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Halloween Round Up

Writers and publishers love cultural events upon which they can hook a theme – be it glowing Christmas scenes or the approach of a new season – windy autumns, growth in spring. Halloween seems to intensify every year in the UK – a very large percentage of the autumn books I received had a ‘spooky or witchy element’ to them, and I don’t mean that the pages turned by themselves (although that would be useful). So, to help you through the ghosts and ghoulies, here are my spooky and also witchy-themed picks:


Witch for a Week by Kaye Umansky, illustrated by Ashley King
Not unlike Sylvia Bishop’s stories, also illustrated by Ashley King, this latest from top children’s author Kaye Umansky is an absolutely charming story, which is ideal for newly independent readers. Elsie is recruited to house-sit for local witch Magenta Sharp for a week, and although promised a quiet easy week, has to contend with a host of quirky eccentric neighbours, a tower with personality, and a grumpy talking raven. Each character is well-defined, and Elsie herself is beautifully drawn as unflappable, book-loving, and kind.

The book contains some lovely touches, including hilarious customer service rules (Elsie has been schooled in retail), a love potion that goes awry, a book of instructions that seems to be blank, and a sassy witch whose business is mainly mail-order. Sumptuously modern, but with an old-fashioned fairy tale feel, this is one new witchy series which I’ll be recommending to all. Fun, memorable, touching and bubbly – a real hug of a book. Magic it here.


Spectre Collectors: Too Ghoul for School by Barry Hutchinson, illustrator Rob Biddulph
Some books just scream cinema. This highly visual first-in-a-series will delight comedy fans everywhere. Opening mid-action, Denzel is in the middle of maths homework when his home appears to be invaded at first by a poltergeist, and then by two figures with a gun. Before long, he too is recruited to be part of the ‘Spectre Collectors’, a kind of cross between Ghostbusters and Men in Black, an organisation in which children use magic and technology to rid the world of ‘spectres’.

With impeccable timing on jokes, sparkling top-class humorous dialogue between Denzel and his mates, and great variety of action scenes, this is a wonderful ghostly spoof. Beware a terrifying episode in the middle in which Denzel’s two fathers don’t remember him at all – as if his existence has been scrubbed from the world – but there are enough laughs and improbabilities to combat the darkness. For age 8-12 years. Spook it here.


Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball by Laura Ellen Anderson
Vampire Amelia wants to hang out with her pet pumpkin Squashy, but her parents insist she attends their Barbaric Ball. When Squashy is captured, Amelia must plan a daring rescue. This highly illustrated read for 7-9 year olds dazzles with superb illustrations, macabre puns, (including diePhones, scream teas and daymares), and is set in a grisly Nocturnia. But Amelia is a fun, endearing and captivating protagonist, and Anderson’s energy shines through with exuberance in both the prose and the illustrations. Much of the normal landscape has been inverted of course, with the characters sleeping by day and playing by night, as well as ‘cute’ things being feared, and gruesomeness celebrated. Join the vampires here.


Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Kathryn Ourst
I’m not convinced Amelia would love Vlad, but this reader certainly did. Another vampire adventure for 7-9 year olds, Vlad isn’t keen on being a vampire. He secretly reads a rather jolly boarding school book about normal children and decides that it would be nicer to live an Enid Blyton-esque existence. Anna Wilson’s trademark humour works a treat in this rather adorable little adventure, in which Vlad tries to balance his life between human school, in which they don’t realise he’s a vampire, and home life, in which he has to hide his new friends from his family.

Added to the plot are some wonderful little touches, such as his new friends telling Vlad that he needs to get his teeth fixed, to Vlad’s relationship with his very elderly grandfather, but mainly his growing friendship with Minxie. Ourst’s illustrations are a joy – very cartoonlike with gleeful vibrancy. The final picture of Minxie and Vlad laughing is enough to bring a smile to any youngster’s face. A thoroughly enjoyable vampire adventure story, sparkling with wit and warmth. Look out on the blog to see a guest contribution from author Anna Wilson next week, and you can show Vlad some pathos by buying your own copy here.


You Can’t Make Me Go to Witch School by Em Lynas, illustrated by Jamie Littler
A slightly longer adventure story from Nosy Crow publishers for the 7+ age group, which sees the advent of another little witch. Daisy Wart wants to be an actress, more particularly she wants to star as Shakespeare’s Bottom on the stage. But when her grandmother dumps her at Witch School, she struggles to escape, despite all her dramatics. This is a strange school, with cauldrons for beds, pupil-eating plants in the school garden, and the ghost of the former headmistress stalking the corridors – a step up from the sudden appearances of Miss Hardbroom in The Worst Witch.

There are highly original touches and a fixation with hats to distinguish this from other ‘witchy school’ books, and Daisy is a protagonist who definitely fulfils the role of leading lady, with her particular brand of speech and her innermost thoughts about the other characters. First in a series, this book sets up further adventures rather nicely, when Daisy, as I’m sure you’ve all guessed, decides that maybe acting isn’t the only thing she could be good at. Littler’s illustrations work their magic here too – bringing the whole ensemble to life. Join Witch School here.


School for Little Monsters by Michelle Robinson and Sarah Horne
I do sometimes wonder where Michelle Robinson finds the time to write so many picture books, but here’s another one that ticks all the boxes. The book follows two children – Bob and Blob – one a human, one a monster – due to start their first days at school. But sadly for them, some naughty monsters have swapped signs and Bob and Blob attend the wrong schools. Rhyming text pulls the reader through this great mash-up of ‘experience’ and ‘monster’ genres, as the reader finds out about their first days at school. The rules for monsters and humans are apparently a little different. Great fun, superbly funny, colourful illustrations, with lots of mayhem. As with all great picture books, the illustrations speak louder than the words. The message is that school is good, as long as you’re at the right one…Be a little monster here.


An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings by Aidan Onn and illustrated by Rob Hodgson
Actually, this should probably be at the top of the pile, as the book very cleverly introduces and explains the different types of monsters, from aliens to zombies. Each letter takes a different ‘magical’ being, with a full double spread committed to it. There are plenty of wacky, although somewhat simply conceived, illustrations in matt, muted colours, accompanied by a small paragraph of text, which is more playful than it is informative. Learn the alphabet here.


Pretty by Canizales
A message in a book, this witchy picture book contribution to Halloween and beyond, is a story about a witch with a date, who wants to look her best. The creatures she meets on route give her hints as to how to better her appearance, but by the end of course, her date is disappointed with her new looks. Rather like wearing a little too much make up. The message is obvious – be yourself, but there’s also a rather dark twist at the end. The witch is brilliantly depicted – simplistic and rather lovingly drawn – despite her perceived failings, from hooked nose to pointy chin. Nice touches include her choice of outfits! Be pretty here. Happy Halloween!

Watch out too for my extract from Scarecrow by Danny Weston coming soon – for an ideal first horror book for your 11 year old (and up!)

Halloween Reads

Scared? You should be. Halloween Treats (no tricks) from me.

hyde-and-squeak

Hyde and Squeak by Fiona Ross

It’s amazing how much influence classic tales can wield over modern culture and modern children’s storytelling. Fiona Ross has taken inspiration from Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to draw a story about a mouse with a dark side. Squeak is a cute endearing mouse with oversize whiskers and a bowtie, who lives with ‘Granny’, a rounded, gentle looking elderly woman with purple hair fashioned into a bun.

But when Squeak samples some rather off-looking jelly, he turns into Hyde, a monster-mouse with an all-consuming appetite.

Told in large comic book frames, this is a wonderfully funny picture book, with the cartoon illustrations leading the story – one can almost see the Simpsons-style Halloween episodes in their similar transformation from normal to spooky characterisation. Hyde’s pages have black backgrounds, with many details in grayscale outlines, letting huge Hyde dominate the page. His expression is crazed, one eye in bloodshot swirls, a cobwebby bowtie and protruding vampire teeth.

Of course, every so often Hyde overstuffs himself, and his farts turn him back into Squeak. Towards the end, Granny has to zap the monster-eating-machine Hyde has become to regain her lovable Squeak, which she does mainly using pieces of fruit – never has a banana-wielding grandma looked quite so aggressive.

This is fun from start to end, silly and engaging, and an excellent introduction to literature’s classics! You can buy it here.

the-spooky-school

Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: The Spooky School by Tracy Corderoy and Steven Lenton

Originally in picture book format, Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam are two dogs who started their careers as robbers, but realised that crime doesn’t pay and so turned their skills to cupcake making. Although adept at baking, they also solve mysteries and foil crime.

Now in two-colour chapter book format for newly independent readers, these books combine three stories in one book. The Spooky School is a vibrant two-tone orange and black for Halloween, and starts with a Halloween story as the two dogs help a class of schooldogs make Halloween treats for a midnight feast. But there’s a ghost at large in the school, and Shifty and Sam have to catch it before it eats all the tasty treats!

The other two stories feature power-hungry Red Rocket (a red panda with evil intentions), and some raccoons raiding a museum. In both, the reader cheers on the heroes as they foil both dastardly plans with some rather ingenious baking implements. Our pups ski on baguettes, use walkie-talkie croissants, and thwart villains by firing cream cakes at them.

Each adventure is warm, witty and engaging, and illustrated with fun and panache. The text and pictures marry perfectly and children will devour as readily as if the cupcakes on the page were real. An excellent introduction to adventure storytelling. For newly independent readers, 6+ years. You can buy it here.

horror-handbook

The Horror Handbook by Paul van Loon, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

This is a the ultimate nightmare for all librarians. A fact book about fictional things. Yes, The Horror Handbook does exactly as it describes – it provides information on ghosts, monsters, vampires and all kinds of Halloween-type creatures. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, the book guides the reader through the horror genre, revealing the definition of vampires, how to become a werewolf (should one wish to), and how to protect yourself from witches (should one need to).

But it also contains fact – a section on horror movies that describes the genres within this genre – films about monsters, werewolves, aliens and a host of others, as well as a section on classic horror books, including Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And various factual tidbits are sprinkled throughout the book, such as that vampire bats do exist and what they are.

But as well as the fun, lively tone of the book, there are also the immensely funny illustrations, courtesy of Scheffler, including a brilliant transformation of ordinary bloke to werewolf, the milkman test for werewolves, and instructions for protection against the evil eye. All hilarious, all well worth a look.

Any child who’s interested in reading the book will obviously have a strong stomach anyway, but there are graphic sections on how to kill a vampire (ramming a stake through its heart and nailing it to the bottom of the coffin – meanwhile watching out for spurting blood), as well as instructing your child to google ‘vampire hunters’, so you may wish to talk through things with your child before they devour the book!

This is an immensely fun handbook with anecdotes, trivia, films, and endless references to all the horror one could possibly want on Halloween. Be scared. Be super prepared! Age 9+ years. Have a scare here.

tales-of-horror

Tales of Horror by Edgar Allan Poe

If you’ve an older child who can get past the somewhat difficult language, then you should definitely let them be scared stupid by Poe’s Tales of Horror. Or read them yourself. Poe, as everyone knows, had a knack for writing unfailing misery and horror, a sense of insufferable gloom:

“There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart – an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.”

From the tale of the man who buries alive his twin sister in The Fall of the House of Usher to the unreliable narrator and prison horror of The Pit and the Pendulum, to the famous and utterly horrifying Tell-Tale Heart, which keeps on beating and induces the narrator to succumb to his guilt, these are brilliant stories whether you are reading them for the first time, or revisiting.

His stories plunge depths of darkness, immorality and despair, often featuring characters devoid of family. Some are gothic and narrated by unreliable, anonymous narrators who appear insane or unhinged in some way and thus there is no distraction from the tension within. But most of all, they’re great fun – spot the allusions to mirrors, doppelgangers, masks, and returnees from the dead. For teens and adults. Get your Poe here.

 

Through the Mirror Door by Sarah Baker

through mirror door

Thinking back to childhood, some of the fondest memories of books that captivated me were those with big rambling houses, gateways into other times and places. Books are themselves portals that take you into another world, but those that contain portals within them (Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) lead the reader further and further away from real life, and into a story.

Sarah Baker’s debut novel takes more than one classic motif, and uses them to her advantage, spinning a new yarn with old tools. But it works – captivating and twisty, her use of classic ingredients makes a fantastic new dish.

Twelve-year-old Angela, orphaned in a tragic accident, is invited on holiday with her less than sympathetic aunt and her family. They arrive at a French holiday home – a crumbling old mansion with shut off rooms, falling apart barns, spooky grounds, and even spookier inhabitants. When Angela discovers a strange mirror in an abandoned room, she realises that the only way to uncover the truth about her present is to delve into the long ago past. Stepping through the mirror takes her back to 1898 where she meets a boy, sick with typhoid. Somehow saving him might mean that she can save herself.

One of the best things about this book is the pacing. It’s the kind of holiday read that children lap up – the plot leaps from moment to moment, each chapter leaving the reader slightly hanging, and a protagonist who won’t give up for a moment, but is active all the time – hunting for clues, roaming the house, focussed solely on finding the truth.

Because Angela is orphaned, and treated so badly by her ‘new family’; even remonstrated with in the first line by the head of the children’s home, the reader instantly feels on her side, and wishes for something good to happen for her.

This feeling strengthens throughout the book, as Aunt Cece and Angela’s cousins become more and more vile towards her – almost caricatured in their nastiness: reminiscent of evil replacement mothers throughout time, such as Cinderella’s evil stepmother and sisters. In the end it’s a classic tale of usurpation, like Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey in Matilda – as Aunt Cece is after Angela’s inheritance.

Baker introduces some fresh touches though in her portrayal of a loving friendship/budding romance between Angela and the boy through the mirror, as well as her clever incorporation of typhoid, which leads to some deeper thoughts and correlation between contagious diseases in the past and the present and what they represent. The villagers’ fear of contagion from the boy with typhoid is replicated in Angela’s modern-day sneezing and her cousins’ disgust and nastiness at what they might ‘catch’ from her. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

And there’s also, of course, a clear warning sign about messing with the past. By bringing her French boy something from the future, Angela may save herself, but also alter the past – which has consequences for the future. It’s a great touch, and explored further in an epilogue.

Despite being written in a light style, so that it’s easy to read and there is little description or unravelling of feelings, Baker touches on dark elements with her recall of Angela’s tragic accident and her exploration of the horrors of typhoid.

In the end, this is simply a well-plotted tale, immersive and fun, with lovely little twists and ghostly reminders of the past. Age 9+. You can buy it here.

 

History Meets Sports

Two skilled sports’ writers this week who have brought together their favourite sports and combined them with history. This is not revolutionary – merely apt. All sports enthusiasts tend to have a good idea of their club’s or sport’s history – whether it’s when their club last won the league, statistics from last season, or world records. These two stories incorporate ghosts and heritage – because aren’t all sportsmen haunted in some way by the legends who came before them?

wings flyboy

Wings: Flyboy by Tom Palmer, illustrated by David Shephard
The author of Football Academy, among many other titles, Tom Palmer excels at bringing football and reading together. His latest series is called Wings, and cleverly incorporates RAF planes (he wrote the books whilst being the RAF Museum’s Writer in Residence) into his scintillating football stories.

Four children attend a football summer camp near an old airfield, and mysteriously get sucked into the past. Part time-travel, part war-story, part football story, this slim book combines all these elements in a fast-paced action packed adventure.

Jatinder is a great footballer, but a bit lax about taking risks on the field – he prefers to play it safe. But when he starts to read a book about World War I pilot Hardit Singh Malik, he gets sucked back in time and finds himself transported into a cockpit – flying Hardit’s fighter plane in enemy airspace.

Tom Palmer writes with breath-taking ease – pulling the reader right into the action so that the sights and dangers of the situation seem real. With great historical detail, yet modern language and thought, Jatinder is a believable character who learns from this time travelling adventure, and carries his new sense of possibility to the football pitch.

Hugely exciting, and a clever entwining of genres, Tom Palmer’s new series is one to watch. It’s also particularly suitable for struggling or dyslexic readers, and comes with a model aeroplane. Assume those wings and fly into reading here.

rugby flyer

Rugby Flyer by Gerard Siggins
There aren’t many books for children about rugby – and yet, outside of North America, rugby is the world’s second most popular game, behind football (soccer). The 2015 Rugby World cup attracted TV coverage in 207 territories.

And so many sports books fall into the fairy story trap of just delineating an underdog triumphing. Siggins, a former sports journalist, has approached this series with a difference – incorporating Irish heritage, the supernatural and, in this particular book in the series, sportsmanship and rivalry – incredibly good topics to deal with.

The series starts with Eoin at a new school, learning rugby as a new sport. By this title, Rugby Flyer, the fourth in the series, Eoin has been chosen for a special rugby summer camp and is looking to make the team heading for Twickenham, London.

Supernatural elements continue in this book, as Eoin tries to solve the mystery of a Russian ghost figure and his connections to Ireland and rugby.

But the lessons learned during the rugby scenes are particularly poignant – Siggins incorporates the tactics of the game, handling rivalry as Eoin and his friend play on opposing teams, following the progress of Eoin’s character as he learns when winning really counts, and when to be aware of sportsmanship and how you play, but all within an exciting and developing storyline, so the reader doesn’t notice the teaching. The scenes are vivid and fast moving, and yet also woven into the book are subplots and peripheral characters – all very real, and all adding to the general action.

Siggins adds a warmth to his characters, and manages to convey a special relationship between grandson and grandfather. It’s also particularly enjoyable to read the scenes of the teammates off pitch as well – their ability to get along, or not, and in particular, the scene where the squad go bowling adds to the dynamics of competitiveness, rivalry, friendship, loyalty and integral values.

An intriguing series, aged 9+ years. You can try it here.

 

In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll

My next book of the week will be published September 6th. For a list of my books of the week to date, scroll down to the bottom of this review.

in darkling wood

Both the narrative structure and subject matter of Emma Carroll’s latest story, In Darkling Wood, are indicative of her own distinct style: quietly modern and yet definitely traditional in application. The novel is told using a dual narrative – in letters dated 1918 from a young girl to her brother in the war, and a modern-day first person narrative of a girl called Alice who is sent to live with her estranged grandmother whilst her brother is in hospital for a heart transplant. By weaving the two very distinct narratives together, Emma Carroll creates a magical story that is both classical and contemporary – just like her style of her writing in all her books.
At first Alice struggles in her stay with her gruff grandmother – her anxiety about her brother shines through the text, as does her frustration with her parents and her grandmother, Nell. She befriends a mysterious girl in the woods bordering her grandmother’s house, and before long becomes embroiled in a battle to save the woods and the enigmatic creatures whom the mysterious girl claims reside within the trees. At the same time, the letters from 1918 reflect another young girl’s anxiety about her own brother, and a preoccupation with some enigmatic winged creatures in the wood. The two stories edge closer together, and the book’s resolution is satisfying and complete.
Emma Carroll neatly references the Cottingley fairies story – a series of five famous photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in Cottingley towards the end of the First World War that came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and created a stir about the existence of fairies.
In Emma’s story, the fairies come to represent hope, and lead Alice to stand up for what she believes in.
The story is told sensitively, and is utterly engrossing. Each character is superbly drawn – the voices drip effortlessly from the page – from the distant yet forthright grandmother with secrets, to the absent father, sick brother, and the cast of characters in the modern school, as well as those from 1918. In fact, Emma’s time as a schoolteacher has clearly been useful – the school environment is one of the most believable I have encountered.
Furthermore her talent as a writer shines through in her description of Nell’s house and the Darkling Woods surrounding it – they remain an image within my head months after reading the book. It’s my last book of the week before the summer. Take it with you on holiday – but be warned – wherever you go, you’ll imagine you’re In Darkling Wood…

With thanks to Faber for the review copy. You can buy your own copy from Waterstones here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

My brother is a superhero by David Solomons
Too Close to Home by Aoife Walsh
The Cake, the Wolf, and the Witch by Maudie Smith, illustrated by Tony Ross
Alfie Bloom: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent
There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins
The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan
The Boys’ School Girls: Tara’s Sister Trouble by Lil Chase
Mad About Monkeys by Owen Davey
The Broken King by Philip Womack
The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford
Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin
How to Write your Best Story Ever by Christopher Edge
Head Over Heart by Colette Victor
Wild by Emily Hughes
Violet and the Hidden Treasure by Harriet Whitehorn illustrated by Becka Moor
The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday
The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn
The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Robot Girl by Malorie Blackman
How to Fly with Broken Wings by Jane Elson
A Whisper of Wolves by Kris Humphrey
The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone
Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: Supermarket Sweep by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad
Stonebird by Mike Revell
Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty
The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley
How the World Works by Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young
I am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz
The Story of Buildings by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by Stephen Biesty

The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley

The Wickford Doom
Not usually one for ghost stories, this little tale of the supernatural set during the Second World War and aimed at eight year olds gave me a few shivers! It’s a beautifully compact story of Harry and his mother, who discover that they have inherited an old eerie mansion, Wickford Hall. However, it becomes apparent that this is a cruel joke, and as the story unfolds Harry is led further and further into the creepy past and supernatural evils of long ago. Chris Priestley is a master of suspense and tight plotting, and this is his first title for the dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stokes. At nearly 140 pages, it’s slightly longer than some titles for this age group in their range, but rattles along at a grand pace – the anticipation building, and the emotions wonderfully crafted. Chris Priestley manages to convey Harry’s thoughts and feelings perceptively, yet with sparse words. The language is both simple and yet highly evocative:
“The cliffs were high, and they were cracking and crumbling like a huge, half-eaten loaf of bread that was shedding crumbs.”
Published on dyslexia-friendly paper, and appealing to both avid and reluctant readers, with easy chapters and good spacing, this is an excellent starting point for leaping into longer novels. Highly recommended and spooky – the banging door is still haunting me!

The Wickford Doom was kindly sent to me for review by Barrington Stoke publishers. Click here to purchase