grit

Keeping a Level Head

stretch your confidence

How do you keep a level head when all about you are losing theirs?

Some children find it easy to navigate the web of school and friendships, family life and personal development. But for those who are struggling, and even as a guide for those who already have a level head, two activity books publishing this autumn lead the reader through a series of activities to foster self-confidence and growth mindset: Find Your Power and Stretch Your Confidence by Beth Cox and Natalie Costa, illustrated by Vicky Barker.

In fact, some of the nudged behaviours inside are often those suggested to adults undergoing CBT therapy. Resilience, self-confidence, problem-solving, can all be taught – they are all behaviours that we can learn to harness and use in our everyday lives. These books for 6-9 years provide activities and ideas to start learning those mindsets early.

find your power

Find Your Power explores a child’s emotions, and looks at how children perceive their value in the world. The first pages look at how children see themselves, from simple things such as name and place within the family, to understanding about ‘wonder’ generally and the world around them, and then applying that sense of wonder and exploration to one’s self. There is problem-solving with mind maps; understanding the strength of one’s brain with new challenges; being kind; and understanding feelings…and much more.

Tools for sleeping well and calmness abound in Find Your Power, but Stretch Your Confidence helps a young person to overcome nerves and identify strengths. There’s understanding about friendships, emotions and grit and resilience, each page using activities from brainstorming to step-planning.

Each book is highly illustrated with lots of colour, is simple to follow, and yet requires thought – which changing one’s mindset automatically does.

The authors are well-schooled in their topics. Beth Cox is the co-founder of Inclusive Minds and Everybody In, promoting diversity within her industry of book publishing. Natalie Costa is the founder of Power Thoughts, a body empowering children to tap into the power of their minds. She has worked in education for over 10 years.

To test the ease of use of the activities, I undertook a task from Stretch Your Confidence. Sometimes a situation can make me feel nervous, or I can feel anxious about something and that anxiety can take over all other thoughts. To combat this, finding a simple distraction is often a way out – it leads the mind to start thinking about something else and the overwhelming anxiety dissipates – it becomes a worry that is fleeting instead of remaining.

The page suggests some ideas for distracting yourself – in a crowd or at an event you might want to count all the people wearing glasses, or find five things that you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear etc.

The book then suggests writing an action plan for one’s own distractions when feeling nervous or anxious. There are twelve lines to fill in.

My list is below. The first few I use when I’m in a crowded place or party. The next few are for when anxious feelings are dominating my headspace. Here are some of my ideas:

  1. Sing a song in your head to which you know the lyrics (this is particularly good whilst at the dentist)
  2. Think of the next meal you’re going to eat (although this may result in just making you feel very hungry!)
  3. Come up with a plan for a kind activity to surprise a friend
  4. Count the lightbulbs in the room
  5. Prepare something interesting to say in conversation
  6. Start thinking about how you would report on the event later
  7. Go for a run/take exercise
  8. Take a friend/child/dog on a walk and look closely at nature
  9. Do some gardening (nature is particularly helpful to soothe a worried mind)
  10. Bake a cake or cook a meal (following a recipe is a good distraction)
  11. Listen to an interesting podcast
  12. READ A BOOK

At the end of the page, the book asks the reader to think about a time in which something went well, and recall how it felt. This is an excellent exercise to promote memory recall, and can flood the mind with positive emotions.

You can buy Find Your Power here, and Stretch Your Confidence here.  With thanks to b small publishers for my advance copies.

Girl. Boy. Sea. by Chris Vick

girl boy seaIn recent years, many a children’s author has been inspired to write a story influenced by the movement of refugees across the globe. The images of children traipsing their way across a dusty road, young boys hitching rides in dangerous places, girls shouldering too-heavy bundles across their backs. The plight of the refugee is one of survival against all odds; the issues of scarred pasts, horrors witnessed, uncertain futures, a sense of not belonging, an awakening of identity – all pose questions. To whom do we belong, to where? Who are we? And nowhere is the power of the individual more diminished than when faced with the might and terror of the sea.

Vick deploys these ideas with dexterity; deviating from them, twisting them, and showing their import against the backdrop of an ordinary, fairly privileged British boy who must also fight for survival.

Bill is sailing off the coast of Morocco with his peers when a storm hits, and he’s shipwrecked and abandoned in the ship’s small rowing boat. As the rations run low, a girl clinging to a barrel comes into sight across the waves. Together Bill and Aya, a Berber, navigate together, waiting for rescue, desperate for other humans. But mainly there is the water, and just their two minds. With the power of storytelling, and the inevitable human will to survive, this is a tense moving read about the growing bond between two desperate and vastly different people, and the lengths humans will go in order to live.

Told in the timeframe of the days and nights the two spend at the mercy of the sea, sunburnt, hungry, and scared, and on the precipice of life itself, Vick interweaves their days with Aya’s stories of Shahrazad and the Arabian Nights. The way the heroine prolonged her life at the hands of the king by playing on the king’s curiosity – his desire to know what happened next, night after night. In the same way that Bill and Aya persevere: Aya by telling stories and Bill by listening. Cleverly, Vick does the same with the reader – pulling us along on the journey, making us wait for the next piece of the survival story.

As Aya and Bill have to overcome their language and cultural differences, Vick shows the reader their compassion for each other – something that grows as their understanding of each other grows. This basic coming together mirrors the way their lives have been stripped down to the essentials – water, food, shelter. But also company. With each other, their purpose is stronger, their agency secure, their will to succeed strengthened.

Vick is clever in his storytelling. As with many tales of shipwreck and survival, the cast of characters can be thin, and stuck at sea the scenery the same for miles, and yet Vick draws out every nuance of their day to day, the shift of their bodies in the boat, the patterns of the ocean.

In fact, it is this last that really dazzles – the power of nature, both the strength of the sun and the changeable features of the sea. The author has a detailed knowledge of marine biology, and here it is put to excellent use in the scene with the whale, which is evocative and incredibly dramatic, but also used in Vick’s descriptions of the interminable endlessness of the ocean, and the emptiness when viewed just from a bobbing rowboat.

In a nuanced middle section, Vick also manages to weave in some moral ambiguity – a dangerous situation in which he enhances cultural differences and behaviours, the threats to women and minorities, the power of knowledge but also the power of making assumptions about a person because of their background.

By the end, some of the detail is graphic in the extreme, and yet unbelievably tender. Vick doesn’t shy away from the devastating rawness of the situation, but by leading the reader there, he also explores the deepest emotions. There is love as well as courage, hope matching despair.

Life is stripped to its essence – what do we know, how safe are we, can we find compassion to be the support system for someone who doesn’t even think in our language, who can’t begin to fathom how different our way of life is? And yet, each is simply human.

Vick easily places us in another’s shoes by transplanting Bill from his relatively safe and easy life into that experienced by a refugee, by making his protagonist embrace the grit it takes to survive, and doing it all with taut and distinct prose. This is a powerful, starkly told novel, which holds its tension to the end, and although simple in its essence, is as profound as the depths of the sea.

Age 10+. You can buy it here. With thanks to Zephyr for the review copy.

Rose’s Dress of Dreams

roses dress of dreamsThere may be plenty of books featuring biographies of amazing women jostling for space on the shelves at the moment, but for children looking for a short contained fiction that does the same job, accompanied by sensational illustrations, they’d do well to pick up Rose’s Dress of Dreams by Katherine Woodfine, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst. Based on the life of Rose Bertin, the woman credited with creating haute-couture, this is a divinely illustrated historical fiction of determination and dreams.

Woodfine expertly weaves the story of Rose’s passion and abundant energy as she transforms herself from a young apprentice into a budding businesswoman. In the face of rejection, Rose triumphs through her own hard work, and changes people’s negative mindsets as she does so. In the face of doubt and drudgery, Rose still dreams of fabrics and ideas of style and by the end is dressing royalty.

There’s some imaginative wordplay that sweeps the reader along, with Woodfine drawing on all the senses as she describes the sensuous business of dressmaking. But there’s also plenty of spark and personality as the reader learns that clothes can bring confidence to the wearer, and that friendship and manners play their part too.

Pankhurst’s illustrations do far more than just complement the text. Known already for her portraits of famous women in children’s books, and also for her flair for historical detail, here she draws the furniture and chandeliers of the time, matching them with Parisian architecture, and of course fashions. Together, Woodfine and Pankhurst have created a truly shining gem of a book. What’s more it’s a Little Gem by Barrington Stoke, so perfect for even the most reluctant of readers (this is short fiction with bite-size paragraphs and tinted pages).

I’m delighted to showcase a Kate Pankhurst illustration from the book – this one is from page 16, beginning Chapter 3: The Streets of Paris.

Tempted? See Katherine reading the matching chapter of the book here:

And you can buy your own copy here.

 

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

Eye of the NorthA timeless, icy, steampunk adventure, this is a really interesting and intriguing debut novel.

Arresting from the first sentence, O’Hart tells the story of Emmeline, a girl constantly on her guard, taking ‘always be prepared’ to the next level. So when she is kidnapped, and stolen away on a ship to the far north to be used as a bargaining chip to get her scientist parents to awaken a giant mysterious creature (the Kraken) buried deep beneath the ice, she must use her wits and her anxiety to whittle herself free.

The book is dense, and surprisingly gripping, and positively teems with ideas. Emmeline meets a stowaway on her first sea voyage, a nippy little figure named Thing, as well as an organisation trying to prevent the evil kidnapper from taking further control of the world – this organisation is named The Order of the White Flower (with headquarters in Paris). With tentative allusions to underground opposition groups in World War Two, such as The White Rose, the complexity of O’Hart’s plot begins to show itself here.

The reader learns that this underground organisation has many members who have been working against Dr Bauer (the kidnapper) for a long time, but little detail is given, although the group sound intriguing and each member fascinating; O’Hart keeps the reader completely in the dark (to the end). One member has built an intensely complex flying machine, which Thing endeavours to fly to rescue Emmeline. As with everything within this detailed and wondrous book, my issue is that the contraption sounds so terrific, so fantastical, that it is difficult to envisage in one’s mind’s eye. The same happens numerous times – with the denouement, in which Dr Bauer constructs an engineering contraption to extract the Kraken from beneath the ice, using mirrors  – the idea is so highfalutin, that it is difficult for the reader to picture.

As Emmeline moves through her adventure, so O’Hart throws more and more at the reader. We learn that the world has been submerged in much water (presumably the effects of global warming), and so Paris is much nearer the sea than it is in the real world. As with the characters of The Order of the White Flower, this idea isn’t completely developed though, which is a pity.

At every stage in the adventure, from Emmeline meeting an almost mythological horse, (which sounds as if inspired by the old Guinness advert in which the horses morph into waves – powerful like the gods), to Emmeline meeting the Northwitch, who splinters into ice shards and then re-forms with a spellbindingly cold evil chill, the inventiveness is powerful and spellbinding, and O’Hart smashes the imagery out of the park. The only issue is that the images are so extreme that the fantastical is hard to pin down in one’s imagination.

There are some wonderful touches – the tribal people living on the ice, with their sledges and their fear of outsiders, although again, this is underdeveloped as a concept, which is a shame.

The Eye of the North is a sensational story, but this book alone could probably have been developed into about three volumes – so that each part could be extrapolated more.

It touches on humans’ environmental impact on the world, scientific explorations and contraptions, evil beneath the ice, mythical horses, an evil ice queen, good versus evil organisations, greed and power, as well as anxiety and bravery.

It fits beautifully into the zeitgeist of the moment, with a wintry landscape, a future blighted by our environmental impact on the world, and a protagonist with parent scientists who have high stakes in the action. Blending a timelessness with technology and environment, and featuring children who perpetuate their scientist parents’ ideas by attempting to prevent harmful agents, but taking the best part of the science and seeing it through.

The two children are intensely likeable. They are feisty and free-thinkers. Emmeline’s character is strong at the beginning; she is determined, holds onto her comforts, remains quick-thinking and suspicious, but I wanted even more character development from her. Likewise with Thing, who has issues with his haunting past, yet has a strong determination to hold onto a person with whom he’s made a connection. Because their characters ring so true, the reader wants to stay with them.

This is a storming adventure story for the age group, ambitious and hugely entertaining, and there’s no denying this is a powerful book. I just think it could have been about three. You can buy it here.

The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King

So there’s chocolate and there’s books. Two favourite things of mine. Sylvia Bishop clearly feels the same for she has transplanted the idea of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory into a book about bookshops.

Property Jones was left in the lost property cupboard of a bookshop when she was just five. Now she lives with the owners – a mother and her son. She loves living there, with her adopted family, but as was the case with Charlie Bucket and his family, they are impoverished. And Property is impoverished in more than one way, for she is harbouring a terrible secret – she is illiterate and cannot admit it.

And then, fortunes appear to change when the family win a competition to own Montgomery’s Emporium of Reading Delights, perhaps the greatest bookshop in the world. The shop smells of books, the rooms are themed on a grand scale: a dictionaries room in which everything has a brown tag label; the room of knights and castles books with stone walls and tapestries, books of woodland tales in a room in which the floor is covered with pine needles – and so on, all operated with a series of levers and pulleys – stacks of rooms in loops.

But with more power comes more responsibility, and possibly great danger, not in terms of the grumpy cat who resides there, but the grey man who lurks mysteriously in the shop.

This is an old-fashioned adventure story, wrapped up in the fantastical delight of limitless imagination. There are forgeries and baddies, befuddled old gentlemen and oddball cats, and children seeing and doing more than the adults. But above all, a shining colourful adoration for books.

The ultimate message is one of honesty – being true to yourself and others, and seeing what’s true and what isn’t. What message could be more pertinent in this era of fakery and falsification? And most of all the text and characters feel fresh; the premise may not be new, but it has been executed as if it is – the prose reads freely, the plot moves like liquid gold. If I was seven again this is the book that would make me fall in love with reading. And bookshops.

I was sent this book to review in the early proof stages, but have been promised (and given a sneak peek) of the illustrations that will embellish the book. I have no doubt that they too will be as exquisite as the text.

Don’t miss out – this could be your child’s golden ticket to a lifelong love of books. Suitable for age 6+ years.

You can buy your own golden ticket/bookshop girl here.

Creating Toto’s Apple by Mathieu Lavoie

A guest post today from Mathieu Lavoie (don’t worry, it’s in English) about creating his wonderful picture book, Toto’s Apple – my review of which you can read here. Mathieu is a children’s book author and illustrator, as well as the creative director and co-founder of Comme des Géants, a children’s book publisher based in Montreal.

toto apple

Our night time routine with the kids involves reading books aloud and once that’s done, we turn the lights down and make up a story for them, on the spot. One very special night, I came up with the story of a little worm that had a hard time reaching an apple, but never gave up. As I was telling the story, which was not as polished as the printed version, I thought I had something interesting. After I was done and the kids were happy, I kissed them good night and rapidly went into my studio and wrote down the first draft of Toto.

toto_1_1stdraft

That first draft is very different from the final version. It’s more “written”, with more descriptions and a much slower pace. I had not yet come up with the more concise writing. The evolution of the story and its style slowly happens in the next few months. I let the story sink in as I re-tell it to myself many times. It haunts me in my everyday life. It’s as if it was continuously whispering in my ear: “I’m the one, listen to me!” At one point, I realised I could make a book with it and I started writing a second draft. From there, I made a storyboard and started cutting out vignettes and playing around with them, with pacing.

toto_2_storyboard

In the early version of Toto, Didi chooses to pick up Toto and swallows him, satisfyingly. That ending was later dropped because we thought it might just be too weird and cruel and we wanted Didi to retain her naive and pure character, echoing Toto’s personality.

toto_3_rearranging

After I’m satisfied with the pacing, I make the drawings that will be used for the final illustrations. Those drawings are quite small at approximately 3 by 4 inches for a full spread. Therefore, I enlarge them with a photocopier.

toto_4_finaldrawing

toto_5_blownup

I am now ready to start painting with gouaches. It takes me around one month to create the illustrations.

toto_6_finalillustration

After that, I send the illustrations to my publisher who takes it from there. Oh wait, I am the publisher as well! Seriously, throughout the whole process of writing and illustrating Toto, I consult with my good friend and associate at Comme des Géants. Between the two of us, we try to make books as best as they can be!

I hope you enjoyed reading this, and Toto’s Apple as well!

With thanks to Mathieu and Phaidon for this guest post. You can buy a copy of the book here

Toto’s Apple by Mathieu Lavoie

toto apple

Every time a foreign children’s book lands on my doorstep, I think of Daniel Hahn, author of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, translator, and a key advocate for imported fiction. He’s certainly right in that there are some gems being published abroad to which the UK’s children deserve access.

This is one such book – a marvellous picture book that extols the virtues of grit, determination, and overcoming failure, yet also providing a witty text and a surprise ending. It reminded me of You Can Do It, Bert by Ole Konnecke.

Toto is a worm attempting to get an apple. His first issue is position.

“The apple is up high.
Toto is down low.”

Each time Toto comes up with a plan – he is a very resourceful worm – and each time the plan fails. The plans are nigh on ridiculous and at the same time wonderful. Toto transforms himself into various other objects or animals in order to obtain his apple. None works. In the end, Toto does get his apple – but simply by a piece of good luck. After all the effort he’s put in though, he pretty much deserves it.

The book doesn’t end here though – it finishes with a rather surprising and whacky twist.

The beauty of this picture book lies in several elements all coming together. The text is delightfully minimal, the illustrations are blocks of bright colours – easily identifiable objects with minimal detail and plenty of white space – both aspects making this a pacey picture book. The white space and minimal text combine to give plenty of opportunity for the readers to discuss what they think will happen, as well as what they would have the worm do next.

Other factors include the playfulness with opposites, and the transformations of the worm – these will inevitably lead creative sorts to experimenting themselves with turning simple block images into other images. The illustrations were made using gouache – a type of opaque watercolour – and it enhances the story beautifully. The blocks of colour can be seen even at the back of the classroom, and close-up they hone the attention.

This is an excellent picture book for young readers. I’m cheering on Toto, even though he’s a worm. Find out how Lavoie created it here. You can buy a copy here.

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

raymie nightingale

Hugely popular in the States, children’s author and twice Newbery Medal winner Kate DiCamillo hasn’t had the same traction this side of the pond. Yet. Her latest novel, Raymie Nightingale, a coming-of-age tale set in small town America in 1975, looks likely to be a big hit.

Ten year old Raymie thinks that she can entice her estranged father home. She decides to enter and win a local pageant, thereby ensuring her photo will appear in the local newspaper, and her father will see it and realise what he’s missing, and return home. The reader first meets Raymie at a baton-twirling lesson, taught by 50 year old Ida Nee.

And it is precisely this intersection of the innocent and somewhat naïve ten year old girl with the grownups in her community that defines this book. Raymie makes two new friends at her classes, and they adventure together, climaxing in a night-time escapade to free an ill-treated dog, and a mishap with a shopping trolley and a pond – but it is Raymie’s dawning realisations about relationships that turn this slight plot into a marvellous insight into love and loss:

“Something about this made Raymie’s soul even smaller and her toes even stiffer. It occurred to her that nobody really knew what anybody else was upset about, and that seemed like a terrible thing.”

From Raymie’s undertaking to do a good deed for her pageant application form – she volunteers at the Old People’s Home and has a wonderful encounter with a true personality, to the influence of Old Mrs Borkowski, to her memories of her ‘Life-saving 101’ teacher, who carefully made his own ‘dummy’ for them to practise lifesaving. From her father’s secretary, whom Raymie rings at the insurance offices to hear her reassuringly say ‘How may we protect you?’ when she answers the phone, to Ida Nee and her baton trophies, the misfits, oddbods and ordinary people make up a community that has a long-lasting impact on a little girl’s life – just as much as her peer friendships.

Raymie’s emotions are laid out by DiCamillo as reflections on how her soul is doing – whether it is squashed small inside her, or soaring and filling like a balloon. It’s simple and effective, and seems true to the innocent young girl being portrayed. But what also pushes through, as well as the three girls’ transparent emotions, is their absolute determination and grit to win through, despite their confusion with the grown up world.

“’How were the lessons?’ She [Raymie’s mother] asked when Raymie got in the car.
‘Complicated,’ said Raymie.
‘Everything is complicated,’ said her mother.”

And it’s the writing that shines in this book. Unbelievably light and simple prosaically (barely a word a nine year old wouldn’t know), and yet nuggets of brilliance abound so that the odd phrase feels as if it were plucked from the likes of Elizabeth Strout and simplified for children. DiCamillo manages to convey themes of loss and belonging, or transience and strength despite the extreme lightness and simplicity of the phrasing. Each word carefully chosen, each sentence crafted to perfection. This is the ultimate stripped prose. There’s not much description in the book, but where it appears, it sparkles like a pageant dress:

“The front porch was sagging and the chimney was tilted to one side, as if it were considering something important.”

When Raymie meets her friend Louisiana’s grandmother:

“It was like looking at Louisiana in a fun-house mirror.”

There are bite-sized slices of humour embedded in the text too, from the school librarian’s speech imploring Raymie to ‘diversify’ her reading material, resulting in Raymie’s borrowing of a book about Florence Nightingale, which “looked like a horrible, depressing book”, to Raymie’s own inimitable way of taking grown-ups literally, as she ‘flexes her toes and isolates her objectives’ before starting on a task.

The writing begs another look at Kate DiCamillo’s other books, including the famous Because of Winn-Dixie. It’s a privilege to put books like this in the hands of children. Letting them soak up pared down yet excellent writing, so that they can discern what works and what doesn’t, and learn how to be excellent wordsmiths themselves. With the backdrop of a rather quirky little story. You can buy a copy here.

Girls Rule by Sarah Forbes (An Elspeth Hart books guest blog)

elspeth hart elspeth2hart 3

In the past year, one trilogy has generated more excitement in my primary school library clubs than any other, and that’s the Elspeth Hart series. In 2015, for my summer reading list I suggested Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs, a tale of orphan Elspeth who works as a servant in the Pandora Pants School for Show-Offs, sweeping up mouse-droppings and dodging stuck up horrid students. Comic fun, school setting, feisty heroine. Sparkling with wit and personality. So I’m delighted to welcome author Sarah Forbes onto the blog with a guest post today. And after her post, you can read my review of the third and final book, Elspeth Hart and the Magnificent Rescue, publishing April 7 2016.

I wanted to talk a little bit today about how much I enjoyed writing the feisty female characters in the Elspeth Hart books. I truly didn’t set out to do this, but in the first novel, Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-offs, I ended up with a strong heroine (Elspeth) a very nasty pair of female cooks (Miss Crabb and Gladys Goulash) and then a clique of rather evil schoolgirls (Tatiana Firensky, Esmerelda Higginsbot and Octavia Ornamento). The male characters all turned out a bit less tough: Professor Bombast, the headmaster, is silly and easily led, and Rory, Elspeth’s best friend, is much more timid and anxious than Elspeth.

The theme continued in the sequel, Elspeth Hart and the Perilous Voyage, where we met gung-ho Cassie, who helped Elspeth and Rory defeat Crabb and Goulash while on a massive cruise ship travelling to New York. And in the third and final book, Elspeth Hart and the Magnificent Rescue, we head to Australia, where we meet Uma Gumboots, a fearsome woman who runs rings around Rory’s butler, Mr Tunnock. Uma is a big tough woman who runs a nature reserve, and she likes crocodiles more than people. She was so much fun to write, and the illustrations James Brown created made me laugh out loud. James and I also thought it would be funny to give fastidious Mr Tunnock a kind of jokey love interest, and at the end of Magnificent Rescue, we’re left wondering if Mr Tunnock will stay with Uma Gumboots in Australia. Could there be love on the horizon? We’ll never know…

Isn’t it fun to write (and read about) strong women, good ones and bad ones? I do think there’s a really long lineage of impressive female protagonists in children’s literature, but it is curious that I ended up with most of the main players in my books being women. Without planning to at all, I seem to have sidelined the blokes or made them a bit inept and bumbling (sorry, chaps!).

It feels strange saying goodbye to Elspeth Hart but the third book ties up her adventures (no spoilers, in case anyone reading this wants to read it!). It’s been a blast writing Elspeth over the last few years, and having the books illustrated by James Brown was a joy. I’ll be squeezing in as many school visits and readings as I can this summer, because meeting readers is one of the very best things about being an author.

And then, it’s time to think of new projects… which is always fun. At some point I will work on a book with a male protagonist who kicks ass… truly, I will!

But until then, I’m quite enjoying having girls rule the world.

With thanks to Sarah.

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MinervaReads review of Elspeth Hart and the Magnificent Rescue by Sarah Forbes, illustrated by James Brown

Our feisty heroine Elspeth is on her final quest to be reunited with her parents. The only problem is that her parents have themselves been duped into looking for her in the depths of the Australian rainforest. And the dastardly and despicable Miss Crabb and Gladys Goulash are on the trail too because they still want to steal Elspeth’s top-secret family recipe for sticky toffee sauce.

Elspeth has her trusty friend Rory to help her, and some other helpful friends she gathers along the way, but unfortunately for her, she gathers some enemies too. And in the setting of a wild rainforest with crocodiles and spiders, what could possibly go wrong?

It’s easy to see why this series captures children’s imaginations and why it’s so wildly popular. It’s a page turning adventure with a determined heroine, who shows quick-wittedness, gumption and grit, surrounded by other smart children and not so smart adults. There’s also a healthy dose of hilarious and eccentric villainy comparable with the best of Roald Dahl.

The adventures are slightly quirky, and yet not so wacky that there isn’t an intensity of emotion too. The reader positively roots for Elspeth all the way through, whilst admiring her sensitivity and quick-thinking. The story isn’t too long – and punctuated with powerful and detailed illustrations that capture the children’s emotions.

But above all the writing is fun, cheeky and punchy:

“We’re not eating anybody, you nincompoop!” Miss Crabb said. She did a little dance of rage.
“Enough of your stupid ideas. You’re only here to carry my stuff.”

With unexpected twists, lots of fun, and above all heart, this is a superb little series for 7+yrs. Buy the latest book here.

Bikes, Trains and Boats

No information books about transport here, but three lively stories for newly independent readers. Each contains phenomenal illustrations, making these all easy transitions from picture books.

the secret railway

The Secret Railway by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Sam Usher

This is a sparkling book, everything one could want for a young child starting to read, as it bursts with joy and magic and the silliness of fantasy lands where anything is possible. Wendy Meddour is the author of the quirky series Wendy Quill, as well as more recently, How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel, and she does have a wacky way of looking at things, which is a delight in a young children’s book.

A gorgeous sibling relationship between older brother Leo and younger sister Ella develops throughout the story. The children have moved house and while the parents unpack, the siblings go exploring and discover a secret railway in the station workshop of their new station house. But of course it’s not just a disused train line, but a magical railway that leads to the Kingdom of Izzambard where Griselda, the Master Clockmaker, has stopped time.

Riding the train in error, Ella and Leo are informed that they must return the magic magnifying glass to The Chief Snarkarian at The Great, Grand Library of the Snarks, and receive a key in return that will help them back to their own world. It’s as crazy as it sounds, but satisfyingly eventful and imaginative. With swooping mechanical birds, butterfly spies, and a marketplace full of beavers reminiscent of the munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, this is a jam-packed story of wonder and adventure. For an early reader it bursts with action and non-stop fun.

The book talks to the reader with text that is spunky and full of vitality, from the beginning where it asks for the readers’ tickets, to the description of ‘ordinary children’:

“Ella and Leo Leggit were not ordinary children. ‘Well, of course, you’ll say: ‘No children are’
And you’d be right. I’m sure you’re very peculiar. But what I mean is, Ella and Leo were extremely not ordinary.”

Each chapter is a different platform number, and the entire story is accentuated by Sam Usher’s now distinctive and endearing illustrations. Usher draws the sort of children that you want to hug, and manages to make every scene seem three-dimensional – you could just step into the story.

More to follow in The Secret Railway and the Crystal Caves in July 2016. You can chug along on the first Secret Railway here.

grey island red boat

Grey Island Red Boat by Ian Beck

A Little Gem by name (from Barrington Stoke’s Early Reader series) and a little gem by nature, Ian Beck writes a story that makes you want to sink back into a comfortable chair and be sailed away into the magic. He tells a modern day fairy tale with his own illustrations punctuating the text, and has dedicated it to his grandson. It’s exactly the tale you would imagine a grandparent telling a grandchild.

A princess lives with her father, the King, on the Island of Ashes. As the reader may expect from the name, everything on the island is grey. The sea, the sky, the land. The black and white illustrations convey this too. It rains all the time, and the month is always November. The princess feels that something is missing, and the tone of the text is muted, sad and withdrawn.

Then one day a small boat washes up on the island – and there’s something different about it. It’s red. Before long the stranger aboard has disembarked and is colouring the world with every touch of his hand. Some people are bewitched by this – the Princess and others feel “tickled” by it. But the King fears change, and takes action to prevent it, although change proves inevitable.

Ian Beck brilliantly captures the rhythm of a fairy tale or legend, as well as an underlying depth beneath the simple story. Reading the book was like feeling a warmth spread across one’s body. Children will adore the gradual introduction of colour into the illustrated landscapes, and the perfectly easy descriptions of the feelings colour gives the people on the island. Adults will see the depth of the message. You can buy it here.

fergus

Flying Fergus: The Best Birthday Bike by Chris Hoy, with Joanna Nadin, illustrated by Clare Elsom

Sometimes I feel reluctant to review ‘celeb’ books on the blog, knowing that they will probably gain a huge audience in the wider press anyway. But the publishers have paired Hoy with children’s author Joanna Nadin quite brilliantly, and the result is a hugely entertaining story.

Fergus desperately wants a Sullivan Swift for his ninth birthday. A stupendous bike with “24 gears, hydraulic brakes and state of the art suspension.” When he receives a rusty old second hand bike, he’s a little disappointed. Until he discovers something magical happens when he rides it in the right way.

The story whisks the reader into a fantasyland, complete with a princess (who wears mismatched welly boots), a Swamp of Certain Death, and some rather ridiculous rules.

Clare Elsom’s illustrations deserve great credit. The book is jam-packed with them, and each is as funny and madcap as the text. The princess in particular, with her dishevelled hair and wonky eyes, is a sight to behold. There are also two maps at the beginning.

But despite cramming this slim little early reader with oodles of fun and endless adventures, there are still some great messages within. Fergus has a heart-warming relationship with his grandfather, who is endlessly encouraging about Fergus’s ambition to win a cycle race. But he firmly believes that it’s not about luck – it’s about hard graft.

There is also some poignancy within the story as Fergus’ father has been missing from his life for nine years and Fergus still dreams of finding him and making his father proud.

There are so many facets to this book that each child will be able to extract their own enjoyment – whether it be fantasy, the reality of the bullies, a missing father, a princess, or simply ambitions and dreams. A good start to the series. Pedal your way to your copy here.