friendship

Taxi Ride with Victor: A Guest Post from Sara Trofa

taxi ride with victorImagine a character who has always wanted a certain job, but when he gets it, he can’t quite master it. No, I’m not talking about Boris Johnson, but rather Victor, the main character in Taxi Ride with Victor by Sara Trofa and illustrated by Elsa Klever. This title, shortlisted for the World Illustration Awards in 2018, beautifully pairs crazily outlandish illustrations with the simple tale of a taxi driver who always gets lost, but always brings happiness, as his passengers find unexpected, but fun adventures at their surprising destinations.  

The book is as zany as Victor himself, a taxi driver navigating outer space, and holds a raft of characters with numerous eyes or limbs, and a cloud come to life. Even the narrator is a three-eyed gray blob of a creature. This is a bright and unique picture book about finding friendship and embracing activities and places one might not expect to encounter, as well as making the reader think about their own value and contribution to society.

Below, author Sara Trofa explains her inspiration for the text.

When I write, most of the time I start from a character rather than from a topic. I note their personality, how they look and behave, what they want and what their problems are. Also, I give them a name. It might sound silly, but I can’t continue if I don’t give them a name (baby name books and websites are great for that)! Of course the name might change or not even appear in the final text, depending on the narrator’s voice and other aspects, but  in my head they need to have a specific name. It’s like part of their personality. Victor has had several other names before in my story process. “Victor” was also my grandma’s oldest brother’s name.

So Victor came to me like that: a taxi driver who doesn’t take you where you ask.

Then the most exciting part comes: considering all the possibilities for the character and their behaviour. Slowly the plot takes a specific direction and I start seeing the actual meaning of what I’m creating.

Victor’s mistakes are a great opportunity to discuss relationships, not only with other people, but also with ourselves. Why do we make mistakes? Why is it so difficult for us to accept them? What are the consequences and how can we deal with them?

Our society tends to value a person for their contributions and for their “usefulness”. What could the social value of a taxi driver be if he doesn’t take you where you ask to go? If he doesn’t provide the service that he is supposed to?

Starting from there, I wanted the other characters not just to accept Victor but to actually be able to see his true value and to enjoy the unexpected outcomes of his “mistakes”.

Also, sometimes we think that we are what we do, specifically what we do as a job. But Victor is much more than a taxi driver. He gives a bigger gift to his passengers and that is possible only because the passengers are open to the possibilities of the final destinations to which he brings them.

How sad it would be if they just let themselves be mad at Victor? Or if Victor gave up after the first “failures”?

So I wanted all of them, Victor included, to be able to be surprised and to welcome the unexpected.

The readers’ point of view is also something unexpected and marvellous. Isn’t it exciting when somebody reads your story in a new way, different from what you’ve planned while writing it?! Of course the readers are re-tellers of the story, they get to create their own version of the story and that’s such a generous gift for the author.

I wrote a story about mistakes, acceptance, being together, helping each other, not giving up. Victor’s readers will tell me what else this book is about and I can’t wait for that!

For other new picture books on friendship and unexpected journeys, visit MinervaReads in October for an autumn picture book roundup. In the meantime you can purchase Taxi Ride with Victor here, and find Sara on twitter @SaraTrofa. With thanks to Prestel for the review copy, and Sara for her guest post.

Animal Picture Books

There seems to be a glut of super-talented authors and illustrators bringing a range of stories to life this summer in picture books. It’s hard to choose when there are so many good books. Themed on animals, and with some clear references to great picture books of the past, I’ve narrowed it down to seven.

a mouse called julianA Mouse Called Julian by Joe Todd-Stanton
Since the stunning views of Epping Forest inspired the illustrative detail in Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge series, a fascination with underground burrows and attention to detail has pervaded children’s illustration. Todd-Stanton’s new picture book is also about a mouse and his burrow, illustrated to near-perfection with its perspective on size – the giant matchsticks, safety pen and chiselled pencils. And as the perspective widens outside Julian’s burrow, the picturebook excels.

Julian avoids other animals, but when a fox tries to sneak into his burrow, it gets stuck in the front door. At first horror strikes both animals, but gradually a mutual friendship grows.

This plot idea may be borrowed from Winnie-the-Pooh, but Todd-Stanton’s clever vignettes of Julian on his everyday travails, through burrow and fields, plays on the reader’s expectations of country life, predator and prey. Julian is seen walking with a stick of blueberries across his shoulder, in the pose of Dick Whittington with his bindle stick. The illustrations open out to full page little animal terror, as the reader sees the eye of the fox, huge against the leaves and dandelions, which themselves tower over Julian.

This is a tale, in the end, about perspective. Perspective of size, of danger, but also of companionship and the loyalty of friendship. There are unexpected twists, a sublime amount of suspense for the young reader, and simply exquisite illustrations. A gentle rhythm to the short text amplifies the satisfactory ending. Exquisite. You can buy it here.

in the swamp by the light of the moonIn the Swamp by the Light of the Moon by Frann Preston-Gannon
More borrowing from the children’s literature cannon in this paean to The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, as Preston-Gannon uses the same rhythm to tell her tale of a frog and his orchestra of animals. Singing to himself in the swamp, his song feels incomplete until the other animals join in. It is only at the end, when even the smallest voice is heard, that the music sounds right.

With collage illustrations highlighting the different textures and bold colours of the swamp, from the flora at the front of the picture to the depth of water and colourful fish, Preston-Gannon shows an intense attention to detail, making the scene feel like the liveliest and most comfortable swamp – the frog’s legs dip into the water, the mice sing with every whisker and flick of tail.

In the end, the reader discovers that it is only with the complementary sounds of all the creatures that the song sounds good – a promotion of inclusivity, but particularly of the little bug – the smallest voice of all – showing that there must be space for the extroverts to listen to the introverts and let them in.

Young readers will find the little bug on every page, and delight in her final ‘brightness’ of song. Lyrical, accessible and bright. You can buy it here.

ducktective quack
Ducktective Quack and the Cake Crime Wave by Claire Freedman and Mike Byrne
Humour and detective skills galore in this wonderful caper by the author of Aliens Love Underpants. Someone is stealing all the cakes in town, and together with Ducktective Quack, the reader needs to work out who it is. In rhyming text, and with successful word play (‘fowl play’ at the police station), the book takes the reader through a humorous investigation of the town, from the crime scene to the portraits of suspects, questioning and solution. A yellow post-it on each page encourages the reader to find clues.

But it is the clever rhyming and busy illustrations that win an audience. A perfect read-aloud, with cute messages about sugary foods being bad for teeth and health, the illustrations of the different animals and their professional lives will make any reader chuckle, even the grownups. Look out for the incongruities too – an old-fashioned telephone, an American mailbox, an electric toothbrush, a takeaway coffee cup.

Timeless and placeless, this is one sugary treat. You can buy it here.

i am a tiger
I Am a Tiger by Karl Newson and Ross Collins
Say something with enough conviction and people will believe you? A tale for our times indeed. This bold, simple picturebook, again with a starring role for a mouse, shows that with enough confidence you can be anything you want to be. Mouse believes itself to be a tiger, and convinces others of this ‘fact’ by way of a series of strong(ish) arguments and behaviours. When a real tiger comes along, mouse has to convince tiger that the tiger himself is a mouse, before explaining what all the other animals are (with some witty surprises).

This is an excellent book, highlighting confidence, truth and debate, all the while managing to amuse. Phenomenal facial expressions take this book to another level. You can buy it here.

my dog mouse
My Dog Mouse by Eva Lindstrom
Old-school illustrations in this translated-from-Swedish slowly paced gentle book about friendship and ownership. There’s a special attention and a special relationship between the unnamed narrator who is taking an old dog for a walk, illuminated in the poetic language of the text ‘ears flap like flags’, ears that are ‘as thin as pancakes’, but mainly in the soft charming shaded illustrations that move as slowly as the child moves in his slow walk, ‘Step, pause, step pause.’

There’s a longing and poignancy to the text, a kind of nostalgia for the enduring time of childhood, and a wry sadness as the narrator proclaims that they wished the dog belonged to them, in beautiful contrast to the title of the story. Will leave children pondering. You can buy it here.

little bear's spring
Little Bear’s Spring by Elli Woollard and Briony May Smith
There is a great depth of understanding of nature in May Smith’s illustrations throughout her picture book output, and this is different only in that it concentrates on the real natural world rather than fairies. Little Bear is coming out of hibernation and Woollard and May Smith track his slow awareness of the new world and the change from winter to spring as he learns whom to trust and whom to befriend.

The use of light to show the sunshine and the passing of the days, shadows cast, and patches illuminated, as well as the textures of the landscape; tree bark, animal fur, rippling streams is magical, and particularly, of course, the double page spread of first blossoming flowers – a carpet of colour and sensory delight. The story is gently told with a good mix of descriptive vocabulary and character-driven dialogue all told in rhyme. You can buy it here.

big cat
Big Cat by Emma Lazell
A case of mistaken identity, a stylistic throwback nostalgia to the 1970s, and an acknowledgement of great picture books from the past combine in this zany intergenerational story book. Isobel and her grandma find a cat in the garden – a big cat – whilst looking for grandma’s glasses. He moves in, but like another well-known big cat, eats a lot of food. When grandma finally finds her glasses, she’s in for quite a surprise.

With a messy, scatty illustrative style, busy chaotic scenes, and a wonderful chattiness in the text, there is a huge amount of fun to discover in this lively picture book. Look at the other cats protesting, Grandma attempting to text on her mobile phone, and her overloaded kitchen (how many mugs does one person need?) A Big amount of fun. You can buy it here.

Playing with Time and Nature

charlie noonI’ve long been an admirer of Christopher Edge’s novels. In his latest series of books, (connected by theme, but completely stand-alone stories), he takes a scientific concept and writes a children’s novel around it. It started with The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, which took Schrodinger’s Theory or the many worlds theory, and ran with it. The Jamie Drake Equation was about space travel, although for me it resonated most heartbreakingly with its depiction of an absent father. The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day was quite devastating, in that it investigated relativity, virtual reality and black holes, but mainly sibling relationships, and was both quite frightening and then impossibly sad. The magic of the stories is that although the reader subconsciously absorbs the big scientific ideas, they are also stung by the supreme emotion and fallibility of human relationships, as well as seeing hope for the future.

This time, in The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, Christopher Edge has taken his theme and created an impossible tale, a masterpiece of keeping the reader guessing and turning things upside down and inside out until at the end the reader realises that time has flown…

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is ostensibly about three children who get lost in the woods one evening after school. Edge wonderfully juxtaposes town and country here, as Charlie has moved from London to the country, and experiences the woods in a different way from the other children. There are lush descriptions of wildflowers, and in particular, the different sounds of the birds, and the trees and the lights and shadows that are cast in different areas of the wood.

There’s also a legend about Old Crony, a monster maybe, who lives in the heart of the woods, and who eats children. Charlie and two friends are looking to solve some cryptic puzzles that have been left in the wood, but when night falls they find themselves lost, or maybe trapped. Time plays tricks on them, as Edge explores the concept of time, and how we experience it. There are loops and hurdles for the reader as well as the children as we read a series of scenes that play with our sense of perception.

Edge again cleverly weaves together science and creative thought, nature and story, to stimulate further thought and discussion after reading, but also imparts a huge amount of knowledge. Charlie Noon is an immersive story with non-stop twists and turns, gives each child a real sense of character, and also provides a wonderful key to seeing not only the power of nature, but how stories can stimulate intellectual curiosity and thought.

Here, Christopher Edge explores the inspiration behind the novel, Brendon Chase by ‘BB’, about three boys who run away from home and live wild in the woods:

“When we are young all our impressions are much clearer and more vivid than when we are middle-aged.”

So reads the opening line of The Pegasus Book of the Countryside written by ‘B B’, the pseudonym used by the author, illustrator and naturalist Denys Watkins-Pitchford.

First published in 1964, B B goes on to bemoan how when children are at the most receptive age to enjoy the wonders to be found in the countryside, they are forced to stay indoor for lessons at school, showing that concerns about the lack of nature in children’s lives isn’t a wholly modern phenomenon.

However, in recent times, the role that nature plays in children lives has been brought into sharp focus through books such as The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, which have sought to rewild children’s vocabularies and reconnect them with the natural world, and also the work of the inspirational climate activist Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl whose protests highlight a younger generation’s deep concern for the environment, and how we need to act now to save nature.

Education is about understanding the world around us, so learning about the natural world should be at the heart of the school curriculum. From forest schools to fiction, through subjects like science, art, English and geography, we can rewild children’s education in a way that helps them to understand the fragile wonders that can be found in the natural world, and help give them the heart to defend these wild places.

Reading a novel changes your brain and I hope in the pages of The Longest Night of Charlie Noon young readers might find glimpses of the wild mysteries that fed my imagination, and find inspiration to explore the wild places around them and make their own adventures there.

To end this piece, I’ll borrow the closing words of The Pegasus Book of the Countryside, where B B writes of how reading about nature, ‘remains inside you and adds a richness to life which is with you until your life’s end.’ Let’s give our children the riches they all deserve.

With thanks to Christopher Edge. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is published by Nosy Crow on 6th June, and you can buy it here. With thanks to Nosy Crow for the review proof, and also the sublime finished copy, cover artwork by Matt Saunders. 

Has Your Memory Stored Your Old Tech?

bootWhen I was younger I had a Spectrum ZX. And I can’t imagine how many hours I spent playing a game called ‘Jet Set Willy’. The idea of the game was that the player was Willy, a figure who had to tidy up all the items in his house after a party – and he had a lot of rooms in this house, ranging from the cold store with dangling rope, to the wine cellar with its many black holes, to the forgotten abbey where moving platforms and skulls dominate the room.

I don’t play ‘Jet Set Willy’ any more, but I do spend a great many hours tidying up the items in my house (I don’t have a wine cellar, cold store or forgotten abbey),  not after a party, but after the children have gone to school.

I mention this because the publishers of Shane Hegarty’s latest book, Boot, suggested that I revisit a piece of technology that holds special memories for me, in order that I can tie it to the themes of memories, objects, and technology that permeate Hegarty’s novel.

Boot is about a toy robot, called Boot, who wakes up in a scrapyard, and finds his hard drive mainly wiped of memory, except for 2 and a half images and an idea that it was once loved by its owner, Beth. Boot is determined to find its way back to Beth, and with a group of other abandoned, half-working robots, it struggles across the city to find her. Except that, of course, discarded pieces of technology are usually thrust aside for a reason.

I think I abandoned ‘Jet Set Willy’ because of GCSEs (at least my parents would probably like to think so). However, it does hold a soft spot in my heart, and if you gave me a spectrum ZX with Jet Set Willy downloaded now, I’d while away a few hours exploring.

Children would do well to while away a few hours reading Boot. Although in the science fiction genre and with a robot protagonist, the book pulses with emotion. Hegarty executes this with ease because Boot is a toy robot – made specifically to be a child’s companion, and thus its ‘set’ emotions are written all over its face/screen. When sad, the orange smile on its face turns blue and upside down. Moreover, Boot has suffered some damage, so some of its ‘set’ feelings are slightly off, leaving Boot with rather more emotion than a robot usually has, and the weird consequence that not all its emotions inside show correctly on the outside. But more than this, Boot is programmed to decipher emotions in others – it sees that one adult is angry by way of ‘teeth clenching’ and ‘jabbing finger’. In this way, as in real artificial intelligence, robots are being programmed and learning just as toddlers do – from being fed experiences.

As well as using emotion, Hegarty manipulates his readers – making them feel profoundly for, what is, after all, an object. In fact, in a Toy Story reminiscent scene, Boot discovers it’s not unique – there are lots of robots identical to it. Just like Buzz Lightyear, it makes readers think about our own identity. What is it that makes each of us unique, why are we, and how can we use that as a positive, and recognise it as positive in others.

Because Boot befriends so many robots, all discarded or cast aside for some reason, the reader is constantly reminded that they are just machines in this fictional future landscape, and yet by bringing them to life with human characteristics, Hegarty asks the reader to think about them as ‘disposed’ objects. Should we dispose of things so quickly – can we not repair and mend, reuse and recycle? And should we?

In the end, Boot does find Beth, but the ending is more complicated than that. Hegarty builds on his theory of disposability, extending it to humans too. For this is a story about growing old, being discarded, and the value of memory.

Illustrated in black and white throughout by Ben Mantle, with a keen eye on the idea that the robots in the novel seem more friendly than many of the humans, this is a heartwarming, funny, neat little novel with some big ideas, an extending vocabulary and light modern prose, for children aged 6+ .

I don’t know what purpose my memories of ‘Jet Set Willy’ serve, but they definitely make me smile. And if memories make the person in the present happy, then that’s about the best reason of all.

To buy Boot, click here. With thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for the review copy and for sparking an idea for the blog.

The Summer of No Regrets by Kate Mallinder

the summer of no regretsHas the trend for up-lit died down? The zeitgeist that propelled Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine to the top of the bestseller charts and made it the bestselling novel of 2018? Judging by today’s lists, there’s still an appetite, even if we like murder more. But what about for today’s teens?  Recent discussions assumed that all YA books either slot into the fantasy genre or deal with issues such as eating disorders, bullying or depression. But what should parents and their offspring buy if they want to read something lighter? Some humour? Some clean teen fun? These books do exist, they just might not be face out on the bookseller’s shelves, and you’ll need to ask the bookseller. Start by requesting this one.

The Summer of No Regrets is clean teen uplit. After their exams, four sixteen-year-old friends are ready to embark on their summer together; long lie-ins and fun days out. But then Sasha is given an opportunity to go and stay with her estranged father in Geneva, and on the advice of Hetal’s Nani, they decide to opt for a summer of no regrets, (embracing adventure and new challenges), even if that means going their separate ways. Home-loving Hetal takes up a place at an exclusive science camp, Nell goes for a job she wants, out the way of her over-protective mother, and fostered Cam decides to look for her birth father. But will their summers work out the way they anticipate?

Each chapter is written from one of the four girls’ points of view, and Mallinder executes this skilfully, nicely imbuing each voice with its own idiosyncrasies and character. As with these types of novels, the reader may identify more with one girl than another, although they will possibly see characteristics of themselves, or their friends in all four. Each character is nicely flawed, and self-critiquing, sometimes overly as teens are prone to do – but they are rescued from too much introspection by Mallinder’s lightness of touch, and her use of the secondary characters around each girl.

But it is the four friends who dominate because the book is about friendship – a refreshing reminder that not all friendships degrade because of sniping about each other on social media or griping behind each other’s backs. Although some of the foursome are more in tune with each other than others – splitting into twos occasionally depending on circumstance and personality, all four have a wonderful support network of the other three behind them – even if they are geographically apart. Nowadays this is easy to portray with the use of mobile phones and Mallinder nicely portrays the girls’ messages to each other without it becoming overbearing or interrupting the flow of plot, but she also hints at a shared history, an ongoing bond between them that’s deeper than text messages.

The book is character-led, and each girl does have her own ‘issues’ within her story – whether it is a summer romance, an overly-competitive streak that gets them into trouble, or more serious issues such as post-traumatic stress, and feelings of abandonment and rejection. However, these issues never dominate – they are just a part of each girl’s life – a test they have to go through on their own, but which ultimately they can do because they have the strength of friendship behind them.

This is a story about real friendship – trusting, kind and generous; the sort of friends who pop by and see you while you’re at work, or answer your cries for help immediately. As the author William Sutcliffe pointed out a few weeks ago in The Times, it’s what makes the sitcom Friends so enduring – not just the humour, but the appealing essence of true friendship.

But this is about sixteen-year-olds rather than adults, and Mallinder captures well the liminal space they occupy between being children and stepping into their own independence – they still need guidance and still push boundaries.

As intimated by the glorious rainbow cover, this is a light, breezy summery read, which I read in one sitting, happily engrossed in the girls’ stories. A clean teen read, I’ll be heartily recommending it to every teen and pre-teen this summer. You can read your own copy for pleasure here – and pleasurable it will be. For ages 12+ years.

The Words That Fly Between Us by Sarah Carroll

the words that fly between usLanguage is important. Of course it is, it’s one of the ways in which we communicate, and as a reader and writer it’s my primary source of information, and of huge value. But one of the things new writers are taught is the importance of words that are left unsaid. In dialogue, what’s underneath the words, what lies in the silence, which emotions are left hanging in the air – the words that are never spoken but which fly away. Listen carefully to the next conversation you have – who isn’t saying what?

Carroll delves into the world of examining language, secrets, lies, manipulation and communication in her emotionally deep novel, The Words That Fly Between Us

Lucy lives in a large house with her parents, seemingly all privileged and happy. Yet, Lucy lives in a state of heightened awareness; attune to the words that aren’t being spoken, and the manner in which those words that are shared are spoken. Her father uses words to bully and manipulate, and although Lucy is a talented artist, her father’s words hinder even this form of expression. Her confidence is chipped away, her place of safety gone. What’s more, the abuse towards her mother is teetering from just verbal towards the physical.

Lucy takes consolation in the loft space above her room, but she discovers that it links to the attic space of all the other houses in her street, and before long Lucy’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she finds that other people have unspoken secrets in their houses too. But she comes to realise that knowing other people’s secrets can create even larger dilemmas.

In today’s world, the language we use seems to take on an even greater import because quite often it is not accompanied by body language or pitch. Many people today communicate more by written word than spoken word – in text, online comments, direct messages. Carroll touches on this too, with her depiction of Lucy’s friendship with Megan, who writes a blog, but starts to receive unwelcome and bullying comments online.

And incorporating a diary into the novel as part of the plot, means that the reader can start to understand the power of secrets, the power of the written word, and the lies we tell ourselves, or portray to the world. Communication is a powerful tool.

By weaving together these strands, as well as incorporating a homeless girl with a distinct message, a reclusive neighbour who isn’t all she seems, Carroll forms a multi-layered story that mirrors the multi-layers of her characters. Because the bullies in the stories aren’t simple two-dimensional fairytale villains – these are complex characters with deep flaws and insecurities that manifest themselves in harmful ways. By portraying them as humans too, Carroll portrays an ever greater emotional depth to her already heart-wrenching story.

In fact, it is the very appealing first person voice of Lucy that pulls the reader in. And just as Lucy sees the menace behind ordinary words, so the reader begins to see the depths behind the simplicity of the voice, and that although this is an easy read in terms of accessibility, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Carroll deftly imbues her main character with a talent for drawing – a way of expressing her feelings beyond words. And although the book isn’t illustrated, the author shows enormous talent at describing Lucy’s drawings, so that we can see them in our mind’s eye and extrapolate the emotion they are depicting.

This is a powerful book for a 10+ age audience. With compelling, confident writing, a clear understanding of relationships, and a good illustration of how language works and can be manipulated.

Carroll shows what it is for a child to feel safe, to find their voice, and then develop the confidence to use it. Again, what’s key is the kindness of strangers, true friendships and an empathetic heart. You can buy it here.

Recent Young Fiction Titles (Age 5+ years)

hotel flamingo
Hotel Flamingo by Alex Milway
Anna Dupont inherits the now dilapidated, once sunniest hotel in town, which has a rival up the road, and is only populated by sad employees T Bear the doorman, and Mr Lemmy on the front desk. With a lot of hard work, careful ‘human’ resources, (including hiring a giraffe for handyman jobs, and a cleaner with a dust allergy), much kindness, and an emphasis on pulling together, Anna oversees the renovation of her hotel to once again become an exciting establishment.

Bursting with enthusiasm, positivity, and magnificently warm illustrations, embracing the diversity of the guests, and adding much humour, this is a great place to stay for a while. First in a series, the second is published in June. You can buy it here.

two sides
Two Sides by Polly Ho-Yen and Binny Talib
Everybody falls out with a friend at some time or another. This delightful tale plays beautifully with the different perspectives of an argument. Lula and Lenka are best friends even though they are very different from one another. Until The Day Everything Goes Wrong. The book splits into dual narrative, each differentiated by a different typeface for extra emphasis, as each tells the story of their argument from their perspective. Insightful about the lonely consequences of arguing and not forgiving, and exploring the complementary attributes a friend might have. Thought-provoking and exploring how to look at something with another’s eyes – and it was all over a pencil case! If only Brexit were so easy to solve. Most magically though, the book is colour-illustrated throughout, bridging the gap between picture books and more sparsely illustrated black and white chapter books. You can buy it here.

wizard vs lizard
Wizard vs Lizard by Simon Philip, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

The author of two phenomenal picture books, I Really Want the Cake and You Must Bring a Hat, turns to wizardry for this chapter book outing. One of the more sparsely illustrated titles here, but still populated with a decent number of Dempsey’s expressive illustrations, this is the first in a series that looks set to be rather good. Fred is a Wizard, but sadly not a very good one – certainly not as good as his siblings or schoolmates. When his siblings, and his parents expect him to fail in everything, Fred decides to prove them all wrong and finally make them proud in a Wizard competition.

With great humour and an overload of the everyday – Fred the Wizard may have a wand, but also a bus pass and a library card (which come in rather handy), this is a loveable introduction to chapter books. With messages on bravery, determination, and how using quick-thinking and inspiration can  cast just as many spells as being a wizard. Oh, and never under-estimating yourself! Buy yours here.

veronica twitch
Veronica Twitch the Fabulous Witch in Double-bubble girl-band trouble by Erica-Jane Waters
More witchiness in this two-tone (purple and black) illustrated first chapter book. Veronica is a witch journalist, Editor-in-Chief at Twitch Magazine, and due to write a feature on the band Double-Bubble. But when the band is kidnapped, Veronica has to use her investigative skills to dig deeper. Could Belinda Bullfrog from rival magazine, Nosy Toad, be behind the band’s disappearance?

With Witch City full of fun place-names such as Grand Central Broom Station, and accessories including hand-cauldrons instead of handbags, and frosted bataccinos to drink, this is a fully imagined other world, with trendy and stylish characters (each given a page profile at the start). It’s fun and fast, and slick as a tube of lip gloss. Have a witchy time here.

captain cat and the treasure map
Captain Cat and the Treasure Map by Sue Mongredien, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst
An even lighter read in this splendid tale of what happens when the animals are in charge of the pirate ship. Patch the Cat, Monty the Monkey, and Cutlass the Parrot accompany Captain Halibut and his crew on their dastardly pirate adventures, but sometimes the animals steer the way as their pirate owners can be a little hapless. When a treasure map is found, the pirates look set to cash in, but the animals sense danger. Can they save their pirate crew?

Chaos and mayhem in the plot are cunningly drawn by Pankhurst, illustrations litter the text. A fast plot, lots of terribly punning, and a brilliant message that being the quiet one who no one listens to doesn’t mean that you don’t have the best ideas! Underappreciated Patch is a new favourite character. Yo ho ho, and you can buy one here.

pirate pug
Pirate Pug: The Dog Who Rocked the Boat by Laura James, illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans
More piracy in this newest adventure from an old pug on the block. This is the fourth Pug book from Laura James, which tells the tale of our role-playing pug and his friend Lady Miranda. With large text and lots of illustrations, Pug inadvertently becomes a pirate when he suffers an eye injury and has to wear a patch.

There’s more buried treasure here, a spot marked with an X, and unfortunately, a pug who can’t swim. Ceulemans has conjured a special world for Lady Miranda and Pug, an everyday familiarity laced with aristocracy, which makes for great fun in reading and looking at the books in detail. See a pirate here.

horrid henry up up
Where would any young fiction collection be without Horrid Henry? To celebrate 25 years of the cheeky chap, Francesca Simon has penned four more stories, nicely packaged in this red-foil-covered collection, called Horrid Henry Up, Up and Away, illustrated by Tony Ross. Taking cues from the likes of Pamela Butchart, the text is now punctuated with a mass of jazzed up fonts, big and small for emphasis, but the same old Henry is in there, with his delightful sibling Perfect Peter.

The themes are familiar to young readers too – all primary school age experiences including a plane ride, a theme park outing, and a school play. Illustrated by Tony Ross, with his trademark exuberance, this is a fine outing for Henry. As always, with those parents who say he’s horrid, I say it’s children letting Henry act out for them – the best way to experiment with the world is through a book. Watch out for Henry’s creativity for his Write and Sing a Song Badge:

“Henry is the Top
Henry is the Best
You Don’t Even Need
To Put it to the Test”

You can buy it here.

Cloud Boy by Marcia Williams

cloud boyWhat makes a children’s book good? In Edwardian times, critics might have been concerned with the imparting of morality within the text. These moral instructions can still be valid – does a book show the reader how to be socially conscious, perhaps about discrimination, difference or the environment? Or perhaps it’s about psychological improvement – teaching a child about empathy, imagination, making them happy? Helping that child to identify with someone different, or to see themselves mirrored within the story, to validate their identity and their difficulties, to reinforce the self.

But above all, it’s about believable character and good story.

Experienced author Marcia Williams imparts knowledge – this time about some little-known history – in Cloud Boy, and provokes psychological conscientiousness by showing children how to overcome deep adversity, but she has also created a thoroughly authentic main character within an accessible, gripping text.

The book is written in a child’s diary format, which gives the text an absolute simplicity and makes it easy to read. Angie keeps a diary about her life and her friendship with Harry, the boy who lives next door. Together, their fathers have built them a treehouse, which straddles the two children’s gardens, and serves a purpose for them both – a place for Angie to draw and write, and a place for Harry to watch the clouds – he’s an expert in identifying the different formations.

When Angie’s grandmother comes to stay, she shares with the children the letters she wrote as a prisoner of war during Japan’s occupation of Singapore. Drawing on a survivor’s tales of life in the Changi Prison during the Second World War, Williams blends the two stories – the modern children and the tragedy that strikes them, and the history of the Guides in the Changi Prison, and how they sewed quilts to pass the time and create a symbol of hope and endurance.

There is a poignant naivety to Angie’s writing, as she struggles to comprehend how sick Harry is becoming, whilst the reader is all too aware. The stabilising force of her grandmother, who has endured hardships unimaginable to our modern sensibility, enables Angie and Harry to find coping mechanisms to face their own adversity. Like other modern children’s books, the growing awareness of inter-generational relationships and their intense value is well documented here, as grandmothers in literature become more than silver-hair-bunned figures knitting in rocking chairs.

The children’s eagerness to hear their grandmother’s history speaks to the need within us all for a knowledge of our ancestry and identity, but also provides a framework for learning about resilience. All the while, the treehouse represents a place of calm and safety, of independence, as Angie has to learn to deal with her emotions. A treehouse also provides the ability to see things from a different perspective – gazing at the clouds or perhaps on the people below. The careful positioning of it in this novel gives the children a physical structure in which to cement their friendship.

But readers should beware – at times the cruel adversity written about seems much more advanced and harsher than the level implied by the simplicity of the vocabulary and ease of the text. The brevity may suit reluctant readers but there is immense depth in the emotion portrayed – and this is one of Williams’ strengths – she easily portrays Angie’s difficulty in dealing with her strong emotions, and shows incredible pathos in her depiction of Harry’s mother. This is not an easy read in terms of subject matter, but it is worth acknowledging that not all children’s books can be filled with happy endings – not everything does end happily. However, there are glimpses of hope and optimism, and the possibility of how life continues despite the adversity faced.

Williams has woven her own gem here, inspired by an exhibition at the V&A Museum in London, and a glimpse of a Changi quilt – a single object of love and endurance. It’s a fascinating piece of social history, and well worth exploring. You can buy a copy here.

Girl 38: Finding a Friend by Ewa Jozefkowicz

girl 38This is a clever novel. It’s no surprise, coming from an author shortlisted for the Waterstones Book Prize this year for her debut, The Mystery of the Colour Thief. Ewa Jozefkowicz’s new children’s novel, Girl 38, is written with the same lucid fluidity: accessible, readable, and highly immersive.

The book is set out as three distinct strands, but all come together in great storytelling fashion to illuminate the key themes of the book – friendship, courage, intergenerational relationships and the lessons learnt from history, and also, somewhat surprisingly for a novel, the power of visuals.

Twelve-year-old Kat loves to work on her comic-book heroine, Girl 38, who has traits she wishes she could emulate in real life. The comic is set in the future, as Girl 38 space-travels to new places with a calm and measured courage, even in the face of Vilks (humans with wolf-heads, yellow eyes and sharp fangs). But in her real life, Kat faces her own adversities. She feels lonely when her parents work long hours, and her best friend doesn’t always act as such – in fact, before long Kat begins to see that she’s trapped in a toxic friend relationship, and that if she could build up the courage, she might find truer, better friends.

Courage is contagious, and when Kat befriends her neighbour, Ania, an elderly Polish woman with a penchant for painting, Kat begins to hear Ania’s childhood stories, and before long, understands the meaning of true friendship – something she can put into practise in a relationship with the new boy at school, Julius.

What should feel complicated, actually reads simply and with a gentle truthful wisdom. Although we see Kat’s life through her eyes, the small distance and perspective afforded to the reader gives them the ability for objectiveness and readers can root for Kat to do the right thing, and not be consistently led astray by her mean best friend, Gem. There are particularly astute and wise signposts for the reader – Kat’s parents are busy, although not disinterested. They hover, but not like helicopter parents, so although they see the strain in the friendship, they don’t rush to interfere.

But where the reader really gets to think is in the stories of World War II that Ania tells. From jumping from a train, to deciphering which soldiers are friendly and which aren’t, to navigating through a war-torn Europe to save a dear friend who has been taken away to a ‘walled village’, persecuted simply for being different.

There’s a relevance to the book of course, in its attempt to show how empathy can teach us to be kind, how we need to look at history for its lessons. Jozefkowicz brings together the different strands to show the reader about belonging – Girl 38 finding a new planet on which to reside, people in Europe seeking safety, and even in Kat’s modern world – welcoming newcomers who may act and look different, but, of course, are human too.

The characters are painted with depth and understanding. Ania’s cultural heritage is strong in both the objects that surround her and the stories she tells. Kat and her friends are deeply ensconced in our modern world – the phone is used as a plot device – but it is the children’s modern relationships that are so well depicted. The sly toxicity that Gem promotes, whilst still remaining a rounded character with whom we have sympathy, the small differences that make Julius stand out.

But the overarching heart of the book is in the sharing of stories – of Ania’s painful memories of the friend she lost, of her attempting to express her sadness in a creative way, and the compassion and empathy it stirs in her listeners – in how the contemporary reader will see that courage begets courage, that history is so much more than dates and battles, and that comparative thinking – across generations, time periods, and methods of creative endeavour – can teach understanding and awareness.

This is strong and impactful writing packaged in a simple story with mirrored events and clever plot turns. It implores us to use our time thoughtfully. And what better way than to read this novel. You can buy it here.

Be My Valentine

I’ve taken the liberty of focussing on love in general for my picture books on Valentine’s Day. That’s not to say I eschew romance – not at all! But working as a primary school librarian, Valentines are more likely passed from friend to friend or child to family member or even to pet, and this is what these three picture books celebrate.

the kissThe Kiss by Linda Sunderland, illustrated by Jessica Courtney-Tickle

In the so-called current trend for uplit (literature that’s uplifting for the soul), this picture book fits lovingly into the zeitgeist. Edwyn blows a kiss to his grandma, shown on the cover as a gold foil sprinkle of stars, like dandelion seeds released into the wind. Edwyn’s grandma shares her received kiss, almost as an act of kindness, bestowing it upon those who need it most, such as a sad old man and a cross mother. But then darkness descends in the shape of a man who steals it and wants to keep the kiss for himself, all locked up as an artefact in a cage. But this has devastating consequences for the kiss, for him, and also for the outside world. Luckily, he not only sees the error of his ways, but is granted swift forgiveness by the kind grandma, and all is resolved.

Courtney-Tickle illustrates the story with an emphasis on nature and the outdoors. Most of her large double page illustrations are populated with wildflowers, colourful leaves, animals and outdoor activities with a clear focus on weather – all emphasised by the choice of dancing leaves on the book’s endpapers. The colour is magical, reminiscent of David Litchfield, with an old-fashioned fairy tale quality, exemplified by marching bands, an abundance of Snow-White-esque wildlife, cold dark towers, a simplicity in the characters’ timeless outfits. And yet a modernity creeps in too – a wooden bin at the park, mobile phones, an abundance of balloons.

The book is about love shared, kindnesses spread, and the empathy needed to understand others. You can buy it here. 

mirabel's missing valentinesMirabel’s Missing Valentines by Janet Lawler, illustrated by Olivia Chin Mueller

More love shared in this whimsical picture book from the States, which really is about Valentine’s Day.

Mirabel, our shy and anxiety-ridden mouse, complete with large eyes, long whiskers and a penchant for hats, sets out for school to deliver her Valentine’s cards.

The reader is entreated to rhyming text to tell Mirabel’s story – the joy at creating the cards and the angst about delivering them – but it is only through ‘reading’ the pictures that we see the cards spill from her bag on her way to school. The recipients of the spilled cards (all strangers in the town) return them with smiles, touched by their heartfelt sincerity and the fleeting opportunity to see them, which makes them smile and gives them joy. The happiness she has inadvertently spread gives Mirabel the confidence to take them to school.

The illustrations are old-worldly, a cast of anthropomorphic animals fill the book, the buildings look as if they come from a playmobil playset. But if you’re after a picturebook about overcoming anxiety and shyness, and how kindness can spread, this may be one for you. Endearing. You can buy it here. 

rosie is my best friendRosie is My Best Friend by Ali Pye

A much more modern outlook in this fresh and zippy tale of friendship that relies heavily upon the reader’s visual understanding as well as narrative absorption. Rosie explores how she spends her day with her best friend – helping the adults around them, playing games, learning new tricks. There’s a delightful contradiction between the helpfulness Rosie and her friend think they are giving, and the actual consequence of some of their actions, and the illustrations not only reveal the truth but burst with friendliness, vibrancy and warmth themselves, from the stroll in the park with balloon seller, boating and games, to the make-believe play at home.

There is familiarity in this tale of an ‘everyday’, a comfort from the openness of the characters and the intense cuteness of both girl and dog. The twist at the end is both writerly and masterful – suggesting the reader thinks about point of view and perspective. Clever, witty, and completely adorable. Give it to your Valentine for Valentine’s here.