monsters

Picture Book Round Up: Human Relationships

When I was at school, one of my best friends had the most extraordinary hair. Tight springy curls that fuzzed out from her head like Medusa with her snakes. Now, in the school library, I’m all agog at the number of different hairstyles, the fancy braiding, curls escaping from scrunchies and bobbles. But also the different personalities of the children – just like picture books they come in all shapes and sizes. Here are some latest picture books about humans and human relationships.

miras curly hairMira’s Curly Hair by Maryam Al Serkal, illustrated by Rebeca Luciani
Mira has the same problem as my school friend. Her hair curls everywhere, and it won’t stop. She wants someone with whom she can identify, but her mother has luscious straight hair, of which Mira is a little envious. Mira tries to stop her curls unfurling in all sorts of ways, but they won’t. It’s only after a rainfall when her mother’s hair springs back to its natural curls, that Mira feels happier.

Set in Dubai, with its beauty as the backdrop to Mira’s life, this is a book that begins firmly in the domestic sphere – Mira doing a handstand in her room, Mira’s mother’s table with laptop, glasses and flowers – and out of the window the scenery of palm trees and sea, of the cityscape. The illustrations come into their own when they escape the domestic sphere, just as Mira’s mother’s hair escapes its restrictions and returns to its natural state in the rain – here the illustrations show the range of patterns on clothes, on the pavements, in the rain, and the characters seem uplifted by the fresh rain’s scene -their faces upturned. The backdrop changes to one of traditional Islamic architecture and across the pages stream colourful birds, perhaps real, perhaps imagined, as they fly through the mother’s hair, they also experiencing freedom.

The colours in this book zing – it’s vibrant, bright, the rain makes the natural landscape appear lush and sensual. This is a lovely book of acceptance of who you are, seeing yourself in others, and also understanding that there is no perfect way for hair to be – misnomers such as ‘unruly’, and ‘misbehaving’ to describe hair have no place here. Instead, a natural head of hair is to be celebrated. You can buy it here. 

the wall in the middle of the bookThe Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee
Modern fables tell us much about our own political times, and any book with the word ‘wall’ in the title conjures ideas of division and animosity, but mostly fear. Cities were originally built with walls around them to keep people out, not to keep people in. Agee cleverly uses the physical space of the book to build his wall – the wall runs along the centre gutter of the book. On one side, (verso), a young knight explains exactly the purpose of his wall – it’s to keep out the dangerous animals (tiger, rhino, gorilla and mouse pictured on the recto). And the most dangerous thing of all – the ogre.

When the knight’s side of the book fills up with water though, he’s plucked to safety over the top of the wall by the ogre. And discovers that the recto side is actually quite pleasant. Agee breaks the ‘fourth wall’ of fiction – addressing the reader and acknowledging the ‘book’ as his setting – thus eliminating all boundaries entirely. The book challenges our pre-conceived ideas of what’s frightening ‘without’, when actually the threats may come from ‘within’. And also, asks the reader if our knight is the most reliable of narrators.

Illustrations are full-page, blocky, simple yet exceedingly expressive. Text matches in its apparent simplicity, yet stimulates thought. All excellent food for thought in these wall-building times. You can buy it here. 

goliathGoliath: The Boy Who was Different by Ximo Abadia
Brighter colours here, using primary colours with spots of green and black in recognisable but also blocky illustrations that feel almost like retro jigsaw pieces fitted together, in this story of being different.

The boy, our new Goliath, is huge and red and doesn’t fit in. In despair he sets off on a quest to discover why, and it is the moon who offers perspective on the problem, explaining that it is both big and small depending on who is looking at it.

The story of perception is not new, but it is the artwork that dazzles here.

The illustrations themselves present the issue of perspective – a forceful display of shapes and lines that form images within the reader’s mind, the bold strange shape of the boy contrasted with the normality of a silhouette reading a newspaper, children with backpacks walking to school.

In the end, the boy’s acceptance of himself, leads the others to accept him too, and rather than he grow more like them, the illustrations show that they become more like him in colour and shape. Fascinating and like Goliath himself, different. You can buy it here. 

the bandit queenThe Bandit Queen by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara
Another most distinctive picture book, this latest tale from the O’Hara sisters is stylish, clever and subversive. There’s something quite delightful about renegades, naughtiness and bad behaviour in children’s books. My Naughty Little Sister and Horrid Henry of course, but also in AA Milne’s delicious rhymes, the spoilt behaviour of Mary Jane, Christopher Robin lying about his wheezles, and those two little bears who lived in the wood, one of whom was bad and the other good.

Here, a crew of bandits are incredibly naughty, making noise through the night, peeing without precision, throwing cutlery. Yet, they face a challenge when they break into an orphanage, steal socks and clocks, a picnic box, and inadvertently, a baby! She becomes their Bandit Queen, but after a while their antics begin to grate on her, and maybe she’ll have to hatch a plan to change their ways.

This clever rhyming book contains some interesting morals within, discussions about routine and learning, about friends and family. And belonging and greed. There’s a huge amount within this characterful picture book, and the illustrations are simply exquisite – with an old-fashioned feel that makes it seem like it’s worthy of longevity. You can buy it here. 

grobblechopsGrobblechops by Elizabeth Laird and Jenny Lucander
Using tales from old is another way of making a book a ‘classic’, but this modern update of a tale by Rumi, the 13th century poet and Sufi mystic, is both appealing and refreshing. It does revisit the themes of childhood fears (monsters at bedtime), and parental persuasion, but it stands out with its careful observations of how we live now. Amir is scared of the monster. The monster is illustrated with fang teeth and sticky-up hair, yet with a kind of beguiling cuteness behind the horror. (It’s all the eyes.)

The whole book is told in dialogue between child and father, Amir at first suggesting how monstrous the monster will be and the father explaining how he will defend Amir against him, but gradually the talk becomes more about how to occupy the monster called Grobblechops, even suggesting that he may need sympathy, perhaps suffering loneliness or envy of Amir.

Parents too will enjoy the attention to detail – the father’s laptop, his need for ‘evening time’ with his wife, the domestic scenes. With humour throughout and also such compelling illustrations, the reader feels totally drawn into the tale. In essence, warm and comforting for those with night-time anxieties. You can buy it here. 

Malamander by Thomas Taylor

malamanderSometimes a story lures you in like a beckoning finger, and as you step over the threshold, what seems familiar turns gothic and dark, and you are swept away on a tide of imagination and character.

Malamander is one such story. In Cheerie-On-Sea (the letters c and h fall off the sign every winter), Herbert Lemon, the lost-and-founder of the Grand Nautilus Hotel, finds a lost girl one snowy winter evening. She too is sweet, named Violet Parma, and she’s an orphan, looking for her parents who disappeared one night twelve years ago when she was just a baby staying in the hotel.

Together they form a formidable duo, as they roam the coastal town looking for clues as to where Violet’s parents might have gone, and also learning more about the legend of the unctuous sea-monster who stalks the town in winter, hiding in the rolling sea fog, and waiting for its mate on the longest night of the year. This, of course, is the Malamander.

Taylor’s writing is both highly gothic, and laced with a fine dose of humour. The plot whips along at 100 knots, and the tantalising descriptions of the familiar turned dark make this story hugely appealing. The seaside town at close-season is sensually described; it may be without ice cream and sandcastles, but it is imbued with the warmth of fish and chips that steams up the café and gives comfort, and also the horrific sounds of the sea-monster’s shrieks, the frightening foggy sands, and the sea mist that makes the town more than live up to its wintry name of Eerie-on-Sea. The tangible salty fishy smell almost seeps from the pages itself.

But it is the way Taylor has populated his book that makes it so special, drawing on familiar tropes and yet giving it a twist of his own. Every name in the book is joyfully Dickensian, from the sweetie-named children to the villainous slippery Sebastian Eels (a writer with dubious motives), and a very Famous-Five-ish, Scooby-Doo-type villain in Boathook Man. (Some of the names are decidedly creepy. Jenny Hanniver may seem like a nice bookshop lady but, if one looks up what a Jenny Haniver actually is, one may not sleep well that night.) The hotel owner, a reclusive Lady Kraken (think Miss Haversham) holes up in her tower with her claw-like hands and her cameraluna – (a camera-obscura-magic looking-glass) – spying on those below.

What’s more there is a kind bookshop owner, a talking cat, a beachcombing forager, and a mechanical mermonkey who spits out book references to where the correct book for each individual is stored in the bookshop – reminiscent of all seaside towns and their strange magical arcades (think the movie Big).

As Herbet and Violet’s quest for her parents turns into a quest for the egg of the Malamander, so they traverse the town and meet its people, and here Taylor excels in his use of dialogue, which is full of dramatic tension, slowing down in the right places, pausing, leaving gaps, all weaving in and out of his tale with its gothic mystery slant.

The denouement is like an action movie, set in a tide-filling shipwreck just off the coast, with Taylor even managing to make the reader as sympathetic to the Malamander as to the children.

By threading his coastal novel with ancient legend, and misleading the reader with red herrings, mysteries and untrustworthy adults, Taylor has shown he can write with flair, embedding hidden depths into the plot. He himself has hidden depths too – he illustrated the first Harry Potter editions. No wonder the map at the beginning of Malamander is as atmospheric as the prose itself.

This is a novel to hook you in from the first word. It’s cunning, clever, manipulative, deliciously dark and fun, and also holds delightfully old-fashioned storytelling. Don’t miss it. For ages 9+. You can buy it here.

Cover artwork by George Ermos. With thanks to Walker Books for a review copy.

Influences and Goblins

gribblebobsAcquired in open submission by Pushkin Press, this is a rather extraordinary little story. Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins by David Ashby is a quirky tale with short chapters and a plethora of weird and wonderful characters.

On an ordinary Wednesday, siblings Nils and Anna come across a goblin called Gribblebob. He is walking an invisible dog (who becomes visible upon being fed), and chasing after a book. As the book’s text magically transfers to Nils’ hand (rather like a Kindle on the skin), Gribblebob explains to the children that he comes from the other side of the veil, where magical creatures prevail, including goblins, fairies and more. But other characters have also broken the veil, and the children must race against time to clear Nils’ hand and save some books from an evil witch.

At first the adventure feels rather as if Enid Blyton had come back to life and penned another tale in her Magic Faraway Tree stories. The characters bear the same irritabilities and undergo strange unbelievable happenings. In fact, the goblin Gribblebob is hugely Blyton-esque, and enjoyable, mixing up his words and inventing new ones, or slightly mishearing old ones. My favourite is his description of humans as ‘thumbjammers’, jabbing at their phones constantly, or ‘pre-slicely’ for ‘precisely’.

But before long it becomes apparent that there is more than one influence to this story. It goes rather dark at times, despite the easy to read text, and the dangerous and scary ‘ripriders’ feel like Harry Potter dementors – screeching spirits that are overcome only by love. More allusions to folk and children’s literature abound, including a librarian who isn’t as she seems, binding names in a book, and the veil – the conceit of two different worlds that meet in an ordinary place (a playground here), but which can’t be seen by the naked eye.

But for many readers, and writers, the trope of having books as the essential magical element gives a whole other layer of meaning to the reading experience, and with the book-decorated cover, the action in the library, language and attributing names being so important, and the magic of books inside, this is a lovely little paean to children’s literature.

However, there’s more to it, as David Ashby explains – it certainly isn’t just English literature heritage that oozes throughout the story:

Somewhat surprisingly, I find myself living in Sweden these days.  I’ve been here since 2002, and I suppose I should be used to it, but some mornings I wake up, turn on the radio and wonder why people are talking in that strange language before I remember, “Oh yeah, I live here now.”

In lots of ways Sweden and the UK are very similar, just very subtle differences.  In Brighton I would cross my fingers for luck, here in Stockholm I have to hold my thumbs.  So the luck remains in the hands, but just different areas.  Back in the UK I would have let a sleeping dog lie, but here in Sweden it’s the bear that I don’t wake up.  So, very similar.

It’s the same with the fairy tales and legends and myths.  A lot of them are the same, but some have their own special Nordic twist, and some of them were new to me.  In Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins the big villain is the Queen of Nightmares, Mara, The Rider.  Now, I had never heard of her, but it’s fascinating that the English word “nightmare” relates so strongly to her.  She comes along and rides your chest while you dream, and makes sure that the dreams are less than pleasant.  The “mare” in “nightmare” is obviously linked to the Swedish “mara”, and the Swedish word for “nightmare” is “mardröm”, literally a “mara dream”.  I love all these little links and connections!  It really makes you realise how much we all have in common, and how we share a heritage of tales and myths.

Another one of my favourite Nordic fairy tale characters is “Kykogrim” which translates as “Church Grim”, a guardian spirit that keeps watch over a church.  I’d love to write something around that sometime.

There’s a fantastic set of books by Johan Egerkrans where he has collected and illustrated loads of Scandinavian monsters, spirits, gods and so on.  Well worth a look!

It seems that influences lie everywhere. To buy yourself a copy of Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins by David Ashby, click here.

Younger Fiction

There have been some beautiful stories for younger children recently – books for newly independent readers (those comfortable enough to tackle chapter books by themselves).

legend of kevinThe Legend of Kevin by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Reeve and McIntyre, of Cakes in Space fame, bring their zany storytelling to this new magical tale about a rotund flying pony, blown from the outermost West to a tower block in Bumbleford. The over-riding theme is friendship but there’s a pervasive feeling of community throughout, and an understanding of providing solutions for problems, no matter how peculiar the problem (mermaid hair styling), and how outlandish the solution. There’s acceptance of difference, and an emphasis on ordinary heroes.

The success of this author/illustrator pairing, and there are those who wait ravenously for each new book, is that the text and pictures work perfectly in harmony. Gaps in the text are filled by the pictures, humour in the pictures is enhanced by the text. The pair know exactly how to pace the book, when to digress and when to pull back to the plot. With their trademark mermaids and naughty sea monkeys, this is a delight (for slightly younger audiences than their previous books), and marks a determined shift towards reality, as the Outermost West comes to a city not unlike the reader’s, complete with mundane shops, headmasters and mayors. You can buy it here.

sherlock and baker street curseSherlock and the Baker Street Curse by Sam Hearn

Super sleuthing comes to the younger fiction department in this glorious play on the trope of Sherlock Holmes. Transported into a school, the Baker Street Academy, Sherlock is just a school boy solving mysteries. But it’s the use of media that works so well here. The plot is relayed through a series of different text formats – Watson’s diary, comic strip illustrations, notice boards, webchats, emails etc. There’s a mystery to solve of course – and the reader can solve alongside Holmes, Watson and Hudson, as long as they don’t get misguided by a red herring.

In this book in the series, Sherlock and his friends have to solve a ghost mystery, dating back to when the school building was a family home. There is a great warmth that exudes from the text, and the dialogue feels authentic and friendly. A slick introduction to mysteries. You can buy it here.

ivy and beanIvy and Bean: One Big Happy Family by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I had my favourite American characters when I was little – Ramona Quimby and Amelia Bedelia spring to mind instantly. I don’t know if it was their spunky characters or their derring-do adventures, or perhaps the setting – in a school grade system I didn’t understand, with towns boasting large white houses with sweeping driveways, and vibrant lawns with tyre swings hanging from trees. For the next generation, and slightly more down-to-earth, is Ivy and Bean. This delightful friendship between quiet Ivy and rambunctious Bean, two seven-year-olds who live in the same street, is a celebration of old-fashioned values and community America. But mainly it’s just a fun chronicle of two girls and their neighbourhood adventures. What appeals most is the amount of free time the girls have to indulge their passions and make their own fun – rather like The Secret Seven did.

Barrows seems to have an understanding of the limitless possibilities offered by the best childhoods, and she includes all the fabulous childhood obsessions from glitter, to being made to tidy up, to sharing. This eleventh book in the series celebrates being an only child, or rather not being spoiled. You can buy it here.

first prize for worst witchFirst Prize for the Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Another series that should be celebrated for its longevity is The Worst Witch. Not only bearing my favourite character names, Mildred Hubble’s and enemy Ethel Hallow’s images are burned onto my brain – those illustrious illustrations of schoolgirl witches hanging on broomsticks with plaits flailing behind them, dangling untied shoelaces, and the haughty thinness of Miss Hardbroom. The utter enjoyment of seeing Mildred learning from her mistakes continues to this day, with Mildred battling to be chosen as Head Girl, against all the odds. Although the first in the series was published in 1974, this latest (and reportedly last) lives up to the high standard set by the first, and is an utter nostalgic joy for the adult reader, and an excellent gentle introduction to chapter books for new readers – it’s humorous, accessible and still relevant. You can buy it here.

nelly and monster sitterNelly the Monster Sitter: the Grerks at No. 55 by Kes Gray, illustrated by Chris Jevons

Repackaged in August with new illustrations, although the original text was first published in 2005, these hilarious books sit comfortably between Horrid Henry and The Bolds as accessible, funny, highly illustrated chapter books just right for newly independent readers. Nelly likes monsters, and happily takes care of the little monsters in the neighbourhood after school whilst the parent monsters take some time off. She’s in high demand, but has no idea of the type of monster she’ll encounter before she arrives. Each adventure showcases Nelly’s wit and quick-thinking – she’s a brave, down-to-earth and likeable protagonist, and as one would expect from Kes Gray, there is plenty of word play, great visual description (enhanced by the illustrations), and a lively exuberance that permeates the text. The winning formula here is that the monsters’ lives are so mundane. You can buy it here.

oscar and catastropheOscar and the CATastrophe by Alan MacDonald, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Another skilled writer for this age group is the indomitable Alan MacDonald, author of the Dirty Bertie and Superhero School series, among others. His straightforward easy to understand style is great for flourishing readers, and enables them to zip through his books at speed, promoting confidence and fluency. Oscar and the CATastrophe is the third in this series about Oscar the talking dog and his owner Sam. In this latest adventure, Oscar has been shocked to silence by the appearance of a neighbourhood cat and Sam is worried about the jewel thief in town. Gentle humour and basic plotting, but perfect for growing readers. You can buy it here.

Halloween Murder and Magic

There’s nothing like a Halloween night to bring out the ghosts and ghoulies and spooky horror stories. But there’s also plenty of room for fun and frolics. When I first starting stocking murder stories in the primary school library, a parent queried the content. Murder? For children? Indeed. Murder, monsters, howling winds, dark nights, swamp creatures, are all perfect fodder for little ones (age 9+). Here are two I particularly like.

what manor murderWhat Manor of Murder? by Christopher William Hill
“It looks like the sort of place where bad things have happened,” whispered Master Oliver Davenport.

The author of the Tales from Schwartzgarten series is back with a new book called The Bleakley Brothers Mystery: What Manor of Murder? Spoofing traditional murder mysteries with a good helping of homicide, one-by-one elimination of suspects, a dollop of old country house, and a smigden of regurgitated legend, Hill tackles his topic with aplomb, dropping gothic clichés and hints throughout in the build up to the crime (the family’s Latin motto, mors cum Laetitia, means death with joyfulness). In the approach to the old manor house, there is an old man surrounded by clouds of smoke telling superstitious tales of gloom and doom, an ominous howling wind, a rickety bridge, and the looming towering walls of Bleakley Manor itself.

Posh twins Horatio and Eustace, freshly released from their boarding school, accompanied by Poor Unfortunate Oliver Davenport, arrive at Bleakley Manor for Michaelmas Eve with their extended family. Things are rather out of sorts though – with the butler and footman gone and replaced by inferior staff – and then a body is found in the study…

Hill assembles his eccentric characters; including cousin Loveday, a rather winning know-it-all who brandishes a jolly lacrosse stick and excitedly relays her new venture writing a school magazine entitled ‘Murder and Mayhem’, a Great Aunt who writes crime novels (and explains to Oliver Davenport that the poor unfortunates in her books always die), and an uncle who happens to be a roving explorer and Egyptologist.

Murder is discussed continually in the most off-hand manner, the children are desperate for mystery, and so it isn’t long before they get what they deserve. The author flourishes his deft wit on every page, playing with the readers as he assembles his cast and then eliminates them, all with fantastically posh period detail – from pineapple cubes and aniseed balls to roast goose and roly poly pudding (there is a lot of food).

If there’s an occasional clunker (insects sent scuttling more than once), the reader either excuses it as being part of the hammy style or overlooks it because the rest of the book is so much fun. I wanted to read it aloud in a plummy posh accent and revel in the quirky dark humour. It’s deliciously wicked. You can buy it here.

witch girlMore macabre goings-on in Witch Girl by Jan Eldredge, titled Evangeline of the Bayou in the States, which gives much more of a clue to the contents. The book is set in the swamps of Louisiana and stars twelve-year-old haunt huntress apprentice Evangeline Clement. (Haunt huntresses are on call to protect everyday folks haunted by supernatural creatures).

Evangeline Clement lives with her witchy grandmother, learning how to keep the locals safe from the monsters of the Bayou, including such nasties as banshees and terrebonnes. Evangeline and her grandmother rely on various herbs, potions, talismans and spells for their trade, which all tie nicely into the scenery – Eldredge borrowing from Cajun culture and the plant life of the American South.

The book plunges the reader into the action, showing Evangeline attempting to prove her worth by tackling a number of supernatural monster invasions on her own, although much to the reader’s amusement, she makes rather a mess of it.

Then, she and her grandmother are called to New Orleans to investigate the rather peculiar case of Mrs Midsomer who transforms into a rougarou (a werewolf). Fully immersed in the setting with its white wedding cake houses and aroma of coffee and chicory, this is a transportive novel brought to life most magnificently with the superstitions and local folklore tied into Evangeline’s witchcraft and voodoo. There is much monster-fighting action, and more than a hint of wit and sass.

In the end, the reader understands that trusting one’s gut is as important as knowledge, although a UK readerships’ knowledge will be greatly enhanced with the glossary of Cajun folklore creatures at the back of the book. Paranormal in abundance, creepiness indeed, but no outright horror. This is a nod to bravery in the face of creepy old mansions and terrifying monsters that make the dangerous alligator seem like a fluffy pussycat. Try it here.

 

Magical Mythological Maps and Monsters

Why are myths still relevant to us, and why do we explore them so much in children’s literature?

One reason that we still buy stories of myths from long-ago cultures or faraway places is that they hold within them certain universal truths or explanations of our natural world and our human behaviours. Myths hold messages that stretch across barriers, which reach down through generations and connect people across time and geography.

But at the same time they can also teach us about different cultures, show us how people once lived, or how they live now in different societies. Japanese myths often refer to mythical creatures in the sea, which makes sense for an island nation. The Yoruba believe that before people and animals existed, there was the realm of the deities, and an empty realm filled with nothing but sky and marshy water – which makes sense when you realise that the Yoruba live in Western Africa under beautiful African skies.

In myths told as stories for children, the reader learns alongside the characters; they follow that journey with them, make decisions with them. They forge their own identity whilst learning of another’s. Children feel the pain of Icarus wanting to fly; they wonder if they too would have survived the twelve labours of Herakles.

Two books that bring myths to children in an exciting, spellbinding and aesthetically beautiful way are Myth Atlas and Myth Match.

myth atlasMyth Atlas by Thiago de Moraes is one of the most beautiful books for children I’ve seen this year. Each of the twelve cultures covered is illustrated and explained within a map that shows how that culture viewed the world. For example, The Greek world shows a flat Earth surrounded by a large sea, with the heavens above and Hades beneath. De Moraes idea of Hades is brilliant, kind of hanging upside down under a ridge of the main world, and populated of course by Cereberus and Charon, and showing Persephone and Orpheus there too – explained with simple text how their stories led them there. The Yanomani World is shown as four planes shaped like discs, stacked on top of one another – the upper sky, middle sky, earth and underworld. De Moraes excels in his depictions of people and creatures – both the people of the culture, and then creatures that exist in their mythical tellings, such as the Brooribe, the ghosts of dead Yanomani, and the Oineitib, the dwarves of the underworld.

This book will educate, elucidate, stimulate and inspire wonder all at the same time. I couldn’t stop looking through it. The illustrations are painstakingly detailed, and use colour in an intelligent and colourful way without being garish or overstated. And each has a very simple number key to show the reader the accompanying text, which is simply but well told. In between the maps of each culture, there are a few chosen stories highlighting particular myths. In the Slavic World there is the story of Vasilisa and the Magic Doll, in the Aztec World, the story of the Five Suns. Each is highly illustrated with full colour spreads, and with extra boxes of information about monuments or temples. Each ‘world’ is given their own introductory page explaining the culture, the map and where the people were originally, and each ‘world’ ends with details about creatures and artefacts. This is an all-encompassing enthralling journey, with a clever navigation guide at the beginning and a wonderful introduction explaining how this is just a taste of the mythical world, and can’t, of course, cover every culture and every myth.

But what a taste! It’s a gastronomic feast for the eyes and brain, and I’ll be sampling it again and again. You can buy your own copy here.

myth matchThe second book, Myth Match by Good Wives and Warriors, follows in the tradition of the hugely popular Mixed Up Fairy Tales books by Hilary Robinson and Nick Sharratt. Here, instead of Goldilocks falling into Red Riding Hood’s story, we have an information book of mythical creatures that turns into a clever mash up of blending one mythical creature with another.

The reader can read it straight by encountering some weird and wonderful creatures from around the world, each sumptuously illustrated with masses of detail and colour. The trick though is to flip the front half or back half and pair up different parts of the different mythical creatures, hence creating your own – after all, myths are all about imagination and evolution. What’s more, the accompanying descriptive text (just a few lines) matches up too, whichever parts you fit together, giving a whole new description for the new creature. For instance a unicorn and a phoenix could become a uninix or a phoecorn! Good production, unlikely to rip with frequent usage. Buy yours here.

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

Elphinstone’s stories whisk away the reader into a fantasy landscape with more than a hint of magic, where nature beguiles the reader and becomes more than a setting, nestling as a fundamental character inside the story.

Her first trilogy, The Dreamsnatcher, told of Moll and her quest against evil. Sky Song also pitches a fiery youngster against evil, but here, Elphinstone has woven elements of the current political and social climate into her book, and borrowed from time old fairy stories and folk tales to excavate a new kind of modern story.

Eska, held captive for her voice by the Ice Queen, breaks free from her musical box prison, but remembers nothing of herself or her past. When she learns her destiny: to journey to the Never Cliffs and sing the powerful song to win back the lands of Erkenwald from the Ice Queen, restoring them to the rightful tribes, she learns that she is also is in a race against time and the Ice Queen, who is desperate to steal back Eska’s voice. But once freed from the music box of the Winterfang Palace, Eska finds it hard to make friends and allies. The tribes are mistrustful of her. She must prove that she too wants to be rid of the Ice Queen forever, and that although she does not have a tribe of people around her, she has a different tribe, filled by creatures of nature, which may be just as powerful.

The power of the voice, (it will give the Ice Queen immortality), and the stealing of it, works powerfully in Elphinstone’s book. Of course there are the inevitable allusions to Philomela, whose tongue was cut out in Ovid’s Metamorphosis to prevent her from denouncing her male attacker, and who was eventually turned into a bird who sings. There are allusions to The Little Mermaid – another feisty young girl who sold her voice for humanity (or so she thought). The book revisits Telemachus’s proclamation to Penelope that ‘speech will be the business of men’ and challenges it wholeheartedly. For the power of a young woman’s voice is still relevant in 2018, a year in which this resonates more than most – being the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. Following the power of Anne Frank’s voice, of Malala’s voice, of #metoo – the rise of the woman’s cry, even against another woman, speaks to the power of speaking up for yourself, for believing in what’s right and fighting for it.

The book is first and foremost an icy adventure, with a journey through shiveringly cold frightening landscapes, magicked by the sorcery of the Ice Queen, where avalanches tumble, and lakes hide monstrous depths. But it is also the story of friendship and bravery, as Eska and her friend Flint, along with his sister Blu, traverse mountains together and use teamwork to overcome adversity, and triumph against the Ice Queen.

Most of all, Elphinstone has shown the reader that belief is important. Belief in oneself and one’s own voice, but also in one’s own talents even if they are scorned by others (Flint is a master of invention – in this case using magic rather than pure science). Although there is no overt religion discussed here, as perhaps the reader saw in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman for example, there is an overarching belief in spirituality – that there is something greater to strive for than one’s own selfish desire. Elphinstone has divided the peoples of her book into tribes, Fur, Feather and Tusk, and initially the society is shown as having lost its belief system, because being cowed by one evil being (the Ice Queen) has made each tribe more inward-looking. Even more than that, The Ice Queen has caused ripples of fear, and so the tribes have turned not only inwards, but against each other, and harbour an intense fear of strangers and outsiders, lest they be spies or intruders.

By the end of the book the message is clearly that tribalism may not work, that strangers do not necessarily have evil intent, and by working together, evil can be overcome.

As well as the large messages within, this book showcases a writer coming into her own. The descriptions are lush and appealing – the flump of snow flopping from a branch, and crack and pop of the river melting – a feeling of Narnia-eque bursting into spring. The Ice Queen brings memories from The Snow Queen, and the fairy tale language of the voice-over prologue lends itself well to the feeling of timelessness and gives an all-encompassing setting to Erkenwald and its various tribes (although less confident readers may wish to get straight into the story of Eska).

There are numerous child-friendly touches within the story – the protagonists are children of course, but there are hideouts and dens lovingly described, and a constant flow of energy and vivacity sending their tendrils through the story. Eska’s oneness with nature is brilliantly evoked – she uses nature to feed and clothe herself – sewing with sinews, learning to hunt without her shadow giving her away. There is also the touching character of Blu, shown with a mild intellectual disability, but it is noticeable that the older children and adults are those least forgiving of this; Blu is easily accepted by Eska, Flint, and those with kind, open hearts.

This is a fantastic story of friendship, nature, overcoming adversity, but most of all acceptance and belonging. Always enthralling and daring, it speaks to our darkest fears and our intrinsic faults, and yet to an ongoing belief in the strength of humanity and empathy to pull us through. You can buy it here.

Halloween Round Up

Writers and publishers love cultural events upon which they can hook a theme – be it glowing Christmas scenes or the approach of a new season – windy autumns, growth in spring. Halloween seems to intensify every year in the UK – a very large percentage of the autumn books I received had a ‘spooky or witchy element’ to them, and I don’t mean that the pages turned by themselves (although that would be useful). So, to help you through the ghosts and ghoulies, here are my spooky and also witchy-themed picks:


Witch for a Week by Kaye Umansky, illustrated by Ashley King
Not unlike Sylvia Bishop’s stories, also illustrated by Ashley King, this latest from top children’s author Kaye Umansky is an absolutely charming story, which is ideal for newly independent readers. Elsie is recruited to house-sit for local witch Magenta Sharp for a week, and although promised a quiet easy week, has to contend with a host of quirky eccentric neighbours, a tower with personality, and a grumpy talking raven. Each character is well-defined, and Elsie herself is beautifully drawn as unflappable, book-loving, and kind.

The book contains some lovely touches, including hilarious customer service rules (Elsie has been schooled in retail), a love potion that goes awry, a book of instructions that seems to be blank, and a sassy witch whose business is mainly mail-order. Sumptuously modern, but with an old-fashioned fairy tale feel, this is one new witchy series which I’ll be recommending to all. Fun, memorable, touching and bubbly – a real hug of a book. Magic it here.


Spectre Collectors: Too Ghoul for School by Barry Hutchison, illustrator Rob Biddulph
Some books just scream cinema. This highly visual first-in-a-series will delight comedy fans everywhere. Opening mid-action, Denzel is in the middle of maths homework when his home appears to be invaded at first by a poltergeist, and then by two figures with a gun. Before long, he too is recruited to be part of the ‘Spectre Collectors’, a kind of cross between Ghostbusters and Men in Black, an organisation in which children use magic and technology to rid the world of ‘spectres’.

With impeccable timing on jokes, sparkling top-class humorous dialogue between Denzel and his mates, and great variety of action scenes, this is a wonderful ghostly spoof. Beware a terrifying episode in the middle in which Denzel’s two fathers don’t remember him at all – as if his existence has been scrubbed from the world – but there are enough laughs and improbabilities to combat the darkness. For age 8-12 years. Spook it here.


Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball by Laura Ellen Anderson
Vampire Amelia wants to hang out with her pet pumpkin Squashy, but her parents insist she attends their Barbaric Ball. When Squashy is captured, Amelia must plan a daring rescue. This highly illustrated read for 7-9 year olds dazzles with superb illustrations, macabre puns, (including diePhones, scream teas and daymares), and is set in a grisly Nocturnia. But Amelia is a fun, endearing and captivating protagonist, and Anderson’s energy shines through with exuberance in both the prose and the illustrations. Much of the normal landscape has been inverted of course, with the characters sleeping by day and playing by night, as well as ‘cute’ things being feared, and gruesomeness celebrated. Join the vampires here.


Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Kathryn Ourst
I’m not convinced Amelia would love Vlad, but this reader certainly did. Another vampire adventure for 7-9 year olds, Vlad isn’t keen on being a vampire. He secretly reads a rather jolly boarding school book about normal children and decides that it would be nicer to live an Enid Blyton-esque existence. Anna Wilson’s trademark humour works a treat in this rather adorable little adventure, in which Vlad tries to balance his life between human school, in which they don’t realise he’s a vampire, and home life, in which he has to hide his new friends from his family.

Added to the plot are some wonderful little touches, such as his new friends telling Vlad that he needs to get his teeth fixed, to Vlad’s relationship with his very elderly grandfather, but mainly his growing friendship with Minxie. Ourst’s illustrations are a joy – very cartoonlike with gleeful vibrancy. The final picture of Minxie and Vlad laughing is enough to bring a smile to any youngster’s face. A thoroughly enjoyable vampire adventure story, sparkling with wit and warmth. Look out on the blog to see a guest contribution from author Anna Wilson next week, and you can show Vlad some pathos by buying your own copy here.


You Can’t Make Me Go to Witch School by Em Lynas, illustrated by Jamie Littler
A slightly longer adventure story from Nosy Crow publishers for the 7+ age group, which sees the advent of another little witch. Daisy Wart wants to be an actress, more particularly she wants to star as Shakespeare’s Bottom on the stage. But when her grandmother dumps her at Witch School, she struggles to escape, despite all her dramatics. This is a strange school, with cauldrons for beds, pupil-eating plants in the school garden, and the ghost of the former headmistress stalking the corridors – a step up from the sudden appearances of Miss Hardbroom in The Worst Witch.

There are highly original touches and a fixation with hats to distinguish this from other ‘witchy school’ books, and Daisy is a protagonist who definitely fulfils the role of leading lady, with her particular brand of speech and her innermost thoughts about the other characters. First in a series, this book sets up further adventures rather nicely, when Daisy, as I’m sure you’ve all guessed, decides that maybe acting isn’t the only thing she could be good at. Littler’s illustrations work their magic here too – bringing the whole ensemble to life. Join Witch School here.


School for Little Monsters by Michelle Robinson and Sarah Horne
I do sometimes wonder where Michelle Robinson finds the time to write so many picture books, but here’s another one that ticks all the boxes. The book follows two children – Bob and Blob – one a human, one a monster – due to start their first days at school. But sadly for them, some naughty monsters have swapped signs and Bob and Blob attend the wrong schools. Rhyming text pulls the reader through this great mash-up of ‘experience’ and ‘monster’ genres, as the reader finds out about their first days at school. The rules for monsters and humans are apparently a little different. Great fun, superbly funny, colourful illustrations, with lots of mayhem. As with all great picture books, the illustrations speak louder than the words. The message is that school is good, as long as you’re at the right one…Be a little monster here.


An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings by Aidan Onn and illustrated by Rob Hodgson
Actually, this should probably be at the top of the pile, as the book very cleverly introduces and explains the different types of monsters, from aliens to zombies. Each letter takes a different ‘magical’ being, with a full double spread committed to it. There are plenty of wacky, although somewhat simply conceived, illustrations in matt, muted colours, accompanied by a small paragraph of text, which is more playful than it is informative. Learn the alphabet here.


Pretty by Canizales
A message in a book, this witchy picture book contribution to Halloween and beyond, is a story about a witch with a date, who wants to look her best. The creatures she meets on route give her hints as to how to better her appearance, but by the end of course, her date is disappointed with her new looks. Rather like wearing a little too much make up. The message is obvious – be yourself, but there’s also a rather dark twist at the end. The witch is brilliantly depicted – simplistic and rather lovingly drawn – despite her perceived failings, from hooked nose to pointy chin. Nice touches include her choice of outfits! Be pretty here. Happy Halloween!

Watch out too for my extract from Scarecrow by Danny Weston coming soon – for an ideal first horror book for your 11 year old (and up!)

Halloween Reads

Scared? You should be. Halloween Treats (no tricks) from me.

hyde-and-squeak

Hyde and Squeak by Fiona Ross

It’s amazing how much influence classic tales can wield over modern culture and modern children’s storytelling. Fiona Ross has taken inspiration from Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to draw a story about a mouse with a dark side. Squeak is a cute endearing mouse with oversize whiskers and a bowtie, who lives with ‘Granny’, a rounded, gentle looking elderly woman with purple hair fashioned into a bun.

But when Squeak samples some rather off-looking jelly, he turns into Hyde, a monster-mouse with an all-consuming appetite.

Told in large comic book frames, this is a wonderfully funny picture book, with the cartoon illustrations leading the story – one can almost see the Simpsons-style Halloween episodes in their similar transformation from normal to spooky characterisation. Hyde’s pages have black backgrounds, with many details in grayscale outlines, letting huge Hyde dominate the page. His expression is crazed, one eye in bloodshot swirls, a cobwebby bowtie and protruding vampire teeth.

Of course, every so often Hyde overstuffs himself, and his farts turn him back into Squeak. Towards the end, Granny has to zap the monster-eating-machine Hyde has become to regain her lovable Squeak, which she does mainly using pieces of fruit – never has a banana-wielding grandma looked quite so aggressive.

This is fun from start to end, silly and engaging, and an excellent introduction to literature’s classics! You can buy it here.

the-spooky-school

Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: The Spooky School by Tracy Corderoy and Steven Lenton

Originally in picture book format, Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam are two dogs who started their careers as robbers, but realised that crime doesn’t pay and so turned their skills to cupcake making. Although adept at baking, they also solve mysteries and foil crime.

Now in two-colour chapter book format for newly independent readers, these books combine three stories in one book. The Spooky School is a vibrant two-tone orange and black for Halloween, and starts with a Halloween story as the two dogs help a class of schooldogs make Halloween treats for a midnight feast. But there’s a ghost at large in the school, and Shifty and Sam have to catch it before it eats all the tasty treats!

The other two stories feature power-hungry Red Rocket (a red panda with evil intentions), and some raccoons raiding a museum. In both, the reader cheers on the heroes as they foil both dastardly plans with some rather ingenious baking implements. Our pups ski on baguettes, use walkie-talkie croissants, and thwart villains by firing cream cakes at them.

Each adventure is warm, witty and engaging, and illustrated with fun and panache. The text and pictures marry perfectly and children will devour as readily as if the cupcakes on the page were real. An excellent introduction to adventure storytelling. For newly independent readers, 6+ years. You can buy it here.

horror-handbook

The Horror Handbook by Paul van Loon, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

This is a the ultimate nightmare for all librarians. A fact book about fictional things. Yes, The Horror Handbook does exactly as it describes – it provides information on ghosts, monsters, vampires and all kinds of Halloween-type creatures. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, the book guides the reader through the horror genre, revealing the definition of vampires, how to become a werewolf (should one wish to), and how to protect yourself from witches (should one need to).

But it also contains fact – a section on horror movies that describes the genres within this genre – films about monsters, werewolves, aliens and a host of others, as well as a section on classic horror books, including Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And various factual tidbits are sprinkled throughout the book, such as that vampire bats do exist and what they are.

But as well as the fun, lively tone of the book, there are also the immensely funny illustrations, courtesy of Scheffler, including a brilliant transformation of ordinary bloke to werewolf, the milkman test for werewolves, and instructions for protection against the evil eye. All hilarious, all well worth a look.

Any child who’s interested in reading the book will obviously have a strong stomach anyway, but there are graphic sections on how to kill a vampire (ramming a stake through its heart and nailing it to the bottom of the coffin – meanwhile watching out for spurting blood), as well as instructing your child to google ‘vampire hunters’, so you may wish to talk through things with your child before they devour the book!

This is an immensely fun handbook with anecdotes, trivia, films, and endless references to all the horror one could possibly want on Halloween. Be scared. Be super prepared! Age 9+ years. Have a scare here.

tales-of-horror

Tales of Horror by Edgar Allan Poe

If you’ve an older child who can get past the somewhat difficult language, then you should definitely let them be scared stupid by Poe’s Tales of Horror. Or read them yourself. Poe, as everyone knows, had a knack for writing unfailing misery and horror, a sense of insufferable gloom:

“There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart – an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.”

From the tale of the man who buries alive his twin sister in The Fall of the House of Usher to the unreliable narrator and prison horror of The Pit and the Pendulum, to the famous and utterly horrifying Tell-Tale Heart, which keeps on beating and induces the narrator to succumb to his guilt, these are brilliant stories whether you are reading them for the first time, or revisiting.

His stories plunge depths of darkness, immorality and despair, often featuring characters devoid of family. Some are gothic and narrated by unreliable, anonymous narrators who appear insane or unhinged in some way and thus there is no distraction from the tension within. But most of all, they’re great fun – spot the allusions to mirrors, doppelgangers, masks, and returnees from the dead. For teens and adults. Get your Poe here.

 

Max Helsing: Monster Hunter by Curtis Jobling

max helsing

Okay, confession time. I’m not a big ‘monster genre’ lover. I didn’t watch Buffy (gasp!), or True Blood, or The Walking Dead, but thinking back I did enjoy reading and studying Frankenstein, and I did recently adore reading the Darkmouth series for kids.

So I didn’t think that I’d love Max Helsing: Monster Hunter, quite as much as I did. I should have known really, author and illustrator Curtis Jobling blew me away when he recently turned a drawing of Bob the Builder into a zombie – which is pretty much what my son did when he had me watching the show night after night.

Jobling’s latest book – the first in a new series – caught me with its prologue – an epically depicted piece of writing that pits Max against an adolescent vampire and shakes a teen girl from its hypnotic grip. The vocabulary is electrifying – Jobling’s first description of a monster in the book is tremendous and reels the reader in for more.

Max Helsing, thirteen year old American boy, is descended from a long lineage of monster hunters, and keeps his town safe from demons and prowling ghoulies. However, when he discovers he’s ‘marked’ by the monster world, things turn a little more gruesome and he must escape the curse of an ancient vampire who will do anything to end the Helsing lineage.

This isn’t groundbreaking stuff – Jobling hasn’t reinvented the wheel – and the book fits snugly into the monster hunter genre, yet there’s something about Max Helsing that makes it stand out from the crowd.

It could be the sardonic wit of our protagonist, an intensely likeable laid-back nonchalant teen who chucks wisecracks at the monsters, wins battles mainly through luck and general unorthodoxy rather than great skill, and shows an adorable soft side, wanting to win hearts and minds rather than kill.

Or, his kickass sidekicks – Syd, a girl into engineering, and a boy called Wing Liu, who, surprisingly, after having been made out originally to be a somewhat frightened neighbourhood kid, turns into a deadpan risk taker.

There are some intensely hammy moments – Max’s birthday celebrations where a new monster is born – a teenager – and the explanation of the Grimm brothers as writing a non-fiction manual for the future, but the action scenes are full of gore and fun:

“The severed tendril flailed wildly, oozing green fluid into the air with a sound not unlike a deflating whoopee cushion.”

The setting is slightly wobbly – it’s based in New England, but feels English at times. This is forgivable as the action moves around so seamlessly. A Monster Reference guide complete with excellent illustrations by Jobling himself adds an extra element to the book.

Overall, it feels written with love. They say you should write the book you’d want to read for yourself – I imagine that’s exactly what Curtis Jobling has done. Kids will monster munch it up.

Age 9+. You can buy it here.