newly independent readers

Summer 2019 Reading Recommendations

I always like to leave a list of great new children’s books on my main page at the end of July, because MinervaReads doesn’t blog in August. And, usually you’d find a small selection of picture books, nonfiction, novels etc. This year THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS. Narrowing down my summer reads for you has become increasingly difficult. So without further ado, I’ve tried to sum up each book in a concise way in order to feature as many as possible. Flick to the heading for the correct age group.

picture books

Picture books

Falling below the threshold of the age group for whom I normally review, but too adorable to ignore, is a new series of lift-the-flap board books called Treacle Street by Kate Hindley. From following Marcel Trunkmore delivering parcels in Marcel’s Parcels, to the star ballerina bunnies in Prima’s Missing Bunnies, the books are tightly plotted with intricately detailed illustrations for curious minds.

Stylistically arresting, Grandma Z by Daniel Gray-Barnett is a curiosity in itself. Coloured orange and blue, it not only explores the dynamism of a grandparent/grandchild relationship and the power of imagination, but adds retro dimensions and quirky elements to stand out from the crowd. Wild, exuberant, full of energy.

In the holiday spirit, Clem and Crab by Fiona Lumbers is cognitively dissonant as it feels both traditional and completely fresh. Clem explores the beach, and rescues a crab stuck in plastic. If ever a book made you wish you were at the seaside, this is it. And with an environmental message. Illustrations are expressive and wholesome – a whole story encapsulated in each vignette.

Also by the beach is The Tide by Clare Helen Welsh and Ashling Lindsay. Slightly more linear illustrations with harder colouring, this also captures the sensual nature of the seaside, but deals with dementia too. A heartwarming grandfather/grandchild relationship with clever analysis of memories and making memories.

For fun, The Big Stink by Lucy Freegard will capture hearts from the cover, just as mouse is captured by cat in this heist adventure. Nods to Mission Impossible, among other references, this mouse-led caper will have adults chuckling along with captivated children. Who could escape arrest with ears like that?

young fiction

Young Fiction (ages 7-9 years)

Newly independent readers are well served nowadays. Ariki and the Island of Wonders by Nicola Davies and Nicola Kinnear is pure summer adventure. Shipwrecked to a paradise island, Ariki and Ipo are initially struck by the wonder of nature they encounter, but then realise there is a darkness to paradise. With conservation overtones, and textured black and white illustrations, this is an immersive text that sparks a real sense of purpose and love for nature.

It’s not a new premise, but My Babysitter is a Robot by Dave Cousins, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri is neatly executed. A grandma inventor, twins, swimming pools, football and more, this is a fun and funny new series.

Fairy tales remain high on the list of starting points for stories, and Cinders and Sparks by Lindsey Kelk, illustrated by Pippa Curnick is another twist on the Cinderella story. A talking dog, an unreliable fairy godmother, and neighbours called Jack and Jill combine in a modern deviation and continuation of the traditional fairy tale. Fun, neat and magical.

middle grade

Middle Grade (Novels for 9+ years)

Abi Elphinstone’s new novel Rumblestar is possibly her best yet, and that’s saying something. She writes with a keen intelligence, a fiery spark, and a wisdom that infects the fantasy she writes, so that the reader feels there is an importance to the story being told. And she sweeps the reader away with engrossing, action-filled storytelling. In this first of the Unmapped Chronicles series, Casper accidentally stumbles into an unmapped kingdom in danger, and finds out that the peril is tied to his own world.

More peril in Peril En Pointe by Helen Lipscombe, described as Ballet Shoes meets Murder Most Unladylike. The novel has a relatable protagonist and a surprising reveal. A series to watch.

The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike delves deep into fantasy, as main character Rayne discovers more about the magic that keeps her village safe. A wholly original idea with a great mother/daughter dynamic, and a sense that magic and darkness pervade everything. Well crafted.

Ben Davis often makes me laugh, whether it’s a one line tweet or a whole novel. What’s That in Dog Years? is a tender book about losing a dog but gaining perspective. Part narrated by owner, part by dog, this is a heartfelt and touching book about friendships and families with a mystery at its heart, and a bucketful of humour. Makes the reader laugh and cry.

Stewart Foster’s Check Mates offers a surprising twist and marries ADHD, chess and the Stasi. It’s a longer, slower read, but merits rewards to those who stick the course with superbly drawn characters and a great reveal.

Halo Moon by Sharon Cohen is an easy read, but the short sharp chapters belie a degree of profundity in its message. Blending two disparate cultures – Ageze in Ethiopia and Halo in Yorkshire, Cohen uses the stars to navigate her protagonists towards each other and avert a disaster. Told with aplomb, this is a hope-filled, inspiring story.

Fleur Hitchcock’s The Boy Who Flew has an explosive opening and immerses the reader in Bath during the Georgian era. It’s dark and inventive, and leads the reader in a twisty mystery involving flying machines and shadowy villainy.

A much more down-to-earth mystery in A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths, also set in the past, this time the 1930s, in which the heroine is sent to boarding school, where crimes and misdeeds need investigating. From an experienced adult crime writer, this is a delight, with common room gossip, games in the rain, and a Christmas play, and although the ingredients feel old, the result is fresh and lively, and will be devoured in one day by competent readers.

Scavengers by Darren Simpson is for those looking for something completely different. It’s a coming-of-age that’s gritty, clever and brave. With a sort of wild abandon, this novel shows how far an imagination can go, and there’s a terrific undertone of tenderness and empathy.

I was blown away by Vashti Hardy’s Brightstorm last year, and this year Wildspark: A Ghost Machine Adventure is another success. A sort of steampunk mechanical adventure, reminiscent of Tin by Padraig Kenny and Peter Bunzl’s Cogheart, this has a particular focus on dealing with grief, and the things that drive us. Hardy is most adept at creating new worlds and absorbing the reader with superb detail.

As climate change dominates the young generation’s thoughts, Sita Brahmachari’s timely Where The River Runs Gold explores a dystopian future of rations and compounds, in which children labour to pollinate the crops. But of course, there is hope amid the inequality and deprivation. Dense and thoughtful.

If you’re just after some short stories – the Return to Wonderland anthology brings some of the very best modern children’s writers together in a mission to re-imagine Alice and her Wonderland.

YA

YA (novels for 12+ years)

It’s rare for a book to catch the attention of both my older children – but William Sutcliffe’s The Gifted, the Talented and Me was whipped through by both, each stopping only to roar with laughter. Light and humorous, this satire of a modern middle-class family who go to live in Hampstead hits all the right spots.

Slightly darker but also an accessible read is Because of You by Eve Ainsworth, a dyslexia-friendly story about family dysfunction and learning to live with a parent’s new partner. Ainsworth excels at getting inside the head of a teen, particularly a victim of bullies, and this is an emotionally astute short novel.

Rose Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence is another tale that invokes social media, so important to today’s teens, but it explores it from a different angle, as Rose and brother Rudder have escaped from a religious sect and are coming at it anew. How do you navigate this new world where everything is so alien? A coming-of-age that uses a new approach to show us the perils of modern life, and how we work out who we really are.

Lastly, The Boxer by Nikesh Shukla is a brilliant exploration of the psyche. Told over the course of the rounds of a boxing fight, with flashbacks, this is a fantastic read about a seventeen-year-old who feels disengaged, but finds a community and a purpose. With themes of radicalisation, violence and belonging, this is an essential teen read.

non fiction

Nonfiction

Three completely different reads here. Be a Super Awesome Photographer by Henry Carroll gives 20 photo challenges for the budding photographer, with real photographs to illustrate and inspire, and ideas for tasks to make different and interesting photos. We’ll be using it on our summer holiday.

Incredible Journeys by Levison Wood, illustrated by Sam Brewster is an informative and inspirational large-size book about famous explorers. With illustrated maps and full page illustrations, this book travels from The Silk Road to Zheng He, and all the way to Nellie Bly and into space.

Watched too much Love Island? A modern and relevant book for teens is Body Brilliant by Nicola Morgan. It takes the reader through the steps to embracing a positive body image. Morgan provides data, encourages taking challenges to make her points and inspire confidence, and aims to change mindsets. Common sense goes hand-in-hand with examples and explanations.

glitchLastly, a graphic novel for you – the only one that dropped in my mailbox this summer, but anyway, Glitch by Sarah Graley would be a good choice. Ever since Aha’s Take On Me, we’ve dreamed of entering into our own comic. Here, 14-year-old Izzy, the protagonist, is depicted in a comic, but enters into her video game. But what happens when she gets Game Over? Great bright visuals, humorous too.

Well that should keep you busy reading over the summer! Come back in September for ballerinas in Russia, furious teens, prison camps, 1870’s opera houses, shadows in the woods and frosty hearts.

Picture Book Round Up: Human Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon in the Library by Louie Stowell, illustrated by Davide Ortu

dragon in the libraryJames Daunt might be straddling the Atlantic by now being both Managing Director of Waterstones bookshop chain and newly appointed CEO of Barnes & Noble bookshop chain, but for those with an interest in books this side of the Atlantic, we seem to be getting something wrong.

The book market is going from strength to strength, but in these lean times of government cuts, the UK is pulling investment from libraries – those most important bastions of a civilised society.

In 2018, about 130 public libraries closed outright, whilst many others (as yet unnumbered) fell into voluntary hands with limited opening hours and services. Most recently children’s authors stepped in to protest against Essex County’s proposed closure of up to 44 libraries.

So it’s incredibly timely to read Louie Stowell’s excellent younger fiction novel, The Dragon in the Library, set in a library that is threatened with closure by a Simpsons’ Mr Burns-type villain, who wishes to turn the space into a shopping centre. He represents those who believe that economics rules over creativity and knowledge, and those for whom moneyed connections are deemed to be more important than empathy and curiosity. Who needs libraries, he says, when there is the Internet?

Our unlikely protagonist is Kit, a reluctant reader, who prefers climbing trees and getting messy outside to time spent inside, particularly in a library. But her two friends are desperate for the latest book in a series of books they are into, and they drag her along to the library. Once there, they stumble on a secret – the librarian is a wizard. What’s more, Kit herself seems to have magical powers, and the library is the most magical place of all.

Stowell goes to town on her magical tropes – there are librarian wizards, hidden creatures in secret stacks, portals from one magic place to another. Nowhere could be quite as exciting as the library, and she excels at extolling the absolute magic of reading and story – books literally take the reader into a different world. She also weaves a wonderful intertextuality in the book – for those who know their children’s literature there are nods to it all over the place from Ursula Le Guin to Baba Yaga to fairy tales and Harry Potter of course. There’s even a nod to the old trope of children drinking lemonade and eating something gingery (memories of Enid Blyton picnics come to the surface). Although the world-building of this magical structure of wizards and libraries seems a little confusing at first, it soon becomes apparent what’s at stake and why.

And it is the characterisation of the three children that makes the novel. Each child has his or her own attributes, goals and motivations, worries and anxieties. Kit and friends Alita and Josh feel very real, and support each  other in a wonderful triumvirate of camaraderie. Although Kit is the only wizard of the three, she’s the least ‘into’ books, and so it takes the help of her friends for her to be able to pursue her wizard path.

Faith Braithwaite is a wonderful role model of a wizard librarian and teacher/mentor to Kit. She is sassy and warm, modern and authoritative, understanding and knowledgeable, in essence, everything a librarian should be. Plus, in the times we live in, brave too.

So Stowell nods to our current preoccupations, not only in the fight for survival of the library, but also with dripped-in truisms about our modern obsessions with risk awareness, knowing what’s real and what isn’t, gender bias and diversity.

And cleverly, above all that, lies the essence of the novel, which is the celebration of the story behind the book. It is rare in a children’s book, particularly one set in a library, to have the protagonist as a reluctant reader, but here, although Kit hates reading aloud, and doesn’t particularly want to sit and read a book quietly either, Faith Braithwaite shows her the magic behind the book – the power of the story – the magic that’s contained within, especially when the reading is pleasurable and not graded or schooled in some way. How a story can teach and explore, delight and entertain, stimulate and encourage.

This is an exciting, pacey book for the 7-9 years (and beyond) readership, with superb neon packaging and a plethora of black and white illustrations throughout, which feel cartoonish and vivacious.

Oh, and there be dragons.

You can buy your copy here. Thanks to Nosy Crow for the review proof.

Great Guinea Pigs!

harry stevensonFleabag might seem quite a leap from children’s books, but when The Adventures of Harry Stevenson by Ali Pye arrived on my desk, I saw the link straight away. Guinea Pigs. A sometimes symbol of loneliness (guinea pigs like their buddies), the guinea pig is a great creature for children because even the name itself is a bit of a conundrum – they’re not from Guinea and they’re not pigs.

The Adventures of Harry Stevenson is a younger fiction title told from the point of view of Harry, Billy’s guinea pig. Like some other popular titles for this age group, there are two stories within the one book, both highly illustrated in neon orange as if Harry is a little radioactive or glow-in-the-dark. He isn’t a radioactive super-powered guinea pig, but he does have some remarkably outlandish adventures for a pet that mainly likes to eat and sleep.

In the first story, Billy and his family move house. Pye plays on the idea of the lost pet during a house move – a cage escapee, and the story brought back memories of Topsy and Tim Move House in which their cat escapes from the car en route to their new house (Topsy blames Tim). Here, Harry has no one to blame but his own greed, but due to some ingenuity, bravery, and the haplessness of pizza delivery drivers, he does make it back to Billy.

After the implausibility of this, story two is almost easier to believe, if you can picture Harry suspended in balloon strings and floating away from Billy’s birthday party to land in the middle of a football stadium during a cup final.

But for all the ridiculousness of his adventures, what grounds these stories is the familiarity of Billy’s worries and joys, the normality of Harry’s hunger, and the friendliness of the tone – it’s as cuddly as stroking a guinea pig.

With inclusions of a diverse family setting, and one that isn’t affluent, references to an imaginary local football team, this is certainly a zany and slightly surreal addition to the younger fiction market, but much needed and hugely enjoyable. This is, in part, because Pye makes the stories pacey and action-filled, despite some initial scene-setting.

Pye’s initial foray into the world of children’s literature was picture books, and her illustrations here represent Harry’s character well – they are scrappy and look simple, but actually manage to portray a depth of emotion and movement.

Some cute factual details at the end illuminate that guinea pigs shouldn’t really be kept as lone creatures, as they do get lonely.

And it’s this theme that pervades the book. Billy worries about making new friends on moving house, and who he should invite to his party, but he’s not lonely, and friends rally. Harry isn’t lonely because he has the committed love and loyalty of Billy. There’s a warmth that exudes here – a humorous tale that aims to show children overcoming fears of shyness and loneliness, whilst also offering the tranquility achieved by being alone with their pet – or their book! For newly independent readers, age 5-8+. You can buy it here.

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