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A Letter to My Readers

Hello,

Firstly, a thank you to you all for continuing to read my many reviews and opinions on children’s books.

In 2018, there were 11,000 children’s books published in the UK. I don’t receive them all, but I do receive a great number. I think for any review I post, I’ve read another five books that didn’t quite make the cut.

I’ve been writing the blog since 2014, attempting to bring you a range of books targeted at different age groups, including fiction and non-fiction, different genres, and those with diverse characters or by diverse writers. I’ve blogged about 700 articles here, and other reviews for various publications and websites.

But sadly, for many reasons, it’s time to stop blogging.

This means that MinervaReads will not be publishing new reviews for the time being. You will still be able to search back articles and reviews on the site, and I hope that you and your children continue to read.

I will still be offering editorial services within children’s publishing, and I’m still involved in educational consultancy on children’s literature. I am also writing literary fiction for adults.

With huge thanks to the publicists and publishers who have been so supportive over the past six years. And you, my readers, for being as passionate about children’s books as I am. I hope to return someday, so do watch this space.

If you’re looking for my editorial and writing services – please visit the ‘services‘ and ‘about me‘ pages for more information.

If this is your first visit to the page, you may wish to read my most-read opinion pieces on Fortnite and Celebrity Authors, or perhaps my most popular book reviews – Alone by DJ Brazier, How to Bee by Bren MacDibble and Charlie Changes into a Chicken by Sam Copeland. I couldn’t possibly choose my favourite blog, but some authors particularly felt I ‘got’ their books, and the feedback on these blogs made me smile: Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw, Mike by Andrew Norriss, and The Words That Fly Between Us by Sarah Carroll.

Happy Reading,

Clare

Christmas Picture Books

santas christmas handbookSanta’s Christmas Handbook
Buried in small print on the first page of this delightful Christmas book is the name of the author. I only discovered this after reading the book cover to cover, and rejoicing in the fact that I’d been sent a Christmas book that was entertaining, inventive, witty, and absolutely stuffed to the brim with interactivity. There are lift-the-flaps, games, puzzles and more, so that any reader will be kept preoccupied for some time. And then I saw that it is written by Christopher Edge, and so the well-thought-out contents and imaginative elements made sense – Edge is an experienced and witty writer.

The book is a Santa’s handbook that explains to Santa everything he needs to know to survive Christmas, and starts with a letter from the elves (the real authors of the book), with an enclosed to-do list. Each following page is a treasure trove of fun illustration with lift-the-flap sections. So, there is a sleigh complete with control board and storage, a guide to looking after reindeers, a map of the world with fastest routes for reindeer sleighs, an understanding of how to deliver presents, as well as instructions for navigating rooftops (even those without chimneys). A board game at the end with a ‘crimble-o-meter’ that really spins (excellent paper engineering) completes the book.

Wit triumphs throughout. I enjoyed the ‘insta-chimney’ invention, the potential pit-falls of skylights, the riskiness of large or noisy presents, the ‘SantaNav’ for directions, and first aid kits for ‘tinsellitis’ and more. Edge has all the ground covered here (including children at sea during Christmas), and this book is a packed stockingful of fun. You can buy it here.

mouses night before christmas
Mouse’s Night Before Christmas by Tracey Corderoy and Sarah Massini
Starting with the famous verse, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,’ this picturebook quickly swerves to point out that the mouse wasn’t still, but was indeed stirring. This little mouse, cutely rendered by illustrator Sarah Massini with trailing red woollen scarf, delights in Christmas but has no one to share it with. When Santa comes calling, Mouse hitches a ride and becomes the best little helper, but at the end of the night even Father Christmas has to leave, although not before gifting Mouse a present that leads to friendship and companionship.

An anti-materialistic message, in that Christmas is a festival best shared, the book’s illustrations brim with the colourful joyfulness of Christmas, an ornamentally decorated tree with a plethora of presents beneath, the magic of stars and snow, a full cohort of reindeer, and a traditional Father Christmas with twinkly bright eyes. Cute. You can buy it here.

cats christmas carol
A Cat’s Christmas Carol by Sam Hay, illustrated by Helen Shoesmith

More messages on friendship and sharing in this deliciously purr-fect tale for Christmas. Clawdia the cat looks after a department store, and loves to stick to the rules. So when mice break in looking for somewhere warm to hide, the book becomes a game of cat and mouse! Written with dexterity, Hay uses the rhythm of language to play with her plot – the chase is in rhyme, with the department store providing an awesome array of goods – excellent to run amok in. Shoesmith has fun here too – this is a modern department store with a bank of tills and electrical goods, although also with a nod to the traditional in the toy department, and in the layout of the front hall.

By the end, Clawdia gets what she most wants for Christmas, and it isn’t a mouse! The publicity boasts of this as a retelling of A Christmas Carol with whiskers and claws – I’m not sure most readers will see this parallel, other than through the title. The mice remind Clawdia of her own tawdry past, in the hope that she’ll be more generous in the present, but she is far too adorable to be a cat-in for Scrooge. Special touches include the family scene complete with children’s drawings and grandma, and the very lovely department store dining table – reminiscent of Pooh’s last supper at Pooh Corner, but this time Christmas-led with dominant red and greens, and an old-fashioned feel with candelabra, crackers and champagne. You can have a purrfect Christmas here.

follow the star
Follow the Star by Andy Mansfield
A feat of paper engineering in this pop-up Christmas journey as the traditional Christmas star journeys from Bethlehem to the top of a Christmas tree via fields, cities, and individual houses. The rhyming text does little to enhance the book, as the real attraction is the landscape portrayed on each page with intricate 3-D engineering, and a foiled star on each night sky. The yellow backdrop to the cityscape gives the buildings an interior warm glow, and the Christmas tree at the end is nicely done with coloured baubles on each frilly layer of the tree. You can buy it here.

leah's star
Leah’s Star by Margaret Bateson-Hill, illustrated by Karin Littlewood
For those harking for a traditional Christmas book complete with religious element, Leah’s Star twists viewpoint and tells the story of the birth of Jesus from the narrative perspective of Leah, the innkeeper’s daughter. She persuades her father to find room in the stable for the pregnant woman and her husband, and follows the course of the night as visitors come to see what turns out to be quite a special baby. With Bethlehem watercoloured in a hue of terracotta buildings, a warm yellow glow emitting from the stable, and characters painted with warm simpatico expressions, this is a distinctly comforting retelling of the Bible story. A tenderness infuses the illustrations, and Leah in particular is painted with a mix of wonderment, anticipation and kindness. A child’s innocence deftly portrayed. This was first published under the title Leah’s Christmas Story in 2006. You can buy it here.

Finally, very aptly for discussions about tree planting and sustainable Christmases, come three books focussed on the Christmas tree.

the tree thats meant to be
The Tree That’s Meant to Be by Yuval Zommer
A twinkly green cover points towards Christmas, and the protagonist is a small wonky fir tree in the woods, but happily this is a tree for life not just for Christmas. The landscape and scenery of the woods change as the seasons pass, and in winter people come to chop down other trees, but not this little tree, which is left all alone.

Luckily, Zommer’s trademark animals, including deer, foxes and birds with their slanted eyes come to keep the little tree company. The animals wonderfully decorate the tree ‘au naturel’ with acorns and fir cones and brown leaves, the bears standing on their hind paws, the squirrels bringing acorns. As the seasons turn again, the tree sees that it was meant to be part of nature, always in the forest, and it provides a home for birds, and a shelter for children.  Nature as intended.

Zommer’s illustrations are distinctive and beautifully textured – the leaves identifiable, the pictures nodding towards realism, whilst still lending a magical aura to the forest, and nodding to acknowledge their picture book status at the same time. A treat. You can buy it here.

oh christmas tree
Oh, Christmas Tree! By Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet
This lively full-on foiled cover picturebook also features a tree protagonist, one who doesn’t want to be trussed up with baubles and trinkets, but runs away from the decorations in order to be free. By the end, one of the decorations has come up with an idea of how to trick their tree into being more Christmassy. A fun frolicking rhyming book, and one with which children who abhor dressing up or being in the school play will identify. Lots of fun is had by Linnet, imagining the tree doing activities it actually enjoys rather than standing in a pot, such as cycling, baking, and doing science! You can buy it here.

the little fir tree
The Little Fir Tree by Christopher Corr
With a nod to Hans Christian Andersen, this tree protagonist longs to be picked for Christmas, and has to wait through the seasons to be big enough to be picked. The tree dreams of being wood for a ship, or log for a cabin, while the birds laugh at him wishing his life away. Then finally the tree is cut down, and is (in my opinion, strangely) happy as it is brought into a home and decorated with tinsel, ribbons and more, and told stories. The tree revels in its tallness and new-found importance, before being cruelly discarded. By the end though, a squirrel has given it new life. The illustrations are bright and bold, the people slightly sinister in their Picasso-esque profiles, their dress old-fashioned, but all imbued with personality – including even the sun and moon. Different, and certainly striking. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Templar, Nosy Crow, Alanna Max, Simon and Schuster, Oxford University Press, Macmillan and Frances Lincoln publishers for the review copies.

Full STEAM Ahead

Stem is a big deal in our house. And now steam too. Science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. So we like to cheer on positive endeavours that promote the extended teaching and learning of creative thinking mixed with science and technology.

Two ingenious books out this autumn have encouraged a host of little ones I know to engage in the topics.

izzy gizmo and the invention conventionFirstly, Izzy Gizmo and the Invention Convention by Pip Jones and Sara Ogilvie, a picture book championing a diverse protagonist, science and creativity, with lively illustrations and a compelling story. Actually the second book about Izzy Gizmo, the first of which championed friendship and was shortlisted for the Sainsbury’s Book Prize 2017, this new book continues the adventures of the determined, exuberant female lead in a rhyming triumph that promotes an environmental theme, showing the power of solar and wind energy, as well as recycling.

At the Invention Convention, Izzy, persuaded into going by her supportive and enthusiastic grandpa (who recognises that failures can lead to success), is beaten to the store of supplies by a fellow competitor. Despairing of not being able to assemble her invention without equipment, she soon realises that broken discarded tools from the aforementioned fellow competitor might be the very thing she needs. There are still more obstacles and the prospect of failure, as well as learning to trust her friend, but eventually Izzy wins the day with her tool-fix-recycle-o-matic.

Ogilvie harnesses the same inventiveness and imagination as the protagonist with her lively illustrations, which are full of zest and energy – bright colours, clever use of everyday props, and of course her effortless expressive characters on their narrative journey. Young children will recognise the emotions Izzy goes through – frustration, expectation, hope, grumpiness, impatience and more, but will delight in the triumphant ending.

Witty rhyming, fittingly innovative illustrations – Izzy Gizmo is always a winner! You can buy a copy here.

essential guide to steamSecondly, nonfiction title, The Essential Guide to Steam by Eryl Nash et al, illustrated by Vicky Barker, aims to denounce the myth that students and children need to choose between science and arts, but instead can not only embrace the two, but see how they might work in harmony. In fact, a recent conversation with a student choosing her A-levels involved this very dilemma. Can you study biology and chemistry with art?

Scientists and artists are not dissimilar, and share many skillsets, incorporating technical attributes and creativity into their work. A scientist may use illustrations to show their findings. An artist needs to use maths to achieve a creative vision.

The authors of this book show this in a multitude of ways, each page vividly and boldly illustrated in the complete rainbow of colours. There are mind maps to explore creative thinking, shapes spotted in everyday life, and a real understanding of how creative visions lead to scientific experiments, which in turn lead to real life inventions and practicalities.

Scientific topics covered include energy, sound, light, magnets, gravity, forces, measurements and more, all intertwined with practical applications, as well as diagrams, cartoon strips, facts, annotated illustrations and thought bubbles. There’s even a very helpful section on household engineering! This is a phenomenal science book for ages 7+, explaining each concept clearly and concisely, whilst using art and everyday examples to show how creativity has played its part. You can buy a copy here.

With thanks to Simon and Schuster and b small publishing for the review copies.

World War Two Explored

A range of books to explore World War II with any budding historian, including a young adult title suitable for reluctant readers or dyslexics, a middle grade adventure story with a shocking ending, and a non-fiction book that brings the National Archives to children’s learning so that they can see history from actual source materials.

white eagles

White Eagles by Elizabeth Wein
As war breaks out across Europe in 1939, Kristina Tomiak has been called up to join the White Eagles, Poland’s air force. But when the Nazis invade Poland, and reach her town, killing her twin brother, she knows she must use her flying skills to escape. What she doesn’t realise is that there’s a stowaway in her plane, and he wants her to fly further than she thinks is possible.

Wein is a master at depicting a female perspective during World War Two, and this doesn’t deviate, in that she shows both depth of character and the horrors of war all within a small novella. Kristina is based on the true story of Anna Leska, a pilot for the Polish Air Force, and Wein’s passion and in-depth research of this period of history and the female aviators really shines through.

Although this is more character-led than plot led, it gives a good insight into the fears and determination of different people at this time, and inserts tiny details that resonate in the mind and stay with the reader long after the book is finished.  

It may have been written and published with struggling or dyslexic readers in mind, but the relationship within the story, and the authentic descriptions of flying make for an altogether brilliant read. An author’s note at the end gives some extra true detail to her fictional story. You can buy it here

the runaways
The Runaways by Holly Webb
The story begins in London at the outbreak of the Second World War. Molly’s school is being evacuated to the countryside, but her mother refuses to let her go, and so she’s stuck at home, helping her mother in the shop, and watching her older sister go off to join the war effort. When she hears that Londoners’ pets are to be put down, because supplies will be short, she runs away with her beloved dog Bertie. Once in the countryside, she meets other runaways, with even sadder stories, and before long, home seems like a distant memory.

After reading some of Webb’s other stories, I imagined that this book might be fairly animal-led and quite tame, so it was a surprise to read that Webb doesn’t hold back in trying to present some sort of reality of how miserable the war might have been on the home front. It wasn’t all gusto and bravado, and some children (and adults) suffered terribly. The book is an easy read – fast-paced and punchy, but it also bears a depth of loss and grief, which is sensitively dealt with, even if the end comes as rather a shock.

This is carefully written historical fiction that aims to portray the uncertainty of wartime, and show the effect of displacement and family break up. A refreshingly different take on World War Two fiction. You can buy it here

national archives
National Archives: World War II by Nick Hunter
So often, secondary school children are told to look at the source material when writing about history. And yet for many primary school children, source material is a distant object – they are just presented with a list of facts. This lively, colourful, and informative book aims to lay out some primary sources and let children discover them for themselves.

From Hitler’s rise to power to the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, the book uses photographs, artefacts and original documents from the National Archives to bring the history to life. Each spread has a sprinkling of colour as well as a number of black and white photographs and documents, all interestingly laid out to pique a child’s curiosity. To accompany the archive, Hunter includes introductory paragraphs, captions and facts, to provide a fuller explanation of what happened.

Children may read it chronologically, or dip in for information they need. There’s a lovely range of sources and some interesting detail on technological advances, and war on the home front. I’m impressed that it doesn’t shy away from details on the horrors of the Holocaust and Nagasaki, but it also brings the book to a good close with reflections on physical reminders of the war, and the importance of historical documentation and remembrance. You can buy it here

With thanks to Barrington Stoke, Scholastic and Bloomsbury Publishers for the review copies. 

Explorers and Pioneers

From the history of exploration to the extremes of our planet, from game-changing theories to contemporary outdoor adventures, these four books take the reader on journeys of discovery and endeavour.

darwins voyage of discovery
Darwin’s Voyage of Discovery by Jake Williams
Pure, simple illustrations from upcoming illustrator Jake Williams make this new book about Darwin rather distinctive. Publishing to celebrate 160 years since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it follows Darwin’s journey on the The Beagle to Cape Verde, the Galapagos, Australia and more, paying careful attention to the discoveries Darwin made. Split into sections of the journey, with the beginning profiling Darwin’s early life and then the ship and preparations for the voyage, the rest plots the geography with basic maps and then wildlife of the region that Darwin noted.

The book goes into detail on the creatures, noting their features, but also the questions that Darwin asked about them, sparking ideas of evolution and ancestry. As the book highlights these, today’s reader will also begin to think – about exploration and discovery, but also about making connections and learning from nature – how analysis of behaviours and patterns can provoke theory. The space on the pages allows for this freedom of thought. There are no contents, no glossary…this is a book as a voyage – a linear discovery. You can buy it here.

dk explorers
DK Explorers, illustrated by Jessamy Hawke, written by Nellie Huang
This is a beautifully designed primer to exploration, with an introduction from explorer Barbara Hillary. Taking in the breadth of what exploration means – from adventuring to the furthest reaches of geography, whether it be deep sea or outer space – to understanding the commitment, determination and courage that being an explorer means, this book will open up the reader’s eyes to what has been achieved and at what cost.

Divided into sections: sea and ice, land, air and space, the book focuses on personalities – taking a double page for each explorer. There is a marvellous mix of graphics, of course maps, but also photographs of artefacts from American William Clark’s compass,  to photographs of British archaeologist Gertrude Bell on exploration, as well as full page illustrations that bring the scenes to life. There are first person accounts and quotes, as well as third person explanations and captions. Engaging and informative, this is a lovely nonfiction book, with careful nods to inclusivity, and a reflection on the darker side of exploration, all appropriate for the age group (9+yrs). You can buy it here.

adventures on earth
Adventures on Earth by Simon Tyler
This too divides the world into geographical regions, including polar, mountainous, volcanic, oceanic and more, looking at the extremes of our Earth, and noting their features, their wildlife, and the people who have discovered and explored them. With a nod to conservation issues too, this is a compelling looking book, with large shapes and blocks of colour denoting entire regions – deserts in terracotta and brown, caves in deep black, and oceans, in a nice touch, with a deep sunset beyond.

At times, the text is hard to read against its dark background, at other times stark against the polar regions, but always fascinating and packed with information. Maps and a glossary give clear guidance. Tyler’s background as a graphic designer shines through – some features look poster-like in their blockiness, and the design feels bold and sophisticated. Like some of the explorations it features, such as El Capitan and Dos Ojos, this is certainly attention-grabbing. You can buy it here.

wild girl
Wild Girl: How to have Incredible Outdoor Adventures by Helen Skelton, illustrated by Liz Kay
For those inspired by books such as those above, this may be a child’s entry point into their own exploration. Skelton has been and done many things and this book showcases her various explorations, from cycling to the South Pole to kayaking the length of the Amazon. It tracks the adventure, describes the preparation, kit and training, as well as the specific details such as going to the toilet and staying hydrated, as well as highly personal details such as cravings for apples and drying hair. Then each section attempts to give hints as to how a child can have their own adventures and explorations closer to home.

In the ‘sand’ adventure section, it suggests beach running, campfires and even sand boarding. For ‘rivers’, Skelton encourages ghyll scrambling, rafting, kite-surfing and more. These are not adventures for the garden, but certainly high-level activities that require some ‘warnings’, which are in place in the book. I particularly liked the idea of having a wild adventure in a city, making use of seeing things from a different perspective, such as going low, or going high. This is a highly personal recollection of voyages taken, but also an aspirational one for children wanting to be like Helen Skelton. The design is busy, but nicely arranged to read part-diary, part information manual, with plenty of colour, illustrations and photographs to draw the eye. An admirable non-fiction on the realities of modern exploration. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Pavilion, DK, and Walker publishers for the review copies.

The Lollies 2020: A guest post from author Jo Simmons

lollies


The Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (Lollies) celebrates the funniest children’s books in the UK and Ireland, and is voted for by children. In surveys, children tend to cite laughter as a key reason for keeping reading a book, and so I’m delighted to introduce one of this year’s shortlisted books for 9-13 year olds, I Swapped My Brother on the Internet! by Jo Simmons and Nathan Reed. This book had me chortling away – I would never dream of swapping my own brother of course – but the book let me wonder about what would happen if I did!

Jonny is sick of his big brother Ted, so when he hears about the website, SiblingSwap, he figures he has nothing to lose. But it turns out his new choices aren’t so great either. You can read MinervaReads review here, and below Jo Simmons asks ‘What makes the Perfect Sibling?’

i swapped my brother
When I was about eight years old, having tea with my slightly older brother and a couple of friends, he smashed a Dairylea Triangle against my forehead. The creamy contents burst through the foil wrapper and became stuck in my fringe. The perfect sibling would not have done that to me but, then again, I was not being the perfect sibling when it happened. I was being annoying and provoking and probably deserved a Dairylea Triangle to the face. There was blame on all sides, and outrage. This is not perfect sibling behaviour – but what is?

A quick check list of perfect sibling attributes might read like this: someone who is fun and cool (but not too cool – no one wants to be the square sibling). He or she is ready to defend you against the forces of evil (your parents, annoying relatives, bratty friends) and always has your back, offering rock-solid friendship that can stand the strain of a few petty sibling squabbles. Perfect siblings share their stuff happily – from toys and sweets to bikes and makeup – but give you space. They understand you inside-out but respect your individuality. They keep you company, make you laugh, share adventures.

The perfect sibling sounds really great – like your best friend, only better. After all, siblings understand first-hand all that grubby family stuff, too – how loud your dad blows his nose, or how your mother’s obsession with vest wearing is tough in the teen years. But does the perfect sibling exist? Probably only in moments and flashes, here and there, but not all the time. It’s not their fault. The sibling relationship is under constant pressure; all that sharing of space, toys, clothes and, worst of all, your parents’ attention.

It’s no wonder that most siblings have far from perfect relationships. Instead, theirs are loaded with tension, competition and fury; a blend of love and annoyance, incredible but infuriating closeness. And fights. Always fights. Hopefully just the garden variety bickering and squabbling that gives each sibling a chance to behave in a way that they just couldn’t with friends, for fear of being dumped, and not full-on combat or wrestling (although, inevitably, that can happen, too).

I had a lot of fun in I Swapped My Brother On The Internet with the idea that, via a website that works a bit like a dating app, you could choose a sibling. How might that go? Spoiler alert – not that well. We are stuck with our siblings, but we should take comfort from the fact that some improve with age, like a fine wine or a very bouncy dog. That brother who smashed a Dairylea Triangle into my forehead in the late 1970s is now a lovely friend, who cooks me dinner and goes running with me. So, what makes the perfect sibling? The answer, perhaps, is time.

With thanks to Jo for her guest blog. I Swapped My Brother on the Internet is published by Bloomsbury and is available to buy here. The full shortlisted titles are as follows: 

You can vote for your favourite here until 13th December:

The winner will be announced in early 2020.

New Detective Fiction

I’m sure there weren’t as many detective novels for children when I was young. For me, my most memorable encounter with the genre was one summer, on our annual trip to Cornwall. We were staying in a hotel with its own giftshop – the height of luxury, I thought. To my dismay, halfway through the trip, I ran out of reading material (despite probably having taken about 10 books for a two week stay). In those days, gift shops rarely stocked books, and certainly not children’s books. But I was in luck. The books they did stock were a collection of Agatha Christie novels, and so, aged about ten, I embarked on a journey on the Orient Express, found a cat amongst the pigeons, and journeyed along the Nile.

Today, the mystery/detective/crime novels for children drop onto the doormat almost daily. Here are three new novels that are everything one could ask for in the genre – gripping, tightly plotted, with excellent characterisation, and all superbly written.

lori and max

Lori and Max by Catherine O’Flynn
With a good eye for giving her characters backstory, introducing first Lori, wannabe child detective with deceased parents living with her grandma, and then Max, new girl in school with too-small clothes, a depressed Mum and gambling Dad, O’Flynn deploys enough wit to stop the book descending full flow into misery.

These girls have gumption and spark, the steel and resolve to see their detecting through difficult areas. When a stack of charity money goes missing from school, and Max is accused of the crime, Lori sets out to prove that her new friend is innocent.

Although contemporary, the characters rely on skilful sleuthing and walkie talkies rather than the Internet or mobile phones, and with lashings of descriptions of food, the understanding of real friendship, and a writer’s keen eye for observation and nuance, this is a well-told, brilliantly executed detective story. One of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t miss it. Buy it here.

trouble in new york

Trouble in New York by Sylvia Bishop
It seems Sylvia Bishop can do no wrong – I’ve loved every single one of her books. In her latest, she turns to an analysis of news and fake news in her crime caper set in 1960’s New York.

Jamie Creeden delivers papers but he wants to be a reporter. When he stumbles into the mystery of a missing actress, he realises he’s stuck fast in the middle of a network of corruption and criminality. Assuming the role of investigative journalist, he sets out to discover the truth, and whether that truth is always what’s printed in the papers.

Bishop writes with an assured confidence, imbuing her characters and her insights with warmth. She has a style that brings the essence of a children’s world into a larger view of right and wrong, so that the reader feels secure in the familiarity of the adventure, whilst at the same time having their horizons broadened. My favourite insight comes early on: in the building of the Yorker, the newspaper featured, there is a statue of a woman in the entrance, to symbolise the motto of the paper – ‘Always punctual, often accurate’. Bishop goes on to say:

“In one hand the woman held a lantern for Truth; and in the other, a Rolex watch, for Punctuality. (She used to hold an hourglass, but the Rolex company paid the Yorker a great deal of money to change it.).”

It’s simple, but effective, bringing our real world capitalism to a child readership, and lightly placing clues for them to question what they see and what they hear.

There’s more of course: two plucky female sidekicks to the protagonist, a tight plot, and a pervasive enthusiasm for the plucky innocence and perseverance of children, the truth, and the beauty in both. Effortless and yet brilliant. Another triumph. Buy it here.

agatha oddly

Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key by Lena Jones
From New York to a detective story set firmly in London, complete with secret comms in the London Eye, and a girl who resides in the groundsman’s cottage of Hyde Park.

Thirteen-year-old Agatha Oddly, named for Agatha Christie, adores detecting, and so when a motorbike knocks over an old lady in the middle of Hyde Park, Agatha is straight on the case. But the lady isn’t who she first appears, and when London’s water pipes are filled with a toxic red algae, Agatha has to join the dots in a relentless adventure around London in order to come up with the culprits behind a dastardly plan to change the way Londoners drink water for ever.

There is so much to love here, from the hidden network of super spies in London’s midst, to the secret tunnels and gatekeepers of London, to the everyday reality of Agatha in school, and dealing with who and who isn’t her friend. Smartly plotted, and hugely enjoyable, this is a fast easy read that zings with character and energy.

Although slightly predictable for those of us with some reading experience, Agatha’s quirks and indomitable spirit lead the way here. It’s fitting that the series bears her name, and for readers age 9+ approaching the book, they’ll find something to love in her slightly obtuse and subversive nature. The plot is key, of course, but it is in her friendships – battling with the popular kids, understanding the needs of her best friend, and coming to see that people aren’t always as they present in one scenario, that this book wins big. Plenty of dialogue, an understanding of when mobile phones can assist the plot and when not, and carefully laid red herrings all make for a perfect crime caper. Highly recommended. The second in the series, Murder at the Museum, has been published too. You can buy Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key here.

With thanks to Firefly Press, Scholastic and HarperCollins for the review copies.

Seeing Shadows

shadowMy Year 6 bookclub always look surprised when I tell them it is picture book week. As if, I explain, they haven’t heard me extolling the use of picture books for all ages every day! This week I’ll introduce them to Shadow by Lucy Christopher, illustrated by Anastasia Suvorova – just as I am to you.

This exquisitely subtle picture book shows us a young girl and her mother moving into a new house. It’s formidable and stark, all angles and shadows, so really should come as no surprise to the seemingly reluctant girl that she finds a shadow under her bed. But Shadow isn’t menacing. Shadow is Peter Pan-esque, fun and companionable; this shape-shifting piece of darkness comes as friend, complete with rosy cheeks to match the girl. But the child’s mother can’t see Shadow. In fact, her mother seems at first preoccupied, and then just sad and unseeing – her eyes heavily lidded and shown in shadow.

When the girl and Shadow go to the forest, Shadow disappears and the girl is left alone. Until a familiar voice comes through the darkness…

The prose is simple and light, brief and active, with a wonderful momentum.

This atmospheric picture book could be an allegory about pushing through a childhood whilst living with a parent’s depression, or it could merely be a generic everyman story about coming through loss and darkness into a new world of captured happiness – for yes, there is a happy ending. In fact, the loss of Shadow in the forest is replaced by the dual togetherness of the mother and daughter shadows stretching from their hand-in-hand silhouettes. Returning home from the forest, their new house transitions from one of spectral isolation to one embedded within a whole village, with familiarity and warmth bleeding through the pages. The illustrations turn from dark greys and moody whites, distinctive and atmospheric, to ones toasted with a heat of yellows and intense reds, with an influx of people.

There’s much to read into these illustrations – from the white scratchings aross the page of the early images, as if light is attempting to get through and failing, to the bright redness of the girl’s hair and cheeks and dungarees – a lightness in the face of dark. But even she is tinged with sadness – her eyes perpetually slightly vacant, slightly sad – more noticeable when contrasted with the absolute delight depicted on her face in the later pages when her eyes, fascinatingly enough, are closed in happiness.

However children read into this picture book, whether as being about attention received, about overcoming loneliness and anxiety, depression and loss, they will be able to create a backstory to the characters, and see that in the end darkness and despair are driven out by human interaction and togetherness.

Below, Lucy Christopher explains the genesis to Shadow:

In my debut picture book story, Shadow, a lonely young child moves into a new house where she finds a shadow under the bed who she makes friends with. Together they make mischief and run away, only to be found again by Mum. It’s a story about loneliness and sadness and how this might manifest itself in the very young. Ultimately it’s a story of an awareness of darkness – and shadows – and of coming together.

I was lonely as a child. By the time I was five years old, I had lived in three countries and five houses. My parents had divorced, and my dad now lived thousands of miles across the world. I was beginning my second school, this time in a small country town in South Wales, and living with my single mother and grandmother. I had no siblings and no friends.

On one level it’s easy to see a connection between the child in Shadow and me as a young girl. The feelings of being alone, moving to a new house, and making my own mischief were things I readily understood. I had many imaginary friends, many of them dogs and cats and horses. I spent hours imagining and drawing a huge stable yard of ponies – each one with personality inventories, lovingly drawn tack wardrobes, and a growing list of skillsets. I lived almost entirely in my imagination.

As soon as I could write, I did. I wrote constantly – letters back to my Dad in Australia, or to my family in other parts of the world, letters to friends when I went on holiday. When I was nine, and we did it all again – this time moving back to Australia – my letter writing intensified. I bought notebooks and filled them, sending them back to my family or friends in whatever country I wasn’t in at the time – sometimes my letters would stretch over whole 250-page A5 notebooks. As I grew up in Australia, I became more serious about my own stories, too. My gifts to favourite teachers were stories I had written about them. I wrote to authors I admired. And then, gradually, I began to enter, and sometimes even win, short story competitions. More and more, I started to define myself through the words I wrote.

There’s no denying that aspects of my childhood were hard at times – living in four countries and a dozen houses by the time I hit eighteen has got to have an impact – but these experiences were also massive contributors to what made me a writer, most especially, a writer for young people. I’ve no doubt that my creativity, and my writing skills, are intricately connected to my feelings of loneliness as a child. All my novels have aspects of me inside them, but in some ways Shadow is my most personal story. Shadow came from a place I knew extremely well, and it wouldn’t exist without my history. The little girl in the story isn’t me, and I didn’t find an actual shadow to play with under the bed of one of my many new houses (oh, but how much fun I would have had if I did!), but her journey in the story is also my journey in life.

I do hope though that there are other young children out there who may recognise some of the feelings and themes within the story, and that they may take something from this story. I hope that Shadow will be a book that parents and children can share together. I hope it will offer a chance for discussion about aspects of loneliness and sadness, and how it’s possible to overcome these things through a stronger emphasis on connection.

With thanks to Lucy Christopher for her guest blog post, and to Lantana Publishing for the review copy. Shadow is available in good UK, US, Can and Aus bookshops, or you can purchase it direct from Lantana publishing

For every book purchased from the Lantana website, they will donate a book to children’s hospitals in the UK.

Follow the rest of the blogtour here.

Fairy Tales for a New Generation

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about fairy tales. In fact, I probably have a fairy tales blog every six months or so. Why is that? Are fairy tales so important? Yes, they are. People have written whole theses on the topic…but essentially fairy tales work because they give us a view of how life is within a set structure. Within this fantasy framework we can formulate dreams and understand our deep-set fears.

Publishers aren’t just reprinting old fairy tales in new editions though. With a sense of our own changing societal rules and preoccupations, they are releasing anthologies that aim to subvert the status quo, or shine a light on forgotten tales, and writers are retelling tales with modern twists.

hansel and gretel
Hansel and Gretel by Bethan Woollvin
is my favourite fairy tale this autumn. With a subversive grin at parents everywhere, Woollvin neatly turns this fairy tale on its head by making the children the villains. In this retelling, Hansel and Gretel are a little entitled, helping themselves to sweets from a strange house. Woollvin pushes this idea, subverting who is good and who is bad, as the children’s naughty antics test the witch, even though she tries so hard to be a good hostess. In the end, of course, even the nicest witch can be driven too far. No stranger to subverting fairy tales, with past titles including Little Red and Rapunzel, Woollvin’s clever two tone illustrations highlight the pertinent points of the story, zooming in and out as if the reader is operating a film camera. Witty and wise. You can buy it here.

secret of the tattered shoes
The Secret of the Tattered Shoes by Jackie Morris and Ehsan Abdollahi
A completely different take on the traditional fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses is illustrated with great intricacy in this slightly melancholic version. Morris plays with themes of love and redemption in her poetic retelling, her soldier ‘a hollow shadow of a man’, her princess with ‘a smile like frost on glass’. Abdollahi matches the depths of Morris’s story with fully detailed illustrations, turning the characters into complex puppets, and inserting golden headpieces that illuminate the page, fruit that tempts the reader to try to pluck it, and a weariness in the eyes of her tired dancers. A supreme and surprising twist makes this a complex but worthy new interpretation. You can buy it here.

reading beauty
Reading Beauty by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt
My last fairy tale picture book retells Sleeping Beauty with a rhyme, transplants it to the future, and gives it a feminist feel. Lex is a booklover, but her parents remove all her books when she is 15. No, not because they feel she’s a fully fluent reader and doesn’t need more help, but because a nasty fairy cursed Lex with the promise of a paper cut, which would put her in a death-like sleep. Of course, a bookworm such as Lex uses knowledge from her books to overcome the curse, and outwit the nasty fairy, who it turns out, has a reason for her evil-nature. A fun, futuristic, humorous retelling with bold, bright, and busy illustrations. You can buy it here.

eight princesses
Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror by Natasha Farrant, illustrated by Lydia Corry
More modernity in this collection of original short stories, which takes eight princesses and gives them modern cause. There’s the princess who saves natural landscapes from urban developers, the princess who discovers being kind trumps being royal. Bookended with the tale of an enchantress and a magic mirror who long to discover what princesses are really like, the stories are told in the rhythm of traditional fairy tales, but with a firmly modern outlook, as the princesses are revealed not to care so much about their looks and future husbands, but more about being brave and determined and independent (even those who do marry). Illustrated in colour throughout by Lydia Corry, each tale feels quite distinct from the next, and yet form a cohesive whole. Perhaps a Christmas gift for Meghan? Age 8+. You can buy it here.

lost fairy tales

The Lost Fairytales, retold by Isabel Otter, illustrated by Ana Sender
It seems not all traditional fairy tales need to be reimagined or repurposed for our new sensibility. This anthology gathers tales from around the world, all of which feature heroines who demonstrate bravery and wit and none of whom needs rescuing. Instead, Isabel Otter has rescued the stories from their precarious position outside the canon of traditional tales. A story map at the beginning helpfully shows where the tales have been rescued from – so we find out that Sacred Waterfall, a fairy tale about Bending Willow, who won’t bend to her fate but shows persistence in what she believes to be right, is a tribal story hailing from what we now know as Canada, and The Shining Dragons, the tale of a fearsome orphan called Thakane who shows both immense bravery and also huge cunning, comes from Lesotho. Illustrated throughout with warmth and spirit, and with sensitivity to the region from which the stories come, this is an intelligent collection. More information in the back about story origin and thinking points. Age 7+. You can buy it here.

forgotten fairy tales
Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls with a foreword by Kate Pankhurst
Although I have qualms with books that advertise ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ on the cover, lest it should be off-putting to others, this collection also aims to firmly reclaim fairy tales with a feminist agenda. These traditional tales haven’t been retold with a twist, but rather are retold as they were, with modern language but the same storyline in order to show that traditional fairy tales featuring brave, determined women as protagonists did, and always have, existed. As attitudes change, so do the stories being told. This anthology sets text against a plain white background, with simple prose, and colour illustrations dotted throughout. The tales feel familiar – goblins, giants and castles, sisterly love and happy-ever-after marriages, but all with strong, agenda-setting female protagonists. For age 7+. You can buy it here.

folk tales for bold girls
Folk Tales for Bold Girls by Fiona Collins, illustrations by Ed Fisher

Lastly, something a little different, in that this is a compact book that concentrates far more on the text – black and white illustrations heading up chapters only. But the illustrations do something clever – they transpose real bold girls (from photographs) into the folk characters (in illustration).

The text too is clever, simply told, and yet with a distinctive rhythm to its plainness. There is no didacticism – the tales are for the reader to disseminate. Tales from other countries abound, even some familiar tales such as Red Riding Hood retold as a non-traditional version. Collins lists her sources at the back, and this too is fascinating, with an emphasis on the reader looking up further tales and retelling them themselves. A sort of pass-it-on telling, which is the very essence of folk and fairy tales anyway. And of course they all feature bold girl protagonists. For age 7+. You can buy it here.

Friendship Picture Books

How has the first half term of school been? Has your child made lots of new friends? It’s a perpetual anxiety for a parent – whether their child has made friends at school, and the tricky dynamics of friendship continue long into adulthood. From sharing toys in reception, to peer pressure in the teen years, to sociability as adults, our ability to befriend others can be an ongoing worry:
“Why haven’t they texted me back?”

A plethora of recent picture books show us some of the pitfalls of making friends, some of the benefits of friendship, and the fun to be had in another’s company.

misadventures of frederickThe Misadventures of Frederick by Ben Manley and Emma Chichester Clark
There is so much to love about this book. Emma Chichester Clark has long been a favourite illustrator of mine, ever since Blue Kangaroo got lost on the bus, and this new book shows off Clark’s wonderful depth of expression in her characters, her warming and familiar use of colour, and the positivity that flows through scenes of childhood joy. Add to this a wonderful yet somewhat subversive story about a quirky boy called Frederick who lies in a mansion but is very bored. Emily invites him (in a series of letters) to play outside with her, but he is reticent – what if he gets hurt? Emily’s perseverance pays off, and before long the thrills of nature have made themselves abundantly apparent.

There’s a skill in a good picture book, and this one excels in every way. The growing sense of adventure and wonder of nature creeps slowly into the mansion, poking Frederick with tendrils that seek to disturb and tempt him. Emily lives the idyll of childhood – leaping freely into water (shown mid-air), riding a bike, climbing a tree.

Frederick lives surrounded by stuff, yet in much more muted colours, and all the time his wallpaper, his TV shows, his toys, remind him of what might lie outdoors. The possible bond between the children is the stream of letters (shown in text and illustration) that flow between the two like a rushing stream. There’s even a funny ending. You can buy it here.

the pirate tree
The Pirate Tree by Brigita Orel and Jennie Poh
This slightly more lyrical text reminded me of On Sudden Hill with its imaginative children who turn a simple tree into a pirate ship. At first rejected because he is new to the area, Agu is quickly permitted onto the boat when Sam realises that Agu has useful knowledge, borne from his experience of leaving Nigeria. By the end, the girl and boy have sailed the seas, discovered a deserted island, reefed the mainsail, sparred with rival pirates, and made friends.

A large amount of white space on each page allows the reader to absorb the poetical prose and textured neat illustrations, as well as fill the gaps with their own musings and imagination. Beautiful, with a stunning vocabulary. You can buy it here.

my friends

My Friends by Max Low
With a title as blatant as that, it’s clear what this book is about, but it mainly appealed to me because the illustrations reminded me of Heathcliff and Henry’s Cat (1980’s cartoons). Each page introduces a new character and their characteristics or hobbies, all with a massive dollop of humour. Pepper cooks yummy food, Olga listens to music. The trick is that on each page, the first person narrator describes how he gets involved with this new friend through this shared hobby. There’s even an imaginary friend, and also the virtues of having some time to oneself. Simple, bright and illuminating the benefit of having lots of friends who like different things. You can buy it here.

golden acorn
The Golden Acorn by Katy Hudson
A more pointed message in this longer animal story about teamwork; the book sits firmly in the ‘autumn’ canon of children’s books. The third in the series about Squirrel, Rabbit, Beaver and Tortoise, following Too Many Carrots and A Loud Winter’s Nap, this book highlights Squirrel’s desire to win The Golden Nut Hunt for the ninth time. But this year, the tournament has been turned into a team event, and so she reluctantly drags in her friends – they just don’t have the skillset to win. Of course, in the end she puts her friends before trophies. Great illustrative vignettes showing the myriad of different obstacles in the race make this a winning title – the characters’ expressions match the energy of the race.

flock
Flock by Gemma Koomen
Another celebration of nature in this whimsical picture book from a new author. Sylvia is a Tree Keeper, one of a tiny community of little people who live in trees (their heads are the size of hazelnuts). They ‘nurture and mend, gather and tend.’ Sylvia is a loner, but a chance encounter with a baby bird encourages her to rejoin her flock and find comfort in friendship. The book celebrates community spirit, and will be loved by youngsters who like their picture books full of tiny people from old-fashioned magical lands – the Tree Keepers are pictured playing musical instruments, dancing around the maypole, and celebrating with wholesome homemade food. The main illustrative treat comes not from the Tree Keepers though, but from the flock of birds, the ‘thousands of wings beating as one’. A good guide to nature as well as to neighbourliness. You can buy it here.

humperdink
Humperdink Our Elephant Friend by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Clare Alexander
The illustrations in this young picture book are less intricate, slightly vaguer and more haphazard, which lends well to the playgroup setting. With black outlines and careful choice of colour, the playgroup feels authentic and familiar – a yellow rug on the floor, coloured building blocks, and much role play; the children hail from a variety of different backgrounds. Weirdly enough, the new kid isn’t a kid at all, but an elephant. And he fits in as well as a bull in a china shop, despite the children’s best efforts. In the end of course, they discover how he can contribute to the group.

Like some of the other picture books here, the book has a gentle nod towards the benefits of nature – the children venturing into the jungle with the elephant and finding a plethora of fun activities there. It’s a magical title, adding huge excitement to normal tales of playgroup friendship, and of course giving the message that inclusivity is key. There’s a wonderful exuberance to the illustrations here – children love slides! You can buy it here.

we are together

We Are Together by Britta Teckentrup
Teckentrup has a distinctive style all of her own, and it is easy to spot her books in the library. Inside, the books all sing with a similar rhythm, a lovely rhyming poetry. And many tend to have cutouts within, giving an extra physical dimension to the book. We Are Together has all of these, and here they work particularly well. The message is unity and teamwork – the power of a group, particularly a diverse group who are supportive of each other. With references to needing support in unhappy or difficult times, with an understanding that we are small in comparison to the big world, and an absolute appreciation of nature all the way through, this is a neatly told message. The cutouts provide endless amusement and bring a smile – each page reveals the group to be larger and larger – lots of small people eventually making a circle. It reminded me of the Coca Cola advert of old, teaching the world to sing. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Two Hoots, Lantana Press, Otter-Barry Books, Curious Fox, Frances Lincoln, Words&Pictures and Little Tiger Press for the review copies.