middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

Harry Potter Re-Imagined

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How much thought do you give to the illustrations accompanying a book? How about a favourite book? In the same way as a film adaptation, it can be really irksome when a favourite character or scene isn’t portrayed how it appears in your mind. So the people at Bloomsbury had a huge responsibility when they decided to rebrand the much-loved Harry Potter books and commission a new illustrator.

This evening, at the first Harry Potter Book Night at Waterstones Piccadilly, I heard Jonny Duddle explain why he had been chosen. “We were all asked to illustrate the scene where Ron, Hermione and Harry all see Hogwarts for the first time. I think I was the only artist who had Harry facing outwards – looking at the reader – otherwise you only saw the backs of their heads.”

Surprisingly, before the call from Bloomsbury, Jonny Duddle hadn’t read any of the Harry Potter books…then suddenly he had to read all seven and draw the cover designs in the space of six months. Even armed with a wand he would have been hard-pressed.

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Duddle’s favourite character in the book was Hagrid. He sketches the images, then layers them digitally. While he worked on the drawings he would listen to the audiobooks of Harry Potter, scribbling down on post-its anytime the book launched into a character description. He saved space at the top of his computer screen for the most important post-it of all – the one that said ‘SCAR’. “I was really worried I would forget to mark Harry’s forehead.”

For accuracy he used his wife, his childminder, the neighbour’s child – all to pose in certain positions so that he could get the depiction of hands, or flying capes, or wands held aloft, exactly right. For Harry’s cape in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban he bought one off ebay – “a Slytherin one though, not Gryffindor, as it was £10 cheaper.”

Jonny Duddle’s definitely funny in person, and a great character on a stage – but does his work live up to expectations? That’s up to you – to my mind, his Hagrid is exactly how I imagined on first reading – and his expecto patronus is truly majestic. Wizards’ hats off to Jonny Duddle.

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See my main blog this week on why Harry Potter is still so important.

Harry Potter Book Night

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In 2007, more than 1,000 people queued outside Waterstones Piccadilly, Europe’s largest bookshop, to get their hands on the final saga in the Harry Potter series. Tomorrow night I’ll be revisiting that bookshop to celebrate the first global Harry Potter Book Night and the release of the series with the new cover illustrations from Jonny Duddle. A marketing ploy you think? Yes, indeed, it’s time for Bloomsbury to re-release the series with a new modern look, and to create a moment, a day, to celebrate the brand. For me, there’s nothing wrong with that at all – Harry Potter (or rather JK Rowling) has redefined children’s literature. She started the ball rolling for a groundswell of readers who wanted more children’s literature and wanted it recognised in its own right as a major genre.

Since 1998 when the Potter books first burst onto the scene with their modest print run, children’s books are finally being celebrated. In 2000, The New York Times created a special children’s bestseller list alongside their adult one, as Harry Potter was squeezing out so many other titles. In 2002, Phillip Pullman won the overall Whitbread Awards for his children’s book, The Amber Spyglass, beating all adult titles. In 2014 children’s book sales were up ten per cent against a book market that was generally about 2 per cent down.

What did JK Rowling do in Harry Potter that had such an effect? The magic of Harry Potter works on many levels. It invokes the age old conflict of good versus evil. It consistently and continually poses mystery – everything is a question that JK answers pages later. Why can Harry hear snakes? What happened to Moaning Myrtle? And the third component is the voice – the ability of the author to step inside a child’s head and understand the nuances of friendship, the emotions involved, and the frustration with the adult world – to eke out the bonds behind certain relationships – loyalty, trust, and empathy.

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JK Rowling is not the only writer to do this, other writers before her wrote wonderful children’s books – so did she just hit the zeitgeist head on – was she in the right place at the right time? Barry Cunningham, the man credited with finding JK Rowling, had been asked to set up a Bloomsbury children’s book list only a couple of years before the manuscript was submitted. He had previously worked with Roald Dahl, amongst others.

Not only did the Harry Potter series rejuvenate the children’s book market, it also enticed adults into reading again. It was an easy read for grownups who had long abandoned reading for pleasure of any sort. And reading is habit-forming. Harry Potter doesn’t only reach across age ranges, it also breaches the gender divide. Although JK Rowling was encouraged to be named as JK on the cover, not Joanne Rowling, because the publishers thought that books about boys written by a woman were not going to sell, it seems it no longer matters. Harry Potter has reached girls and boys, men and women, from 8-80 yrs.

This Thursday is Harry Potter Book Night. It’s an event created by Bloomsbury to celebrate Harry Potter and introduce him to the next generation of readers. Many many schools, libraries and shops throughout the country are holding parties – it’s a great excuse to celebrate children’s books.  I’ll be tweeting from the event at Waterstones Piccadilly, and blogging again tomorrow after the event. Have a great Harry Potter Book Night for those that do.

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Friendship: Best Friends Forever

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.” Charlotte’s Web by E B White.

One of the best things children’s books do is serve as a guide for how to get out of scrapes, and behave in certain situations – they can help children navigate social behaviours. These three books (all of which are part of a series – a big draw for children), depict female characters with whom young girls can identify, and familiar situations in which they may find themselves, all crafted with a touch of humour.

Emily Sparkes

Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco by Ruth Fitzgerald
The first in a brand new series, Emily Sparkes is a sparkling new addition to children’s literature. She bubbles with witty observations on her friends, her family and teachers, and muddles along in her day-to-day quest to survive school, friendships and parental issues. Emily’s life is not out of the ordinary; she goes to school every day, her parents have just had a new baby, and she worries about schoolwork, friendships and being stuck on the bus with Gross-out Gavin. She is an easily identifiable character, with a clear compass for right and wrong and perceived ills, which stands her in good stead with all those around her.
What I find really refreshing about Emily is that she seems to be a ‘middling child’. She’s not bullied, nor a bully, not the most popular nor the least, not the most academic and not the least – the sort of child whom parents feel often gets ignored. In this, Ruth Fitzgerald proves that the ‘unnoticeable’ should be noticed, as Emily’s wit sparkles in every circumstance in which she finds herself. I particularly liked her astute observations on her parents, and I appreciated the cute illustrations – which make it seem as if Emily has decorated her own book with doodles, drawings and stickers. The Friendship Fiasco starts with Emily’s best friend leaving and relocating with her family, and a new girl starting at school, with whom Emily desperately wants to make friends. All is not quite as it seems with new girl Chloe though, and after some misunderstandings are dealt with, Emily realises that maybe her new best friend has been in the classroom all along. A great new character, with some laugh-out-loud scenes. Publishes February 3rd.

Also to be published later this year, Emily Sparkes and the Competition Calamity

Old Friends New Friends

New Friend Old Friends by Julia Jarman
Julia’s series on friendships takes on a slightly different style, as the stories are narrated piecemeal by the friends in the story – first one, then another. There’s an introduction to each character at the beginning to help the reader navigate around who’s who. This works very well and is quite clever, in that the personalities of the girls begin to shine through; the tone shifting slightly between each child, and the reader has the omniscient eye of knowing what all the girls think. It enables the reader to foresee problems and jealousies that will inevitably arise. New Friend Old Friends introduces Shazia from Pakistan, and relates how the group of friends help her to fit in and adjust to life in England. It’s a fun read with realistic characters and situations. The illustrations are animated and accentuate the girls’ differences.

Also available, Make Friends Break Friends, A Friend in Need, and soon to be published, Friends Forever

Pea's Book

Pea’s Book of Best Friends by Susie Day
There’s nothing like an eccentric family in children’s literature. Almost reminiscent of I Capture the Castle, this glorious encounter with the Llewelllyns is highly visual and engrossing. Pea’s Book of Best Friends introduces Pea and her two sisters, Clover and Tinkerbell and describes their move to London. As with the other books here, the quest is on to find a new best friend, as Pea discovers that her old best friend isn’t missing her as much as she thinks. Pea makes a list of qualities she’d like in her new best friend in London, only to realise that people aren’t usually very well suited to lists – they tend to be slightly more complicated. The roundedness of the story is what appealed to me most – as Pea finds out that not only do her sisters also need to make new friends, but so does their Mum. There are some wonderfully funny touches, and it is a very sweet, and yet slightly quirky book, and Susie Day shows great skill in honing in on a girl’s experience of school and family. This is for a slightly older age group than those above – more 8+yrs.

Also available, Pea’s Book of Big Dreams, Pea’s Book of Birthdays, Pea’s Book of Holidays

 

Thank you to LBKids Publishers for providing me with a copy of Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco.

Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty

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One of the most exciting children’s books to be published in recent years, Shane Hegarty bursts onto the scene with this super quintessential tale of good versus evil – or in this case Legend Hunters versus monsters (the Legends). Finn is being trained up to become the next Legend Hunter in his small town of Darkmouth, the one remaining Blighted Village on earth where gateways open between the human world and the world of the Legends. The problem is, Finn is a bit rubbish, and it seems as if the Legends are plotting a big evil invasion. It’s a gripping read from start to finish with tremendous fighting scenes, and subtle cliffhangers, which give the whole book a feel of suspense. The standout feature for me is Finn’s generational burden, as all Finn’s ancestors were Hunters, and he must fulfill his destiny of becoming one himself, despite his misgivings. His father is insistent that Finn will rise to the challenge, and the scenes in which Finn is attempting not to disappoint his dad are heart-breaking and thrilling at the same time. The ongoing struggle to please parents is inherent in so many children, and Hegarty picks up and brilliantly describes this emotion for his readership. There’s a feisty female sidekick too, and a glut of repulsive and dangerous monsters. The descriptions of the village, the monsters and the fighting scenes are terrific, but massively enhanced by James de la Rue’s phenomenally detailed pictures. It is a highly visual read. I read the proof without illustrations, but was bowled over when I finally saw the finished product. More than worthy of book of the week, this is set to be a big series for Harpercollins, and rumour has it, a movie too!

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The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley

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

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

Silly Stories for Six and Over

Did you know that 70 per cent of children aged 6-17 years say they want more books that make them laugh? Here are some books I think the youngest in this age bracket might like:

Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face
Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face and the Badness of Badgers by John Dougherty, illustrated by David Tazzyman
This is a gigglefest from start to finish. A self-reflective story that follows Stinkbomb and Ketchup-face as they take part in a silly adventure on the small island of Great Kerfuffle, engaged in a quest decreed by the king to rid the kingdom of the ‘bad’ badgers.  John Dougherty applies wit and endless humour as he employs clever storytelling devices to lead you on a trip through funny chapter headings, allusions to characters realising they are only playing a part in a story, and playfulness on the words themselves. It’s a perfect short read for older reluctant readers, or a good contained story for newly independent readers. The humour is not too juvenile – more witty – which is very refreshing in children’s ‘funny’ stories, and you will have to rein yourself in from wanting to read bits aloud! The story is also suitably matched to David Tazzyman’s illustrations (those familiar with the Mr Gum stories will recognise the illustrator’s style). A brilliant read – with two more in the series already published, and another to come in July 2015.

Pigsticks and Harold

Pigsticks and Harold and the Incredible Journey by Alex Milway
Alex Milway brings to the table a cross-over link between picturebooks and chapter books for first readers with this wonderful full-colour chapter book about a self-important pig and a reluctant hamster and their ill-judged adventures. Pigsticks decides to make his mark and explore to The Ends of the Earth, but realises he’ll need an assistant to carry his gear and cook. Hamster inadvertently gets the job, and they set off on their adventures. The language bears out the characteristics of the pig and hamster brilliantly, and there are numerous laughs both from text and picture. There’s also a lot of cake. Beautifully produced, and wonderfully manageable, this is also a treat to be read aloud and savoured as there are plenty of little in-jokes for adults too. It feeds into the current trend in children’s publishing for more illustrations alongside text, never a bad thing with so many talented illustrators such as Alex Milway in the mix. If there weren’t already a hugely famous pig out there, I would say this lends itself beautifully to a television cartoon too. A second in the series was published in November 2014, Pigsticks and Harold and the Tuptown Thief.

Superhero school

Superhero School: The Revenge of the Green Meanie by Alan McDonald, illustrated by Nigel Baines
From the author of Dirty Bertie comes a new series about a superhero school. Stan Button is an ordinary child who receives a summons to a special school for an interview. Before long he’s enrolled and participating in superhero lessons with his superhero peers. Unfortunately for them, the Green Meanie is on the loose, and battle commences. Almost everyone in the story is inept – from the headmistress to the dinner lady, the students to the baddie, which makes the whole enterprise slapstick and in the end it’s more common sense and teamwork that overpowers the baddie than superskills. This is a good first reader, with the typical bottom jokes that children of this age find so humorous. I must warn though – this book strongly suggests that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist (which some children this age may find upsetting and surprising!) More are promised in this series later this year.

Fish Fingers

The Fabulous Four Fish Fingers by Jason Beresford, illustrated by Vicky Barker
For slightly more advanced readers, this first in a wacky series about four children who are granted their wish to be superheroes is a riotous read from start to finish, packed with groanworthy jokes and laughable antics. Our fabulous four fish fingers, Chimp, Nightingale, KangaRuby and Slug Boy, otherwise known as Gary, Bel, Ruby and Morris, take on evil duo Jumper Jack Flash and the Panteater to stop them stealing all the sweets in the village of Tumchester. What sets this funny story apart from others in the market is twofold: firstly Jason’s inventiveness, which seems to know no bounds, and secondly, the heart behind the book. Each character is imbued with the authors’ immense sense of fun and jauntiness, but there is also incredible feeling, from Ruby with her fear of rabbits, to Morris, aka Slug Boy, who always seems to get the short end of the straw, but inevitably manages to rise above. The underlying theme of the book is teamwork, as the four children discover that you can’t actually become a superhero overnight but need to practise and work as a team to overcome the enemy. Another in the series was published late last year, Frozen Fish Fingers.
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The 13-Storey Treehouse, by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, publishing UK 29th January
First published in Australia, Andy Griffiths’ treehouse books are now making their way to the UK. This is one of the most fun books I have read and I know several Year 3 students in my library who will adore this book and fall about laughing. Actually reading it was not unlike listening to banter between my husband and my son, as the book relates the dialogue between Andy and Terry as they think up what to write about for their latest book. The book is also stuffed full with cartoons, which are full of life, zesty and zany. Andy and Terry live in a 13 storey treehouse complete with lemonade fountain, man-eating shark pool, theatre and library and giant catapult (all simply illustrated). There are pages of detailed cartoons, and pages of simple ones, interspersed with lively laugh-out-loud text. The children who read this were enthralled by the idea that if they didn’t write the book, Andy and Terry would have to revert to working in the monkey house. They were also taken by the fact that the main characters were also the names of the authors. A fabulous laugh – it’s a joy to know there are more titles yet to come.

 

The Fabulous Four Fish Fingers was very kindly sent to me by Bounce marking on behalf of Catnip Publishing.

Is My Child Old Enough?

Harry Potter Goblet of Fire  Anne Frank

So here is one of the most startling problems with helping children pick something to read. Age-appropriateness. The question comes up time and time again from adults: “My eight year old child loves Harry Potter, but we’ve got to book three, and I think they get darker after that – should I continue or wait till she’s older”, and “How old should my child be to read Anne Frank?” etc.

Even when you go to a good bookshop, it’s not like clothes where they’re shelved by size – books are only very roughly broken down into categories by publishers, and even then there’s huge overlap and vagueness, and some books don’t sit properly in their ‘marketplace’ at all. You’ll quite often see labels (even on my site), such as picture books, early readers, middle grade, young adult. What do these mean?

Picture books are what they say on the tin! Ie. They’re books with pictures on every page – almost always a larger size than your standard book, and mainly for a young age group. I say mainly because in the breadth and depth of the picture book world, the age range is huge. Many will read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle to their children from birth, but The Arrival by Shaun Tan is best aimed at those aged eight and over. For The Sunday Times this was a picture book, in Publishers Weekly it was a graphic novel. In most bookshops I’ve seen it in the picture book section. The Arrival is a stunning book about having a sense of belonging, and explores issues of migration and displacement and refugees, but it’s not for pre-schoolers. Saying that, neither is The Promise by Nicola Davies (a book I hope to review on this blog shortly).

Early readers are those first titles that a child can start to read independently once they gain literacy fluency. However, even then the age at which they reach this point can vary hugely. Middle grade is roughly defined by the publishing industry as books aimed at readers aged 8-12 yrs with a protagonist of 10-13 yrs and a focus on friends, family and the immediate world. Young adult is generally perceived as being for readers aged 13-18 yrs, with older protagonists (14-18 yrs) who spend more time than the MG protagonists thinking and reflecting on what is happening and the meanings of things. These books may also contain romance, sex, profanity and violence. There is often some blurriness in the top end of MG and the bottom end of YA, and a huge debate over when young adult becomes part of the ‘grown up’ canon of literature.

Fastest Boy in the WorldFastest Boy in the World back

Some publishers started putting age labels on the back cover of their books to assist purchasing, and still do. My copy of The Fastest Boy in the World by Elizabeth Laird says 7+ on the back, which I do pretty much agree with. Although, again it depends on the individual child! In 2008 the Publishers’ Association found that 86 per cent of adults support labelling books like this, and staggeringly 40 per cent said they would buy more books if they had age labels! (Again, this points to people buying more books if only they knew which ones to buy!)

This became a hugely contentious issue. Doesn’t labelling a book as aimed at a certain age group limit it commercially, or in a perverse way just make it more attractive to those younger children for whom it isn’t intended? As I child I always wanted to watch films that were certified with a 15 certificate when I was under the age limit. We are drawn to the prohibited. It also makes the books less attractive to those older than the age label. And soul destroying to those who struggle with reading. A publisher such as Barrington Stoke allows you to search their website by reading age ability but also by content age, separating out the two. An interesting idea, and helpful to struggling readers.

And then there’s the school reading schemes – Cecelia Busby drew attention to the Accelerated Reading scheme on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure blogspot. The Accelerated Reader schemes labels books by ‘reading levels’, but it’s not done by a human, but by a computer – which then becomes a vocabulary and syntax exercise prone to error (in my mind anyway, as it deemed that a Daisy Meadows Rainbow Fairy title was more difficult to read than Alan Garner’s The Owl Service).

It’s the same argument that I’ve pointed to again and again. If you use a computer to give you reading choices, rather than a person – you’re going to be using an algorithm which, no matter how enlightened, has not actually read the books. Because what it boils down to is content. It’s all very well that an eight year old is a proficient reader, but just because they can read Forever by Judy Blume doesn’t mean they should.

Many parents believe that The Diary of Anne Frank, studied by many in Year 6 at school, needs to be read with an understanding of the context in which it’s set (the Holocaust). Of course you do, but there’s also plenty in the book about growing sexuality too – don’t forget Anne was 13 when she was given her diary and then went into hiding and wrote the diary for the next couple of years while she became aware of her own body. She writes extensively about exploring her vagina:
“There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can’t imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!”
It’s nothing revolutionary, and quite understandable for a 14 year old, but not something I personally want my nine year old reading just yet. I think they will simply appreciate it more when they too are approaching or going through puberty.

In fact, this leads me to one excellent way of judging a book’s suitability, which is the age of the protagonist. Most children want a protagonist with whom they can identify or in many cases, wish to be like. A protagonist the same age or a year or two older is about right. Harry Potter starts his sequence of books aged 11 and each year progresses through school, ending at aged 18, and I would suggest that children would get more out of the books if they read them at roughly the same ages. Many children aged seven do start reading Harry Potter, and if they can cope with the dark content of the later books, many read all the way through, but I would argue (contentiously I know), that reading them a little later would make for a better understanding and appreciation of the book. It’s simply a life stage – I know I read Madame Bovary totally differently at the tender of 18 yrs and single as to how I read it in my thirties, several years after having got married. It’s all about point of view.

Some believe that children will automatically self-censor – ie. if they read a book with content that’s too advanced for them, they won’t enjoy it and will stop reading. Author Patrick Ness doesn’t think age labels work:
“I don’t think it works, if it’s got an 18 certificate then younger children will look at it when their parents aren’t around … children are great self­-censors: they know what they can read and they know what they want to read.”
My argument with that is that it can put a child off a book forever, as they feel they already attempted it and it was dull – and then never return. If they have dismissed a book at the wrong age by misunderstanding the nuances and underlying content, they may never go back to it. My absolute horror would be to give my children Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy at too early an age, so that they turn round and tell me it’s ‘dull’. So, I’m not suggesting censoring, just reaching out for the full breadth of children’s books that are available for your child at any given age, and not pushing them to read ‘higher’ up the literacy level until they are ready and willing, and you are somewhat aware of the content.

It’s impossible to read every book before your child, so there is no easy solution. You can talk to someone like me of course, although even I haven’t read all the books in the world! You can read about the book and do some research, and accept that at some point you will be caught out. When my daughter was six she was a proficient reader and was given a library book by an innocent librarian – it was only when my daughter asked me what ‘snogging’ was that I realised the content was inappropriate. My advice: don’t rely on a computer, do talk to as many people as possible about your book choices, don’t push your child onto the next ‘level in the hope of advanced literacy skills’ – there is plenty of amazing content out there for your child – and do take the more advanced books and read them aloud to your child so you can discuss issues when they arise.

 

 

 

And So This Is Christmas…

The Story of Holly and Ivy

On my bookshelf are a fair few books from my childhood that are now sadly out of print. One, for which I lament its inaccessibility more than others, is a traditional Christmas tale, The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden. In fact, it’s not my favourite book of Godden’s – that title belongs to the brilliant The Diddakoi (in my view one of the best books on outsiders and bullying), but The Story of Holly and Ivy stands out as a simple, old-fashioned story that deserves to be read every Christmas Eve.
It is a story about wishes. After all, every child has their wishes at Christmas – wishes that Father Christmas visits them and delivers the correct present – wishes that their family can spend some quality time together – wishes for a healthy and happy new year following the holiday season.
Holly is a doll in the story, who wishes to be bought and owned and loved. Ivy is an orphan child, who likewise wishes to be looked after and loved, and Mrs Jones is a woman with no child who wishes for her own. The three strands tie together to create a little Christmas tale with a happy ending. It may sound sentimental, and does massively affect the heart strings, but the narration is so pure that you forgive any play on the emotions.

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Reassuringly confident, Rumer Godden takes the role of the omniscient author, addressing ‘you’ the reader and speaking of ‘I’, the storyteller, as she explains what you and/or I would feel, and what she knows that Ivy does not know. Her gentle tones sweep the reader through the story. Some of the most stunning lines of the story have a presence today that the author could not have anticipated when she wrote it in 1959:
“They did not know, and Abracadabra [the owl] did not know that it is when shopping is over that Christmas begins.”
And my Christmas wish is for the publisher to realise the strength of this story and to commission a new and upcoming modern illustrator, and repackage the book for the next generation. Although it’s available on an e-reader (and I truly believe e-readers have their place for many texts), this book deserves to be given as a gift, shared with siblings, and pored over in book form.

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The cover version Young Puffin shown at the top is my old copy from the 1970s, illustrated by Sheila Bewley, but out of print. This edition, Viking, 2006 was illustrated by Barbara Cooney and is available in some shops, although there seem to be more copies available in the US than here in the UK. An ebook edition is available. 

Penguin or Owl?

So first there was snow – and then there were penguins. I’m not sure when penguins became synonymous with Christmas, but this year they certainly have – from the John Lewis advert to the Penguins of Madagascar, Penguins have arrived in London in time for Christmas.

owl or penguin
When I was little I had a small soft toy called Owly. It was loved and cherished (see its somewhat battered state now), but it was only recently that someone pointed out that maybe it’s a penguin. So I thought – that’s a great premise for a book – the penguin with the mistaken identity. In the meantime, here are some books that have already been written:

Penguin Polly DunbarPouting Boy
Penguin by Polly Dunbar
My overall abiding love for this book is one illustration that depicts a facial expression, in which a close member of my family is THE expert. Penguin tells the story of a boy called Ben who receives a penguin as a present, but the penguin will not communicate with him, no matter what Ben does. Finally Ben is eaten by a lion, the penguin saves him, and the penguin suddenly has a great deal to say. The book is packed with witty illustrations, a zany storyline and a winning outcome. An old favourite. Penguins are often used as a way to explore and develop friendships in picture books – I wonder if that’s because they are often depicted huddling together? Two perfect examples of penguin friends are Fluff and Billy Do Everything Together by Nicola Killen and Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers.

Fluff and BillyLost and Found
Fluff and Billy tells the tale of when play between friends gets rough leading to hurt and falling out – before there is forgiveness and friendship again. It works well to read aloud to a small child because the book is littered with repetition. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is fast becoming a children’s classic. The book tells the story of a boy who opens the door one day to see a penguin standing on his doorstep. He spends much of the book grappling with what to do with the penguin – until realising at the end that the penguin just wants a friend. Jeffers’ illustrations are beguilingly simple – less is more in fact. Jeffers said that the illustrations are deliberately simple so that children, wherever they are, can fill in the gaps with their own individual landscapes. Characters too – the penguin is a few simple lines – it almost seems as if the characters of the boy and the penguin are more expressive the less detail they have. Jeffers’ text also shines with a simple clarity – basic plotlines mixed with truisms and pathos:
“He ran down to the harbour and asked a big ship to take them to the South Pole. But his voice was much too small to be heard over the ship’s horn.”
So much expressed so simply – the vastness of the ship and the world as compared to a small boy asking for help.

Blown Away
The new addition to the ‘penguin’ canon of literature, and published in August of this year is Blown Away by Rob Biddulph. I implore you to find and read a copy. Rob Biddulph’s blue penguin may be more ‘Hampstead Heath’ inspired than normal Antarctic penguins, but, like Jeffers, his penguin is simply drawn – Biddulph too remarking that children can put their own emotions into the animals, so simple black dots for eyes work best. With rhyming text, Biddulph explores what happens when Blue the penguin gets blown away on his kite, picking up cargo along the way, and finally setting down onto a jungle island. But does he want to stay?
“’How nice,” says Blue,
A lovely spot,
Although it is
a bit too hot.”
The beauty of this book lies in the small details. Every page is lovingly created so that your eyes pick up the story and the animals’ emotions almost by osmosis – the rhyming text is lovely to read aloud, but the extra touches on the illustrations won me over. A charming Christmas present that’s not just for Christmas!

Dragon Loves Penguin
My last picture book is Dragon Loves Penguin by Debi Gliori, shortlisted for the 2015 Red House Children’s Book Awards. I coordinate the testing in my area for this award, so know very well how popular this book has proved with young children. It celebrates diversity, and is even relevant for those attempting to explain adoption to the very young – in essence it’s about mother’s love. When an egg is abandoned, a dragon without its own egg adopts it, but when it hatches it’s a penguin! Despite the differences, the mother dragon loves the penguin as her own, and the love makes the little penguin brave enough to see off her dragon peers who can’t accept her differences, and also to escape an erupting volcano. Yes, this little picture book is packed full of action – and has adorable illustrations – rarely has a penguin chick looked quite so cute.

The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out
For slightly older readers, in the Jill Tomlinson series of animal books is The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out. Beautifully told so that the reader learns about penguins at the same time as digesting the story. Jill Tomlinson’s strength is her ability to weave fiction and non-fiction seamlessly here, with some magical lines:
“The trouble was, not all adults were good at answering questions, or would try.”

The Emperors EggUsborne Beginners Penguin
For those children who want to find out even more, and for adults who can’t tell the difference between an owl and a penguin here are two great non-fiction titles for early learners.The Emperor’s Egg by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Jane Chapman, is part of the Nature Storybooks series – telling the story of the Emperor penguins. It’s an excellent starting point for a young child wishing to find out more information. It’s not patronising, but is written as if the child is having a conversation with the writer about penguins. Asking questions of the young reader, particularly ones that make them think, is a lovely way to write a non-fiction book. No wonder this won the TES Junior Information Book Award. The Usborne Beginners series has a book on penguins; I like this series for their gentle introduction to non-fiction. Helpfully containing a glossary and an index, and with short chunks of text throughout for easily digestible facts. It also covers many different types of penguins. Usborne have also had their facts checked by experts in the field, which sadly, is not true of all children’s non-fiction in the marketplace.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Five Children on the Western Front
Hailed with a chorus of five star reviews when published last year, Five Children on the Western Front really does deserve all accolades thrown at it. Kate Saunders has taken E Nesbit’s story of the sand fairy, the psammead, from Five Children and It, and moved it gently into the era of the First World War. The book works as a stand-alone novel, but those with prior knowledge of the psammead won’t be in any way disappointed with the update. It’s as if E Nesbit herself had written it. The children, despite some having reached young adulthood, stay divinely in character, as does the psammead – and the period details of the time are lovingly rendered. The manners, the setting, the dialogue are all completely convincing and beautifully crafted. What struck me most however, was that Kate Saunders manages to convey the horror of the war injuries, the devastation of the deaths, and the immense change that the war wrought on the world without scaring any young child reading the book. I enjoyed it fully as an adult read, but have no qualms reading this war literature piece to the eight year olds and older with whom I read (although reading aloud may be difficult as I was reduced to tears on more than one occasion!) I couldn’t recommend a book more highly – a perfect example of how a children’s book should be.