teamwork

The Ethan I was Before by Ali Standish and Truth or Dare by Non Pratt

It’s funny how books bucket together. In the past two months I’ve read three books with ‘dares’ as their theme – I Dare You by Reece Wykes, a picture book for the young at heart with a wry sense of humour, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt, a most excellent YA novel with some hard truths at heart, and The Ethan I was Before, a middle grade novel with a dare at its core.

In The Ethan I Was Before, twelve-year-old Ethan is moved with his family to live with his grandfather in Georgia, a far cry from the Boston he is used to. Allegedly the move is to help his grandfather, although it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather is an independent soul, and the move is to remove Ethan from an uncomfortable incident in his past.

Ethan’s relationship with his angry older brother, his new relationship with Coralee (an enigmatic girl he meets at school), and the exploration of his new town make up the bulk of the novel, but all the time the reader is aware of a past secret that Ethan is hiding.

Standish’s prose pulls in the reader from the beginning. There are some key phrases that show flashes of great writing, her similies are excellent and create an authentic sense of place: she describes the air at one point with “humidity like a wet fleece blanket”. Her characterisations too are neat and winning, from her portrayal of forthright and keenly intelligent Mack, who runs the local store, to Ethan’s Mum, who tends to burn food because she forgets having put it in the oven in an endearingly absentminded preoccupation. Standish also has a handle on the unsophisticated twelve-year-old way of trying to describe in words the complex emotions of guilt and anxiety. She also focuses on what Ethan’s therapist has told him to do, extrapolating the way Ethan is feeling without laying it too bare for the readership:

“It’s almost funny, that everything that would make a normal person happy is what makes me feel the most sad.”

And yet, it’s the not laying it bare that holds this book back from being as good as it should be. The ‘secret’ in the past is too often alluded to by Ethan’s family, and himself, and yet doesn’t feel real. Because they are all holding back so much, the constant nudges that there is something else going on, or something big that happened in the past, feel too contrived. Although in real life, we all do keep back parts of ourselves, even in some cases from ourselves, one feels that Ethan’s family would talk more frankly – particularly his brother – or that Ethan, who narrates the story in first person, would be slightly more honest with himself and with the readership. It doesn’t sit well that he hides the past from himself, because it doesn’t fit with his character.

On the whole this was a really enjoyable book; I just felt that it could have been bigger. With slightly more depth and more subtlety, the past could have been explored in more detail and led to a weightier novel. So the denouement, when it comes, feels half-hearted, and I wanted the ‘dare’ to be more dramatic. But for glimpses of what Standish can do, and with the possibility that there is better to come, this is an intriguing debut. It will fit the bill nicely for a summertime coming-of-age novel, and gives a great sense of small town America. You can buy it here.

For meatiness I’d go to the YA coming-of-age title, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt. Although the production at first seems gimmicky, in that the first part is narrated by main character Claire Casey, leaving the story on a cliffhanger, with the second part physically flipped over so that the reader has to turn the book upside down and start from the other end to read the other main character, Sef’s narration continuing the plot, the story itself is far from contrived. In fact, it becomes swiftly apparent reading part two that this consecutive narration adds depth and substance.

Kam Malik suffers a life-changing injury after a stupid stunt goes wrong. Claire, shy and unobtrusive, volunteers at his rehabilitation clinic. When she gets to know Kam’s brother, Sef, together they come up with a scheme to raise much-needed funds to maintain his rehabilitation. It’s a Truth or Dare YouTube campaign, but before long their truths collide and their dares take things too far.

Non Pratt has a magnificent turn of phrase that enables description without the reader feeling they’re reading any. The plot is deft and agile – the book skips along punctuated with accurate and authentic dialogue, and a look into the innermost thoughts of her narrators, which is, at times, devastating.

What shines through is the depth of characterisation, as at first the reader, through Claire’s eyes, really likes Sef Malik, but what soon becomes apparent through his point of view in part two, is that no one shows their true self to everyone, and that people aren’t kind or unkind throughout. Everyone has their motivations, demons, and selfishness. Pratt wheels through a host of issues including prejudice, fame, guilt, and love without once making this an issue novel. It’s a gripping read, as tumultuous as Claire’s relationship with Sef, and deeply satisfying. You can buy it here.

 

Enduring Friendships in Story: a guestpost by Melissa Savage

The publishers describe Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage in three words as ‘bittersweet’, ‘quirky’, and ‘adventure’. I wholeheartedly agree, and would add that this is a beautifully written tale, in which the voice of the protagonist, Lemonade, comes across strongly and perfectly – with just enough bite to ensure that her sweet winning personality has a lemony tang to it. It’s a tale set in California during the time of the Vietnam War, and describes how Lemonade fits into her new surroundings and makes new friends after she moves to live with her grandfather. With emotionally astute adults, a sensitivity to loss, and themes of identity and belonging, this is a fantastically enjoyable book, and I am delighted to host author Melissa Savage on the blog. 

I have had the great fortune of meeting many children as I have shared my new debut middle grade novel, Bigfoot, Tobin & Me (Lemons in the United States) and I’m often asked which part of the book I enjoyed writing most. My answer is always the same. Writing scenes between Lemonade and Tobin. I love their unconventional friendship. They are so different in so many ways and they must argue their points until they can come to some type of agreement on how to come to some sort of agreement. Although they are very different, there is so much about them that is also the same. And they soon learn they need one another. They may not know it at the start of the story, but they soon learn that their friendship will be one of endurance because of who they are, what they’ve been through together and what they now share. Doesn’t everyone want that very special friendship that endures regardless of our differences, foul moods and bad choices, and even change?

I remember while growing up, I loved to read about friendships that endure. Some of the most impactful stories that spoke deeply to me included Katherine Paterson’s Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia, Bette Greene’s Beth Lambert and Phillip Hall from Phillip Halls Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, and Judy Blume’s Sheila Tubman and Mouse Ellis from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. What these three duos have in common is their contrasting personalities and how these opposite traits are just the thing that binds them.

Jess and Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia are an unlikely pair and become friends after Leslie moves to town. Jess is a sad and lonely boy while Leslie is outgoing and imaginative. The two are soon inseparable and together form a secret kingdom, which Leslie names Terabithia. One of the lovely aspects to this friendship is that it sustains even in death, as Leslie is tragically killed in a drowning accident and Jess finds a way to accept the reality of her loss and honor her memory.

Beth and Phillip from Phillip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, have what one could describe as a boisterous relationship at times. Beth has a crush on Phillip and the two are in constant competition with one another for being the best in the class. Beth wonders if she is letting Phillip be number one because she thinks he is the cutest boy in school. However, at the end of the story when Beth finally does win a 4-H competition over Phillip, she realizes that even if she is number one occasionally, their friendship will sustain.

Sheila and Mouse from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great is a story I have read countless times growing up. Sheila meets Mouse when Sheila’s family spends the entire summer in upstate New York’s Tarrytown. Sheila is a fearful child, riddled with anxieties, however overcompensates for her fears with boastful inaccuracies to hide her self-perceived weaknesses from others. As she and Mouse become friends, Mouse begins to see through Sheila’s façade and finally lovingly confronts her about her falsehoods. And it is through this honest interaction that Sheila begins to shed her mask and learn to take chances she hadn’t done before, even if she’s scared.

What qualities do these friendships share? Honesty, sensitivity, empathy, and fun.

There are many themes present in Bigfoot, Tobin & Me, but enduring friendship is one very important one. The friendship between Lemonade and Tobin is one that is honest and loyal, and it soon becomes unconditional no matter how many times they disagree on Twinkies, steer, or where to keep the message pad, because of all that they have endured. Enduring friendship continues to be a desired theme in story in childhood and beyond. It is my hope that Lemonade and Tobin’s enduring friendship is one that speaks to kids around the world as the many enduring friendships in my most favorite books growing up have spoken to me.

With thanks to Melissa Savage. Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). It is filled with clever character descriptions, including wise Mrs Dickerson and her “bright pink lipstick that looks like it’s slipping off”, and expert perceptions of child preoccupations such as: “I surf wind waves with my hand out of the window and try to ignore him” on a car journey. The writing is immersive and a pleasure to read, and the tale, although far-fetched, draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. One of the best books for this age group that you’ll read this summer. You can buy it here and I heartily recommend that you do. Ages 8+ years. 

 

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

When I was twelve years old a new English teacher started at my school. She was young and glamorous, and I wanted very much to impress her, especially as she taught my favourite subject. Then, one day she handed out our homework assignment on the text we were studying – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She wanted us to depict a scene in a comic strip. I was devastated. Drawing wasn’t literature, I thought. My level of drawing barely matched Wimpy Kid levels, my love for my teacher plummeted as swiftly as Sir Toby descends into revelry. The effort I put in matched my grade. Low.

But it remains one of the Shakespeare plays I best remember. The cross-garters (easy to depict visually), the gender disguises, the triumphant reuniting of the twins. And perhaps that was to do with having to try to make a visual representation.

One of the ways in which the children in my library club best engage with the books I’m reading to them is if we use the books as inspiration to discuss and draw the contents. We may do craft, or create our own story, or redesign covers, or simply draw our feelings.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth is a series of comics presented in paperback book format. In fact, the publisher very kindly sent me the first three, which I devoured with glee, chortling nonstop. Hilo comes crashing down from the sky, clad only in silver underpants, and has no idea where he comes from, or what he’s doing on Earth.

DJ, a normal kid from an overachieving family, and his friend Gina, try to figure out where Hilo comes from, and by the end of the book, how to fight robots in order to save the world!

The comic is fast-paced – action leaps from frame to frame, but the book goes much deeper than that. DJ has pretty low self-esteem, believing that he lacks the skillsets he sees in his siblings. With the friendship of Hilo and Gina, he grows in confidence, and finds out what it takes to be a real hero.

Winick evokes great humour in his portrayal of Hilo, who has no idea what food and clothing are for, and yet absorbs new information at a startling rate. He introduces catchphrases for the friends, and references other comics and movies.

The books are bright and bold – the colour screams from the page, and the characters are wonderfully empathetic and emotive in their depictions.

There’s long been, and still is, a snobbery about comics, and yet by using them for readers who don’t want to be confronted with a large chunk of text, comics can easily imbue children with great storytelling skills.

One of the great things about comics is that they explore the angle of a scene – like assessing the point of view. The reader can explore each individual picture to see why the illustrator has drawn it in that way – what is shown in this scene, what is not – where is the ‘camera’ looking from, is it a close-up? The language has been carefully selected – after all there’s only so much the author can fit into each square – why did he chose those particular words? And more than that, what is the narrative stream between the different frames? – the connectivity of panels relates to the connectivity of sentences in a narrative text.

With a diverse cast, a cliffhanger ending, and a message of friendship, loyalty and bravery, this is a great new series. For 8+ years. Discover it here.

Attack of the Alien Dung by Gareth P Jones, illustrated by Steve May

Authors are often asked to elaborate on where they get their ideas from. It’s quite simple – most of the time it involves asking themselves the question ‘what if?’ This new series starts with a great premise – what do our pets do when we’re out of the house all day? And the answer is – they defend the Earth against aliens. Hence, Pet Defenders.

Gareth P Jones, former winner of the Blue Peter Award, is known in the industry for his wacky sense of humour and his outlandish inventiveness (see also for this age group: Ninja Meerkats, Dragon Detectives and Steampunk Pirates) but this new series plumbs new depths – or reaches new heights, depending on your sense of humour!

Planet Earth is under constant attack from alien species, but agent Biskit (a dog) is fully prepared to stop them, aided by his new partner Mitzy (a cat!) and the boss – Example One, who happens to be a former lab mouse. Add in a few Forget-Me-Plop seagulls to keep the humans quiet, and a story is born. In fact, it’s highly reminiscent of Men in Black (with animals), and just as funny.

In Attack of the Alien Dung, not only does Biskit meet his new partner, Mitzy, but he has to save the world from a Dung Guzzler beetle from the planet Dun-Glowing, a creature who thrives by eating rubbish and grows larger the more it consumes.

There is little let-up in the action here, with many pet chases, as well as non-stop gentle humour and overarching inventiveness and silliness. Accompanied by very funny black and white illustrations that help to tell the story, as well as showing extra brushes of humour, this is a rollicking read for young readers.

Stepping in the footsteps of Captain Underpants, Spy Dogs, and the silliness of Jeremy Strong’s books – this fine new series should prove to be a popular addition to the comedy canon.

So many children say that they like to read a book that makes them laugh. These sorts of books are perfect for encouraging reading as a habit rather than a chore – if they’re laughing throughout, then they don’t deem it work – and before long the habit is formed and reading is for pleasure and for love.  There’s no better attraction than laughter. And Gareth P Jones does it particularly well. You can buy it here.

King Flashypants and the Evil Emperor by Andy Riley

King Flashypants

That old adage: it’s not what you say but the manner in which you say it, is hugely applicable to this hilarious book for emerging readers. The story of King Flashypants and the Evil Emperor Nurbison in the kingdom next door, borrows a general plot from almost every story in the world – will good triumph over evil? But the freshness, pizzazz, and hilarity of its execution is what makes this title a top read for the age group (and their parents).

Andy Riley excels in his easy-to-read text that speaks directly to the reader, setting the tone from the contents page, which is called ‘The Names of all the thrilling chapters you’re about to read’. His tongue-in-cheek style is consistent throughout, from observations about how much children need chocolate (like air), to his explanations of what makes a castle good as opposed to evil.

King Flashypants, or Edwin, as our nine year old protagonist is called, is depicted nonchalantly reclining on his throne, important crown on head, drink with straw in his hand. He’s completely loveable, and understandably for a nine-year-old, has slightly let his power go to his head. So, when he runs out of money, having spent it all on chocolate that he generously gives out to his subjects, his kingdom faces enormous trouble. Resonating slightly with today’s economic deficit, this is a hilarious take on the perils of governing unwisely.

Illustrations punctuate each page, and add to the story rather than just annotate it. Things to particularly note are the map at the beginning, the gallery of portraits, the wonderful hand expressions – Riley’s characters express from their head to their toes – the eclectic collection of peasants (the description of them is hysterical), and the drawing of Edwin’s chocolate-dispensing contraption.

From creating a new evil laugh to bottomless pits, the excellent variety of villainous friends, and a particularly vocal peasant girl called Natasha, there is lots to admire here. The plot is brilliantly stupid, which simply serves to further highlight the comedy, and the ending, where the characters discuss what they have learned ‘a la primary school practice circle time’, borders on comedy genius. The funniest and most enjoyable book for this age group for quite some time. I even sang the song at the end. And apparently more to come in the series. I can’t wait. Age 6+ years, you can buy a little piece of King Flashypants’ kingdom here.

Football Fever

Friday saw the start of the EURO2016 tournament. Cue great excitement in certain households, particularly those that are fed up with talking about the ‘other’ European issue. Although I hate to be gender divisive when talking about books, it does seem to follow that boys who are reluctant readers and prefer to play football can be enticed with a football book. Those of you who follow me weekly will be tired of my anecdote that my son learned to read from the Sky Sports News tickertape – but it’s true. I personally adore football (season ticket holder from the age of 13yrs until it was nabbed by my son), so as a girl into football and children’s books – these newly published titles won me over.

callum new team

Scotland Stars FC: Calum’s New Team by Danny Scott, illustrated by Alice A Morentorn

For a slightly more integrationist blog, this is a book about football set in Scotland – but completely suitable and enjoyable for England fans too (or anyone). This first in the series tells the story of Calum, newly moved to the area and struggling for a place on the school football team. It doesn’t help that another child’s parent runs the team (somewhat unfairly), and that Calum doesn’t have astroturf boots – but these things are soon remedied and it becomes all about the skill.

Written by Danny Scott, who works for the Scottish Book Trust, and is a huge football fan – the love for the game and for literacy shines through the text. It’s easy to read, with a manageable vocabulary and a plot that moves along quickly and realistically.

Interspersed with zazzy illustrations from Alice A Morentorn and complete with trading cards inside, this is a young football fan’s dream story. It touched a nerve here – the things mentioned in the book absolutely happen – which makes it completely relatable. The characters are sympathetically drawn – even Calum’s busy parents. Of course there’s the usual happiness at the end – so many fictional football teams win trophies and beat rivals (in the end) – in real life if you’re a Spurs fan the wait can be a little longer than the time it takes to read a book….

For age 6+ years. A cracking addition to the team. Purchase your copy here. Three titles have been published, and there are more to follow in August.

over the line

Over the Line by Tom Palmer, illustrated by Ollie Cuthbertson

Another brilliant story from Tom Palmer that integrates love for football with historical fiction. Over the Line tells a fictional story about the professional footballers who fought in the First World War. With astute attention to detail and historical research, the story maintains an integrity throughout as it pushes to tell the story of the brave men who fought in the war, but at the same time exploits the passion and drama of the beautiful game.

Jack makes his debut as a professional footballer, but unfortunately for him the year is 1914, and there is huge pressure on the fit young men to sign up for the war effort. Jack bravely does so and shows the same courage and team spirit on the fields in France as on the football pitch. All the time, dreaming of when he can return home to London and play football.

The youth of the boys fighting, the horrors of the front line and the confrontation with death and killing are all embedded within Tom Palmer’s text, but with pathos and tenderness. Jack is a warm and loveable protagonist, and although the reader knows the odds must be stacked against him, the tension is dissipated by the belief in his ability to survive and go on to triumph.

What was particularly compelling was the inner thoughts of Jack, pervading each scene, and giving the reader a good insight into the sights and sounds of war, as well as the feelings behind being picked for a team – even as a professional.

From the team at Barrington Stoke, so it is highly readable and not too long, but also ties in beautifully with Euro 2016 and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. See resources here. Age 8+ years. You can buy the book here.

booked

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Ever since the publication of Crossover, readers have been begging me for a similar title, but about football rather than US-focussed basketball. Kwame Alexander delivers again with this novel in free verse for the teen market, this time with the focus on football rather than basketball.

Twelve year old Nick is the star of the football team, but he struggles to keep his head in the game when things at home start to break down. Add to the mix a school bully and a potential girlfriend, and Nick begins to see that although football may be everything, sometimes it has to take the back foot.

Kwame Alexander’s word play is always fresh and exciting, and this novel doesn’t let the team down – it continues in brilliant free verse, using text messages, dialogue and even t-shirt slogans to move the plot along. There’s a wide-ranging vocabulary, all explained in footnotes, and a mixed relationship with words, as Nick’s Dad insists on him reading a dictionary to better himself, whereas Nick would rather live in the world of texting and football, until the girl he likes explains how wonderful books and words can be.

Alexander’s characters are all well-rounded, even from such sparse poetry – with background stories for them all, and a wonderfully quirky school librarian who plays an integral part in Nick’s story, and a brilliantly depicted best friend.

The emotion is raw, emphasised by the use of poetry, and the blank spaces between the words. Nick’s pain comes across strongly; the poem on page 59 is particularly poignant.

The homage to the poet Langston Hughes is noticeable here in the different strands of poetry; the ‘jazz poetry’ that portrays the physicality of sports in particular. Alexander also integrates the titles of each poem into the poetry itself and utilises the white space on the page, all great examples of how much can be said in the implication rather than the spoken word.

There’s not as much football in here as there was basketball in Crossover, and the love for the game doesn’t come across quite as strongly – the sporty poems don’t have quite the same bounce as in the previous book, but the backstory is so emotive and the characters so real that football fan readers will still appreciate the story, and reluctant readers will soak it up. Age 9+ years. You can buy a copy here.

Young football fans might also like to catch CBBC’s adaptation of the Jamie Johnson football books by Dan Freedman. Starting tomorrow, Monday 13 June, at 5pm.

Urban Outlaws: Counterstrike by Peter Jay Black

urban outlaws

When I was a kid I was obsessed with an animation on TV called Battle of the Planets. “Fearless young orphans, protecting Earth’s entire galaxy. Always five, acting as one. Dedicated! Inseparable! Invincible!”

The words came back to haunt me this week on picking up a copy of Urban Outlaws: Counterstrike, the fourth book in the series, which was published last week. The urban outlaws are five fearless young orphans (aged between ten and fifteen) who wield extraordinary skills, and work together to outsmart criminal gangs. Rather like Robin Hood and his band of merry men, they attempt to redistribute the wealth they gain among the poor and needy by carrying out random acts of kindness – RAKing.

This series is not sci-fi like Battle of the Planets though – it is firmly grounded on Earth, with no planetary references or wings in sight. In fact, London is superbly depicted through an array of landmarks, such as the Shard, and building sites, as well as references to existing suburbs, such as Harrow.

Urban Outlaws: Counterstrike is told from the point of view of Jack – the thinker and planner of the group, and at fourteen, the oldest. The main mission occurs near the end of the book, but the rest of the book is still action-packed and electric-charged as Jack and the team plot and plan and execute other small elements to prepare for the end game. They are attempting to break into the Facility and find the ultimate weapon – the Medusa – before their nemesis, baddie Hector, gets his hands on it.

The action never stops – from the first sentence to the last – which ends on a whopping cliffhanger, ready for the last book in the series (November 2016). The imagery is great, the gadgets even better, and the use of computers and hacking is current and intriguing. Readers will whizz through this book – once picked up it’s really hard to do anything else!

What’s more, the characters are all really different, and engage in banter just like in the best heist movies. There is bucket-loads of dialogue – and very little background information, so as in the TV series 24, the reader is carried along with the action with little time to think.

But there are touches of humanity and background to each character, of course to imbue empathy and affection for the five orphans – I couldn’t get enough of Jack and little Wren. And in fact it is the littleness that creates some of the most exciting scenes – Wren is only ten, and useful as a decoy in much of the action – her scene lying on a skateboard to avoid being seen at eye-level was excellent. And their giggles just reinforce that they are children.

But above all Peter Jay Black brings a lightness of touch to the prose. It’s fast, gritty and absorbing. Perfect fodder for those seeking an entertaining urban thriller, and for those who live in the moment:

“All the Outlaws had a past. Sometimes they shared. Sometimes they didn’t. But mostly they didn’t. They tended to live in the moment. Or at least they tried to.”

Buy it here for your 9+ year olds. You’ll have to bribe them to stop reading!

 

 

Fusion Fun

The brilliant thing about reading books with children is that it’s fun. Storytelling can cross genres and create exciting new fusion titles.

Pablo and Jane and the Hot Air Contraption by Jose Domingo fuses comic book with picture book and a Where’s Wally style hide-and-seek to create a madcap colourful wacky adventure story. And Electrigirl by Jo Cotterill and Cathy Brett fuses comic book with novel to create a superhero adventure.

electrigirl

Electrigirl tells the story of Holly Sparkes, an ordinary 12 year old girl, who gets struck by lightning, or so she thinks. But then she starts to notice her new strange electrical charge. It takes her comic-mad brother to recognise that she has electrical superpowers, and that his sister is now a bona fide superhero. Just as well, because her best friend Imogen has disappeared, and someone needs to battle Professor Macavity, head of CyberSky the phone company, to find her.

Although a slim adventure story novel, Electrigirl sparkily packs in a host of elements, from a new feisty female superhero to sibling loyalty, bullying in the playground, and the dangers of mobile phones both to the brain, and also the damage they can wreak on social interaction. As befits any superhero book, there’s also an evil villain at the head of a nasty monopolising corporation.

But this story is perfect for reluctant readers, because the scenes that build tension, and the scenes of superhero action are all depicted by Cathy Brett as graphic comic strips. The book starts, in fact, with Cathy’s comic book portrayals of the main characters, and the illustrations really kick off when Holly gets zapped. There is no lack of explosions in the book – at first Holly can’t control her powers and blows everything up, which is enormous fun.

The author drops in a number of ‘clues’ and intrigue along the way, such as “if only I’d known then what I know now,” as well as some wonderful vocabulary in the comic strips – zaps and tingles and schwumpzz, mixing all the elements of the two genres beautiful in this fusion novel.

The next in the series is out on 1 August this year, and I’m feeling tingly already. Age 7+. You can buy it here.

pablo

Pablo and Jane and the Hot Air Contraption bursts with bright, bold wacky colours, as befits the adventure inside. The picture book starts as comic strip: Pablo and Jane are bored, so decide to explore the spooky old house up on the hill, having hilariously ruled out the ‘abandoned sawmill’, ‘the old graveyard’, ‘the haunted orphanage’ and the ‘tunnel of whispers’! Once there, they are trapped into the Monster Dimension by an evil cat, Dr Felinibus.

There follows twelve double pages of full page illustrations from Lopsided London to Monstrous Moscow, Muerto Mexico and ‘Orrible Outback. In each spread, Pablo and Jane, and the reader must find the correct tools to fix their Hot Air Time Machine, and travel back home, in a kind of ‘Where’s Wally’ scenario.

Each of these luscious spreads is crammed full with detail, colour, mad figures, props and entertainment – in fact the end of the book suggests other things to look for on each spread too including such mischievous elements as “A handsome troll (compared to the others, that is)”, and “2 zombies in rubber rings who can’t swim”. Each time the reader examines the illustrations, there is even more to find, jokes to see, and the ‘finding’ is fairly challenging.

The adventure resumes in comic book style as the children find their way home. It’s perfect for reluctant readers, enormous fun, and there are carefully wrapped narratives in each scene.

The book bursts with energy and flamboyance – and beware – monsters. Also suitable for age 7+ years. You can find it here.

Top Ten Places I Wrote The Shadow Keeper: a guest blog by Abi Elphinstone

shadow keeper

Abi Elphinstone wrote one of the most exciting children’s books last year, The Dreamsnatcher, which I wrote about here. This week the sequel, The Shadow Keeper, is published. And it’s even better (if that were possible). Abi has very kindly contributed this guest post. 

I want to do a Dodie Smith and say that I wrote The Shadow Keeper sitting in the kitchen sink. I didn’t get all creative amongst the fairy liquid – not this time – but I did end up in some extraordinary places writing my second book. So, here goes for the Top 10 Places I Wrote The Shadow Keeper:

Smoo waterfall

  1. Smoo Cave. It’s located at the eastern edge of a village called Durness, on Scotland’s most northerly coastline. After I’d waded past the KEEP OUT sign I found a hidden waterfall and I wrote the very opening of the book, about the Shadowmasks meeting in a dark cave, here.

Brazil cave writing

  1. Abismo de Anhumas. Another cave. This time in the Brazilan jungle outside Bonito. It was like a journey to Middle Earth – a 72 metre abseil into a cave home to incredible stalactite formations – and I wrote about the very big (and very magical) cave at the end of The Shadow Keeper while I was here – with a head torch.
  1. Iguazu Falls in Argentina. I took my writing pad to the top of the raging waterfalls and wrote while swifts dived into the spray.

Writing shed

  1. My writing shed in the garden. I wrote much of the book by candlelight here, surrounded by books and souvenirs I’ve picked up from my travels (shaman daggers and buzzard-fletched arrows…).
  1. The 316 bus in London. Not quite so magical but because I do a lot of school events I end up writing most of my books on buses, trains and planes.
  1. Clavell Tower, Dorset. I wrote with the sea spread out below the cliffs and the cries of the gulls hanging in the wind. Bliss.

St Cyrus

  1. St Cyrus Beach, Scotland. I grew up building sandcastles and exploring rock pools on this beach and I wrote many of the Little Hollows scenes here.

Norway writing

  1. Engelsholm, a remote island off the Norwegian coast, not far from Kristiansand. I learnt to forage for mussels and oysters here and I wrote for days on end on the jetty looking out over the fjords.

Abi biking Burma

  1. On the back of a motorbike in Burma. I wrote one word ‘the’ (not a classic) then realised it was too bumpy to continue.
  1. On the BA flight home to my Dad’s in Scotland. There is perhaps nowhere as magical to write as up above the clouds.

THE SHADOW KEEPER:

Moll Pecksniff and her friends are living as outlaws in a secret cave by the sea, desperate to stay hidden from the Shadowmasks. But further along the coast lies the Amulet of Truth, the only thing powerful enough to force the Shadowmasks back and contain their dark magic. So, together with Gryff, the wildcat that’s always by her side, and her best friends Alfie and Sid, Moll must sneak past smugglers, outwit mer creatures and crack secret codes to save the Old Magic. With more at stake than ever before and the dark magic rising fast, can Moll and her friends stop the Shadowmasks before it’s too late? Perfect for fans of J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Michelle Paver and Eva Ibbotson.

Shadow Keeper Blog Tour [46971]

www.abielphinstone.com

 

Witches for slightly older children

Following last Wednesday’s blog on younger readers’ books about witches, three more witchy series for slightly older children. What’s noticeable about these newly published series is that the reader can almost reach out and touch the amount of fun and tongue-in-cheek mischievousness within.

bella broomstick

Bella Broomstick by Lou Kuenzler and illustrated by Kyan Cheng
This newest witch, Bella Broomstick, was first published this year. Author Lou Kuenzler is a perennial favourite author in children’s libraries, with her series Shrinking Violet and Princess Disgrace, and Bella is a spritely addition to the canon. She’s a young witch, raised by her nasty Aunt Hemlock, and told that she is so terrible at magic that she’s being sent to live in Person World (through the invisibility curtain dividing the two worlds), and she mustn’t use magic ever again.

As it happens, Bella makes herself at home in this new world, and finds it quite exciting – with fluffy slippers, yummy breakfasts and proper baths, as opposed to Aunt Hemlock’s wobbly warts, frogspawn porridge and squelchy swamps.

Of course not everything goes to plan, and Bella does use some magic to rescue a kitten, and before long she’s in a bucket load of trouble.

Lou Kuenzler has cunningly subverted the children’s literature trend for exploring the witch world, and instead has implanted Bella in the Person realm, reminiscent of long ago shows on television such as Bewitched, except here the protagonists are children. The lovely deeper meaning behind the simple story is that Bella doesn’t expect there to be any magic in the person world, whereas in fact, she discovers that although mirrors don’t talk back – there are some magic things, such as toilets that flush and television. There is magic in our world, if we open our eyes and look for it.

There’s also the underlying theme of a child just wanting to be appreciated, and discovering that its not the tricks you can do that define you, but how you behave and how you use those magic tricks.

There are influences of Blyton here – the magic is gentle and beguiling, and a lovely use of animals as comforters for a young child – Bella’s distinguishing talent is that she can talk in animal language.

Accompanied by cute, doodle illustrations throughout, this is suitable for fluent 6 year old readers and certainly for age 8+ yrs. You can buy the book here.

witch wars witch switch

Witch Wars by Sibeal Pounder, illustrated by Laura Ellen Andersen
This the most fun I’ve had reading a book in quite a while – the most inventive, crazy, yet hilarious read – humour that reaches far beyond the slapstick – although there’s that too. Fashion meets witches in this madcap adventure that takes Tiga Whicabim (work out the anagram), down the drain pipes into a world of witches (a town called Sinkville, ie., the world beneath the sinks – there’s even a map at the beginning of the book).

Fran the Fabulous Fairy from the Sinkville version of Hollywood (Brollywood – so called because it’s under most of the drainpipes from human world and so gets very wet), explains that Tiga has been nominated to take part in Witch Wars, a competition between nine nine-year old witches to see who will be Top Witch. Fran is a TV presenter, and will be following Tiga round with a television camera to film her taking part. In a Big Brother-esque motif, the competitors are all filmed.

Each witch must solve a series of riddles to move onto the next clue and win, as long as another witch doesn’t squash their shrivelled head (carried about on their flat hat – no one in this witch world has a pointy hat – they are made pointed by shooting back up the drainpipes into the human world.)

Indeed, every facet of this book is original, inventive, entertaining and witty. From the underwater spa, to the bed with feet, to viewing television on the back of a spoon or on somebody’s bald head (bringing a whole new meaning to the word portable!), to my favourite scene with the cove witches, where Tiga and her friend Peggy practise their ‘echoes’.

This book is fabulous. Witty, contemporary, the plot zips along, presenting the riddles of the competition to the reader so that they can solve them too, as well as containing jokes for both smaller children and overgrown ones! The nine-year-old witches are told they can be trusted to make all the rules for Sinkville, but not be trusted to look after themselves – brushing their teeth and putting themselves to bed on time.

There are constant allusions to fashion – although there’s clumsy and scruffy Peggy for those who can’t quite identify with the frock fascination. The prose is also punctuated with ‘breaking news’ alerts as each witch is knocked out the competition.

Added to the mayhem are Laura Ellen Andersen’s confident and stylish illustrations, depicting the shoe house, the clothing store, angry fairies and bald witches. They complement the text beautifully. Sibeal Pounder has no bounds to her imagination, and also cleverly alludes to fairy tales – Rapunzel to name but one, as well as Mary Poppins, with the witches’ floating tables. But the overarching theme is friendship.

These witches certainly have edge. They are feisty, funny, fabulous and flamboyant. Reading Witch Wars is like eating a cake that’s been made with the lightest of touches. It’s moreish and sweet. Thank goodness for the second, Witch Switch, and a third to come in March this year, Witch Watch. Try Witch Wars here.

Witchworld witchmyth

Witchworld by Emma Fischel, illustrations by Chris Riddell
Another modern spin on how witches might be in the 21st century. Our protagonist, Flo, is a quietly intelligent and sensitive young witch about to start secondary school. Her mother is editor-in-chief of a celebrity witch magazine Hocus Pocus, and Flo also has a typical witchteen sister Hetty.

As with Witch Wars, it’s the inventiveness and modernising that shouts from this book, although it’s much more serious than Witch Wars. The witches in Witchworld are not antiquated witches who ride on broomsticks and stir potions in cauldrons. They have a cupboard full of Potions2Go, they ride on Skyriders, talk to each other on their skychatters (phones), and their wands have become up-to-the-minute touchscreen spell sticks.

When Flo’s grandmother comes to stay, and warns Flo and her family about the impending Ghoul Attack, no one believes her. After all, she’s a throwback to a bygone era with her broomstick and ‘old ways’. Then Flo discovers that her grandmother is right – and not only do they have to save Witch World from the ghouls, they also have to convince everyone that the ghouls are real.

Featuring celebrity forest pixies and witch school proms, concerns with modern technology (using a magic mirror for hacking), obsession with appearances, therapy and communicating with busy parents, this is a witchworld that holds up a mirror to our own. It’s not subtle, but it’s incredibly fun.

The plot darts along merrily and the beautiful packaging of the book (from cover and inside illustrations by Chris Riddell to the colourful sprayed edges – the first book purple, the second orange) makes this a sure-fire winner with the 8-12 years age group. The second book, WitchMyth was published at the end of last year. Cast your spell here for a copy of the book.