newly independent readers

Meet the…Ancient Romans by James Davies

meet the ancient romansThere is one key feature of nonfiction for children for which I am always on the lookout, and that’s the author’s ability to put over information in an accessible and concise way, no matter the scope or depth of that information. Then, of course that information has to be interesting, and explain the point well enough so that children understand and are hooked, but not provide so much detail that they get lost in reams of text.

Those looking to emulate those skills, should seek out Meet the Ancient Romans by James Davies. A vast subject to tackle, the Ancient Roman Empire spans all elements of life and hundreds of years of history – and yet Davies has managed to compact it all into a golden nugget of information for young readers.

Each book – for there is one on Ancient Egyptians too – is 64 pages, and manages to cram a huge amount into a small book, and much of that information is conveyed through explanatory and amusing illustrations.

Meet the…Ancient Romans tackles everything from Roman numerals and emperors to way of life and the army, but also addresses questions a child might have if they have already heard something of the subject matter. For example, it references that the child may have heard of Caesar, and be questioning why he isn’t mentioned on the emperors’ hall of fame page – Davies then gives the answer to this – Caesar wasn’t actually an emperor.

Above all, the book is highly visual. This is determined by the colour tone, which gives the reader their first impression – for Rome the book is red in tone, which implies tomatoes (for me anyway, which I associate with that part of the world, but also of course for the red pigment used in their villas, as well as the red material and paint which is associated with their god of war, Mars.) The Egyptian book is yellow – presumably for sand.

But more than just the large limited colour palate, Davies’ book is highly visual because each page is dominated by cartoon-like images and vignettes of people, doing the tasks described. There is immense attention to detail in these drawings – from the mighty legions in the Rome book to the depiction of mummification in the Egypt book. This is hugely impressive, but Davies has also inserted his sense of humour into the illustrations – one Roman soldier seems to have lost his uniform for example; this is a book that entertains as well as informs.

There are also comedic speech bubbles, somewhat reminiscent of Horrible Histories, although Davies’ book is for a younger audience, and is brighter, bolder and shorter!

As Davies progresses the narrative through the book, he adds more and more comments to his explanations. From Roman numerals to the army, clothing and schooling, the author uses one liners or small phrases to indicate his opinion, and it feels as if his personality is growing with the book. A sense of intimacy and shared comedy is felt with the author – a lovely touch for an information book for a young audience.

Each book ends with a very short and sweet timeline; in Ancient Romans, it depicts the beginning of Rome with Romulus and Remus to the end of the Roman Empire in AD 476 when Germany invaded. You can buy a copy here.

The companion title, Meet the Ancient Egyptians is equally buzzing with personality and information.  A fair amount of this title is spent on death and the afterlife, an obsession both of the people of the time, but also children today who are often captivated by the process of mummification, and the tombs in which the pharaohs were buried.

The series feels as if it were made to last, and should be an excellent addition to all school libraries, but also a great gift for those looking to pique children’s interest in Ancient History. I’ll be looking out for further titles…hoping for Greece and Mayans….You can buy the Ancient Egyptians book here.

Animals, Hotels and Crazy Antics

Once they reach an age of reading for themselves, it’s quite delightful to see young readers pick up a series – they can devour book after book, knowing what’s coming next, but also developing an affinity with the characters, and feeling secure in the familiarity. I know that some of the most popular series in the library for these newly independent readers are Claude by Alex T Smith, Isadora Moon by Harriet Muncaster and of course, Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon. But if your little ones have READ ALL THE BOOKS IN THE LIBRARY, as one said to me recently, then you might like to try these new books:

nothing to see here hotelThe Nothing To See Here Hotel by Steven Butler and Steven Lenton
One of the wackiest, zaniest and most inventive books of the new year is this fun, silly, and outrageously colourful adventure from the author of Dennis the Menace books. The Nothing To See Here Hotel sits on the Brighton sea front, but it is enchanted and therefore invisible to the human eye (except for when a seagull flies into one of the invisible towers). Our narrator, busting with the same enthusiasm and energy of the author, is Frankie, one thirty-sixth troll, who lives in a world of magical creatures, and is descended from a long line of trolls, harpies, witches and puddle-nymphs.

Told in a chatty, conversational style, this is an exuberant romp through a day in the life of the hotel, which is owned by Frankie’s parents. A goblin messenger arrives in quite a whirlwind, announcing the imminent arrival of the goblin prince. The hotel is excited, until they see the prince’s mammoth entourage (which reminded me of the entourage song in Disney’s Aladdin), and the stuck-up prince himself, who is hiding a little secret.

The book moves fast – the characters are constantly in action, and Butler piles on the craziness, scene after scene. There is much unexpected plot, as it veers off in different directions, endlessly daft, weird and fun.

Like Phil Earle with his Storey Street series, and Tom Fletcher in The Creakers, Butler weaves himself into the novel by playing with the role of author – exploring elements of story and congratulating the reader on reaching certain points. This is never patronising, but an extension of the fun and games Butler is clearly having with the text. He also invents new vocabulary, along the likes of Dahl, weaving in words such as ranciderous and squivelling. Each addition is exciting, fun and fits the story well.

Hotels are also great fodder for literature – endless rooms, misfit characters, people away from home, and Butler makes full use of his imaginative Brighton resort. The final copy will be highly illustrated by Steven Lenton, but I received a very early review copy without illustrations. You can buy it here.

bee boy
Bee Boy: Clash of the Killer Queens by Tony De Saulles
Another cracking start to a series is this cartoon-based book about a new kind of superhero, a bee-boy. Melvin, by way of a touch of magical surrealism, falls into a bee’s hive that he’s tending, and is nominated protectorate from all anti-bee things by the bees.

It may sound a little strange, but works brilliantly, as De Saulles, illustrator of the Horrible Science series, meshes together ideas of bullying and survival, in Melvin’s experience of school, and the bees’ experience of human and natural dangers.

The parallel might seem extreme, but as Melvin battles with the horrific Norman Crudwell at school, so his bees battle against a myriad of menaces, from killer wasps to hawkmoths. Of course, De Saulles pulls in much ‘bee education’ in this fiction tale, but he manages to keep providing great sting and wit at the same time.

The reader will feel for Melvin as he overcomes his obstacles, but pathos is particularly evoked in the illustrations – Melvin has oversize glasses and sticking-out-teeth but manages to be presented as fairly adorable too. In fact, with the popularity of awkward cartoon-like heroes such as Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid, Bee Boy enters the fray as another contender for most gawky, and will win fans and readers. The book is simply full of illustrations, which gives a fabulous clue to each and every character. Most importantly, check out those endpapers. De Saulles has gone to town with his miniature depictions of Melvin’s classmates – imbuing each with an identity and personality. Lashings of fun, and a wonderful little crush on school friend Priti make this a buzzing read. You can buy it here.

night zoo keeper
Night Zoo Keeper: The Giraffes of Whispering Wood by Joshua Davidson, Giles Clare and Buzz Burman
Will is taking part in a school project to paint a mural at the local zoo, but gets admonished for his creative use of colour. When he returns at night, he opens a portal into the land of the Night Zoo, where animals talk, and danger lurks.

He makes friends with a giraffe called Sam, who explains that not only is Will the Night Zookeeper, but that he must keep the animals safe from the Voids – scarily destructive robotic spiders.

This is a short, fantasy adventure story, with stunning black and white illustrations throughout, but it is also a jumping off point for children and teachers to explore an accompanying website, called NightZooKeeper.com with the idea to stimulate creative writing.

A mix of animals, action, robots and a helping hand from a girl called Riya, the book ends on a cliff-hanger leading into the next story, publishing in August. It’s not ground-breaking storytelling, but my little testers liked it well enough. You can buy it here.

dave pigeon
Lastly, and by no means least, is what happens when a series for newly independent readers takes off (no pun intended). Dave Pigeon (Racer!) by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey is the third title in the successful series about a couple of pigeons who talk their way through their adventures and demonstrate oodles of personality and pigeon wit. In this particular episode, Dave Pigeon is recovering at the vets, having had a prosthetic wing fixed, when he’s challenged to a race by a pirate bird. Playing on the idea of racing pigeons, and with allusions and jokes galore for adults as well as children, this is a sniggertastic read. With language puns, sparkling wit in both text and illustration, your newly independent reader couldn’t ask for more. Unless they want a fourth Dave Pigeon book? You can buy it here.

 

A Q&A with Anthony McGowan: Killing Father Christmas

Anthony McGowan, possibly best known for his gritty YA stories including The Knife that Killed Me and the Brock, Pike and Rook series, has published a gorgeous Christmas story for younger readers with publisher Barrington Stoke: I Killed Father Christmas. Although it may sound rather horrific from the title, this is a gentle story about the true meaning of Christmas.

When Jo-Jo hears his parents arguing downstairs, he feels that it’s all his fault and that he has killed Father Christmas by asking for too many presents. To make amends, Jo-Jo feels he must try to do Santa’s job himself. Although McGowan shows Jo-Jo’s frustration here, he also incorporates much humour, and sprinkles more than a dash of Christmas magic across the pages. Cleverly, although the story is sweet and endearing, it does manage to incorporate the darker issues of Christmas time and families – showing how children may fear they are to blame for family arguments, as well as admitting how difficult it can be for some families to afford the excess costs at Christmas time. 

The book is illustrated by Chris Riddell, the former Children’s Laureate, who brings the story to life with both realism, and a clever use of colour. I had the opportunity to ask Anthony a few questions about his writing and Christmas, and this is what he said:

You’ve had huge success, and certainly critics’ acclaim for your series for Barrington Stoke: Brock, Pike and Rook. Is there something special about writing for dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke?

Before I began writing for Barrington Stoke, my books were anything but dyslexia friendly. My style is naturally rather excessive, ornate and fancy and, unless I’m restrained, I tend to show off, letting the reader know just how clever I am. My earlier books tended to grab the reader by the ears and scream into their face. I pulled out all the stops to dazzle, astound, impress, amuse, disgust. Writing for Barrington Stoke taught me that less can be more, that three simple words can do the work of a hundred complex ones, that stories are about characters undergoing trials, and emerging from them changed. And so writing for Barrington Stoke simply made me better at my job.

I was quite surprised when reading I Killed Father Christmas to find out how ‘sentimental’ it was: full of hope and love. It doesn’t seem to fit with the author who writes with such grittiness and cynicism in The Art of Failing and The Knife That Killed Me for example…Is there a softer side to Anthony McGowan that isn’t normally seen?

Well, it’s a Christmas story! Actually, there are quite dark elements in it – it begins with a bitter argument, and tries to hint at how families can struggle with the cost of Christmas. But, yes, the underlying (and overlying) message is that what gets us through is love and kindness. I suppose I also wanted to salvage something from the commercialisation of Christmas – trying to find a core of goodness under all the tinsel.

Was Christmas a big part of your upbringing?

I’m one of five children, so Christmas was always exciting and chaotic. We were pretty skint when I was growing up, so it must have been a struggle for my parents to give us the presents we pestered them for, as well as all the other festive elements; but they made a huge effort to make Christmas special. I suppose it was all quite traditional – both in the wider sense, and in the more particular McGowan family rituals. We had the same decorations every year – the same tinsel draped over the pictures in the living room. There was always a huge tin of Quality Street – hidden by my dad, searched for and plundered by us.  Presents (always from Father Christmas, never acknowledged as being from my parents) were left in pillow cases at the end of our beds. We were allowed to open them at the crack of dawn, in a frenzy of tearing and rending and squealing. Then we’d go off to Mass, then Christmas lunch, that always happened around 4pm. The best part was going out to play with my friends, showing off your new toys – that Action Man, or a new torch, or a bike. I suppose the main thing is that because we didn’t have much money, Christmas felt very different to the rest of the year – it was a time of plenty – enough sweets, enough nice food, the toys …

Can you describe your perfect Christmas now?

For some reason it always makes me feel a little sad. I suppose it’s a very obvious marker of the years passing, of my own aging, of my children growing. But my daughter still gets incredibly excited by Christmas, and that infects the rest of us. There are plenty of family occasions – we go to my wife’s parents on Christmas Day, then travel up to Yorkshire to see my parents on Boxing Day. The McGowans are still mad and chaotic and noisy – quite a contrast to my wife’s very decorous family! As for perfection … well, as a parent all you want is for your children to be happy. The easy route is to buy them the presents they want, but the better path is to fill the house up with as much love as you can – which is what I Killed Father Christmas is all about.

Your writing is incredibly diverse – across genres and markets – do you find you prefer writing on any particular topic (cricket?) or for any particular audience? Presumably they all hold their own challenges..

I probably find it easiest to write for teenagers – those teenage years were very intense for me, and so my mind often drifts back there. And teenager’s lives are just so full of the stuff of fiction – conflict, friendship, love, hate… But there’s a huge joy to be had in writing funny books for younger children. And yet the book I’ve probably most relished is my recent autobiographical book for adults, The Art of Failing … I guess what all this means is that what I really love is the variety, the chance to write for anyone able to read (or be read to).

Do you write more than one book at the same time? And are you disciplined about your writing day?

Often, yes, I’ll have a couple on the go, though that’s more due to necessity than design. I think it’s much better to finish one project before the next begins, but that’s just not possible when you’re a professional writer, having to cater for different audiences. I try to write a thousand words a day, but I’m not particularly disciplined. Almost anything can distract me, a leaf falling past my window, the noise of a road drill, the constant urge to check Facebook and Twitter. Luckily, when I get going I’m quite fast, so I can do my thousand words in a couple of hours, then spend the rest of the day loafing, or fretting, or bumbling around.

What are you reading at the moment? And your favourite Christmas children’s book please?

Just as I often have several books on the go as a writer, I generally find myself in the middle of several as a reader, usually a classic, something frothy, and a work of non-fiction. So, as a slightly trashy pleasure I’m reading The Stand, by Stephen King; my current classic is The Story of the Stone, an 18th century Chinese novel, by Cao Xueqin, and my non-fiction is  The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan. I’m not sure I have a favourite children’s Christmas story, though I do have one that makes me weep uncontrollably whenever I read it – The Little Match Girl, by Hans Christian Anderson.

With thanks to Anthony McGowan for taking the time to answer my questions so fully. You can buy your own copy of I Killed Father Christmas here.

 

 

Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure by Alex T Smith

Barely a day goes by without a child in the library offering me their own drawing of ‘Claude’ or asking for me to order more Claude books for the library shelves. ‘S’ with Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry series, and Alex T Smith’s Claude books is a quickly emptying shelf of books. So it was with delight, and some trepidation, that I embarked on reading the first title of the new series from Alex T Smith, Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure.

Mr Penguin sets himself up as a Professional Adventurer. The only problem is that he’s been sitting at his desk, twiddling his flippers for some time. Then, a phone call comes through from Boudicca Bones, curator at the Museum of Extraordinary Objects, and Mr Penguin is needed to find some missing treasure. Together with his sidekick, Colin (a spider), and a packed lunch (very necessary), Mr Penguin sets off on a new adventure.

With magnifying glass, explorer hat, maps and museums, this is an old-fashioned adventure to which Alex T Smith has applied his zanily humorous style. There is comedy of the absurd in abundance, as into the plot go disguised identities, a log that turns out to be an alligator, and a spider who can’t talk but can write down his thoughts.

Museums are always groovy places for hide-and-seek and treasure hunts, with their cavernous spaces and dark dingy corners with weird artefacts, but Smith goes one better here, by opening up a subterranean jungle complete with waterfalls underneath the museum floor. Thus turning Mr Penguin from an investigator into an Indiana Jones type figure.

The plot moves apace, there is much humour, and of course it’s highly illustrated – this is a step up for readers of Claude, who will encounter much more text and plot here, but there are magnificent illustrations spread throughout the book. Through these, the reader can pick up visual clues to assist them in deciphering any red herrings from real clues, and the whole book is beautifully produced in a typical penguin colour – black and white with orange spot colour.

Particular highlights include an excellent vocabulary for this age group, a nod to the importance of food, huge amounts of humour, both slapstick and more subtle, and phenomenal attention to detail from the newspaper endpapers to chapter headings and page numbers.

A quirky tale, well told and full of fun. I know just where to point my young readers after Claude – it’s the extraordinary adventures of Mr Penguin. May this new series run and run (or waddle and waddle). For ages 7 and up. You can buy it here.

My Halloween: A guest post from author Anna Wilson

To celebrate the publication of Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire by Anna Wilson and illustrated by Kathryn Ourst, I asked Anna to share some Halloween memories with us. Highlights in our house on Halloween include carving pumpkins, donning costumes, and ambles in the neighbourhood when usually the children would be asleep. Here, Anna reveals her Halloween favourites:

I have always loved Halloween for two reasons – the parties and the DRESSING-UP! When I was young we didn’t celebrate Halloween in the UK. The first time I ever saw what fun it could be was when I saw the American film “E.T.”

By the time I’d left home and had my own place, Halloween had become a major event in the UK. Children would come knocking on the door shouting “Trick or Treat!” I learnt that I had to have a stash of sweets at the ready, otherwise I might get flour thrown in my face. Sometimes, if the tricksters were of the mean-teen variety, I got flour thrown in my face anyway. I didn’t like that aspect of Halloween – I still don’t – so one year I decided I would be prepared for the pranksters.

I invited some friends around for a Halloween party and insisted that everyone come in costume. I dressed as a vampire (of course!), complete with fake blood dripping from my fake fangs. One friend arrived dressed as an enormous pumpkin which he had fashioned from chicken wire and crepe paper. He barely fit through the door! Another came as Frankenstein’s monster. Another as a wizard. Another as a skeleton. You get the picture.

Soon the trick-or-treaters arrived. They rattled the letter box and yelled. They were definitely the prankster kind rather than the cute-little-witch kind. Quickly we turned out the lights, grabbed torches and scuttled to the door. The letter box rattled again and the kids shouted, “Trick or Treat!” Checking my friends were ready, I yanked open the door. “TRICK!” we yelled, torches held below our monstrous chins. The mean-teens on the doorstep screamed and ran off and we were never bothered by flour-throwers again!

Years later, my own children wanted to go trick-or-treating, but we live in the country down a dark lane with no street lights. I didn’t like the thought of them wandering around on their own, and they didn’t want me to come with them, so my husband and I came up with a compromise. We would have a party. Parents would come too; there would be games and fireworks and food. And everyone had to come in fancy dress.

These parties have gone down in family folklore as amongst the best things we did when the kids were young. The costumes people wore were elaborate and scary – there was lots of fake blood and green hair! We did apple-bobbing and eating pancakes off string and finding chocolate squares in a plate of flour and I made a “Yucky Dip” from layers of jelly. You had to plunge your hand in to pull out sweets, but it quickly became a lot messier than that, with kids sticking their faces in and finding the sweets with their teeth. I also told a Spooky Story, turning out all the lights and handing round peeled grapes and plates of spaghetti while I described in detail how someone’s eye ball had been found rolling down the street, or how a body had spilled its guts all over the road.

I miss those parties. My kids are grown-up now. Maybe that’s why I have written about little Vlad Impaler and his ghoulish family. It takes me back to the days when we had fun dressing up and being spooked on Halloween. Whatever you are doing this Halloween, I hope you have lots of fun. And remember to be safe out there when you are trick or treating – and be kind to the treaters!

With thanks to Anna – I wish I had been invited to one of those parties – they sound magnificent fun. To share in the Halloween trickery, you can buy your copy of Vlad 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!)

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

the lost words
This week, out of curiosity, and stemmed from my admiration of a heartfelt and well-crafted newspaper article on the attempt to reconnect children with words to describe nature, I ordered one of the largest, most beautiful books I’ve ever seen from my local bookshop. The publishers are at pains to point out that it’s not just for children, but for all, and I would concur. This week’s book of the week is for you as much as for your child.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is an oversize book of ‘incantations’ or poems, highly illustrated in full-colour, laid out as an ABC of nature, featuring such words as fern, heron, kingfisher, newt and willow. Publishers often talk about whether a pairing of author and illustrator works – Dahl and Blake, Simon and Ross. Here, the force of the words matches the force of the illustrations in the most exquisite way.

Perhaps Morris set out to create a work of paintings to rival the beauty of nature itself – a paean at least. And indeed the artwork is literally breath-taking – I gasped at the first spread on which I opened the book – the branches and leaves stood out as if in 3D. The capture of light on a glowing conker is mesmerising. The layering of the artwork, the exquisite capturing of nature in flux and flight is simply stunning. And there is a thread of gold running through the book – gold foil on the cover – and gold within that marks the book as a ‘treasure’, as something more than mundane. Macfarlane points out that it is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and indeed it implies that what is contained within is to be held in reverence – as with nature itself.

The book runs through an ABC (although some letters are used more than once) of acrostic poems, ‘incantations’, all related to nature. Each subject is attributed three spreads – an illustrated word lost, the poem and illustration, and then a spread depicting the subject within a landscape. Or, in more poetic language – the word slipping away, the summoning poem, and the word being spelled back.

When Macfarlane speaks, (having heard him on the radio), it’s like a tumbling bubbling river running over rocks; he speaks fast as if the words are so numerous he is desperate to give them voice. This is one way of reading the ‘incantations’ held within the book, just hearing the sounds the words make, like a playful witch’s spell, an inner prayer to nature, a chanting even. Indeed, it is anticipated that these ‘incantations’ are to be spoken aloud. Yet another way of reading these acrostic poems is to savour every chosen word – for chosen they most certainly are. The individual vocabulary, the way the words meet each other in phrases, the space around the words on the page.

The poems reflect diversity in their literary artistry. The incantation to the bluebell uses the metaphor of water when thinking about the blue of bluebells. On the next page the picture shows the woodland floor awashed in blue, looking almost like the sea – only the fox prowling through and an owl in flight keep the image grounded among the trees.

The fern breathes with alliteration on the ‘f’ sounds, and Macfarlane uses consonance with the ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. The heron incantation explores the relationship between urbanity and nature with its steel metaphor.

There is a duality to the given title of the book. Partly, Morris’s and Macfarlane’s inspiration came following the news in 2015 that around 50 words connected with nature were being cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary because they had fallen out of use. Almond, blackberry and crocus made way for analogue, block graph and celebrity as long ago as 2007. Naming, as Macfarlane points out, is essential: “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name.” This naming returns the lost words to our vernacular. But, the words of the landscape speak not only to knowledge, but also to the history of the land, the cultural and rural identity of the words we use to describe things.

I would argue that the title also speaks to the reader who will get lost within the book, because the words and artworks are so powerful, so intoxicating. It has the power both to immerse the reader but also to enthrall the reader and entice them to look around them at the outside world.

It’s a big and heavy book, quite difficult to shelve, but that’s probably because it’s not meant to be shelved. It’s meant to lie around the house or garden or field, open and inhaled. At this size and potency, it certainly won’t be lost. You can buy it here.

 

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell


There’s so much chatter about ‘gender’ at the moment, so it’s liberating to see another children’s book with dual protagonists – a boy and a girl, both on a mission to overcome perceived ideas of who they should be and how they should turn out.

Set in a sort of long-ago Iron Age, in which iron defeats magic, and before the British nation has any sort of identity, this is tribal warfare in deep dark forests, in which warriors are pitted against wizards, and witches are a third tribe, perhaps extinct, but definitely most evil.

Prince Xar is a princely Wizard, whose magic hasn’t ‘come in’ yet, and is desperate to join his peers and brother in that attribute. Wish is a Warrior, determined to express both her independence and worth to her mother, the Warrior Queen. When tweens Xar and Wish meet by happenchance in the woods, both rebelling against their parents, it sets forth a rollercoaster of events and opportunities for both of them to prove themselves. Before long, it becomes apparent that the two tribes may need to come together in order to defeat a third.

Cressida Cowell is an accomplished storyteller, having risen to fame with her prior series, How To Train Your Dragon. Not dissimilar, this is a world teeming with engaging characters, effervescent humour, and hugely wondrous world-building. Cowell has a particular ability to pit deep questions alongside silliness and humour, so that readers are absorbing both with great delight. Cowell poses terrific questions such as, ‘what if what you had been taught to believe was wrong?’, and shows the reader how to see beyond someone else’s differences, as well as challenging perceived notions of upbringing and parents’ perceived perfection.

There is plenty to love. Both characters, being royal subjects, are surrounded by entourages – Xar’s is particularly large, and includes a bird with a screaming sense of when things are rebellious or wrong (reminiscent of The Lion King’s Zazu). Wish’s entourage includes a bodyguard who faints at the first sign of danger, and an enchanted spoon.

This kind of wackiness is enhanced by the purposefully haphazard illustrations (drawn by Cowell herself) that sit alongside the text, from the map of the lands at the beginning, to the various facial expressions of the spoon. The illustrations are scribbly and sketchy and give the impression of being spontaneous and highly creative, as energetic as the prose itself.

The pace is fleet of foot and unrelenting, and this new world is populated with a realm of enchanting and peculiar creatures, from slow but philosophical giants to sprites, fairies, and ogres, all with their own individual personalities – be it cute and small, or large and menacing.

But most of all, two things stand out. Firstly, Cowell’s voice, which is confident and unswerving, appealing to her young readers without didacticism or being patronising, but making them think. It also carries a humour and slight quirkiness, even posing the question to her readership of who this omniscient narrator might be within the story. And secondly, the emotional intelligence with which she writes her young characters – they are authentic in their selfishness and desires as well as their relationships with their parents and siblings, and yet courageous and resilient, adaptable to the changes happening around them.

If you buy a hardback copy, do look under the dust jacket for a rather shimmery surprise. Unfortunately though, the only fault lies also in the production. In my copy, the blackness of the background on many pages rubbed off on my fingers, leaving an inky residue, which meant that the book not only touched my heart, but certainly left its mark. For the younger end of the middle grade category – this is suitable from 8+ years. You can buy your own signed exclusive edition from Waterstones here.

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.