newly independent readers

Football Feats

the unlucky elevenThis weekend is the Champion’s League Final. If you know me in real life, or even virtually, you’ll have an inkling that this is a big weekend for me (clue: I’m a Spurs fan).

But what about the little games that go on up and down the country, in a public park, or someone’s back garden? What about the children who aren’t terrifically talented at football, but still enjoy a dribble with a ball, or even just a good read?

The Unlucky Eleven by Phil Earle, illustrated by Steve May, wonderfully combines love for the beautiful game with a great dose of sports’ superstition in this Little Gem reader that’s super readable and designed with colour illustrations throughout. Not every pitch can be as smoothly laid as that at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid, and the story begins with a bad bobble on the pitch for Stanley and his Saints team. But it turns out, they’ve had a bad run all season, with unfortunate decisions, own goals and injuries (this last is beginning to sound more like the Spurs team)!

But then, one of the team, (and this is a glorious mixed-gender team, just as the one I watched in a local game last week), suggests that the Saints might be cursed. Now they have to find out exactly what is cursed (is it the kit?), and how to rid their team of it. Of course, in the end, it’s not a curse they need to overcome, but their own lack of confidence.

This is a smart, funny read with exuberant active illustrations to match the fast witty text. For ages 5-8 years. You can buy it here.

kickaroundI’m also a huge fan of football magazines.

Often grabbing the reluctant readers in the school, periodicals are a chance for them to dip in, snatch some new knowledge and vocabulary, and still find time to play sport in the playground. Kickaround is aimed at ages 7-13 years and is a great stepping stone before teenagers reach for the newspapers’ sports pages. Of course there are snippets of news, full page pictures of heroes, team and match profiles, but it also pretty fairly represents the women’s game too, explores history around the game, the media angle, and gives persuasive argument pieces as well as straight forward news reporting.

The interviews are easy to read but compelling – taking angles such as how foreign players cope with language differences, diversity within football and more, and there’s a delicious little comic spread too. Skills classes, a focus on kit, and lots of interaction with readers means that this is a sure winner.

For the World Cup last year, they printed a giant world football map with every football playing nation and flag. I always knew my son obtained his geography skills from football.

It’s a meaty magazine, so shouldn’t be discarded in one quick skim, and feels as if it has a more rounded offering than most of its competition. Highly recommend. Check it out here.

Ultimate Football Heroes SmithLastly, to my absolute joy, as a woman into football myself, I’m delighted to see that the Ultimate Football Heroes series has started churning out biographies of women footballers, written by Charlotte Browne.

One of the most popular series on my non-fiction shelves in the library, I’ve reviewed these books before, but recently have been impressed to see Kirby, Marta, Morgan and Smith leading the charge for the women’s game. The biography of Kelly Smith nicely highlights her frustration, as angry parents complained she was making their boys look silly at her local club. Although it doesn’t dip too far into gender equality, there are some lovely touches, such as explaining how Smith was judged by some on her looks as well as her skills, and how important it is to be a role model for schoolgirls. The series is published in time for the Women’s World Cup starting 7 June. You can buy it here.

Has Your Memory Stored Your Old Tech?

bootWhen I was younger I had a Spectrum ZX. And I can’t imagine how many hours I spent playing a game called ‘Jet Set Willy’. The idea of the game was that the player was Willy, a figure who had to tidy up all the items in his house after a party – and he had a lot of rooms in this house, ranging from the cold store with dangling rope, to the wine cellar with its many black holes, to the forgotten abbey where moving platforms and skulls dominate the room.

I don’t play ‘Jet Set Willy’ any more, but I do spend a great many hours tidying up the items in my house (I don’t have a wine cellar, cold store or forgotten abbey),  not after a party, but after the children have gone to school.

I mention this because the publishers of Shane Hegarty’s latest book, Boot, suggested that I revisit a piece of technology that holds special memories for me, in order that I can tie it to the themes of memories, objects, and technology that permeate Hegarty’s novel.

Boot is about a toy robot, called Boot, who wakes up in a scrapyard, and finds his hard drive mainly wiped of memory, except for 2 and a half images and an idea that it was once loved by its owner, Beth. Boot is determined to find its way back to Beth, and with a group of other abandoned, half-working robots, it struggles across the city to find her. Except that, of course, discarded pieces of technology are usually thrust aside for a reason.

I think I abandoned ‘Jet Set Willy’ because of GCSEs (at least my parents would probably like to think so). However, it does hold a soft spot in my heart, and if you gave me a spectrum ZX with Jet Set Willy downloaded now, I’d while away a few hours exploring.

Children would do well to while away a few hours reading Boot. Although in the science fiction genre and with a robot protagonist, the book pulses with emotion. Hegarty executes this with ease because Boot is a toy robot – made specifically to be a child’s companion, and thus its ‘set’ emotions are written all over its face/screen. When sad, the orange smile on its face turns blue and upside down. Moreover, Boot has suffered some damage, so some of its ‘set’ feelings are slightly off, leaving Boot with rather more emotion than a robot usually has, and the weird consequence that not all its emotions inside show correctly on the outside. But more than this, Boot is programmed to decipher emotions in others – it sees that one adult is angry by way of ‘teeth clenching’ and ‘jabbing finger’. In this way, as in real artificial intelligence, robots are being programmed and learning just as toddlers do – from being fed experiences.

As well as using emotion, Hegarty manipulates his readers – making them feel profoundly for, what is, after all, an object. In fact, in a Toy Story reminiscent scene, Boot discovers it’s not unique – there are lots of robots identical to it. Just like Buzz Lightyear, it makes readers think about our own identity. What is it that makes each of us unique, why are we, and how can we use that as a positive, and recognise it as positive in others.

Because Boot befriends so many robots, all discarded or cast aside for some reason, the reader is constantly reminded that they are just machines in this fictional future landscape, and yet by bringing them to life with human characteristics, Hegarty asks the reader to think about them as ‘disposed’ objects. Should we dispose of things so quickly – can we not repair and mend, reuse and recycle? And should we?

In the end, Boot does find Beth, but the ending is more complicated than that. Hegarty builds on his theory of disposability, extending it to humans too. For this is a story about growing old, being discarded, and the value of memory.

Illustrated in black and white throughout by Ben Mantle, with a keen eye on the idea that the robots in the novel seem more friendly than many of the humans, this is a heartwarming, funny, neat little novel with some big ideas, an extending vocabulary and light modern prose, for children aged 6+ .

I don’t know what purpose my memories of ‘Jet Set Willy’ serve, but they definitely make me smile. And if memories make the person in the present happy, then that’s about the best reason of all.

To buy Boot, click here. With thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for the review copy and for sparking an idea for the blog.

Gardening and Nature: An Appreciation

In spring our thoughts often turn to nature and being outside. But our children are rarely outside. A 2016 survey found that three quarters of UK children spend less time outside than prison inmates, a fifth of children not playing outside at all on an average day.

Gardening is a wonderful skill for children, giving them the opportunity for responsibility as well as teaching them nurturing skills. But if, like me, you’re a gardening novice, barely knowing weed from flower, you may need some help.

sunflower shoots
Busy little Bees: Sunflower Shoots and Muddy Boots by Katherine Halligan and Grace Easton
is a children’s guide to gardening, in a handy covered-ring-bound format (the cover goes over the ring-binder). Aimed at pre-schoolers and their carers, it introduces the top ten plants for easy growing, and ten useful gardening words to accompany the activity – including ‘pollen’, ‘compost’ and ‘mulch’.

The bright and colourful pages give an array of activities, from sprouting baby beans to creating a window box, a bug spotter’s guide, and making compost. Some of my favourite bits are the ‘Did You Know’ boxes, including details such as photosynthesis, and how long it takes an oak tree to produce acorns. But also, the very funny and handy tips at the back just for grownups, including ‘Be a Secret Garden Gnome’ on how to keep up the smaller gardener’s morale.

This is a fun and fabulous introduction for first-time gardeners, encouraging time spent together enjoying nature. You can buy it here.

plant sow make and grow
Plant, Sow, Make and Grow: Mud-tastic Activities for Budding Gardeners by Esther Coombs
is aimed at primary school age children and is neatly organised by season. Also illustrated in colour throughout, the book shows more of the flowers and plants in the diagrams with fewer people and insects. Instead, it gives step-by-step instructions for things such as making toilet-roll seed starters, sowing tomatoes and strawberries, as well as information about insects, and water conservation. Because the book is formatted into seasons, it also gives helpful information on how to deal with frost, and a guide to carving pumpkins for Halloween.

The activities are easy to follow, with lots of tips and shortcuts, and making and using tools from recycled rubbish. As well as masses of practical advice, the book also seeks to impart facts, such as explaining why corn on the cob tastes sweet, and that an ear of corn always has an even number of rows. Hands-on and aspirational. You can buy it here.

easy peasy
Another gardening title for children is the informative Easy Peasy Gardening for Kids by Kirsten Bradley. With numbered step-by-step activities, this is a gardening book even for those without much space or without a garden. There’s advice on growing vegetables and herbs indoors, designing a plant pot, making a kokedama to hang inside, or a terrarium. Interspersed between these easy-to-follow activities are informative pages about the different types of soil, pollination, a wildlife spotter’s guide, and companion planting. Some of the activities definitely need a visit to a garden centre, but on the whole these are family-friendly projects. Carefully illustrated, with much white space and clear diagrams with a wide variety of colour, the pages of the book feel as if you have brought a touch of nature inside already. Charming and do-able. A great gardening guide for age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

a walk through nature
A Walk Through Nature written by Libby Walden, illustrated by Clover Robin
is aimed at the very young, and is less an instructional manual and more of an appreciation of nature, guiding the reader gently through the landscape. It implores time to pause and notice flowers blooming, leaves changing colour and the wildlife sounds and activities. There is beautiful poetry, snippet facts, lifecycles and a spotters’ guide. Each page has a fold-out section beneath the cutout illustration, providing further information. Pages are split into coherent subjects: night-time, seasonal change, light, minibeasts, water, skies and more. The illustrations are bold, bright and accessible – looking like a 3D collage upon the printed page. Sumptuous use of colour and texture gives extra depth, so that the reader becomes immersed in the landscape. A thorough embrace of the natural world. You can buy it here.

green giant
For those who like more story with their books, The Green Giant by Katie Cottle serves a purpose both as a story picture book and a tale that encourages the reader to be aware of nature. From its neon orange cover to mass of green pigment creeping throughout the book, this is a delight for the eyes. Bea and her dog go to stay with her grandfather in the country, and although he’s a keen gardener, Bea is content to sit on a garden chair and play on her electronic device. Until her dog chases a cat into the next-door garden, and Bea has to pay attention to her lush green surroundings. She meets a resident green giant in the greenhouse, who tells her about the choking fumes of the city and how he had to move away, and he gives her seeds to plant when she goes back to the city.

Exploring an appreciation of both the aesthetics and benefits of greenery, and how one child can make a difference to the world, this is a timely and relevant picture book with extraordinarily appealing illustrations. There’s a nod to ancient myths of the ‘Green Man,’ and the practice of re-seeding and regeneration. Most readers would be inspired to plant a few of their own seeds after reading and see how much grey they can obliterate. You can buy it here.

i saw a bee
Publishers are taking note of young people’s new-found appreciation for the environment, and I Saw a Bee by Rob Ramsden may be for very small children, but points to an important topic. A young boy finds a bee in a box, and at first is alarmed by its potential menace, reacting with aggression stemming from fear. But gradually, he realises the bee is harmless and they can be friends. The gentle rhythmic text is simple and repetitive, matching the sunny simply-shaped illustrations, which gradually spread across the pages so that by the end, the boy and bee are surrounded by a frame of greenery and flora. Promoting positivity with nature, this is an excellent picture book for the very young. You can buy it here.

little green donkey
Experts agree that much of children’s hesitancy to try new foods or appreciate tastes comes from a lack of awareness of where food comes from and how foods are grown. But for some children, fussiness persists. Little Green Donkey by Anuska Allepuz is a great cautionary tale about a lack of variety in the diet. Little Donkey loves to eat grass and…just grass. But too much grass makes Little Donkey green, and before long Little Donkey endeavours to try other foods in an effort to make himself…less green. With a genderless protagonist and enormously witty illustrations, this is an hilarious story that will have youngsters laughing and eating, although hopefully not grass. Great vocabulary in describing why Little Donkey likes grass so much, (and also carrots), and witty characterisation attributed to the donkey, this is a celebration of the natural world, as well as fruit and vegetables. A reader could even grow their own (vegetables, not donkeys). You can buy it here.

Recent Young Fiction Titles (Age 5+ years)

hotel flamingo
Hotel Flamingo by Alex Milway
Anna Dupont inherits the now dilapidated, once sunniest hotel in town, which has a rival up the road, and is only populated by sad employees T Bear the doorman, and Mr Lemmy on the front desk. With a lot of hard work, careful ‘human’ resources, (including hiring a giraffe for handyman jobs, and a cleaner with a dust allergy), much kindness, and an emphasis on pulling together, Anna oversees the renovation of her hotel to once again become an exciting establishment.

Bursting with enthusiasm, positivity, and magnificently warm illustrations, embracing the diversity of the guests, and adding much humour, this is a great place to stay for a while. First in a series, the second is published in June. You can buy it here.

two sides
Two Sides by Polly Ho-Yen and Binny Talib
Everybody falls out with a friend at some time or another. This delightful tale plays beautifully with the different perspectives of an argument. Lula and Lenka are best friends even though they are very different from one another. Until The Day Everything Goes Wrong. The book splits into dual narrative, each differentiated by a different typeface for extra emphasis, as each tells the story of their argument from their perspective. Insightful about the lonely consequences of arguing and not forgiving, and exploring the complementary attributes a friend might have. Thought-provoking and exploring how to look at something with another’s eyes – and it was all over a pencil case! If only Brexit were so easy to solve. Most magically though, the book is colour-illustrated throughout, bridging the gap between picture books and more sparsely illustrated black and white chapter books. You can buy it here.

wizard vs lizard
Wizard vs Lizard by Simon Philip, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

The author of two phenomenal picture books, I Really Want the Cake and You Must Bring a Hat, turns to wizardry for this chapter book outing. One of the more sparsely illustrated titles here, but still populated with a decent number of Dempsey’s expressive illustrations, this is the first in a series that looks set to be rather good. Fred is a Wizard, but sadly not a very good one – certainly not as good as his siblings or schoolmates. When his siblings, and his parents expect him to fail in everything, Fred decides to prove them all wrong and finally make them proud in a Wizard competition.

With great humour and an overload of the everyday – Fred the Wizard may have a wand, but also a bus pass and a library card (which come in rather handy), this is a loveable introduction to chapter books. With messages on bravery, determination, and how using quick-thinking and inspiration can  cast just as many spells as being a wizard. Oh, and never under-estimating yourself! Buy yours here.

veronica twitch
Veronica Twitch the Fabulous Witch in Double-bubble girl-band trouble by Erica-Jane Waters
More witchiness in this two-tone (purple and black) illustrated first chapter book. Veronica is a witch journalist, Editor-in-Chief at Twitch Magazine, and due to write a feature on the band Double-Bubble. But when the band is kidnapped, Veronica has to use her investigative skills to dig deeper. Could Belinda Bullfrog from rival magazine, Nosy Toad, be behind the band’s disappearance?

With Witch City full of fun place-names such as Grand Central Broom Station, and accessories including hand-cauldrons instead of handbags, and frosted bataccinos to drink, this is a fully imagined other world, with trendy and stylish characters (each given a page profile at the start). It’s fun and fast, and slick as a tube of lip gloss. Have a witchy time here.

captain cat and the treasure map
Captain Cat and the Treasure Map by Sue Mongredien, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst
An even lighter read in this splendid tale of what happens when the animals are in charge of the pirate ship. Patch the Cat, Monty the Monkey, and Cutlass the Parrot accompany Captain Halibut and his crew on their dastardly pirate adventures, but sometimes the animals steer the way as their pirate owners can be a little hapless. When a treasure map is found, the pirates look set to cash in, but the animals sense danger. Can they save their pirate crew?

Chaos and mayhem in the plot are cunningly drawn by Pankhurst, illustrations litter the text. A fast plot, lots of terribly punning, and a brilliant message that being the quiet one who no one listens to doesn’t mean that you don’t have the best ideas! Underappreciated Patch is a new favourite character. Yo ho ho, and you can buy one here.

pirate pug
Pirate Pug: The Dog Who Rocked the Boat by Laura James, illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans
More piracy in this newest adventure from an old pug on the block. This is the fourth Pug book from Laura James, which tells the tale of our role-playing pug and his friend Lady Miranda. With large text and lots of illustrations, Pug inadvertently becomes a pirate when he suffers an eye injury and has to wear a patch.

There’s more buried treasure here, a spot marked with an X, and unfortunately, a pug who can’t swim. Ceulemans has conjured a special world for Lady Miranda and Pug, an everyday familiarity laced with aristocracy, which makes for great fun in reading and looking at the books in detail. See a pirate here.

horrid henry up up
Where would any young fiction collection be without Horrid Henry? To celebrate 25 years of the cheeky chap, Francesca Simon has penned four more stories, nicely packaged in this red-foil-covered collection, called Horrid Henry Up, Up and Away, illustrated by Tony Ross. Taking cues from the likes of Pamela Butchart, the text is now punctuated with a mass of jazzed up fonts, big and small for emphasis, but the same old Henry is in there, with his delightful sibling Perfect Peter.

The themes are familiar to young readers too – all primary school age experiences including a plane ride, a theme park outing, and a school play. Illustrated by Tony Ross, with his trademark exuberance, this is a fine outing for Henry. As always, with those parents who say he’s horrid, I say it’s children letting Henry act out for them – the best way to experiment with the world is through a book. Watch out for Henry’s creativity for his Write and Sing a Song Badge:

“Henry is the Top
Henry is the Best
You Don’t Even Need
To Put it to the Test”

You can buy it here.

Sam Wu: A Conversation

Sam WuSometimes the best ideas come from collaboration. The junior fiction Sam Wu series is a lively and fun introduction to chapter book fiction for newly emergent readers. Featuring a truly funny main character in Sam Wu, with a loveable and realistic family including younger, and more confident, little sister Lucy, and wise grandma NaNa, this depiction of a Chinese family is refreshing and comes from author experience. Katie and Kevin Tsang have developed their winning main character and his group of friends in three books now, as Sam and companions lurch from adventure to adventure.  In Sam Wu is Not Afraid of the Dark by Katie and Kevin Tsang, illustrated by Nathan Reed, Sam and his friends take a camping trip away from Lucy and NaNa, but the book roots itself firmly within Sam’s tight friendship group. The Tsang author team showcase the magnificence of children’s imaginations, as more often than not Sam and his friends make their own adventures by imagining the scarier elements of life, all the time remaining within the safe sphere of their childhoods. With dynamic type and graphics, illustrations on almost every page, and lots of jokes, this is a great little series to enthuse young readers for chapter books.

A camping trip is a marvellous way to explore the bridge between childhood security and their growing independence, and as with Pamela Butchart’s There’s a Werewolf in my Tent, Sam and his friends imagine all the horrors that might come up to their tent in the dark. They also take a brave trip to a cave, and attempt to stay awake all night around the campfire in order to see off any nasty creatures or aliens that might share the woods with them. In the end, of course, all creepy noises are easily explained, and Sam Wu lives to breathe another day. Here, Katie and Kevin interview each other to explore the enjoyable elements of Sam Wu, their enthusiastic banter indicative of the fun, energy-filled dialogue within the book:

Photographer: Chris Close

KATIE AND KEVIN INTERVIEW 

Katie: I’m excited to interview each other!

Kevin: Me too!

Katie: I’ll go first. What are you most afraid of?’

Kevin: Sharks!! Researching for SAM WU IS NOT AFRAID OF SHARKS was very scary. But I also think sharks are awesome!

Katie: You really are very afraid of sharks.

Kevin: Okay, my turn. In SAM WU IS NOT AFRAID OF GHOSTS, Sam serves his friends Chinese food. What Chinese dish would you serve your friends?

Katie: I wish I was better at cooking Chinese food! I would probably take them to a Chinese restaurant. We’d either go out for dim sum (one of my favourites!) or to Sichuan (super spicy!) or for Peking duck. Like Sam, I love roast duck!

Katie: I’m stealing your excellent question that you asked me about what Chinese food I’d serve my friends. What would you serve?

Kevin: I’d take them for Peking Duck, like Sam! And I’d also make them try turnip cake.

Katie: I don’t believe that you’d make them try turnip cake

Kevin: That is just because you don’t like it.

Katie: Sometimes I do! It just isn’t my favourite.

Kevin: Speaking of favourites, who is your favourite character in Sam Wu?

Katie: Lucy is my secret favourite. I love how brave and bold she is. It was important that we portrayed positive sibling relationships. I also love NaNa.

Kevin: I have to admit, my favourite character is SAM.

Katie: Well, what is your favourite part about writing Sam Wu?

Kevin: Working with you!

Katie: Other than that, because that is obvious.

Kevin: I love seeing Nathan’s illustrations! He’s SO good. And the design team at Egmont is amazing too.

To buy a copy of Sam Wu is Not Afraid of the Dark, click here.

Charlie Changes Into a Chicken by Sam Copeland, illustrated by Sarah Horne

charlie changes into a chickenMassively hyped already, with marketing material yelling ‘for fans of David Walliams’, this first of a brand-new series actually does live up to the hype. 

Aimed at a young fiction readership, aged seven and up, Charlie Changes into a Chicken is a delight. A genuinely funny, pacey adventure story that has a healthy dollop of pathos and heart from a writer who obviously understands and spends time with young children.

Charlie McGuffin worries about everything. He worries about his brother, who is not very well in hospital, his parents, who are worried about his brother, and he’s worried about garnering any attention from the school bully. Then he finds another thing to worry about – when he worries, he turns into an animal. At first, he metamorphosises into a spider (and with far more anxiety about his situation than displayed by Kafka’s protagonist). Before long though, this change is happening more often, and at the most inopportune times. With the help of his three friends, Charlie must find a way to stop the transformations happening, and prevent the school bully from revealing his secret.

One of the best features of this young fiction title is Copeland’s approach to the writing. It reads as if Copeland is telling the story to the reader personally, and with this intimacy comes reassurance, which is exactly the effect wanted. This is not a new device – in fact it’s in part what made Dahl so successful in his novels.

Here, the intimacy inspires confidence in the writer as a storyteller but also as a warm, approachable understanding adult, so important when, deep down, this book is about overcoming and dealing with anxious thoughts.

On the surface though, the story’s a laugh a minute. From the footnotes in which Copeland gets to extrapolate silly facts or simply extend his jokes, to the plot structure itself which gets funnier and more enjoyable the greater variety of animals Charlie turns into and the places in which he does so. The pigeons in the playground incident is particularly amusing, as is Charlie turning into a rhinoceros in his somewhat small bedroom (and needing to go to the toilet). Indeed, there are toilet jokes a-plenty, but nicely packaged within the overwhelming anxiety Charlie feels, so that they are there for a purpose. There are nail-biting moments too – the incident in the Head’s office, for example.

But what many readers will find succour in, is the friendship group. Charlie summons the courage to share his strange ‘superpower’ with his diverse, hilarious friendship group with all their vastly different personalities. My favourite is Flora, who attempts to discover the reasons behind Charlie’s metamorphosis – her theories fail at first, but she perseveres. As well as teaching a valuable lesson, her attempts provide a raft of laughs.  

Even after the book has finished, Copeland continues to address the reader with a series of fake questions from readers and answers from himself, as well as a letter from the publishers. All induced an amused wry smile.

Copeland is certainly a writer with impeccable comic timing, but also one who understands plot structure. Coming from a literary agent (Copeland’s day job), this shouldn’t be a huge surprise, in that he understands how a book works, but what is refreshing is the intimacy formed with the reader, the light touches, and the insightful imagination. Charlie feels real, despite the ludicrousness of the plot, and his group of friends just like yours or mine.

Sarah Horne’s black and white illustrations feature throughout, and are injected with just the right amount of zaniness. Horne excels at quirky and her characters are differentiated, appealing and expressive: the step-by-step transformation into a pigeon particularly funny.

The book works thrice. Firstly, as a good read for the age group with lots of plot, a fun premise and laughs-a-plenty. Secondly, as an antidote to anxiety – it shows how problems are often entangled with embarrassment about sharing them – the fact that Charlie’s anxiety manifests as an embarrassing problem itself is the whole point – and Copeland shows that fiction can be a calming and positive way to highlight mental health issues. And thirdly, as a conversation with the author. Sometimes, under stress or needing escape, books can become friends themselves. And with such a calm and witty author hand-holding the reader’s way throughout the book, this is one novel that children will embrace again and again.

No wonder there’s hype. This is a cracking novel, brilliantly funny, warmly reassuring. You can buy it here

Animal Fun

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

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

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

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

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

Younger Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zebras and Lollipops

On route to take my younger children to school, we have to cross four roads. Two are minor, and two are main roads, neither of which two years ago had a zebra crossing. I decided to use my campaigning skills to petition the council and Transport for London to install one on the school’s road. And to my delight, a year later, they did. Now I use it about four times a day, and it serves the local park too.

phantom lollipop manAnother school that has a zebra crossing outside, is Izzy’s school in the Pamela Butchart book, The Phantom Lollipop Man, illustrated by Thomas Flintham. This seventh book in the ‘Baby Aliens’ series continues the exploits of Izzy and her friends and their school. In this title the friends are shocked to discover that their lollipop man has disappeared. Instead, they feel an unsettling coldness even when wearing tights, and start to see wispy clouds in the playground. Could he have died and now be haunting the school? So Izzy and her friends determine to find out.

On the surface, this is another exuberant adventure from brilliant comedy writer Pamela Butchart. The text flows with Izzy’s characteristic breathlessness, driving the reader through the plot and as always staying true to the brilliant friendship group, each member clearly distinguished by their character traits.

But what makes the book so endearing, other than the CAPITAL LETTERS, illustrations and energetic use of dialogue, is Butchart’s complete comprehension of schools. From her understanding about the importance of blu tack through to school office workers’ signs and the attitude of lunch supervisors, this is imperative as young readers feel a sense of familiarity with the world being created.

And although the books are hilarious – this one in particular had me laughing out loud every few pages and is definitely the funniest so far – there is an insightful compassion for the community of a school – the way that each component is dependent on another, and some real truths about what we value in society.

Izzy and her friends point to the lack of value we place upon certain people – lollipop workers included (but also perhaps, the school officer workers, the librarians, careworkers etc) and how important their roles are, and how they should be recognised. It’s a subtle message underlying the hugely comedic text, but a vital one. And Butchart also points out the loneliness that can be experienced in old age – when juxtaposed with the intense intimacy of Izzy and her friends, it becomes even more apparent.

This is a superb book that deals with community, values and society, and rounds off nicely with good use of the library and empathy for other people. A riotous, happy, storming success. A really top series for newly independent readers. I hope they keep coming. You can buy it here.

zebra crossing soul songOn a similar theme, but for teen readers is Zebra Crossing Soul Song by Sita Brahmachari. This is a book published by dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke, and is suitable for a reading age of 8, even though its subject matter is for teens. But it’s an enjoyable read for all.

Lenny has spent most of his eighteen years crossing the nearby zebra crossing, aided by the singing ‘zebra man’ Otis. But when Otis isn’t there anymore, Lenny, who is himself struggling as he sits his psychology A-level, looks back on his memories of them together, through music, and finds a way to move forwards.

Cleverly, the fixed point of the zebra crossing gives a clear focus for Lenny to look back on his school years from nursery to A-Level as he reaches a crossroads in his life. And the shared passion of music gives Lenny and Otis a clear bond, and also a vehicle for Brahmachari to use music as a distinguishing feature in her novel, as the story is written in music memory tracks – music as a recall mechanism, but also as a form of writing in its own right – like a poem.

When Otis disappears, Lenny uses his knowledge of psychology and memory, as well as music to find out what happened in Otis’s past to affect his future, and discovers that not only does music hold a bond with the past, but a vital component of Lenny’s life going forwards.

This is a cleverly woven piece, with a sympathetic bond between two people, and, as in Butchart’s light-hearted book, an awareness that although some people aren’t highly valued by society, they are highly valuable as individuals and in the role they play. Lollipop men and women are there to save lives – and sometimes literally do, and they play a positive role in shaping the community they serve. Sometimes it’s the quiet people who make the difference. You can buy it here.

 

 

Peter Pan by JM Barrie, retold in rhyme by Caryl Hart, illustrated by Sarah Warburton

Peter PanI have a confession to make. I decided to read the worthy classic Peter Pan by JM Barrie to my first child at bedtime one year and picked out an exceptionally beautiful edition of the original. And yet a few pages in, I found myself précising the text, rewording it, changing sentences and skipping bits – the prose just wasn’t as captivating as I thought it should be. It had all the elements in the plot – removable shadows, pirates with hooks, crocodiles with clocks and fairies with attitude, yet it didn’t zing along.

So when this latest version came through the post, I wished that it had arrived years earlier, but settled for reading it to the youngest child instead. What a delight. Hart has used her extensive experience in rhyming picture books to retell the story in her own energetic style, and it is a joy to read aloud:

“Our tale begins in London
in a house on Bloomsbury Street.
Inside there lived a family,
the nicest you could meet.”

Hart not only retells the story, but imbues it with a narrator’s warmth, gently guiding the readers as Peter guides Wendy through the sky. There’s much plot and little description, but the setting is neatly filled in with Warburton’s filmic illustrations, rendering the mermaids mischievous with a flick of an eyebrow, the pirates both comedic and threatening with their sometime mean, sometime dozy expressions, and their excessive facial hair.

With pure pantomime timing, Hart executes all the finer details of the plot, and the familiar phrases – as children the land over clap their hands to save Tinkerbell, and there is much walking the plank, the introduction of the ‘Wendy’ house, and of course lots of fighting. But she also pulls out the dramatic pantomime hilarity of the story – Pan poking Hook from behind, then inciting him to climb the crow’s nest where he immediately feels dizzy. Child readers and listeners will be both engrossed with the fast-paced plot but also cheered with the numerous nods to win their humour. Hart also makes use of much onomatopoeia, building drama wherever possible with the ticks of the clock and the snaps of the crocodile, the canon’s boom and the water’s splosh.

The text is split neatly into four line verses, at times each illustrated separately, and sometimes illustrated with a full double page spread landscape. The production is superb – the pages are lush and thick, the colour bursting from the page in wondrous detail – the last spread has Peter almost silhouetted on a rock whilst in the foreground Tinkerbell literally shines and the flowers seem luminous in her wake. Other spreads delight with detail – the pirate ship, but also the lost boys’ underground home with its hammocks, swinging lanterns and shelves of curiosity. This is one you read to a child nestled in your arms – and with a ribbon bookmark and foiled jacket, you’ll both feel spoiled and all set for winter nights in – just keep the windows closed:

“They’d slipped out through the window,
quite ignoring Nana’s warning.
“Second to the right!” they cried.
“Then straight on until morning!”

Find your own way to Neverland here.