series

Halloween Round Up

Writers and publishers love cultural events upon which they can hook a theme – be it glowing Christmas scenes or the approach of a new season – windy autumns, growth in spring. Halloween seems to intensify every year in the UK – a very large percentage of the autumn books I received had a ‘spooky or witchy element’ to them, and I don’t mean that the pages turned by themselves (although that would be useful). So, to help you through the ghosts and ghoulies, here are my spooky and also witchy-themed picks:


Witch for a Week by Kaye Umansky, illustrated by Ashley King
Not unlike Sylvia Bishop’s stories, also illustrated by Ashley King, this latest from top children’s author Kaye Umansky is an absolutely charming story, which is ideal for newly independent readers. Elsie is recruited to house-sit for local witch Magenta Sharp for a week, and although promised a quiet easy week, has to contend with a host of quirky eccentric neighbours, a tower with personality, and a grumpy talking raven. Each character is well-defined, and Elsie herself is beautifully drawn as unflappable, book-loving, and kind.

The book contains some lovely touches, including hilarious customer service rules (Elsie has been schooled in retail), a love potion that goes awry, a book of instructions that seems to be blank, and a sassy witch whose business is mainly mail-order. Sumptuously modern, but with an old-fashioned fairy tale feel, this is one new witchy series which I’ll be recommending to all. Fun, memorable, touching and bubbly – a real hug of a book. Magic it here.


Spectre Collectors: Too Ghoul for School by Barry Hutchinson, illustrator Rob Biddulph
Some books just scream cinema. This highly visual first-in-a-series will delight comedy fans everywhere. Opening mid-action, Denzel is in the middle of maths homework when his home appears to be invaded at first by a poltergeist, and then by two figures with a gun. Before long, he too is recruited to be part of the ‘Spectre Collectors’, a kind of cross between Ghostbusters and Men in Black, an organisation in which children use magic and technology to rid the world of ‘spectres’.

With impeccable timing on jokes, sparkling top-class humorous dialogue between Denzel and his mates, and great variety of action scenes, this is a wonderful ghostly spoof. Beware a terrifying episode in the middle in which Denzel’s two fathers don’t remember him at all – as if his existence has been scrubbed from the world – but there are enough laughs and improbabilities to combat the darkness. For age 8-12 years. Spook it here.


Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball by Laura Ellen Anderson
Vampire Amelia wants to hang out with her pet pumpkin Squashy, but her parents insist she attends their Barbaric Ball. When Squashy is captured, Amelia must plan a daring rescue. This highly illustrated read for 7-9 year olds dazzles with superb illustrations, macabre puns, (including diePhones, scream teas and daymares), and is set in a grisly Nocturnia. But Amelia is a fun, endearing and captivating protagonist, and Anderson’s energy shines through with exuberance in both the prose and the illustrations. Much of the normal landscape has been inverted of course, with the characters sleeping by day and playing by night, as well as ‘cute’ things being feared, and gruesomeness celebrated. Join the vampires here.


Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Kathryn Ourst
I’m not convinced Amelia would love Vlad, but this reader certainly did. Another vampire adventure for 7-9 year olds, Vlad isn’t keen on being a vampire. He secretly reads a rather jolly boarding school book about normal children and decides that it would be nicer to live an Enid Blyton-esque existence. Anna Wilson’s trademark humour works a treat in this rather adorable little adventure, in which Vlad tries to balance his life between human school, in which they don’t realise he’s a vampire, and home life, in which he has to hide his new friends from his family.

Added to the plot are some wonderful little touches, such as his new friends telling Vlad that he needs to get his teeth fixed, to Vlad’s relationship with his very elderly grandfather, but mainly his growing friendship with Minxie. Ourst’s illustrations are a joy – very cartoonlike with gleeful vibrancy. The final picture of Minxie and Vlad laughing is enough to bring a smile to any youngster’s face. A thoroughly enjoyable vampire adventure story, sparkling with wit and warmth. Look out on the blog to see a guest contribution from author Anna Wilson next week, and you can show Vlad some pathos by buying your own copy here.


You Can’t Make Me Go to Witch School by Em Lynas, illustrated by Jamie Littler
A slightly longer adventure story from Nosy Crow publishers for the 7+ age group, which sees the advent of another little witch. Daisy Wart wants to be an actress, more particularly she wants to star as Shakespeare’s Bottom on the stage. But when her grandmother dumps her at Witch School, she struggles to escape, despite all her dramatics. This is a strange school, with cauldrons for beds, pupil-eating plants in the school garden, and the ghost of the former headmistress stalking the corridors – a step up from the sudden appearances of Miss Hardbroom in The Worst Witch.

There are highly original touches and a fixation with hats to distinguish this from other ‘witchy school’ books, and Daisy is a protagonist who definitely fulfils the role of leading lady, with her particular brand of speech and her innermost thoughts about the other characters. First in a series, this book sets up further adventures rather nicely, when Daisy, as I’m sure you’ve all guessed, decides that maybe acting isn’t the only thing she could be good at. Littler’s illustrations work their magic here too – bringing the whole ensemble to life. Join Witch School here.


School for Little Monsters by Michelle Robinson and Sarah Horne
I do sometimes wonder where Michelle Robinson finds the time to write so many picture books, but here’s another one that ticks all the boxes. The book follows two children – Bob and Blob – one a human, one a monster – due to start their first days at school. But sadly for them, some naughty monsters have swapped signs and Bob and Blob attend the wrong schools. Rhyming text pulls the reader through this great mash-up of ‘experience’ and ‘monster’ genres, as the reader finds out about their first days at school. The rules for monsters and humans are apparently a little different. Great fun, superbly funny, colourful illustrations, with lots of mayhem. As with all great picture books, the illustrations speak louder than the words. The message is that school is good, as long as you’re at the right one…Be a little monster here.


An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings by Aidan Onn and illustrated by Rob Hodgson
Actually, this should probably be at the top of the pile, as the book very cleverly introduces and explains the different types of monsters, from aliens to zombies. Each letter takes a different ‘magical’ being, with a full double spread committed to it. There are plenty of wacky, although somewhat simply conceived, illustrations in matt, muted colours, accompanied by a small paragraph of text, which is more playful than it is informative. Learn the alphabet here.


Pretty by Canizales
A message in a book, this witchy picture book contribution to Halloween and beyond, is a story about a witch with a date, who wants to look her best. The creatures she meets on route give her hints as to how to better her appearance, but by the end of course, her date is disappointed with her new looks. Rather like wearing a little too much make up. The message is obvious – be yourself, but there’s also a rather dark twist at the end. The witch is brilliantly depicted – simplistic and rather lovingly drawn – despite her perceived failings, from hooked nose to pointy chin. Nice touches include her choice of outfits! Be pretty here. Happy Halloween!

Watch out too for my extract from Scarecrow by Danny Weston coming soon – for an ideal first horror book for your 11 year old (and up!)

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend


There is a treat in store for children this October and it comes in the shape of this surprising, laugh-out-loud, inventive, wondrous new fantasy/magical book, one of the best children’s books published this year.

The story is about a cursed child called Morrigan, accepting of her forthcoming doom – her death on her 11th birthday – when she is dramatically, and rather hilariously, saved by a mysterious man called Jupiter North, who whisks her away to another land called Nevermoor, in which she won’t die. But there’s a catch – isn’t there always? – and to stay in Nevermoor she has to ‘win’ a place in the Wundrous Society by completing four weird and wonderful trials. If she fails she must go home, where she will meet her fate of death.

There are some excellent devices within the text. Morrigan’s new home is within the Hotel Deucalion, a wondrous place itself. Most children who have ever been in a hotel love to explore its nooks and crannies, to divine the layout and find the secrets, and Morrigan, along with the reader, does exactly this – sweeping through the interior and discovering great and wonderful things. It’s a fantastic motif to anchor the setting.

There’s much tongue-in-cheekery too – there is a scene at the beginning that shows school selection in Morrigan’s original land, and this certainly seems like a poke at grammar school selection, there is complicated politics within Nevermoor with the elite Wundrous Society, and Jupiter’s frequent forays to avert disaster within the city’s infrastructure, as well as the characters’ exceedingly well-conceived names, from Morrigan Crow to Jupiter North and beyond, as well as a dark unsettling Dahl-esque humour that contrasts wickedly with the warmth, colour and emotion of the main characters and the hotel occupants.

The reveals are well-timed; there are endless surprises, the trials are magical, fun, quirky and original, and each new scene evokes such empathy with Morrigan that the reader wills her to success at every turn.

Of course comparisons will abound, and accusations of borrowed ideas – the cursed child motif from Harry Potter, the trials from The Hunger Games among many others, shades of Christmas scenes borrowed from all children’s books ever, and the hooked umbrella travellator which reminded me of the doors conveyer belt in Monsters Inc, and the borrowed image of Mary Poppins floating down with her umbrella. But there are so many other innovative ideas, such originality in its conception, such world-building, with Townsend’s magnificats, vapour rooms, bedrooms that change overnight or even before your eyes, grounds in which the weather is slightly more exaggerated than everywhere else, that it doesn’t matter in the least where they came from.

There will be an envy felt by readers – who wouldn’t want a bedroom that morphs to suit the occupant’s personality and mood? But also readers will feel incredible pathos for a girl who essentially is unwanted by her family. But most of all the reader shares with Morrigan an ignorance of what is to come, of not knowing the full story, the rules of the new land she now lives within, and the motives of the people around her. Like every new immigrant, this is a story about passing the test of a new country, about finding out if you belong, who you are and where your home lies.

This is a pacey story, as apparently demanded in today’s modern fiction, and there will be sequels. (and a film apparently).

But what makes Nevermoor stand head and shoulders above the other children’s books this autumn? Is it the warmth, wittiness and pace, the combination of all of the above, or its very own special brand of magic? I think its the ease with which the whole comes together – the layers of the world feel like the softest sponge cake and icing – all coming together to create a magnificence to be devoured. The whole feels flawless, and tastes divine. There is magic within. Come find it yourself. You can buy it here.

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell


There’s so much chatter about ‘gender’ at the moment, so it’s liberating to see another children’s book with dual protagonists – a boy and a girl, both on a mission to overcome perceived ideas of who they should be and how they should turn out.

Set in a sort of long-ago Iron Age, in which iron defeats magic, and before the British nation has any sort of identity, this is tribal warfare in deep dark forests, in which warriors are pitted against wizards, and witches are a third tribe, perhaps extinct, but definitely most evil.

Prince Xar is a princely Wizard, whose magic hasn’t ‘come in’ yet, and is desperate to join his peers and brother in that attribute. Wish is a Warrior, determined to express both her independence and worth to her mother, the Warrior Queen. When tweens Xar and Wish meet by happenchance in the woods, both rebelling against their parents, it sets forth a rollercoaster of events and opportunities for both of them to prove themselves. Before long, it becomes apparent that the two tribes may need to come together in order to defeat a third.

Cressida Cowell is an accomplished storyteller, having risen to fame with her prior series, How To Train Your Dragon. Not dissimilar, this is a world teeming with engaging characters, effervescent humour, and hugely wondrous world-building. Cowell has a particular ability to pit deep questions alongside silliness and humour, so that readers are absorbing both with great delight. Cowell poses terrific questions such as, ‘what if what you had been taught to believe was wrong?’, and shows the reader how to see beyond someone else’s differences, as well as challenging perceived notions of upbringing and parents’ perceived perfection.

There is plenty to love. Both characters, being royal subjects, are surrounded by entourages – Xar’s is particularly large, and includes a bird with a screaming sense of when things are rebellious or wrong (reminiscent of The Lion King’s Zazu). Wish’s entourage includes a bodyguard who faints at the first sign of danger, and an enchanted spoon.

This kind of wackiness is enhanced by the purposefully haphazard illustrations (drawn by Cowell herself) that sit alongside the text, from the map of the lands at the beginning, to the various facial expressions of the spoon. The illustrations are scribbly and sketchy and give the impression of being spontaneous and highly creative, as energetic as the prose itself.

The pace is fleet of foot and unrelenting, and this new world is populated with a realm of enchanting and peculiar creatures, from slow but philosophical giants to sprites, fairies, and ogres, all with their own individual personalities – be it cute and small, or large and menacing.

But most of all, two things stand out. Firstly, Cowell’s voice, which is confident and unswerving, appealing to her young readers without didacticism or being patronising, but making them think. It also carries a humour and slight quirkiness, even posing the question to her readership of who this omniscient narrator might be within the story. And secondly, the emotional intelligence with which she writes her young characters – they are authentic in their selfishness and desires as well as their relationships with their parents and siblings, and yet courageous and resilient, adaptable to the changes happening around them.

If you buy a hardback copy, do look under the dust jacket for a rather shimmery surprise. Unfortunately though, the only fault lies also in the production. In my copy, the blackness of the background on many pages rubbed off on my fingers, leaving an inky residue, which meant that the book not only touched my heart, but certainly left its mark. For the younger end of the middle grade category – this is suitable from 8+ years. You can buy your own signed exclusive edition from Waterstones here.

Back to School

The autumn always sees a mega haul of children’s nonfiction – the back to school collections, lists for National Non Fiction November, and of course the Christmas gift treasure troves. This year, unlike the wet harvest, has yielded a bumper crop.

We start the day with maths. Always a slog after the long summer holidays, this book aims to reverse that groan with a rather wonderful premise – from the front cover, the reader is a genius: This Book Thinks You’re a Maths Genius, by Dr Mike Goldsmith, illustrated by Harriet Russell. It aims to prove that if the reader likes patterns, colouring and puzzles, then actually they’re good at maths. Taking basic mathematical concepts, such as geometry, measurements, statistics, and number patterns, it gives the reader activities and games to enhance their knowledge. Most pages have a ‘Where’s the Math’s box’ at the bottom to explain the ‘science’ behind the activity. It feels more heavily weighted towards shapes and patterns than basic numbers, but it was certainly fun to fill in.

Geography next, with two books to explore. The first, Animazes, illustrated by Melissa Castrillon also combines the territory of activity book with non-fiction, as readers can trace the mazes on each page to learn about the migration patterns of different animals. There’s a vibrancy and exuberance to this book – set by the vivid colour palate, which lifts the knowledge from the page. Christmas Island red crabs, wildebeest of the Serengeti, Monarch butterflies, Mali elephants…There’s a wealth of phenomenal facts about these wonderful animals – for general use or project use. Maze answers are given at the back of the book.

For those wanting a more straightforward factual book, Starters: Rainforests by Nick Pierce and illustrated by Jean Claude ticks the box for little ones. Basic layouts and colourful simple illustrations lend this a modern textbook look, and it reads plainly, but overall gives information in a neat concise visual way, with glossary, and index. Great for Key Stage One, and will bring a dazzling intensity of colour to the topic.

After break, it’s biology, using Bugs by Simon Tyler for budding entomologists. With the first 32 pages devoted to dissecting insect life – from anatomy to taxonomy, life cycle to senses, and the rest given to large colourful illustrations of individual species with accompanying small details about size and habitat, this is a comprehensive look at the subject. However, it stands apart with its impressive use of blank space on the page, clean lines, and coloured backgrounds, which all give the book both a vivacity and a clinical feel. Rarely have insects looked quite so engaging, it could almost double as a coffee-table splendour. Inspirational for children, a minibeast triumph.

You can’t beat a good historical narrative for history lessons. Philip Ardagh’s new series sets out to dominate the market here with his ‘faction’ books, illustrated by Jamie Littler. The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge explores the life of a medieval knight with as much tongue-in-cheek humour as sword-in-hand fighting. Written in day-by-day diary form, with footnotes giving factual information or terminology, the next in the series is The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny, Victorian Housemaid.

The Histronauts series aims to mash activity, story and non-fiction in its first two titles, An Egyptian Adventure and A Roman Adventure by Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke. A group of children dive back in time, and through the means of a comic strip, they illuminate facets of historical life. There are activities alongside the narrative, such as learning Roman numerals and how to play merellus, as well as mazes, recipes and a host of other factual information. Packed with detail, these are fun and educational.

For a more visual look, try Unfolding Journeys: Secrets of the Nile by Stewart Ross and Vanina Starkoff. More cross-curricula than anything, this geography/history hybrid aims to explore this part of the world with a fold-out, vividly yellow map of the Nile (not to scale), highly captioned with number points, which are then extrapolated on the reverse of the fold-out. A mixture of ancient and modern facts and points of information make this a tricky landscape for a child to navigate – a few more dates might have helped, (and I’m unsure about the James Bond reference inside) but it’s certainly an intriguing way to look at a place of interest.

After lunch, younger primary school children will be delighted to get their hands on Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System by Dr Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman. A new title in this series, but firmly aimed at a younger age group, this is another gem from publishers Flying Eye. Fantastic, familiar cartoons, accompanied by Professor Astro Cat’s chatty and informative dialogue, this would be my go-to book for teaching KS1 children about space for the first time.

With our first day at school completed, we look forward to a trip out. The National Gallery have two phenomenal companion books to touring – Get Colouring with Katie by James Mayhew, and Picture This! By Paul Thurlby. The Katie books by James Mayhew have long been favourites for introducing the youngest children to art, and this is a great companion title that picks out paintings within the gallery and gives children space on the page to colour a detail in their own way. Katie gives hints and explanations along the way. Paul Thurlby’s spiral bound book explores more of the paintings by featuring a picture of them, and then a small explanation, with occasional questions to the readers. The paintings are grouped in different ways – both historical, but also those featuring children, times of day, fashions etc. It might be frustrating without a knowledge of which room each painting is in (which the book doesn’t give). But the questions it poses are pertinent and thoughtful. You can buy all these books from good local bookshops, or click the Waterstones link on the top left of the page.

 

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

Alfie and Dad by Shirley Hughes and The Dressing Up Dad by Maudie Smith and Paul Howard

In a media world in which fathers are often portrayed as useless and laughed at for their inabilities (yes, I’m talking about Homer Simpson and Daddy Pig), these two books show fathers who are anything but. They are involved, interested, capable and loving. Perfect for Father’s Day.

Alfie and Dad by Shirley Hughes
Even for those not involved in the children’s book world, Shirley Hughes’ illustrations are instantly recognisable. They paint a picture of childhood as it should be – children who are loved and given attention, who experience small moments of difficulty, but triumph through and end up being comforted, consoled and rewarded for their perseverance. You’d be hard pushed to find an adult who didn’t want to look back on their childhood and see it reflected thus.

Alfie and Dad is a collection of short stories, all illustrated in Hughes’ eminently recognisable style, which tell of Alfie’s relationship with his father. From reassurance during a sleepless night (the worry in Alfie’s expressive eyes is heartbreaking), to Dad sharing tasks with Mum and finding Alfie’s lost toy, to being a detective. But like all good picture books, the tale is so much more than just plot. For me, and many others, it’s the pictures that win over the reader with their vitality. Alfie’s family feels real – from the way Alfie’s Dad sits relaxing in his chair, back to the reader with mug in hand, to the scrunching of his jacket as it meets his trousers when he takes Alfie to the lost property office. The small inconsequential details are actually what count in all Hughes’ pictures – what makes the people feel as if they belong in our own memories.

The pictures feel nostalgic but also timeless – and the many instances throughout of small acts of kindness, especially from strangers, are what gives them the feeling that these are books to be cherished. Read it with your Dad on Father’s Day. You’ll see what I mean. You can buy your copy here.

The Dressing-Up Dad by Maudie Smith and Paul Howard
Something new for those who want, here’s a winning tale about a son and his father who both love dressing up. Coming from a family in which the men detest dressing up in costume, this rather tickled me. But of course there comes a time in which Danny (the boy) doesn’t want his father to dress up. He wants him to behave as all the other dads: and be ‘ordinary’. And yet, when he does, something doesn’t feel right to Danny.

As with Alfie above, the plot is secondary to the nature of the book, which is just as well as there’s nothing that original about our parents embarrassing us. But the illustrations bear out what the story is really about – and that’s having fun and spending time with family. Because it’s the exuberance of the father playing with his son that wins over the readership – not which costume they wear. Play-fighting ‘George and the dragon’ with the hoover (with the dog as a slain princess), playing sharks at bathtime, and particularly the scenes in which Danny’s Dad plays with Danny’s friends too. He’s the father that all the children gravitate to, because he engages with them and they can feel the enthusiasm spilling over.

You can tell it’s a modern picture book – the Dad even sports a beard, and there are party bags and posing for a photo, but it’ll have timeless appeal for its beautiful depiction of a father and son relationship. You can buy your copy here. Happy Father’s Day.

Hetty Feather at the Foundling Museum

There are days when all my kids and I want to do is find a patch of green in the sunlight somewhere in London and read our books. But, living in such a great city gives us many opportunities to explore. And there’s nothing I like better than matching a day out with a book.

That’s exactly what they’ve done at The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square. Their exhibition, Picturing Hetty Feather, runs from now until September 3rd and explores not only the history of the Foundling Hospital, but also how Hetty Feather was brought to life by Jacqueline Wilson in a book, and then on stage, and screen.

The Hetty Feather exhibition is very hands-on. There are workshops being led throughout the summer, and you can see the list by clicking here, (including a talk from Jacqueline Wilson herself, traditional bookbinding and creative writing), but even in the main museum there are activities to do.

The exhibits range from the historical to props used in the modern TV show. I was particularly taken with Jacqueline Wilson’s original Hetty Feather manuscript, in the most beautiful leather notepad, as well as the original matron’s mallet, and an 18th century pew. There are the children’s coat pegs from the original hospital (now hanging with dress-up costumes), as well as film clips of the TV programme, a schoolroom, dinner plates, and more.

What’s great is how the museum brings history to life with compelling stories – the staircase in the museum is the original staircase from the boys’ wing, with a wide flat sturdy handrail that was ideal for the braver boys to slide down. In the 18th century, iron spikes were put there instead, due to an incident in which a boy had fallen to his death – a story to turn into a novel if ever I heard one. It’s not only the history that pulls, but also the empathetic tone of much of the narrative throughout the museum. Children are asked to imagine the lives of the children at the Foundling Hospital – what they ate, how they slept, how they felt when their names were changed, how and if they behaved according to the strict Victorian rules. Today’s visitors can dress up, fill out their own menus, and write letters home.

Upstairs, there are some inventive ideas too. Children can visit the governors’ meeting room (the Court Room), not something many of the foundlings did I’m sure, and hold a mirror up to examine more closely the highly decorated ceiling. There are also the original tokens the children had (given to them as identifiers in place of their names, which were changed to prevent difficulties for the mothers), and some beautiful yet evocative paintings by Emma Brownlow depicting various situations in the children’s lives.

With a café too, and green spaces outside in Brunswick Square Gardens, this is a lovely way to spend an hour or two. You can buy a copy of Hetty Feather here.

The Right To Fail

So recently, I was shown a TED talk all about how we (society) are letting down our girls by pressing on them the idea that they need to be perfect. We are enabling them to be scared of failure. We are not pushing our girls to take risks, to be brave. And we should be.

Then, two very different children’s books arrived on my desk, and yet they have something in common. They want children to be bold, to be brave, to experiment, to risk failure.

If Found Please Return to Elise Gravel by Elise Gravel
This amusing sketchbook shows the reader how to be an illustrator. In fact, Elise prefaces her book like this:

“I give myself the right to fail, to mess up, to create ugly drawings. I’m kind to myself.”

Pages and pages of full colour doodles and inspiration follow, as well as small snippets of stories, to provoke the reader’s imagination. There are some step-by-step guides, such as how to draw a hedgehog, but with a bit of perseverance, and a recognition that failure is an option, most of the illustrations are fairly easy to copy without a broken down guide.

But as well as recognisable hedgehogs, Elise also stimulates the imagination with her made-up creatures, from ‘floofs’ to the perfume-footed ‘woompus’. It’s a great example of how to start a character description, with some illustrations leading into textual explanations such as the ‘woompus’ being a “close cousin to the squirrel…he communicates with a little sharp cry that sounds like an angry baby.”

Each illustration is drawn and coloured with vibrant felt markers – so any child can copy, or take it as a starting gun for their own design. The idea is to stop the reader or young artist from worrying about whether what they’ve drawn is good or bad – it’s all about practising and drawing anything.

The joy of this book is that it looks and works like a journal – an organic entity, which aims to explore, humour, and tease the reader into keeping their own doodle pad – to experiment without risk of judgement, ridicule or failure. There are no blank pages within though – you have to buy your own blank sketcher for that.

With an attached elastic bookmark to keep place, this is a feel-good addition to any young artist’s stationery and book collection. Buy it here.

Rosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers by Andrea Beaty, illustrations by David Roberts
No child I know has failed to love Andrea Beaty’s cool STEM picture books: Rosie Revere Engineer, Iggy Peck Architect and Ada Twist Scientist – which manage to spin a cunning rhyme, promote women and diversity within science subjects, and tell a good story at the same time. This spin-off title takes the reader even further by offering interaction.

The activity book begins with a story – the background to Rosie Revere and the influences in her life. Most important is her Great Great Aunt Rose, who explains that success comes after a series of failures:

“Your brilliant first flop was a raging success.”

“Failing is just part of learning and the only true failure can come if you quit.”

The book then lists some treasure that the reader might want to collect over time to use in their own inventions, including nuts and bolts, pliers and yarn, and all sorts of bits from recycling or thrift markets.

As well as a myriad of activities throughout the book, such as directions on how to make a catapult, and making your own marble run, the book also explains that part of being an engineer is improving existing designs and models – challenging the reader to improve a bicycle for example, and also looking at world problems that need solving, such as lack of water.

The activities are interspersed with knowledge: information about real life engineers and scientists, the different types of engineering, as well as definitions of different simple machines.

There is plenty of space for creativity: the book poses questions, showcases inspirational people, promotes brainstorming etc. Being an engineer also involves using your imagination. And there’s a section on teamwork too.

The book is a great way to develop a child’s problem-solving skills, but most importantly it empowers a child to fail on their way to success. This is a brilliant book. You can buy it here.

 

 

The Real Defenders of the Realm: A Guestpost by Nick Ostler

For the first in my summer series of literary connections in London, Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler visited The Tower of London at night to attend the Ceremony of the Keys. I’m delighted they chose to share their account with us on my site, and explain the links to their fantastic middle grade series ‘Defender of the Realm‘. 

The Tower of London has been getting urgent phone calls all day. Journalists from major newspapers are enquiring after the health of its most famous residents: the ravens. Are they all alive? Are they still there? Have they flown off never to be seen again? Ever since King Charles II decided to move the Royal Observatory from the Tower to Greenwich, rather than displace the ravens that had been disturbing its work, legend has it that should the ravens ever leave, then the White Tower will fall and calamity for the entire kingdom will surely follow. The reason for the press’s sudden concern today is news of an emergency meeting of the entire royal household. Speculation is rife that something terrible has happened – perhaps even a death among the most senior members of the Royal Family. Later they will learn the reason for the hurried get together is in fact the decision that Prince Philip will cease engagements from the autumn, which will be greeted by an overwhelming chorus of “Fair enough, he is ninety-five.”

“Wait though, they literally called you up to ask if the ravens were still at the Tower?”

“Oh yes, I get lots of calls every time anything like this happens. They take it all very seriously.”

We are sitting in the bar of the Hung, Drawn & Quartered Pub, a few hundred yards as the raven flies from the high walls of the Tower of London. The man answering our questions is Chris Skaife, the Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster, who has for the last twelve years had the kingdom-saving responsibility of looking after the Tower’s ravens. Tonight he is off-duty and in civvies rather than his scarlet tunic and Yeoman’s bonnet (though his tweed jacket and bow-tie are almost as dapper) and in light of what we’ve just been told I am relieved to find that no ravens have vacated the Tower to accompany him. Although, as we are to learn later, they could if they wanted to.

We are to be the Ravenmaster’s guests at the Ceremony of the Keys, the nightly ritual that takes place after the tourists depart, in which the Tower is ceremonially locked up for the night – one of the many ancient traditions we recreate in our British fantasy book series, Defender of the Realm – and something not to be missed. But first there will be an informal tour, encounters with ghosts and gangsters and another rather pleasant pint of bitter. So we decide we’d better get a move on. On the way out of the pub, Chris points out that it should more correctly be called the Drawn, Hung & Quartered, because that is the order in which the gruesome disemboweling process is actually performed. I don’t think he is talking from personal experience, but a beefeater is the sort of person who should know these things, so I don’t argue.

As we cross the drawbridge and pass beneath the Byward Tower, it is easy to see why this place continues to cast a spell over otherwise rational thinking people. Myths and ghost stories that we might have dismissed as nonsense back in the cozy pub, suddenly seem all too plausible as we follow the Ravenmaster through the eerie, wide cobbled lanes of the fortress. This is a different place at night. Gone are the gaggles of tourists with their flapping maps and the unruly herds of schoolchildren demolishing packed lunches. What we are left with now is the arrow marks dug into the wall by a bored guard centuries before, the names – Traitor’s Gate, Bloody Tower – that hint at the gruesome fate of those who came here but never left, and the tales of apparitions that still have the capacity to send grown adults running in tears from the Beauchamp Tower. If Horrible Histories did a theme park, this would be it.

But there is much more to the Tower of London than torture and horror and death, fun as all that is. Because there is life here too and rather a surprising amount of it. The Ravenmaster is just regaling us with another tale of doom and imprisonment when he pauses to wave hello to a young woman wearing headphones as she ambles passed. “My daughter,” he explains. It seems odd to think that to some people this isn’t merely one of the world’s most famous historic places, it is also simply ‘home’. But around one hundred and fifty people, the Yeomen and their families, live within the confines of the Tower’s walls. It has always been a workplace and home as much as it has a fortress and prison. And no-one here works harder than the Ravenmaster. From replying to the queries he gets from all round the world about the ravens (which can take up to three hours a day), to conducting tours for visitors and VIPs (Game of Thrones author, George R. R. Martin particularly enjoyed meeting the ravens, no surprise there) – this is one busy beefeater. And that’s before the none-too-small matter of tending to the Tower’s seven ravens (six and a spare).

We could hear the gentle, throaty ‘gronking’ of Erin, Harris, Gripp, Rocky, Jubilee and Munin (Merlina, the only truly ‘tame’ raven, has her own digs elsewhere), long before we reach them. “They know I’m coming,” says Chris. Had they heard and recognized his voice in the distance? Or do they have some sort of primal sixth sense? As you might expect after years in their company, Chris has developed a deep understanding of the raven’s ways and crucially of how much there is still to learn about them. Ravens are said to have the same intelligence as a 3-4 year old child and the current Ravenmaster has dedicated himself to making their lives more natural and enjoyable, despite their celebrity status. For starters there are their plush new quarters, a row of large enclosures in the shadow of the central White Tower, where they can sit outside on their perches all night long, safe from foxes. Then there are their wings – Chris does not clip them nearly as much was the case in the past, so they can fly reasonably well. Well enough to reach the spire on top of the White Tower, as he found to his cost one day when a particularly adventurous bird refused to come down and he had to climb up to get her. But with intelligence comes a sense of humour, and the raven flew just before he reached her. He has even had to retrieve the occasional wanderer from outside the Tower walls, but the kingdom remains very much intact. Chris’ love for his birds is infectious as he recalls, with a glint in his eye, how one raven put an entire school party off their lunch by plucking a leg clean off an unfortunate pigeon right in front of them!

Before the main event, there is just time for a refreshing pint of ‘Beefeater Bitter’ in The Keys. Yes, the Tower even has its very own pub, for the sole use of the Yeoman Warders, their families and lucky guests like us. Tonight, as on many nights, the bar has been given over to a charity fundraiser, and we enjoy our drinks to the sound of announcements about the upcoming raffle results. It’s another example of how these days the Tower of London uses its unique position to quietly educate and inspire rather than to intimidate. And talking of intimidating, the Yeoman Warder who will be guiding us the short distance down the lane to watch the Ceremony of the Keys has an important announcement:

“If you have a camera, kindly place it carefully on the ground… and then stamp on it.”

Some rituals are too solemn, too important and well, too plain cool, to be interrupted by the flashes of camera phones. The Ceremony of the Keys has taken place every single night for the last seven hundred and forty years. The one night it was a few minutes late, the Officer of the Guard wrote a formal letter of apology to the king. The reason for the delay? The Luftwaffe had just dropped a bomb on the old Victorian guardroom. Tonight, as the Chief Yeoman Warder locks the mains gates and returns down Water Lane with his escort of four guards, we are treated to an ancient piece of military theatre. A young sentry steps out, points his rifle at them and barks out “Halt! Who comes there?” “The keys!” replies the Chief Warder. “Whose keys?” demands the sentry, who is clearly no pushover. “Queen Elizabeth’s keys,” the Chief Warder patiently replies, and that seems to do the trick. “Pass, Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. And all’s well,” concludes the sentry, and with that the escort makes its way to the Broadwalk Steps by Tower Green where the Tower Guard presents arms and the Chief Warder declares “God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” to which we all respond with a resounding “Amen!”. Precisely seven minutes after it began, the ceremony is brought to a close as the clock tower strikes ten and we listen to a rather chilly bugler squeak his way through the Last Post.

If you’ve read our first book in the ‘Defender of the Realm’ series, you’ll know that it is at this point that all hell breaks loose. The monstrous Black Lizard attacks in an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels and is fought off by the brave beefeaters and mysterious white knight superhero, the Defender. We are suitably relieved as this fails to happen in real life and instead return to The Keys for a farewell drink. Like all great British traditions, the Ceremony of the Keys is short, simple and rather moving. It has been a privilege to witness.

Afterwards, on the way back to Tower Hill tube station, we pass the Merchant Navy Memorial – the place that in ‘Defender of the Realm: Dark Age’, Hayley discovers a secret entrance to a ‘sally port’ tunnel leading under the road into the Keep beneath the Tower. It is a reminder that although our Defender stories put an affectionate, fantastical spin on British history and traditions, the people who live and work within the Tower of London’s walls are the real, living embodiments of the selfless duty that has served our nation for generations. It is a story they retell every night for seven minutes, starting at 9:53pm sharp.

Tickets to the Ceremony of the Keys are free of charge, but there is a long waiting list (unless you’re lucky enough to know a beefeater!).

Once again, thanks to Nick Ostler for this brilliant blog. ‘Defender of the Realm’ and ‘Defender of the Realm: Dark Age’ by Mark Huckerby & Nick Ostler are published by Scholastic and you can buy them by clicking on the titles. I heartily recommend that you do. For more information, go to www.ostlerandhuckerby.com

 

 

Pirates in the Supermarket by Timothy Knapman, illustrated by Sarah Warburton

There are a great number of issues that surface in the children’s books I review, from identity and loss, to refugees and politics. There are stories that teach confidence-building, stories that build grit and resilience, stories that show adversity can be overcome, and much much more, but sometimes you want a book that’s pure escapism, and just fun. For me, there’s little that’s more exhilarating than to see a class of six year olds hooting with laughter as you read them a story.

Timothy Knapman has written more than 50 picture books and has a flair for what works and what doesn’t. I’ve read Dinosaurs in the Supermarket to many children many times, and was delighted to see that Pirates are there now too.

The premise is simple – there are pirates hiding in the supermarket that only the small narrator can see – and when he tells his Mum about them, she tells him not to be silly. It’s only when the pirates wheel out their cannons that the supermarket staff take notice.

The text rhymes with ease, the rhythm flows, and of course there are some dastardly puns – ‘eggs mark the spot’ for example, and Knapman often turns his text towards the reader, asking ‘you’ to spot the pirates too. And of course that’s half the fun of the illustrations…whether it’s a pirate in the deep freeze, carrier bags dangling uneasily from a hook hand, or a head wearing a skull and crossbones headscarf masquerading as a bouncy ball, there is lots to spy.

But there’s also the marvellous colour, and detail – tremendous scope in a supermarket, of course, with fruit and vegetables, clothes and packets, and ability to sow mayhem with trolleys, and foodfights. Add in some pirates, and there are anchors, parrots, and flags too!

The ending is a sweet twist – the supermarket staff look rather suspicious at the new enormous ship-shaped fish counter.

With plenty to look at – hide and seek within a book – and delicious language to roll your tongue around, this is a heartily enjoyable swashbuckling read. (Watch out for the different pirates colourfully illustrated and named on the endpapers too). I’m determined to pay more attention next time I’m grocery shopping. You can buy it here.