newly independent readers

The Secret of the Night Train by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Marco Guadalupi

secret of the night trainI’m often asked, how do I pick a book to be my book of the week? With non-fiction it’s easy to tick off criteria, and then spot the something special about the book. With fiction, it’s almost easier. The books pick me. Within about ten pages I usually suspect if it’s got that hint of magic that makes me want to keep reading, that quality which makes me feel for the characters, the emotion that gives me that tinge of sadness or spark of happiness. Very rarely, with great hope and shining eyes, I pencil in a book that hasn’t even arrived yet. I feel the tingle from afar, based on past novels, or something in the publisher’s email that pulled.

The Secret of the Night Train was pencilled in, but within ten pages I knew it was a dead cert. Sylvia Bishop previously won my heart with The Bookshop Girl, and she has twiddled her pen and made magic again.

Max is on a thrilling train journey across Europe. Her Great Aunt Elodie in Istanbul summons a member of her Parisian family to be her temporary companion, and Max, being the youngest and the least busy, takes the challenging adventure. Except it becomes so much more than she imagines, because the Heartbreak Diamond is missing, and the police think it’s on her train. With her travelling chaperone, a nun, will Max find the will and the way to seek the diamond herself and capture the thief before the train reaches Istanbul?

The book takes the format of the train journey, setting the chapters in different sections of the journey from Paris through Munich, Budapest and Bucharest to Istanbul. And while Max whittles down the passengers to a final list of suspects, she may be closer to the thief than she had imagined.

This is the tale of an ordinary life interrupted, told beautifully and with childlike wonder. Bishop completely nails Max’s feeling of trepidation for her journey – a homesickness before she’s even left, and plays on this subtle combination of wistfulness for home and longing for adventure. Bishop also has impeccable comic timing, and a deliciously wicked insight into being the smallest of a larger family.

Tucked in are a few jokes for adults too, in case this is an adventure the reader is sharing with their child, and I particularly chuckled at Max’s mother’s mannerisms and question avoidance. Bishop has a delightful turn of phrase, which makes an everyday story feel fresh and lively with every sentence:

“Then one day, when December had arrived and iced Paris all over with a slippery frosting, Max skidded-slid-stumbled home from school to find her mother on the phone. She was saying ‘Mm-hmm, of course’ with her voice, and YOU ARE AN UNBEARABLE STRAIN ON MY SAINTLY PATIENCE with her eyes.”

And also tenderly wise:

“That is the trouble with ideas that you have before dawn: they are extra sticky.”

Bishop also plays with expectations: not only in Max’s gender – full name Maximilienne, but also with the suspects and their intentions and motivations – keeping the reader guessing. The narrative feels slightly retro or timeless with parents who don’t helicopter or track their child’s movements, but also a child who has the time to be bored, and thus to seek adventure. But there are still moments of modern sensibility throughout:

“it turned out that even in this strange new country, miles away from her own, all the statues were still of a man-on-a-horse,”

But I think one of the most stellar qualities about this piece of writing is that despite having a gentle rhythm that mimics the chugging of a train, it also feels tense and exciting, mirroring Max’s emotions.

This is a fabulous story with suitably elegant European illustrations, a terrifically authentic heroine (who often takes the naughtier option), and a cast of eccentrics who are beautifully imagined. Don’t miss your own trip on the Night Train, it’s a winning adventure. (I’ve even pencilled in Sylvia Bishop’s next….you probably should too). You can buy The Secret of the Night Train here. Or click here to see how to win a copy.

Riding a Donkey Backwards

riding a donkey backwardsAs we celebrate the month of Ramadan, and think about how to increase diversity and representation in the books our children are reading, this sumptuous hardback, Riding a Donkey Backwards dropped onto my doormat, and I had to share it with you. It’s a collection of 21 tales and riddles about a trickster known across Muslim culture. Mulla Nasruddin is both the wisest man and the biggest fool. Through telling some of his stories, all contained on one or two pages, Sean Taylor, the Khayaal Theatre, and Shirin Adl bring the tales to life with drama and creativity.

Each tale is only a paragraph or two long – spanning one or two pages, with full double page colour collage illustrations. The text is jaunty and chatty, as befits the subject, and some tales and riddles leave a wry smile, others pose philosophical questions. Many invite critical thinking, but there are those that are just silly – on purpose. The text feels modern, but the illustrations feel traditional – set in familiar age-old landscapes, such as a school, a kitchen table, a market place. A Nice Steam Bath is illustrated to look as if it’s a wordless comic strip or an ancient scroll, and many of the collages use domestic materials such as a child might use: cotton wool beards, glass bead rivers. They are bright and welcoming, playful and intelligent.

Below, Sean Taylor explains about the book.

How did Riding a Donkey Backwards come about?

“It came about, indirectly, because of a terror attack. Back on 7th January 2015, there was a massacre in Paris, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. That day, I could feel people in the UK were shaken by the nearness of the violence, and I sensed some ‘retreating into shells’ going on. This made me want to do the opposite. At an event at Shakespeare’s Globe about 12 years previously, I’d met Luqman Ali and he’d given me a leaflet about Khayaal Theatre. Khayaal is a theatre company founded by him and Eleanor Martin. It is dedicated to showcasing the rich traditions of story, poetry and humour in Muslim cultures, and also to building engagement between Muslim communities and the wider world. I kept the leaflet Luqman had given me. Sometimes I’d come across it, wonder if there might be some way of collaborating with Khayaal, and decide probably not. But, that day, I wrote to Luqman. Looking back, my message said, among other things:

I have no more connection with, or understanding of, the Islamic world than you would expect from a man with an interest in stories and poetry who grew up in the home counties of England. My strongest connections are, in fact, not to the east, but to the west. My wife is from, Brazil. We have lived there on and off over the past twenty years. But rather than seeing these things as obstacles, I shall, for the sake of this message, see them as reasons for making connection. Might we meet? Might we talk a bit about stories, and about theatre and about work with young people? Might something fruitful result from this impulse to reach out? ”

What happened next?

“We did meet, at the British Library, a few weeks later. And it was clear that, though we are from quite different cultural backgrounds, we had a lot in common in terms of our work around story and education, and our shared interest in the imagination, dreams and humour. So it seemed natural to try to find a way to work together. I had in mind there might be ways Khayaal could make use of my experience of writing for theatre. Actually, they expressed an interest in writing a children’s book. So the idea of retelling some of the stories of Mulla Nasruddin in a publication for young readers was born. I thought newly-founded Otter-Barry Books might show interest in the project. And I’m happy to say they did.”

Who exactly is Mulla Nasruddin?

“There’s no exact answer. Some say Nasruddin was a real man who lived in the thirteenth century. Nobody knows for sure! Many different countries claim to be his birthplace, including Turkey and Iran. In the introduction to the book we say:

He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh. If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!”

Why retell these Nasruddin stories?

“They are age-old stories, but I think they are absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Nasruddin challenges fixed ways of looking at our world, and stuck ways of behaving. So the stories about him fly in the face of fundamentalist thinking – whether it be the single-track thinking of Islamist fundamentalism or the equally narrow thinking of Islamophobia. Take a story like the one we’ve called They Can’t Both Be Right! In this, Mulla Nasruddin is asked to settle an argument between two men, in a tea house. Nasruddin listens to the first man and says, “You are right.” Then he listens to the second man and says, “You are right.” Then the owner of the tea-house says, “Well, they can’t both be right!” And Nasruddin says, “You are right!” This is a brilliant, light-hearted way of pointing out that the world cannot be seen in black and white (as more and more people seem happy to see it.) In another story, called Don’t Ask Me! the donkey Nasruddin is riding is startled by a snake. As the donkey gallops madly off, a young farmer calls out, “Where are you going, Nasruddin?” Nasruddin calls back, “Don’t ask me! Ask the donkey!” Can you feel how this has a message for anyone who thinks they have simple answers to the challenges of our times? When an out-of-control donkey is carrying you, how can you sit there stiffly certain about where you are going? At one level this tale is just a funny anecdote. But scratch its surface (or the surface of the other stories in our book) and you find wisdom. Nasruddin asks fresh questions in the face of ready-made answers. The stories in Riding a Donkey Backwards offer new ways of thinking to anyone numbed by the world, or feeling driven to recrimination and aggression. These are reasons why we wanted to bring Nasruddin, his provocations and his heartfelt laughter to life for young readers.”

How was the book created?

“Khayaal Theatre’s Eleanor Martin joined Luqman and me in the writing process. And it turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, with lots of discussion, and drafts to-ing and fro-ing as we worked out which Nasruddin stories to include and how to tell them on the page. Otter-Barry Books brought Iranian illustrator Shirin Adl on board, and Shirin came up with the wonderfully crafted illustrations which make Riding a Donkey Backwards so beautiful to look at.”

With thanks to Sean Taylor. You can buy Riding a Donkey Backwards here.

Rose’s Dress of Dreams

roses dress of dreamsThere may be plenty of books featuring biographies of amazing women jostling for space on the shelves at the moment, but for children looking for a short contained fiction that does the same job, accompanied by sensational illustrations, they’d do well to pick up Rose’s Dress of Dreams by Katherine Woodfine, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst. Based on the life of Rose Bertin, the woman credited with creating haute-couture, this is a divinely illustrated historical fiction of determination and dreams.

Woodfine expertly weaves the story of Rose’s passion and abundant energy as she transforms herself from a young apprentice into a budding businesswoman. In the face of rejection, Rose triumphs through her own hard work, and changes people’s negative mindsets as she does so. In the face of doubt and drudgery, Rose still dreams of fabrics and ideas of style and by the end is dressing royalty.

There’s some imaginative wordplay that sweeps the reader along, with Woodfine drawing on all the senses as she describes the sensuous business of dressmaking. But there’s also plenty of spark and personality as the reader learns that clothes can bring confidence to the wearer, and that friendship and manners play their part too.

Pankhurst’s illustrations do far more than just complement the text. Known already for her portraits of famous women in children’s books, and also for her flair for historical detail, here she draws the furniture and chandeliers of the time, matching them with Parisian architecture, and of course fashions. Together, Woodfine and Pankhurst have created a truly shining gem of a book. What’s more it’s a Little Gem by Barrington Stoke, so perfect for even the most reluctant of readers (this is short fiction with bite-size paragraphs and tinted pages).

I’m delighted to showcase a Kate Pankhurst illustration from the book – this one is from page 16, beginning Chapter 3: The Streets of Paris.

Tempted? See Katherine reading the matching chapter of the book here:

And you can buy your own copy here.

 

First Day of Spring

This week heralds the official first day of Spring, apparently named because in the 14th century ‘springing time’ was a reference to the time of year when plants were ‘springing’ from the ground. And so, a few nature books for you, to usher in the return of migratory birds and draw inspiration from the natural world.

bird houseBird House by Libby Walden, illustrated by Clover Robin
Beautifully designed, with lift-the-flap features, this is a perfect first nature book for little hands. Adorably shaped like a house, the book endeavours to teach about different bird species and their homes. The first page deals with ducks, and man-made duck houses, but also features nests, and gives the names for male and female ducks, groups and babies.

The book goes on to cover pigeons and doves, woodpeckers, swallows, sparrows and owls, with hints at the back for how to create a bird-friendly outdoors space. The book is as sturdy as you’d want a bird house to be, with earthy colours throughout, and much green. The illustrations are cartoon-like rather than anatomical, but layered with wonderful textures, and give a true indication of colouring.

Also available is Bug Hotel, with facts about favourite garden insects and instructions for building your own bug hotel. An attractive, lively and informative start for young readers. You can buy it here.

 

 

earth verseEarth Verse by Sally M Walker and William Grill
Something completely different in this stunning picture book that tells the story of the Earth through poetry and illustration.

A haiku on each page simply suggests the beauty and majesty of the planet we live on, starting with a pulled-back image of the Earth as seen from space, with swirling blue and white. The book progresses through a host of illustrations that draw near or zoom out – from the outer crust to layered sediment, huge cliffs and fossil finds, to small flowers perched upon sand dunes.

Each has a concentrated description in this briefest form of poetry, and each illustration in coloured pencil is an impression rather than a factual diagram – a brushstroke of nature. It suits the poetry, which aims to inspire and to emote, (with further reading resources given at the back). The illustrations also suit the sensibility of the book, which is child-friendly and dreamlike in tone.

Colours stream throughout the book – blue to start as we see the planet from space, startling red for fire, then stripes of wonder as the rocks shift and layer with sediment.

The words resound with magnitude, as Walker gallops through dramatic natural events – a volcano, a tsunami, a storm – showing the violence and force, as well as the calm of a gull wearing ‘sand socks’ as it leaves footprints across the shore.

Walker uses personification to bring the haikus close to readers – the intimacy of the fiery fingers, the tiptoes of the creatures. The hotheaded mountain throwing an igneous tantrum. The words and images are both appealing and familiar.

And together Grill and Walker add elements of where there is an Intersection of human involvement in nature, an interaction with our planet.

There are also pages of prose information at the back; the reader is guided to these by a visual key of nine symbols, including minerals, fossils, glaciers, groundwater. These full paragraphs explain their topic well, but the diagrams accompanying are unlabelled and therefore tricky for a novice to decipher.

One for inspiration and awe. 8+ years. You can buy it here.

treesWhat On Earth? Trees by Kevin Warwick and Pau Morgan
For full-on, comprehensive knowledge, What On Earth? is an immensely high quality non-fiction series. This particular book covers all aspects of trees (for the very young), and also ties the basic scientific knowledge into hands-on activities, as well as interconnecting it with culture and history – something for which cross-curricular teachers will be grateful.

The first section takes a look at the different parts of a tree – with an in-depth look at leaves and their shapes and sizes, followed by information spreads on seeds and dispersal, needles and trunks. Interspersed between the information pages are spreads labelled ‘investigate’ or ‘create’ and these contain activities. Both artistic – creating a tree on paper using fallen leaves, to scientific – testing how far seeds travel – there is something for everyone.

The ideas are simply explained and easy to execute, but inspirational and fun. Drawing in other cultures and their stories adds a new dynamic, and of course there is the requisite section on global warming and the effect upon trees.

The digital illustrations are colourful, bright and friendly, and encourage the reader to really engage with the natural world, looking at what grows around them and giving clear step-by-step guidance on the activity spreads. The book will not only teach about trees, but about how to conduct first scientific experiments of exploration and investigation.

There’s an easy conclusion to draw here – this is a fantastic piece of non-fiction in which every page earns its worth – the tree this book originated from would be proud! 6+ years. Buy your own here.

Alphabets: A Guest Blog by Allan Sanders

alphabet of alphabetsCertain picture books stand out in the library as being favourites for free-reading time. They happen to all have something in common – their interactive ‘search and find’ functions. Where’s Wally, You Choose – any book that invites the reader to look carefully for something, count it, or make a decision, provokes discussion and sustained reading.

Search-And-Find Alphabet of Alphabets by Allan Sanders is new, fresh and exciting, and lends itself both to pictorial and wordplay; sometimes the alphabetised pages feature both a picture search and a word search. The illustrations are cartoon-like, with a nod to Scheffler in the anthropomorphic animals, and the vocabulary is stretching – this is not for babies, with words such as numbat, kinetoscope, hieroglyphics and limousine. Good for honing observation skills, and of course, for logophiles.

Below, Allan Sanders explains how he came to make the book, and how he managed to cheat a little with the difficult letters, but mainly, for MinervaReads, how he designed the letter M.

Amanda Wood and Mike Jolley are the brains behind The Alphabet of Alphabets. When they approached me with the idea for the book, I knew immediately it would be a great project. Mandy and Mike have made some great books together, so I jumped at the chance to work with them and Wide Eyed Editions.

The idea for The Alphabet of Alphabets is quite simple – 26 illustrated alphabets from A-Z.  A is for Alphabet, B is for Birds, C is for Creepy-crawlies, and so on. Within each alphabet there’s a whole other alphabet of things to find. On D is for Dinosaurs there is an A to Z of dinosaurs from Apatosaurus to Zuniceratops. On I for Inventions, you have to find everything from an Abacus to a Zeppelin. With 26 different alphabets, our book has got over 600 words to find!

The first stage in making an alphabet for each letter was to agree on a theme. For M we we came up with Machines, Music, Monsters, Mythology, or an alphabet of Moustaches! After some discussion we agreed that M for Museum would be the best fit. Museums are full of lots of very interesting things so it was an obvious choice. We knew it would offer a wide range of words to learn, and also lots of cool things to draw. In our museum you have to find everything from a suit of Armour to a Ziggurat.

As we worked on each alphabet, we found that it was a challenge to come up with things for certain letters – Q, Z, X & U are particularly tricky.  If we couldn’t think of anything for the letter U, we would be a bit cheeky and have underpants as the thing to find!  Even if we did have a letter U, we decided to include underpants in the picture anyway!

In the Museum you have to find the Urn, but there is also a pair of underpants in a glass case. I imagine that these underpants must have huge historical significance! They could have been the underpants worn by the first man in space, or underpants worn by the first president of the United States of America. Or perhaps, they are prehistoric underpants and they belonged to a Neanderthal man. We left it up to the reader to decide who they belong to!

I hope kids will enjoy finding all of the things in the Museum. Once they have found everything on the list they can try and find more things in the picture. Often there is more than one thing beginning with each letter. Once they have exhausted the book (it will take some time!) they could think about the different alphabets around them. You could come up with an alphabet for where you live, or an alphabet of your favourite foods, or an alphabet of all the countries in the world. You can have a lot of fun thinking about alphabets!

In the book you’ll find an alphabet of hats, a toy shop alphabet, an alphabet in space and an alphabet of yellow things! For the letter V we made a vehicles alphabet, a whole A-Z of crazy vehicles to find. I really like drawing cars so this picture was one of my favourites. Alongside the more traditional modes of transport we managed to squeeze in some unexpected things: a vampire driving a hearse, a nun on a skateboard, a yellow submarine and a heavy metal rock band in a pink limousine!

The most difficult alphabet to complete was W for things to Wear.  We came up with the idea of a character wearing 26 alphabetical items of clothing – all at the same time! That doesn’t sound like such a big deal but you should try wearing that many items of clothing whilst retaining any kind of fashion sense. Things can get pretty silly, pretty fast…

The Alphabet of Alphabets is the 10th non-fiction title that I’ve worked on. I feel that I have learnt a lot from all the books that I have illustrated, but with 26 alphabets to draw this was definitely the biggest project I’ve ever done. It was a real pleasure to work with Mandy & Mike and the lovely team at Wide Eyed Editions. I hope we can make another book together soon.

The Alphabet of Alphabets, created by Mike Jolley and Amanda Wood and illustrated by Allan Sanders, is published by Wide Eyed Editions, and you can buy it here. Check out Allan’s instagram to see fun animations associated with the book: omnibus and boats.

Allan Sanders studied at Manchester University and the Royal College of Art. Over the last 15 years Allan has worked on animations for the FIFA World Cup website, illustrations for French road safety agency Sécuritié Routière, animations and posters for the Oregon Humane Society’s ‘End Petlessness’ campaign, children’s books including Perfectly Perilous Math, Little Explorers and How Machines Work, and editorial projects for magazines & newspapers worldwide including The New Yorker and The Economist.  Allan lives in Brighton. For more information about Allan visit his website.

 

 

 

 

The Mystery of the Golden Wonderflower by Benjamin Flouw

golden wonderflowerI’m constantly bamboozled when I read a great English novel and discover that the author has named the plants that the protagonist brushes past in her garden, or the genus of trees that the antagonist climbs to launch his ambush. At my primary school we occasionally went on a ‘nature’ walk, but I gathered little more than conkers and pine cones. Now, my children can’t identify different leaves or wildflowers, they falter at nature – and this is despite having a house rich in books and traversing a field every morning to get to school (we do live in urban London though). The Lost Words helped enormously with this last year, but now, in British Science Week, (9th to 18th March), a simple picture book has caught my eye, published in Germany, translated from the French, and now on our own shores.

The Golden Wonderflower introduces Fox, a botanist, who realises that there’s a picture missing in one of his botany books. No one has yet drawn this rare precious plant called the Wonderflower, so Fox sets off on a long journey to find it.

Not only does Fox experience the most delightful journey, wandering through woodland – illustrated with light and dark, tall trees and a faint mist that feels so real that the reader can almost breathe the sweet air themselves, but also he recognises the plants along the way, and demonstrates his knowledge to the reader. Hence, every few pages of the story, Fox shows us the names and details of the plants – a pine leaf, tree and cone, all illustrated and labelled. A spruce, a beech, an oak and so on.

golden wonderflower inside

There are friends too, a bear fishing (with a rod), cousin Wolf who likes his food, and a marmot who points the Fox in the right direction up the mountain. Here, Flouw illustrates the different levels of the mountainside, in a landscape that highlights the different fields of crops, and the array of trees, which subtly change shape as he traverses up the mountain.

When the reader, and Fox, finally encounter the flower, the production team behind the book have done a beautiful job, for it is truly gaspworthy (using more than a little foiling – it shines). Fox knows not to pick it, for it is rare, so he sketches it instead, showing the reader the names of the different sections of a flower.

The illustrations are reminiscent of Jon Klassen in tone, although slightly more angular, and the colours reflective of the landscape – yellow, brown, green and orange hues in the woodland, blues and purples higher up the mountain, and of course, an abundance of green, particularly at Fox’s lush and verdant house.

Flouw also uses colour to delineate the time of day, and it’s the sunset at the top of the mountain that’s particularly magnificent, with colour sweeping across the page giving an atmospheric peace to the spread, and using the play of shadow to enormous effect.

The book aims to indicate the pleasure of a nature walk, the beauty of observing the natural world, but also points to conservation, as Fox realises how wrong it would be to pick this wonder flower. Instead he leaves it where and how it was – this is where it is most beautiful.

This book, conversely, should be picked up and leafed through, time and time again. It’s a wonder itself.

You can buy it here. Please note the book may be called The Golden Glow in the US.

Meet the…Ancient Romans by James Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Animals, Hotels and Crazy Antics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Q&A with Anthony McGowan: Killing Father Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was Christmas a big part of your upbringing?

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

Can you describe your perfect Christmas now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure by Alex T Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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