middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

When Good Geeks Go Bad: A Q&A with author Catherine Wilkins

when good geeks go badIt all started with a pair of trainers. Ever had an argument with your child over their choice of shoes for school? Or about an accessorised piece of school uniform? When I was a child I wore a brightly-coloured coat to school as a clear mark of rebellion against my school’s black coat policy. Today, I see various attempts to challenge authority with hair style, or key rings on bags, or shoes!

When Good Geeks Go Bad begins with Ella’s Dad refusing to buy her a cool pair of shoes or let her stay up late. And yet she’s always been a good girl. So Ella decides to go bad. Perhaps then she can get her own way. But being bad is more than just a few detentions and she’s soon losing control.

In fact, she’s already lost control at home, where her parents are spending time apart. So when her best friend wants to spend time apart from her too, she wonders if it really is best being bad, or if being geeky was good after all.

This highly-relatable, funny read from comedienne and writer Catherine Wilkins is an excellent look at a young teen fitting in at school, and finding her own place at home, as well as working out which identity she’s going to carry through her teen years. Who to be friends with and for what reasons? It poses the sorts of questions many children ask of themselves in Year 8, on the cusp of being full-blown teenage. Wilkins understands how to write funny as well as how to explore the pathos in harder family scenarios, and she creates a highly identifiable character in Ella.

Written in first person, Wilkins captures the wishes and desires, the nuances of Ella’s life and thoughts, almost in diary-style, as well as those of her peers, so that the reader can often see more of their motivations than Ella can herself – giving the reader even more laughs, and also understanding. Here, Catherine Wilkins answers some questions on the book, and her own ‘funny’ life:

Were you Good at school or were you Bad?

A bit of both. I was a slightly mischievous younger child. When I started secondary school I became shy and quite well behaved. Then I eventually rebelled again a little bit. Like Ella, I wore trainers to school. I think there’s something about testing where the line is that all kids do. (Also I really liked my trainers at the time).

In When Good Geeks Go Bad, Ella’s dad refuses to let her have cool shoes. Was there an item you wanted in your childhood that you never got bought? 

There were many, many items I wanted that I never got. From a sooty puppet to a frosty the snowman ice slushie maker. We never had money for crazy purchases, but my parents encouraged me to save up for things, or wait for birthdays, so sometimes I got lucky too. (The downside of this is that when I wanted a shell suit, I eventually got one. And I still have not managed to burn all the photos of it.)

In the book there’s also some serious stuff about separated parents. Do you think all comedy should go dark at some stage?

I would never legislate that all comedy should do anything. I think comedy is subjective and everyone has different taste. I find when things in my life go a bit dark, it can help me to laugh at them, make them less scary, make sense of them and bring them back into the light. But that might not work for everyone. Comedy can be used in many different ways. I like that it can be a coping mechanism, to cheer things along, or satirical beacon shining a light on hypocrisy and corruption. And you can enjoy dark comedy and still like slapstick too.

Also I feel like in this book, there are genuinely serious bits, that we’re not laughing at, but they are then undercut or contrasted with the more funny bits.

You write comedy for kids – does being funny come naturally to you? Are you the funniest in your house?

I live in such a fun house that it unfairly throws off the grade curve. My three-year-old daughter is probably the funniest. She’s always making up jokes and dances and clowning around. She has comedy chops. Then my one-year-son is pretty funny, but more in a cute way. Then my husband is a comedian and writer too, and they all play funny games together. I might be somewhere at the back, just after the cat (who is actually really funny at falling off things and then looking to see if anyone saw).

What’s the scariest thing about doing stand-up comedy?

The profit margin. BOOM. (Jokes). For me, the scariest thing would be never having tried doing it. But lots of people would say performing in front of other people is nerve-wracking. I didn’t find that so much when they were strangers, but as I climbed the ladder a bit, and there’s accountability because the gig matters and you have to impress the next booker or reviewer, that’s when I would get nervous and lose my spark. But when I started, the thrill of testing a new joke and getting a laugh made up for everything.

Which fictional character do you wish you could be (for a while)?

This is a really hard question to answer because there’s so much to choose from. Maybe I’d like to be Alice and check out Wonderland for a while, and have some adventures.

What advice would you give budding comedy writers?

You are probably already a fan of comedy, so keep doing that and consume as much comedy as you can. Keep a notebook about your person to write down your funny thoughts and observations. I think sometimes with comedy it can be ‘spotting’ the joke, as much as making it up, seeing if you can spot something that no one else has connected in that exact way.

If you have a friend who has the same sense of humour as you, sometimes it helps to pretend you are trying to make them laugh. Or even collaborate with funny friends and try and write stuff together. (When I was at school I was often trying to force friends to do comedy with me, but they weren’t always as into it).

But also it’s important to write about what you think is funny, not what you think other people might laugh at, or what’s expected. It’s yours. Your jokes, your voice.

And lastly, is the next book simmering – will we see Ella again? Or is there something new?

There is a new book on the horizon, but it’s something brand new, not Ella. But never say never, it might be fun to see what Ella gets up to next in the future as well.

With thanks to Catherine Wilkins for her time. When Good Geeks Go Bad is published today, 10th January, and you can buy it here. 

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

our castle by the seaI don’t know what the state of the world will be like this first Sunday of 2019, because I’m writing this review from the depths of Brexit mania in December 2018, but I do know that this historical fiction for readers age 9+ will still be relevant. Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange is set in a lighthouse overlooking the sea – looking out towards Europe from our tiny island – and the book, like the lighthouse, takes a wide perspective on our world – on conflict, family and belonging.

It is 1939 and Petra lives in a lighthouse that dominates a landscape of secret tunnels, sweeping beaches, and ancient legends. Stormy skies above are swiftly being overtaken with enemy planes. To complicate matters, Petra’s mother is German, and before long the police suspect that spying activity is going on within the lighthouse and ‘Mutti’ is interned for being a foreign enemy.

Strange’s attention to detail creates a filmic picture in the reader’s mind – in a visually notable scene the family have to paint the lighthouse green to camouflage it – and Strange also details the lighthouse’s workings and logbooks. There is another fabulously memorable scene in which Petra tries on a gas mask for the first time – the sensory feelings invoked feel authentic as if Strange has experienced it first-hand.

So the book works as an excellent study on the home front during the war – but it also excels in delivering on its themes, not only across the novel but also in small linguistic ways – using imagery of the sea and water in metaphor:

“like water freezing in the cracked surface of a stone, those secrets were growing colder, harder, starting to force us apart.”

Strange also ties ancient legend from the location into Petra’s situation: the nightmare of the legend of the Wyrm, the swirling treacherous waters that devour ships off the coast, comes to life in the danger that stalks ordinary people in wartime.

And yet there is also the extraordinary dichotomy of carrying on life as normal whilst things are clearly not normal in wartime. Strange explores this with her controlled plot and confident writing. There is a clear sense of a family trying to swim when all about are sinking and no one is willing to throw a lifeline.

Historical fiction works best when it gives an accurate portrayal of how people once lived and excavates the social fabric of their lives, and also when it manages to invoke thoughts in the reader about their current situation – and fundamental to Strange’s plot is working out where people’s allegiance lies – and where the finger of suspicion is pointed. Not all is as it seems in Petra’s life, people hide who they are and what they are doing, and as she uncovers the truth, so does the reader, triggering thoughts about the still common practice of attributing labels and stereotypes to people – framing them within a pre-conceived identity. Historical novels can be a great indicator of the present day.

Not unlike Letters to the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll, published for children last year, the landscape is fundamental to the plot, and it provokes thought on what we make of the structures and landscapes we inhabit.

Strange doesn’t hold back on her fiction just because it’s for children, and this is another powerful novel from a skillful writer. Absorbing and truthful, the characters are a far cry from the stony coldness or petrification that the name Petra implies. In fact, they show bravery, compassion and emotional strength – something we could learn from, entrenched as we are in our present political turmoil. You can buy yourself Our Castle by the Sea here, and be transported to its wild coastline and wartime experience.

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com and follow Lucy Strange on twitter @theLucyStrange

Dyslexia and Writing: Amber Lee Dodd

lightning chase me home

There’s a glut of new middle grade books arriving this January, and it’s intriguing for a reviewer to try to pick up on a ‘trend’ or theme running through them. What were the writers preoccupied with while they were writing, what did they want to say?

Amber Lee Dodd’s Lightning Chase Me Home feels personal from the beginning. Told in first person narration by Amelia Hester McLeod (named for two explorers: Amelia Earhart and Lady Hester Stanhope), this is a heart-wrenching tale of a girl embarking on a new adventure herself – starting a new school. Amelia is immediately endearing – and struggling – her mother is absent, Amelia suffers from dyslexia, and to make matters a little more complicated (and fictional), after she makes a wish on her eleventh birthday off her small Scottish island on the Serpent’s Tooth Rock – she finds herself magically disappearing and reappearing elsewhere. Will she work out why, and can she use it to find the courage to push through, and maybe, maybe could she use the strange power to find her mum?

Lightning Chase Me Home is one of those treasured novels for the 9+ audience, packing in a great plot, some magical realism, but also issues that dominate ‘primary school and beyond’ discussions – how to deal with an elderly grandfather who doesn’t always remember where he is, managing with the emotions invoked by an absent parent, the constant building of resilience and harnessing bravery, and the power of folklore and magic to explain our own small lives. Dodd has a gift for identifying the makeup of a person – be it the objects that help to define us and our relationships, the difficulties some children have in learning or making friends, and how schools and parents deal with this, and the understanding that not all people are what they first seem.

Amber Lee Dodd portrays her main character with an acute sensitivity, but manages to weave in magic, a sense of great explorers of the past, and an endearing friendship that feels as real as it is strong. Below, she reveals why Amelia is so close to her own heart.

As someone with dyslexia, I thought that writing and reading were impossible. Before secondary school, I had real struggles with reading. In fact I hated it! I hated reading, I hated writing and I hated books. I sat in my special needs classes reading Fuzz Buzz books. Books about a blue spiky ball with enormous legs who never did anything more exciting that remark on the weather. If this is what books are, I thought, there is no point in me learning to read.

amber lee dodd
Amber Lee Dodd

But even when my teachers gave up, saying I was hopeless, my parents refused to. They would make me read through my reading books again and again. I ended up memorising them from the pictures before I could make out the words. Slowly, painfully, I started to recognise words, memorise them and store them away. My word bank began to build, until one day, like magic, I realised I could read.

After spending so long struggling to read, when I finally could it felt like I had personally discovered books. At school, I would pour through Tintin and Asterix comics. I read every book on how to care for everything from puppies to pet spiders. Then I found even more books to fall in love with, The Worst Witch series, Jacqueline Wilson’s books and Malorie Blackman’s. Once, I spent a whole day on a kitchen chair with Double Act wishing desperately that I could be a twin.

The only thing better than reading turned out to be writing.For a long time it was the one and only thing at school I was good at. I found that I could invent stories from thin air and filled pages of my exercise books with big wobbly writing and dramatic inky pictures. I once even made my teacher cry with one of my stories. Writing stories became my super power.

And I want to share that power with everyone. So here are my top tips for dyslexic writers (and for non dyslexic writers too).

Firstly, don’t worry about your spelling. I still make massive spelling mistakes. My first book had a spelling mistake in the very first sentence and it still went on to be published. Plus writers get to work with magical people called copy editors and like teachers they can fix all your spelling mistakes. Being creative does not include being an expert at spelling!.

Secondly, read. And read lots. Don’t worry if you’re slow about it. It still takes me about a month to finish reading one book!  But I take a lot of that book in. And I still go back and reread things if they didn’t make sense to me first time or I jumped a few lines. It may be a slow process, but the advantage is you can learn more from it and start to unravel how the author put things together.

Thirdly, don’t worry if you’re doing it differently. My dyslexic brain makes me jump all around a story narrative and I often have to write quite a bit before I can sort out the plotting. Find a way to organise your thoughts and ideas that works for you. Some people make visual diagrams,or come up with places their characters visit and fit the plotting around that.I write lots of lists and notes and flow charts often on the back of used envelopes. There is no right way, only the way that works for you.

And lastly, for me the best way to start a story is just to start writing it. Write that first line. Make it intriguing, or scary, or funny. Make it the best first line you can think of. Then think of who that first line is about. How are they feeling? And what’s happening to them? Stories are all about questions and finding the answers to them is half the fun.

There’s much to extrapolate in Lee Dodd’s second novel, many issues and great characters, but in essence, Lightning Chase Me Home is a good adventure story. Amber Lee Dodd’s first novel, We Are Giants, is reviewed here, and you can purchase Lightning Chase Me Home here.

Paper Avalanche by Lisa Williamson

paper avalancheThis is a book with a mental health issue at its heart, and although like No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsin, Williamson has clearly taken a ‘theme’ or ‘problem’ she wants to address and written a story on it, the novel in no way feels like an ‘issue’ book. The characters are so well drawn, so likeable and sympathetic and written in such an understanding way, that they could be real, and so it feels more like a character exploration than a focus on ‘issue’. 

Year 9 student Ro Snow spends much of her time at school trying hard to be invisible. She’s one of those children at school who wanders the corridor alone, keeps her head down in lessons, and doesn’t shine in any after school clubs or at any talent because she wants to be un-noticed. She’s a ‘behind the scenes’ kind of person. The reader first meets her at an after-show drama club party where she is shying away from the teenage boy who clearly has noticed her and taken an interest. It feels authentic, and squirmy and also deeply moving.

Ro’s mother is a hoarder, and their house, to Ro, is both highly embarrassing from the outside and an absolute shocker from the inside. Piles of dishes litter the sink, piles of paper line the corridors. Ro can’t see her carpet anymore, and she has to shuffle sideways to make it through her hallway. Her room though, with a lock on the door to keep her mother out, is spotless, clean, minimal. However, she can’t make friends, in case they expect an invite home, so she keeps herself to herself.

Ro feels that her mother’s mental health issue defines her whole life. Until that is, things start to change, as life invariably does. A new family with teenage boy move in next door. And a girl called Tanvi starts at her school who takes an unlikely punt as who’s to be her new best friend – picking Ro. When Tanvi forces Ro into joining the school choir, and Ro discovers how talented she really is, it becomes harder and harder to hide from the spotlight. But with a light shone on her circumstances, things could go drastically wrong…By the end Ro comes to understand that she isn’t defined by her mother or her hoarding, nor limited by it, and it’s through the kindness and caring of people around her that this becomes apparent. 

Williamson is masterful in drawing out the usual trials and tribulations of the teen years into a captivating read, in which the reader feels every emotion with the characters. Her writing is unobtrusive, leading the reader flawlessly from one scene to the next, never breaking the spell of imagination, but managing to show the profound effects of loneliness and shame.

Included in the narrative is Ro’s ever more absent father, who has found a new wife and daughter, and some of the scenes with him are excruciatingly real. With her embarrassment of her home life, her feelings of rejection around her father, and her worries about everyday practicalities, Williamson shows a teenager under huge pressure and anxiety, but still incorporates enough humour, wisdom and kindness from friends and outsiders to make the reader feel that resolutions will come. And they do, but like life, not in all areas, and sometimes they’re still a bit messy.

I particularly enjoyed how Williamson very slowly incorporated into the text Ro’s first experience of having a boyfriend, only at the end revealing how many parallels there are between the pair.

This is a great book from one of the best YA authors around.  Whether it’s showing how secrets are best shared, the small intimate details between mother and daughter, a teen’s frustration at fighting to be in control and yet still wanting a responsible parent, first love that’s not too complicated or angst ridden, or just the emotional pull of engaging characters, this is a book not to be missed.

Paper Avalanche strikes deep, yet remains phenomenally readable. Age 12+ years. You can buy it here.

Animal Fun

anthology of intriguing animals
An Anthology of Intriguing Animals by Ben Hoare, illustrated by Daniel Long, Angela Rizza, and Daniela Terrazzini
This beautiful book looks as if it belongs in some treasured library, with its foil cover, gold edges and hefty weight, but inside it feels modern, spacey and fresh. The book aims to be encyclopedic with a twist, not only showcasing the visual image of the animal, and exploring facts about them, but also including myths and stories too. Initially, some of the animals don’t seem to be ‘intriguing’, after all there is an ant listed, which feels fairly ordinary, until you read the text about ant colonies, and honeypot ants that once sucked as sweets in Australia and North America. Written by a wildlife journalist and with huge images, this is quite a collection. The piranha looks so three-dimensional on its full page that I had to turn the page to stop it looking at me. A phenomenal book that goes beyond the ordinary facts. (Buy it just to see the adorable picture of the koala asleep). You can buy it here.

clue is in the poo
The Clue is in the Poo by Andy Seed, illustrated by Claire Almon
The title may be enticing for some children, offputting for older children, but this book is much more than a book about animal droppings. It aims to create a nature detective in the reader, teaching them how to track or tell an animal from its faeces, but also revealing the other tracks and traces animals leave in their wake, as well as exploring animal homes, animal eggs and feathers, bird pellets and more. With occasional quizzes to test knowledge, and pages that are neatly broken up into different colourful boxes, diagrams, captions and annotations, this is packed full of information. I love the ‘leafy lunch menu’ which explores how to tell if a leaf is being nibbled by a minibeast, as well as the spread entitled ‘Do Bears poo in the woods?’ to which the answer is a definitive ‘yes’ but covers other signs for bears and things they eat. This page is enhanced by the gorgeously cartoon-like illustrations, which show bears climbing trees, digging a hole, and yes, pooing. With a title like this, the text inside needs to convey humour, and matched with the witty illustrations, this is a fun animal read. You can buy it here.

we build our homes
We Build Our Homes by Laura Knowles and Chris Madden
I’ve long been a fan of Laura Knowles’ picture books, which offer information and a message in a simple yet ultimately stylish way, and this is a treat for natural architect fans everywhere, particularly when the reader realises that some of these animals build their intricate homes afresh every year – they can’t simply give it a lick of paint or hang new curtains! The book showcases a range of animals and their homes from the obvious, such as the beaver, to the more unknown such as Darwin’s Bark Spiders or Edible-Nest Swiftlets. But what’s really incredible is Knowles’ prose style, which verges into poetry as she writes, as if each animal is talking to the reader (first person narrative) and manages to rhyme in places, as well as provide perfect metaphor. The Ovenbirds build their nests out of mud so that the summer sun bakes them hard “Like pots in a kiln. Like biscuits in an oven.”  The illustrations bear a tone of softness and understanding, as if the reader is a respectful voyeur, an invited observer. There is no white space on the page – each landscape floods to the edges. The book ends with a look at humans, a world map and a fact file. You can buy it here.

who are you calling weird
Who Are You Calling Weird? By Marilyn Singer and Paul Daviz
More unusual animals in this bold vibrant collection of animal profiles, including the aye-aye, boxer crab and Mwanza flat-headed agama. Each animal is featured with a large computer-graphic style illustration in its own landscape; the platypus swims towards the reader with bubbles escaping from its mouth. A few paragraphs sum up each animal, explaining why they are ‘weird’ and explaining how the quirk serves a purpose. The proboscis monkey’s large nose is not only attractive to the female but the larger his nose, the more noise he can make, scaring away enemies. There’s lots of information here; each animal is described in terms of their behaviour, diet, and habitat. The book is colourful in aesthetics but also in language – it feels bold and outgoing, friendly and lively – asking questions of the reader, speaking in second person at times, almost in dialogue so that the reader feels they are being gently led by the hand into the animal kingdom. The last page features the human – what’s so weird about us you might ask – you’ll have to read it to find out. You can buy it here.

when the whales walked
When the Whales Walked (And Other Incredible Evolutionary Journeys) by Dougal Dixon, illustrated by Hannah Bailey
For something slightly more complex, this is a fascinating look at evolution, using 13 case studies to explore evolution of species, including the transformation of dinosaurs into birds, and documenting the earliest elephants. Each journey takes a few pages of the book – there are details that need extrapolating. Experienced author Dixon takes the reader through each journey carefully, explaining and guiding so that the reader is assured about the evidence and progress through time. Dixon references bones and fossils, and gives boxes of detailed species information including pronunciation of names, period lived and size, as the journey proceeds. The whys are also explained – Why are elephants so large? Elephants reached their large size for protection. Other data showcases large numbers too  – elephants evolved to their current size over 25 million years – but the other information is just as incredible. I love the detailed drawings of cats’ teeth, and the head shapes of birds. Each page is more fascinating than the last, and there is annotation, timeline, maps and diagrams to help the reader understand. Compelling. You can buy it here.

Famous Family Trees by Kari Hauge, illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger

famous family treesResearch seems to indicate that children who have a strong family narrative, who are in touch with their roots, have better emotional health. Knowledge of this ancestral past seems to give children a grounding, a sense of control, and an ability to understand how their family functions. (Fivush and Duke, Emory U, Atlanta). I’ve written about this before when reviewing books that allow a child to explore their own family history, learning their genealogy but also understanding the environment in which their parents, and grandparents, and ancestors grew up. The combination of nature and nurture.

But what about if you could find out about a famous person’s family tree? What further insights could it give you to that person? Perhaps they were an only child, or had a famous parent, or an influential cousin? This fascinating, and rather beautiful book, aims to show some of the history and nature and nurture of famous individuals. These are biographies conveyed in a unique way, and of course the attraction of laying out each personality within their family tree also gives the book its own pretty aesthetic.

There are over 30 family trees portrayed in the book, including the Brontes, Shakespeare and Ghengis Khan, as the book explores both famous and infamous lives. The family trees not only explore the relatives or ancestry, and in some cases descendants of the person, but also the time in which they lived, the history and circumstances.

Depending on the person, the family tree highlights different branches. So for example, Mozart is shown in relation to his parents and siblings, and yet his wife’s family is also portrayed – with parents and siblings. Abraham Lincoln is shown only within the context of his own family, from his grandparents to his last direct descendant. The authors of the book have been clever here, showing the reader the most interesting lives and stories within each family.

Every famous person is afforded a couple of paragraphs about themselves as well, and also background to the time in which they lived and other small details. In the crowded pages about Charles Dickens, the reader learns about his family, but also how his books were published as instalments in newspapers, the debtors’ prison, and much more. Ada Lovelace’s complicated family history is extrapolated in the ways in which Byron was associated with so many of her relatives, but the page also explores the influence of Ada’s mother and grandmother on her, and side details on the analytical engine.

Anyone who’s ever attempted to draw their own family tree will recognise how difficult it is to lay it out, and how complicated it can get. Mildenberger does a fine job of fitting the complex relationships onto a page without it ever feeling too squashy – despite the number of children people tended to have many years ago! Each character isn’t just named, but is drawn as a small portrait, and this itself is fascinating – including hairstyles, hats and clothes. The illustrations feel folksy and old-worldly and the illustrator is particularly adept at making each family look distinct, but the characters within one family share similar traits. Clever and humorous.

For those who aren’t familiar with family trees, there is an introductory spread on how family trees work and the symbols. The book includes profiles on Mary Shelley, Queen Elizabeth I, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, William Shakespeare, Catherine the Great, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and many more. A fascinating way to look at biographies. You can buy it here.

Quick Gift Guide: Books

Are you still stuck for Christmas gifts? Perhaps it’s not for Christmas, but a seasonal present. I’m always pleased to receive a book – and trust me I already have a few! Here are some eclectic titles that have nothing to do with Christmas, which various family members might like:

the boy and the bear
For the very young:
The Boy and the Bear by Tracey Corderoy and Sarah Massini
There’s a wintry feel with this delightful picture book about unlikely friendship, and patience. With glowing silver snowflakes on the cover, and a boy in a woolly hat holding hands with an adorable bear, the book gives a warm fuzzy feeling from the start. The story has an old-fashioned timeless feel, the boy running in the countryside flying a paper aeroplane with satchel swinging from his hip. There is not a screen in sight. Nor a friend either. But there is a shy bear. Although seemingly incompatible (in the most adorable ways), the pair strike a friendship, which has to take a hiatus for hibernation. The matching of text to illustration strikes perfection here. There is humour, pathos, a conveyance of the passing of time, and so much emotion. I suggested this for the very young, but if you’re young at heart, you’ll love this too. An absolute gem of a picturebook. You can buy it here.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

For the unicorn-obsessed (and others)
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson (7+)
This glittery pink full length comic strip novel tells a cute story in simple sharp lines, with jokes a-plenty, and will enthral youngsters with its tale of Phoebe and her vain mythical animal companion. Phoebe skips a rock across a pond and accidentally hits a unicorn in the face. The unicorn, until then completely absorbed in its own reflection, is thankful for the distraction and grants Phoebe a wish. She wishes for the unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, to be her obligatory best friend. And thus the adventures begin. As you’ve noticed from the name of the unicorn, there’s more than a hint of mischief here, but the book also bears a special message about overcoming loneliness and finding one’s own strengths and virtues. This is a lot of fun, and because the comic strip maintains focus on the key characters rather than deviating too much into the landscape, and the strips are self-contained, the story is easy to follow for reluctant readers. The newest full length comic strip title is Phoebe and Her Unicorn in Unicorn Theater. Sweet and sugary, and reminiscent of My Little Pony with a bit of attitude, this is a US title now available here.

the ink house
For the appreciative art fan:
The Ink House by Rory Dobner (8+)
This isn’t a usual picture book. More a unique curiosity through the artist’s mind as he seeks to explore the insides of The Ink House, an intricately designed mansion built on a pool of ink, in which a party of animals is due to take place, after the human resident takes off in a hot air balloon to search for further knickknacks to add to his treasured collection.

The illustrations, in ink of course, are amazingly detailed and stunningly imagined. There’s a darkness, a gothic tendency in the drawings, and the feeling is that each stroke is penned as delicately as if he were crafting a poem. The story isn’t really a story – just a menagerie of animals within a setting, and the scenes in which Dobner showcases the house in most detail work best. The mouse on the desk with piles of books, clocks, candle, quill pen; the ape in armchair with guitar, old-fashioned tea set, and gramophone showcases the neat juxtaposition between old and new, distorting one’s expectations and reality; the horses in the tiled hallway complete with pillars and a view onto the gardens. The artwork is disturbing, disjointed and wonderful, justifying the purchase even if the text is a little clunky. My advice – add your own words to the pictures, and tell the story in your head. You can buy it here.

absolutely everything

For everyone:
Absolutely Everything by Christopher Lloyd, illustrated by Andy Forshaw
The author of this conversational tome is nothing if not ambitious. The contents of this nonfiction narrative span from the Big Bang through dinosaurs, homo sapiens, ancient civilisations, the classical empires to the medieval, age of exploration, revolutions, wars and onwards. Everything in fact. The tone is avuncular, as if you’ve asked a favourite relative to let loose – tell me about the ancient Greeks, Chris…In this chapter, Lloyd starts with an anecdote about an olive, which merges into why olive oil was so precious, then onto slaves, democracy and war…you can see how the narrative flows from one idea to another, incorporating facts, events and stories. Each section is colour-coded for easy reference and there are colour visuals throughout, from illustrations adorning the text to photos, maps, timelines etc. There’s a nice linear progression to the book, an understanding of how one thing in history leads to another (although this is definitely Western civilisation’s history), and an over-riding infectious enthusiasm to explore how societies linked up, how the world became global. Engrossing and all-encompassing. Give as a gift, and keep a copy for yourself. The sort of book to stop you getting bored in the holidays. You can buy it here.

Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway

unicorn girlThere is a Year 1 girl in my library club who is obsessed with unicorns. She can recall every book in my library that features a unicorn (and not just on the cover). So, in a few years’ time, she’ll delight in reading Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway.

Not many children’s books start with a funeral, but when Ariella’s grandma dies she not only leaves her with a sense of sadness, but also a unicorn charm. Days later, Ariella spies a real unicorn in the empty field at the back of the house. The unicorn proves useful in helping Ariella with her feelings of grief, as well as with her worries about her baby brother who is born with a hole in his heart, and settling in at her new school – which is proving more difficult than she thought, especially when one of the girls, Belinda, starts picking on her for her size (Ariella is small for her age).

Wouldn’t it be helpful if we all had a unicorn to deal with our anxieties? This novel from the award-winning author of Butterfly Summer captures its readership with its authenticity – despite the book venturing into magical realism with the appearance of a unicorn. Conway works as a drama teacher, and her knowledge of schools and how they operate today is plainly apparent and lends the book a huge dose of realism. The lessons, the teachers, and the pupils feel more real than many depictions in the children’s books I read – even down to the minute details of topics learned, the impact of a good teaching assistant on children who are struggling, and the ability of children to perform actions unseen by staff, no matter how diligent the teachers.

Many of today’s children are consumed with worries, observing the stresses of their parents, absorbing the changing attitude of older teen siblings, and struggling to navigate through the landscape of friendships. Conway piles worries on Ariella, but the book never feels too sad – there are shimmers of hope in kind supportive adults, and also of course in the introduction of the unicorn and its magic. Conway is clever here too, giving the unicorn its own backstory, and applying scruffy characteristics to it, so that by the reveal at the end, it becomes very clear to the reader what’s going on. The unicorn brings not only a sense of wonder and possibility, but also a calm space in which Ariella can breathe and contemplate.

Conway’s prose is absorbing and readable, and she touches on difficult themes with a sensitive and emotionally intelligent eye, observing not only the realism of schools, but also a keen understanding of a family under stress, and the dynamics of how each member of the family deals with the emotional upheaval, before finally coming together.

What’s particularly heart-warming is the way in which the book has been published. Anne-Marie Conway had finished her draft of the book, in which Ariella finds incredible solace in a particular unicorn book she finds in a hospital library, when she was approached to raise some money to build a new school library at her child’s school.  Now,  profits from Conway’s published book are being donated to building that new school library for her local school. You can click on the link here to see the fundraising project, and here to buy a copy of the book.

The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller Extract

the night i met father christmasI’m delighted to be able to share with you an exclusive extract of The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller. (Please click the title to read my review). I’m sure most children have dreamed about coming downstairs on Christmas Eve to find Father Christmas in the act of emerging from the chimney through the fireplace, with his bulging toy sac over his shoulder, ready to deposit all those lovely goodies for Christmas Day. In Ben Miller’s book, a small boy waits up all night to do just that. But when he does meet Father Christmas, the most extraordinary thing happens – Father Christmas begins to tell him the story of how he became Father Christmas – and it’s not at all how you might expect. This extract takes place just after the boy hears bells ringing and rushes into his living room to see lumps of soot falling into the grate. Father Christmas is coming….

 

 

 

 

 

You can buy The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller here.

 

Maps of the United Kingdom by Rachel Dixon, illustrated by Livi Gosling

maps of the united kingdomWhen I was in primary school we had to memorise the countries and capital cities of South America. For a long time many of these were retained in my memory, and even now I’m better at that continent’s geography than Europe. What’s even worse, to my shame, is my lack of knowledge about the geography of my own country, the United Kingdom. And as I watch my children go through school, I realise that it’s something that just isn’t taught. Thankfully, one of them can pinpoint where cities are situated (this is because he knows them from their football clubs), but we are all clueless about counties.

All that’s about to change. Maps of the United Kingdom does exactly what it says on the cover, and although the illustrations seem at first glance to be fairly random – a red post box planted between Devon and Somerset, a hedgehog somewhere between Perth and Kinross and the Highlands – there is both enthusiasm and geographical symbolism behind the illustrations, and the drawings are actually an excellent visual guide to help readers learn and memorise the counties and cities of the United Kingdom.

Divided, as to be expected, between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and then further delineated by county lines – either featuring one large county or several smaller ones – the full page spreads show the geographical placement of the area, and then proceeds to illustrate history, nature, people and scientific breakthroughs originating in the region. The information chosen is specific and well-written, but in such a way that it shouldn’t date. This is both clever and interesting.

Lancashire focusses firstly on Blackpool, illustrated by its tower, but then pulls away to showcase the mill towns and the countryside. Local food plays its part, as does sport, highlighting Lancashire County Cricket Club on the map, but then also drawing a portrait of Andrew Flintoff as one of the regional biographies. Other Lancashire biographies include current personalities such as Brian Cox, but also historical activists such as Edith Rigby. There is information about wildlife and history and suggestions of places to visit to learn more, (the Pendle Witch trials at the Pendle Heritage Centre). For ease of use, each page has the entire map of the UK in one corner with the focus place shown by its county border.

All this means that as well as learning the geography, there is an abundance of trivia to absorb, and seven biographies on each page. Each map is colourful too – a different colour for each county as a background and full colour illustrations laid over the top. The small illustrations are intricate and distinctive, so that the reader can smile at the hands raised by the children on the theme park rollercoaster in Derbyshire, but also see the details in the clothing worn by Elizabeth Gaskell. The buildings too are distinctive – the Pierhead Building in Cardiff with its clock tower to the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey in The Valleys.

As we divorce from Europe, now might be a particularly good time to become schooled in our local heritage and traditions, and celebrate the people who’ve made Great Britain great. If all this sounds a bit Trumpish and isolationist, it is perhaps only through knowing ourselves that we can seek to understand others. Once you’ve mastered the lay of the land in this book, you’ll be keen to explore Europe and beyond. I know I am. (The maps in the book aren’t to scale, so it’d be wise to consult a proper atlas before leaping from London to Lincoln.)

Written by a travel writer, this is an excellent classroom and home resource, a smashing Christmas present, and suitable for all from about 6 years. You can buy it here.