns. It’s a sweet story, and good for bringing a smile to a young reader’s face too. Mum’s and Dad’s solutions for finding lost things also managed to make this adult smile. The illustrations are simple and unconventional, and quite inspirational. This is one I have used with older children too to demonstrate how simple lines can create expression in a face, and that playing with text for emphasis is useful, from underlining to uppercase letters, to simple annotations – such as ‘splishy’ and ‘sploshy’ written in each of the puddles when it rains. A book brimming with imagination.

Olive and the Bad Mood

The illustration on the front of Olive and the Bad Mood by Tor Freeman is reminiscent of so many loony tunes cartoons, and raises a smile before we even start.
“Olive was in a bad mood.
This was not a good day.”
As in My Big Shouty Day, and Pom Pom Gets the Grumps, I liked that there was no reason behind Olive’s bad mood, it was just there. Younger children find it hard to articulate what it is exactly that has made them grumpy or sad. And for older children, it’s okay that sometimes mood changes without a definitive reason. However, in a new twist, Olive’s bad mood rubs off on all the friends she meets, so that when she finally cheers up, she discovers that they are all in bad moods now, and it’s her job to cheer them up. The irony in the end is that she thinks she’s the cause of the cheering up, not the bad moods. This is a good jumping off point for discussion with children about what they do that affects others without them realising, and that it’s important to have self-awareness. What was interesting in both this and Smile, was that food was a big indicator in the mood swings, unfortunately a sad but true fact for many of today’s youngsters.

elephantantrum

Elephantantrum by Gillian Shields and Cally Johnson-Isaacs is a good example of animals teaching behaviorr in picture books. Ellie is a very spoilt little girl who has everything she wants, and one day she requests an elephant. It’s promptly delivered, but it turns out that this is not quite the elephant she wished for. Ellie’s elephant is extraordinary! It’s the ultimate look in the mirror for Ellie, as the elephant usurps her and wears her clothes, plays with her toys and friends, and finally has an enormous elephantantrum. The tantrum makes Ellie realise that her prior behaviour wasn’t very nice, and as in Olive and the Bad Mood above, it’s not nice for everyone else! It’s a satisfying book with a great message, and a lovely elephant.

Happy Families

For the past few years I have edited a community magazine. One of the most memorable articles was one in which some children chose an item from within their house and used it as a jumping off point to explore their family history. Research has been done recently to show that children who know stories about their relatives and ancestors tend to show higher levels of emotional well-being – that knowing your family history gives you a greater sense of self. Not only that but children whose parents shared with them stories of their family history were more able to deconstruct and retell more complex narrative structures at a later date, as well as act with more empathy. Teens who had a clearer grounding of self-identity and family history were better able to deal with depressive and anxious thoughts if and when they occurred.

Some children can ask an elderly relative for their life story. For many others, whose older relatives may have died, moved away, or who are unable to share stories – it can be really hard to know where to begin. Books that help children and families to start the exploratory process are as follows.

family project

The Family Project by John-Paul Flintoff and Harriet Greene, illustrations by Sarah Jane Coleman
Published 5th March 2015, this handbook aims to inspire and assist the entire family in discovering and preserving their family story. More blank spaces than filled in spaces, it’s designed so that you utilize it both as inspiration and as scrapbook or blank canvas to begin your journey. It includes quotations, and ideas. Some of these are really quite clever – introducing the family tree as a series of ‘ever-increasing’ circles rather than a traditional box and line drawing, favourite meals rather than just passed down recipes, pictures that hung in your childhood home rather than just old photographs, catchphrases that relatives said. It also contains all the traditional methods too. I liked that it wasn’t too big – it had lots of ideas but didn’t leave me with so much blank space that it was a daunting or intimidating task – rather a series of small manageable tasks that I could easily accomplish.
I gave the book to family research specialist, Sharon Laifer, of mystoryuk.com, a company that records life stories on video and creates online family archives. She gave her opinion of The Family Project too:
“Understanding your family history is a big part of knowing who you are and where you come from.  But for many, the task is so daunting, it is put on the back burner as a project for those time-rich retirement years. The immediacy of The Family Project made me want to take out my pen and start filling in the gaps. Some of the questions made me laugh out loud – I especially enjoyed “if you dare, ask a relative “what don’t I know about you?” This encouragement of dialogue appeals to me as someone who spends time collecting stories and memories of the older generations on video. Often they are stories with outcomes, for the youngsters to use as anchors in their own lives. The book invites the child to answer the much-loathed, weekly question of “how’s school?” not with the usual, monosyllabic “fine,” but instead to take out pen and paper and ask their grandparent about their own school days. And asking the reader to record very specific incidents reminds them that their family members are not just ‘grandma’ or ‘uncle’ but that they too have enjoyed full lives, including which books they read as a child and which pets they kept. The emphasis on reminding the child that they are part of a group, a clan, and that they belong somewhere is so important to their emotional resilience. It’s vital that our children hear about and learn from the experiences of their ancestors, and this book is a great tool to open those discussions.”
8+ years

 

who do you think you are

Who Do You Think You Are? Be a family tree detective by Dan Waddell, illustrations by Lucy Davey and Warwick Johnson Cadwell
Inspired by the BBC TV documentary series in which celebrities explore their family histories, this is for children to explain to them the rudiments of genealogy. Before you even start, there is a pull-out family tree to fill in – visually set in a tree – with boxes stretching from yourself at the bottom to your great-great grandparents on all sides. The book then guides you through the genealogy detective process from what happened on the day you were born, to who your grandparents are, definitions of useful jargon such as heirloom, gene, census etc. It gives tips on how to interview family members, deciphering the stem of names, looking at old photos, utilising a paper trail, and how to present and preserve information. Visually the book is crammed full with information, but is colourful and presents much information in small boxes or lift-the-flap pieces. There are numerous articles on using the Internet and how to find your way to the best sites, and these are clearly picked for their longevity – the ones I looked at seemed to be safe and still running, and where they charge a fee, the book does point this out. I particularly enjoyed the illustrations of a man suffering his grandparents regaling of past history, and the Weird Names section, including a particular Mary Louise Pantzaroff. The text is chatty without being patronising, and gives good advice on the topic. All in all, it’s easy to use, and I recommend this to interested children.

8+ years

big book families

The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Ros Asquith
If your older children are interested in family genealogy, the younger ones might get fidgety and want some attention too. Mary Hoffman’s 2011 book is a neatly politically correct book explaining what families are and how they come in different guises. My first feeling is that it is of course inclusive and every school would want to have a copy to explore families without leaving anyone out or upsetting any child – for example the first few pages explain that some families have a mum and dad, some have just one, some have two mums, some children are fostered etc. The illustrations are cartoonlike, and the characters are fairly expressive, but it works more as a teaching device than it does a picture book to enjoy. It talks through where different families might live, what they celebrate, what they eat, how they travel etc. There’s a cat to find on every page, which makes it more interactive, and it encourages making a family tree towards the end. It’s an interesting book, and especially useful in school libraries.
4+ years

Matchbox Diary

The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatouline
One picture book which exemplifies the anecdote with which I started this blog is The Matchbox Diary. An American picture book, it tells the story of a conversation between a little girl and her grandfather. The grandfather shows the little girl his matchbox diary – a box filled with matchboxes each containing a small item that highlights an element of his life story of immigrating to America from Italy. He couldn’t read or write so his diary was small items kept in matchboxes. Throughout the book it becomes clear that the smallest items – an olive stone, a tooth, sunflower seeds – can tell one man’s life story.  It’s a long book – not a picture book for the very young – but one for older children to explore a part of America’s history, as well as use it to discover how history can be recorded in oral traditions and through artefacts. The sepia toned artworks to illustrate the grandfather’s memories of the past are exquisite. It’s an interesting story, well worth exploring, particularly as part of a classroom discussion about the past, or as a family exploration of recent history and immigration.
7+ years

Thanks to Faber and Walker publishers for sending review copies of The Family Project and Who Do You Think You Are? respectively.

With thanks to Emory psychologists Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke, former Emory graduate Jennifer Bohanek, the paper “Do You Know? The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being”, as well as Bruce Feiler, The Secrets of Happy Families, and Elaine Reese, Professor of Psychology at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

 

 

 

How To Fly With Broken Wings by Jane Elson

how to fly with broken wings

Author Jane Elson has worked with young offenders and children with special needs, and she brings some of her experiences into her latest novel, How to Fly With Broken Wings. Told from alternating points of view, first 12 year old Willem who has Aspergers Syndrome, and then Sasha, a girl mixed up with boys from the gangs on the estate where she lives. Their tales collide as they make friends in a desperate attempt to overcome the bullishness of the gangs around them, and to escape the riots on their London estate. The voices are deeply authentic, reminiscent of Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Willem’s voice holds no prisoners, giving literal accounts of his thoughts and observations, from watching the looting of the sports shops during the riots when his attention shifts to the untouched library:
“I do not think the riot people wanted to read books.”
His unflinching honesty is touching to read and beautifully juxtaposed with the extreme emotions of Sasha, as the reader sees her relationship with her father, teachers and peers through her adolescent eyes. Jane Elson also manages to draw into the story the tale of war-flying spitfires, as a man arrives on the estate who tries to give the rioting youth a sense of purpose, history and pride. She cleverly weaves together the bullying of Willem as he is goaded to jump from a too-high wall: “If Finn Madison shouts jump you jump or you are dead” with Willem’s ambitions to fly, and involves Sasha with the history of the women who flew the spitfires. It’s a fascinating and refreshing contemporary story, which will certainly teach many of its target readership what life is like for other children. It also works beautifully to bridge any gender divide in book sales and readership – hence my book of the week this week.
For age 10+

With thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for the review copy.