Tag Archive for Butchart Pamela

Summer 2017 Round-Up

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

Picture Books:

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


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


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

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

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

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

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a Werewolf in my Tent! by Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham

I’ve long been a fan of Pamela Butchart’s writing. Her narration spills off the page with bubbliness and enthusiasm and leaves the reader feeling joyful and always entertained.

She won the Children’s Book Award in 2016 and the Blue Peter Book Award in 2015, as well as being shortlisted for a Lollie (Laugh Out Loud Book Award), and I think this sums up her stable of texts – hugely popular with children and always packed with humour. If you haven’t come across her books yet, do start reading now.

There’s a Werewolf in my Tent is actually the sixth book about Izzy and her set of friends, but each book can happily be read as a standalone.

Izzy and her friends are going on a school camping trip, which is HUGELY exciting. Accompanying them are Miss Jones, their teacher, and also Miss Moon, the scary new PE teacher who is whoppingly tall, and a bit hairy too. Once they have pitched tents, things become a little nerve-wracking when there are howling sounds at night, missing sausages, and strange scratches. Could it have anything to do with Miss Moon and her increasingly hairy legs?

Butchart excels in the conversational writing style – the story is told by Izzy – in a type of breathless whizzy fashion – exactly how my daughter speaks when she has a story to tell me about her day at school. With capitals every so often for emphasis, and the hilarious black and white illustrations from Flintham, the book really is a laugh a minute. The reader will cringe as they see the truth behind the story, which Izzy and her friends fail to see. The delight is in spotting the absurdity of the friends’ assumptions, and revelling in the zaniness of the plot.

And yet, despite this craziness, there’s always a truth behind the story, a grounding in schoolfriends’ experiences, and real emotion – and this is what bears out the longevity and effectiveness of the books, because as well as the adventure and all the silliness, Butchart continually shows the friends’ kindnesses towards each other, their caring attitudes towards their friends. This school trip story deals with homesickness (lightly), the pros and cons of camping, and a full protein diet! Contemporary, indeed.

It’s one of my most recommended series for newly independent readers – teaching them plot, dropped clues, emphasis and most importantly a whole lot of fun. Reading doesn’t get much more pleasurable than this at the age of seven. You can buy it here.

Summer Reading Suggestions

It’s that time of year – a month off for MinervaReads and a sumptuous summer booklist for readers.

a fun abcoddbods

For the youngest, my top recommends include A Fun ABC by Sade Fadipe and Shedrach Ayalomeh, a rhyming ABC book set in Africa. With full colour, exquisitely detailed pictures on each page showing children what life is like in Africa as Adinah goes on an adventure during her school break to visit her grandfather. Not only showing the ABC, but also filled with delightful visual puzzles, such as how many objects beginning with the same letter are hidden within each picture – T is for table but also for tambourine, tomatoes, torch and teapot. An infectiously bouncy and lively book, bursting with colour and exuberance.

Equally colourful and with rhyming text and an alphabet theme, is OddBods by Steven Butler and illustrated by Jarvis. Weird and wonderful children and personalities laid out on each page, explaining why everyone has their own quirks and strange habits. Hugely funny, and embracing individuality.

great aaa ooosnappenpoop

Be prepared to join in wholeheartedly with The Great Aaa-Ooo by Jonny Lambent, a picture book filled with noise and laughter, as the animals try to work out who is making the great aaa-ooo noise in the woods. Lambent’s wonderful collage-style layering with different textures for each animal brings to mind his first picture book, Little Why, yet this goes one better in its animal expression, body language, and plotline. The text begs to be read aloud, the fears of the animals are assuaged, and there’s a surprise ending too.

There’s No Such Thing as a Snappenpoop by Jeanne Willis and Matt Saunders explores sibling relationships, especially during summer days in the garden. Fabulously written, with real feeling, and both brothers masterfully depicted by Saunders – reminiscent of the boys from On Sudden Hill. This is more playful though, both in picture and words, as meanies get their comeuppance.

lucinda belindanara and the island

Jeanne Willis also gives Lucinda Belinda Melinda McCool, illustrated by Tony Ross what she deserves in this sparky picture book that extends all the way up the age range. With a message that looks aren’t everything; but it’s what’s inside that counts, ironically the book portrays the moral with such panache and style that it’s lucky the message in the book lives up to its looks. A brilliant picture book that manages to be as cool as a pop star.

For something altogether gentler and quieter, try Nara and the Island by Dan Ungureanu. Muted pastel colours, a thoughtful story of friendship and imagination, exploration and discovery – it feels contemporary and old-fashioned synonymously. Beautiful depictions of islands in the sea make this a joyful and peaceful summer read.

puglycaptain pugcaptain firebeard

Newly independent readers will be well rewarded in their reading with Pugly Bakes a Cake by Pamela Butchart, a hilariously funny tale about a Pug who wants to bake a cake, yet gets himself stuck in the cat flap instead. An array of comedy characters, slapstick in abundance and illustrations by Gemma Correll, everyone will fall about laughing with this great story. Further adventures of pugs in Captain Pug by Laura James, illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans, with a slightly more sophisticated pug owner, and a very loveable pug, who can’t help getting into scrapes. Fully illustrated, funny and rewarding. More seafaring in Captain Firebeard’s School for Pirates by Chae Strathie, illustrated by Anna Chernyshova, this is a book that won’t get lost on the beach – it’s luminous orange – throughout! It’s Tommy’s first term on board the Rusty Barnacle learning to be a pirate – tests galore for the young piratey ‘uns, and an author who’s gone mad with the seafaring metaphors.

jim reaper 2max crumblypoppys place

Readers age 8 and over may enjoy the second in the Jim Reaper series, Saving Granny Maggot by Rachel Delahaye, illustrated by Jamie Littler in which Jim has accepted that his Dad is the Grim Reaper, but is not quite fully okay with him killing his best friend’s grandmother. More laughs, more subversiveness. Watch out for Jamie Littler’s wonderful illustration of Granny Maggot dancing. Dork Diaries fans may be interested to hear that author Rachel Renee Russell has produced a new series about a boy called Max Crumbly entering middle school. Max loves comics and in the first in the series, The Misadventures of Max Crumbly, Locker Hero, he has to face school thug, Doug Thurston. Told in first person, with numerous illustrations, lined text pages and comic strips, this is easy summertime reading ‘a la Wimpy Kid‘ for those who may be reluctant. And for animal lovers, Poppy’s Place by Katrina Charman is a delightfully gentle feel-good series about the Palmer family who turn their home into a cat sanctuary and café. Friendship, family and beautiful illustrations by Lucy Truman – the second book in the series has just been published.

whispers of wilderwoodapprentice witchgym teacher alien

A host of meaty middle grade titles (for 9-13 years) land this summer, and are perfect for complete immersion in the garden, on the sofa while it rains, or if you’re lucky, next to a swimming pool. The Whispers of Wilderwood Hall by Karen McCombie sweeps the reader into a Downton Abbey-esque past, with a contemporary heroine who time travels and yet retains a precise sense of self – she’s likeable, flawed and intensely real. A contemporary novel that shows what family and friendship are all about. Another hugely likeable character is Arianwyn in The Apprentice Witch by James Nicols, who demonstrates supreme grit and determination with huge warmth and charm. Arianwyn is a trainee witch, who rises from failure to triumph in a book that lifts the spirit and teaches heart.

My Gym Teacher is an Alien Overlord by David Solomons follows the success of My Brother is a Superhero, and continues in the same vein with Luke’s resentment at his brother’s superhero status, incorporating the same wit as before, references to comics and superheroes, and with gadgets and evilness. It’s funny and pacey – but would be best read as a sequel rather than a standalone. See also my books of the week, The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison, and Through the Mirror Door by Sarah Baker. Also for this age group, and great summer reads.

five hundred milesriver of inkjessica ghost

For older readers, I highly recommend short and yet compelling Five Hundred Miles by the hugely talented Kevin Brooks – darkness oozes from his novels like treacle from a jar. His first full length YA novel since The Bunker Diary comes out in the autumn – this is a good warm up. River of Ink by Helen Dennis will keep the reader gripped and mystified throughout. It features a wonderfully enigmatic protagonist, a sassy girl and her deaf brother, and stays in the memory long after reading. Not only that, but the pages are interspersed with intriguing images, which also keep the reader guessing. Book two in the series has just been published, and it’ll be in my suitcase – book three is on pre-order. Meanwhile, Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norris is released in paperback and is one of the most perfect novels I have read – easy to read, sharp, interesting characters, a mystery with perfectly crafted cliff-hanger ‘what happens next’ sentences at the end of almost every chapter – this is an emotionally astute, well-told, loving story with exceptional characters and one you’d be mad to pass on. Definitely the pick of the summer.

historium activityprofessor astro activitypierre maze colouring

For those who want something more hands-on, Historium Activity Book by Richard Wilkinson and Jo Nelson takes the reader inside the museum to recreate ancient artworks, spot differences, answer artefact questions and explore ancient mazes. For pure history buffs with a creative bent. Professor Astro Cat’s Intergalactic Activity Book by Zelda Turner and Ben Newman includes experiments, codes, quizzes, crafts and more, all related to the science of space. Learn and play at the same time, this will keep them busy all summer. It looks good, feels good and teaches well. And lastly for pure fun, try Pierre the Maze Detective and the Great Colouring Adventure by Hiro Kamigaki and IC4Design. Like a Where’s Wally to colour in with puzzles to solve – finding objects, navigating mazes. Enormous fun, hours of entertainment (answers at the back to avoid frustration).

Shakespeare 400

As you will know by now, 2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare died. It’s quite difficult to review Shakespeare books for children, as most adults come to the plays with at least a gist of the plot line, and also with a preconceived notion of who Shakespeare was and the influence he wields over our inherited culture, whereas children are approaching him afresh. As someone who studied Shakespeare at university, it’s hard to separate existing knowledge from the presentation of Shakespeare in children’s stories, but seeing as it is a big Shakespeare year, I thought I’d reach out to children’s publishers and see what they are producing for the commemoration. And this is what I found.

to wee or not

To Wee or Not to Wee! By Pamela Butchart and Thomas Flintham

Pamela Butchart is a favourite children’s comic author, and she has tackled Shakespeare with aplomb. After taking part in the BBC School Radio Shakespeare Retold project, she has tried her hand at retelling four of the best known Shakespeare plays in this little collection: Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet.

Each story starts by introducing the role call of characters, as one would at the start of a play, but then each story reverts to prose. The stories are told by a contemporary child, Izzy, who is something of an expert on the stories, and likes to show off how things that happen in her life can be related to Shakespeare plays.

For example, her friend Zach is totally indecisive, and she compares this to Hamlet – and proceeds to tell her friends the story. Likewise, a feud between her mother and her friend’s mother over invitations to a party is relatable to the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. Sort of.

It’s completely tongue in cheek, and made me snort out loud, not only in the tenuous connections between Izzy’s life and Shakespeare, but also in her retellings. For example Ophelia is fed up that Hamlet doesn’t want to marry her, not only because he’s mean to her, but also because her wedding dress is non-refundable.

Izzy explains how the Capulets and Montagues fell out over a hoover. Izzy thinks Macbeth should have de-stressed a little by doing a Sudoku instead of burning Macduff’s house down to the ground and killing all his family. Butchart brilliantly conveys the excitement, madcapness, blood, gore and love twists in her stories, but also adds a brilliantly modern childlike prose style to capture emotions.

Some fabulous illustrations accompany the text – as well as much of the text being in huge capitals or squiggles to convey when people are POISONED, or MURDERED or IN LOVE.

They are funny, thrilling and funny again. Never before has the retelling of Hamlet made me laugh so much. And of course there’s always Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has a man called Bottom in it. Perfect for children of all ages – even the grown up kind. Highly recommend. You can buy it here.

boy and globe

The Boy and the Globe by Tony Bradman, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones

With precision and acute attention to detail, master storyteller Tony Bradman illuminates the time of Shakespeare with a brilliant little story about Toby, a young orphan on the streets of London during the time of Shakespeare.

Sent by a Fagin type ringmaster called Moll Cut-Purse, Toby tries his criminal luck pickpocketing at the Globe. But he stumbles across a certain famous playwright, who needs Toby’s help in more ways than one. Before long, Toby is staking out rival players at the Rose theatre, helping Will with sticky plot points, and even acting in a play himself.

The story whizzes along in a jaunty and happy style. The young Toby is peppy and interesting and perks up the character of Shakespeare, who is portrayed as slightly jaded and in need of some youthful spark. Bradman has set his story towards the end of Shakespeare’s London playwriting career, so that his reputation already preceded him.

The story is fun in itself, but the huge amount of historical detail simply dropped into the story means that the reader comes away with a good picture of how life was in Shakespeare’s time. Added to this, are the production touches given to the book itself – from the endpapers (covered in Yorick skulls) to the fake splodges of ink on the pages, which lend themselves to the idea of the book being written by quill, and the contents – laid out like the beginning of Shakespeare plays, complete with the cast, the time and the place. Tom Morgan-Jones has inked his own unique illustrations, beautifully illuminating scenes and emotions.

The story manages to explain the idea behind The Tempest, the role of the players, the rival theatres, and Shakespeare himself, all in short chapters and encapsulated within a ‘ducking and diving’ action story.

The activities at the end of the book add further colour, with street scenes and Shakespearean insults. And it’s dyslexia-friendly too. Read this and you certainly won’t have “a February face, So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.” You can purchase it here.

wills words

Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk by Jane Sutcliffe and John Shelley

A phenomenal book, with wise words and witty illustrations, drawing attention to which words Shakespeare created and brought into common usage – so much of our language today. It cleverly describes, in a few well-chosen words, what it was like in Shakespeare’s time – from the streets of London to inside the Globe, and backstage. Each double page spread shows a hugely colourful illustration packed with people and historical detail – almost a Shakespeare Where’s Wally.

Jane Sutcliffe summarises what’s happening in the scene, using words and phrases that are now in general usage thanks to Shakespeare – either words he invented himself, or words that he simply brought into common usage. A box-off at the side explains the phrases, any changes in meaning, and which play they come from.

It’s an ingenious concept, superbly executed – I could have read pages more. The illustrations are worth poring over. The packed London scenes include the stocks, pickpockets, sedan chairs, and different classes of people in the hustle and bustle of an ordinary day. John Shelley shows us old-school bridges with houses and buildings stretching across the Thames, as well as the first printers – churning out leaflets to advertise Shakespeare’s new plays.

The scenes in the Globe portray different plays, as well as a cross-section of backstage, which is brilliantly done – a trapdoor, a costume room etc. The audience too is amazingly detailed – you can see whether the audience is shocked by the tragedy, roused by the history, and amused by the comedy. There’s even a fascinating explanation of the theatrical phrase ‘box office’.

The text is easy to read, and well-written – and hugely enjoyable, as is the postscript from Jane at the end, which winningly describes the relevance of Shakespeare. He made his audiences feel – and this book too makes the reader feel – it’s inspirational and makes you want to delve further into Shakespeare. Standing ovation all round (except of course, most of them were already standing at The Globe!) Get this one here.

romeo short sharp

Short Sharp Shakespeare Stories: Romeo and Juliet retold by Anna Claybourne, illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones

It’d be remiss of me not to include a series of Shakespeare books that retell each play singly, so that readers getting to grips with Shakespeare can pick and choose which play they want to learn about. These Short Sharp Shakespeare books really break down each play, and as above, they are illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones, who manages to inject each illustration with wit, and personality.

After introducing the gist of the story and the who’s who with a strangely complicated graphic, the story is told in prosaic chapters with contemporary language, although with the authentic elements left in, such as duels, swords, candles and silver platters. Every so often an illustration features a speech bubble with the original language, and this is extrapolated at the bottom of the page to explain difficult words and phrases.

The text reads with enough wit and pace and fun to grip the reader:

“…he suddenly saw the most enchanting, heart-stoppingly pretty girl he had ever laid eyes on. It was not Rosaline. Rosaline was forgotten at once.”

The pages at the back provide extra tidbits for project work, including explanations of the difference between prose, dialogue and stage directions – writing as a play as opposed to a novel, breaks down the play into acts, gives some context to Shakespeare and the stage, as well as introducing the main themes within the play. A really perfect guide for readers being introduced to the plays, either before studying the original, or before viewing on stage. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

shakespeare sticker

Usborne Shakespeare Sticker Book, illustrated by Paul Nicholls and written by Rob Lloyd Jones

This is a completely different way to approach Shakespeare of course, but leads with factual elements, overseen by an expert from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, so is reliable information. The first few pages set the scene by describing the idea of ‘players’ to perform plays, and go on to discuss life in London at the time, and the Globe playhouse – bringing history to life with intricate details. Each spread has a small amount of text and a large backdrop and then it’s up to the reader to drop in the stickers where they like.

This is where the fun begins. The stickers are light-hearted and hilarious – from the overly dramatic expressions of the players to the spectator who is clearly bored and asleep. There is a lovely selection of rats to place in the scenes of London life, and some brilliant sword-fighting stickers for the scenes at The Globe. The last few spreads are dedicated to a few select plays, including The Tempest, Midsummer, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Illustrator Paul Nicholls has gone to town on the witches for Macbeth, the fish in The Tempest, and fairy wings for Midsummer. Hilarious and captivating. I can’t wait to start sticking. Especially the numerous angry Romans with blood-dripping daggers in Julius Caesar. Try it here.

It’s Shakespeare Saturday this weekend, 23 April. See here for participating bookshops, and grab a Shakespeare Saturday tote bag as part of Books Are My Bag campaign.

FCBG Conference: Inspire

logo FCBG
Last weekend I attended the FCBG Conference. The FCBG aims to promote enjoyment in children’s books and accessibility of those books to all – as well as attempting to put the right book in the right child’s hands. The theme of the conference was ‘Inspire’ and I was inspired in three ways.
its about love

Firstly, by those who seek to examine fresh ways of looking at narrative in children’s publishing and what can be achieved. From the award-winning narrative apps, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, of Nosy Crow Publishers, presented by their supremely dynamic MD, Kate Wilson, to the spoken word artist Steve Camden (aka PolarBear), author of Tape and the soon to be published It’s About Love, who introduces his young adult novels with performance poetry. See here. In fact, understanding and being able to decode narrative is critical for a child’s development of empathy. And taking time to be engaged in a narrative and not be easily distracted can contribute to a child’s wellbeing. The writer Nicola Morgan explained that a big report on offline/online reading will be published in about 2017/2018, but that it is notable that reading offline does lend itself to fewer distractions. Everyone at the conference pointed to print books as an integral part of the narrative process as well as whatever other technologies we may apply. Books I’m looking forward to from Nosy Crow in the near future include There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins, the next in the Wigglesbottom Primary series by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor, and My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons. Reviews to follow.
Theres a Bear on my chair
Secondly, I was inspired by people working within the children’s publishing industry and others I met who are simply sharing their incredible book knowledge. Philip Ardagh is passionate about books and writes some startlingly funny ones. I’m hoping to review his book The Unlikely Outlaws soon, and he has also written a funny series called The Grunts, and Awful End. Sophy Henn and Rob Biddulph spoke about creating their picture books, PomPom Gets the Grumps and Blown Away respectively, which I’ve reviewed previously. Click on the titles to read my reviews. There was also much to learn about non-fiction titles, and I had a lovely chat with Nicola Davies who told me about her new theatre venture at the Hay Literary Festival. Nicola bubbles over with enthusiasm when speaking about her books, which weave a narrative structure within non-fiction to create spellbinding titles. One of my favourite titles of hers is The Promise, a picture book that seems to use osmosis to seamlessly transfer the author’s love for trees and nature onto the reader. Not only that but it imparts the idea that just because a child has a difficult start in life, it doesn’t mean that the rest of life will be equally difficult.

The Promise

Lastly of course, it is all about the power of the book; the power of the story to tell you that you are not alone, and as Frank Cottrell Boyce (author of The Astounding Broccoli Boy) put it “to break you free of the prison of the present”. Getting the right book into your own hands can inspire you in the same way that putting the right book in the hands of the right child can inspire them for life. Frank Cottrell Boyce revealed that simply reading Heidi empowered someone he knew to understand that happiness was a possibility for them despite all their hardship. On a lighter note, Steven Butler (author of The Wrong Pong) realised that reading might be for him after all when he realised that it was possible to put the word ‘knickers’ in a children’s book – he discovered it in Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes!
the wrong pong

I came away with MORE knowledge about children’s books and subsequently a better idea of which books I can recommend for your child. It’s about getting children reading. You can access the FCBG website here.

Bridging the Gap

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

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

Claude in the City

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

squishy mcfluff

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

wigglesbottom primary

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

woozy the wizard

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

Red House Children’s Book Awards 2015

RedHouse Logo

It’s awards season. Sandwiched between the BAFTAs and the Oscars, and following hot on the Costa Book Award, was yesterday’s Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Red House Children’s Book Awards 2015. There were no designer frocks, no red carpet, and a distinct lack of paparazzi, but the event was a warm embracing ceremony, with excited children lining up to have a chat with their favourite authors, and to get their much cherished books signed. For the authors, not only were they shortlisted for the national prize voted for by children, but they were also presented with a portfolio of feedback – pictures, poems, reviews and letters all from their readers. I’m sure these are just as precious as any metal trophies.

The shortlist was as follows, for Younger Children: Dragon Loves Penguin by Debi Gliori (review here), The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (review here), Go to Sleep or I Let Loose the Leopard by Steve Cole, illustrated by Bruce Ingman, and That Is Not a Good Idea! By Mo Willems. The winner is The Day the Crayons Quit.
crayons

For Younger Readers, the shortlist was Baby Aliens Got My Teacher! By Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham, The Bomber Dog by Megan Rix, and Demon Dentist by David Walliams, illustrated by Tony Ross. The winner is Demon Dentist.

Demon Dentist

For Older Readers, the shortlist was Noble Conflict by Malorie Blackman, Prince of the Icemark by Stuart Hill and Split Second by Sophie McKenzie. The winner is Split Second.

Split Second

The overall winner is The Day the Crayons Quit

Day Crayons Quit winner

And this all made me think. What are awards ceremonies for? Why do we do it? Of course, there is massive attention paid to the books/films/artworks which win awards, all of which drive value or sales, and so it’s a marketing person’s passion to be on the shortlisted or winning team. But for an author, what does it say? For how do we judge a good work of fiction? Being in a bookgroup, or chatting to anyone else who reads, it’s clear that what suits one doesn’t suit another. I love the Bronte sisters but I don’t love Dickens. Reading fiction is obviously completely subjective. On what criteria is it that we judge books when we give them awards? Similarly, what criteria makes a child’s piece of creative writing deserve an A rather than a B grade? There might be a checklist, but it’s totally dependent on the judges isn’t it?

One of those million dollar questions bandied about by authors and such, is ‘Would you rather write a bestseller or win the Booker prize?’ Of course winning the Booker might make you a best seller, but how about the Nobel Prize for Literature? Ie. would you rather be read by millions, or read and judged to be best by a few?

The Red House Children’s Book Award is great because it’s voted for by the readers – so it kind of ticks both boxes. Even then, pitting books against each other in an age range is hard. Whether it’s fantasy against contemporary, or funny against historical, are we right to rate them against each other, when some children don’t even like one of those genres?

The author SF Said recently raised the question of whether children’s books should be considered for the top book awards too – not just judged for the Carnegie Medal. Is it right that there’s a women author only prize? (Bailey’s, previously the Orange). The Booker has just started accepting novelists from the US as entrants as well as the original Commonwealth-only criteria, but should it even be judging different genre books against each other at all. It aims to judge ‘the best novel in the opinion of the judges’. Therein lies the rub. The judges.

In conclusion, we each make a judgement when we read a book, so why not celebrate our opinions with award ceremonies. They grab that elusive media attention – they pull people in to reading books, they drive sales of books. We’ve been telling stories since the Bible and before, and we will continue to do so. And if the RHCBA brings together children’s authors and their readers and celebrates children’s books, as the culmination of the Imagine Children’s Literature Festival, then I’m all for it.

Judge away. Tell everyone which are your favourite children’s books. The children who accompanied me had a fantastic time meeting authors they admired, and hearing readings and seeing live drawings. I came away from the event with recommendations for even more great children’s literature. And some beautiful autographs too.

Blackman and HillStuart Hill and Malorie Blackman pose laughing for a photograph

Pamela Butchart and Thomas FlinthamThomas Flintham and Pamela Butchart show off their shortlisted book