siblings

Dragons to Light Your Fire

Dragons have generally been tarnished with the evil/badass brush for most of their mythological lives. Western mythology certainly paints dragons as evil beings designed to be fought by brave knights. But in the East, dragons are favourable creatures. They can bring good luck – and can even be helpful. Three excellent dragon books flew into MinervaReads recently…and although they did not battle, they certainly set MinervaReads on fire.

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
This silky smooth, deliciously alluring middle grade novel, about a young dragon who gets turned into a human with a penchant for chocolate (making, crafting, and eating), was devoured like a smooth cup of hot chocolate in the middle of a harsh winter.

I’m generally not that keen on fantasy stories, but this brilliantly-told adventure tale navigates the fantasy realm and yet also manages to stay rooted firmly in the friendship/adventure book stable, completely twisting up that ‘new girl moves into school/village’ premise.

Aventurine the dragon decides to prove to her family (including her ridiculously talented older siblings) how fierce and tough a dragon she is, by leaving the safe mountain cave, and venturing out to capture prey all by herself. However, the first human she meets tricks her into eating enchanted chocolate (who could resist the aroma?), and she is turned into a human.

The bulk of the novel follows Aventurine as she moves into a human town and tries to make something of herself – most particularly as a chocolate maker’s apprentice, for she cannot resist the allure of chocolate.

There are some stand-out qualities to this novel that take it from the realm of the fairly mundane fairy tale about transformations and dragons, into a really excellent novel.

The characters are all wonderfully drawn, with just a hint of mystery behind them. Silke, Aventurine’s ally and friend, is as feisty as a dragon herself, yet also wily, loyal, and brimming with emotional intelligence. As is the owner and chef at the chocolate shop who employs Aventurine (notice how they’re all female). Each character comes across as startlingly real and three-dimensional – they lose their tempers and metaphorically breathe out fire occasionally, but they are also graceful in their presentation, and fierce in their passions.

There is, of course, much love for chocolate. It’s hard to read the book and not want to eat some, which shows how well the descriptions work, but also there’s some interesting detail on cocoa nibs etc.

But I think my favourite quality is the excellent use of observation. Aventurine comes into the human world without having a clue about it, and it’s her witty ignorance that fills the book with humour – from the hair on people’s faces, to the clothes they wear, the things they value, and the similarities in family structures between her dragon family and human families. Much is made of class, greed and hierarchy in the book, and it works well, and can easily lead to further discussion. Patronage, corruption, bureaucracy and blame are addressed too.

Of course the overall message is not to judge by appearance. Aventurine has the same personality whether she wears a dragon skin, or inhabits a human skin. There’s also a great message about fear of failure – how failure can destroy confidence, and yet above all what’s needed is grit and determination. Hard work pays off. Loyalty is rewarded.

For a contemporary audience, I loved how the images of chocolate fit with today’s taste for spicing up chocolate with flavours, such as chilli chocolate etc. It’s a sweet and flavoursome book, which you’ll devour like a dragon. For ages 9+ years. You can taste the book here.

Build the Dragon by Dugald Steer, illustrated by Jonathan Woodward and Douglas Carrel
Part activity, part book, this is great for all dragon enthusiasts.

A comprehensive guide to dragons frames this Build the Dragon kit, which includes 46 pieces that are easily slotted together to make your own 3-D model. The dragon comes with moving parts – a jaw that opens and shuts with a lever, and a windup motor that makes the dragon’s wings flap. Once the model was built (taking an eleven year old child just over an hour on their own, with only a slight struggle with the motorised wings), we set to exploring the accompanying text.

my dragon (which went down a treat in the school library)

This is a 32 page large full-colour exploration of everything dragon, from a definition, to legends, habitats, anatomy, diet and reproduction. The author has split the world of dragons into Western and Eastern, highlighting the extreme differences between the two, and then used tales of dragons from mythology to highlight their various characteristics as if they were real.

Each paragraph of information is accompanied by an illustration or diagram, some captioned, and the text is neatly written – easy to understand and containing a dense amount of information in bite-size chunks.

There is much to learn here – from the Guardians of Flaming Pearls to the Venom Spitter, a dragon that didn’t breathe fire, but was referenced in a London pamphlet in 1614, which explained that the dragon had used its violent poison to kill both men and cattle. Other highlights include the map of the world showing global myths, and the dragon scales chart.

The book ends with a sumptuous colourful dragon guide, highlighting earliest representations of dragons, which vary from written references in AD 680, to depictions on Egyptian bowls in BC 4000.

It is excellent and thoughtful of the publishers to provide duplicates of the delicate wings in case they tear, because the motorised wings were fiddly to build and we didn’t think would hold up to much play once built, but the rest of the model is constructed from robust cardboard. I also would have loved to know the authors’ key sources for their information.

Invest in your dragon model here.

The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook by Katie Haworth, illustrated by Monica Armino
Another comprehensive tome that takes the premise that dragons are real. This is fiction masquerading as non-fiction, a guide to looking after dragons – almost like a ‘bringing up baby manual’ – with fabulous full-colour illustrations that both give information and lend a comedic element to the book.

The opening letter of the text talks to the reader as if they have succeeded in applying to look after the dragon, and this book is the starter guide – at this point I began to have palpitations in much the same way as I do opening Ikea furniture instructions.

However, the instructions here are much better written, more informative, and massively more fun. There is a wonderful sense of humour pulsating throughout the book from the suggested equipment at the beginning – such as oven gloves for handling anything the dragon has set fire to – to the advice on where learn to fly the dragon – several hundred miles from human habitation.

As well as the fun in the text, the book is hugely interactive. Spinning wheels, flaps to lift, pop up flying dragons, books within the book, and the ultimately hilarious happy/fierce face flip dragon towards the end.

There is a huge amount of information taken from dragon-lore, such as famous paintings that portray dragons, popular stories, and the different types of dragon from around the world. Brilliantly, it would perfectly complement the Build the Dragon book reviewed above, if your child (or you) have a particular penchant for dragons.

This is a book to make you smile and give much pleasure. By the end I felt competent to look after and even attempt to fly my own dragon. Get yourself a similar skillset here.

Me and Mister P by Maria Farrer, illustrated by Daniel Rieley

Arthur is frustrated with his family. Living with his younger brother Liam isn’t easy, and Arthur feels left out and overlooked. Until, that is, he opens the front door to find a polar bear called Mister P. The bear doesn’t talk, he’s pretty big and clumsy, and enormously scared of spiders, and yet somehow, through a great talent for keepie uppies, dancing, and hugs, he’s able to lend some help to families that need him.

Liam seems to be on the autistic spectrum, although this is never spelt out – the story is told from Arthur’s point of view. In this way, Farrer has managed to portray Liam sympathetically but also realistically, showing all the ways in which Liam annoys Arthur. Arthur moans about the restrictions on his life, such as the limited volume when watching football, the mode of transport to school etc, although the reader can see that these restrictions are only imposed by his parents because they simply want to protect, and do what’s right, by Liam.

This is a simplistic story for the seven plus age group – it’s blatantly obvious that Mister P’s arrival is to show Arthur how lucky he is, how to manage his family situation, that patience is a virtue, and that Liam is one of Arthur’s biggest fans. Some strange quirks come across – there’s a total lack of surprise or reaction by the rest of the world to the fact that a polar bear has arrived and can play football, and there is a slightly over-extended section in the middle of the book on a football game, but altogether this adds up to the book’s charm.

It’s the little moments that draw Arthur and Liam together, which pull on the heartstrings. Children at this age do often need reminding that for all their annoyances, their siblings are their friends – and will be loyal and dependable, as well as mainly, awfully good fun.

There’s nothing startlingly new about this of course. Animals, teddy bears, created ‘other’ personas or imaginary friends, have long been used in children’s literature to bring siblings together, from Aslan to Paddington; or they have been employed to help a child deal with a tricky situation until they’re no longer needed, from Brigg’s The Bear (another polar) to Skellig, and Mary Poppins. I still retain warm memories of George by Agnes Sligh Turnbull, a now out-of-print book, that tells of George, a talking rabbit who helps Milly and Tommy – especially with their arithmetic!

But there’s a warmth and naturalness that oozes from the writing in Me and Mister P, as well as scenes that are punctuated in a wonderfully low key way by Rieley’s illustrations. A full double page is awarded to the illustration of Mister P in the back of a truck on his way to the football, complete with headphones and team scarf. Rieley has been set quite a task here – a polar bear adept at football – and it works both humorously and with pathos.

It’s a fun book, massively endearing, with much heart. There are even a few scattered facts about polar bears at the end of the book – perhaps to encourage readers to find out more about them, and learn to protect them. For although of course we’d all love to snuggle up with a glossy furry bear who solves our problems, we need to make sure that polar bears don’t become imaginary creatures, but rather remain a plentiful species that inhabits the Arctic.

For newly independent readers, but also great to share with little ones at bedtime. You can buy it here.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis

For Christmas Day, a special classic. This key text in the children’s literature canon is always a delight to revisit, and once it’s been read with the children, it’s always fun when they spot a ‘Narnia’ lamppost when out and about. In fact, it’s the wondrous images created by the book that endure, and is one of the reasons why it’s a classic. From Turkish delight, to a fur-coat laden wardrobe, to a lion (Aslan means lion in Turkish), to Mr Tumnus.

In fact, the book reportedly began as such an image, when CS Lewis pictured a “faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood,” according to his essay ‘It All Began with a Picture’. This, is in fact, a wonderful resource for writers, showing how Lewis wrote, and how a picture that had been in his head since the age of sixteen turned into a novel at the age of forty.

So what’s the book about? Four children, evacuated from London during the blitz, stumble upon a strange new land through a wardrobe in their new house. This land, Narnia, is under the spell of the White Witch, (a spell of eternal winter with no Christmas). But with the help of the four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, soon a new dawn arrives with spring on the horizon. It’s a fantasy landscape, with magical creatures, and yet the normalcy of sibling relationships and rivalries is never far away.

Of course, in children’s literature terms, the blitz was a gift as a literary device – an absence of parents, a new landscape, and a dark threat of insecurity hanging over the children’s lives. Numerous authors made use of this device – Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, and Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian are another two evacuee classics. But Lewis juxtaposes the very real experience of being a wartime evacuee with a fantasy landscape.

Many point to the Christian allegory that they say underpins the book, the seasons of winter and then the spring when Aslan (representative of Christ) arrives, the stone table for the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the temptation of Edmund eating the ‘sin’ of Turkish Delight just as Eve ate her apple. But C S Lewis tended to deny this was the crux of his story – in fact there are many mythologies and fairy tales alluded to within the text, none more obvious than the borrowing of the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Andersen; Lewis transforming her into the White Witch who turns people to stone rather than ice, and who also manipulates a boy from the comfort of her sleigh.

It also features Father Christmas.

But for me, and for many others, this book is simply a great fantasy adventure story with the most delightful images, and speaks to the possibility of the impossible. It’s a feeling the book exudes – like any great piece of literature, which when devoured, lets the reader experience a feeling – just how the name Aslan made the Pevensie children feel:

“At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

You can buy it here.

Danny McGee Drinks the Sea by Andy Stanton, illustrated by Neal Layton

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Gleefully funny, this new picture book will send children squealing with delight as they take in an irrepressible protagonist and his bumptious audacity. Penned by Mr Gum author Andy Stanton, who reveals that he set out to “irreparably scramble the brains of very tiny children”, and teamed with multi-award winning illustrator Neal Layton, this was bound to be a successful pairing.

Egged on by his sister, the pair of them looking naughty from the first page (with their scribbly curly hair and delightful eye for speed as they race down the hill towards the beach), Danny McGee bets his sister that he can drink the whole sea. For who wouldn’t want to – when it lies on the page, glittering and sparkling, an irresistible blue. With an impossibly long straw, that’s exactly what he does. And then he proceeds to swallow everything else in sight. With a nod to There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Danny’s preposterous swallowing is accompanied by his bragging brash stance, and an absurdity in the things he swallows.

The story is told in continuing rhyming couplets, all with the same rhyme (“ee”) giving Stanton a restrictiveness in rhyme to push the sense to a ludicrous degree:

“and he swallowed a bee
and he swallowed a cat who was drinking some tea”

An excitable energy flows through the book, as Danny swallows more and more, including the author, who is writing the book from inside Danny McGee’s stomach apparently. But what enhances this further is the cleverness of the imagery. Cut out photographs of real objects have been placed on top of illustrations, so that Andy Stanton does indeed appear to be inside the book.

On other pages, this works even harder – the straw is real – held aloft by cartoon Franny McGee, and when Danny swallows London, real Big Ben and the Crown Jewels nestle beside scribbly cartoon illustrations of chimney sweeps a la Mary Poppins. Real chips jostle inside a cartoon drawing of the newspaper encasing them. The style to make the illustrations look scribbled and fast is actually stylised and difficult to do.

But above all, it is the anarchic mischievousness of Danny that gives the book its zest. He swallows everything – the whole world and then brags about it.

However, all jokesters get their comeuppance in kids’ books. And as I keep telling the children – beware of your siblings. They know you better than anyone!

You can buy a copy here.

Children’s Books Gifts Round Up Part One

Are you looking for a gifts for the holiday season? Here is my round up of non-Christmassy books, which I’d choose to have in my stocking. Click on the titles to buy the book. Next week, look out for my list of children’s books with a Christmas theme.

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There have been so many good picture books this year, that I had a really hard time narrowing down which to feature. I didn’t want to repeat any I’ve featured so far, so here is my new selection for you. Starting with Odd Dog Out by Rob Biddulph. This author/illustrator can do no wrong – each of his books is equally delightful, although in a different way, and I think this latest is my favourite. A female dog who comes to recognise that one doesn’t have to follow the pack, but that it’s good to recognise and be pleased with your own individuality. Like Steve Antony, Biddulph stuffs his picture books with details so that young children can find rewards in the tiniest things, such as characters from previous books, and hidden motifs. Fun, imaginative, and downright adorable.

Another supremely talented illustrator is Jon Klassen. He concludes his hat trilogy with this spectacular book, We Found a Hat about a pair of tortoises in the same landscape as the previous books, but with a new dilemma. The hat isn’t missing, but there’s only one hat, and two tortoises. With the same devotion to visual literacy as his other books, the reader must pay as much attention to the pictures as to the text to glean the plot. A brilliant, humorous, empathetic book. I can’t get enough of these.

Another sequel, and another talent, Oi Dog by Kes and Claire Gray and illustrated by Jim Field continues the raucous fun of Oi Frog. One of the best picture books around for reading out loud (conversation between the animals) and extending play with rhymes, this is joyous fun. Not only are the rhymes brilliant and unpredictable at times, but the illustrations (see the bears eating porridge) rather wonderful. In Oi Frog the pumas sat on satsumas. Here the cheetahs sit on fajitas. I just love it. The end twist is punchy and hilarious.

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Matt Robertson is an illustrator who’s been creeping under the radar for a while, but should be more widely celebrated. His latest picture book Super Stan is one he’s written as well as illustrated, and it’s fabulous. More about siblings than it is about superpowers, this tracks our everyday jealousy of our siblings, but then ends up showing us the love that lies underneath the rivalry. Bright, colourful, funny, good pacing and a stand-out lesson, this is a perfect family read.

For a more discerning picture book reader, there is The Liszts by Kyo Maclear and Julia Sarda. A play on words, this isn’t about music but about the futility of making lists rather than taking action. Quirky in its artwork, offbeat in its characterisation, this is a book with texture, depth and detail, and a brilliant moral about spontaneity. The family make lists every day except Sundays, “which were listless.” Strange but rather wonderful.

The picks for newly independent and intermediate readers are no less fruitful.

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Witches aren’t just for Halloween, and this sterling start to a new series is one to treasure for fans of The Worst Witch, Bella Broomstick and suchlike. Grace-Ella Spells for Beginners by Sharon Marie Jones, illustrated by Adriana J Puglisi is set firmly in Wales (watch out for those tricky town names), but is a charming tale about a witch who doesn’t need a boarding school to learn her trade; she learns at home with the help of a black cat. Happiness shines out of this book – it is wonderful escapism with terrific characters and a truly delightful protagonist.

Old-fashioned tales abound in both Billy Button by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey and A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy. The former is a Little Gem book, dyslexia friendly, and is an endearing tale for first readers about the old telegram system. Part love story, part Postman-Pat-esque, this is exquisite storytelling from an experienced author. Endless nostalgia for the old-school post office, and love for a bicycle, it definitely hit the spot with this reader and her little testers. The stories from India in A Jar of Pickles are denser, but each tells a little riddle of justice and rewards with a simple solution. Dealing with jealousy, crooks and a miscreant ruler, these tales are great for discussion, great for broadening horizons, and firming up that moral compass. The tone has a whiff of humour and the pace is zingy.

piglet-called-trufflestally-and-squill

Two more for this newly independent readers group are A Piglet Called Truffle by Helen Peters, illustrated by Ellie Snowdon, a delightfully gentle rural story about a girl who rescues a runt piglet and raises her on her own farm. Tones of Charlotte’s Web with pig similarities, and a subtle ‘Some Christmas Tree’ allusion, but the magic in this is the steady drip of animal care and farm information that Peters sprinkles along the narrative tale. Very cute, with cosy illustrations and a wonderful family Christmas ending.

And Tally and Squill In a Sticky Situation by Abie Longstaff, illustrated by James Brown for book-obsessed little ones. With its magical library, a poor orphaned girl and her companion animal, this contains just the right mix of fairy tale, magic and mystery adventure. With nuggets of non-fiction tucked into the text, and riddles to solve throughout, this is a brilliant read, with more in the series to come. It reminded me of Elspeth Hart with its sense of adventure, and yet also Horrid Henry in some of the typified characterisation. A great start to a new series.

robyn-silvershapeshifterblack-powder

New series for older readers include Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes by Paula Harrison about ten year old Robyn who can see creepy monsters where no one else can. Action-packed, loads of humour, monsters to rival Rowling’s Magical Beasts, and a chaotic background family – this series is  set to be a big success. A newly repackaged series is the Shapeshifter Series by Ali Sparkes, an exciting series from a writer who knows how to spin a scintillating plot. Dax Jones discovers an ability to morph into a fox, and is then whisked away by the government to be with a group of children with amazing supernatural powers (Children of Limitless Ability, COLA). There’s plenty of emotional depth to each character, brilliantly realistic portrayals of the animal instincts and behaviours yet mixed with typical teen reactions – ‘what’s for lunch?’ etc, so that the whole fantastical arrangement comes to life. There’s fast-paced action, great dialogue, and good tension. A cracking read – and a whole series already to devour on Boxing Day.

For a stand-alone piece of historical fiction, grab a copy of Black Powder by Ally Sherrick. England, 1605, and twelve-year old Tom must save his father from being hanged, and yet with Catholics despised and someone playing with gunpowder, things could end up being far more explosive than he could imagine. Bravery, quick-thinking, and massive attention to historical detail make this a sharp, thrilling read.

a-world-of-informationny-is-for-new-yorkfashion-mash-up

And lastly three brilliant non-fiction gifts that didn’t quite make it to my doorstep early enough for National Non-Fiction November. A World of Information by James Brown and Richard Platt is an oversize book with a magically eclectic mix of material, each topic given a double page spread, and each explained in just the right level of detail. One child wanted it for the phases of the moon, another for the organs of the body. A third for the intricately captioned diagram of a bicycle. All the information you could ever need to survive (ropes) and answer questions on University Challenge (periodic table and layout of an orchestra). Beautifully presented too. Knowledge at its most appealing.

NY is for New York by Paul Thurlby will be even more coveted. This A-Z stylised picture book feels luxurious, and is the perfect book to leave out on your coffee table so that your guests know you have style. Each page shows a graphic of a city highlight, and gives a sentence of information – a tidbit that you could hurl at a stranger, such as that G for Grand Central Station has 67 train tracks. If you’ve ever dreamed of taking the kids travelling, this is a great place to start.

Lastly, a mash-up. The V&A museum have teamed with Penguin books to create the V&A Fashion Mash-Up book with styling tips and illustrations by Daisy de Villeneuve. Inspirational quotes from Alexander McQueen, Oscar Wilde, and others intersperse the cunningly presented pages. With photographs from the museum collections, and cut out models and fashions, the idea is to mix and match the illustrations and models with clothes from the V&A, creating an activity where the reader sees the fashion history but can make their own unique ensembles. With gold foil stickers, accessories, and shoes shoes shoes!, and backdrops in which to place your models, this was all the Christmas fun I could want in one book. I have purchased for more than one lucky recipient. Next week, Christmas books about Christmas!

Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood, illustrated by David Wyatt

podkin

If you want to buy your child a sumptuous book this autumn, which will inspire a love for storytelling, adventure and imagination, and one which has a wintery flavour, this is it.

Podkin One-Ear is a legend, a fearsome warrior rabbit with a reputation for fighting and winning against the Gorm (a dangerous and evil iron-flesh-clad rabbit breed that invades warrens and kills or captures those within). When a traveling bard arrives at Thornwood Warren on Bramblemas Eve, the bard is welcomed into the hall with its warming fireside glow and given food and drink in return for a tale of Podkin One-Ear. He tells the story of how the young Podkin fled his warren with his baby brother and older sister, how he lost his ear, and how he grows and learns until he is ready to fight back against the evil greedy Gorm. The bard’s version is not only enthralling, but far more realistic than his little rabbit listeners have heard before.

This is the classic story within a story – telling a fantasy tale of a family of rabbits turfed out from their home, seeking not only to escape the Gorm but to protect a sacred sword that bears good magic, and eventually to overcome the evil Gorm.

With influences of Watership Down (inevitable – there are rabbits on a quest against evil), and even Station Eleven (this is a dystopian future in which humans have clearly gone and all that is left is a landscape of scattered rabbit warrens, and travelling storytellers), this is a sumptuous tale that manages to pull on the emotions and remind readers of classic tales and classic tropes.

As well as the old traditions of storytelling (and Larwood intersperses the tale of Podkin with interlude chapters in which the Bard and his audience interact and discuss the role and purpose of storytelling), Larwood also introduces familiar traditional tropes from the human storytelling mould, such as there being 12 ancient tribes of rabbits with 12 handed down symbols (the magic sword being one of these), allusions to religion or a higher being (in this case a goddess), a warring balance of good vs evil magic, and the traditional make-up of families and the patriarchal royal lineage. All this adds to the feeling that the reader is digesting a classic tome.

If all this feels heavy, it isn’t at all. The bulk of the story follows three sibling rabbits, Podkin and his older sister and younger brother, as they escape from and finally fight the Gorm. The narration delves inside their heads so that the personification of the rabbits is complete, exploring their worries, fears, comforts and hopes.

There are familiarities for children too, as well as the old storytelling tropes, such as the hunt for painted carrots at Lupen’s Day at the start of spring, which of course parallels Easter egg hunts.

Larwood is particularly good on his observational details of his fantasy landscape. He insinuates that social skills are important for warren life – all those rabbits in such close proximity. He also, through various characters, makes poignant matter-of-fact philosophies on the painfulness of loss and death, and memories living on, as well as on bravery: “You don’t have to be brave or strong or powerful to do incredible things.” Larwood describes well the loss of Podkin’s ear and the aftermath of this loss, and Podkin’s observation about how quickly life can turn upside down.

Podkin is reflective without ever being insular, and is fully rounded – he bemoans the loss of his ear, and is bad-tempered, but shows depth of character in his recovery. His sister, Paz, is sensitive and empathetic. She makes astute observations about everyone they meet, most tellingly, with the ‘witch’ rabbit, Brigid, a grandmotherly figure who facilitates good magic restoring the balance with bad. Her relationship with the young rabbits portrays what the elderly traditional can teach the new upstarts, as well as pulling into the equation the benefits of folklore and understanding nature.

There’s some lovely language in the book, introducing vocabulary such as ‘scrying’ at the same time as playing with words to describe iron – a dangerous and evil substance in this fantasy landscape.

The storytelling is fluid, and feels like a cosy Christmas telling with interludes breaking tension, and the analysis of storytelling itself, which gives the book both a sense of history and depth.

Faber publishers have given this story the love it demands, pairing the tale with Wyatt’s beautiful black and white illustrations, so that every so often the reader is thrown into a whole page picture, showing depth and detail and throwing an added warmth and tenderness to some scenes, as well as displaying the Gorm’s menace in others. There are further nice illustrative touches – the constellations in the sky in rabbit shapes, the map of the landscape at the beginning.

But most of all, it feels as if there is a sprinkling of magic across this book. A modern, yet old-fashioned story that is captivating and comforting. Like a warm hug, this is a fantastic children’s book, with a cute little surprise at the end.

As the bard in the story says, “my bard’s memory filled it [the story] with little things that made it real. Everyday details. Feelings and sensations. Nothing but a piece of storytelling magic.”

For readers 9+ independently, earlier for sharing. Do buy it here.

There May Be a Castle by Piers Torday

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Piers Torday shot into the limelight, deservedly so, for his first novel, The Last Wild, which started a trilogy that followed a young boy called Kester in his quest to save the last surviving animals on earth. It was an astounding book (and trilogy); Kester is in my top ten all-time children’s book characters.

There May be a Castle also follows the quest of a young boy, but it is a completely different journey from that of Kester’s.

Mouse, a fairly small eleven year old, is travelling with his mother and two sisters to his grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve. But the snow is falling fast, and visibility is bad, and the car goes off the road and crashes.

When Mouse wakes up he’s in a strange world, with a talking horse who resembles his toy, and an accompanying sheep named Bar. He knows that he has to find his way to the castle, if there is a castle, but he’s not sure why, or what will happen if he finds it.

Torday’s book is a paean to our amazing mind and to ceaseless imagination. Although on the surface this is a simple adventure story, appealing to children with its array of colourful and fantastical characters, from duelling knights out of Mouse’s computer games, to a somewhat sarcastic talking horse, a typically irritating singing minstrel and a brilliantly drawn size-changing dinosaur (reminiscent of Toy Story’s life-imbued toys), there are strong underlying themes, and an emotional poignancy and tension that’s more than gripping.

Even before the crash, Mouse’s character is all about his mind. He’s a thinker, a worrier even. His size may be small, but his imagination is huge – Torday plays up this juxtaposition on purpose – Mouse’s imagination is bigger than he is – Mouse is much more than his physical body. Moreover, Torday is saying that our minds are more powerful than we realise.

Mouse’s stamina – he is on a quest to seek help really – is propelled by the power of his imagination. He harnesses strength by projecting his real journey onto an imaginative quest. This is mirrored by his older sister, Violet. In the middle of Mouse’s imaginative landscape, the reader is drawn back to Violet – in intervening chapters – as she describes waking and seeing her mother and sister in the car, and using her physical prowess to detach herself from the seatbelt to attempt to keep her family physically safe (using the car heater, food, warm clothes). However, she too, uses imaginative play as power – she pretends to be a fierce historical lady pirate – a hero she has learnt about in school – and this make-believe gives her fortitude.

From the beginning of the book, Torday drops clues as to what’s going to happen – the snow carpets the land, “just another block of white in a land of white”, so that once the car crashes, the reader knows that the rescue teams won’t find the car easily. It is up to the two children, Violet and Mouse, to get help. This frightening scenario (all too real in today’s automobile society) is brave territory for a children’s writer. It will resonate with those readers who are drilled into road-crossing, seatbelt-wearing safety, and is truly a tale for our time.

But Torday makes it contemporary in other ways too – Mouse complains that his grandparents don’t have Sky or broadband. He and his siblings are transfixed by the ‘glowing screen’. At one point it almost seems as if authorial intrusion is making a point about modern technology:

“A spellbinding black mirror that floated in your hands and which, with one swipe, revealed to you the whole world. Pictures from underneath the ocean, videos of the planets from outer space. Every film ever made, every song ever recorded, every game ever designed, every book ever written. He could almost see Mr Stanmore’s point. Who needed to make anything up, when it was all here in your hands, just waiting for you?”

The children are part of a generation who navigate the world with technology. Mouse and Violet refer to TV, the ipad, Instagram, the sat nav, apps, both for their entertainment and their way of life, but it is no surprise that Torday’s message is that for all of modern technology’s strengths, this story is about the power of nature – the snow that overturns the car – the power of the basic human elements of survival – seeking warmth, shelter, and food. These basics trump the technology that fails Mouse and Violet in the end – the Ipad smashes, the mobile phone has no signal, the car heater only lasts a short while.

This book hits on many levels. It speaks to children in that it is a simple adventure story and it speaks to children, who like Mouse, don’t enjoy reading. Mouse prefers animation – the swipe of an Ipad to the stasis of a book, but then his daydreaming (his creative inner voice) takes over, and it is more real than any app. It’s the land a reader goes to in their head.

But even more striking is that for much of the book our protagonist doesn’t seem to be in control, despite the adventures coming out of his imagination, formed from experiences in his game-playing world. Which makes the reader question whether our imaginations are controllable. To what extent do we control our own dreams, our own subconscious?

This is daring territory for a children’s book. What’s more daring is its ending (which I won’t spoil) and its meditation on life and death. What is left behind when a person dies, where does the imagination go then?

Children will appreciate the good writing here, the quest within the narrative, and the white-knuckle tension of surviving a car crash and being rescued. But as with all good books there is much more to explore, there is much more to think about – because imagination will take you everywhere.

“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” GK Chesterton

You can buy a copy of the book here. For age 10+ years.

 

Please note this review was written after reading a proof copy of There May be a Castle and quotes may not be wholly reflective of the finished book.

Time for Jas by Natasha Farrant

time-for-jas

The fourth and last in the Bluebell Gadsby series, and for anyone who has lived and loved the cavorting adventures of Bluebell and her clan of siblings and hangers-on, this read will be tinged with sadness. Like a slightly older Pea from the Pea books by Susie Day, and a younger and more modern Cazelet clan, the Gadsbys are one of those storybook messy families, with an abundance of siblings and extra add-on quirky characters who interact with the main family and help them to learn and to grow.

Bluebell Gadsby burst onto the scene in 2013 in After Iris, a tale that joined the family a few years after Bluebell’s twin, Iris, had died in an accident. Despite the graveness of the subject matter, it was, and still remains, a light and easy read – a constant flow of emotion and busyness that is the modern family.

So now to 2016, and the arrival of Time for Jas. As with the others in the series, Bluebell tells the continuation of her family dramas partly through normal narrative and partly using video transcript – Bluebell having a penchant and flair for filming and documenting things around her. This dual style adds a great deal to the drama – at moments, allowing the reader to step back and see the setting from a wider viewpoint. But it also gives Bluebell (our protagonist) the unique opportunity to see things from a slightly distilled viewpoint, distancing herself from the action of the story, and perhaps editing things to a perspective she prefers, or zooming in and seeing a particular episode in close-up detail. It’s a powerful and clever way to tell a story in a book for young people.

The title, Time for Jas, suggests that the action has moved to focus upon little sister Jas, the only sibling still at primary school. Actually although it does pinpoint Jas’s struggle to find friends and her experience of bullying, the Gadsby family are featured in full; highlighting Flora’s escape to drama school, Twig’s new found hobby of violent team sports, and Bluebell’s own discovery of an immensely talented, yet mysteriously anonymous, chalk artist on her doorstop.

The whirl of the family continues around Bluebell, but it is her voice that pulls in the reader. She is all at once child, protector, friend, sibling, and as with all children of that age, struggling to find her place in the world and make things right, all with a touch of sadness, humour, and teen zest:

“I have tried to help. I have tried to be brave and ambitious and come up with the sort of solution you would get in a film, where whole communities are saved by pulling together and putting aside their differences, and audiences come out feeling that anything is possible, but now I have run out of ideas and it is very very sad.”

Farrant is astute at weaving the various characters’ dramas in with each other, meshing the family as a whole, whilst still retaining everyone’s own private happenings and giving an insight into what they might be feeling. The seamless flitting around characters explores both the busyness of life and situations in which people intersect.

But most particularly, I loved the friendship between Bluebell and her best friend, Dodi. They have a strong history, which gives them a strong friendship, but also a realistic relationship because it doesn’t always run smoothly. Bluebell’s observation that people don’t really change, even after you’ve pointed out to them what isn’t working (in this case, bossiness) is a robust admission; a clear view of Bluebell’s character as well as Dodi’s.

The book is set in an identifiable part of London, with a contemporary style that features the texts and emails and all the essentials of a modern teen life and the complications that technology brings, so it feels grounded, with tangible references. Yet the story also occupies the space of large middle-class families in storybooks who are slightly eccentric – the parents are nicely tucked away, and yet there is family time in the evenings of sitting en famille around the piano, rather than watching television.

Farrant’s gift for storytelling is evident in her ability to weave themes in the books too; here art, identity, ambition. And of course the ever-present death in a family that casts a long shadow of grief across the entire landscape.

A great series, rivalling McKay’s Casson family for a place on the bookshelves, this is a wonderful series for tweens and young teens. And it has to be mentioned, the new covers and the coloured edges look rather stunning.

after-irisflora-in-loveall-about-pumpkin

You can buy the last Bluebell Gadsby diary here.

We Are Giants by Amber Lee Dodd

we are giants

Amnesty’s poll for International Children’s Book Day revealed that half of parents surveyed think reading a book is the best way to develop empathy. (YouGov 53% of 964 parents, March 2016). But to evoke empathy a character has to be fully-fledged, fully-rounded – believable.

The book doesn’t have to be ‘issue-based’ to achieve this. Amber Lee Dodd’s debut children’s book is about a girl whose mother has dwarfism. So it fits into the ‘issue’ and ‘diversity’ mould. But, actually, the book transcends this compartmentalisation, because the author has written her protagonist in quite an exceptional way.

Nine-year-old Sydney is concerned and upset that she has to move away from her home and her school and friends when her mother loses her furniture shop. They uproot to be nearer Sydney’s grandmother, and Sydney has to make new friends and fit in at her new school. She also has an older sister entering her teens – Jade, who is sparky and fractious, adding conflict and a great dynamic to the family:

“Let’s just say she no longer needs to stuff cotton wool down her bra. I catch Mum looking at her sometimes with a sad look on her face.”

Throughout the book there is the underlying message of learning to accept others, in all guises, reflected in Sydney’s mother’s dwarfism – she is particularly resilient – a favourite moment is her moment of self-control in the face of prejudice with the landlord:

“I knew I shouldn’t have let people like you have this place.” He says to her.

But essentially the book isn’t about dwarfism – partly because Sydney deals with her mum’s difference in such a matter-of-fact way that it doesn’t intrude the narrative. It’s about Sydney – a child coming to terms with change in her life.

And Amber Lee Dodd handles this so well that the reader feels they are right inside Sydney’s head. That’s why the novel flies past at such pace – it’s so easy to read and quite gripping, because it’s like reading an email from a friend about her new struggles and experiences.

Sydney has also suffered the death of her father at a young age, and so some of the book deals with her grief – as she retells stories she remembers that he told her, as well as thinking about what would have made him proud.

There are some particularly great psychological touches in that Sydney wants to stay small – to be like her parents – but also I think a universal childhood desire, which is the wish to remain the ‘baby’ and small, but also that conflict of wanting independence – and this goes to the heart of the novel – the thrust behind it. Sydney, as with most children, wants both – and Dodd manages to convey this so well with the theme of dwarfism behind it:

“I tried to do a shrinking exercise to calm myself down…imagining myself disappearing for a few seconds and coming back smaller, disappearing for a few more seconds and getting even tinier.”

Sydney also talks about her ‘wild thing’ inside – that hard to control emotion of anger, which can jump to the surface with no warning. It’s executed well:

“It wasn’t me speaking any more, it was the Wild Thing. And the Wild Thing was angry.”

Of course, the plot sings along too – there are some dramatic scenes with Sydney’s sister as she too tries to come to terms with their new circumstances, the mother’s frustration with her job, and lastly the grandmother – a wonderful character, who means well but doesn’t always fit to the primary family group!

“The thing I’ve learned about grandmas is this. They can’t resist if you ask them for help.”

There is lots to talk about within the book and lots to like about it too. It doesn’t set out to be too complex, but tells a story by wholeheartedly bringing its characters to life. The story has giant heart – although of course, size doesn’t matter. You can buy it here.

Bikes, Trains and Boats

No information books about transport here, but three lively stories for newly independent readers. Each contains phenomenal illustrations, making these all easy transitions from picture books.

the secret railway

The Secret Railway by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Sam Usher

This is a sparkling book, everything one could want for a young child starting to read, as it bursts with joy and magic and the silliness of fantasy lands where anything is possible. Wendy Meddour is the author of the quirky series Wendy Quill, as well as more recently, How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel, and she does have a wacky way of looking at things, which is a delight in a young children’s book.

A gorgeous sibling relationship between older brother Leo and younger sister Ella develops throughout the story. The children have moved house and while the parents unpack, the siblings go exploring and discover a secret railway in the station workshop of their new station house. But of course it’s not just a disused train line, but a magical railway that leads to the Kingdom of Izzambard where Griselda, the Master Clockmaker, has stopped time.

Riding the train in error, Ella and Leo are informed that they must return the magic magnifying glass to The Chief Snarkarian at The Great, Grand Library of the Snarks, and receive a key in return that will help them back to their own world. It’s as crazy as it sounds, but satisfyingly eventful and imaginative. With swooping mechanical birds, butterfly spies, and a marketplace full of beavers reminiscent of the munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, this is a jam-packed story of wonder and adventure. For an early reader it bursts with action and non-stop fun.

The book talks to the reader with text that is spunky and full of vitality, from the beginning where it asks for the readers’ tickets, to the description of ‘ordinary children’:

“Ella and Leo Leggit were not ordinary children. ‘Well, of course, you’ll say: ‘No children are’
And you’d be right. I’m sure you’re very peculiar. But what I mean is, Ella and Leo were extremely not ordinary.”

Each chapter is a different platform number, and the entire story is accentuated by Sam Usher’s now distinctive and endearing illustrations. Usher draws the sort of children that you want to hug, and manages to make every scene seem three-dimensional – you could just step into the story.

More to follow in The Secret Railway and the Crystal Caves in July 2016. You can chug along on the first Secret Railway here.

grey island red boat

Grey Island Red Boat by Ian Beck

A Little Gem by name (from Barrington Stoke’s Early Reader series) and a little gem by nature, Ian Beck writes a story that makes you want to sink back into a comfortable chair and be sailed away into the magic. He tells a modern day fairy tale with his own illustrations punctuating the text, and has dedicated it to his grandson. It’s exactly the tale you would imagine a grandparent telling a grandchild.

A princess lives with her father, the King, on the Island of Ashes. As the reader may expect from the name, everything on the island is grey. The sea, the sky, the land. The black and white illustrations convey this too. It rains all the time, and the month is always November. The princess feels that something is missing, and the tone of the text is muted, sad and withdrawn.

Then one day a small boat washes up on the island – and there’s something different about it. It’s red. Before long the stranger aboard has disembarked and is colouring the world with every touch of his hand. Some people are bewitched by this – the Princess and others feel “tickled” by it. But the King fears change, and takes action to prevent it, although change proves inevitable.

Ian Beck brilliantly captures the rhythm of a fairy tale or legend, as well as an underlying depth beneath the simple story. Reading the book was like feeling a warmth spread across one’s body. Children will adore the gradual introduction of colour into the illustrated landscapes, and the perfectly easy descriptions of the feelings colour gives the people on the island. Adults will see the depth of the message. You can buy it here.

fergus

Flying Fergus: The Best Birthday Bike by Chris Hoy, with Joanna Nadin, illustrated by Clare Elsom

Sometimes I feel reluctant to review ‘celeb’ books on the blog, knowing that they will probably gain a huge audience in the wider press anyway. But the publishers have paired Hoy with children’s author Joanna Nadin quite brilliantly, and the result is a hugely entertaining story.

Fergus desperately wants a Sullivan Swift for his ninth birthday. A stupendous bike with “24 gears, hydraulic brakes and state of the art suspension.” When he receives a rusty old second hand bike, he’s a little disappointed. Until he discovers something magical happens when he rides it in the right way.

The story whisks the reader into a fantasyland, complete with a princess (who wears mismatched welly boots), a Swamp of Certain Death, and some rather ridiculous rules.

Clare Elsom’s illustrations deserve great credit. The book is jam-packed with them, and each is as funny and madcap as the text. The princess in particular, with her dishevelled hair and wonky eyes, is a sight to behold. There are also two maps at the beginning.

But despite cramming this slim little early reader with oodles of fun and endless adventures, there are still some great messages within. Fergus has a heart-warming relationship with his grandfather, who is endlessly encouraging about Fergus’s ambition to win a cycle race. But he firmly believes that it’s not about luck – it’s about hard graft.

There is also some poignancy within the story as Fergus’ father has been missing from his life for nine years and Fergus still dreams of finding him and making his father proud.

There are so many facets to this book that each child will be able to extract their own enjoyment – whether it be fantasy, the reality of the bullies, a missing father, a princess, or simply ambitions and dreams. A good start to the series. Pedal your way to your copy here.