newly independent readers

First Witches

What is the appeal of witches for young readers? When I started the idea for this particular blogpost, the titles of ‘witchy’ series of books for little ones kept spilling off my tongue – there are so many. And more are being produced. The main hook of featuring witches in children’s literature is of course magic – witches can wave a wand and solve a dilemma – or in a well-used twist – use their wand badly and create a bigger problem.

Unlike fairies, witches appeal because they are human. They don’t have wings – they don’t have to occupy a different world (although some do). They are also edgier than most fairies – witches can have a mean streak whereas most fairies tend to be good (other than Tinkerbell from Peter Pan).

Witches are also usually accompanied by an animal – in fact looking at my list below, they are all in a close relationship with a ‘pet’, or animal friend, and this feature is a well-used device in children’s literature. So, where to start…..

hubble bubble monkey

Hubble Bubble: The Messy Monkey Business by Tracey Corderoy and Joe Berger
This series was first published in 2011 as picture books, but then quickly morphed into a series of young fiction titles for newly independent readers. There are three picture books for aged 3+ years with rhyming text, and then a series for 6+ years, each containing three stories. New titles published last year were The Wacky Winter Wonderland and The Messy Monkey Business. Delightfully enticing covers draw the reader into the story, with two-tone illustrations inside. The stories are about Pandora, an ordinary girl, whose grandmother happens to be a witch – she’s not alone in this, in Messy Monkey Business the third story reveals that many of the children also have grandmothers with witchy powers.

Messy Monkey Business features three stories including a school trip to the zoo, a babysitting disaster, and a camping trip. With ‘trouble’ and ‘chaos’ in the titles, it’s not long before Pandora’s Granny’s magic goes wrong, but in each story she does her very best to rectify the situation. She certainly means well. The stories zing with quick dialogue, and some lovely phrases:

“the children dived into the leaves like five excited little hedgehogs.”

The zoo adventure contains all the necessary elements – smells, mess, escaping creatures and a sea lion show – but all with a touch of magic in both text and illustration.

In all the Hubble Bubble books the short stories bounce along, there’s an element of ‘fairy godmother’ about Granny – she tries to be helpful by using her magic, but her results often lead Pandora and her friends astray. With wonderful names, such as Mr Bibble the schoolteacher, and Cobweb the cat, there’s plenty for a young reader to discover. The stand-out factor about the Hubble Bubble books though is the warmth that exudes from them. Despite mishaps and mayhem, the characters are loveable – the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter delightful, the humour spritely and the text pitched perfectly – some lovely expressions and adjectives, but all easy enough for first readers. You can purchase Hubble Bubble The Messy Monkey Business here.

worst witch

The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
This series is still an absolute favourite with all – from old to young. The books remain fresh and lively. They tell the adventures of Mildred Hubble and her best friend Maud at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. It’s hard to believe that the series is over 40 years old…but when re-reading you can see Jill Murphy’s original witty inventions – lessons on flying a broomstick, potions classes, creepy corridors and invisibility spells.

Jill Murphy originally pitched Mildred as a fairy, unfortunately attending the wrong school – but then changed her to a witch who’s just not very capable. From her tabby cat instead of a black one, to her long enmity with Ethel Hallow, and her even stronger friendship with Maud, this is a school story to treasure. Names are used cunningly here too – who can forget Miss Hardbroom – a precursor to Minerva McGonagall I should think. The black and white illustrations depict the greyness of the school as well as the hilarious friendship between short round Maud and long tall Mildred. Jill Murphy is both author and illustrator. Meet Mildred Hubble here.

titchy witch

Titchy Witch by Rose Impey, illustrated by Katharine McEwen
Perhaps our least famous witch here, Titchy Witch inhabits a world in which only her family are witches – her classmates at school vary from goblins to princesses, and her teacher is an ogre. She is also looked after by a particularly grumpy Cat-a-Bogus, a sort of au-pair/nanny. Full colour illustrations throughout add to the charm of this compelling world. Titchy Witch is different from the other witches, in that she is only seven, and acts as such. She finds some witchy things hard, has difficulty keeping her temper, and is very mischevious. The text is suitable for first independent readers and these children will recognise themselves in Titchy Witch.

Titchy Witch and the Frog Fiasco is typical of the stories. When Gobby-goblin at school pokes Titchy one too many times, she has her revenge by putting a spell on him. The teacher catches her and Titchy is blamed, and decides she no longer wants to go to school. Cat-a-Bogus shows her why she should attend when it turns out she cannot read or practise magic perfectly just yet. There is an adorable twist at the end, only understood by studying the illustration. You can conjure Titchy by purchasing here.

winnie the witch

Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul
Another aging witch, Winnie is more than 25 years old. She has a beloved black cat, the prickly Wilbur. The wonderfulness of Winnie is the amount of colour Korky Paul throws at the books, in fact our standout title is the original story in which Winnie colours her world. There are some beautifully unique traits to Winnie – she has a crooked hat because Paul found that drawing it straight didn’t always fit on the page, she is not the most attractive witch to look at, and yet her personality is adorable. Wilbur’s personality is as acutely drawn as any human’s – his laziness, his addiction to a certain level of comfort, his weariness with Winnie’s adventures. The attention to detail is present in both the meticulously drawn illustrations, as well as the scope of the adventures. Each book is very different – from Winnie’s trip to the seaside, to her birthday celebrations. There is much to admire in each, and much to look at. Winnie also seamlessly moves with the times – see for example Winnie’s New Computer.

Like Hubble Bubble, there are both picture books and young readers, so that the books grow with the child. No library is complete without Winnie on a shelf somewhere. Wave your wand here.

meg and mog

Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski
Another 1970’s invention and catering for the youngest readers out of the books featured, I couldn’t write a blogpost about witches and not include my favourite. It is the simplicity of the words and pictures that is Meg and Mog’s unique selling point. The repetition, the sound effects and the rhythm make this a treat to read-aloud. The sentence describing Meg going downstairs perfectly sums up the clomping noise she makes:
“She went down the stairs to cook breakfast.”
as each word of text is positioned underneath each stair, enticing the reader to pronounce the sentence in a particular way. The drawings are iconic – each of the five witches portrayed almost as stick figurines, and yet all distinguishable by their different hair squiggles and noses. The colours are bright and bold, no white spaces in this preschool colour block delight. But the best thing about the original book is that it doesn’t conclude neatly. When Meg changes the witches into mice, she leaves them like that until the following Halloween – there is no happy ending. Edgy and mischievous. Just how witches should be. You can purchase Meg and Mog here.

Look out for my forthcoming blog on witches for slightly older children…

 

 

 

Scholastic Sale

These days, as traditional as Christmas pudding, is the transition from sentimental Christmas adverts to January sales promotions.

I’m delighted that Scholastic approached me for two reasons – firstly in their capacity as a publishing group, as they have produced a great title for reluctant readers, and also because they have started their amazing sale with up to 88% discounts on fabulous children’s books (from a variety of publishers).

create your own alien adventure

Create Your Own Alien Adventure: It’s OK! We’re going to save the planet! By Andrew Judge and Chris Judge is an adventure story in which the reader both fills in the gaps (literally, with a pencil and colouring crayons), and also chooses the twists the story will take by turning to the page of their choice. Building on those classic ‘choose your own adventure’ stories, this title goes further because the reader is invited to draw on the book.

With Daisy, the heroine, the reader tracks an invading alien back to his crashed space ship and adventures with him into space. Except that by doing so, the reader has inadvertently led the alien army to Earth, and now the reader must protect it – with Daisy and some characters (of the reader’s own inventing). Not only is it truly interactive (the reader is also invited to tear certain pages), but it’s a great tool for reluctant readers to conquer a book, read a story, follow instructions, and participate in a story arc.

Chris Judge is an award-winning picture book illustrator (Tin, The Lonely Beast, and most recently The Snow Beast), and is joined by his brother Andrew. The illustrations are simple so that a young reader doesn’t feel intimidated by them.

The language too is simple, but humorous, with plenty of eye-catching typeface changes, enlargements etc, to keep anyone interested, as well as some great dialogue.

I’ve already shown the title to two parents of reluctant readers who were both eager to obtain a copy of their own. Luckily for them, this title, retailing at £5.99, is in the Scholastic January Sale for £2.99, and you can buy it here, and it will be followed in April by a further title in the series, Create Your Own Spy Mission.

If tempted by the TV showings of David Walliams children’s book entertainment, you can buy his new title, Grandpa’s Great Escape, in the sale at £8.99, as well as some Early Reader Horrid Henry’s including Christmas Play at £2.99. Scholastic are also great at selling packs, and this non-fiction one caught my eye – narrative non-fiction so that you learn as you read a story – I Survived pack of five books at £9.99.

What’s more every order over £10 earns 20% back in FREE BOOKS for a school or nursery of your choosing. For this reason, I am directing you to the sale site here, rather than my usual referral site.

Flying Females and Clusters of Cats

Mary Poppins blew in with her umbrella on a very strong wind, and these two new books for children breezed through the letterbox earlier this year.

miss petitfour

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Anne Michaels, with illustrations by Emma Block

This is Anne Michael’s first foray into children’s books, although she won accolades galore for Fugitive Pieces, amongst other writing. And what a book! The Adventures of Miss Petitfour is split into five separate stories about the main character, an eccentric lady who lives alone, except for her 16 cats, to which there is an illustrated guide at the beginning so that the reader can distinguish between them. Miss Petitfour also has the ability to fly when the wind takes her – merely by shaping a tablecloth into a type of hot air balloon and going where the breeze dictates.

Anne Michaels has created a world of jumble sales, grand village picnics, stamp collections and the Festival of Festooning.

But it’s the use of language that is so unique and exciting. From her orange and italicized highlighted vocabulary, explaining long and difficult but thrilling new words, such as ‘debonair’ and ‘gesticulating’; to encouraging the reader to count Michael’s authorly ‘digressions’ from the main story – the word digression also highlighted in orange – to the careful construction of each story, the use of the words ‘the end’ at the end of every story in a different context:

“…she placed especially lengthy chocolate eclairs crammed with whipping cream, which they gobbled up with great cat smiles from the beginning to THE END.”

and the simple poetic lyricism of each phrase, from “sixteen cat acrobats on a thrilling coat hanger trapeze” to the stories Miss Petitfour tells her cats:

“…stories full of rolling waves and motorcades, damp caves and last-minute saves, musketeers and mountaineers.”

It seems effortless, although of course it isn’t – it is highly thought out, and of the highest quality – and poetic in its lyricism. As a reader, you savour the words in your mouth the way you would savour the delectable treats she describes:

“currant toast squishy with butter, caramel-marshmallow squares, strawberry boats oozing custard, chocolate eclairs that exploded with cream when the cats bit into them with their little white teeth…”

She explains the construction of her stories as she writes – from ‘then one day’s’ to ‘meanwhiles’ without any condescension, as well as including the most luscious descriptions from clothes and fabrics “bolts of rustling stiff crepe paper and spools of silent velvet ribbon; there was the swish of tinsel and the jittering of plastic beads”, to the line of cats dangling in the wind, to the colour of marmalade. And Michaels does all this as well as writing interesting plots with drive, so there is never a dull moment.

The accompanying full-colour illustrations by Emma Block are sophisticated, humorous and almost as eccentric as Miss Petitfour herself – with massively differentiated cats, ear muffs, dancing, piano playing, and also simple tea. They are sharp and well matched to the text.

This is a meticulously crafted book – refined and delightful. For 7-12 years, and beyond. Buy a copy here.

harper scarlet

Harper and the Scarlet Umbrella by Cerrie Burnell, illustrated by Laura Ellen Anderson

With its irresistibly shiny cover, this tale does indeed sparkle from beginning to end. For newly independent readers, (the text is much larger, and the story shorter, than the title above) it tells the tale of Harper, a small girl who lives in the City of Clouds in a tall apartment block. Her friends come from the different flats within the building, each child having a defined personality from the start. But Harper’s best friend is her cat Midnight. When Midnight goes missing, along with all the other cats from the City of Clouds, Harper must harness her scarlet umbrella (which enables her to fly) and track down the lost cats.

Laura Ellen Anderson’s illustrations made this book for me. From the endearing portrayal of Harper on the cover with the cat perching on her head to the most incredible full page illustration of the cat orchestra inside, the artworks, despite being all in black and white, made me want to savour the book for longer. Small details abound in each illustration, from the smattering of freckles across Harper’s face to the cat licking its paws in the middle of an orchestral warm-up, to the view from the rooftops down to the trail of cats below. Each chapter starts with an illustration of Midnight in a different pose, and the book ends with her curled up comfortably asleep on the last page.

The writing is intensely lyrical, mirroring the themes of the story, which are music, adventure, care for others, all set in an imaginary world where there are different types of rain, “Summer Dew” and “Sea Mist” being just two, so that everyone owns an umbrella. The world also contains a plethora of musical instruments. Time and attention is lavished on children by grownups who really care, and the story is populated by overly exaggerated characters brimming with arty skills – they can dance, or write, or play music with incredible aptitude. It makes for magical reading, each sentence carefully honed with an abundance of adjectives and similes.

It is short and reads as sweetly as the story within, although for older children the language may seem a little cloying. For first readers, the magic of language will spring off the page, and I can happily see children revisiting the story for comfort, and definitely for those stunning illustrations. For 6+ years. You can buy a copy here.

Two New Non-Fiction Series

Early Reader Space

Some children love to read non-fiction as narratives. They don’t necessarily want a large format book with flaps and pop-up-diagrams. They are looking for books, like fiction paperbacks, that they can take with them to school, on a journey, to waiting rooms. And two great series were published this year.

Last year Orion announced it was expanding its hugely popular Early Readers series with four non-fiction titles. The last of these to be published this year is Early Reader Space by Timothy Knapman and illustrated by Kelly Canby. This is fabulous news for newly independent readers who want to read about facts. Divided into eight snapshot sections, all of which sound enticing and entertaining, from ‘Space Ship Earth’ to ‘Aliens’ and ‘Places You Don’t Want to Go on Holiday’, it takes a comprehensive, although compact look at space.

Fun from the beginning, and easy to read, the first page says “You are a space traveller” and is accompanied by Kelly Canby’s delightful pictures of two children dressed as astronauts, looking pleased and slightly knowing. There is never too much text on the page – not more than two paragraphs, and the language is accessible for such a difficult topic, although of course the names of things are rather difficult – ‘Betelgeuse’ for one.

What’s more the style is friendly and fun at all times. Neptune is the windiest planet, and the book tells us “You’d have wanted to hold on very tightly if you wanted to fly a kite there.” Accompanied by another lovely illustration of our two space travellers struggling with a kite.

It is packed with facts as it says on the cover, but as it also says – “it’s never too early to find things out”. Fully enjoyable and informative. Let’s hope there are plenty more in the series in 2016. Age 5+. You can buy it here.

Dr Dino GreeksDr Dino Dinosaurs Dr Dino Astronauts wee

John Blake publishers are also storming ahead with their new non-fiction series called Dr Dino’s Learnatorium, for slightly older readers. The various titles ask witty questions for the age group, titles so far include How Many Greeks Can You Fit Inside a Horse? Do Dinosaurs Make Good Pets? And How Do Astronauts Wee in Space? By Chris Mitchell

The series aims to do what many non-fiction series aim for with children’s books, which is to provide the weirdest, funniest, foulest facts. Told by Dr Dino, a dinosaur scientist, the book reads as quite a dense running narrative, but dispensed in a casual way, talking to the reader, and interspersed with text boxes about certain extra elements, and rather hilarious cartoons – not unlike those seen on greetings cards. The cartoons are very funny and nicely break up the text.

There are some excellent paragraphs of solid information in each book, but also some rather lovely observations and opinions by Dr Dino, which lends the whole venture a comic light-hearted element. The Greek title was my favourite – although I expected it to be about Ancient Greece, in fact it talks about legends and myth the world over, starting with Godzilla and the Japanese, and dipping into a host of countries and their myths, including the Germans, the Aztecs, the Egyptians – yes it skips merrily round the world and through different time zones, but is all the more fascinating for this.

Each title has a quiz at the end to test the reader’s knowledge (if they wish). A thoroughly enjoyable ‘read’ and packed to the brim with information. Highly recommended. Age 9+ years. You can buy them here: How Do Astronauts Wee In Space?, How Many Greeks Can You Fit Inside a Horse? and Do Dinosaurs Make Good Pets?

Gulliver retold by Mary Webb, illustrated by Lauren O’Neill

Gulliver

There are so many versions of the classics tales out there, that it can be very difficult and confusing to pick the right one for your child. As a purist I always like to reach for the original, but for something like Gulliver’s Travels although the story can work for a much younger age group, the original text is more suited to young adults and older.

The poet John Gay wrote to Swift that “it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.” Of course the word Lilliputian even entered the dictionary, but for those who wish to read it firstly as a simple story with simplified satire, an easier version is required, one without Swift’s wordiness.

Mary Webb has retold two of Gulliver’s adventures – his time with the Lilliputians in which he is perceived as a giant, and his time in Brobdingnag where the people are giants compared to him. Mary retains much of the original humour and satire, Gulliver’s remarks on the futility of war – when the Lilliputians fight their neighbours over the correct way to crack an egg, and keeps in much of Gulliver’s disgust at the way humans behave – especially when they are magnified to the size of giants.

It’s always a pleasure for an author to depict the world seen from a different point of view – in this case either as someone very small, or someone very big. Astute observations can be made about the world when it’s viewed at a distance and from a different perspective. Webb has kept in as much as possible – from Gulliver’s perspective of power to his toileting habits.

Lauren O’Neill’s illustrations fit the story very well. A slightly muted grey/blue tinge holds sway over every page, and bold reds illuminate specific features such as flags, sails, capes and arrow tips. There is a good amount of detail, and fabulous drawings of old-fashioned clothes and sail boats, which give clues to the reader as to when the book was written.

The very small introduction to Swift’s book on the contents page is particularly excellent. It describes in the simplest and most concise language what Swift was trying to achieve, and what lessons can be extrapolated from the tales.

This is a lovely edition that can be enjoyed shared with a parent, or read alone. The red ribbon to mark page position is a well-spent printing cost, and makes the book a good gift option. Buy here from Waterstones.

Silly School Stories

There are some writers who excel at what I call ‘slapstick writing’ – the sort of silliness that ties the reader in knots, makes them laugh out loud, then chortle delightedly, and declare the story ‘nonsense’ in the best possible way.

Two school stories for you this week, which are ludicrously ridiculous. But, deep down, underneath all the mayhem, there lurks a subtle dig at our education system.

uncle gobb

Firstly, Michael Rosen’s Uncle Gobb and the Dread Shed, illustrated by Neal Layton.

Malcom’s school tries to make anything that could be remotely interesting appear boring, and has a penchant for worksheets, particularly the ‘filling in the gap’ kind. His Uncle Gobb (who lives with him) has a soft spot for homework, and when Malcolm doesn’t give the correct answers, or even ask the correct questions, Uncle Gobb decides to place Malcolm and his friend in the Dread Shed as a punishment.

But Malcolm is already querying why his uncle has his name stamped all over the school worksheets, and when a genie appears, and then another, and the way out of the Dread Shed is found simply by opening the door, things start to become even more peculiar. Add in some chocolate bars, chapters that go nowhere, and wacky illustrations, and suddenly you have a book of nonsense, with a subtle rebellious message about schemes of learning, and a book that elicits giggles at every opportunity.

Michael Rosen’s casual approach is brilliant – there are blank chapters, barmy explanations of non-fiction, plays on words, and references to writers and readers, and he even points out the central conflict in his book with capital letters. Neal Layton executes his illustrations in perfect tune with the text – messy, humorous, nonsense. A laugh a minute book for 6+ years. Click here to purchase.

mad iris

Or you could visit Puddling Lane Primary, the scene of Jeremy Strong’s Mad Iris series. Jeremy Strong was himself a headmaster, so there’s an added pathos and depth reading his school stories, a truth running through the middle. Like Michael Rosen, Jeremy manages to poke enormous fun at education – in Mad Iris and the Bad School Report by Jeremy Strong, illustrated by Scoular Anderson, it is the school inspectors who take the brunt.

Pudding Lane Primary has a mascot on the grounds – the ostrich Mad Iris. But Ross and Katie have to keep her under control because not only is there a new boy who is allegedly allergic to ostriches, but also the Ofsted inspectors are visiting.

Jeremy Strong is particularly good at naming his characters, from Mrs Fretting to Miss Cactus, and the dialogue is spot on too. He also likes to poke fun at the school system – when the inspectors ask one of the teachers for the point of the lesson, she answers that she thought the children might enjoy it. The ensuing horror from the lead inspector is terrifically written.

There’s a huge amount of humour running through the story, from the relationships between fellow pupils, to those between pupils and staff, and lots of slapstick mayhem with the ostrich. Kids will fall about laughing – with Jeremy Strong it’s pretty much guaranteed. This book is also superbly illustrated throughout in black and white. Published by Barrington Stoke, it’s suitable for dyslexics, but will appeal to anyone from age 7+ years. Buy it here.

Football Mad

Parents often regale me with their tales of despair about their children who aren’t interested in reading – they are interested only in football. To them I tell the story of one boy – so desperate to learn the football results on a Saturday afternoon that he learned to read the results ticker-tape scrolling at the bottom of the screen. He was delighted when he could read Liverpool 1-2 Tottenham, and then devastated to read Arsenal 4-1 Southampton.

From the tickertape he progressed to football magazines, then to match day programmes (personally I have yet to find much duller reading material), and finally to football books. Now to my delight, the range has widened and books on other subject matters are read too. But it all started with that football tickertape.

There is some great children’s fiction on football, but three new books that grabbed my attention recently are three biographies of famous footballers. They aren’t fiction – but tell non-fiction in a classic narrative style, so that non-fiction fans are drawn in and learn a story arc at the same time as gaining knowledge about their favourite footballer (and shhh! reading!) For all that I loathe celebrity culture, I recognise that this is a great way into reading for some children, and that emulating that famous football star is often the way to go. You only have to look at the success of the Premier League Reading Stars programme to see how one passion can lead to another.

Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale: The Boy Who Became a Galactico by Tom and Matt Oldfield tells the story of Gareth Bale’s career, from being taken to his first match aged three to watch his uncle play, to his move to and his first goal for Real Madrid. It isn’t easy to write a biography for a child readership – as Gareth gets much older than the readership some of the emotions and relationships could be hard to understand – but the authors have pitched this perfectly. There is far more emphasis on life on the pitch than off it.

In all the books, the parents and those in authority make it clear, without being patronising, that the footballers’ careers aren’t just reliant on skill. There’s an emphasis on practice, and attitude – and the importance of family and friends supporting the player. This is a team game – both on and off the pitch.

In Gareth’s story, the authors show his progression from a small skinny boy to a more bulked-out player, with nods to extensive training, the difficulties of loyalty when a player moves from one club to another, coping with the frustrations of injury, and lots of detail about specific football matches. The statistics and games are accurate – the authors have acknowledged their research at the back of the book. Even for non-football fans, it’s a good read from start to finish with a clear biographical progression (the structure is tight) and simple language. To purchase, click here.

Raheem SterlingWayne Rooney

Raheem Sterling also struggles with his size in his story: Raheem Sterling: Young Lion, but his background also plays a major role in his story, and there are some touching moments about the sacrifices his mother made in order for Raheem to have his opportunities. You can buy it here.

The third title in the series by Tom and Matt Oldfield is Wayne Rooney: Captain of England. You can buy it here.

Football Academy Boys United

If children like reading about sport, but want fiction, then I would recommend the author Tom Palmer. Tom has done amazing work with the Rugby World Cup – he has a series of books out on this – but he also wrote Football Academy: Boys United, which is for newly independent readers looking for a great story.

Tom writes with beautiful fluency, excitement and emotion, so that the characters come alive and the story seems real. The first in the Football Academy series sees Jake try out for United’s under-twelve team. He is good, but is he good enough? Tom Palmer incorporates issues with his team-mates, friendships, relationships with family, as well as what happens when you support one team and play for another. There’s plenty of football too, and plenty of emphasis on working hard for what you want. It’s enjoyable, and inclusive with a diverse range of characters. It remains my top recommendation for encouraging young football fans to read. There are four titles in this series. To buy the first, click here.

I would also recommend Frankie’s Magic Football series by Frank Lampard, and Helena Pielichaty’s Girls FC series (sadly not widely available, but it is an excellent series and reminds us that football is for girls too). All 7+ yrs. Lastly, if your child is older, leave Mal Peet’s Keeper lying around for them to find. It contains the most beautiful writing, with an amazing football/ghost story about a world-famous goalkeeper, and the importance of believing in oneself.

Little People in a Big World

Little people have existed in mythology and folklore dating back through history to the American Indians, whose petroglyphs show them horned, as well as in Ancient Greek mythology where pygmies (from the word pygme meaning the length of the forearm), were written about in The Illiad. In one tale the pygmies bind down the sleeping hero Heracles, a story that was later adapted by Swift for Gulliver’s Travels. Ever since Tom Thumb was published in 1621, purported to be the first fairy tale printed in English, there have been a litany of books about ‘the little people’ for children. The Grimm brothers collected a tale about Thumbling, ‘a child no longer than a thumb’, and as far away as Japan there is folklore about a child called ‘Issun-boshi’, translating to ‘Little One Inch’ – a tale about a miniature samurai with a sewing needle for a sword, a soup bowl for a boat, and chopsticks for oars. More familiar to current readers are Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen, The Borrowers by Mary Norton – which won the Carnegie medal in 1952, and Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen. Little people are a great device for storytellers – they can have crazy adventures in the most mundane landscapes; they can be a mirror into our ‘big society’, or a criticism of it – AN Wilson considered The Borrowers to be an allegory of post-war Britain – weakened people living in a decaying country, using recycled materials.

pocket pirates

A truly delightful addition to the canon of children’s literature about miniature people, Pocket Pirates: The Great Cheese Robbery by Chris Mould shows the author to have an inventive mind and the ability to pack a huge story into a tiny world. From the delightful premise – a story of pocket pirates who live in a ship in a bottle in an old junk shop – to the execution, complete with hugely detailed illustrations on almost every page – this story jumps off the page with excitement and is hugely entertaining. In the first story of the series the ship’s miniature cat is kidnapped and held to ransom by mice. The pocket pirates must steal cheese from the shop’s kitchen fridge to take to the mice and rescue their cat. Chris Mould employs all the traditional tricks of the trade when writing about small people, from the fear of the dog (huge from their tiny perspective), to his adaptation of normal sized objects to work for the pocket pirates – washing up sponges as chairs, shoelaces as ropes, a mustard pot for a bath – as well as magically using the tale of the Trojan Horse and transporting it into his story, replacing the horse with cheese in order to fool the mice. However, Chris’ attention to detail is exceptional – it takes much empathy to write from the position of a tiny person, incorporating practicalities as well as fears and obstacles, and Chris Mould does it with aplomb. This is a fun story – it leaves the reader wanting the next in the series – and is bound to be a huge hit for all small children! Age 6+. You can purchase it here.

blue glass

An old tale, but just translated into English for the first time is The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui, about the little people who depend on the milk of human kindness, literally and metaphorically. The little people, a family of four – Fern and Balbo and their children Robin and Iris, live in a small library in a house in Tokyo. They are originally from England, but have been entrusted to the care of a young boy called Tatsuo in Japan, and then over the years to his family and children, and in particular, his small daughter Yuri. The little people rely on a small amount of milk being placed in the sparkling blue glass goblet for them every day by a human. When the Second World War comes to Japan, who are then at war with England, the humans and the little people become affected by external events, and nothing is the same again. Weaving complicated themes of patriotism, loyalty, cultural and moral identity, Tomiko Inui tells a bittersweet narrative of the impact of war on those behind the battlefields, and the children evacuated during the war effort. There are some wonderful descriptions of life in the Japanese countryside during the war, and much to be extrapolated about loyalty to one’s family, and standing up for what you believe in. There were some interesting similes from this tale written in 1959 about the little people being battered about in their basket in transit, much like migrants on a voyage across the ocean. This book is still relevant in so many ways – although tough to get into for the first chapter or so (which I put down to the translation warming up). The ending comes as rather a shock, but the book works as an eye-opener into another culture, and is an intriguingly different text from the run-of-the-mill contemporary children’s book. For those 8+yrs. Click here to buy a copy.

little girl
The Little Girl and the Tiny Doll by Edward and Aingelda Ardizzone was first published in the 1960’s but wonderfully is still in print and well worth a read. It tells the story of a sad little doll who is accidentally but rather callously dropped into the deep freeze compartment of a small shop. She makes the best of her surroundings, and is helped out by a small girl who shops with her mother and spies her one day between an ice cream tub and a mixed vegetables packet. The book is charming for many reasons. The world that the little doll creates in the freezer is magical – from the packets of food which act as buildings creating a pathway of streets between them, to playing bat and ball with an ice cream scoop and frozen peas (an image which has stayed with me for thirty odd years). The timidity of the little girl who finds the doll (she doesn’t pick her up as she’s been told not to touch things in shops, so merely drops packages of warm clothes into the freezer for her instead), is charming, and contrasts wittily with the sharpness of the shopkeeper, who is adamant that there are no dolls in her shop. The ending, for me, is most touching – the little doll uses her experiences in the deep freeze to tell stories to the other dolls she finally encounters. The story, short and sweet, teaches compassion, kindness and surviving against the odds, as well as, like Chris Mould, using wonderful empathy and inventiveness imagining life as a miniature in a deep freeze. The story was told by Aingelda Ardizzone to her children, and she was persuaded to write it down by her father-in-law, the illustrator Edward Ardizzone who then proceeded to illustrate it in his own magical style. Take particular notice of the illustrations of the haughty shopkeeper – the illustrations convey mood and emotion brilliantly. Age 4+. You can purchase it here.

chillly billy

Lastly, another cold miniature adventure is The Amazing Adventures of Chilly Billy, about the little man who lives in the fridge. Unlike the tiny doll, Chilly Billy’s place of living is no accident. He is the little man who lives inside the fridge and turns the light on when the door is opened, as well as polishing ice cubes, tidying the freezer, and repairing leaks in yogurt containers. The author writes directly to the reader, as if Chilly Billy lives in each and everyone’s fridge. For a small child, this is a magical narrative device and stretches the imagination. During the course of the book, Chilly Billy enters the fridge Olympics, suffers a ‘warm’ instead of a cold, and meets a new friend. Like other authors of little people tales, Peter Mayle has been inventive, imagining the special boots Chilly Billy would need to facilitate travel inside a fridge, as well as a special bike, the chores Billy must undertake, and the sports that can be done inside a fridge. As with the The Little Girl and the Tiny Doll, the images within this book resonate and instill characters that last beyond childhood. The version I have is colour illustrated by Arthur Robins – but I think the edition still in print is only black and white. Age 6+. You can purchase an ebook from Waterstones here or click the Amazon sidebar for the paperback version.

Chris Mould picked out some BIG moments for LITTLE people for the Guardian this week. You can read it here.

 

 

 

 

Dynamic Duos

The world of children’s publishing is thriving. In part, this is down to massively popular illustrated books such as Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and Tom Gates by Liz Pichon. This seems to have had two effects – one that children’s book publishers have slightly more money to play with, and two, that illustrated stories (beyond picture books) have become all the rage. These illustrations don’t just stand idly by portraying that which has been described by words – the illustrations push on the plot, define characters, and display visual jokes, using the full space of the page. There are excellent wordsmiths pairing up with superbly talented illustrators to create some DYNAMIC DUOS in children’s books. Here are three such pairs:

Mango and Bambang

Mango and Bambang: The Not-a-Pig written by Polly Faber and illustrated by Clara Vulliamy
A brand new pairing, Polly Faber’s debut writing is accompanied by Clara Vulliamy’s experienced illustrations. This exquisitely packaged book tells four delightful stories about Mango Allsorts, a girl who discovers a lost tapir and adopts him as her pet. The first page introduces (through words and pictures) the main characters in the story, and the first story explains how Mango met Bambang. The writing is simple and effective, and plays beautifully with the English language – explaining such things as how Mango’s papa spends his time ‘balancing books’. Polly Faber describes how Mango herself is good at all sorts of things (hence her name) but that wasn’t the same as being a good girl. The phrasing is enticing and winsome and the reader can bask with enjoyment at the wordplay. The illustrations play the same game – a simple two tone purple and black in colour, yet massively effective – the purple stripes of the opening pages contrasting with the black and white stripes of the zebra crossing where Mango meets a camouflaged Bambang, and then also complementing the stripes of Mango’s clothing. Clara’s pictures of the settings – eg, Mango’s city, the street traffic scene, etc, build a world around Polly’s words and the two mesh beautifully together to form a complete story. There is much to pore over. The stories are gentle – about kindness and friendship – the two characters complementing each other in a reflection of the pairing of author/illustrator. There is also a peacefulness that emanates from the book – childhood as a time for wonder and playfulness, as opposed to the busy world of the adults. The book feels very global, there is a real mix of dress, modes of transport, foodstuffs – and as in all good children’s literature there is a fair mention of food – banana pancakes in particular here. The other three stories involve a swimming pool, fabulous hats, and singing. It speaks to the inner child in everyone, and will enchant all newly independent readers. A lovely addition to books for this age group (6+). To purchase, click here.

pugs

Pugs of the Frozen North written by Philip Reeve and illustrated by Sarah McIntyre
This fabulous pairing can do no wrong at the moment. Following the huge success of Cakes in Space and Oliver and the Seawigs, comes my favourite so far. Pugs of the Frozen North is ‘Wacky Races on ice’. Shen and Sika enter the once in a lifetime race in True Winter to be the first to the North pole to see the Snowfather who grants wishes. Their sled is pulled by sixty-six pugs, who have been rescued from a shipwreck. It’s fantastical, magical and silly, with great charm. Reeve’s writing prose is a cut above – the plot races in time to the sled, the language is bewitching – a mass of alliteration throughout the novel using the letter ‘s’ – from the names of the children, Shen and Sika, to those of the polar bears, Snowdrop and Slushpuppy, to the number of pugs, ‘sixty-six’, to words associated with sleds and snow – ‘silvering of light’, ‘statues’, ‘slush’ and ‘snowmen’, not to mention the fifty types of snow – ‘screechsnow’, ‘shrinksnow’, ‘stonesnow’, ‘songsnow’…and made up words to describe the movement of the sled across the ice – ‘skreeling’. He isn’t afraid to use new language and to increase a young child’s vocabulary, and it’s all done to fit perfectly with the story.
Of course the humour shines through in abundance too. There are self-references to the Seawigs book, the yeti’s noodle bar instead of spaghetti (they wanted to avoid the obvious), and the camaraderie with the reader: “…looked very yeti-ish…you know the type of thing.” But the humour really shines with Sarah McIntyre’s fundamental illustrations. Sarah always shows how the story can be told through illustration, not just through text. We learn of the Chief Marshal’s mistake with the hot air balloon through the hilarious illustrated pages before it appears in the text, we are told through pictures only of the other racers’ mishaps (spot the selfie stick – it’s hugely comical), and of course the numerous wonderful drawings of 66 pugs. Particularly wonderful were those of the pugs warming in Helga’s beard, yipping at the Snowfather, and the endpapers with their names (look out for ‘Not-a-Pug’).
Children will adore this book – there is no let up in the pace: Shen, our main character, shows depth of character and thought – especially his anxiety about being disappointed at the end of the race, and the illustrations delight and amuse constantly. There’s a great use of landscape here too – from the types of snow, to the uses of it, and the Northern Lights. Read it, if only to find out what the Po of Ice is! This is a gem, all children aged 6+ will adore it and all parents will find it funny. Read it with your child so as not to miss out! Click here to purchase from Waterstones.

magic potions shop

The Magic Potions Shop: The Young Apprentice written by Abie Longstaff and illustrated by Lauren Beard
From the team behind the Fairytale Hairdresser comes a new series for slightly older readers. Although not afforded quite the same packaging as the two titles above, The Magic Potions Shop is a great stepping stone for newly independent readers – black and white illustrations on every page accompany large text that utilises italics, bold, and font changes to highlight particular words and phrases. The book tells the story of Tibben, apprentice to the Potions Master, who is trying hard to gain ‘glints’ on his robe, which will afford him the qualifications to become the next Potions Master. He starts the book by being rather inept, but through endeavour and bravery gradually earns his skill. The book is reminiscent of The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton, packed with mermaids, trolls, elves and sprites – and tells a typical adventure story complete with long journey (a map at the beginning shows the way), and magical happenings in the Kingdom of Arthwen. The vocabulary is largely accessible. Lauren’s illustrations don’t push the story along in the same way as in the titles above, but they do provide an extra layer of detail not given in the text. There’s a lovely section at the back detailing ingredients and potions – which will delight children. My only gripe is that the cover artwork for books one and two is tending towards being gender specific – whereas this is a series that could lend itself to being read by all. A good first reader though – I can see children devouring this new series. Buy it here.

Thank you to OUP for my review copy of Pugs, and to Abie Longstaff for my review copy of The Magic Potions Shop

Summer Reading List

I’m not going to be blogging in August. It’s my month to take stock, recharge, and just READ. So, in case you’re wondering which books to pack/download for your children or take out the library for the summer reading challenge (see here), then here are a few suggestions.

i want my hat backoliver and patchwinnie at the seasidekatie mcginty

I recently re-discovered I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. This is a modern classic and as close to picture book perfection as you can get. A bear is looking for his hat and asks a variety of creatures if they have seen it. It’s a simple concept expertly executed, with fabulous dry wit and wonderful facial expressions – the text and pictures complement each other flawlessly. It is fun to do different voices for different characters and good for all ages to discuss what happened to the rabbit and why! Oliver and Patch by Claire Freedman and Kate Hindley is a beautiful story about moving to a new place. Summer can be a transition time for lots of children, and it’s good to read a reassuring story about making new friends and settling into a new place. Phenomenal vocabulary, exquisite illustrations – it also shows the fun you can have in a city. For something more summery try Winnie the Witch at the Seaside by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul. Much loved by children everywhere, this episode takes Winnie to the beach – although will Wilbur the cat stay dry? A good story, well told, with Korky’s distinctive style of illustrations. If you don’t want to rely on old favourites, this summer watch out for Katie McGinty Wants a Pet by debut author Jenna Harrington, illustrated by Finn Simpson, publishing 13th August. Katie wants a very different kind of pet (bet you can guess from the cover!). Although she may end up with slightly more than she bargained for – the writing style is fun and quirky – and captures a small child wonderfully – ‘She wanted it more than Millie Phillips wanted to be able to stand on her head.’

oliver and the seawigsclever pollylottie liptonthe gingerbread star ted rules the worldClaude Lights

My newly independent reading choices are a mixture of old and new too. Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre is a gem of a book, which takes the reader on a seafaring voyage unlike any other. The illustrations are sensational, look out particularly for Iris the mermaid. A classic, which has just been reissued and is well worth a read is Clever Polly and the Wolf by Catherine Storr. With 13 separate stories this is a good starter read. Each story is a play on ‘wolf fairy tales’, but magically don’t seem dated at all – and Clever Polly is remarkably likeable. If you’re doing any museum visiting this summer, or just looking to solve some riddles, a great read is the new Lottie Lipton series by Dan Metcalf, released in conjunction with the British Museum. These are well written little mysteries for growing readers but they have real riddles in them, and activities at the end. I’d love to read one whilst in the British Museum to see if I could follow the trail too. A must for young historians. For new or struggling readers I’m also heartily in favour of the Little Gem series from Barrington Stoke. There are numerous titles by fabulous authors in this list, but recent releases include The Gingerbread Star by Anne Fine, illustrated by Vicki Gausden and Ted Rules the World by Frank Cottrell Boyce, illustrated by Chris Riddell and Cate James. The Gingerbread Star retains the quality of Anne Fine’s longer work, and tells a glorious story of a worm who wishes she was a gloworm (so she can read in bed after lights out). She perseveres yet retains her sense of right and wrong throughout her adventure. Beautifully illustrated too – worms have never been so attractive. Ted Rules the World by high calibre writer Cottrell Boyce also retains the writer’s style – his sense of humour and mischievousness shine through in this hilarious story about a boy whose opinions on politics have a direct line to the prime minister. Far from marking him out as special though, Ted finds that the root cause is rather more uninspiring. It’s extremely funny. This agegroup also adore the Claude series by Alex T Smith, and on the 1st August, the new title is published, Claude: Lights! Camera! Action!. As zany as ever, Claude and Sir Bobblesock discover a film set and when the two lead actors are injured, they are asked to step in. The jokes hit on all levels – both children and adults. And that’s not all…this summer is momentous for the release of the very last Horrid Henry book by Francesca Simon: Horrid Henry’s Cannibal Curse. Although I’ve yet to see a copy of this and hate to review books I haven’t read I’m told it has an answer to the perpetual parental groan that Henry is too horrid…as Henry himself starts to read an interesting book about a girl called Evil Evie…

elspeth hart dara palmerrooftoppersmurder most unladylike
Eight to 13 year olds have a huge choice for their summer reads in this golden age of children’s literature. Firstly, I’d recommend Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs by Sarah Forbes, illustrated by James Brown. The second in the series comes out in September, so wisely use the summer to read the first. It tells the tale of orphan Elspeth, working as a servant in the Pandora Pants School for Show-Offs, sweeping up mouse-droppings, and dodging the horrid students, until one day she realises why she’s there, and how she can escape. Comic fun and a school setting with a feisty heroine. Another show off is the eleven year old main character in Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah. This is a fantastic story about a young adopted girl who desperately wants to be an actress. The story highlights how, through drama, she becomes more aware of herself and her relationship with her friends and family. Dealing with so many issues, such as adoption, diversity “I looked like a chocolate bunny in a room full of snowmen”, Dara’s voice is fresh, funny, and heartfelt. The massively annotated pages (doodles and patterns) entice the reader, as well as Dara’s imagined film script running parallel to her normal life, but Emma Shevah also deals cleverly with sensitive issues. Both an enjoyable read and an enlightening one (about adoption and different cultures). If your child hasn’t yet read Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, then buy it before her new book comes out in September. Rooftoppers tells the story of Sophie’s search for her mother across the roof tops in Paris. Katherine’s gift for storytelling knows no bounds – her writing is exemplary – stylish, fresh, original, and imaginative. It’s a perfect book and I implore you read it, instilling virtues such as love and courage and morality and seeking for the possibles in life. Its timelessness and third person narrative set it apart from other titles for this age group and it is a deserving winner of the Waterstones Children’s and Blue Peter Book awards. For series fans, I would recommend the Wells and Wong Mystery series by Robin Stevens. The first in the series, called Murder Most Unladylike, tells the story of Daisy and Hazel who set up a detective agency at their boarding school to look for missing ties etc, but then discover the body of the Science Mistress lying in the gym, and suddenly have a real mystery to solve. It is Agatha Christie for 9 year olds and over. Robin Stevens captures the innocence and yet vivaciousness of the two girls with all their insecurities and complexities. The book is set in the 1930’s but feels fairly timeless. It’s fun, imaginative, and brilliant for those who love mysteries and school stories. (so most children!). Three in the series have been published so far – an addictive set to devour on the beach, or staring at the rain…once you’ve read one, you’ll want to read them all.

boy in the towerthe executioners daughterbinny for shortphoenix

For slightly older readers, a haunting but utterly absorbing book for those wishing to ignore their family whilst on holiday is Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen. A modern day Triffids, Ade lives with his mum in a tower block, but one day the other buildings start to fall down. Before long the Bluchers have overtaken the landscape – plants that feed on metal and concrete, and give off deadly spores. Suddenly Ade and his mother are trapped. Ade has to learn to survive, figure out why his tower hasn’t collapsed and help his mother through the situation. It’s a tense, exhilarating read with memorable characters. Other stories for those slightly older are The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff– a historical tale, set in the Tower of London, and focussing on the ‘basket girl’, – the child who catches the beheaded heads in her basket. Never a dull moment in Tudor times – as the tale turns supernatural too. Salter, the loveable boy protagonist, is a sparkling creation. The sequel River Daughter, came out earlier this year. Binny for Short by Hilary McKay swings back to modernity, with a coming-of-age tale of friendship that deals with loss, relocation, family dynamics and special needs all in a highly readable, compelling summertime story. Binny is an all-rounded character, with frustration, humour, sympathy and a fantastic sense of childhood adventure. A great read from a prolific author who can clearly observe and articulate what people are really like. The sequel, Binny in Secret, came out in June. For those approaching teens, Phoenix by SF Said is my final pick. It’s something completely different – science fiction superbly written by Said, and ethereally illustrated by Dave McKean. It’s a powerfully ambitious tale of age-old war between Humans and Aliens. Lucky thinks he is an ordinary human boy, but once he discovers his extraordinary power realises that he must harness it to save the galaxy, even if it comes at huge personal cost. Bixa, the alien girl who gets mixed up in his story, is one of the most awe-inspiring characters in children’s fiction: fierce, magnetic and witty. I would definitely choose to dress up as Bixa on World Book Day if I were younger. This book is quite unlike any other in its age range – an epic with clear language, scintillating scenes and huge themes of power and myth, the universe and love, war and sacrifice. It will stay with you long after the summer fades.

Lastly, if you haven’t yet worked through my books of the week from this year, my most memorable reads were Stonebird by Mike Revell, The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone, The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday and In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll.