newly independent readers

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.

 

There’s a Werewolf in my Tent! by Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham

I’ve long been a fan of Pamela Butchart’s writing. Her narration spills off the page with bubbliness and enthusiasm and leaves the reader feeling joyful and always entertained.

She won the Children’s Book Award in 2016 and the Blue Peter Book Award in 2015, as well as being shortlisted for a Lollie (Laugh Out Loud Book Award), and I think this sums up her stable of texts – hugely popular with children and always packed with humour. If you haven’t come across her books yet, do start reading now.

There’s a Werewolf in my Tent is actually the sixth book about Izzy and her set of friends, but each book can happily be read as a standalone.

Izzy and her friends are going on a school camping trip, which is HUGELY exciting. Accompanying them are Miss Jones, their teacher, and also Miss Moon, the scary new PE teacher who is whoppingly tall, and a bit hairy too. Once they have pitched tents, things become a little nerve-wracking when there are howling sounds at night, missing sausages, and strange scratches. Could it have anything to do with Miss Moon and her increasingly hairy legs?

Butchart excels in the conversational writing style – the story is told by Izzy – in a type of breathless whizzy fashion – exactly how my daughter speaks when she has a story to tell me about her day at school. With capitals every so often for emphasis, and the hilarious black and white illustrations from Flintham, the book really is a laugh a minute. The reader will cringe as they see the truth behind the story, which Izzy and her friends fail to see. The delight is in spotting the absurdity of the friends’ assumptions, and revelling in the zaniness of the plot.

And yet, despite this craziness, there’s always a truth behind the story, a grounding in schoolfriends’ experiences, and real emotion – and this is what bears out the longevity and effectiveness of the books, because as well as the adventure and all the silliness, Butchart continually shows the friends’ kindnesses towards each other, their caring attitudes towards their friends. This school trip story deals with homesickness (lightly), the pros and cons of camping, and a full protein diet! Contemporary, indeed.

It’s one of my most recommended series for newly independent readers – teaching them plot, dropped clues, emphasis and most importantly a whole lot of fun. Reading doesn’t get much more pleasurable than this at the age of seven. You can buy it here.

Draw and Discover with Yasmeen Ismail

Mark making has long been an important part of early years education. As well as developing those all-important motor skills, (which strengthen the muscles in the hands to help children to write for significant periods of time when they are older), making drawings, scribbles and illustrations helps a child to explore their imagination. It develops hand-eye coordination, and also helps a child’s cognitive thinking – learning about the world, planning and experimenting. Confidence in drawing can lead to confidence in mathematical thinking too.

How often do we, even as adults, picture things visually? And for caregivers, marks can make a child’s thinking visible before the child can write.

So the new range of Draw and Discover books by Yasmeen Ismail are particularly appealing. The books help children to identify word meanings and express themselves. Each book is led by a different character – Rabbit, Duck and Bear – as they explore different concepts: big, small, empty, full, push, pull, inside outside, and also of course Happy, Sad, Feeling Glad, which provides space and ideas for children to learn about, give name to, and draw out their emotions.

I’m delighted to have a downloadable pdf for you today, from Happy, Sad, Feeling Glad so that you can have a taster of this marvellous new activity book. Just click here: Yasmeen Ismail Happy Sad Feeling Glad

With thanks to Yasmeen Ismail, pictured below with her real live cat! (thanks to Olivia Hemingway for the photo too).

Yasmeen Ismail in her Studio on 28.2.17

An Animal Round Up: Spring 2017

Wild Animals of the South by Dieter Braun
Braun made a huge splash with his first book, Wild Animals of the North, because of its gloriously large full-page imagery – and the fact that it was lovingly produced in a cloth-bound luscious hardback with images on uncoated paper. It felt and smelled worthy. This book serves to do the same with animals from the southern half of the globe: from the hot tropical rainforests of Brazil to the cold depths of Antarctica. The portraits dominate the information – so this is a visual treat rather than an information overload. In fact the text is pocket-sized against the largesse of the illustrations, which gives the animals themselves even more emphasis.

The illustrations look tactile, and are highly textured and highly coloured. The artistry is stunning to behold – my favourite a troop of elephants headed directly in the reader’s direction – a backdrop of brown tones, blending with the grey to tea-coloured elephants – with just a suggestion of the dust flying up from their hooves in curvy waves.

The colour is stunning – some animals blended into the background, such as the mantis, others, such as the little egret, standing out proud against its blue watery background. The scratchy illustration and reflections imply a watery feel.

Information is scant, as in the first volume – for example, there is just a picture of the little egret with a naming caption, but text does accompany some – such as the Indian rhinoceros.

Split into regions, there is also a thumbnail index at the rear. A book to inspire and delight for budding illustrators and graphic designers, and a must-buy for those stunned by the beauty of the natural world and who would appreciate that beauty mirrored in a book. You can buy it here.

Safe and Sound by Jean Roussen, pictures by Loris Lora
A book about baby animals for near babes, this is another visual treat from publisher Flying Eye. What’s stunning about these far more simplistic illustrations than those by Dieter Braun above, is that the eyes from each animal stare out of the illustration and pull the reader inside – almost like looking longingly into baby eyes yourself.

The idea is that the baby animals need some protection before they’re ready to face the world, from chipmunks burrowing underground, to kangaroo joeys in comfy pouches. There’s nothing new here, but the information is given in rhyming couplets (some work better than others), and will surprise new readers who will not be aware that baby crocodiles hide inside their mothers’ mouths – not somewhere you’d expect to be that safe.

A delightful start to learning about non-fiction, this is exactly the sort of book schools and parents want more of for their little ones who want stories, but also want facts. You can buy it here.

Neon Leon by Jane Clarke, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup
How ironic! A chameleon who stands out. All the other chameleons change colour to match their surroundings of course, in this book that explains camouflage for the very young. Neon Leon, sadly, can’t turn off his neon glare to blend in. In fact, his fluorescent brilliant orange shows up even in the dark, and Leon soon feels sad and ostracised from the other chameleons. He searches for other animals who might also be bright orange, but as soon as he finds them, they fly away. Will Leon ever find his own happy place?

This book works beautifully. Not only are the colours vivid and glowing, and the illustrations endearing and sympathetic, but the text speaks directly to the reader, provoking interactivity – helping Leon to choose the right colours, or what to do next. As with Safe and Sound, the book works wonderfully for young readers, giving non-fiction a new spin, but it also encourages massive affinity with the book, and the characters within. A great fluid read, bright and engaging. Purchase Leon here.

Bee and Me by Alison Jay
Lastly, and by no means least, a wordless picture book that encompasses a tale of friendship with an environmental message, through fascinating and busy illustrations, telling the story in an almost comic book sequence, but with traditional drawings.

A little girl in a bustling city is disturbed by a bee who accidentally flies in through her window. A natural reaction would be to swat the bee perhaps, or to capture it in a vessel so that it can be safely released. The girl does succumb to the latter, but when she sees it has drooped in its glass cage, she reads a book to work out what to do. What a clever girl! She revives the bee, and lets it go, but when bad weather drives it to her window again, a friendship is struck. Before long, the bee grows, and eventually teaches the little girl all about bees.

The pictures are captivating – both in their execution and in what they’re saying. This is a wonderful way to engage young readers to get them to ‘say what they see’ – telling the story as the narrator, engaging their analytical and storytelling capacities, as well as their empathy. And the book also holds an environmental message about the importance of bees, and pollination. By the end, a kaleidoscope of new butterflies and flowers have emerged in the city.

The book isn’t preachy though, but rather imbued with a grand sense of humour. From looking bedraggled to being pouffed with a hairdryer, our bee is full of personality. And the little girl too – she takes the bee out in her bike basket and gives it an ice-cream lolly, she measures it on a height chart, but best of all the bee enjoys a visit to the florist, and finally a day break from the city. A mellifluous read. Buy it here.

The Big Book of Beasts by Yuval Zommer

A skulk of foxes, mould growing in a sloth’s fur – just a couple of random facts that I learned whilst perusing the latest offering from Yuval Zommer. This follow-up to the hugely successful The Big Book of Bugs is another triumph. Such short sentences – pithy and witty – provide easy text for a young reader and speak casually with not a word wasted. “When a tiger licks a wound, its spit helps to heal its skin.” Simple yet effective absorption of facts.

But of course, this book is led mainly by its illustrations. Zommer has his own fun style – a series of portraits of each animal on a double page spread – so for example, the reader sees depictions of a lion roaring, snoozing on its back, licking a friend, hunting and sitting astride a rock – all to show the different snippets of information that Zommer wants to impart.

Each spread shows either a different type of beast – wolves, tigers, bears, bats, hyenas etc, or some general characteristic – such as noises and smells, claws and jaws. There’s no precise science as to which animal made the cut and which didn’t; the book just sets out to make an impression.

And because this book of beasts is for the relatively young, it remains positively tame. Although the lion hunts, the depiction of bloody meat is cartoon-like and divorced from the animal – the bear hunting looks as if the animal is juggling fish rather than eating them.

Because this is not intended to be a clear representation of the animal – rather a mashup between a cartoon and an illustrated depiction of the creature – so that the bear rubbing its back against the tree looks almost Yogi-esque in facial expression.

It’s not an encyclopedia – not a book you’d go to for ‘everything about lions’ for example, but rather a taster of the animal world, instead of a reference for project work. But at this age, what more could the reader want than to pique curiosity with stunning, selected facts: ‘A baboon sleeps upright on a cushion-like patch of skin on its behind’? Accompanied by a myriad of sympathetic, slightly humorous, endearing illustrations.

There’s a lovely glossary with pictures, and an index too – for those that need an introduction to such things. There’s also an interactive element, and the by now necessary bit in every children’s animal book about those species that may be at risk, and the human environmental factor. As with the rest of the book, this is done in a very gentle way. In fact, in the book as a whole, there’s nothing beastly about it.

You can buy it here.

The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King

So there’s chocolate and there’s books. Two favourite things of mine. Sylvia Bishop clearly feels the same for she has transplanted the idea of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory into a book about bookshops.

Property Jones was left in the lost property cupboard of a bookshop when she was just five. Now she lives with the owners – a mother and her son. She loves living there, with her adopted family, but as was the case with Charlie Bucket and his family, they are impoverished. And Property is impoverished in more than one way, for she is harbouring a terrible secret – she is illiterate and cannot admit it.

And then, fortunes appear to change when the family win a competition to own Montgomery’s Emporium of Reading Delights, perhaps the greatest bookshop in the world. The shop smells of books, the rooms are themed on a grand scale: a dictionaries room in which everything has a brown tag label; the room of knights and castles books with stone walls and tapestries, books of woodland tales in a room in which the floor is covered with pine needles – and so on, all operated with a series of levers and pulleys – stacks of rooms in loops.

But with more power comes more responsibility, and possibly great danger, not in terms of the grumpy cat who resides there, but the grey man who lurks mysteriously in the shop.

This is an old-fashioned adventure story, wrapped up in the fantastical delight of limitless imagination. There are forgeries and baddies, befuddled old gentlemen and oddball cats, and children seeing and doing more than the adults. But above all, a shining colourful adoration for books.

The ultimate message is one of honesty – being true to yourself and others, and seeing what’s true and what isn’t. What message could be more pertinent in this era of fakery and falsification? And most of all the text and characters feel fresh; the premise may not be new, but it has been executed as if it is – the prose reads freely, the plot moves like liquid gold. If I was seven again this is the book that would make me fall in love with reading. And bookshops.

I was sent this book to review in the early proof stages, but have been promised (and given a sneak peek) of the illustrations that will embellish the book. I have no doubt that they too will be as exquisite as the text.

Don’t miss out – this could be your child’s golden ticket to a lifelong love of books. Suitable for age 6+ years.

You can buy your own golden ticket/bookshop girl here.

Attack of the Alien Dung by Gareth P Jones, illustrated by Steve May

Authors are often asked to elaborate on where they get their ideas from. It’s quite simple – most of the time it involves asking themselves the question ‘what if?’ This new series starts with a great premise – what do our pets do when we’re out of the house all day? And the answer is – they defend the Earth against aliens. Hence, Pet Defenders.

Gareth P Jones, former winner of the Blue Peter Award, is known in the industry for his wacky sense of humour and his outlandish inventiveness (see also for this age group: Ninja Meerkats, Dragon Detectives and Steampunk Pirates) but this new series plumbs new depths – or reaches new heights, depending on your sense of humour!

Planet Earth is under constant attack from alien species, but agent Biskit (a dog) is fully prepared to stop them, aided by his new partner Mitzy (a cat!) and the boss – Example One, who happens to be a former lab mouse. Add in a few Forget-Me-Plop seagulls to keep the humans quiet, and a story is born. In fact, it’s highly reminiscent of Men in Black (with animals), and just as funny.

In Attack of the Alien Dung, not only does Biskit meet his new partner, Mitzy, but he has to save the world from a Dung Guzzler beetle from the planet Dun-Glowing, a creature who thrives by eating rubbish and grows larger the more it consumes.

There is little let-up in the action here, with many pet chases, as well as non-stop gentle humour and overarching inventiveness and silliness. Accompanied by very funny black and white illustrations that help to tell the story, as well as showing extra brushes of humour, this is a rollicking read for young readers.

Stepping in the footsteps of Captain Underpants, Spy Dogs, and the silliness of Jeremy Strong’s books – this fine new series should prove to be a popular addition to the comedy canon.

So many children say that they like to read a book that makes them laugh. These sorts of books are perfect for encouraging reading as a habit rather than a chore – if they’re laughing throughout, then they don’t deem it work – and before long the habit is formed and reading is for pleasure and for love.  There’s no better attraction than laughter. And Gareth P Jones does it particularly well. You can buy it here.

So Good They Did It Again

Don’t we just love a good series? Box sets are all the rage. And children are no different. They love a series that gives an extra helping of the characters and adventures they liked the first time round. It makes a new book choice easier, perpetuates that reading experience, and develops character even further. Last year I highlighted four great new books, and this year each has a sequel out. And they’re just as good, if not better than the first.

Rabbit and Bear: The Pest in the Nest by Julian Gough and Jim Field

The first Rabbit and Bear book was an inspired mix of great bedtime story with subtle educational facts, dominated by wit and humour. This second in the series is no different.

Bear has woken from winter hibernation, and Rabbit is spring cleaning his burrow. But then various elements in the woods disturb Rabbit’s peace, and it is up to Bear to use his wisdom to educate Rabbit about not getting quite so het up about things, and seeing the disturbances from a different point of view. I could learn a thing or two!

Vastly reminiscent of the character of Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh for this Rabbit’s general grumpiness, but also reminiscent of the Pooh books more generally, in the ability of the characters to demonstrate the finer qualities of friendship – loyalty, kindness and gently educating each other, this is a warm story for newly developing readers.

The writing excels here. Gough has a way with words – which he transposes to Bear, of pointing things out in the most straightforward way possible. Rabbit has issues with things that are both too noisy and too quiet – Bear explains that the only thing in common with these irritations is Rabbit himself.

In this clever way, Gough gently points the reader towards learning about tolerance, and seeing things from a different perspective, but all the time through the gentle humour of Bear and the funny grumpiness of Rabbit, and with a plot that develops at pace.

There are other elements introduced, such as the usefulness of practising something, overcoming fear, and finding happiness.

The illustrations help to exemplify both the gentle message and the humour – different perspectives of the forest and the animals, but also the characters’ brilliantly expressive faces. There’s so much packed into this small book – and wonderfully the publishers have produced it to a high quality – with thick pages and hardback cover, knowing that children will want to revisit it many times. Ages 6+. You can buy it here.

King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong by Andy Riley

This series about a nine-year-old king and his hilarious adventures is suitable for the whole family and has strands that are reminiscent of The Simpsons (mimicking the stupidity of Homer and the mischievousness of Bart), but also the all-out craziness of rulers, and I’d expect nothing less from one of the writers of Veep.

When a huge monster called the Gizimoth stalks a nearby land, King Edwin (Flashypants) decides that in order to prove his kingliness he must go and fight it, but evil Emperor Nurbison has plans of his own, and they include squishing King Flashypants and his kingdom.

The book is packed with illustrations, which always convey wit, and either gently nudge on the story or give an extra emotional depth to the characters. The characters remain consistent from book one, with Nurbison’s evil laugh, Edwin’s penchant for sweet foods, and Jill’s sensibleness, but each develops further with this second book.

There’s the usual amount of silliness – things being too small, or oversized, words being overused, vomit and poo etc., but there’s also a clever wit behind it all, and twists on modern everyday references that children will recognise – such as portions of fruit and vegetables, and talking about what they’ve learned after the adventure (circle time).

In fact, the book is incredibly cartoon-like – from characters falling off cliffs, to breaking their weapons, to my absolute favourite – the illustration of the evil Emperor’s sidekick Globulus on his knees, wailing “Emperooor” as his beloved Nurbison is….(no spoilers here!)

Riley is clever – there is a joke on almost every page, either tucked into plot or character, or poking the reader right between the eyes. It’s almost as if the humour is infectious – you can tell the author must have had a huge amount of fun writing it.

All in all, a preposterous story, but utterly brilliant. Packed with great character, subtle heart, charm, and nods to the history of storytelling and modern culture. King Flashypants and the Dolls of Doom is due in the autumn. Ages 6+. You can buy King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong here.

Dave Pigeon (Nuggets!) by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Whereas in the first Dave Pigeon book humans were friends – keepers of jam biscuits and distributors of bread, in Dave Pigeon (Nuggets!) the new human is most definitely the enemy.

With their normal human and her Mean Cat away on holiday, Dave Pigeon and his friend Skipper need to find another source of food. When they stumble upon Reginald Grimster beckoning them with crumbs, they think they’ve found another patron, but would a man with mini-umbrellas on his shoulders, who keeps other pigeons in cages, really be friendly towards birds, or is he looking to make some nuggets?

This is another fabulously funny tale about Dave, our pigeon with a complete lack of self-awareness, or in fact general awareness, other than for food. Luckily he has a great friend in Skipper, who is a tad more worldly, and manages to keep them both from fatal danger.

The laughs in this story come from either Dave’s lack of self-awareness, or from the fact that all the pigeons featured are so uncompromisingly human in their thoughts and actions, such as putting up one feather in front of their beaks to keep each other quiet.

Also much of the humour comes out of misunderstandings and slapstick – a pigeon called Fienne, pronounced fine, whom none of the others realise is saying his name rather than his state of being, some nervously pooing pigeons, and a pigeon spy agency… Of course the whole premise and plot are so ridiculous that this is what makes it funny, particularly when the enemy this time is a man with a chip on his shoulder about pigeon poo.

As before, the story is punctuated with little speech bubbles from the pigeons arguing with each other about the book they are writing or talking directly to the reader, and these are all funny as well as providing interesting interludes. And because the pigeons are purporting to write the books themselves, there is an added element of self-reference in the writing too.

The illustrations are glorious – particularly as there is a fair cast of pigeons in this book as opposed to the few in the first book, and some particularly enthralling scenes in a supermarket. Never have pigeons seemed quite so appealing. Ages 6+. Buy it here.

Waiting for Callback Take Two by Perdita and Honor Cargill

Picking up more or less where the first book left off, this witty contemporary YA (although suitable for tweens) second book, Waiting for Callback Take Two, tells the tale of Elektra, a young teen wannabe actress. It can be read as a stand-alone though, as book two joins Elektra about to embark on her first film role in a dystopian thriller with some A-list stars. The book follows the trials and tribulations of filming – the delays, the stars, the arguments and the rewrites. At the same time, Elektra is just a normal teen living at home, and the reader sees her juggle her normal life of summer holidays, friendships, studying and boyfriends along with her new career.

As with the last novel, Elektra is a wonderful protagonist. Witty, somewhat self-deprecating, a little prone to peer pressure and manipulation, she is a character with whom to identify. Her supporting cast works well too – a loyal best friend, an ongoing boyfriend (will they/won’t they communicate properly?), an eccentric and loveable grandmother, and of course a home life with an over-wrought mother who struggles to make peace with her daughter’s new found passion for acting. If anything the character of the mother in this second book is slightly overdone compared to the first – less subtly witty and more full-on anxious, but she also becomes more of a minor character here.

The book feels warm and friendly throughout – mainly down to the main character, and has pace and a good evolving plot. There are interspersed gossip columns reporting on showbiz, as well as letters from Elektra’s agent, and the most winning bit for me were the text messages between Elektra and various people, but most particularly her boyfriend. Archie is a phenomenal character – a great teen boy trying to navigate his way in the world, and with women.

It’s a book that hooks the reader right from the beginning, with great dialogue, realistic inner consciousness, and oodles of heart and humour. Age 11+. Take a look here.

 

What I Was Like At School by Karen McCombie

I’m feeling rather excited about 2017. An excellent start to the year with some children’s book gems falling onto my doormat. St Grizzles School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys by Karen McCombie, illustrated by Becka Moor is a madcap caper with a rather whizzy headteacher, triplets on stilts and a head-butting goat.

When Dani’s Mum lands a job looking at penguins’ bottoms in the Antarctic, Dani is signed up for St Grizelda’s School for Girls. But when she arrives, she discovers that this rather strict looking girls’ boarding school has had a change of headmistress…and direction!…

But through all the madness, this is the tale of a girl trying to overcome her angst at settling into a new place with its new rules – something with which almost all of us can identify. Karen’s writing is always springy, endearing and genuine – and this book is no exception. So I’m delighted to have her writing for MinervaReads about what she was like at school: 

Try to picture Beaker from the Muppets, all googly-eyed with shyness, only a panicked “meep!” coming out of his mouth when expected to talk. That is ME, practically the whole way through primary school.

It didn’t help that we moved from Scotland to Australia to Scotland again, traversing five schools in all. Oh, the total non-joy of being the new girl x 5!  (How to reduce a naturally shy kid to a trembling kid-shaped jelly…)

(Karen at school)

It also didn’t help that I had an undiagnosed hearing problem for a year when I was little, and fell massively behind in class. (Shy girl blinks at everything going on around her, doesn’t have a clue what’s happening.)

But things improved once…

  1. my hearing issue was spotted and addressed
  2. I got help catching up
  3. I found out I was a bit good at this writing lark.

One teacher in particular spotted some sparkiness in my writing – hurrah! But in an attempt to have an eye-dabbing, heartstring-tugging moment where she cured me of my shyness and helped my confidence blossom in one fell swoop, Miss Thomson asked me to stand up and read my ‘excellent’ short story aloud to my classmates.

Sadly, all my classmates could make out was an alarmingly trembly girl who squeaked “Meep-meep-meep-meep!” at top-speed and then flooped into her seat before she keeled over…

Luckily, secondary school was a BIG improvement. For a start, there was only the ONE secondary school, rather than multiple options. Things got better with the discovery of a vast library, cool art rooms, drama club, fab friends and lashings and lashings of black eyeliner.

(Karen with her black eyeliner)

Secondary school was also the time I had a Very Stern Talk with my shyness. I explained to it that I understood where it was coming from, but from now on, I wasn’t going to let it stop me from doing what I wanted to do. Of course, it sulked, and still liked to trip me up from time-to-time (as it does now), but at least it just moped in the wings instead of taking centre stage and spoiling all my fun.

So I suppose Beating the Lurking Shyness Monster was one major thing I accomplished during my years at school. If only there was a GCSE in that; I’m sure I’d’ve got an A+…

Thanks so much to Karen McCombie. You can buy St Grizzle’s School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys here. It’s suitable for age 7+ years, and contains lashings of fun.

Christmas Round Up

It’s nearly Christmas. Bring out the bells and lights, decorate the tree. Here are some new Christmas-themed book delights to wrap up for the big day. Click on the book title for a link to buy. Click here for my non-Christmas themed holiday gift selection.

queen-present

A red and green foiled cover with a host of elves is a magical way to start the Christmas season. Steve Antony’s The Queen’s Present, complete with the Queen in Santa’s sleigh on the front cover, is a magical delight of a book. Familiarly set out as the other books in the series, this one traverses the world as the Queen seeks presents for the little princes and princess. Flying through Paris, Pisa, Egypt, Japan and New York to name but a few, the book is illustrated with thousands of elves carrying presents across famous landmarks. The colour palette is restricted to Christmassy green and red, with Steve Antony’s famous massively populated spreads showing characters from previous books, and elves up to all sorts of mischief. Of course, the moral of the story is that time with family members is the biggest present of all. But this book would bring a big smile too! Fabulous Christmas entertainment.

santa-magic-key

For those worried that Santa won’t visit them because they don’t have a chimney, Little Tiger Press have come up with the perfect solution. Santa’s Magic Key by Emi Ordas and Stephanie Stansbie is a book in a box complete with golden key (a fairly sturdy piece, no plastic rubbish here). A cute story book inside explains the significance of the magic key, enabling Santa to visit even when there’s no clear access – this is one to gift to the children before Christmas Day.

nightmare-before-xmas

If you associate Christmas with watching films, then this precursor to the film might be for you. The Nightmare Before Christmas, written and illustrated by the famous Tim Burton is a brilliant accompaniment for all fans of the film, and newbies too. Containing exclusive original sketches, this is for those who want a bit of a fright with their Christmas pudding. Macabre and witty, don’t miss out.

blue-penguinonce-upon-a-northern

More gentle, and more whimsical is Blue Penguin by Petr Horacek. A beautiful tale about friendship and finding your own voice, Petr’s illustrations linger in the imagination, evoking an icy blue and green wonderland of the South Pole. The children adored this tale of belonging, which evokes strong emotions through its enchanting illustrations. The tone is one of muted sadness, a kind of dream landscape that has a happy ending but will leave the reader thinking. Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E Pendziwol and Isabelle Arsenault is a poetic lullaby, a paean to the land of wild animals, snowfall, and the northern lights. Another one in which the illustrations evoke a certain sadness or stillness, the beauty of wintry nature and the feeling of being lulled softly to sleep in a warm bed. Sensational use of language, and stunning use of illustration.

cat-who-ate-christmas

A totally different feel with The Cat Who Ate Christmas by Lil Chase and Thomas Docherty, this is a book for newly independent readers, based on a real naughty kitten. A charming story, with a fun family and a mischievous cat called Jingles, this chapter book is packed with large exquisite two-tone illustrations showing the wonderful family atmosphere at Christmas time (even if the cat makes it a little haphazard). It’s good to see diversity represented in this family, and a host of activities at the end of the book, including crafts, cooking, facts and jokes. Top choice for this age group. 5+ years.

mistletoe-and-murder

I’ve mentioned her before, but Robin Stevens definitely has the magic touch. Her Murder Most Unladylike Series (think Enid Blyton crossed with Agatha Christie) keeps getting better and better, and this Christmas themed title is no exception. Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens sets detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong a new mystery but also a deadline – when a brutal accident occurs two days before Christmas, the detectives suspect murder, but they must solve the crime before Christmas morning. Set in a beautiful snowy Cambridge, with tales of sumptuous teas, ornate buildings, and some roof climbing, this is pure joy. Hazel Wong’s narrative is emotionally astute and easy to read. Stevens manages to add her usual twists and turns, and her effortless mentions of food (this book makes you long for mince pies as well as bunbreaks). She also incorporates a darker side in this title when she touches on what it’s like to feel like an outsider in British society. With lashings of boy crushes, a hint of feminism, and perfectly exquisite 1930’s student language, this is one to be savoured with an extra helping of Christmas cake.

Check out my books of the week in November and December for other wintry reads, including The Christmasaurus and to come at the weekend, a rather special book called Winter Magic.