funny books

Candy by Lavie Tidhar

candySometimes when you have a lot of something, it can begin to feel a bit samey. I read lots of children’s books, and there are moments when themes that are topical or zeitgeisty occur a little too often and the topic begins to feel a bit staid. It’s probably like eating a lot of chocolate. If it’s readily available and you eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it can taste a bit mundane. But if you live under a strict regime in which chocolate is more or less forbidden, just one taste can be electrifying.

When I opened Candy and started reading it, it was like eating chocolate again after a 12 week hiatus; it was a breath of sweet fresh air.

The press release announces that this book is Bugsy Malone crossed with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I like to think it’s a conversation between Raymond Chandler and Willy Wonka. Or Jessica Rabbit set in Cadbury World. Lavie Tidhar has written a detective story in film noir style based around the prohibition of candy. And it’s superb.

Nellie Faulkner is a child detective, living in a city in which sweets have been forbidden under the new mayor and his Prohibition Act. Roaming the unsweetened mean streets are gangs of candy bootleggers, all smuggling in sweet treats, eating their booty and making money. When gangster Eddie de Menthe’s teddy bear goes missing, Nellie has a case to solve. But when the teddy shows up and Eddie himself disappears, things turn serious.

Tidhar has gone in guns blazing on both film noir style and candy mode in the novel. Every description compares the world to candy in some way, so that the clouds are either candy floss or meringues and people are compared to sweets:

“She was the sort of person to hold on to a grudge like chewing gum stuck to a shoe.”

“He looked as trustworthy as an ice-cream seller in winter.”

But what makes the book zing is Tidhar’s talent in sustaining his Chandler-esque child-friendly film noir style throughout. Think Goodfellas, think The Godfather. For kids. There’s the bootlegger boss who throws a tantrum in his mansion:

“’Can we get some cake, boss?’ Gordon said. His friend nudged him in the ribs nervously. Waffles’s hand came crashing down on the folding table before him, sending plate and spoon and crumbs flying in all directions.
‘Nobody gets cake!’ he screamed. His face was red, his eyes bulging’”

There’s a mean girl gang led by Sweetcakes, a black car that slides in and out of view that Nellie may or may not see, and scene setting straight out of the film noir genre in which electric fans move hot air slowly round a room, for example. Tidhar’s ability to write with tongue firmly in cheek means that the style is both consistent and hilarious:

“In the morning, the sun shone through the window and the new day smelled of cut grass and fried eggs. The cut grass was outside. The eggs were in the kitchen, and they were for me.”

The book is funny, but also zings along with a great cast of characters and an excellent plot. Of course, with any book about sweets there are bound to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory allusions and there is great fun to be had spotting them, and even more fun as the adult reader spots the film noir allusions too.

But in the end, despite all this fun, this is a children’s book with heart. The book explores doing the right thing, and overcoming bullies, and is engaging, warm and topical. A mayor whose slogan is ‘Eat Your Greens’ with supporters throwing celery sticks in the air, is of our times.

The publisher has employed Mark Beech to supply illustrations throughout, and happily they are quirky, and slightly zany, beautifully matching the text style.

Candy may be Tidhar’s first novel for children, but it’s easy to tell it comes from an accomplished award-winning author (for his adult titles). Let’s hope there’s more to come for children – they’ll crave it more than chocolate (well….maybe). If you’re an adult, and want a sample of Tidhar’s bizarre film noir mind, go read his Winnie the Pooh thread on his twitter timeline. You’ll never see 100 Acre Wood the same way again.

And buy your own copy of Candy here – it’s a golden ticket of children’s books.

The Boy Who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

boy who grew dragonsSo, this is not the first book about a young boy with a dragon pet. I bet you can think of a few yourself. Which begs the question, what makes this book standout from the crowd, what makes it so unique, good and worthy of the book of the week spot?

Tomas helps his grandfather with his unwieldy garden, and one day stumbles upon a strange tree growing the most peculiar looking fruit. He takes one of the fruits home, and later that evening is immensely surprised to discover a dragon hatching from it. What follows is the trials and tribulations experienced when hatching your own baby dragon.

But for me, Shepherd’s unique selling point is not her plot, although it moves with pace, but her ability to mix humour and fun with an intense pathos and understanding of human emotion. It is Tomas’ interaction with the other human characters that really pulls on the reader’s emotions – although there is plenty of fun to be had with the dragon too.

Tomas has a little sister Lolli, who although too young to talk, communicates and spars with Tomas brilliantly in her capacity as co-conspirator in hiding the dragon. Their alliance also demonstrates the uniqueness of sibling relationships – the bond that stretches from affectionate love and sharing of secrets and a helpful camaraderie at one end, to being able to blame the other for something they didn’t do at the other extreme.

The sympathetic grandparent relationship within the story also rings true, and draws the most pathos. Tomas loves spending time with his grandfather, but is torn with guilt between how much time he spends with him versus time with his friends, and Tom also shows an acute awareness, in a wondrous childlike fashion, of how delicate the relationship is as his grandfather gets older and more fragile. The feeling of not wanting to disappoint and yet also wanting to live his own best life compete beautifully within the plot structure.

This gamut of human emotion also stretches to Tomas’ new pet dragon. Feelings of responsibility compete with curiosity and awe, the knowledge of having something different and special and being the envy of one’s peers, and yet knowing that the dragon is precious and special and not merely for showing off – in fact it’s a live being with feelings of its own.

There are some lovely touches here – the timidity of the dragon at first, the portrayal of its physicality as it learns to trust Tomas, and Tomas’ inventive efforts to control the poos and treat his dragon correctly.

But none of this overshadows the sheer fun and vivacity of the novel. Shepherd brings out every flourish of her imagination in Tomas’s discovery – from the tree itself with glowing fruit, to the different types of dragons, their combustible poos, and how difficult dragons are to capture and hide.

Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations here do what they did for the characters in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series, and she brings to life the tree, the dragons and characters with limitless expression. These are warm, animated, engaging illustrations that almost seem to move across the page.

This is a sumptuous start to a new series, bursting with energy and humour, yet tinged with the darker side of life too. There’s a grumpy neighbour, aware but preoccupied parents, an eclectic group of friends, a strange gardening guide, nomenclature of dragon pets – so many facets all covered and explored. A perfect example of domesticity interrupted with a touch of magic. Dragon fruit will never look the same again! Happily for 7+ years; you can buy it here.

Lucky Break: Rob Stevens Soars High

lucky breakI picked up Lucky Break by Rob Stevens whilst attending an event with Andersen Press, and my little testers loved it so much they said I must feature it. 

Leon is grieving for his twin brother, who died in a car accident. Since that fateful day, his mother has been ridiculously over-protective of him, and his family seem to have somewhat fragmented. When a new boy, Arnold, pitches up at school, Leon and he strike up a friendship.

But Arnold isn’t like anyone Leon’s met before. He’s honest, takes everything completely literally, and yet manages to get to the heart of everything and everyone. Over the course of one weekend, Arnold and Leon get into madcap capers and scrapes, playing sports and taking part in adventures that his mother would shudder at: busting the configuration of the slot machines and running away with their winnings, breaking windows, mistakenly robbing a bank, and yet they come out trumps in the end – Arnold helping Leon and his family to come to terms with their grief, and Leon helping Arnold finally make a friend. It’s a bittersweet comedy, written with pathos and insight, and in a smooth, easily readable style.

But after reading, I made a discovery. Rob Stevens, like so many children’s authors, doesn’t write full time. In fact, he’s a pilot, and one of my not-so-little testers dreams of aeroplanes, has aeroplane posters on the wall, and goes plane spotting. Perhaps he’s waved at Rob in the sky. So, with the assistance of Andersen Press, and to please my not-so-little tester, I asked Rob to provide me with his five best things about being a pilot:

My new novel, Lucky Break, published this month but writing isn’t my full-time job. I am a British Airways Captain, flying the A380 all over the world. Here are the five best things about being a pilot.

  • The A380 is a double-decker superjumbo – the largest passenger plane in the world. Being at the controls of an aircraft like that is simply a boyhood dream come true!
  • After a long flight I usually get about 48 hours off to relax and unwind before flying home. This is the perfect opportunity for me to forget about the rules and regulations of flying a passenger jet and let my imagination go free. Most of my books are written in hotel rooms and cafes around the world and I find writing the perfect counterbalance to life in the cockpit.
  • No two days at work are ever the same for me. Whether I’m avoiding thunderstorms over the equator or coping with heavy snow in Washington, I never quite know what the day ahead has in store.
  • I meet all sorts of interesting people in my job – passengers and crew. I get a lot of ideas for characters in my books from the people I meet at work. Often a single expression or a turn of phrase can be the catalyst for a whole new book.
  • I love all sorts of active sports and my job allows me to pursue them in some of the most exotic locations. Just this year I have been skiing in California, kitesurfing in Indonesia and walking the Dragon’s Back in Hong Kong. No wonder my sons say I don’t go to work, I go on holiday!

Thanks to Rob Stevens. I highly recommend his book, for ages 9+ years, which published on 3rd May and is available to buy here

Riding a Donkey Backwards

riding a donkey backwardsAs we celebrate the month of Ramadan, and think about how to increase diversity and representation in the books our children are reading, this sumptuous hardback, Riding a Donkey Backwards dropped onto my doormat, and I had to share it with you. It’s a collection of 21 tales and riddles about a trickster known across Muslim culture. Mulla Nasruddin is both the wisest man and the biggest fool. Through telling some of his stories, all contained on one or two pages, Sean Taylor, the Khayaal Theatre, and Shirin Adl bring the tales to life with drama and creativity.

Each tale is only a paragraph or two long – spanning one or two pages, with full double page colour collage illustrations. The text is jaunty and chatty, as befits the subject, and some tales and riddles leave a wry smile, others pose philosophical questions. Many invite critical thinking, but there are those that are just silly – on purpose. The text feels modern, but the illustrations feel traditional – set in familiar age-old landscapes, such as a school, a kitchen table, a market place. A Nice Steam Bath is illustrated to look as if it’s a wordless comic strip or an ancient scroll, and many of the collages use domestic materials such as a child might use: cotton wool beards, glass bead rivers. They are bright and welcoming, playful and intelligent.

Below, Sean Taylor explains about the book.

How did Riding a Donkey Backwards come about?

“It came about, indirectly, because of a terror attack. Back on 7th January 2015, there was a massacre in Paris, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. That day, I could feel people in the UK were shaken by the nearness of the violence, and I sensed some ‘retreating into shells’ going on. This made me want to do the opposite. At an event at Shakespeare’s Globe about 12 years previously, I’d met Luqman Ali and he’d given me a leaflet about Khayaal Theatre. Khayaal is a theatre company founded by him and Eleanor Martin. It is dedicated to showcasing the rich traditions of story, poetry and humour in Muslim cultures, and also to building engagement between Muslim communities and the wider world. I kept the leaflet Luqman had given me. Sometimes I’d come across it, wonder if there might be some way of collaborating with Khayaal, and decide probably not. But, that day, I wrote to Luqman. Looking back, my message said, among other things:

I have no more connection with, or understanding of, the Islamic world than you would expect from a man with an interest in stories and poetry who grew up in the home counties of England. My strongest connections are, in fact, not to the east, but to the west. My wife is from, Brazil. We have lived there on and off over the past twenty years. But rather than seeing these things as obstacles, I shall, for the sake of this message, see them as reasons for making connection. Might we meet? Might we talk a bit about stories, and about theatre and about work with young people? Might something fruitful result from this impulse to reach out? ”

What happened next?

“We did meet, at the British Library, a few weeks later. And it was clear that, though we are from quite different cultural backgrounds, we had a lot in common in terms of our work around story and education, and our shared interest in the imagination, dreams and humour. So it seemed natural to try to find a way to work together. I had in mind there might be ways Khayaal could make use of my experience of writing for theatre. Actually, they expressed an interest in writing a children’s book. So the idea of retelling some of the stories of Mulla Nasruddin in a publication for young readers was born. I thought newly-founded Otter-Barry Books might show interest in the project. And I’m happy to say they did.”

Who exactly is Mulla Nasruddin?

“There’s no exact answer. Some say Nasruddin was a real man who lived in the thirteenth century. Nobody knows for sure! Many different countries claim to be his birthplace, including Turkey and Iran. In the introduction to the book we say:

He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh. If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!”

Why retell these Nasruddin stories?

“They are age-old stories, but I think they are absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Nasruddin challenges fixed ways of looking at our world, and stuck ways of behaving. So the stories about him fly in the face of fundamentalist thinking – whether it be the single-track thinking of Islamist fundamentalism or the equally narrow thinking of Islamophobia. Take a story like the one we’ve called They Can’t Both Be Right! In this, Mulla Nasruddin is asked to settle an argument between two men, in a tea house. Nasruddin listens to the first man and says, “You are right.” Then he listens to the second man and says, “You are right.” Then the owner of the tea-house says, “Well, they can’t both be right!” And Nasruddin says, “You are right!” This is a brilliant, light-hearted way of pointing out that the world cannot be seen in black and white (as more and more people seem happy to see it.) In another story, called Don’t Ask Me! the donkey Nasruddin is riding is startled by a snake. As the donkey gallops madly off, a young farmer calls out, “Where are you going, Nasruddin?” Nasruddin calls back, “Don’t ask me! Ask the donkey!” Can you feel how this has a message for anyone who thinks they have simple answers to the challenges of our times? When an out-of-control donkey is carrying you, how can you sit there stiffly certain about where you are going? At one level this tale is just a funny anecdote. But scratch its surface (or the surface of the other stories in our book) and you find wisdom. Nasruddin asks fresh questions in the face of ready-made answers. The stories in Riding a Donkey Backwards offer new ways of thinking to anyone numbed by the world, or feeling driven to recrimination and aggression. These are reasons why we wanted to bring Nasruddin, his provocations and his heartfelt laughter to life for young readers.”

How was the book created?

“Khayaal Theatre’s Eleanor Martin joined Luqman and me in the writing process. And it turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, with lots of discussion, and drafts to-ing and fro-ing as we worked out which Nasruddin stories to include and how to tell them on the page. Otter-Barry Books brought Iranian illustrator Shirin Adl on board, and Shirin came up with the wonderfully crafted illustrations which make Riding a Donkey Backwards so beautiful to look at.”

With thanks to Sean Taylor. You can buy Riding a Donkey Backwards here.

Let Them Eat Cake!

There’s a lot of cake in publishing: book launches have their fair share of wine, but there is a trend too for book-themed cakes and cupcakes. Has cake hit the zeitgeist because of the Great British Bake Off? Or is it just a perpetual British tradition?

Those looking after children have long known the effect of baking a cake with youngsters – you may end up with flour all over the kitchen, but it teaches science and maths, and there’s always a treat at the end. These picture books have captured the moment:

i really want the cakeI Really Want the Cake by Simon Philip and Lucia Gaggiotti

It’s so terribly tempting. A luscious chocolate cake has been made and is sitting on the table. There is no one around. Who could resist?

The little girl is intent upon having her cake and eating it in this endearing rhyming picture book. So much so, that just licking is not enough, and she resorts to eating the entire thing, (despite her mother’s note informing her not to), and then attempting to rectify her mistake by baking another.

Not only is the story terrifically entertaining, and written in such an enticing way that the reader simply has to read the story out loud with the correct inflection, but the illustrations match the tone completely.

This picture book hits every taste bud perfectly – because although the premise is simple, the execution is as flawless as smooth chocolate fudge icing, and the small details all piped on perfectly. Note the cakes instead of pupils in the little girl’s eyes, the dog a complicit partner in crime, and the exquisite mix of mischievousness, wicked intent, culpability and cuteness of the protagonist. There’s a recipe at the back for those who wish to also make a cake as an apologetic gift for their mother! Top prize. Devour it here.

Cake by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet

One of my little book testers stopped eating peas a couple of years ago, and I’m sure it’s got something to do with Sue Hendra’s Supertato books and the evil nemesis within – Evil Pea. So, we were both eager to read Cake, Sue Hendra’s latest book.

Cake has been invited to his first ever birthday party, but feels he looks plain. He buys a hat with candles on top, on the advice of his friend Fish, and goes to the birthday party, where the hosts have been long awaiting him. The reader has a slight inkling that Cake maybe isn’t prepared for what’s about to happen, and may be awfully relieved when he escapes as the candles are extinguished. There’s a neat sting to the tail though in the final twist – if readers have a vivid imagination, then things could get quite nasty!

The sense of humour prevails throughout, in the plot and the illustrations: from the penguin shop assistant to Cake riding his bicycle, to the absorbing emotions of Cake’s face.

This is a delicious book, warm, witty, and bearing the authors’ joint bold and brilliant styles. If the little testers ask for Cake over and over, and yet they’re not talking about the edible kind, you know you’re onto a winner. Buy yours here.

Great Bunny Bakes by Ellie Snowdon

Watchers of that famous television programme will notice something similar in this Bunny Bake Off book, in which Quentin the wolf enters a competition designed for baking rabbits (no, not rabbit pie, but bunnies who bake). The wolf loves baking, but has to disguise himself as a rabbit to enter.

Luckily for the bunnies, Quentin is much more interested in perfecting each round of baking rather than eating rabbits, and before long has shown off his bread loaf and his wibbly wobbly trifle. But one particular bunny is jealous and aims to sabotage the rest of the competition. Quentin survives this slight, and slipping on a banana skin, and eventually being outed as a wolf, and still emerges the triumphant winner, winning not only the competition but some bunny friends too.

The tone is light and fluffy, the illustrations rich and full of incident, and there’s a nice sprinkling of kindness throughout. Snowdon is adept at adding in as many extras as she can, from honeybees swarming the honey buns to cherries popping from the trifles, all of which add to a general feeling of busyness, mayhem and delight in the baking. This is a very tasty debut. You can buy it here.

 

 

Nine New Picture Books Begging to be Read

little red reading hood
Little Red Reading Hood by Lucy Rowland and Ben Mantle
‘Why didn’t I think of that play on words?’, is the first thing I thought upon reading the title, but when I perused the insides, I realised I couldn’t have done it better myself. This is a captivating and entrancing picture book – the sort a child treasures and rereads. Little Red Reading Hood loves books and in a twist, doesn’t visit her grandma, but rather, the library. When Little Red Reading Hood and the tenacious librarian impress the wolf with their literary knowledge and analysis, the wolf turns to stories instead of eating people.

The twist here, is that instead of straying from the physical path through the woods, it’s better to stray from the all-too-predictable ending of a story, and instead, reinvent it.

The story is told in rhyme, with pitch perfect rhythm, but it’s also the little touches that enhance this picture book so wonderfully. From the endpapers with Little Red Reading and the wolf having fun mixing up fairy stories, to the beautiful ethereal golden-hued illustrated imagination that soars through the book, to the nature depicted in the woods. This is a fabulous new picture book and my top choice. You can buy it here.

pirates of scurvy sands
The Pirates of Scurvy Sands by Jonny Duddle
The Pirates Next Door is an immensely popular read, and this sequel keeps equal pace and humour with the original. In fact, just one reading of it inspired my little tester to find and read ALL of Duddle’s back catalogue. This time round, Matilda is going on holiday with her pirate friends, the Jolly-Rogers. Their destination – Scurvy Sands – like a sort of Butlins for pirates. The only trouble is that Matilda, with her squeaky clean demeanour, doesn’t quite fit in.

This is a totally luscious affair for pirate fans. Also told in rhyme, it’s simply packed with swashbuckling vocabulary and pirate allusions, with a busy backdrop on every page – telescopes, pirate paraphernalia, characters and more. Duddle has gone to town (or sea) and had lots of fun in the process. There’s even a treasure map on the reverse of the book jacket. Gold coins all round. You can buy it here.

cat and dog
Cat and Dog by Helen Oswald and Zoe Waring
For younger children comes this exquisitely illustrated lesson on getting on with others. A nocturnal cat and a diurnal dog love to scrap, but when they fail to see eye to eye on their different routines, and Dog insults Cat, it looks like a beautiful friendship is over. By the end, of course, they learn to say sorry and accept each other’s differences.

It’s the illustrations in this simple story that bring it to life, two hugely endearing and familiar animals, drawn so that they look good enough to stroke. The crayon-led illustrations add to the familiarity of the chosen pets, and the last page of their ‘scrapping’ together is a clever childish mess. Too cute to miss, this is a lovely publication from new publisher on the block, Willow Tree Books. You can buy it here.


I Say Ooh You Say Ahh by John Kane
One for reading out loud to a willing audience, this reminded me of those old-time party entertainers, but here, the silliness is executed with modern panache and an element of complete childhood joy.

This is a traditional call and response book – the author asks the reader to say or do something every time they read or see something. The result has an hilarious effect, leading to the children shouting underpants quite often. The reader has also to remember which action goes with which command, so it’s stimulating too. Great for classroom fun, and the colours are bold, bright and all-encompassing. The author used to work in advertising – and it shows in the block colours – easy to look at, easy to understand. You can buy it here.


Ten Fat Sausages by Michelle Robinson and Tor Freeman
It’s often remarked how translated fiction can go further and push more boundaries than our home-grown picture books, but here’s one that takes the ten protagonists and really gives them a raw (cooked) deal.

A play on the song, Ten Fat Sausages Sizzling in a Pan, here Michelle Robinson shows what happens when they try to save themselves. Unfortunately, sausages don’t appear to be very clever. Whether it’s leaping from the pan into the blender, or even into a ceiling fan, it seems that no sausage is safe.

The illustrations from Tor Freeman match the madness of the concept – from blueberries with their eyes covered, to weeping sausages, hoola hooping onion rings, and an almost retro comic feel to the lot – this is a crazy sausage adventure. Sure to bring out the giggles in little ones. You can buy it here.


The Strongest Mum by Nicola Kent
Being a mum, and having a great mum myself, I’m always touched by the portrayal of fabulous mothers in picture books – be it giving Sophie a fabulous tea when the tiger arrives, or returning to the Owl Babies at the end of the night. The mum in this delightfully sweet picture book amasses belongings and carries them all as if she were weightlifting for England.

Dealing with a familiar issue (carrying everything!) – and why giving up the buggy too early and having to schlep all the shopping by hand can be a mistake – this is a wonderfully exaggerated portrayal of a super mum. From carrying some treasure found in the garden at the beginning, Little Bear’s Mum ends up carrying everything including Zebra’s shopping, Lion’s laundry, and then…a piano. It all comes crashing down though, and Little Bear realises he has to help.

The illustrations are undeniably child-friendly, in a multitude of jewel colours, with an aerial view of Mum’s bag, each item labelled! With oodles of white space, the book doesn’t feel slight because every illustration is packed with texture, pattern and colour, despite a slight transparency to it all. An intriguing new style and a good pick for Mother’s Day. You can buy it here.


Lionel and the Lion’s Share by Lou Peacock and Lisa Sheehan
Another for a slightly younger readership, giving a moral story, this encourages children to share. Lionel the Lion is bigger than most of his friends, and good at snatching. So whenever they see something they want, Lionel always gets there first. When Lionel goes a bit too far at Chloe the Cat’s birthday party, he realises that he’s angry and sad, and needs friends most. Sharing is best.

Drawn with tender pencil strokes, Lionel himself is phenomenally vibrant, with a large orange and brown mane, and his animal friends are equally detailed. They are vastly anthropomorphised with clothes as well as human behaviours, but it is the colourfulness and fun of the backgrounds that enhance this picture book. A detailed musical instrument shop, a hat shop, and the village green – this storybook world looks timeless and appealing. You can buy it here.


Robinson by Peter Sis
A bit of a love letter to Robinson Crusoe, this picture book takes a look at the meaning of being bullied for liking something different, and also a whimsical approach to solitariness. It also shows what happens when a child or adult finds inspiration, solace and adventure in a storybook and use it within their own lives.

In fact, author Peter Sis researched the flora and fauna of Martinique, the inspirational island behind Defoe’s novel, and used his knowledge to illustrate the book. Sis’s fine art background gives some insight into the illustrations in these structured and intriguing pictures. He plays with point of view and light and shadow to create an utterly unique look to the book. The colour palette tells the plot just as much as the narrative itself.

Typeset in uppercase letters, the whole book feels like a stream of consciousness, a message in a bottle, as the colours blossom and bloom with the boy’s discovery of his own island in the imagination.

The book aims to deliver a paean to the act of adventuring and exploration, even that which happens in the mind rather than in actuality. A great discovery. You can buy it here.


My Worst Book Ever by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman
Last, but definitely not least, if you’re wondering how all those authors and illustrators featured so far produced their books, then you’d best read My Worst Book Ever. Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman are no strangers to the picture book trade, and here they’ve created a humorous look at what can go wrong when writing a book.

A classic book within a book scenario, as Ahlberg explores how he is writing a picture book about crocodiles, the text of which is hinted at within this book, but then things start to go wrong – the illustrator has different ideas, as does the publisher, and then a naughty girl at the printers messes it up even further. Added to this are all the various procrastinations that writers bow to – distractions out the window, family interruptions etc.

For children this is a fun and humorous look at the publishing trade. For writers, it’s a mirror. Illustrated cheerfully, this will bring a wry smile to many a face. You can buy it here.

 

Animals, Hotels and Crazy Antics

Once they reach an age of reading for themselves, it’s quite delightful to see young readers pick up a series – they can devour book after book, knowing what’s coming next, but also developing an affinity with the characters, and feeling secure in the familiarity. I know that some of the most popular series in the library for these newly independent readers are Claude by Alex T Smith, Isadora Moon by Harriet Muncaster and of course, Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon. But if your little ones have READ ALL THE BOOKS IN THE LIBRARY, as one said to me recently, then you might like to try these new books:

nothing to see here hotelThe Nothing To See Here Hotel by Steven Butler and Steven Lenton
One of the wackiest, zaniest and most inventive books of the new year is this fun, silly, and outrageously colourful adventure from the author of Dennis the Menace books. The Nothing To See Here Hotel sits on the Brighton sea front, but it is enchanted and therefore invisible to the human eye (except for when a seagull flies into one of the invisible towers). Our narrator, busting with the same enthusiasm and energy of the author, is Frankie, one thirty-sixth troll, who lives in a world of magical creatures, and is descended from a long line of trolls, harpies, witches and puddle-nymphs.

Told in a chatty, conversational style, this is an exuberant romp through a day in the life of the hotel, which is owned by Frankie’s parents. A goblin messenger arrives in quite a whirlwind, announcing the imminent arrival of the goblin prince. The hotel is excited, until they see the prince’s mammoth entourage (which reminded me of the entourage song in Disney’s Aladdin), and the stuck-up prince himself, who is hiding a little secret.

The book moves fast – the characters are constantly in action, and Butler piles on the craziness, scene after scene. There is much unexpected plot, as it veers off in different directions, endlessly daft, weird and fun.

Like Phil Earle with his Storey Street series, and Tom Fletcher in The Creakers, Butler weaves himself into the novel by playing with the role of author – exploring elements of story and congratulating the reader on reaching certain points. This is never patronising, but an extension of the fun and games Butler is clearly having with the text. He also invents new vocabulary, along the likes of Dahl, weaving in words such as ranciderous and squivelling. Each addition is exciting, fun and fits the story well.

Hotels are also great fodder for literature – endless rooms, misfit characters, people away from home, and Butler makes full use of his imaginative Brighton resort. The final copy will be highly illustrated by Steven Lenton, but I received a very early review copy without illustrations. You can buy it here.

bee boy
Bee Boy: Clash of the Killer Queens by Tony De Saulles
Another cracking start to a series is this cartoon-based book about a new kind of superhero, a bee-boy. Melvin, by way of a touch of magical surrealism, falls into a bee’s hive that he’s tending, and is nominated protectorate from all anti-bee things by the bees.

It may sound a little strange, but works brilliantly, as De Saulles, illustrator of the Horrible Science series, meshes together ideas of bullying and survival, in Melvin’s experience of school, and the bees’ experience of human and natural dangers.

The parallel might seem extreme, but as Melvin battles with the horrific Norman Crudwell at school, so his bees battle against a myriad of menaces, from killer wasps to hawkmoths. Of course, De Saulles pulls in much ‘bee education’ in this fiction tale, but he manages to keep providing great sting and wit at the same time.

The reader will feel for Melvin as he overcomes his obstacles, but pathos is particularly evoked in the illustrations – Melvin has oversize glasses and sticking-out-teeth but manages to be presented as fairly adorable too. In fact, with the popularity of awkward cartoon-like heroes such as Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid, Bee Boy enters the fray as another contender for most gawky, and will win fans and readers. The book is simply full of illustrations, which gives a fabulous clue to each and every character. Most importantly, check out those endpapers. De Saulles has gone to town with his miniature depictions of Melvin’s classmates – imbuing each with an identity and personality. Lashings of fun, and a wonderful little crush on school friend Priti make this a buzzing read. You can buy it here.

night zoo keeper
Night Zoo Keeper: The Giraffes of Whispering Wood by Joshua Davidson, Giles Clare and Buzz Burman
Will is taking part in a school project to paint a mural at the local zoo, but gets admonished for his creative use of colour. When he returns at night, he opens a portal into the land of the Night Zoo, where animals talk, and danger lurks.

He makes friends with a giraffe called Sam, who explains that not only is Will the Night Zookeeper, but that he must keep the animals safe from the Voids – scarily destructive robotic spiders.

This is a short, fantasy adventure story, with stunning black and white illustrations throughout, but it is also a jumping off point for children and teachers to explore an accompanying website, called NightZooKeeper.com with the idea to stimulate creative writing.

A mix of animals, action, robots and a helping hand from a girl called Riya, the book ends on a cliff-hanger leading into the next story, publishing in August. It’s not ground-breaking storytelling, but my little testers liked it well enough. You can buy it here.

dave pigeon
Lastly, and by no means least, is what happens when a series for newly independent readers takes off (no pun intended). Dave Pigeon (Racer!) by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey is the third title in the successful series about a couple of pigeons who talk their way through their adventures and demonstrate oodles of personality and pigeon wit. In this particular episode, Dave Pigeon is recovering at the vets, having had a prosthetic wing fixed, when he’s challenged to a race by a pirate bird. Playing on the idea of racing pigeons, and with allusions and jokes galore for adults as well as children, this is a sniggertastic read. With language puns, sparkling wit in both text and illustration, your newly independent reader couldn’t ask for more. Unless they want a fourth Dave Pigeon book? You can buy it here.

 

Spyder: A Guest Post from Matt Carr

There’s been a spate of picture books recently that play on words or names, and I’m loving this one: Spyder by Matt Carr. Readers may think it’s easy being a spy when you’re small and have many legs to scuttle about on, but Spyder has problems with her size. Sometimes it means she ends up in the bath – a tricky place from which to escape. But by the end, Spyder saves the birthday cake from the evil fly and all is well.

This delightful picture book follows Matt Carr’s debut, Superbat, which also features a bold and bright animal behaving like a human, with some factual animal information at the back, a story packed full with humorous adventure and huge bold illustrations in comic book style. This time, our protagonist is female, and although immured in a retro colour palette, she is daring and brave with a very modern outlook and set of gadgets. 

I’m happy to host Matt on the blog today, telling us where he works, and how sometimes a work space isn’t necessarily the best place to sit and wait for ideas…

The word studio doesn’t really suit my workspace, and I say ’work’ and  ‘space’ in the loosest terms. I ‘work’ (I don’t really work, not in the proper sense, I just make pictures. It’s a bit odd way to earn a living really!) in a 6 ft x 3 ft lean-to at the back of my tiny galley kitchen.

It’s a bit of a tip because I’ve got so much stuff crammed into a small space. We call the kitchen ‘The Trash Compactor’ like on STAR WARS! and we reconstruct that famous scene on a daily basis, especially just before the School Run!

There’s not even a partition to separate it from the chaos of the house three daughters (disdainful of me), one cat (not sure what she thinks of me, you never can tell with cats), one kitten and 23 stick insects (although to be fair they don’t cause much trouble). Anyway, as you can imagine it’s not the greatest creative space but it does for me. In addition to this, I utilise other areas of my tiny house, as well as the town and surrounding areas.

I do most of my thinking while early morning running up on the downs. (Although, it’s barely running, more of a plod really). But up there I get peace and quiet and go through all the stuff I’ve got to do, as well as think about stories / characters / jokes etc. It gets me out of the house, which is an absolute joy.

I also go to the cafe down the road when I’ve got to formulate an idea and get it down on paper. I don’t know why, it just feels like the sort of thing proper ‘writer people’ would do, and indeed at the local Cafe Nero you see quite a few of them sat at their laptops typing away. It makes me feel as if I’ve got a proper job. I like the sketching / storyboard part best as it’s where an idea is really pure and you can shoehorn in as many jokes as possible.

If I’ve got drawing to do I go up to my eldest daughter’s room. It’s quite sunny and my cat sits up there all day, bird watching, so I’ve got a bit of company. I draw on the floor, like I used to do for hours when i was a kid. The only trouble is now I’m not a kid anymore, after half an hour I’ve seized up and it takes about an hour to get up! Due to this sad fact I’ve also started to draw a bit standing up in the kitchen which seems to work quite well! Then it’s on the computer doing my books and my day job (graphic design). We’ve got a new kitten, Doris, who now comes and squeezes in next to me and slowly edges me out of my seat. I almost sat on her last Wednesday!

The good news is that we’re hopefully getting an extension soon, so my workspace will get marginally bigger! I might even get a drawing desk!

With thanks to Matt Carr. You can buy Spyder here.

Matt Carr is an incredibly talented graphic designer and author-illustrator whose debut picture book, SUPERBAT, was published to international acclaim in the UK, US, Spain, Korea and Israel, and is currently shortlisted for a number of upcoming awards. Matt loves tea and lives in East Sussex. @mattcarrdesigns www.mattcarrdesign.co.uk

 

American Big Hitters

Two picture books that snuck into the publishing schedule last year, but which have recently come to my attention are both by big hitting American authors, who both dabble in the children’s book market, as well as writing adult fiction. Here, their individual writing styles shine in two profoundly different takes on the picture book and what it can do.

the bad mood and the stick
The Bad Mood and the Big Stick by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Matt Forsythe
There’s nothing new in the idea of a child in a bad mood who passes it on (see my 2015 blog here), but Lemony Snicket is a master at putting his own spin on a premise, especially adding a tongue-in-cheek quirk. What’s more, the illustrations are sensational – from the cover onwards. The little girl on the cover, holding her stick, looks so mad and grumpy, one really feels as if she might wield it at the reader. But it’s the grumpy cloud above her (with matching facial expression) that appeals to the reader too – like the grey cloud above Eeyore, this one looks hard to shift.

Curly is the grumpy girl, and she has her reasons. The bad mood has been with her since she saw an ice cream shop, but was not given an ice cream. The reader sees her with her arms crossed, the bad mood hovering above, and her mother and brother strolling happily ahead. Of course, within pages, Curly has passed the bad mood to her mother (Yes, you’ve guessed it, she poked her brother with the stick, giving her momentary delight and causing her parent stress). The book continues as the bad mood passes from person to person.

Except that’s not the whole story. Snicket uses the catchphrase ‘You never know what is going to happen’, as the book veers off into completely different territory – with the stick as a catalyst, and one particular person breaking the bad mood chain. In the end, Curly gets an ice cream, but the bad mood seems to be hovering again.

The illustrations work well – a multi-coloured bad mood that sets the colour palette for the book, infusing everything with a candy-hued blend and a dominant pastel orange. The cast of characters are shown with a range of emotions – even the animals. This means that the moodiness isn’t isolated; it can spring upon somebody suddenly, but it can also mix with other emotions, providing a contrast, or be diluted itself. Emotions are complex things, but also fleeting…You can buy a copy of the book here.

her right foot

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris
A second title from the end of last year, also American, also by a big-name author. But this, as Dave Eggers explains, is a factual book about the origins of the Statue of Liberty. The pace is fast, the author chatty and self-referential, addressing the reader using the second person ‘you’ as he assumes the reader has a basic knowledge of his topic while he quickly documents how the statue was conceived and built.

But the main thrust of the book, reached halfway through, is the foot of the title, which is shown to be walking. At this point, Eggers wants the reader to use their knowledge to think about the meaning behind this. Why is the Statue of Liberty mid-stride? The story leaves the factual behind and crosses into the territory of extrapolation and discovery. If the statue is for freedom, and she is walking, then she is continuing the fight for freedom, for liberty.

Embracing the culture of immigration, of building a nation for freedom, Eggers has created a picture book manifesto for how he views the United States. In our current political climate, this is a pertinent point well made, and the second half of the book shows the mix of immigrants to the States since the Statue of Liberty was constructed, and the ongoing fight for tolerance and acceptance.

The illustrations throughout show a myriad of peoples, as well as places, but feel poster-like in their construction, and display a sense of humour that matches the author’s. Although the book feels a little preachy in places, it’s a good jumping off point for discussion. And remains timely in 2018. You can buy it here.

 

 

Make Me Awesome: A Guest Post by Ben Davis

I’m delighted to host Ben Davis talking about ‘writing funny’ on the blog today. His latest book, Make Me Awesome, has the remarkable capability of not only making the reader fall about laughing, but also being astute and spot on with its portrayal of a teenage boy using grit and optimism to help his down-in-the-dumps Dad. As daft as it is sympathetic, Davis uses modern technology to inspire this self-help story about the importance of friendship, family, and above all, trying! 

Hello! I’m Ben Davis and I write funny books. Well, they’re supposed to be funny. I wrote The Private Blog of Joe Cowley series, which concluded last year, as well as standalone books for younger readers such as My Embarrassing Dad’s Gone Viral and Make Me Awesome, illustrated by Mike Lowery, which has just come out this month.

Make Me Awesome is the story of Freddie, a boy whose family has fallen on hard times. He decides that if no-one else is going to pull them out of their slump, he will have to do it. He signs up to Chuck Willard’s Complete Road to Awesomeness Program – an online guide to success, and tries to apply its sometimes questionable advice to his situation.

Anyway, enough plugging. Let’s get down to brass tacks. The reason I’m here is to share with you my top tips for writing funny fiction. Barry Cryer once said that ‘analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies.’ Well, that may be true, but I’m going to try anyway. Let’s start slicing some frogs.

  1. It’s All About Character

This is an important one. You can have the best jokes in the world, but if the characters delivering them are one dimensional, no-one’s going to care. When your character has a clearly defined personality and worldview and is put through the ringer, the comedy will follow.

The best writing tip I ever received is ‘put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them.’ When I finally realised it wasn’t meant literally, I was set. You see, the best comedy comes when your character is up against it. We laugh at their failures, and as a handy side-effect, root for them to keep going.

One of my all-time favourite films is Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It’s about two men, Neal and Del, who are trying to get home for Thanksgiving. They begin as complete strangers but end up joining forces through cancelled flights, broken-down trains and burned-out cars. Del is sweet and affable but massively overbearing with some odd boundary issues. Neal is aloof, brittle and short-tempered. Putting two such wildly different characters together and throwing tons of obstacles in their way results in some of the best comedy ever committed to film. In my opinion, anyway.

In Make Me Awesome, Freddie, a well-meaning but slightly misguided boy, is trying his best to become more entrepreneurial and serious, but his every attempt ends in disaster. Like when he puts on a suit of armour and buries himself at an archaeological dig site because he wants to be a famous prankster. Or when he runs for school president and somehow ends up getting caught in the girls’ changing room with a camera. Basically, reading and writing about the misfortunes of others makes yours seem much more bearable.

This way of writing comedy was best summarised by the great Mel Brooks when he said ‘Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open sewer and die.’ Depressing, but true.

  1. Crank up the cringe

As lakes were to Wordsworth, embarrassment is to me. It’s my muse. My inspiration. All of my books are built around it. I have an incredible memory for embarrassment. I couldn’t tell you what I had for lunch yesterday but I can remember an embarrassing thing that happened to me in Year Seven in crystal clear HD. Writing cringe humour is like tightrope-walking. Too mild and it flops. Too extreme and the reader might want to burn the book on a massive bonfire. My Joe Cowley books are filled with moments like this. Joe’s habit of speaking before engaging his brain gets him into all kinds of toe-curling scrapes. The wider point to be made here is write what makes you laugh. It might not be cringe humour for you, it might be surreal comedy or observational or anything, but if you like it, chances are someone else will, too.

  1. Draw from your own experiences.

Everyone has a funny story or two up their sleeve, and with enough tweaking, it can become great fiction. The key is to take only the best bits and embellish the rest. I’ll give you an example. When I was about thirteen, I was referred to a dental specialist because one of my teeth wasn’t growing down properly. He put one of those plastic stretcher things in my mouth that made me look like Wallace and snapped a few polaroids, which was awkward enough. Then he brought in a few dental students and they all leaned close and had a good gawp. For a mortally self conscious teenager like me, this was no fun at all. Years later, I knew I had to use this for something, and by the time it made it into Joe Cowley: Return of the Geek, it had become an epic tale where Joe’s girlfriend Natalie gets her lip piercing stuck in Joe’s brace and they have to be freed by a dentist while being stared at by a load of dental students.

Of course, the whole thing is a wild exaggeration, with just a kernel of truth in it, but it shows how you should never be short of inspiration when writing the funnies.

So that’s it from me. I hope some of this has proved useful to you, and if you do put any of my tips into practice and get a book deal out of it, all I ask is an acknowledgement and 75% of the profits.

With thanks to Ben Davis. If you want to buy Make Me Awesome, and see how comedy’s done, click here.