newly independent readers

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.

 

 

The little journos

When I was at school I wanted to be a journalist. Whether it was from watching Press Gang with Dexter Fletcher and Julia Sawalha or from voracious reading of Mizz and J17, I’m not sure. I don’t remember reading any children’s books particularly about journalism, but I liked the investigative side of Nancy Drew. and the diary technique of Z for Zachariah, Adrian Mole and so many others – and it seemed as if the writing buzz was the course to pursue. I worked on the school newspaper, then the university one (where Minerva Moan was born), and finally did a journalism postgrad before reality slapped me in the face and I fell into children’s publishing.

My love for the media buzz never died though, so I’m delighted to bring you three stories that play with ‘journalism.’

completely cassidy

First up, Completely Cassidy: Star Reporter by Tamsyn Murray. The second in this series, the first of which I reviewed here. I don’t tend to review another in the same series within a nine month period, but Cassidy’s voice resonated with me the first time and I was intrigued to see if the second in the series retains the same spark. It does. Cassidy falls into journalism rather than pursuing it, and stays with it to impress other people rather than for her own love of reporting. She starts an online petition in favour of girls wearing trousers to school (mainly to cover up her own mishap with some fake tan), and the editor of the school magazine asks her to join. Of course, with Cassidy things never quite work out according to plan, and before long she’s desperate for a decent story.
The great thing about Tamsyn Murray is she really gets modern school children and their world (there’s a mystery blogger who’s causing havoc/borderline online bullying), and she has a wicked sense of humour, which shines through the text. It’s tame enough to be a light, engaging read, and yet with such a strong voice that the reader just wants to read more and more Cassidy. I liked that her use of journalism in this book invokes the moral dilemmas associated with telling a good story. Being a journalist isn’t that dissimilar from being a young teen – it’s all about deciphering what is the right thing to do. Highlights included Tamsyn mentioning the PTA in a good light, and also to Antonia Miller for her fabulous little illustrations throughout, particularly the poison pen! It’s also refreshing to read about a girl with no big issues in her life – her parents are together, she has annoying siblings, she goes to a run-of-the-mill school – and yet, as for all of us, and particularly children finding their way in the world – even the simplest of lives can be complicated and hard to navigate at times. Age 9+. Click here to buy a copy of the book from Waterstones

.jonny jakes

Jonny Jakes, on the other hand, rather like myself as a youngster, lives for the buzz of the story. Jonny Jakes Investigates: The Hamburgers of Doom by Malcolm Judge, came through the post and I read it without knowing any spoilers, so was hugely surprised with the turn of events. Of course, the title is a great play on words – hamburgers for harbingers, although I’m not sure how many children would understand the joke. Jonny Jakes runs the secretive school newspaper under a pseudonym so that he can craftily write sneaky stories about all the teachers and goings-on at his school without being rumbled. This would be story enough for me, but then, out of the blue, his headmaster quits and is replaced by an alien. Rather than get the scoop of the century though, Jonny is pipped to the post by his new headteacher, and Jonny is determined to investigate exactly what sort of head this alien will turn out to be. Written in diary form, the plot twists and turns and gets wilder and sillier, as befits the title. It turns out the headmaster is hypnotising all the students with his special sweets, and fattening them with hamburgers in order to eat them. Accompanied by gross descriptions of the aliens, and accounts of revolting smells, this book is not for the faint-hearted, but I’m sure will be embraced with much amusement by many children. The denouement is wild and fun and action-packed. There are inspired illustrations by Alan Brown, and it’s as far-fetched and imaginative as you would expect. Children – enjoy! 9+. To purchase, click here.

ivy and bean

The third reason for getting into journalism other than aforementioned peer approval and the buzz of the story, is money. Ivy and Bean: No News is Good News by Annie Barrows is a charming story in the long-running American series about two friends, Ivy and Bean, who, in this particular episode, decide to produce a community newspaper so that they can sell it to raise some money. The funniest element to me about the story is that they want the money to buy cheese. Not that they like the cheese, but they like that red waxy packaging in which the individually wrapped cheese comes…and their mother refuses to buy it for them. During the course of the small story we discover what a subscription to a newspaper is, how to earn money up front, and, just like Cassidy, when publishing a story can be morally ambiguous – especially if the story is embellished, embarrassing or just plain fabricated. Ivy and Bean is a series of books for newly independent readers, and although very American in phrase and tone, strikes a lovely chord here too, as it develops a cute friendship and showcases endearing childhood naivety. Sophie Blackall’s illustrations complement the stories well – it’s a good addition to any young reader’s bookcase. (An interesting fact – Annie Barrows co-wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society – see what a bit of investigating can throw up!). 6+ years. To buy a copy of the book click here.

 

 

To illustrate or not to illustrate

laureate
So it seems fitting to talk about pictures the day after illustrator Chris Riddell was named the new Children’s Laureate, replacing the esteemed Malorie Blackman. No one who works or associates with anyone in the field of children’s publishing can be unaware that there is an ever-growing penchant for text to be accompanied by pictures in today’s children’s books. Although there are lots who will argue that pictures have always been essential in children’s books – I’m not denying it – there seem to be an ever-increasing number of books for children that heavily feature images to partner words.

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney with its comic drawings first published in 2007, won the Blue Peter Book Award in 2012, and regularly tops the bestseller charts. The Tom Gates series by Liz Pichon, complete with doodles and drawings, was our side of the pond’s offering, and published in 2011 to huge acclaim. It won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, a Red House Children’s Book Prize, Waterstones Prize, and also a Blue Peter Prize. Hot on the heels of that came Timmy Failure by Stephen Pastis, another US offering.

For younger children, the illustrations came thick and fast. Cakes in Space and Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and illustrated by Sarah McIntyre showed everyone what they could achieve in a chapter book rather than a picture book. Chris Riddell’s own Ottoline and Goth Girl series highlight the wonderfulness of his incredibly detailed illustrations, and more and more middle grade titles are starting to increase the number of illustrations within, such as Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie.

However, many parents don’t quite share the twitterati’s enthusiasm for highly illustrated chapter books. They decry that although the books are lovely, they tend to be released in hardback first, with a steeper price point, and that their children read them in one sitting. The nice but expensive problem of the one book a day child!

So what are the pictures doing there? Just when your children had started to read independently, and with some vigour, why are they choosing books that are doodled on, illustrated and filled with drawings? Although you want the children to love reading, you also want them to increase their vocabulary, gain better comprehension skills, and expand their grammatical prowess. How do they do this by looking at pictures?

Here’s how. Let’s take two books – Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell (the first in the wonderful Ottoline series) and Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre (look out also for their soon to come Pugs of the Frozen North).

ottoline
Ottoline and the Yellow Cat introduces Ottoline, who lives with Mr Monroe because her parents are away travelling around the world. She lives in a very particular way, excels at disguises, and solves incredibly exciting mysteries. Her stories are punctuated by postcards arriving from her parents who are themselves having far flung adventures collecting magnificent things. You can purchase it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

oliver and the seawigs
Oliver and the Seawigs is about a boy called Oliver, whose parents are explorers. Just when they all decide to settle down, Oliver’s biggest adventure begins. With the help of an albatross, a short-sighted mermaid called Iris, and an island that’s alive, Oliver goes in search of his missing parents. He hadn’t warranted on the sea wig competition or the sea monkeys getting in his way though. You can purchase it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

Pictures help to set the scene. No child wants to read a long rambling description of a place before the story begins. In Ottoline, the text describes where Ottoline lives, on which floor and the type of building. The illustration cleverly shows all the other buildings around Ottoline’s, giving it context and detail. It also begs the question, if she lives on the 24th floor, why does the illustration not show 24 floors? Inside the apartment, Instead of writing all the marvellous things that Ottoline’s parents have collected, Chris chooses to draw them –so the reader is left to study each one and work out what it is – then they use their own descriptive powers and vocabulary to respond to it.

Pictures help to illuminate characters: Not just from the artist drawing them but by the artist giving more information than you would glean from the text. They add another layer of understanding rather than reinforcing your impression. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chris Riddell’s portrayal of Mr Monroe, described in text as small and hairy and not liking the rain. Although you may expect him to be a fully formed adult human being as befits someone living with (and hopefully taking care of) a girl, the pictures show something quite different. It gives the entire story a different perspective. As do the drawings of Ottoline – one minute an everyday child wearing a hoodie, the next dressed in a Mongolian dressing gown. In Oliver, Sarah MacIntyre’s drawing of Iris the mermaid is inspired. The detail in the illustration belies more personality than you would think possible. The pictures of comical characters are helping the reader to interpret and understand visual metaphor, and in particular, irony. What can you interpret from a facial expression?

They develop plot themselves. In Ottoline, the progress of the cat burglar through the town is told in pictures while Mr Munroe’s progress is simultaneously told in both text and pictures. When the cat is caught, the illustration of the bear is very telling – the text simply says “The bear caught her in a big bear hug”, the picture shows much more about the hug!

They help to provide mood. This can be adding comic elements, or perhaps just creating an impression of darkness or sadness. This is something that children are only just learning – as it’s more of a feeling than a physical description. It can be hard to portray. The Ottoline pictures of the city give an impression of a deserted place with an element of mystery and fear. (see the shadowing/the light/tall buildings). Whereas the comical illustrations in Oliver and the Seawigs, despite all the danger Oliver is in, give tones of adventure, mystery, unexpected surprises and fun rather than darkness. Particularly the sea monkeys. You must find a copy and see them!

They can give a different viewpoint from that given in the text. Oliver and the Seawigs is written from Oliver’s point of view. So, without the illustrations, we wouldn’t be able to see the face of the Rambling Isle on which Oliver sits – by the fact that he is sitting on its head, and can only see so much by peering over the top. Our omniscient illustrator shows us what lies beneath the surface.

Pictures expand on the imaginative creative process. In the same way as you use your own life experiences to mentally picture what’s happening in a story that you read, so you can use the pictures provided in the same way. Just like text, they are a starting point from which to jump off – what might happen next? What colours would you add to the black and white, or one tone illustrations? What extra details would you add? Even the page numbers are illustrated differently in Ottoline, which prompts questions as to why.

Pictures assist struggling readers. Of course, for struggling readers, pictures are hugely helpful. They can extrapolate buried meaning, explain difficult vocabulary, and give visual clues to what’s happening in the story. In Oliver, Philip Reeve describes “two big glass globes dangled in cradles of knotted rope, like earrings, or baubles on a Christmas tree.” His text description itself is wonderful, but Sarah provides a beautifully detailed illustration to help the reader. Barnacled rails, megaphones and all sorts of difficult words are illustrated too.

Pictures are our aesthetic way into creative text Lastly of course, pictures provide and inspire a love of the visual. They make the book more interactive. Illustrations give us an aesthetic appreciation of books, they introduce us to an appreciation of art and creativity. Many of my fellow booklovers have been known to stroke a book for the beauty of its cover…the illustrations play such a huge part in this.

I feel like I’ve only highlighted the icing on the cake, but I’m hoping you’ll see for yourself in the books when you read them.

Encourage children to race through the books with searing excitement by all means, but also encourage them to spend some time imbibing the wonder of the illustrations. I would urge all adults to embrace the narrative – whether it’s told by text or illustration or both. Illustrated books, comics, graphic novels can all be scintillating ways into literature for children, all can help with developing understanding of narrative, inspiring children’s creativity, and sparking a love for books. Chris Riddell wants to promote visual literacy – if we all carried a sketchbook as he suggests, we might all take in more of the world around us – the excitement outside our windows. Chris said yesterday, ‘I write because I want to give myself things to illustrate’. I implore you to let your children pour over the illustrations in the same way as they pour over the text. The two are intertwined.

Father’s Day

Sometimes the best presents are those that you share. For Father’s Day – and I’m posting this early so that you have time to buy the right gift, here are some books about dads that fathers can share with their children. For me, and many others, the quintessential father in children’s books features in Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World: “My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”

But I’ve found some other marvellous and exciting fathers for you in children’s literature. First, picture books:

superhero dad

Superhero Dad by Timothy Knapman, illustrated by Joe Berger
A simple idea, astutely executed. To the narrator (the small boy) of the picture book the boy’s Dad is a superhero – everything he does is super. Of course to anyone else, he is a normal Dad. Although, clearly an excellent modern Dad who spends a considerable amount of time with his son, cooking for him, telling him jokes, and playing with him. An exuberance pitches the reader headlong into the book and the rhyming text and joyful rhythm continue to the end. The illustrations match perfectly, so that our rather comical fairly skinny ordinary Dad in glasses is seen holding the tiny dog Jumbo above his head in an extraordinary pose:
“His jokes are Super Funny…
…and his laugh is Super Long.
He can pick up our dog Jumbo
so he must be Super Strong.”
Every word is taken tongue-in-cheek, every picture matches. And yet the tone is loveable, warm and enchanting. The punchline is simplistic yet apt – the father denies he is a superhero, insisting instead that he knows of a superhero – his superhero son. There is also playfulness with the layout of the text – using bold and larger letters to convey emphasis and differentiation. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

my dad beard

My Dad’s Beard by Zanib Mian and Laura Ewing
This was published last year by a new publisher, Sweet Apple, which continues to grow their list. Although slightly niche, in that it appeals obviously to those whose fathers have beards, it is both cute and original. For younger children than those I usually cater for, each page draws on an example of why the child loves his Daddy’s beard – and how it defines him. It draws on our sensory perceptions from describing the look of the beard – how it is different from other family members’ beards – to the feel of it in different situations, and finally to what the child imagines lives in it (spoiler: a teeny tiny cat). It also manages to draw in the rest of the family as the child witnesses their perceptions of what the beard means to them. This is clever in that it highlights the important place the father has within this family – as a protector, and a person whom they trust and look up to. It draws on Islam in that it explains why this particular Dad has a beard, and so works as a picture book that reaches out to a diverse audience. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

my dad birdman

My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
Many children’s authors absent one or both parents so that the children of the story can go on an adventure without parental restrictions. What’s beautiful about David Almond’s writing is that so often (as with Roald Dahl), it is the adults themselves who bear the idiosyncrasies that make the story so appealing. Although one parent is absent here – the death of the mother is an overriding concern throughout this short tale – the consequences lead to a strengthening and developing of relationship between the daughter and the father. Lizzie’s Dad wants to enter a Human Bird competition, and believes he needs to adopt the characteristics of a bird to be able to fly. He encourages Lizzie to join him in this mad venture, despite the protestations of her adorable Aunt Dotty. The premise is barmy, the characters eccentric – but illuminated by Polly Dunbar’s flamboyant illustrations, the book manages to soar. Highly original, imaginative and everything a children’s story should be. Wonderfully typical David Almond. Age 6+. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

demolition dad

Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
Phil Earle’s fictional father comes about as close to Danny the Champion’s Dad as I can find. However, as with much children’s fiction I’ve been reading recently, this is a depiction of a modern Dad who fits right into our current world. Jake and his Dad love to spend every Saturday together pursuing their hobby in common – wrestling. Jake’s Dad George knocks down buildings as a day job, and at the weekend takes part in wrestling matches – knocking down other men – and he’s really good at it. So good, that Jake thinks he should go public, and so secretly enters a video of him in action in a pro-wrestling competition. When George wins, he agrees to travel to America for training and a headline fight, mainly for Jake, but unfortunately things start to unravel, and it’s not quite the dream venture they had all planned.
There were so many things to love about this book. As a refreshing change from much of the ‘humorous’ fiction in the marketplace for this age group – this book wasn’t full of silly jokes and slapstick happenings. It is extremely funny but the humour is carefully woven into the story; there are many wry laughs here, not fart jokes. Also, the wrestling is a major factor but doesn’t dominate. What comes across and leaves quite an impression is Phil’s adeptness at portraying the hidden emotions of parents, the sense of a community in a town, friendships, and most importantly father and son relationships. It’s clever, has emotional depth, and packs quite a punch. Touches I enjoyed – how the mum’s past career influences her behaviour, Phil’s capturing of the small town landscape complete with the ‘house that was stolen’ mid terrace, and Jake’s wonderful innocence and naivety – and his gradual responsive awareness. There are some stunning illustrations from Sara Ogilvie – the cover itself betrays this – but there are even better ones inside (the fight scenes are spectacularly hysterical). Moreover Phil Earle’s self–referential authorial musings are brilliant – see chapter 17. If you buy your Dad just one book this Father’s Day – make it this one. (then keep it for yourself). Age 8+. Buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

a boy called hope

A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson
On the other end of the spectrum from Danny Champion of the World’s Dad is the Dad in A Boy Called Hope. That’s mainly because he’s absent, having left his family and remarried. This is heartbreaking for Jake Hope, the boy in the story, especially when his Dad appears on the television in his role as a journalist – the first time that Jake has seen him in four years. Sadly, this speaks to so many children today. But despite the sadness of the situation, this is a poignant and uplifting story. Jake comes to see that he is surrounded by a loving family – especially as his Mum has met someone new, Big Dave, who actually turns out to be a terrific father to Jake.
Lara Williamson has magic on her side – she imbues the novel with a myriad of symbols and devices from sky lanterns to glow-in-the dark statues and stars that lift Jake’s situation from the humdrum of normality to the wonder of childhood – she lets us see things through Jake’s eyes that we would never normally capture in our vision.
There is humour too – Jake frequently misinterprets situations which leads to some trouble, but in the end, much laughter, and there are some splendid characters too – from his friends Christopher, who has his own troubles, to Jo, who is obsessed with the saints. It was also hugely enjoyable to read about Jake’s teenage sister through his eyes – older siblings can seem so detached from the family until you dig beneath the surface a little.
This is a wonderful book – fantastically true characterisation, and great writing. Be prepared for tears to accompany the laughter though – as in real life – sometimes you have to make the best of what you’ve got. You can buy it here from Waterstones or see the Amazon sidebar.

New Readers

krazy ketchup horrid henry dirty bertie jackpota home for mollyknightmare foul play

There’s a wonderful transition that happens when reading clicks for children. In the blink of an eye, suddenly they are able to read, and they read EVERYTHING. Lo and behold those of you who leave your Facebook page open, or receive uncouth words in your texts…those pesky children get everywhere! For me, as you can imagine, the real spark inside me lights up when they are so buried in their current book that they won’t get dressed for school, when they come downstairs for breakfast without lifting their head from their book. But which chapter books should they first be reading? What will propel them forwards? The series featured below are all for age 6+

krazy ketchup horrid henry

Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon, illustrated by Tony Ross
A divisive series among some parenting groups. These are hugely popular with children, and with good reason. They are lively, spritely, filled with glee for a child’s life, and even for me, rather funny. What’s more there are non-fiction versions – Horrid Henry factbooks, which appeal because of the character, but impart interesting facts on a variety of topics. However, more often than not I am approached by parents who loathe the examples of bad behaviour contained within. Personally, I think the books are great. I stock loads of them in the school library, and here’s why. Horrid Henry tests those boundaries that most children wouldn’t dream of testing themselves – it’s a way of living it out for them – children don’t act on the behaviour they read about; it’s merely a safe environment for their emotions. In the same way that we don’t commit a murder after reading Ruth Rendell, children don’t act out just because they’ve read Horrid Henry. In fact, if you read it carefully, you’ll see that Horrid Henry’s catchphrase is ‘Noooooo!’ in response to being caught. Yes, Horrid Henry really doesn’t get away with much. And Francesca Simon has made a point of saying that she doesn’t have him do anything that a child wouldn’t be able to think up.

The other reason I love Horrid Henry books is the simplistic 2-D characterisation. Henry is Horrid, Margaret is Moody, Peter is Perfect. This gives very simple signposts to children as they first read longer stories, enabling them to decipher character and motive easily as they follow the plot. These sorts of signposts are also extraordinarily good for autistic children. Of course, the books also have short stories split into easy sections and good illustrations. The other reason I adore this series is that they truly do equally appeal to boys and girls.

dirty bertie jackpot

Dirty Bertie by Alan Macdonald, illustrated by David Roberts
Another hugely popular series in the same vein as Horrid Henry. By the time of his 25th adventure in Jackpot!, published May 2015, the series had sold over 750,000 copies. So what’s the difference between Horrid Henry and Dirty Bertie, you may enquire? Dirty Bertie with his friends at school such as Know-All Nick and neighbours such as Mrs Nicely, also features 2D characterisations for easy understanding, has great illustrations and each book is split neatly into three different stories for manageable first reading. Dirty Bertie though is less naughty than Horrid Henry – just has filthy habits, and is more prone to mishaps. In fact, whereas Horrid Henry schemes and devises plans, Dirty Bertie is more passive – things just seem to happen to him, or he picks up on the wrong end of the stick. He’s much gentler, but like Horrid Henry, always gets his comeuppance. In the title story of Jackpot! Dirty Bertie mistakes his grandmother’s win on the lottery as being a life-changing jackpot win and misleads his entire family. In Crumbs! Dirty Bertie mistakes salt for sugar when baking a cake – and that’s not his only mistake of the day – and in the final story Demon Dolly, Bertie’s sister wreaks some well-placed revenge on Bertie after he throws away her favourite toy. They are funny, yukky and addictive. Buy it here from Waterstones or visit the Amazon sidebar.

a home for molly

Animal Stories by Holly Webb
Another storming series for first readers which has also sold well – 650,000 to date. Each one comes packaged with an adorable animal picture on the front – saccharine for an adult perhaps, but endearing for a young child. The latest, A Home for Molly, tells the gentle story of a stray dog rescued by a little girl on holiday. Holly Webb flits between the feelings of the young girl and the feelings of the small dog to create a narrative that’s full of emotion – the little girl comparing her memories of once being lost to how the dog must feel. It hits the right notes with no great surprises, but tells the short story well with cues for empathy, including familiar parental rules and family life, and the preoccupations of being young and on holiday. The text is interspersed with a few illustrations by Sophy Williams which add to the narrative, and the text is split into short chapters. Holly Webb captures simplistic storytelling in a neat package in a formula that can be repeated without getting tiresome. It’s also nicely modern – mention of emails, Calpol!, a father who works long hours, and yet tied into a perfectly old-fashioned beach holiday. Perfect for today’s first readers. (There’s a free Animal Stories app too. You can download it here.) Buy the book here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

knightmare foul play

Knightmare by Peter Bently
This series by prolific writer Peter Bently is for those readers who want a slightly longer narrative stretch such as the Holly Webb series, but with a plethora of silly jokes and stupid happenings – and a more advanced vocabulary. Rather than based in reality, as Henry and Bertie, Knightmare is set in a time of knights and castles. Each tale is an action-packed, silly, and at times hilarious, romp through a cobbled-together medieval landscape. The fifth book of the series, Foul Play!, takes place during the May Fair, with central character Cedric – a knight in training to Sir Percy – a master who’s not quite as chivalrous or gallant as a knight should be perhaps. Before long Sir Percy is trying to avoid some relatives and some Morris men to whom he owes money, as well as attempting not to lose his castle in a bet over a football game. Medieval football though, is not quite the game it is today, and before long there is much mayhem – and many fouls! There are some lovely modern references – the cook enters a bake-off competition, the football game starts at 3pm, and there’s a fair amount of traffic heading to the fair – not to mention the parking permits! With all the excitement, plays on the historical setting and constant punning, this may be enjoyed by slightly older readers. It’s a pacey read and incredibly daft. You can buy it here from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

 

With thanks to Stripes publishing for review copies.

A Steampunk Pirates Extract

Steampunk pirates

Adventures of the Steampunk Pirates: Attack of the Giant Sea Spiders by Gareth P Jones

Do you know what steampunk is? I didn’t, and nor did my huge Collins dictionary. Turns out neither of us is very hip, because steampunk refers to a subgenre of science fiction that brings together technology from steam-powered machinery and conjoins it with mere mortals. Gareth has rather cunningly exploited this sub-genre, given it a twist by applying it to pirates, and concocted a neat little adventure series that has piracy, machines and humour all tied up together.

I stepped into the book a little jaded of ye olde piratey tales with their pieces of eight and swashbuckling sea dogs and landlubbers, but was won over within pages. Not only is this a tight plot well told, but it also zips along with innovation and irony – after all who else other than Gareth P Jones would create sea-journeying pirates made out of metal machines, a material that sinks and rusts, and machines that rely on a fire inside to work! So for little ones reaching for their plastic dastardly daggers, this will go down a treat.

Attack of the Giant Sea Spiders portrays our Steampunk Pirates (led by Captain Clockheart with a (yep you guessed it!) clock for a heart), looking to land some treasure by spying on some French enemies. But when they set sail with Captain Inkybeard on board, they might be in for more than they bargained for. Not only does he turn against them, but it turns out the French are making giant sea spiders to serve as their army. Will the Steampunk Pirates be able to get away with all their clockwork and machinery intact?

There are many devices that delight here including the author’s penchant for interrupting the story and referring to himself in the third person (just for fun), the chapter headings, which all summarize what’s to follow in true Winnie the Pooh style, eg. “In which our heroes set off on their secret mission…secretly” rather like an amuse-bouche before the main meal; and of course, the odd pirate ditty thrown in for good measure.

For a newly independent reader, or any youngster looking for an inventive fun book, this delivers in style. Chapters are short and well-contained, the action and dialogue is fast-paced and witty, there are numerous well-crafted illustrations, and of course pirate banter a-plenty. Lastly, it’s a series! And, here, in a MinervaReads exclusive, is an extract.

Extract from the middle of Chapter One: In which we find our heroes, the Steampunk Pirates in Barbary Bay, a famous hideout for scallywags, scoundrels and salty sea dogs.

A black-bearded man entered the alehouse. He wore a large three-cornered hat with two small holes cut into the material, as though he had a pair of eyes on top of his head. He glanced around the bar, brandished his cutlass and shouted, “Good news, you washed-up sea dogs! Old Inkybeard and Nancy are recruiting again. If you want adventure and riches, step forward now and join us.”

 “Join you?” shouted one drinker. “I heard you set fire to your last ship.”

“It wasn’t even yours to sink,” said another.

“And your crew was still on board when it went down,” said a third man.

“Now, Nancy, don’t listen to the nasty men.” The pirate removed his hat to reveal a squid sitting on his head, with its tentacles wrapped around his neck and shoulders. “For those of you who are unfamiliar with my wife, this is Nancy.”

            The squid blinked.

            “Evening, Inkybeard,” said Mrs Smellgrove. “A bowl of mussels for Nancy, is it?”

“That’d be smashing, Mrs Smellgrove,” he replied. “But it’s the Dread Captain Inkybeard, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh yes, of course. Sorry,” said Mrs Smellgrove.

“Hey, laddie, why have you got a squid on your head?” asked Gadge.

            Inkybeard caressed a tentacle draped over his right shoulder. “Old Nancy’s black ink helps keep my beard from going grey, don’t it, girl? Now, we don’t need to ask who you are. The ocean is awash with rumours of you metallic marauders. What will they think of next, Nancy?” Inkybeard walked around the Steampunk Pirates, inspecting them carefully.

Highly recommended for ages 6+. If your landlubber likes the sound of this one, you can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar, and also treat yourself to the first in the series here, Adventures of the Steampunk Pirates: The Leaky Battery Sets Sail.

leaky battery sets sail

Number three: Clash of the Rival Robots publishes August 2015. With thanks to Little Tiger Press for providing the review copy and giving permission for the extract.

Bridging the Gap

I’m really excited today to have a blog post about four fantastic series of books for newly independent readers. They bridge the gap between picture books and first fiction brilliantly, all with a stunning combination of text and pictures that work so well together they could be described as picture books – and yet they reach new heights by appealing to young readers longing to explore text on their own, and feel as if they are reading ‘grown-up’ chapter books. I must caveat this though, by saying that newly independent readers haven’t grown out of picture books. As I said previously here, one is never too old for a picture book – some picture books work for children all the way through school and into adulthood.

However, first chapter books can be jolly good fun. Some publishers release certain titles as both picture books and chapter books – eg. Winnie the Witch and Mrs Pepperpot.

Claude in the City

One of the most popular series in my school library is Claude by Alex T Smith. These never stay on the library shelves for long – with good reason. This is a series of books about a dog, who is in no way ordinary! Claude in the City exemplifies all that is good and appealing about this series. The stories are exquisite – Claude always notices what’s interesting and different about things – as a child would. The accompanying drawings are terrific– all the humans always look at Claude with a slightly disdainful look, as if a dog shouldn’t be doing the human things that he does. Claude looks perfectly at home in his beret and jacket in whichever place he chooses to go, be it looking at sculpture in an art gallery or sipping his hot chocolate at the table in the café. He is marvellously eccentric and endearing. He has a sock as a pet, whom he takes to hospital in part 2 of Claude in the City, in his own home-made ambulance. The scenes in the hospital are hilarious, from Claude taking temperatures with a banana to the diagnosis of his sock. It’s a fantastic read with both witty and silly humour and a child’s sense of wonder and fun. The titles are printed with one tone colour red, which make them bright and appealing. The text is split into easy bite-sized chunks, but the stories are meaty and fulfilling and often have a separation of parts, which gives the reader a boost of confidence for managing a bigger book. Titles include Claude on Holiday, Claude on the Slopes, Claude in the Spotlight, Claude at the Circus, and Claude in the Country. In fact, Alex T Smith is bringing out a picture book version of Claude in June of this year. The six young fiction titles were enjoyed equally by the children I tested them with – from aged five to aged 10 years. You can buy the Claude books from Waterstones here

squishy mcfluff

Another excellent series, currently with three books out, is Squishy McFluff, The Invisible Cat. This is a rhyming series by Pip Jones and illustrated by Ella Okstad, which is equally enjoyable and endearing, but I won’t say too much more as I’ve already reviewed it here.

wigglesbottom primary

A new series, which I’m really excited about is Wigglesbottom Primary by Pamela Butchart and illustrated by Becka Moor. The first title in the series is The Toilet Ghost, although this book has three stories contained within. Also one-tone colour, this time green, Wigglesbottom Primary relates the happenings of one class at the school from a first person perspective, in a chatty tone as if this child were telling you the story verbatim: “One time Gavin Ross asked to go to the toilet, and when he came back he was completely SOAKED.” The text makes good use of capital letters and much dialogue. I can report that much dialogue in CAPITAL LETTERS does indeed happen in school! The three stories are well-contained, well told and simply plotted, and each one is great fun. The camaraderie of the pupils in the classroom comes across well, as does the joyfulness of school days. Becka Moor’s illustrations highlight the different personalities of the pupils and seamlessly merge with the text. Really hoping for many more in this series…this pairing of author and illustrator really knows how to make children laugh. Another one that stretches across the age band from five to 10 years old. Click to buy

woozy the wizard

Lastly, but by no means least is Woozy the Wizard by Elli Woollard and illustrated by Al Murphy. This is one of those books that screams to be read aloud, in fact when it dropped through the postbox I had to stop myself running into the street and grabbing someone to read it to. Woozy the Wizard: A Broom to Go Zoom is the latest in the series. It’s told in rhyming verse and describes the travails of a wizard called Woozy in a village called Snottington Sneeze. Although aimed at four years and over, I think that much older children will delight in this piece of poetry, which has a combination of excellent vocabulary and made up words. Rhyming is great for newly independent readers who find it helpful as the words just drop into place:
‘Woozy!’ Titch cackled.
‘You nincompoop nit.
Your hoover’s not made yet –
it comes as a kit!
You need globules of glue,
You need screws, you need pliers,
And hammers and spanners and
wrenches and wires.’
Woozy’s clearly as good at flatpack as I am. It appeals to the child in the adult, as well as the child, and full colour pictures make this a pleasure from start to finish. Again, more please! Click to buy.

Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: Supermarket Sweep by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad

Squishy McFluff Supermarket Sweep

Never having met Squishy McFluff before, this was my first foray into this invisible cat’s world. Supermarket Sweep is the second book, about Ava’s trip to the supermarket with her mum and her invisible companion cat. A third book called Squishy McFluff Meets Mad Nana Dot was published this week. Squishy McFluff is narrated entirely in rhyme and I was captured from the rhyming introduction, which asks the reader to imagine Squishy.
“Can you see him? My kitten? He has eyes big and round
His miaow is so sweet (but it makes not a sound!)
Imagine him quick! Have you imagined enough?
Oh, good, you can see him! It’s Squishy McFluff!”
It turns out Squishy is a very naughty cat, who leads his owner, Ava, into all kinds of scrapes and trouble, with a mischievous glance at the reader. I loved the relationship between Ava and her mother, I loved the modern references to objects such as mobile phones, and also the fact that Pip Jones certainly knows her audience as she understands what’s appealing to children – Ava will visit the supermarket on the premise that she can ride in the trolley. It is reminiscent of The Cat in the Hat – but only the more pleasing for being so. This is also perfect material for a child looking to start reading independently – the rhyming helps a young child to figure out which word is coming next, and the vocabulary is not too taxing. The book is also split into small chapters, which is helpful if you’re a struggling reader. It’s funny and endearing with superbly fitting illustrations from Ella Okstad. More please.

Silly Stories for Six and Over

Did you know that 70 per cent of children aged 6-17 years say they want more books that make them laugh? Here are some books I think the youngest in this age bracket might like:

Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face
Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face and the Badness of Badgers by John Dougherty, illustrated by David Tazzyman
This is a gigglefest from start to finish. A self-reflective story that follows Stinkbomb and Ketchup-face as they take part in a silly adventure on the small island of Great Kerfuffle, engaged in a quest decreed by the king to rid the kingdom of the ‘bad’ badgers.  John Dougherty applies wit and endless humour as he employs clever storytelling devices to lead you on a trip through funny chapter headings, allusions to characters realising they are only playing a part in a story, and playfulness on the words themselves. It’s a perfect short read for older reluctant readers, or a good contained story for newly independent readers. The humour is not too juvenile – more witty – which is very refreshing in children’s ‘funny’ stories, and you will have to rein yourself in from wanting to read bits aloud! The story is also suitably matched to David Tazzyman’s illustrations (those familiar with the Mr Gum stories will recognise the illustrator’s style). A brilliant read – with two more in the series already published, and another to come in July 2015.

Pigsticks and Harold

Pigsticks and Harold and the Incredible Journey by Alex Milway
Alex Milway brings to the table a cross-over link between picturebooks and chapter books for first readers with this wonderful full-colour chapter book about a self-important pig and a reluctant hamster and their ill-judged adventures. Pigsticks decides to make his mark and explore to The Ends of the Earth, but realises he’ll need an assistant to carry his gear and cook. Hamster inadvertently gets the job, and they set off on their adventures. The language bears out the characteristics of the pig and hamster brilliantly, and there are numerous laughs both from text and picture. There’s also a lot of cake. Beautifully produced, and wonderfully manageable, this is also a treat to be read aloud and savoured as there are plenty of little in-jokes for adults too. It feeds into the current trend in children’s publishing for more illustrations alongside text, never a bad thing with so many talented illustrators such as Alex Milway in the mix. If there weren’t already a hugely famous pig out there, I would say this lends itself beautifully to a television cartoon too. A second in the series was published in November 2014, Pigsticks and Harold and the Tuptown Thief.

Superhero school

Superhero School: The Revenge of the Green Meanie by Alan McDonald, illustrated by Nigel Baines
From the author of Dirty Bertie comes a new series about a superhero school. Stan Button is an ordinary child who receives a summons to a special school for an interview. Before long he’s enrolled and participating in superhero lessons with his superhero peers. Unfortunately for them, the Green Meanie is on the loose, and battle commences. Almost everyone in the story is inept – from the headmistress to the dinner lady, the students to the baddie, which makes the whole enterprise slapstick and in the end it’s more common sense and teamwork that overpowers the baddie than superskills. This is a good first reader, with the typical bottom jokes that children of this age find so humorous. I must warn though – this book strongly suggests that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist (which some children this age may find upsetting and surprising!) More are promised in this series later this year.

Fish Fingers

The Fabulous Four Fish Fingers by Jason Beresford, illustrated by Vicky Barker
For slightly more advanced readers, this first in a wacky series about four children who are granted their wish to be superheroes is a riotous read from start to finish, packed with groanworthy jokes and laughable antics. Our fabulous four fish fingers, Chimp, Nightingale, KangaRuby and Slug Boy, otherwise known as Gary, Bel, Ruby and Morris, take on evil duo Jumper Jack Flash and the Panteater to stop them stealing all the sweets in the village of Tumchester. What sets this funny story apart from others in the market is twofold: firstly Jason’s inventiveness, which seems to know no bounds, and secondly, the heart behind the book. Each character is imbued with the authors’ immense sense of fun and jauntiness, but there is also incredible feeling, from Ruby with her fear of rabbits, to Morris, aka Slug Boy, who always seems to get the short end of the straw, but inevitably manages to rise above. The underlying theme of the book is teamwork, as the four children discover that you can’t actually become a superhero overnight but need to practise and work as a team to overcome the enemy. Another in the series was published late last year, Frozen Fish Fingers.
13 storey treehouseinside treehouse2 inside treehouse

The 13-Storey Treehouse, by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, publishing UK 29th January
First published in Australia, Andy Griffiths’ treehouse books are now making their way to the UK. This is one of the most fun books I have read and I know several Year 3 students in my library who will adore this book and fall about laughing. Actually reading it was not unlike listening to banter between my husband and my son, as the book relates the dialogue between Andy and Terry as they think up what to write about for their latest book. The book is also stuffed full with cartoons, which are full of life, zesty and zany. Andy and Terry live in a 13 storey treehouse complete with lemonade fountain, man-eating shark pool, theatre and library and giant catapult (all simply illustrated). There are pages of detailed cartoons, and pages of simple ones, interspersed with lively laugh-out-loud text. The children who read this were enthralled by the idea that if they didn’t write the book, Andy and Terry would have to revert to working in the monkey house. They were also taken by the fact that the main characters were also the names of the authors. A fabulous laugh – it’s a joy to know there are more titles yet to come.

 

The Fabulous Four Fish Fingers was very kindly sent to me by Bounce marking on behalf of Catnip Publishing.