witches

Younger Fiction

There have been some beautiful stories for younger children recently – books for newly independent readers (those comfortable enough to tackle chapter books by themselves).

legend of kevinThe Legend of Kevin by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Reeve and McIntyre, of Cakes in Space fame, bring their zany storytelling to this new magical tale about a rotund flying pony, blown from the outermost West to a tower block in Bumbleford. The over-riding theme is friendship but there’s a pervasive feeling of community throughout, and an understanding of providing solutions for problems, no matter how peculiar the problem (mermaid hair styling), and how outlandish the solution. There’s acceptance of difference, and an emphasis on ordinary heroes.

The success of this author/illustrator pairing, and there are those who wait ravenously for each new book, is that the text and pictures work perfectly in harmony. Gaps in the text are filled by the pictures, humour in the pictures is enhanced by the text. The pair know exactly how to pace the book, when to digress and when to pull back to the plot. With their trademark mermaids and naughty sea monkeys, this is a delight (for slightly younger audiences than their previous books), and marks a determined shift towards reality, as the Outermost West comes to a city not unlike the reader’s, complete with mundane shops, headmasters and mayors. You can buy it here.

sherlock and baker street curseSherlock and the Baker Street Curse by Sam Hearn

Super sleuthing comes to the younger fiction department in this glorious play on the trope of Sherlock Holmes. Transported into a school, the Baker Street Academy, Sherlock is just a school boy solving mysteries. But it’s the use of media that works so well here. The plot is relayed through a series of different text formats – Watson’s diary, comic strip illustrations, notice boards, webchats, emails etc. There’s a mystery to solve of course – and the reader can solve alongside Holmes, Watson and Hudson, as long as they don’t get misguided by a red herring.

In this book in the series, Sherlock and his friends have to solve a ghost mystery, dating back to when the school building was a family home. There is a great warmth that exudes from the text, and the dialogue feels authentic and friendly. A slick introduction to mysteries. You can buy it here.

ivy and beanIvy and Bean: One Big Happy Family by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I had my favourite American characters when I was little – Ramona Quimby and Amelia Bedelia spring to mind instantly. I don’t know if it was their spunky characters or their derring-do adventures, or perhaps the setting – in a school grade system I didn’t understand, with towns boasting large white houses with sweeping driveways, and vibrant lawns with tyre swings hanging from trees. For the next generation, and slightly more down-to-earth, is Ivy and Bean. This delightful friendship between quiet Ivy and rambunctious Bean, two seven-year-olds who live in the same street, is a celebration of old-fashioned values and community America. But mainly it’s just a fun chronicle of two girls and their neighbourhood adventures. What appeals most is the amount of free time the girls have to indulge their passions and make their own fun – rather like The Secret Seven did.

Barrows seems to have an understanding of the limitless possibilities offered by the best childhoods, and she includes all the fabulous childhood obsessions from glitter, to being made to tidy up, to sharing. This eleventh book in the series celebrates being an only child, or rather not being spoiled. You can buy it here.

first prize for worst witchFirst Prize for the Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Another series that should be celebrated for its longevity is The Worst Witch. Not only bearing my favourite character names, Mildred Hubble’s and enemy Ethel Hallow’s images are burned onto my brain – those illustrious illustrations of schoolgirl witches hanging on broomsticks with plaits flailing behind them, dangling untied shoelaces, and the haughty thinness of Miss Hardbroom. The utter enjoyment of seeing Mildred learning from her mistakes continues to this day, with Mildred battling to be chosen as Head Girl, against all the odds. Although the first in the series was published in 1974, this latest (and reportedly last) lives up to the high standard set by the first, and is an utter nostalgic joy for the adult reader, and an excellent gentle introduction to chapter books for new readers – it’s humorous, accessible and still relevant. You can buy it here.

nelly and monster sitterNelly the Monster Sitter: the Grerks at No. 55 by Kes Gray, illustrated by Chris Jevons

Repackaged in August with new illustrations, although the original text was first published in 2005, these hilarious books sit comfortably between Horrid Henry and The Bolds as accessible, funny, highly illustrated chapter books just right for newly independent readers. Nelly likes monsters, and happily takes care of the little monsters in the neighbourhood after school whilst the parent monsters take some time off. She’s in high demand, but has no idea of the type of monster she’ll encounter before she arrives. Each adventure showcases Nelly’s wit and quick-thinking – she’s a brave, down-to-earth and likeable protagonist, and as one would expect from Kes Gray, there is plenty of word play, great visual description (enhanced by the illustrations), and a lively exuberance that permeates the text. The winning formula here is that the monsters’ lives are so mundane. You can buy it here.

oscar and catastropheOscar and the CATastrophe by Alan MacDonald, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Another skilled writer for this age group is the indomitable Alan MacDonald, author of the Dirty Bertie and Superhero School series, among others. His straightforward easy to understand style is great for flourishing readers, and enables them to zip through his books at speed, promoting confidence and fluency. Oscar and the CATastrophe is the third in this series about Oscar the talking dog and his owner Sam. In this latest adventure, Oscar has been shocked to silence by the appearance of a neighbourhood cat and Sam is worried about the jewel thief in town. Gentle humour and basic plotting, but perfect for growing readers. You can buy it here.

Halloween Murder and Magic

There’s nothing like a Halloween night to bring out the ghosts and ghoulies and spooky horror stories. But there’s also plenty of room for fun and frolics. When I first starting stocking murder stories in the primary school library, a parent queried the content. Murder? For children? Indeed. Murder, monsters, howling winds, dark nights, swamp creatures, are all perfect fodder for little ones (age 9+). Here are two I particularly like.

what manor murderWhat Manor of Murder? by Christopher William Hill
“It looks like the sort of place where bad things have happened,” whispered Master Oliver Davenport.

The author of the Tales from Schwartzgarten series is back with a new book called The Bleakley Brothers Mystery: What Manor of Murder? Spoofing traditional murder mysteries with a good helping of homicide, one-by-one elimination of suspects, a dollop of old country house, and a smigden of regurgitated legend, Hill tackles his topic with aplomb, dropping gothic clichés and hints throughout in the build up to the crime (the family’s Latin motto, mors cum Laetitia, means death with joyfulness). In the approach to the old manor house, there is an old man surrounded by clouds of smoke telling superstitious tales of gloom and doom, an ominous howling wind, a rickety bridge, and the looming towering walls of Bleakley Manor itself.

Posh twins Horatio and Eustace, freshly released from their boarding school, accompanied by Poor Unfortunate Oliver Davenport, arrive at Bleakley Manor for Michaelmas Eve with their extended family. Things are rather out of sorts though – with the butler and footman gone and replaced by inferior staff – and then a body is found in the study…

Hill assembles his eccentric characters; including cousin Loveday, a rather winning know-it-all who brandishes a jolly lacrosse stick and excitedly relays her new venture writing a school magazine entitled ‘Murder and Mayhem’, a Great Aunt who writes crime novels (and explains to Oliver Davenport that the poor unfortunates in her books always die), and an uncle who happens to be a roving explorer and Egyptologist.

Murder is discussed continually in the most off-hand manner, the children are desperate for mystery, and so it isn’t long before they get what they deserve. The author flourishes his deft wit on every page, playing with the readers as he assembles his cast and then eliminates them, all with fantastically posh period detail – from pineapple cubes and aniseed balls to roast goose and roly poly pudding (there is a lot of food).

If there’s an occasional clunker (insects sent scuttling more than once), the reader either excuses it as being part of the hammy style or overlooks it because the rest of the book is so much fun. I wanted to read it aloud in a plummy posh accent and revel in the quirky dark humour. It’s deliciously wicked. You can buy it here.

witch girlMore macabre goings-on in Witch Girl by Jan Eldredge, titled Evangeline of the Bayou in the States, which gives much more of a clue to the contents. The book is set in the swamps of Louisiana and stars twelve-year-old haunt huntress apprentice Evangeline Clement. (Haunt huntresses are on call to protect everyday folks haunted by supernatural creatures).

Evangeline Clement lives with her witchy grandmother, learning how to keep the locals safe from the monsters of the Bayou, including such nasties as banshees and terrebonnes. Evangeline and her grandmother rely on various herbs, potions, talismans and spells for their trade, which all tie nicely into the scenery – Eldredge borrowing from Cajun culture and the plant life of the American South.

The book plunges the reader into the action, showing Evangeline attempting to prove her worth by tackling a number of supernatural monster invasions on her own, although much to the reader’s amusement, she makes rather a mess of it.

Then, she and her grandmother are called to New Orleans to investigate the rather peculiar case of Mrs Midsomer who transforms into a rougarou (a werewolf). Fully immersed in the setting with its white wedding cake houses and aroma of coffee and chicory, this is a transportive novel brought to life most magnificently with the superstitions and local folklore tied into Evangeline’s witchcraft and voodoo. There is much monster-fighting action, and more than a hint of wit and sass.

In the end, the reader understands that trusting one’s gut is as important as knowledge, although a UK readerships’ knowledge will be greatly enhanced with the glossary of Cajun folklore creatures at the back of the book. Paranormal in abundance, creepiness indeed, but no outright horror. This is a nod to bravery in the face of creepy old mansions and terrifying monsters that make the dangerous alligator seem like a fluffy pussycat. Try it here.

 

Two Witchy Reads

Witches aren’t just for Halloween, as my primary school book club recently reminded me. We look at books by theme rather than all reading the same title, and when we chose witches, the children and I were quite overwhelmed with the breadth of novels available. Witches make a great topic in literature – ‘witch’ books often portray women as ‘other’, and invite the reader to assess why that is, why women have historically been cast as mysterious or outside of normal morality. They look into ideas of good and evil, delve into societal fears, utilise magic, and can bring to the fore how witchcraft was viewed historically.

how to hang a witchThe author, Adriana Mather, has more inclination to write about Salem witches than most, being descended from Cotton Mather, one of the men responsible for the gruesome Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Her novel, How to Hang a Witch, tells the story of fifteen-year-old Samantha Mather, an alter ego almost, a fictional descendant of Cotton Mather, who is moving back to Salem to live in her deceased grandmother’s house.

The setting of the book is enormously well-crafted, from the spooky empty streets in which it feels as if a ghost lurks at every corner, and the various nooks and crannies the characters inhabit, as well as the haunted house in woodland, a cemetery and other ‘witchy’ tropes. The book starts in autumn of course, with the crispness in the air and leaves, and the aura of Halloween that pervades the shops and houses.

Mathers sets out to parallel modern-day school bullying with the bullying behind the Salem witch trials. To some extent she does do this, by casting a popular group at school as the Descendants of the witches on trial, and by introducing a love triangle between a ghost of a boy from the seventeenth century with Sam’s contemporary cute boy-next-door. So far, so contrived, but once the reader suspends all disbelief, and throws themselves into the various elements of the paranormal that occur, this is a fun, romance-filled romp of a YA novel, perfect for those who suck up box sets on Netflix of pretty looking teens with darkness bubbling beneath.

To her credit, Mathers introduces a fair amount of historical detail of the Salem Witch Trials, although those really interested would be wise to fact-check what they’ve consumed. The history in the book piques the interest. You can buy it here.

begone the raggedy witchesFor younger readers (10+), and more magical and far more literary, is Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan, the first in The Wild Magic Trilogy. This beautifully written fantasy adventure begins with a spooky car journey home, in which Mup feels that she is being watched by witches in the trees. She is not wrong, and when they come for her Mam, and take her back to Witches’ Borough, a suppressed magical realm accessed through the forest, Mup has no choice but to follow.

With the ghost of her newly deceased aunt never far removed, and the shapeshifting that overtakes her baby brother, as well as the creatures she meets in this new witchy realm, this is fantasy of the highest order. This gripping tale is told from the third person point of view of a protagonist, Mup, who is vastly grounded, and practical – making the fantasy seem incredibly real.

With richness in vocabulary, some impinged-upon characters who may only speak in rhyme, and a spooky atmosphere to rival the darkest of Frances Hardinge’s novels, this is a treat.

The true delight though, comes from the position in which Kiernan has placed Mup. Although heroine of her own adventure, in reality, the adventure belongs to her parents. Her mother has been spirited into the other realm because she is in fact, heir to the witchy throne, and Mup’s father has been kidnapped as a bargaining tool to entice her mother. Mup’s grandmother is the evil queen, and Mup is largely cast as ‘in the way’; asked to look after her baby brother whilst the grownups battle over the kingdom.

This gives the opportunity for vast amounts of humour, pathos and real insight, as children will read and sympathise greatly with Mup – children so often told to wait while the grown-ups deal with the big issues.

Add to this a witchy world in which there is a matriarchy across all tribes, and a complicated relationship between Mup and her mother anyway, and this is a fascinating and compelling read. Even more satisfying is that despite being first of a trilogy, the ending to this first novel does not feel like a cheat – it wraps up nicely and yet leaves the reader wanting more. Not to be missed. You can buy it here.

 

 

Halloween Round Up

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring 2017 Picture Book Round-up

Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory by Elys Dolan

The author of Weasels and Nuts in Space has come up trumps with her new book, which at first glance, looks simply like an Easter holiday novelty title. However, it’s much much more than that, and for me, one of the top books of the season.

The chickens in Mr Bunny’s chocolate factory are force fed chocolate, so that they can squeeze out chocolate eggs. But when holidays and breaks are cancelled to increase production, the worker chickens revolt, calling a strike. Mr Bunny thinks he can survive without them, but comes to realise in the end that having a happy workforce means a thriving business. (By the end, the workplace has turned into a start-up firm’s dream, complete with a table tennis area, salad bar and café.)

With a quality control unicorn, health and safety, conveyor belts, a call centre and an ‘image change’, this is a sumptuous indictment of greed in manufacture, and a wonderful lesson about workers’ rights and factories, and the art of persuasion and negotiation.

The plot is told through a combination of narrative, speech bubbles and illustration, at times combining to form a comic strip, and Dolan has imbued her book with subplot and much personality.

A brilliant book, with humour throughout, and a message that lasts long after you’ve consumed the final chocolate egg. Hunt it down here.

Edie by Sophy Henn

Another gem, in a completely different style. Henn’s style is distinctive (she illustrates PomPom books, and previously shone with Where Bear?) and it’s clear to see the similarity here, although this time our protagonist is a girl. The message behind Edie is both simple and complicated. In essence it’s about the dissonance between what a toddler thinks is helpful and how an adult wants toddlers to behave.

For grownups they may recognise their own impatience and frustration, and children will delight at Edie’s antics – knowing that they are usually deemed naughty. However, with a bit of philosophical distance, we can see that Edie is learning through play – and perhaps we impose too many restrictions on children’s freedom. Where’s the line between experimentation and good behaviour? A thought-provoking yet lovely little charmer in beautifully muted pastel shades. You can buy Edie here.

I Can Only Draw Worms by Will Mabbitt

An impeccably silly title, which teaches counting and numbers to the very youngest audience, whilst also showing children that simplicity is often best. Will Mabbitt may not be the best illustrator, but he can certainly use his imagination and make the reader laugh. With its neon colours – bright yellow background cover with a pink neon worm, and bold blank spaces, this is a startling book – in that it takes minimalism to a new degree.

If you want a book to make your little one laugh, then this is it. Just worms, a dreadful accident (I think you can imagine what) and some more worms. Tongue-in-cheek to the nth degree. Draw your worms here.

The Lost Kitten by Lee, illustrated by Komoko Sakai, translated by Cathy Hirano

In contrast, here is someone who can really draw. The illustrations in this book are old-fashioned, and impeccably lifelike. The Lost Kitten tells a simple story about the possibility of loss after finding something you love.

Hina and her mother find a scrawny kitten in their doorway. While they are busy, the mother showing how to take responsibility for a kitten and how to care for it, the kitten is lost. There is, ultimately, a happy ending.

The rough edge to the pencil and paint illustration gives the impression of furriness for the cat, and a slight mist to the humans, so that they feel storylike and whimsical. I was particularly taken by the view of the back of Hina in the wind, with the branches shaking, as she calls for her lost kitten. A desperation rendered from the back is quite something.

It’s these different perspectives that give the story pathos and magic – a distant view of a crowded pavement, a close up of the found kitten next to a boot, the startling shining of the cat’s blue eyes cradled in the arms of the girl (her own face looking down so that eyelashes are more prominent). Find your kitten here.

Other titles to admire include Tasso by William Papas, a re-publication of a 1966 book, but which seems ever more relevant with its fable about tradition versus change, machines taking the place of humans. Set in a Greek fishing village and illustrated with dazzling watercolours, Tasso’s music playing is no longer needed when the café buys a juke box. With deft touches of humour in the illustrations, this is a throwback to the era, and all the more wonderful for it. In the end, of course, authentic music making prevails. Pre-order Tasso here.

Another re-publication, this time a bindup of three favourite Winnie and Wilbur tales. Winnie and Wilbur: Gadgets Galore by Valerie Thomas, illustrated by Korky Paul also plays to the moment with its tales of Winnie ordering a computer, outwitting a robot and zooming to space. Trademark spiky and colourful illustrations, children never tire of witches and the magic that goes wrong. Get your copy here.

And lastly, but by no means least, a wonderful hybrid of fact and fiction in The Curious Case of the Missing Mammoth by Ellie Hattie, illustrated by Karl James Mountford. So many parents lament that their children stick to non-fiction – nothing wrong with this – but here is a book that might fit. Timothy needs to find the missing mammoth and return him to his rightful place within the museum – on the way, trekking through the various rooms, and lifting the flaps, Timothy and the reader learn an assortment of facts, including history, art, aviation, and dinosaurs.

A hodgepodge of goodies, in scintillating contrast and colour, so that the pages are busy without blaring, intriguing without intruding. An excellent introduction to the world of museums. Be inspired here.

Wintry Tales for Cold Days

snowflake-in-my-pocket

Snowflake in my Pocket by Rachel Bright, illustrated by Yu Rong

A wintry picture book about a squirrel’s first experience of snow is a perfect first experience book, which also teaches that sharing a new adventure with someone we love is the most gratifying way to experience it. The personification of a squirrel to show a child’s exuberance and delight in first snow is a clever choice – the scampering and scurrying reflects a child’s enthusiasm.

There is much to be said for the beautiful language in the book, transposing the vocabulary for snow onto the language of everyday: Squirrel has a flurry of dreams. It even starts, “once upon a winter…” There is lots of sound language too – the thud of the heart, the squeedge as he wipes a paw across the hole to see outside – in fact this window circle is cut through to the next page, adding an extra element of wonder and magic for the reader.

An anticipation of snow is tensely built and then the fun really starts when it snows – told in an active vignette of images, from the crunch of footsteps, to snow angels, and the creation of a snow bear. But there is also the stillness that snow lends to a landscape.

But most of all the book shows the relationship between the two friends: his companion, the old Bear, who has seen many seasons, whereas Squirrel, has seen only three. When the snow finally comes, Bear is ill in bed, so Squirrel brings him a gift, with the innocence of one who doesn’t realise the transience of snow.

The illustrations of the characters are cute, from their black noses and whiskers to their rounded silhouettes. A bright colourful palette is lit particularly by the squirrel who is a luscious orange red colour, and wears bright clothing to distinguish him from the brown trees and snow. This accentuates his youth even more – he lifts off the page, whereas the Bear is shown more muted with age, shown on some pages from just his reflection in the pool of water, or just his back shown in an armchair, or just his arms, holding and consoling Squirrel.

This is a lovely winter book, with sneezles and snowflakes. You can buy it here.

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The Snowflake Mistake by Lou Treleaven and Maddie Frost

Ever since Frozen, the idea of an ice palace has been a coveted house in many young children’s minds. This ice palace is actually a factory that makes snowflakes, with the boss being The Snow Queen, a sort of Willy Wonka who insists on perfection in her flakes. Princess Ellie would rather play with the weather, riding storm clouds or sliding the rainbow.

When the Queen leaves Ellie in charge of the machine while she attends to other weather business, the snowflake machine comes to a grinding halt and the princess has to make flakes by hand.

The vocabulary here is also full of sounds, as the author explores what the machine needs to do to make snowflakes, from splatting the clouds to crashing, boings, bangs, and pops – it’s a great book to read aloud – the size of the typeface reflecting the words’ noise level.

Again the essential fun of playing in the snow is captured in a beautiful double page spread as the children below the clouds play on their ‘iced bun’ hills, shown sledging and skiing and making snow angels and rolling snowballs. The colours of the children, each in bright coats, hats and scarves mean that the twinkling of the snowflakes are a perfect background to the riot of colour.

All the illustrations are a child’s delight – lots of different shaped snowflakes falling on every scene, and a princess and her mother who look particularly picture-book friendly with small yellow crowns, rosy cheeks and shiny blue hair.

The rhyming is spot on, and it turns out that homemade snowflakes, each unique in its own way, are better than factory created ones. Perhaps a bigger moral for us is that the Queen ends up making snowflakes with her daughter. You can buy it here.

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Raven Child and the Snow Witch by Linda Sunderland and Daniel Egneus

Lastly, the Raven Child and the Snow Witch. A slightly more sinister story, although by far the glitteriest front cover. Drawing on tales of evil Ice Queens, such as the Snow Queen in Narnia, this is a tale of a stolen mother, a brave, slightly feral, child and her relationship with nature and animals.

As in Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast, in which the picking of flowers leads to danger, Anya’s mother journeys to the glacier to pick blue gentian flowers. But one year she doesn’t return, and Anya and her father must travel there too to find out what has happened. She has been trapped inside the ice by the evil Snow Witch, and Anya, with her father and the ravens, must battle to save her.

A haunting fairytale, this book excels with its dramatic artworks. Rather like the textures and colour layering used in Eric Carle books, the child is depicted as of nature, with her brown leaf dress, and her affinity with the ravens and the foxes. The illustrations are drawn from different points of view – looking through the trees towards the building that dominates the snow garden, or seeing the trees in the forest as if they are watching, or zooming in to the Raven Child’s face and her huge blue eyes as she receives a vision of where her mother is being held. Dreamlike and lyrical, the illustrations have sharp edges, which lends a darkness to the tale.

The place could be anywhere, with fragments of the Northern Americas, with Inuit overtones, and yet also, strangely, slightly European – calling up the huge expanses of Germanic forests.

Big ideas and concepts flow into the book, from the spookily shimmery elongated shapes of the Snow Witch – cascading white strips down the page as if the snow is swirling and whirling around, and language too that speaks to poetry, from the Arctic fox, “ghost of the snow”, to “the lightning that stabbed the darkening sky.”

In the end it is bravery and the power of love that conquers all. One to savour and revisit – reminiscent of Peter and the Wolf, set to music I can see this as being a long-lasting winter tale. Check it out 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Halloween Reads

Scared? You should be. Halloween Treats (no tricks) from me.

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Hyde and Squeak by Fiona Ross

It’s amazing how much influence classic tales can wield over modern culture and modern children’s storytelling. Fiona Ross has taken inspiration from Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to draw a story about a mouse with a dark side. Squeak is a cute endearing mouse with oversize whiskers and a bowtie, who lives with ‘Granny’, a rounded, gentle looking elderly woman with purple hair fashioned into a bun.

But when Squeak samples some rather off-looking jelly, he turns into Hyde, a monster-mouse with an all-consuming appetite.

Told in large comic book frames, this is a wonderfully funny picture book, with the cartoon illustrations leading the story – one can almost see the Simpsons-style Halloween episodes in their similar transformation from normal to spooky characterisation. Hyde’s pages have black backgrounds, with many details in grayscale outlines, letting huge Hyde dominate the page. His expression is crazed, one eye in bloodshot swirls, a cobwebby bowtie and protruding vampire teeth.

Of course, every so often Hyde overstuffs himself, and his farts turn him back into Squeak. Towards the end, Granny has to zap the monster-eating-machine Hyde has become to regain her lovable Squeak, which she does mainly using pieces of fruit – never has a banana-wielding grandma looked quite so aggressive.

This is fun from start to end, silly and engaging, and an excellent introduction to literature’s classics! You can buy it here.

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Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: The Spooky School by Tracy Corderoy and Steven Lenton

Originally in picture book format, Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam are two dogs who started their careers as robbers, but realised that crime doesn’t pay and so turned their skills to cupcake making. Although adept at baking, they also solve mysteries and foil crime.

Now in two-colour chapter book format for newly independent readers, these books combine three stories in one book. The Spooky School is a vibrant two-tone orange and black for Halloween, and starts with a Halloween story as the two dogs help a class of schooldogs make Halloween treats for a midnight feast. But there’s a ghost at large in the school, and Shifty and Sam have to catch it before it eats all the tasty treats!

The other two stories feature power-hungry Red Rocket (a red panda with evil intentions), and some raccoons raiding a museum. In both, the reader cheers on the heroes as they foil both dastardly plans with some rather ingenious baking implements. Our pups ski on baguettes, use walkie-talkie croissants, and thwart villains by firing cream cakes at them.

Each adventure is warm, witty and engaging, and illustrated with fun and panache. The text and pictures marry perfectly and children will devour as readily as if the cupcakes on the page were real. An excellent introduction to adventure storytelling. For newly independent readers, 6+ years. You can buy it here.

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The Horror Handbook by Paul van Loon, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

This is a the ultimate nightmare for all librarians. A fact book about fictional things. Yes, The Horror Handbook does exactly as it describes – it provides information on ghosts, monsters, vampires and all kinds of Halloween-type creatures. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, the book guides the reader through the horror genre, revealing the definition of vampires, how to become a werewolf (should one wish to), and how to protect yourself from witches (should one need to).

But it also contains fact – a section on horror movies that describes the genres within this genre – films about monsters, werewolves, aliens and a host of others, as well as a section on classic horror books, including Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And various factual tidbits are sprinkled throughout the book, such as that vampire bats do exist and what they are.

But as well as the fun, lively tone of the book, there are also the immensely funny illustrations, courtesy of Scheffler, including a brilliant transformation of ordinary bloke to werewolf, the milkman test for werewolves, and instructions for protection against the evil eye. All hilarious, all well worth a look.

Any child who’s interested in reading the book will obviously have a strong stomach anyway, but there are graphic sections on how to kill a vampire (ramming a stake through its heart and nailing it to the bottom of the coffin – meanwhile watching out for spurting blood), as well as instructing your child to google ‘vampire hunters’, so you may wish to talk through things with your child before they devour the book!

This is an immensely fun handbook with anecdotes, trivia, films, and endless references to all the horror one could possibly want on Halloween. Be scared. Be super prepared! Age 9+ years. Have a scare here.

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Tales of Horror by Edgar Allan Poe

If you’ve an older child who can get past the somewhat difficult language, then you should definitely let them be scared stupid by Poe’s Tales of Horror. Or read them yourself. Poe, as everyone knows, had a knack for writing unfailing misery and horror, a sense of insufferable gloom:

“There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart – an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.”

From the tale of the man who buries alive his twin sister in The Fall of the House of Usher to the unreliable narrator and prison horror of The Pit and the Pendulum, to the famous and utterly horrifying Tell-Tale Heart, which keeps on beating and induces the narrator to succumb to his guilt, these are brilliant stories whether you are reading them for the first time, or revisiting.

His stories plunge depths of darkness, immorality and despair, often featuring characters devoid of family. Some are gothic and narrated by unreliable, anonymous narrators who appear insane or unhinged in some way and thus there is no distraction from the tension within. But most of all, they’re great fun – spot the allusions to mirrors, doppelgangers, masks, and returnees from the dead. For teens and adults. Get your Poe here.