magic

The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison

the other alice

So many children’s books, especially for this age group, talk about a love for reading. They might feature a character whose nose is permanently in a book, a library that bestows secrets, a saviour from bullying whose emotional empathy has been garnered from reading. Preaching to the converted perhaps – a bullet-proof way to draw in the reader, a person who, by the very fact that they are reading the book, will immediately feel resonance with the mention of bookishness within the story.

This book is different though. This is clever. Michelle Harrison doesn’t just weave a love for reading into her book. This novel is very much all about the writing. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you read the book carefully, embedded within it is a story-writing manual.

Midge has an older sister Alice. One who writes stories. But one day Alice goes missing, and when Midge runs into a lookalike who is adamant she isn’t Alice, and then he runs into a talking cat, Midge realises that the characters in Alice’s most recent story have come to life. Midge needs to figure out why Alice is missing, why the characters are alive, and how to end the story Alice has left unfinished, without them all succumbing to the wickedness of the intensely dark and disturbed villain of the piece.

In essence this is a good old-fashioned classic adventure story. Midge must find his missing sister, and together with his new accomplices Gypsy and Piper, must solve riddles to find Alice, as well as avoiding the villain who wishes to get to Alice first. The reader can also have a stab at solving the riddles, which are italicised in the text. Like Dorothy in Oz, who navigates through a landscape where ‘characters’ such as the Tin Man come to life, or Pinocchio, the toy who comes to life, this is a familiar landscape. And yet Harrison lifts it to greater heights – this is a story for older readers with darkness and depth.

And hidden (in plain sight) in the story are markers that point to a more complex novel. The story Alice has been writing is planted in pieces within the general narrative, so that the backstory of the characters is highlighted, and also the vague intent that Alice had for them, illuminating everything for the reader, but not necessarily for the characters. The real author, Michelle Harrison, also leads the reader on a dance through fairy stories and allusions to other tales, not only in calling her character Alice, with Midge seeing her through a looking glass, but in the chapter headings – Gingerbread House, Trail of Breadcrumbs, Once Upon a Time, and in the names of her characters – Piper plays hypnotising music on his flute just like The Pied Piper. Harrison also drops in allusions within the text itself:

“Terror stuck in my throat like a poisoned apple.”

There are numerous extra storytelling tropes thrown into the mix – from an old lady sorcerer who captures a voice (The Little Mermaid) to a fire, mistaken identities, an errant father, a mother who conveniently takes herself away for the duration, and of course, as I mentioned, loving placements of libraries and bookshops.

However, this being Michelle Harrison, there is also a spooky, shivery feel to the book. From the opening scene at the start, Alice’s book within a book, to the name of the town in which Midge lives, Fiddler’s Hollow, to curses, as well as the annual ritual of the Summoning at Fiddler’s Hollow (with its tradition of making a doll likeness of someone and then burning them in a huge pyre), which sounds like something out of Salem. Watchers from shadows, and the creepiest villain with charred hands, gave this reader a haunting feeling, and will certainly do so for youngsters too.

But as aforementioned, it’s the guide to storytelling that’s well and truly threaded throughout the story. Chapter headings such as Writers’ Block are just one example. Midge often relates things his older sister has told him to the fictional characters whom he befriends:

“Alice says stories never start at the beginning. They start when something is about to happen.”

Midge also thinks he knows more about the characters because he can read their history in Alice’s notes, but in actuality, characters only come alive in any book when they are realistic. Characters have to have aims, goals, wants because that’s what real people have. We are all protagonists of our own stories, weaving our own webs of lies and fabrications, being true only to ourselves, and sometimes not even that. Sometimes our stories run away from us, in the same way that authors report their characters can run away from their control.

“Alice often says her characters take over when she’s writing. Doing their own thing. Like the story is writing itself and the characters take control.” Midge explains. This points to the crux of the story within the story here – how much influence is Alice going to have over her characters, or whether the characters are going to steer the story forwards without her. It’s clever and complex, and pushes the reader to think.

What’s real in our own lives, which stories have we fabricated? We’re all characters of our own imagining. Alice projects herself onto her main character Gypsy – the best parts of herself, a braver self with the ability to wear the clothes she wants to wear, to befriend a boy with striking similarity to a boy Alice fancies in real life (well, within Michelle Harrison’s story!).

“Her characters had always been real to her, but they were properly real now, and here. They spoke, they ate, they slept. If I cut them, they’d bleed.”

In the epilogue, Harrison explains how everything is a story – just told from a different point of view. She calls the epilogue ‘Ever After’.

Stepping back from the complexity of the story, there are messages about loyalty – about being true to yourself, and searching for a cohesion in life – be it your family network, or just the end of a story.

This is a masterful telling, which twists and turns and is beautiful in its scope. There’s also a talking cat who likes tea. The only caveat is the shapelessness of the young protagonist – our narrator Midge. He felt ill-defined to me, vague almost, and at times I forgot his gender (it’s told in the first person) – but maybe that too was a masterful stroke. Perhaps our own young selves are shaped by events that are happening to us, perhaps he’s not meant to be fully formed, but a vessel through which the story is told.

Either way, I felt that Michelle Harrison wrote a book in which “there was no option to stop reading, or to put the story down.” A cracking adventure story with added depth.

 

Please note that this review was written after reading a proof copy of the book. The publisher recommends this as a 9+ years read. Personally I would raise that to 11+. You can buy it 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.

 

 

The Shadow Keeper by Abi Elphinstone

shadow keeper

Picking up the narrative from the end of The Dreamsnatcher (although it could equally be read as a stand-alone), The Shadow Keeper begins with another wildly atmospheric setting – a secret cave by the sea. Hiding from the evil Shadowmasks, far from the forest they love, Moll and her friends are seeking the amulet, keeper of Moll’s mother’s soul, in an attempt to fight the dark magic.

An adventure/fantasy novel, Abi Elphinstone’s writing continues to move at pace. With an almost visceral, physical quality, the characters move forwards on every page – the text is littered with action:

“Siddy held Moll fast and yanked on Jinx’s tethering rope. The cob backed up against the wall, narrowly avoiding an owl’s blades. Siddy struck his knife against another that came close; metal clanged and the impact of the collision was enough to send the owl swerving away.”

It’s an extremely visual text, with dense prose and vocabulary, and an intense quality that puts Abi in the realms of classic writing rather than the pared and stripped back prose that contemporary writers tend to favour.

Threads of bravery and determination run through the novel, both in the writing, which never holds back from dark disturbing imagery (owls with wingspans of “black blades…each edge serrated and sharp”) but also in the characters of the children who hold friendship and loyalty above all else – showing bravery in the face of extreme fear and danger.

One of the book’s most admirable qualities is the juxtaposition of the vulnerability of the children and the childishness of their emotion: “there was a mountain of hurt inside her”, as opposed to the frightening images of the dark magic. Main character 12-year-old Moll wears her heart on her sleeve and states her emotions plainly and simply:

“I’m angry.” Moll muttered, scuffing her boot against the floorboard.”

But it’s the darkness that pulls. From owls with blades grinding, to a girl with her tongue cut out, to walking with bare feet on shards of glass, the danger is everywhere, as the dark magic rises. In fact, the dominant theme of dark magic versus the children and their lighter magic is reminiscent of such ancient fights as The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper – ordinary children fighting an ancient fantastical evil with historical curses and messages from long ago.

Of course, the children in The Shadow Keeper aren’t quite as grounded in reality as Will in The Dark is Rising with his idyllic Christmas in the family home. Moll and her gypsies reside in a hidden cave, and rely on nature to help them hide, and heal and eat. The premise of the children’s gypsy background gives them a terrific freedom to adventure, but Elphinstone cleverly weaves in the vocabulary of a childhood set entirely in nature, from a daemon like wildcat companion in Gryff, to a pet crab, bowls of mussels for dinner, mealtimes round the fire, and healing flowers and herbs.

The characters have developed from book one, all three children protagonists are complex and feel very real, despite the simple vocabulary used to depict their emotions. They continue to develop throughout book two, so that the reader not only feels empathy with them, but really feels that they know them. It’s exactly the sort of story you can live within – complete escapism – about as far removed from urban London as you can get!

It’s also riddled with themes, in particular ‘seen and unseen’, ‘said and unsaid’, as well as bearing echoes and motifs from The Wild Swans so that you feel the magic being woven around you as you read.

The ending is uplifting, and yet shot through with further mystery, so that the reader is left raring for book three. For confident readers, aged 10+ years. You can buy it here (if you dare!)

Top Ten Places I Wrote The Shadow Keeper: a guest blog by Abi Elphinstone

shadow keeper

Abi Elphinstone wrote one of the most exciting children’s books last year, The Dreamsnatcher, which I wrote about here. This week the sequel, The Shadow Keeper, is published. And it’s even better (if that were possible). Abi has very kindly contributed this guest post. 

I want to do a Dodie Smith and say that I wrote The Shadow Keeper sitting in the kitchen sink. I didn’t get all creative amongst the fairy liquid – not this time – but I did end up in some extraordinary places writing my second book. So, here goes for the Top 10 Places I Wrote The Shadow Keeper:

Smoo waterfall

  1. Smoo Cave. It’s located at the eastern edge of a village called Durness, on Scotland’s most northerly coastline. After I’d waded past the KEEP OUT sign I found a hidden waterfall and I wrote the very opening of the book, about the Shadowmasks meeting in a dark cave, here.

Brazil cave writing

  1. Abismo de Anhumas. Another cave. This time in the Brazilan jungle outside Bonito. It was like a journey to Middle Earth – a 72 metre abseil into a cave home to incredible stalactite formations – and I wrote about the very big (and very magical) cave at the end of The Shadow Keeper while I was here – with a head torch.
  1. Iguazu Falls in Argentina. I took my writing pad to the top of the raging waterfalls and wrote while swifts dived into the spray.

Writing shed

  1. My writing shed in the garden. I wrote much of the book by candlelight here, surrounded by books and souvenirs I’ve picked up from my travels (shaman daggers and buzzard-fletched arrows…).
  1. The 316 bus in London. Not quite so magical but because I do a lot of school events I end up writing most of my books on buses, trains and planes.
  1. Clavell Tower, Dorset. I wrote with the sea spread out below the cliffs and the cries of the gulls hanging in the wind. Bliss.

St Cyrus

  1. St Cyrus Beach, Scotland. I grew up building sandcastles and exploring rock pools on this beach and I wrote many of the Little Hollows scenes here.

Norway writing

  1. Engelsholm, a remote island off the Norwegian coast, not far from Kristiansand. I learnt to forage for mussels and oysters here and I wrote for days on end on the jetty looking out over the fjords.

Abi biking Burma

  1. On the back of a motorbike in Burma. I wrote one word ‘the’ (not a classic) then realised it was too bumpy to continue.
  1. On the BA flight home to my Dad’s in Scotland. There is perhaps nowhere as magical to write as up above the clouds.

THE SHADOW KEEPER:

Moll Pecksniff and her friends are living as outlaws in a secret cave by the sea, desperate to stay hidden from the Shadowmasks. But further along the coast lies the Amulet of Truth, the only thing powerful enough to force the Shadowmasks back and contain their dark magic. So, together with Gryff, the wildcat that’s always by her side, and her best friends Alfie and Sid, Moll must sneak past smugglers, outwit mer creatures and crack secret codes to save the Old Magic. With more at stake than ever before and the dark magic rising fast, can Moll and her friends stop the Shadowmasks before it’s too late? Perfect for fans of J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Michelle Paver and Eva Ibbotson.

Shadow Keeper Blog Tour [46971]

www.abielphinstone.com

 

Witches for slightly older children

Following last Wednesday’s blog on younger readers’ books about witches, three more witchy series for slightly older children. What’s noticeable about these newly published series is that the reader can almost reach out and touch the amount of fun and tongue-in-cheek mischievousness within.

bella broomstick

Bella Broomstick by Lou Kuenzler and illustrated by Kyan Cheng
This newest witch, Bella Broomstick, was first published this year. Author Lou Kuenzler is a perennial favourite author in children’s libraries, with her series Shrinking Violet and Princess Disgrace, and Bella is a spritely addition to the canon. She’s a young witch, raised by her nasty Aunt Hemlock, and told that she is so terrible at magic that she’s being sent to live in Person World (through the invisibility curtain dividing the two worlds), and she mustn’t use magic ever again.

As it happens, Bella makes herself at home in this new world, and finds it quite exciting – with fluffy slippers, yummy breakfasts and proper baths, as opposed to Aunt Hemlock’s wobbly warts, frogspawn porridge and squelchy swamps.

Of course not everything goes to plan, and Bella does use some magic to rescue a kitten, and before long she’s in a bucket load of trouble.

Lou Kuenzler has cunningly subverted the children’s literature trend for exploring the witch world, and instead has implanted Bella in the Person realm, reminiscent of long ago shows on television such as Bewitched, except here the protagonists are children. The lovely deeper meaning behind the simple story is that Bella doesn’t expect there to be any magic in the person world, whereas in fact, she discovers that although mirrors don’t talk back – there are some magic things, such as toilets that flush and television. There is magic in our world, if we open our eyes and look for it.

There’s also the underlying theme of a child just wanting to be appreciated, and discovering that its not the tricks you can do that define you, but how you behave and how you use those magic tricks.

There are influences of Blyton here – the magic is gentle and beguiling, and a lovely use of animals as comforters for a young child – Bella’s distinguishing talent is that she can talk in animal language.

Accompanied by cute, doodle illustrations throughout, this is suitable for fluent 6 year old readers and certainly for age 8+ yrs. You can buy the book here.

witch wars witch switch

Witch Wars by Sibeal Pounder, illustrated by Laura Ellen Andersen
This the most fun I’ve had reading a book in quite a while – the most inventive, crazy, yet hilarious read – humour that reaches far beyond the slapstick – although there’s that too. Fashion meets witches in this madcap adventure that takes Tiga Whicabim (work out the anagram), down the drain pipes into a world of witches (a town called Sinkville, ie., the world beneath the sinks – there’s even a map at the beginning of the book).

Fran the Fabulous Fairy from the Sinkville version of Hollywood (Brollywood – so called because it’s under most of the drainpipes from human world and so gets very wet), explains that Tiga has been nominated to take part in Witch Wars, a competition between nine nine-year old witches to see who will be Top Witch. Fran is a TV presenter, and will be following Tiga round with a television camera to film her taking part. In a Big Brother-esque motif, the competitors are all filmed.

Each witch must solve a series of riddles to move onto the next clue and win, as long as another witch doesn’t squash their shrivelled head (carried about on their flat hat – no one in this witch world has a pointy hat – they are made pointed by shooting back up the drainpipes into the human world.)

Indeed, every facet of this book is original, inventive, entertaining and witty. From the underwater spa, to the bed with feet, to viewing television on the back of a spoon or on somebody’s bald head (bringing a whole new meaning to the word portable!), to my favourite scene with the cove witches, where Tiga and her friend Peggy practise their ‘echoes’.

This book is fabulous. Witty, contemporary, the plot zips along, presenting the riddles of the competition to the reader so that they can solve them too, as well as containing jokes for both smaller children and overgrown ones! The nine-year-old witches are told they can be trusted to make all the rules for Sinkville, but not be trusted to look after themselves – brushing their teeth and putting themselves to bed on time.

There are constant allusions to fashion – although there’s clumsy and scruffy Peggy for those who can’t quite identify with the frock fascination. The prose is also punctuated with ‘breaking news’ alerts as each witch is knocked out the competition.

Added to the mayhem are Laura Ellen Andersen’s confident and stylish illustrations, depicting the shoe house, the clothing store, angry fairies and bald witches. They complement the text beautifully. Sibeal Pounder has no bounds to her imagination, and also cleverly alludes to fairy tales – Rapunzel to name but one, as well as Mary Poppins, with the witches’ floating tables. But the overarching theme is friendship.

These witches certainly have edge. They are feisty, funny, fabulous and flamboyant. Reading Witch Wars is like eating a cake that’s been made with the lightest of touches. It’s moreish and sweet. Thank goodness for the second, Witch Switch, and a third to come in March this year, Witch Watch. Try Witch Wars here.

Witchworld witchmyth

Witchworld by Emma Fischel, illustrations by Chris Riddell
Another modern spin on how witches might be in the 21st century. Our protagonist, Flo, is a quietly intelligent and sensitive young witch about to start secondary school. Her mother is editor-in-chief of a celebrity witch magazine Hocus Pocus, and Flo also has a typical witchteen sister Hetty.

As with Witch Wars, it’s the inventiveness and modernising that shouts from this book, although it’s much more serious than Witch Wars. The witches in Witchworld are not antiquated witches who ride on broomsticks and stir potions in cauldrons. They have a cupboard full of Potions2Go, they ride on Skyriders, talk to each other on their skychatters (phones), and their wands have become up-to-the-minute touchscreen spell sticks.

When Flo’s grandmother comes to stay, and warns Flo and her family about the impending Ghoul Attack, no one believes her. After all, she’s a throwback to a bygone era with her broomstick and ‘old ways’. Then Flo discovers that her grandmother is right – and not only do they have to save Witch World from the ghouls, they also have to convince everyone that the ghouls are real.

Featuring celebrity forest pixies and witch school proms, concerns with modern technology (using a magic mirror for hacking), obsession with appearances, therapy and communicating with busy parents, this is a witchworld that holds up a mirror to our own. It’s not subtle, but it’s incredibly fun.

The plot darts along merrily and the beautiful packaging of the book (from cover and inside illustrations by Chris Riddell to the colourful sprayed edges – the first book purple, the second orange) makes this a sure-fire winner with the 8-12 years age group. The second book, WitchMyth was published at the end of last year. Cast your spell here for a copy of the book.

 

First Witches

What is the appeal of witches for young readers? When I started the idea for this particular blogpost, the titles of ‘witchy’ series of books for little ones kept spilling off my tongue – there are so many. And more are being produced. The main hook of featuring witches in children’s literature is of course magic – witches can wave a wand and solve a dilemma – or in a well-used twist – use their wand badly and create a bigger problem.

Unlike fairies, witches appeal because they are human. They don’t have wings – they don’t have to occupy a different world (although some do). They are also edgier than most fairies – witches can have a mean streak whereas most fairies tend to be good (other than Tinkerbell from Peter Pan).

Witches are also usually accompanied by an animal – in fact looking at my list below, they are all in a close relationship with a ‘pet’, or animal friend, and this feature is a well-used device in children’s literature. So, where to start…..

hubble bubble monkey

Hubble Bubble: The Messy Monkey Business by Tracey Corderoy and Joe Berger
This series was first published in 2011 as picture books, but then quickly morphed into a series of young fiction titles for newly independent readers. There are three picture books for aged 3+ years with rhyming text, and then a series for 6+ years, each containing three stories. New titles published last year were The Wacky Winter Wonderland and The Messy Monkey Business. Delightfully enticing covers draw the reader into the story, with two-tone illustrations inside. The stories are about Pandora, an ordinary girl, whose grandmother happens to be a witch – she’s not alone in this, in Messy Monkey Business the third story reveals that many of the children also have grandmothers with witchy powers.

Messy Monkey Business features three stories including a school trip to the zoo, a babysitting disaster, and a camping trip. With ‘trouble’ and ‘chaos’ in the titles, it’s not long before Pandora’s Granny’s magic goes wrong, but in each story she does her very best to rectify the situation. She certainly means well. The stories zing with quick dialogue, and some lovely phrases:

“the children dived into the leaves like five excited little hedgehogs.”

The zoo adventure contains all the necessary elements – smells, mess, escaping creatures and a sea lion show – but all with a touch of magic in both text and illustration.

In all the Hubble Bubble books the short stories bounce along, there’s an element of ‘fairy godmother’ about Granny – she tries to be helpful by using her magic, but her results often lead Pandora and her friends astray. With wonderful names, such as Mr Bibble the schoolteacher, and Cobweb the cat, there’s plenty for a young reader to discover. The stand-out factor about the Hubble Bubble books though is the warmth that exudes from them. Despite mishaps and mayhem, the characters are loveable – the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter delightful, the humour spritely and the text pitched perfectly – some lovely expressions and adjectives, but all easy enough for first readers. You can purchase Hubble Bubble The Messy Monkey Business here.

worst witch

The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
This series is still an absolute favourite with all – from old to young. The books remain fresh and lively. They tell the adventures of Mildred Hubble and her best friend Maud at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. It’s hard to believe that the series is over 40 years old…but when re-reading you can see Jill Murphy’s original witty inventions – lessons on flying a broomstick, potions classes, creepy corridors and invisibility spells.

Jill Murphy originally pitched Mildred as a fairy, unfortunately attending the wrong school – but then changed her to a witch who’s just not very capable. From her tabby cat instead of a black one, to her long enmity with Ethel Hallow, and her even stronger friendship with Maud, this is a school story to treasure. Names are used cunningly here too – who can forget Miss Hardbroom – a precursor to Minerva McGonagall I should think. The black and white illustrations depict the greyness of the school as well as the hilarious friendship between short round Maud and long tall Mildred. Jill Murphy is both author and illustrator. Meet Mildred Hubble here.

titchy witch

Titchy Witch by Rose Impey, illustrated by Katharine McEwen
Perhaps our least famous witch here, Titchy Witch inhabits a world in which only her family are witches – her classmates at school vary from goblins to princesses, and her teacher is an ogre. She is also looked after by a particularly grumpy Cat-a-Bogus, a sort of au-pair/nanny. Full colour illustrations throughout add to the charm of this compelling world. Titchy Witch is different from the other witches, in that she is only seven, and acts as such. She finds some witchy things hard, has difficulty keeping her temper, and is very mischevious. The text is suitable for first independent readers and these children will recognise themselves in Titchy Witch.

Titchy Witch and the Frog Fiasco is typical of the stories. When Gobby-goblin at school pokes Titchy one too many times, she has her revenge by putting a spell on him. The teacher catches her and Titchy is blamed, and decides she no longer wants to go to school. Cat-a-Bogus shows her why she should attend when it turns out she cannot read or practise magic perfectly just yet. There is an adorable twist at the end, only understood by studying the illustration. You can conjure Titchy by purchasing here.

winnie the witch

Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul
Another aging witch, Winnie is more than 25 years old. She has a beloved black cat, the prickly Wilbur. The wonderfulness of Winnie is the amount of colour Korky Paul throws at the books, in fact our standout title is the original story in which Winnie colours her world. There are some beautifully unique traits to Winnie – she has a crooked hat because Paul found that drawing it straight didn’t always fit on the page, she is not the most attractive witch to look at, and yet her personality is adorable. Wilbur’s personality is as acutely drawn as any human’s – his laziness, his addiction to a certain level of comfort, his weariness with Winnie’s adventures. The attention to detail is present in both the meticulously drawn illustrations, as well as the scope of the adventures. Each book is very different – from Winnie’s trip to the seaside, to her birthday celebrations. There is much to admire in each, and much to look at. Winnie also seamlessly moves with the times – see for example Winnie’s New Computer.

Like Hubble Bubble, there are both picture books and young readers, so that the books grow with the child. No library is complete without Winnie on a shelf somewhere. Wave your wand here.

meg and mog

Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski
Another 1970’s invention and catering for the youngest readers out of the books featured, I couldn’t write a blogpost about witches and not include my favourite. It is the simplicity of the words and pictures that is Meg and Mog’s unique selling point. The repetition, the sound effects and the rhythm make this a treat to read-aloud. The sentence describing Meg going downstairs perfectly sums up the clomping noise she makes:
“She went down the stairs to cook breakfast.”
as each word of text is positioned underneath each stair, enticing the reader to pronounce the sentence in a particular way. The drawings are iconic – each of the five witches portrayed almost as stick figurines, and yet all distinguishable by their different hair squiggles and noses. The colours are bright and bold, no white spaces in this preschool colour block delight. But the best thing about the original book is that it doesn’t conclude neatly. When Meg changes the witches into mice, she leaves them like that until the following Halloween – there is no happy ending. Edgy and mischievous. Just how witches should be. You can purchase Meg and Mog here.

Look out for my forthcoming blog on witches for slightly older children…

 

 

 

The Scarlet Files: Cat Burglar by Tamsin Cooke

cat burglar

Burglars, kidnapping, escaped wild animals – the content in this book could easily leave one to believe that this is not a children’s book. However, sometimes the most unpredictable content makes for the best read.

Thirteen year old Scarlet is a cat burglar – along with her father they break into properties restoring stolen antiquities and treasures to the rightful owners. And they’re rather good at it. But then one day they steal an ancient Aztec bracelet with strange and magical powers, and Scarlet’s world begins to change – not least herself and her physical being. With elements of fantasy mixed with real world life and death decisions, this is a gripping tale, far from anything else aimed at this readership.

It’s a page-turning action adventure. The language is simple, keeping up with the pace of the plot with little time for lengthy description or in-depth exposition, or indeed too much character development. Scarlet is brave, plucky, canny and worldly – although her lack of expertise in modern technology is rather surprising. To fill the gap, Tamsin Cooke introduces the boy next door – not just a heartthrob, but a savvy geek who is able to hack computers and provide backup techy assistance.

However, there’s no time for romance because of the pacey action unfolding page by page – which means that the book is perfectly poised to attract all readers, even as young as 9+ years, because although there are some illegal goings-on, such as driving a car underage (not to mention the breaking and entering), there is always someone on hand to point out the moral ambiguities and illegalities of the situations.

It’s also guaranteed to attract those who otherwise might struggle to make it through a 200 page book, because of the speed of the drama – paced like an adult thriller book.

The book is gripping, a race-against-the-clock action packed thriller. Genre writing for kids, and that is truly exciting. You can buy it here.

Flying Females and Clusters of Cats

Mary Poppins blew in with her umbrella on a very strong wind, and these two new books for children breezed through the letterbox earlier this year.

miss petitfour

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Anne Michaels, with illustrations by Emma Block

This is Anne Michael’s first foray into children’s books, although she won accolades galore for Fugitive Pieces, amongst other writing. And what a book! The Adventures of Miss Petitfour is split into five separate stories about the main character, an eccentric lady who lives alone, except for her 16 cats, to which there is an illustrated guide at the beginning so that the reader can distinguish between them. Miss Petitfour also has the ability to fly when the wind takes her – merely by shaping a tablecloth into a type of hot air balloon and going where the breeze dictates.

Anne Michaels has created a world of jumble sales, grand village picnics, stamp collections and the Festival of Festooning.

But it’s the use of language that is so unique and exciting. From her orange and italicized highlighted vocabulary, explaining long and difficult but thrilling new words, such as ‘debonair’ and ‘gesticulating’; to encouraging the reader to count Michael’s authorly ‘digressions’ from the main story – the word digression also highlighted in orange – to the careful construction of each story, the use of the words ‘the end’ at the end of every story in a different context:

“…she placed especially lengthy chocolate eclairs crammed with whipping cream, which they gobbled up with great cat smiles from the beginning to THE END.”

and the simple poetic lyricism of each phrase, from “sixteen cat acrobats on a thrilling coat hanger trapeze” to the stories Miss Petitfour tells her cats:

“…stories full of rolling waves and motorcades, damp caves and last-minute saves, musketeers and mountaineers.”

It seems effortless, although of course it isn’t – it is highly thought out, and of the highest quality – and poetic in its lyricism. As a reader, you savour the words in your mouth the way you would savour the delectable treats she describes:

“currant toast squishy with butter, caramel-marshmallow squares, strawberry boats oozing custard, chocolate eclairs that exploded with cream when the cats bit into them with their little white teeth…”

She explains the construction of her stories as she writes – from ‘then one day’s’ to ‘meanwhiles’ without any condescension, as well as including the most luscious descriptions from clothes and fabrics “bolts of rustling stiff crepe paper and spools of silent velvet ribbon; there was the swish of tinsel and the jittering of plastic beads”, to the line of cats dangling in the wind, to the colour of marmalade. And Michaels does all this as well as writing interesting plots with drive, so there is never a dull moment.

The accompanying full-colour illustrations by Emma Block are sophisticated, humorous and almost as eccentric as Miss Petitfour herself – with massively differentiated cats, ear muffs, dancing, piano playing, and also simple tea. They are sharp and well matched to the text.

This is a meticulously crafted book – refined and delightful. For 7-12 years, and beyond. Buy a copy here.

harper scarlet

Harper and the Scarlet Umbrella by Cerrie Burnell, illustrated by Laura Ellen Anderson

With its irresistibly shiny cover, this tale does indeed sparkle from beginning to end. For newly independent readers, (the text is much larger, and the story shorter, than the title above) it tells the tale of Harper, a small girl who lives in the City of Clouds in a tall apartment block. Her friends come from the different flats within the building, each child having a defined personality from the start. But Harper’s best friend is her cat Midnight. When Midnight goes missing, along with all the other cats from the City of Clouds, Harper must harness her scarlet umbrella (which enables her to fly) and track down the lost cats.

Laura Ellen Anderson’s illustrations made this book for me. From the endearing portrayal of Harper on the cover with the cat perching on her head to the most incredible full page illustration of the cat orchestra inside, the artworks, despite being all in black and white, made me want to savour the book for longer. Small details abound in each illustration, from the smattering of freckles across Harper’s face to the cat licking its paws in the middle of an orchestral warm-up, to the view from the rooftops down to the trail of cats below. Each chapter starts with an illustration of Midnight in a different pose, and the book ends with her curled up comfortably asleep on the last page.

The writing is intensely lyrical, mirroring the themes of the story, which are music, adventure, care for others, all set in an imaginary world where there are different types of rain, “Summer Dew” and “Sea Mist” being just two, so that everyone owns an umbrella. The world also contains a plethora of musical instruments. Time and attention is lavished on children by grownups who really care, and the story is populated by overly exaggerated characters brimming with arty skills – they can dance, or write, or play music with incredible aptitude. It makes for magical reading, each sentence carefully honed with an abundance of adjectives and similes.

It is short and reads as sweetly as the story within, although for older children the language may seem a little cloying. For first readers, the magic of language will spring off the page, and I can happily see children revisiting the story for comfort, and definitely for those stunning illustrations. For 6+ years. You can buy a copy here.

Unexpected Delights: Picture Books With a Difference

the zoomers handbook

The Zoomers’ Handbook by Ana de Moraes, illustrated by Thiago de Moraes
A handbook not for zookeepers, nor for farmers, but for Zoomers – people who look after somewhat strange creatures. For example, the shicken, a creature who lays delicious eggs, but whose mouth rather resembles a shark, or the girafooster who wakes extra early and can spot the sun as soon as it begins to rise because of the girafooster’s height.

Each page in this extraordinary book features a different ‘creature’, and explains something about it. The endpapers of the book are field notes, so that the reader can identify the creatures’ feathers, poo, footprints etc.

The production of the book is not cheap – the thick paper makes it feel like a comprehensive guide rather than just a picture book, and the illustrations are hilarious in their ‘seriousness’ – no silly bright colours, but muted taupe, blues, beige, greys and yellows to fake authenticity.

A clever little picture book that inspires creative thinking, pushes the imagination, and is wonderfully playful in its presentation. As I said, something a bit different. You can purchase it here.

super happy magic forest

Super Happy Magic Forest by Matty Long
Swinging completely in the opposite direction with its colour palate – dark glasses potentially needed – is Super Happy Magic Forest. Even from the title, the (adult) reader can sense that this is a children’s book on the curb of Teletubbies and Magic Roundabout territory – definitely for children, yet with a whiff of tongue-in-cheek adult mind-bending too.

The magic crystals of life keep the forest super, happy and magic. (Bear with me). When they are stolen, five creatures from the forest including a puddle-disliking gnome, a faun and a frolicking unicorn, undertake a dangerous journey to Goblin Tower to retrieve them, passing on their way an army of dangerous penguins, a super creepy haunted forest and dungeons reminiscent of a retro computer game.

The enemy isn’t quite as anticipated though, and through several puns and overwhelmingly bonkers scenes, the crystals are finally replaced, and much frolicking can be done.

Quite the most mind-altering picturebook I’ve seen in a while, find it just for the pessimistic rabbit, or the butterfly’s prolonged death scene. Simply hilarious – I read it on the sofa with wine without the kids. Buy it here.

princess and the pony

The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton
Sophisticated readers adore progressive modern princesses, and that’s exactly what Kate Beaton has depicted here. Pinecone is no ordinary princess, she’s a warrior princess. The only problem is that she keeps receiving cosy sweaters as presents, and she doesn’t think that’s very warriorish. For her birthday she asks specifically for a fine warrior horse, but her parents give her a cute small farting pony. However, the pony turns out to be something of an asset, and Pinecone works out what to do with all those cosy sweaters.

The story above may not sound revolutionary – but taken with the illustrations, it’s phenomenally unique and fantastic. Beaton’s extraordinary style conveys the strength of warriors, doting parents, a pony who is positively the opposite of warrior, and a young girl’s initial despair and final triumph.

The scene with the Viking warrior battle is startling – quite exceptional in  a picture book – with masks, hot dogs, a cannon, tortoise man, Viking hats, tennis rackets, disguises – everything has gone into this illustration. It’s a sight to behold.

Very different, very funny, and yet with enormous heart. Recommended for all warrior princesses (and their princes). You can purchase it here.

 

Fairy Tales

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Albert Einstein.

Ah, fairy tales. How things always come back to these – think of any book you’ve read recently as an adult – did it have elements of fairy tale in it? Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi twists the story of Snow White, Angela Carter is famous for her gory reimagining in The Bloody Chamber, or how about the parallels between Bluebeard and Gone Girl? Evil stepmothers in dysfunctional families, dangers awaiting women in the deep dark wood, conniving witches, brainless giants…

So why do we tell them to children? And why do we keep telling them?

“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” G K Chesterton.

We use fairy tales for so many different reasons – for a common cultural heritage – even a global cultural heritage as we find many fairy stories twisted and morphed in different versions throughout the world. Mainly, fairy tales teach children to overcome fears. They explain that although bad things can happen to good people, it is how one deals with the bad stuff that matters.

There is a great deal of death and violence in fairy stories – the wolf’s burnt bottom in the Three Little Pigs, Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger and lying in a coma – and yet the point of it is to teach children to surmount that adversity. Hansel and Gretel combat the witch using their cunning and wit – they push her into the oven.

Fairy stories teach children to make the correct decisions – if Red Riding Hood hadn’t strayed from the path as her mother had warned, she wouldn’t have come across the wolf – if the little pigs had built their houses more strongly, the wolf wouldn’t have puffed them down. If Goldilocks wasn’t set on stealing, then maybe she wouldn’t have been confronted by three bears.

Moreover, fairy stories teach critical thinking. Are the characters making the right decisions? Are they being morally upstanding? There is often as much goodness as there is evil, either from unexpected sources (a kind woodcutter) or from unexpected resources inside ourselves – inner strength, intelligence, kindness.

The characters are often two dimensional because it is easier for children to identify with them, and the stories are packed with symbolism so that with each retelling of the story the reader or listener can interpret them in different ways.

And we do keep reinterpreting them.

dublin fairytale

A Dublin Fairytale by Nicola Colton
This is a beautiful new picture book from a debut author that follows Fiona, a small girl dressed in red, to her grandmother’s house. It starts correctly – ‘Once upon a time’, but this is a twist on the traditional Red Riding Hood story. On the way she encounters a giant, a troll, and a dragon, but although they appear scary, they are actually all in distress in one way or another, and Fiona helps them out.

Then when the wolf nabs her basket, her new friends retrieve it for her – one good turn deserves another. They end up at Grandmother’s house – all together enjoying tea – and it turns out that Fiona’s grandmother is a friendly witch with a green face.

The magic lies in the setting. Fiona sets off with a map in hand, and each encounter with a fairy tale creature is set in a real place in Dublin –the book traces the city through illustrations.

The characters exude warmth, as does the book, which boasts tones of oranges and greens. It’s quite a unique illustrative style, old-fashioned almost, and hugely appealing to children, with easy shapes, interesting patterns, and beautiful detail on the buildings. A lovely addition to the fairy tale picture book canon. You can purchase from Waterstones here.

Imelda and the goblin king

Imelda and the Goblin King by Briony May Smith
The beautifully produced hardback version – with gold leaves and gold embossed title, a red spine and sumptuous cloth feel – gives an immediate suggestion that this book is fit for a king. The illustrations continue the theme – sumptuous colour and exquisite detail with old fashioned depictions of fairy creatures – elves and pixies with pointed ears, leafy wings, toadstools and garlanded heads. It is highly reminiscent of the flower fairies range.

It tells the story of Imelda, who ventures into an enchanted wood, populated by fairy folk. The Goblin King is a huge bully who arrives and locks up the Fairy Queen when things don’t suit him. Imelda plots for his comeuppance, and succeeds in ridding the forest of the bully – in fact he is turned into a worm!

The illustrations are what bring this story to life – each page is an adventure in itself, every fairy, pixie and elf seems to have its own distinct personality – the wings look like leaves, the flowers droop or bloom depending on mood, and the food looks stunningly sumptuous. There is exquisite detail, lovely use of speech bubbles, and humour as well. And of course, the moral of sharing and being friendly.

A beautiful book that would make a great gift. Purchase here.