funny books

The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet: A guest post from Martin Howard

cosmic atlas of alfie fleetCharlie Bucket (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl) was the first name that sprang to mind when I started reading this chucklesome new book from Martin Howard about an impoverished boy who follows up a newspaper advert to earn some quick cash doing odd jobs for an unbelievably eccentric man. But then The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet deviates from the world of Charlie Bucket into a world (or worlds) of its own, and I was both intrigued and highly amused by the comic writing, the inventive imagining, and the high adventures and cunning of its protagonist, Alfie.

The eccentric man I mentioned is Professor Bowell-Mouvemont, the president of the Unusual Cartography Club, who shows Alfie a series of worlds unknown to the majority of humans on Earth (too preoccupied with their ordinary lives to care). These worlds range from Brains-in-Jars world to planet Maureen and Outlandish. Together, the Professor and Alfie travel through these worlds as explorers. Quick to spot an opportunity, Alfie takes it upon himself to fend off danger by showing the inhabitants of these strange lands some of our own traditions, and marketing them as a way of progressing on his journey. He explains and sells advertising space in his travel guide, gives favourable reviews to inns and pubs, makes a mark on the map of the atlas he’s drawing to indicate good shops, hospitable peoples, and so on.

For the young reader, this is both highly amusing and yet also cunning – giving a serious nod to travel guides and atlases, as Wimpy Kid does for diaries. Illustrated by the award-winning Chris Mould, this is a great new series from an author with a clearly somewhat strange mind. So I asked him for his inspirations…

martin howardI first had the idea to write a travel guide to fantastical lands about fifteen years ago. I’m a huge, geeky fan of fantasy books and (like Alfie) I’ve always loved exploring the maps you find in them. A travel guide seemed like the obvious next step.

It bubbled away in the back of my mind for years before I came back to it. Stone circles, like Stonehenge, have always fascinated me. You find them in many places around the world – from Australia to Europe – and no one knows for sure why. I decided they were intergalactic portals first used by space tourists and, later, by a secret map-making society called the Unusual Cartography Club, which had a mission to explore other worlds. Having Alfie – the book’s protagonist – write a travel guide along his journey seemed perfect.

And that’s how The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet came about.

When I was young I was bullied all through my school years. In those days no one took bullying very seriously and one or two teachers even joined in. It was difficult to deal with and I found an escape from some pretty horrific verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse in books and comedy. I was lucky to be growing up at a time when some great comedians were making hilarious TV shows and on Thursday nights my parents would let me and my sister stay up late to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sketches like the Ministry of Silly Walks and Dead Parrot changed my life. If I was having a rough time at school all I had to do was say “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition” to myself in a silly voice and I’d be smiling. I can still quote many Python sketches word for word.

As I got older – I found other shows I loved: The Young Ones, Blackadder, French and Saunders, as well as older comedy movies such as The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I saw lots of brilliant comedians perform stand-up, too. Bill Bailey, Jo Brand, Omid Djalili and lots of others. All of those shows, movies and comedians helped shape my own sense of humour.

Comedy is really important to me. It gave me optimism during traumatic times and I don’t understand why some people think funny books aren’t important. Laughter is as much a part of being human as music or love, and just as essential to our happiness. With humour we can laugh at life’s problems; without it the world would be a pretty grim place.

I also grew up during a time when Terry Pratchett was writing. I loved any fantasy books, but because I was so into comedy his had an especially big impact on me. In fact, I went to both the same schools as Pratchett, though he was there years before me. I also shopped regularly in the second-hand bookshop in Penn, Buckinghamshire, on which he based the magical library of the Unseen University. I was lucky enough to meet him once, when he was doing a talk at the local library after his second Discworld book came out, and it’s easy to see in my own writing that he has been a major influence. He introduced humour into fantasy.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy casts a long shadow, too. Like Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams made sci-fi funny. Eagle-eyed readers of The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet might spot I’ve paid a tiny tribute to The Hitchhiker’s Guide! Any book that contains space themes and humour is always going to be compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide nowadays, and I’ve got the travel guide theme running through mine, too, so I was very aware that I was using a couple of the same ingredients as Douglas Adams. I hope I’ve used them to create a dish that has a very different flavour.

PG Wodehouse had a massive impact. I discovered the Jeeves and Wooster books when I was about twelve and his characters and his use of language to create humour are beyond incredible. In sci-fi and fantasy, I owe inspiration to Neil Gaiman, Tolkien, Ursula K. le Guin, Susan Cooper, as well as Joss Wheedon – I usually watch all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at least once a year! There are lesser well-known writers who have influenced me as well, like Jim Butcher whose pulp-fiction Dresden Files books about a detective wizard in Chicago are fantastic.

It’s impossible to write in isolation: all genres are built over time by writers who have made great contributions, and every writer will have favourites who have shaped the way they write, whether it’s Enid Blyton or Jane Austen. But it’s important that writers find their own voice and – I hope – in The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet I’ve written a book that recognises where it came from, but which is packed with fresh ideas and which could only have been written by me.

With thanks to Martin Howard. You can buy The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet written by Martin Howard, illustrated by Chris Mould here

The Sheep of Fate: Storm Hound by Claire Fayers

storm houndTowards the beginning of Storm Hound by Claire Fayers, the powerful(ish) protagonist, Storm of Odin, (a dog somewhat fallen from grace) is confronted by a flock of sheep, who rather hilariously, mock his seemingly inflated ego.

“If you’re a storm hound,” one says to him, “then I’m Aries, the Ram – get it?”
and they fall about laughing.

Sheep and cats and dogs play a large comic role in Fayer’s new humorous magical and mythological book about identity and companionship. This storming novel, for readers aged 8 and over, is about learning where we fit in, and how home can be anywhere, as long we’re rooted within ourselves.

Storm of Odin is the youngest hound of Odin’s Wild Hunt in the mythological skies. But on his first hunt, he gets lost, falling to earth from the Otherworld and ending up on the A40 about 5 miles from Abergavenny, near a flock of sheep. And in falling, he seems to have transformed from powerful horse-sized hunting dog to loveable cute little puppy. In time, he’s adopted by 12-year-old Jessica, a girl who also feels that her real home doesn’t lie in Abergavenny.

Together, facing a magical world that they don’t quite understand, they slowly learn who to trust, and they form a strong bond that enables them to overcome the fiercest of challenges.

Fayers throws a myriad of hilarious creatures into her novel, with cats and dogs and sheep given not only a voice but also comic interior monologues, incorporating extra depth to an ordinary Abergavenny day.

Here, Claire Fayers highlights the power of sheep in mythology, and why they’re such intriguing characters to insert into a novel:

Hey! Sheep! the stormhound shouted.
The sheep gazed blankly at him, chewing grass.
Eventually, one of them wandered closer. You talking to us?

Wales has a lot of sheep: just under 10 million at the last count, so it won’t surprise anyone that a book set in Wales is going to feature sheep. They form a woolly Greek chorus, standing about the hillsides, watching and commenting on the action, and occasionally leaping out of bushes at people, like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

Writing Storm Hound, I learned a few things about sheep that surprised me. (Disclaimer: these things may not necessarily be true). They have a really bad sense of humour, and make the most atrocious puns. Storm finds that out straight away. They always seem to know more about the world than they’re letting on, and they can give quite good advice sometimes if you know how to ask them.

One thing I had to cut from the book, however, was the secret link between sheep and fate. There wasn’t quite space to include it, and it’s a bit of a side-step out of Norse and Welsh mythology and into Greek.

According to Greek legend, Fate takes the form of three women: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropis. Clotho spins the thread of human fate, Lachesis measures it and Atropos cuts it.

Flemish tapestry c. 1520 Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Fates also appear in Roman myth, where they are called Nona, Decuma and Morta. They are often depicted as old women, inflexible and implacable. You cannot, after all negotiate with fate.

What has this got to do with sheep, I hear you ask.

Well, the Fates spin and measure and cut the thread of life, but what do you think that thread is made of?

My money is on wool. It’s as likely as anything else and, in fact, it makes a lot of sense. Sheep are raised all over the world. They stand about in fields and on hills, staring at anyone who happens by. Watching and waiting. Because life is interesting and someone has to pay attention to what’s going on.

Next time you see a field of sheep, don’t try to engage them in conversation. They’re not allowed to talk to humans, and if they did you’d get tangled up in woolly puns before you knew it. Just give them a wave and say hello. It always pays to be polite to Fate.

Some sheep facts

  1. Sheep have four stomachs. (One for starters, one for main course and two for puddings!)
  2. A sheep’s wool never stops growing.
  3. One pound of sheep’s wool can make up to 10 miles of yarn.
  4. Sheep have rectangular pupils and nearly 360 degree vision, meaning they can see behind without turning their heads. (Further proof that they are the watchers of the world.)
  5. Sheep can recognise up to 50 other sheep faces. AND they can recognise human faces.
  6. The world’s most expensive sheep sold for £231,000 at a sale in Lanark, Scotland.
  7. Sheep feel emotions and prefer smiling human faces to angry ones.
  8. If you put a sheep on its back, it won’t be able to get up again. (Do not do this!)
  9. It is estimated that there are over 1,000 different breeds of sheep worldwide.
  10. A lamb can walk within minutes of being born.

With thanks to Claire Fayers for this guest post about sheep! To buy Storm Hound, click here

Charlie Changes Into a Chicken by Sam Copeland, illustrated by Sarah Horne

charlie changes into a chickenMassively hyped already, with marketing material yelling ‘for fans of David Walliams’, this first of a brand-new series actually does live up to the hype. 

Aimed at a young fiction readership, aged seven and up, Charlie Changes into a Chicken is a delight. A genuinely funny, pacey adventure story that has a healthy dollop of pathos and heart from a writer who obviously understands and spends time with young children.

Charlie McGuffin worries about everything. He worries about his brother, who is not very well in hospital, his parents, who are worried about his brother, and he’s worried about garnering any attention from the school bully. Then he finds another thing to worry about – when he worries, he turns into an animal. At first, he metamorphosises into a spider (and with far more anxiety about his situation than displayed by Kafka’s protagonist). Before long though, this change is happening more often, and at the most inopportune times. With the help of his three friends, Charlie must find a way to stop the transformations happening, and prevent the school bully from revealing his secret.

One of the best features of this young fiction title is Copeland’s approach to the writing. It reads as if Copeland is telling the story to the reader personally, and with this intimacy comes reassurance, which is exactly the effect wanted. This is not a new device – in fact it’s in part what made Dahl so successful in his novels.

Here, the intimacy inspires confidence in the writer as a storyteller but also as a warm, approachable understanding adult, so important when, deep down, this book is about overcoming and dealing with anxious thoughts.

On the surface though, the story’s a laugh a minute. From the footnotes in which Copeland gets to extrapolate silly facts or simply extend his jokes, to the plot structure itself which gets funnier and more enjoyable the greater variety of animals Charlie turns into and the places in which he does so. The pigeons in the playground incident is particularly amusing, as is Charlie turning into a rhinoceros in his somewhat small bedroom (and needing to go to the toilet). Indeed, there are toilet jokes a-plenty, but nicely packaged within the overwhelming anxiety Charlie feels, so that they are there for a purpose. There are nail-biting moments too – the incident in the Head’s office, for example.

But what many readers will find succour in, is the friendship group. Charlie summons the courage to share his strange ‘superpower’ with his diverse, hilarious friendship group with all their vastly different personalities. My favourite is Flora, who attempts to discover the reasons behind Charlie’s metamorphosis – her theories fail at first, but she perseveres. As well as teaching a valuable lesson, her attempts provide a raft of laughs.  

Even after the book has finished, Copeland continues to address the reader with a series of fake questions from readers and answers from himself, as well as a letter from the publishers. All induced an amused wry smile.

Copeland is certainly a writer with impeccable comic timing, but also one who understands plot structure. Coming from a literary agent (Copeland’s day job), this shouldn’t be a huge surprise, in that he understands how a book works, but what is refreshing is the intimacy formed with the reader, the light touches, and the insightful imagination. Charlie feels real, despite the ludicrousness of the plot, and his group of friends just like yours or mine.

Sarah Horne’s black and white illustrations feature throughout, and are injected with just the right amount of zaniness. Horne excels at quirky and her characters are differentiated, appealing and expressive: the step-by-step transformation into a pigeon particularly funny.

The book works thrice. Firstly, as a good read for the age group with lots of plot, a fun premise and laughs-a-plenty. Secondly, as an antidote to anxiety – it shows how problems are often entangled with embarrassment about sharing them – the fact that Charlie’s anxiety manifests as an embarrassing problem itself is the whole point – and Copeland shows that fiction can be a calming and positive way to highlight mental health issues. And thirdly, as a conversation with the author. Sometimes, under stress or needing escape, books can become friends themselves. And with such a calm and witty author hand-holding the reader’s way throughout the book, this is one novel that children will embrace again and again.

No wonder there’s hype. This is a cracking novel, brilliantly funny, warmly reassuring. You can buy it here

When Good Geeks Go Bad: A Q&A with author Catherine Wilkins

when good geeks go badIt all started with a pair of trainers. Ever had an argument with your child over their choice of shoes for school? Or about an accessorised piece of school uniform? When I was a child I wore a brightly-coloured coat to school as a clear mark of rebellion against my school’s black coat policy. Today, I see various attempts to challenge authority with hair style, or key rings on bags, or shoes!

When Good Geeks Go Bad begins with Ella’s Dad refusing to buy her a cool pair of shoes or let her stay up late. And yet she’s always been a good girl. So Ella decides to go bad. Perhaps then she can get her own way. But being bad is more than just a few detentions and she’s soon losing control.

In fact, she’s already lost control at home, where her parents are spending time apart. So when her best friend wants to spend time apart from her too, she wonders if it really is best being bad, or if being geeky was good after all.

This highly-relatable, funny read from comedienne and writer Catherine Wilkins is an excellent look at a young teen fitting in at school, and finding her own place at home, as well as working out which identity she’s going to carry through her teen years. Who to be friends with and for what reasons? It poses the sorts of questions many children ask of themselves in Year 8, on the cusp of being full-blown teenage. Wilkins understands how to write funny as well as how to explore the pathos in harder family scenarios, and she creates a highly identifiable character in Ella.

Written in first person, Wilkins captures the wishes and desires, the nuances of Ella’s life and thoughts, almost in diary-style, as well as those of her peers, so that the reader can often see more of their motivations than Ella can herself – giving the reader even more laughs, and also understanding. Here, Catherine Wilkins answers some questions on the book, and her own ‘funny’ life:

Were you Good at school or were you Bad?

A bit of both. I was a slightly mischievous younger child. When I started secondary school I became shy and quite well behaved. Then I eventually rebelled again a little bit. Like Ella, I wore trainers to school. I think there’s something about testing where the line is that all kids do. (Also I really liked my trainers at the time).

In When Good Geeks Go Bad, Ella’s dad refuses to let her have cool shoes. Was there an item you wanted in your childhood that you never got bought? 

There were many, many items I wanted that I never got. From a sooty puppet to a frosty the snowman ice slushie maker. We never had money for crazy purchases, but my parents encouraged me to save up for things, or wait for birthdays, so sometimes I got lucky too. (The downside of this is that when I wanted a shell suit, I eventually got one. And I still have not managed to burn all the photos of it.)

In the book there’s also some serious stuff about separated parents. Do you think all comedy should go dark at some stage?

I would never legislate that all comedy should do anything. I think comedy is subjective and everyone has different taste. I find when things in my life go a bit dark, it can help me to laugh at them, make them less scary, make sense of them and bring them back into the light. But that might not work for everyone. Comedy can be used in many different ways. I like that it can be a coping mechanism, to cheer things along, or satirical beacon shining a light on hypocrisy and corruption. And you can enjoy dark comedy and still like slapstick too.

Also I feel like in this book, there are genuinely serious bits, that we’re not laughing at, but they are then undercut or contrasted with the more funny bits.

You write comedy for kids – does being funny come naturally to you? Are you the funniest in your house?

I live in such a fun house that it unfairly throws off the grade curve. My three-year-old daughter is probably the funniest. She’s always making up jokes and dances and clowning around. She has comedy chops. Then my one-year-son is pretty funny, but more in a cute way. Then my husband is a comedian and writer too, and they all play funny games together. I might be somewhere at the back, just after the cat (who is actually really funny at falling off things and then looking to see if anyone saw).

What’s the scariest thing about doing stand-up comedy?

The profit margin. BOOM. (Jokes). For me, the scariest thing would be never having tried doing it. But lots of people would say performing in front of other people is nerve-wracking. I didn’t find that so much when they were strangers, but as I climbed the ladder a bit, and there’s accountability because the gig matters and you have to impress the next booker or reviewer, that’s when I would get nervous and lose my spark. But when I started, the thrill of testing a new joke and getting a laugh made up for everything.

Which fictional character do you wish you could be (for a while)?

This is a really hard question to answer because there’s so much to choose from. Maybe I’d like to be Alice and check out Wonderland for a while, and have some adventures.

What advice would you give budding comedy writers?

You are probably already a fan of comedy, so keep doing that and consume as much comedy as you can. Keep a notebook about your person to write down your funny thoughts and observations. I think sometimes with comedy it can be ‘spotting’ the joke, as much as making it up, seeing if you can spot something that no one else has connected in that exact way.

If you have a friend who has the same sense of humour as you, sometimes it helps to pretend you are trying to make them laugh. Or even collaborate with funny friends and try and write stuff together. (When I was at school I was often trying to force friends to do comedy with me, but they weren’t always as into it).

But also it’s important to write about what you think is funny, not what you think other people might laugh at, or what’s expected. It’s yours. Your jokes, your voice.

And lastly, is the next book simmering – will we see Ella again? Or is there something new?

There is a new book on the horizon, but it’s something brand new, not Ella. But never say never, it might be fun to see what Ella gets up to next in the future as well.

With thanks to Catherine Wilkins for her time. When Good Geeks Go Bad is published today, 10th January, and you can buy it here. 

Younger Fiction

There have been some beautiful stories for younger children recently – books for newly independent readers (those comfortable enough to tackle chapter books by themselves).

legend of kevinThe Legend of Kevin by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Reeve and McIntyre, of Cakes in Space fame, bring their zany storytelling to this new magical tale about a rotund flying pony, blown from the outermost West to a tower block in Bumbleford. The over-riding theme is friendship but there’s a pervasive feeling of community throughout, and an understanding of providing solutions for problems, no matter how peculiar the problem (mermaid hair styling), and how outlandish the solution. There’s acceptance of difference, and an emphasis on ordinary heroes.

The success of this author/illustrator pairing, and there are those who wait ravenously for each new book, is that the text and pictures work perfectly in harmony. Gaps in the text are filled by the pictures, humour in the pictures is enhanced by the text. The pair know exactly how to pace the book, when to digress and when to pull back to the plot. With their trademark mermaids and naughty sea monkeys, this is a delight (for slightly younger audiences than their previous books), and marks a determined shift towards reality, as the Outermost West comes to a city not unlike the reader’s, complete with mundane shops, headmasters and mayors. You can buy it here.

sherlock and baker street curseSherlock and the Baker Street Curse by Sam Hearn

Super sleuthing comes to the younger fiction department in this glorious play on the trope of Sherlock Holmes. Transported into a school, the Baker Street Academy, Sherlock is just a school boy solving mysteries. But it’s the use of media that works so well here. The plot is relayed through a series of different text formats – Watson’s diary, comic strip illustrations, notice boards, webchats, emails etc. There’s a mystery to solve of course – and the reader can solve alongside Holmes, Watson and Hudson, as long as they don’t get misguided by a red herring.

In this book in the series, Sherlock and his friends have to solve a ghost mystery, dating back to when the school building was a family home. There is a great warmth that exudes from the text, and the dialogue feels authentic and friendly. A slick introduction to mysteries. You can buy it here.

ivy and beanIvy and Bean: One Big Happy Family by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I had my favourite American characters when I was little – Ramona Quimby and Amelia Bedelia spring to mind instantly. I don’t know if it was their spunky characters or their derring-do adventures, or perhaps the setting – in a school grade system I didn’t understand, with towns boasting large white houses with sweeping driveways, and vibrant lawns with tyre swings hanging from trees. For the next generation, and slightly more down-to-earth, is Ivy and Bean. This delightful friendship between quiet Ivy and rambunctious Bean, two seven-year-olds who live in the same street, is a celebration of old-fashioned values and community America. But mainly it’s just a fun chronicle of two girls and their neighbourhood adventures. What appeals most is the amount of free time the girls have to indulge their passions and make their own fun – rather like The Secret Seven did.

Barrows seems to have an understanding of the limitless possibilities offered by the best childhoods, and she includes all the fabulous childhood obsessions from glitter, to being made to tidy up, to sharing. This eleventh book in the series celebrates being an only child, or rather not being spoiled. You can buy it here.

first prize for worst witchFirst Prize for the Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Another series that should be celebrated for its longevity is The Worst Witch. Not only bearing my favourite character names, Mildred Hubble’s and enemy Ethel Hallow’s images are burned onto my brain – those illustrious illustrations of schoolgirl witches hanging on broomsticks with plaits flailing behind them, dangling untied shoelaces, and the haughty thinness of Miss Hardbroom. The utter enjoyment of seeing Mildred learning from her mistakes continues to this day, with Mildred battling to be chosen as Head Girl, against all the odds. Although the first in the series was published in 1974, this latest (and reportedly last) lives up to the high standard set by the first, and is an utter nostalgic joy for the adult reader, and an excellent gentle introduction to chapter books for new readers – it’s humorous, accessible and still relevant. You can buy it here.

nelly and monster sitterNelly the Monster Sitter: the Grerks at No. 55 by Kes Gray, illustrated by Chris Jevons

Repackaged in August with new illustrations, although the original text was first published in 2005, these hilarious books sit comfortably between Horrid Henry and The Bolds as accessible, funny, highly illustrated chapter books just right for newly independent readers. Nelly likes monsters, and happily takes care of the little monsters in the neighbourhood after school whilst the parent monsters take some time off. She’s in high demand, but has no idea of the type of monster she’ll encounter before she arrives. Each adventure showcases Nelly’s wit and quick-thinking – she’s a brave, down-to-earth and likeable protagonist, and as one would expect from Kes Gray, there is plenty of word play, great visual description (enhanced by the illustrations), and a lively exuberance that permeates the text. The winning formula here is that the monsters’ lives are so mundane. You can buy it here.

oscar and catastropheOscar and the CATastrophe by Alan MacDonald, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Another skilled writer for this age group is the indomitable Alan MacDonald, author of the Dirty Bertie and Superhero School series, among others. His straightforward easy to understand style is great for flourishing readers, and enables them to zip through his books at speed, promoting confidence and fluency. Oscar and the CATastrophe is the third in this series about Oscar the talking dog and his owner Sam. In this latest adventure, Oscar has been shocked to silence by the appearance of a neighbourhood cat and Sam is worried about the jewel thief in town. Gentle humour and basic plotting, but perfect for growing readers. You can buy it here.

Zebras and Lollipops

On route to take my younger children to school, we have to cross four roads. Two are minor, and two are main roads, neither of which two years ago had a zebra crossing. I decided to use my campaigning skills to petition the council and Transport for London to install one on the school’s road. And to my delight, a year later, they did. Now I use it about four times a day, and it serves the local park too.

phantom lollipop manAnother school that has a zebra crossing outside, is Izzy’s school in the Pamela Butchart book, The Phantom Lollipop Man, illustrated by Thomas Flintham. This seventh book in the ‘Baby Aliens’ series continues the exploits of Izzy and her friends and their school. In this title the friends are shocked to discover that their lollipop man has disappeared. Instead, they feel an unsettling coldness even when wearing tights, and start to see wispy clouds in the playground. Could he have died and now be haunting the school? So Izzy and her friends determine to find out.

On the surface, this is another exuberant adventure from brilliant comedy writer Pamela Butchart. The text flows with Izzy’s characteristic breathlessness, driving the reader through the plot and as always staying true to the brilliant friendship group, each member clearly distinguished by their character traits.

But what makes the book so endearing, other than the CAPITAL LETTERS, illustrations and energetic use of dialogue, is Butchart’s complete comprehension of schools. From her understanding about the importance of blu tack through to school office workers’ signs and the attitude of lunch supervisors, this is imperative as young readers feel a sense of familiarity with the world being created.

And although the books are hilarious – this one in particular had me laughing out loud every few pages and is definitely the funniest so far – there is an insightful compassion for the community of a school – the way that each component is dependent on another, and some real truths about what we value in society.

Izzy and her friends point to the lack of value we place upon certain people – lollipop workers included (but also perhaps, the school officer workers, the librarians, careworkers etc) and how important their roles are, and how they should be recognised. It’s a subtle message underlying the hugely comedic text, but a vital one. And Butchart also points out the loneliness that can be experienced in old age – when juxtaposed with the intense intimacy of Izzy and her friends, it becomes even more apparent.

This is a superb book that deals with community, values and society, and rounds off nicely with good use of the library and empathy for other people. A riotous, happy, storming success. A really top series for newly independent readers. I hope they keep coming. You can buy it here.

zebra crossing soul songOn a similar theme, but for teen readers is Zebra Crossing Soul Song by Sita Brahmachari. This is a book published by dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke, and is suitable for a reading age of 8, even though its subject matter is for teens. But it’s an enjoyable read for all.

Lenny has spent most of his eighteen years crossing the nearby zebra crossing, aided by the singing ‘zebra man’ Otis. But when Otis isn’t there anymore, Lenny, who is himself struggling as he sits his psychology A-level, looks back on his memories of them together, through music, and finds a way to move forwards.

Cleverly, the fixed point of the zebra crossing gives a clear focus for Lenny to look back on his school years from nursery to A-Level as he reaches a crossroads in his life. And the shared passion of music gives Lenny and Otis a clear bond, and also a vehicle for Brahmachari to use music as a distinguishing feature in her novel, as the story is written in music memory tracks – music as a recall mechanism, but also as a form of writing in its own right – like a poem.

When Otis disappears, Lenny uses his knowledge of psychology and memory, as well as music to find out what happened in Otis’s past to affect his future, and discovers that not only does music hold a bond with the past, but a vital component of Lenny’s life going forwards.

This is a cleverly woven piece, with a sympathetic bond between two people, and, as in Butchart’s light-hearted book, an awareness that although some people aren’t highly valued by society, they are highly valuable as individuals and in the role they play. Lollipop men and women are there to save lives – and sometimes literally do, and they play a positive role in shaping the community they serve. Sometimes it’s the quiet people who make the difference. You can buy it here.

 

 

Lollies: An Interview with Liz Pichon, author of Tom Gates

LolliesThe Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (Lollies) is a celebration of the very best and funniest books for children, voted by children themselves after judges choose the shortlist.

The Lollies are a relatively new award in the world of children’s books, started in 2016 as a riposte to the demise of the Roald Dahl Funny Book Prize. So many children rate the value of a book by its comedy, with 63% of children surveyed for the Scholastic Kids Reading Report 2014 indicating that they wanted a book that made them laugh. This was their top priority, the next criteria was identifiable characters.

This year, the four shortlisted titles in the 9-13 years shortlist are Football School Season 2: Where Football Saves the World by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttelton and Spike Gerrell, Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure by AL Kennedy and Gemma Correll, My Mum’s Growing Down by Laura Dockrill and David Tazzyman and Tom Gates Epic Adventure (Kind Of) by Liz Pichon.

I took my own epic adventure and asked Liz Pichon some questions, on your behalf, as a celebration of her shortlisting, and also as part of the Lollies Blog Tour (when many book bloggers each take a different title on the shortlist and celebrate it for a day).

Tom Gates Epic AdventureHi Liz. You’ve won numerous awards for Tom Gates, including the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, Waterstones, Blue Peter Book Award etc. What does it mean to be shortlisted for a Lollies prize – you must be pleased humorous books are being recognised again.

I’m THRILLED! I love the fact it’s a prize for funny books too. It’s a great list so I’d encourage everyone to read them all and have a really good laugh!

Before Tom Gates, you worked on greetings cards with Giles Andreae in his Purple Ronnie days. Are you now happy working as author and illustrator on your own – or have you thought about making a book that’s a collaboration?

That’s right I did. I took my portfolio of designs to the Spring fair in Birmingham where all the companies who make cards and gift items sell into shops. Giles was on one of the stands and he looked at my work and then I got commissioned to do a range of cards which sold pretty well (I think!).

I used to illustrate other people’s work, but now I like illustrating my own stories as it means I can think about every aspect of what the book will look like. But never say never!

The doodling illustrations of Tom Gates are highly distinctive, and you often wear Tom Gates decorated accessories. Do you draw things in other styles any more or is Tom forever in your mind (and hand)?

Yes I do – I’m about to start work on a completely NEW story which will look different to the Tom Gates books – still funny hopefully, but different characters.

Does this mean the end is in sight for Tom Gates? And will Tom ever grow up – like Harry Potter?

Tom will remain the same age for now – like Bart Simpson I think. I have lots of ideas left for Tom and the family still – as long as I’m enjoying it and the readers are too – I’ll keep going. 

Apparently Tom Gates is headed for the stage with a brand new story in 2019. How involved are you in this venture and how different is it from producing a book?

So far I’ve been very involved and it’s SO exciting! I’ve been working a lot on the script which is a brand new story and my husband Mark is doing the music for the play. Some of the songs already feature in the books – but we have new ones too.

It’s The Birmingham Stage Company who’ll be taking the play on tour and Neal Foster – who runs it – has been amazingly collaborative. They already do Horrible Histories and Gangsta Granny – so they are experts at putting on fantastic children’s theatre. It’s going to be amazing I know.

It’s quite different from the books in some ways because this is the chance to find out different things about the characters and bring them to life. I have loved the process so far. It’s on tour all next year – so go and see it!

Are you surprised by the popularity of Tom Gates? Is it particularly pleasing to have Tom Gates books recommended as being for reluctant or struggling readers?

You always HOPE that the books will do well – but until they’re out in the world you really have no idea!

I love that kids who don’t think reading is for them seem to be enjoying the stories and being creative too. That’s been amazing – watching the way children have got into the doodling and making stuff from the back of the books as well. All I wanted to do – was to make a book that I would have loved at that age and every time I start a new book, that’s what I keep in my head.

Lastly, I have burning question from one of my blog readers’ children, who is a big fan of Tom Gates: “Please ask Liz if she used to play the caramel wafer trick on her parents and if not, where did she get the idea for it?

Good question! I used to play this trick on one of my sisters and she’d do it to me too. We’d use club biscuits as well (other biscuits available!). They worked really well because they used to have an outer wrapper that you could slide the EMPTY biscuit back into and then put it on a plate. The other thing that would DRIVE everyone crazy is if we had a box of chocs – I’d pinch the good ones from the bottom layer as well! Ha! Ha!

With huge thanks to Liz Pichon for her time, and good luck in the awards. The winning book in each category will be decided solely by children’s votes, with schools and parents encouraged to help kids get involved and vote via the Lollies website.

The winning books will be announced in January 2019. If you haven’t read Tom Gates: Epic Adventure (Kind of), you can buy it here.

Autumn 2018 Picture Book Round-up 1


The Best Sound in the World by Cindy Wume
A debut picture book that will strike a chord with readers, it tells a simpatico tale of a lion who wants to capture the best sound in the world. He tries to imitate the sounds he hears by reproducing them on his violin – but nothing sounds quite right, particularly with annoying neighbour Jemmy dancing, clapping or singing along to the music. Roy the lion leaves on a mission to find the most beautiful sound and explore the world, but realises in the end that the most beautiful sound is back home – the music he makes with his neighbour, and now, friend.

Wume’s gouache, coloured pencil and ink illustrations are detailed and wondrous, conveying precisely the mood of each page – from the monkeys leaping in the forest to the train rumble in the city. What’s more, her vocabulary pitches perfectly when pulling out each sound – from the pling of the rain to the chitter-chatter of the market. There is much to explore and disseminate here, from the mix of rural and urban, to the clever use of movement to convey dance and sound. The message of course, is that friendship wins out, and what you’re looking for is often within rather than in the outer world, but there are also subtler issues around observation and subjectivity. If nothing else, it will make the reader appreciate the sounds around him/her in the everyday world. Aesthetically astute, intelligently observed and warm. You can buy it here.


Sing to the Moon by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and Sandra van Doorn
Even from the front cover, reality mixes with magical realism in this universally themed book of what to do on a rainy day. Ever since before The Cat in the Hat: “The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold cold wet day,” the weather has been a source of inspiration for writers. Used well, it can dictate mood, create atmosphere, and influence plot. This rainy day is during the rainy season in Uganda, and the source of inspiration for the child’s use of time is not a cat in a hat, but the child’s Jjajja – the grandfather.

This is a good introduction to Ugandan life. This child completes chores with his Jjajja, from packing peas to clearing the veranda, but all the while is engrossed with the tales his grandfather tells. The day passes quickly, and is filled with the dreams and stories of the past and the future.

Domestic detail sings from the pastel illustrations, but there are also wishes and dreams spun and illustrated as the boy thinks of the adventures he would take. The illustrative stickmen figures with large heads create a further dreamlike status, and the text rhymes in a rhythmic fashion, almost as if to the beat of the rain itself. Children will appreciate the mischievous white dog on each page – but I particularly enjoyed the descriptive language: ‘the clouds spread like a charcoal stain’, and ‘the drops…muddle the view’. Comforting and illuminating. You can buy it here.


The Dress and the Girl by Camille Andros, illustrated by Julie Morstad
We are taken back in time in this lyrical story of immigration, which begins in a slightly idyllic Greece, with donkeys, blue skies and days of freedom at sea and in the fields. But these large vistas with their white buildings and flowered landscapes are not enough and the family long for change. The family immigrate to New York, and upon arrival the girl and her beloved dress are separated. Here, the dress takes on its own persona and searches for the girl. Years later, they are reunited and the dress fits the girl’s own daughter.

Nostalgic illustrations give good period detail, and tell a tale with their muted colours at Ellis Island. At the same time there is a clarity and sharpness to the drawings, as if they have been rendered with a precision that conjures months and years in small pen strokes.

This is not a refugee story of migration, but a desire for an easy passage and a better or even just different way of life, which makes an interesting contrast to recent picture books about modern migration, such as The Journey. The Dress and the Girl is worth examining for the opening and closing spreads and their theme of separation and reunion – a complete circle if you will, as well as an examination of memory and possession. You can buy it here.


Daddy Hairdo by Francis Martin and Claire Powell
A light-hearted look at hair in this delightful picture book about overlong hair and the passing of time. Amy doesn’t have much hair when she’s born, and her Dad has plenty. But then her hair grows, and her Daddy’s seems to disappear. After considerable searching for it, they settle on dealing with the problem of Amy’s hair, which is becoming inconvenient due to its length. Amy’s Dad comes up with some incredible solutions, before reason kicks in.

This is a wonderfully amusing book for anyone who’s ever de-tangled a web of hair, and a cool nod to crazy fashions. Francis Martin lets loose his inner child with some excellent wordplay – hair-raising of course, while Powell has immense fun illustrating hairstyles with aplomb – accentuated by wonderful facial expressions. This is a fun, giggling-inducing picture book, and one which also celebrates the father/daughter relationship with zest and affection. You can buy it here.


Fearless Mirabelle by Katie Haworth and Nila Aye
Perhaps it’s the celebration of individuality, or having confidence in your own unique skill set, or looking after your sibling, but this picture book appeals on so many levels. There’s the circus element, which is always a winner, and the attention to quirky detail, such as Mirabelle balancing on a galloping horse on one leg, whilst eating a bowl of cereal.

Mirabelle and Meg are identical twins, but although Mirabelle is fearless in the circus, Meg is scared of heights. When they realise that Meg’s asset is her ability to speak in front of a crowd (which terrifies Mirabelle), the girls realise that together they can be a supreme double act.

The limited colour palette of primary colours, with black and white, makes for a distinctive look – the characters look a little like friendly Coraline’s, and children will delight in the veneer of simplicity in the scribbled illustrations – they are stylish and endearing – like sugar candy with an edge. Different typefaces explore direct speech, capitals are used for emphasis. Much to look at, just like the circus. You can buy it here.


How to be a Lion by Ed Vere
Or how not to conform to type in this fairly new picture book from Vere. Here, Leonard the Lion isn’t a roary hunter but the sort of lion who likes to ponder upon his ‘thinking hill’, and write poetry. When bullied by the pride for not devouring a duck whom he has taken as a friend, Leonard and Marianne the duck collaborate on a poem to explore individuality.

It may sound whimsical but Vere’s thick black outlines convey a ruggedness to the story, and the book publishes at an apt time as society rethinks its stereotypical view of masculinity. It’s a call to not bend to peer pressure, and the tightness of the text brings the message home without sentimentality. A celebration of creativity and words too, and of the benefits of thinking rather than being the loudest voice in the room. Bold oranges and yellows bring to mind the African Savannah, and as always with Vere, there is abundant humour tucked in with the message, wit in both text and picture, and a great understanding of the rhythm of the language. A proud and majestic picture book. You can buy it here.


Can You See a Little Bear by James Mayhew and Jackie Morris
A new gift edition for 2018 with phenomenal production quality, this much-loved picture book first published in 2006. Aimed at younger children, with its delightful premise of ‘seeing’ not only the little bear in different imaginative landscapes, but also spying patterns and colours, contrasts and opposites within Morris’s exquisitely beautiful illustrations, this also feels relevant for older children and artwork students because of the theatrical and circus settings, and the sumptuousness of the watercolours.

The text rhymes, and its intent is to pull you into the pictures, leading the reader to spy and spot certain things, but it also captures the soporific tone that has affected the bear – this is a dreamscape after all. The incredible detail of the illustrations, depicting medieval scenes, wild landscapes and exotic buildlings, before gently falling back into the more domestic sphere of bathtime and bedtime under the moon, will entrance adult and child alike. You can buy it here.

Books for Younger Readers

I’m constantly blown away by the quality of books for younger readers, otherwise known as newly independent readers. This, of course, is how it should be. It’s a crucial time to create that love of reading for pleasure. If they actively want to spend time reading at this age and it becomes habit, then their transition to reading longer texts will follow. Here is my round-up of recent texts for newly independents – about age 6-7 years onwards (although each child reads at their own pace and shouldn’t be rushed).

Sam Wu
Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts by Katie and Kevin Tsang illustrated by Nathan Reed
Sam Wu is afraid of many things, but no one likes to admit being a scaredy-cat. After an incident during a school trip to the science museum, everyone, especially the school bully, figures out that Sam Wu is quite scared. To prove his bravery, Sam opts to keep a pet snake. The only problem is that he’s scared of snakes.

This is a new series by husband and wife team and their compatibility obviously pays off in the writing. Never a dull moment, and packed full of laughs, this is an endearing look at different cultures, friendships, and how to be brave. There are particular stellar characters, including a grandmother and a little sister, who delightfully is not stereotypically annoying, but actually a great help to Sam. There’s a fun layout with large typeface, capital letters to emphasise embarrassing and scary moments, and lots of fantastic illustrations from Nathan Reed. A great introduction to chapter books. You can buy it here.

great telephone mix up
The Great Telephone Mix-Up by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey
An absolutely charming tale about the importance of community, helping your neighbours and reaping the surprising benefits. When the phone wires in a sleepy little village get mixed up, the neighbours start to discover things about each other as they receive the wrong phone calls, and then have to pass on the messages.

It turns out that meeting each other face to face not only brings new friendships, but brings awareness of who in the town is struggling, needs help or may need to find love. Nicholls carefully gets over the problem of mobile phones by explaining there is no signal in the town (a message not entirely lost on rural communities), and so everyone relies on their home phone.

The story is simple, the text well-spaced, and illustrations by Sheena Dempsey positively charming. Each character is well delineated and there’s a diverse mix. A lovely addition to the Little Gems selection. You can buy it here.

noah scape
Noah Scape Can’t Stop Repeating Himself by Guy Bass, illustrated by Steve May
An altogether more nightmarish story from Guy Bass, in which the protagonist can’t get what he wants. Noah decides that if everyone in the world were like him, then that would solve the problem- after all the majority rules, right? It starts, as all school problems do, in the school canteen when Noah is served meat pie instead of spaghetti with tomato sauce.

When Noah wakes the next morning and goes to school, he finds himself already sitting in his seat – there are two of him. And each day the number of Noahs double until finally they get what they want. They also share the same opinions like a modern day echo chamber.

Or do they?

When the original Noah is outvoted by his 63 copies, Noah realises he still isn’t getting his own way. This is a brilliant examination of how to get along with others, as well as a great representation of coping in school when a child is having to manage a mental health issue such as OCD, which dictates that routine is of paramount importance to the day. Of course, there’s the numerical element too. Bass hasn’t quite tied up all the loose ends of the story either, so there’s plenty of room for speculation after reading. A fun, and also highly accessible read. You can buy it here.

happyville high
Happyville High: Geek Tragedy by Tom McLaughlin
One of the most hilarious young fiction titles I have read in a long time, I couldn’t stop sniggering, which of course made all the children near me want to read this too. Tyler is too smart for school and has been homeschooled for much of her life. But when she and her Dad move to Happyville, he enrols her in the local school.

This is no ordinary school though, and Tyler realises there’s something inherently wrong, especially when she reads the motto: “The more popular you are, the happier you become!” Being a bit of a nerd means that Tyler definitely isn’t popular, but she does make two friends in the library, who are equally ‘geeky’. Tyler is enthralled when she discovers that one of them has developed an algorithm to decipher which candy bar is best, with the results laid out on a spreadsheet. (Tyler’s excitement at being invited over to see this knows no limits.)

When the popular kids are struck with an affliction – their right arms elongate to enable them to take better selfies – the three new friends have to use their brains to rid the town of this vain disorder. There is much slapstick and silly humour but also a biting satirical look at the way our society ranks people and behaves. Fabulously funny in many ways and incredibly readable. For slightly older readers than the other books on this blog. Self-illustrated too. You can buy it here.

magical kingdom of birds
Magical Kingdom of Birds: The Sleepy Hummingbirds by Anne Booth, illustrated by Rosie Butcher
A gentler start to a series in this book about magical escapism – something we all might need from the world of selfie-sticks and cool school heroes. When Maya colours in the pages of her colouring book, she is whisked into a magical kingdom filled with the most enchanting colourful birds and their small fairy friends.

But, as with all idylls, trouble is brewing, and the evil Lord Astor has a plan to capture the tiniest, most vulnerable residents and put them into cages. Maya has the privilege and great responsibility of being Keeper of the Book, and she must protect the kingdom and its birds at all costs.

An early introduction to the beauty of the natural world, with each book in the series showcasing a different species, this is a wonderful start to early reading. The pages are exquisitely illustrated in black and white by Rosie Butcher, the text in many cases framed by a leafy border, encapsulating the words and the story in this natural landscape. Beautiful descriptions bring the birds and their habitat to life, and Booth hasn’t been afraid to introduce more difficult vocabulary, explaining words such as torpor, tubular and prophesy. You can buy it here.

unicorn academymuddle the magical puppythe spiderwick chroniclesA quick mention to three other series. Unicorn Academy by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Lucy Truman has hitchhiked perfectly onto the current zeitgeist for all things unicorn. With its sparkly covers and more grown-up illustrations, these reminded me of my adoration and loyalty to all things My Little Pony when I was a child. The Unicorn Academy adventures are school stories in which the girls each have their own unicorn, and each book introduces themes such as friendship, loyalty, and independence. The first in the series, Sophia and the Rainbow, introduces ten-year-old Sophia who finds out that each unicorn has its own special powers. The stories are simple, chapters short, but the series has the magical potential to turn reading into a habit. Likewise with Muddle the Magic Puppy and Cuddle the Magic Kitten series by Hayley Daze. Cute illustrations adorn the front and continue inside, with big eyes as a feature. In Muddle the Magic Puppy: The Magic Carpet, Muddle goes on a flying carpet adventure in Arabia. A long-established children’s writer has penned these, and the story is straightforward. Large typography and short chapters make comprehension easy. Lastly, for more advanced readers, the publisher Simon and Schuster have republished The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black in beautifully illustrated hardback editions. This gothic fantasy series is a great choice for fluent readers who want to expand their literary landscape – with a richly imagined world of dark fairies. The Grace children move into the Spiderwick Estate and through secret passageways and hidden doors, they discover that they are not alone in the new house. First published in 2003, with a 2008 movie, the series is well-worth revisiting for a new young audience.

 

 

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.