funny books

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.

A Light-Hearted Start to the New Year

Sometimes we just want a good laugh. In fact, a 2015 Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report found that 63% of children aged 6-17 wanted a book that made them laugh more than any other criteria. But humour doesn’t work on its own in a story – that would just be a series of jokes – a joke book in fact. Recently, the adults in my household have been watching The Marvelous Mrs Maisel on television about a woman who turns comedienne. What’s clear from the start, is that although there are many laughs and jokes, the story has to have pathos too, and character, and plot, because if you aren’t invested in the person, you aren’t invested in the laughs either.

I Swapped My Brother on the Internet
I Swapped My Brother on the Internet by Jo Simmons
Who hasn’t wanted to swap their brother at some point in their lives? (I really hope my brother isn’t reading this blog). When Jonny finds a website called SiblingSwap.com he thinks he’s found the perfect solution to his irritating obnoxious older brother issues. But he pays little attention to the form he’s asked to submit for ‘swaps’, and the company send him a replacement that’s even less human than his real brother. Before long he’s returning and exchanging, but none seem quite right.

Along with the obvious hilarity from the premise, there is zaniness and wackiness aplenty in this tale of sibling replacements who happen to include the ghost of Henry the Eighth. But below the surface is more than a touch of what it means to be a sibling – the loyalty, the tenderness, the protectiveness, the responsibility. And what’s more, there’s a lesson about false advertising on the Internet, and being careful what you wish for.

Jonny is a likeable main character with his own quirks, but real enough, with his friendships, and penchants for Xbox, doughnuts and pasta. Add in a girl geek to the mix (everyone needs a good coder in their lives) and an extremely absent-minded carefree mother, and the comedy is set. This is a good laugh, with happily comedic illustrations, and a great ending. You can buy it here.

Stand By Me
Stand by Me by Judi Curtin
Not a ‘comedy’ as such, but with oodles of humour and light-hearted fun, this is a book that squeezes many different emotions into a story and features inter-generational relationships, and a look back at personal histories.

A sequel to Time After Time, although it can be read as a stand-alone, Stand By Me follows the adventures of friends Molly and Beth, who have found a way to time travel. These best friends are slightly different though, in that they live together – their two families joined together, and although there was some tension at first, by this book the two are firm friends.

Molly and Beth travel back to the 1960’s to discover what happened to an old friend of their favourite uncle, and to try to exonerate their uncle from a misdemeanour that he feels he committed long ago. Once back in the 1960’s, the author shows what fun can be had writing ‘historical fiction’. Everything seems different and unusual to the modern girls, from the hair styles to the phone boxes, to pre-decimalisation and the lack of technology (mobile phones), and Curtin cleverly interweaves all these things into the plot – as well as showing changing attitudes to disabilities over time. It’s good to see the not-so-distant past represented in this way for modern children – an eye opener to the world of their grandparents.

Rather than out and out ‘historical fiction’, the idea is to explore the recent past: the time of parents (1980’s in Time after Time), and grandparents (1960’s in Stand By Me).

The book delves into feelings of guilt and blame, but is mainly about friendship – how we deal with adversities with friends, and how friendships last or break up, but overwhelmingly the feel of the book is light-hearted, with much fun, humour and liveliness.

Music is prevalent too, not only in the book titles, which are taken from song titles, but in scenes in the book, and the illustrations throughout. It’s interesting how quickly we define eras by the music created during the time. A fun look at friendship and fixing the past. You can purchase it here.

 

Christmas Books Roundup 2017

““Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo” (Little Women), but for me, presents means books. So, if you’re looking to treat your children to some rectangular shapes in their stockings and under the tree, here are my highlights…

Picture Books


Oliver Elephant by Lou Peacock and Helen Stephens (Nosy Crow)
My top pick for the season is definitely this heartwarming Christmassy through-and-through tale about a Christmas present shopping trip, in which mummy has a long list, a pram to manoeuvre, her children Noah and Evie-May, and Noah’s toy elephant. With sparkling rhythmic rhyming, and huge attention to detail in the department store colourwash illustrations, this will make every reader feel that magical Christmas time aura. There’s much to love in the familiar tale of a temporarily lost toy in a large store, but Peacock and Stephens manage to inject their own personality onto the book, with lots of love, expression and minute detail. I love the mittens on strings, the busyness of the store, the flushed faces of the customers, the diversity of the cast, and the wonderful emotion on the face of the mother (tired yet happy), and Noah (small in a world of big things). His playfulness with the elephant, and the frustrated sympathy of his mother is pitch perfect. And of course, there’s a happy Christmas ending. You can buy it here.


The Princess and the Christmas Rescue by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton (Nosy Crow)
This hilarious picture book for Christmas manages to combine fairy tale allusions (it is about a princess after all), feminism (girl engineers), and an ironic Amazon-like present-picking machine all in a neat sing-song rhyme. But mainly, this is an adorable rhyming picture book about finding friends. Princess Eliza loves to make things, but her parents are worried at her lack of friends. When the Christmas elves run into trouble in the busy lead-up to Christmas, Eliza steps in to help, and finds that as well as being a super duper inventor, there’s fun in friendship too. Exquisite illustrations in bright colours that mix the essence of Christmas (ribbons, elves, cosy armchairs by the fire) with ‘Wallace and Gromit’ type inventions. Christmas bliss. You can buy it here.


All I Want for Christmas by Rachel Bright (Orchard Books)
Rachel Bright is superb at wrapping moral lessons in her books, and this Christmas treat is no different. It’s not an illustrated version of Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit, but it does carry the same message – as well as cookies and trees, and presents and roast dinners, what this Big Penguin really wants is love. Yes, this is about penguins, not humans. Shown first in a snowglobe on a mantelpiece, the story opens up to explore the penguins’ world in the lead up to Christmas. Cute illustrations, and a fabulous spread in the middle that shows miniature vignettes of Big Penguin and Little Penguin busy doing the ‘hundred things’ to get ready, this is an adorable read. You can purchase it here.


Last Stop on the Reindeer Express by Maudie Powell-Tuck and Karl James Mountford (Little Tiger Press)
The next title also features a family with a missing adult, but here they are human, and there is a more pronounced emphasis on families who can’t be together at Christmas time. Mia’s dad can’t come home for Christmas, but luckily for her, she stumbles across a magical postbox with a door to The Reindeer Express, which manages to convey her to her father for a Christmas hug, and still be back with her mother for Christmas.

Karl James Mountford’s illustrations feel globally Christmassy, with muted earthy tones, in particular a profusion of rusty red, as he conveys a timelessness to the images – from the dress of the people, which feels old-fashioned, to the takeaway cups of mulled wine, which feel up-to-the-minute. With maps and explorers’ articles, and a globe-trotting reindeer, the book feels as if it’s digging into a magical time of exploration and discovery, as well as showcasing a homely setting with snow outside the window. Our heroine wears glasses and is an eager and curious child. But what sets this book apart is its production. With thick pages, peek-throughs and cut-outs, and the most tactile cut-away cover, this truly feels like a gift. Romantic and yet curiously real. You can purchase it here.


A Christmas Carol: Search and Find by Louise Pigott and Studio Press
Another beautifully produced book, with silver foil on the cover, this classic Christmas story is retold with search and find scenes – both the characters and setting are illustrated at the outset, with a brief summary of author and text, and then the story is told through double page illustration scenes, alongside an illustration key, which asks the reader to find certain people and objects (such as five red robins, a wistful scrooge, and the ghost of Christmas yet to come).

Through minimal text but large illustrations, both the characters and their narratives are revealed. It’s clever, and wonderfully appealing, in that it’s a book that could be shared, and certainly pored over, as each scene is so wonderfully detailed. Answers, are of course, at the back. You can purchase it here.

Chapter Books:
Three chapter books for you, each from an established series, but this time with their ‘Christmas theme’ stamped all over the cover and narrative. My testers (little kiddies) adore all three series, and couldn’t wait to read them – so they won’t be under my tree!


Polly and the Puffin: The Happy Christmas by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty (Hachette)
I have the distinct feeling that the children and I like this book for very different reasons, but that’s the joyous element of this book, which is written to be shared by being read aloud (with references to hugs, and an authorial voice).

Polly and Neil (her real puffin) are all ready for Christmas, but it’s only November, and such a long time to wait. And then things start to go wrong. Will it ever be Christmas? Will the puffling hatch? Will Wrong Puffin find his way home? There is a huge infusion of wit and personality here – from Polly’s moods, and her quirks (from calling the toy puffin Wrong Puffin, to her grumpiness with her real puffin, Neil) to the illustrator’s humour (see the contented yet oblivious cat lying on the sofa, the wine bottle from Christmas Eve and bleary parents at Christmas Day morning). The narrative voice is warm and comforting, just right for Christmas Eve. There are loads of extras at the back too – recipes, activities and jokes. Buy it here.


Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Jingle Bells by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton (Nosy Crow)
This pair of cake-baking, crime-solving dogs are never far from mischief, and the delight of these little books is that they each contain three stories in one book – good for short attention spans and first readers. Only the first story is Christmas-themed, with the delightful Santa Paws, but the other two tales are equally strong and eventful: Sea-Monster Ahoy! and Lucky Cat. With plentiful illustrations in two-tone colour, lots of lively language, and fast plots, these are lovely little bursts of entertainment. You can purchase it here.


There’s a Dragon in My Stocking by Tom Nicoll, illustrated by Sarah Horne (Stripes)
Lastly, and for slightly older readers, this Christmassy addition to the fabulous ‘There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!’ series continues the adventures of Eric, who was first introduced when he discovered a mini dragon (Pan) in his takeaway dinner. In this funny sequel, Pan’s parents arrive down the chimney. Looking after one dragon and stopping fires was bad enough, but now Eric has three on his hands, and his parents are entertaining on Christmas day. When disaster hits their lunch plans, it might just be that three little dragons come in useful. As well as being huge fun, Nicoll captures the family personalities beautifully, especially annoying Toby from next door, and his Mum (complete with mobile phone!). You can buy it here.

Happy Christmas shopping.

Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure by Alex T Smith

Barely a day goes by without a child in the library offering me their own drawing of ‘Claude’ or asking for me to order more Claude books for the library shelves. ‘S’ with Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry series, and Alex T Smith’s Claude books is a quickly emptying shelf of books. So it was with delight, and some trepidation, that I embarked on reading the first title of the new series from Alex T Smith, Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure.

Mr Penguin sets himself up as a Professional Adventurer. The only problem is that he’s been sitting at his desk, twiddling his flippers for some time. Then, a phone call comes through from Boudicca Bones, curator at the Museum of Extraordinary Objects, and Mr Penguin is needed to find some missing treasure. Together with his sidekick, Colin (a spider), and a packed lunch (very necessary), Mr Penguin sets off on a new adventure.

With magnifying glass, explorer hat, maps and museums, this is an old-fashioned adventure to which Alex T Smith has applied his zanily humorous style. There is comedy of the absurd in abundance, as into the plot go disguised identities, a log that turns out to be an alligator, and a spider who can’t talk but can write down his thoughts.

Museums are always groovy places for hide-and-seek and treasure hunts, with their cavernous spaces and dark dingy corners with weird artefacts, but Smith goes one better here, by opening up a subterranean jungle complete with waterfalls underneath the museum floor. Thus turning Mr Penguin from an investigator into an Indiana Jones type figure.

The plot moves apace, there is much humour, and of course it’s highly illustrated – this is a step up for readers of Claude, who will encounter much more text and plot here, but there are magnificent illustrations spread throughout the book. Through these, the reader can pick up visual clues to assist them in deciphering any red herrings from real clues, and the whole book is beautifully produced in a typical penguin colour – black and white with orange spot colour.

Particular highlights include an excellent vocabulary for this age group, a nod to the importance of food, huge amounts of humour, both slapstick and more subtle, and phenomenal attention to detail from the newspaper endpapers to chapter headings and page numbers.

A quirky tale, well told and full of fun. I know just where to point my young readers after Claude – it’s the extraordinary adventures of Mr Penguin. May this new series run and run (or waddle and waddle). For ages 7 and up. You can buy it here.

My Autumn Picture Book Round Up 2017

It has been so hard to narrow down this list of picture book choices – there have been so many delightful books landing on MinervaReads’s desk this autumn. But here are my absolute favourites this quarter:

oi cat

Oi Cat by Kes Gray and Jim Field
You might have thought by now, after Oi Frog and Oi Dog, that this series would have become a little jaded. Judging by the colour of this new one though, you’d be completely wrong. Fresh as ever, bright and vibrant, the characters keep developing and the rhymes keep evolving. It’s all about changing the rules – depending on who’s in charge – the Dog, the Frog or the Cat. Giggly it certainly is, bright and cartoon-like, with masses of personality. There are even rhymes with alpacas, flamingos and lemurs, and a vibrant pink flip up page at the end. A book at which you must take a look. It must be catching…You can buy yours here.

nothing rhymes with orange

Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex
And following swiftly on from rhyming animals, here be rhyming fruit. It’s long been a statement of fact that nothing rhymes with orange, but Adam Rex explores how that might make Orange feel. If grapes can wear capes and hairy pears are tied to chairs, the fruits get a little carried away and start to sing a rhyming song – except they leave out Orange. Yes, this book is as zany as it sounds. With images of real fruit stuck in a kind of weird illustrated landscape with drawn on expressions and text that looks as if it has been written with a sharpie pen, and mentions of Nietzsche, it’s a strange kind of picture book. Except that somehow it works – it certainly teaches about exotic fruits, but it also explores feeling left out and how to include someone. A bizarre and yet rather striking addition. Rhyme yourself silly here.

squirrels who squabbled

The Squirrels Who Squabbled by Rachel Bright and Jim Field
Another moral lesson to be learned in this picture book, with squirrels on the front who would fit in well in Oi Cat, (the illustrator Jim Field has been busy). This book about competitiveness, sharing and friendship brims forth with autumnal charm in its illustrations, and with wit in Bright’s brilliantly evocative and poetic text. It also rhymes – one squirrel is called Cyril, for example, but the rhyming here is less forced and provocative than the above picture books. The descriptions are plenty: the sky rages red, the forest towers, and the frosting of winter glitters ahead. The text tells the tale of the squirrel who saved nothing for winter and the squirrel who has an abundance. When they fight over securing a last pine cone, there is immense danger in the quest. The competitive squabbling ends in much mirth and an acceptance of sharing with friends. Great momentum, phenomenal nature landscapes – this is an autumn treat I want to share with everyone. Buy your copy here.

the wolf the duck and the mouse

The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
More animal companionship, and another classic author/illustrator pairing in this tale about a duck and a mouse who get swallowed by a wolf, and decide to live in his belly. We’re back to the slightly zany here, with influences including Jonah (stuck in a whale’s stomach) but also Aesop, in animal tales that impart morals.

Turning pre-conceived ideas on their head, it turns out it’s not so bad for the mouse to be swallowed by a wolf – after all it’s rather comfy inside, and it removes the fear of being hunted. Especially when there’s a companion already within (the duck), who explains that “I may have been swallowed, but I have no intention of being eaten.” There are plenty of laughs – the stomach seems fairly well equipped; there’s even a painting on the wall, and to complement the rather old-fashioned tone of the interior – candlesticks, grapes, red wine – the language is that of old fairy-tales set in woods – ‘flagon of wine, hunk of cheese, beeswax candles’. Things turn a little strange when the animals party with a record-player (children might wonder what this is), but then strange is expected with this author/illustrator pairing. Muted grey and brown colours lend a warmth and an old-fashioned vibe. There’s a nod to being flexible and adaptable in this tale, and a hint of karma when the hunter becomes the hunted. Explore the narrative here.

hic

Hic! By Anushka Ravishankar and Christiane Pieper
Something slightly more human in this well-crafted book about an issue that can flummox a child, but about which I’ve never seen another picture book: what to do when you have the hiccups. The simple premise of this book is the extraordinary advice given to a child as to how to rid themselves of the hiccups. The girl tries everything from the sublime to the ridiculous, and the more ridiculous. With each ‘cure’ attempted, the next hiccup is even more disastrous (as I suppose it would be if you licked mustard off your nose!). The illustrations are a delight, kept to yellow, blue and black, it lends a distinct look to the book, and the expressions of the children are energetic, humorous and endearing. Cleverly, each remedy rhymes with hic, but alas, there is no solution. Try not to catch hiccups here.

lines

Lines by Suzy Lee
A wordless picture book that starts with a pencil line and evolves into a skater dancing her way across the ice white page. She’s small against the size of the page, but wonderfully fluent in her movements. She feels real, she seems to move. Her red cap and mittens stand out against the white, but the reader will be most entranced by the movement of her legs – the few simple pencil strokes that indicate her direction of travel, her spins and loops, her swirls and twirls. The reader will marvel at the power of the pencil. But when she falls and tumbles, it turns out that she has been nothing but an artist’s impression and the paper is crumpled.

The ending is happy. Once unfolded, the paper once again becomes an ice rink, although cleverly, not so smooth anymore, and our skater is joined by others. No words are needed to explore the narrative here: the freedom of our skater, the joyfulness of the ice rink, and the stretch of the imagination. Stunning. You can find it here.

 

Storey Street Giveaway Week

Scaredy Cat, Scaredy Cat was published last month, the last book in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series. The series has tracked the lives of the children in Storey Street, from Jake in Demolition Dad, which sees Jake persuade his father to become a professional wrestler, and deals with issues around depression, to superhero-obsessed Mouse in Superhero Street. This second book concentrates on finding one’s place within a family. The War Next Door features street bully Masher when he encounters kindness for the first time, which transforms his bullying behaviour. The fourth and last, Scaredy Cat, Scaredy Cat follows the adventures and coming-of-age of Kay, a supremely nervous child who meets Wilf, in the guise of a wonderful wizard. Dealing with grief and fear, this is a charming finale to the series.

Kay’s father keeps Kay on a tight rein, terrified that she’ll succumb to disaster at every turn – he even cuts the corners from loaves of bread to keep her safe. Stemming from the loss of Kay’s mother in an accident, his obsession with health and safety stifles his daughter and manifests in her extreme timidity. But Kay has an obsession with wizards, and when she meets Wilf, she learns that inside her, a mighty lion roars, especially when it comes to standing up for what’s right. In the end, she finds that magic comes from  everyday occurrences and kindnesses, not always from a wizard.

What distinguishes the series as a whole is its gentle humour, as well as it’s coming together of a street – peeking behind the doors to see the interiors of the houses and what’s inside the minds of each person, no matter how they portray themselves to the world. Phil Earle’s voice casually talks to the reader as the story moves along, in both a self-referential way as the ‘writer’ behind the words, and also as a kind and wise guide through the world. This is a world in which community is key, and lessons are learned through actions – whether it be not judging someone for the clothes they wear, or a community pulling together to give somebody in desperate circumstances the help they need.

Earle’s voice has enormous heart, and manages to portray the extraordinary wit, pathos and depth of ordinary people, and often people with little money or resources, and those for whom life has dealt a harsh handout.

There’s also, of course, the bold, detailed, and wickedly humorous illustrations of Sara Ogilvie that enhance each book and bring each character to life vividly and emotionally. To celebrate or rather commiserate with Phil Earle on the ending of this funny series, I’m offering five readers a copy each of the first in the series, Demolition Dad. Just find me on twitter @minervamoan and retweet the relevant tweet. Ends 1st November, 2017.

Fairy Tales Rejuvenated

Scientists have been looking at how folk and fairy tales, particularly stories of animals and magic, have been distributed from their place of origin. What they are interested in particularly is the different modes of travel – whether the tales are transmitted by a person moving from where they were and retelling the story in their new place – which is migratory storytelling, or whether the tales are told down a ‘whisper’ chain – one to another, but each person remaining static. The scientists are looking at what genomic data can tell us about the historic spread of culture, but that’s not what caught my eye in their studies. What fascinates me is the content itself.

For me, it’s interesting to see how different versions of fairy tales are told to different children, how different folk tales from different cultures overlap in themes and plot, and how we use fairy tale tropes to tell our own stories, or make our own arguments, especially when we update them. I have found that although children don’t always remember being specifically read fairy tales, there are familiar tropes that have sneaked into the vernacular or familiar strands that they have picked up by osmosis (or from Disney). They know, for example that it’s important to stop partying before the clock strikes midnight, that houses are sturdier built from bricks, that eating another’s porridge is rude, that one shouldn’t generally accept shiny red apples from strangers. So how do we make fairy stories exciting and relevant and different for the next generation -for the ‘instant gratification’ generation?

Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales have been produced in a stunning publication in time for Christmas, with black and white illustrations within by Sarah Gibb, but also with foil on the cover and a ribbon bookmark (my new favourite thing). But it’s the spellbinding way that McKay recreates the fairy tales that is the real draw here. She has renamed her tales, but given the traditional name underneath, so as to help the readership, covering ten stories from Rapunzel and Rumplestiltskin to The Swan Brothers, Twelve Dancing Princesses and more well-known stories including Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

But McKay is clever in her storytelling. She understands that her readership may have an inkling of the denouement of the stories, so she finds another way to tell them – be it changing the point of view, or the timeframe through which they are told. For example, The Pied Piper of Hamelin is told from the perspective of the Mayor, who may have a slightly different view from normal on the terrible tragedy of the children being taken away (those noisy, litter-dropping children!). Hansel and Gretel has been renamed ‘What I Did in the Holidays and Why Hansel’s Jacket is So Tight (by Gretel, aged 10)’, and not only tells the story backwards through Gretel’s point of view, but is narrated by the teacher and incorporates much humour and subtle insertion of other fairy stories along the way.

There are newer lessons in here too – with the story of Rapunzel, McKay manages to convey something leaning towards a discussion on freedom and captivity – what it really means to be free and the fears that this can bring. With Snow White, McKay extrapolates our sense of what is considered beautiful, and also whether beauty is held within. By telling some stories from a perspective of the fairy tale characters in old age, looking back, more wisdoms can be brought out with the beauty of hindsight, and sometimes the clever children listening question their grandparents on decisions they made as children – Snow White as a grandmother is particularly effective – also bringing to the discussion the difference between telling a story and making up a story, and things purporting to be truths.

These stories will appeal because they sound modern, despite the ancient stories buried inside, and because they right some ancient wrongs – McKay clearly feels sorry for Rumpelstiltskin, and gives him some relief. This is a wonderful collection of fairy tales retold, with bite and pathos and humour. You can buy a copy here.

If you’re looking for picture books that retell the stories, David Roberts and Lynn Roberts-Maloney have published four fairy tales in ‘retro’ style. Contradictory though that sentence may seem – for these fairy tales have existed for hundreds of years, and yet by ‘retroing’ them, the authors have moved them into different timezones. Sleeping Beauty is set in the 1950s, Little Red in the late eighteenth century, Cinderella in the roaring ‘20s and Rapunzel in the 1970’s.

Updating the fairy tales not only means that the authors can inject them with our own sensibilities, but also showcase thoughts about our own history by setting them in a specific past era. In 1950’s Sleeping Beauty, it is the needle of a record player of course, not a spinning wheel that sends protagonist Annabel to sleep. But more than that, Roberts beautifully highlights the architecture and comforts of the time – the burgeoning building works post-war, the fashions and hairstyles, and before Annabel (Sleeping Beauty) goes to sleep, she is shown to be an up-and-coming wise young lady, complete with reading a book, harbouring a fascination with space travel and robots, her discoveries (Elvis) indicative of the 1950s.

This sleeping teen sleeps for a 1,000 years and wakes to find another strong female protagonist exploring her 1950s house as if it were a museum. The robot poster on the wall is an extra special touch in a book that speaks to discovery and learning, science and science fiction. A unique way of crushing stereotypes and exploring lasting fairy tales.You can buy it here.

More subversion in This is Not a Fairy Tale by Will Mabbit, illustrated by Fred Blunt. This sequel to This is Not a Bedtime Story returns Sophie and her Dad as he attempts to read Sophie a typical fairy story from his book (princess in tower etc), but Sophie interrupts, and then changes the story to suit her. This story within a story picture book pokes fun at traditional gendered stereotyping in fairy stories; the princess using a combine harvester and then a transformer to reach the tower in which the prince is sleeping.

Not only is there role reversal, but because Sophie, her Dad and granddad are all pictured reading the story, there is the humdrum domesticity and mayhem outside the story too – with Sophie and her relatives’ speech in bubbles. It’s a brilliantly colourful book, with illustrations bordering on comic book style, with plenty of humour abounding. There’s more nuance in this metafiction, as the author alludes to where Sophie is getting her inspiration for her retelling, but it’s not all worthy – there are plenty of funny noises and bottom jokes too. You can buy it here.

Fairy Tale Pets by Tracey Corderoy and Jorge Martin pulls characters out of fairy tales and puts them in another story altogether. In this case, Bob and his pet dog Rex decide to open a pet-sitting service to make some money. But all the creatures left with them are from fairy tales – Baby Bear, billy goats gruff, and finally the three pigs’ pet…puppy. Of course, mayhem ensues, and Bob has to turn to making his money some other way. The book relies upon the reader having knowledge of the key fairy tales in order to understand the jokes, but it’s a fun way to show how stories can be manipulated, pulled apart and pieced back together, especially for young readers. The illustrations are large and impactful, with liberal use of colour in quite wacky chaotic scenes. Well worth a look.You can buy it here.